All things environmental

Musings about the environment and all it touches, from education to city planning

Zoning and the missing middle

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What’s wrong with row houses, exactly?

The missing middle is a newish expression that refers to housing in Vancouver: the middle in question being  something that has a higher density than single-family houses, but not towers.  Think row-houses, low-rise walk-up appartment buildings.  There are good environmental reasons to wish for that type of housing: it decreases the environmental footprint per capita by enabling effective public transit, reducing heating costs, etc.

The missing middle is also touted as a solution to affordability: more homes per area should mean cheaper homes, everything else being equal.  Unfortunately the housing market is anything but a rational market, and simply increasing the supply may not be enough to address the problem.  This has become an election issue, with each party jokeying for solutions (Sam Cooper provided a nice summary in today’s Sun).  Here’s a quote:




NDP housing critic David Eby says B.C.’s next government must get directly involved in building large projects that would produce an “expansion of affordable housing not just for the very poor, but for the middle class in Metro Vancouver.”

Eby points to Asian city-states Singapore and Hong Kong that have faced greater affordability problems than Vancouver, and have responded by building homes only meant for workers.

European economies have also come up with their own approaches; I recently wrote about Mitte Altona in Hamburg, Germany, as an example.  But much as I think that these approaches have a lot of merit, this certainly does not discount that providing more supply is part of the solution.  And the current zoning approach is a problem.

There are actually three forms of missing middle: there is the lack of mid-rise denser housing that we’ve discussed, but there is also the strange hollowing effect that the current zoning produces: an empty middle of single-family houses in Vancouver surrounded by denser development in the suburbs (at the expense of decent transit), as well as the smaller-scale doughnut effect of higher density along the arterial streets but single family houses in between.

The problem is further compounded by the perceived need to preserve heritage values, and by homes left either empty for speculation or used for short-term rental.  Patrick Condon and others have proposed good architectural examples of “middle” architecture that address fears of loss of neighbourhood character.

But not all neighbourhoods have heritage values or character that need to be preserved.  My own neighbourhood, Hastings-Sunrise, is a case in point: there are a few neat buildings, but it’s mostly a fairly bland, if very liveable, area.  My immediate neighbourhood is likely to become an instance of a local doughnut if the development planned along Broadway, Nanaimo, First Avenue, and Renfrew goes ahead.

It’s a shame, and a missed opportunity.  I noticed a new development on 7th: three large houses with three laneway houses in the back.  (The whole thing is ugly as sin but that’s just my opinion.)  They sit on standard 33 foot lots, and will likely sell for at least million and a half, probably more; the developper likely paid at least three million for the three lots.

Three new houses in progress…

…three laneway houses in a row








Needless to say, these will not be affordable to young families, even with the rental income from the laneway home.  And the laneway houses are also problematic.  Yes they should contribute to the supply of rental housing.  But what if the owner, rich enough to afford the property, cannot be bothered with the trouble of finding renters?  Are they liable to be hit with the surtax that owners of emply homes face, in Vancouver?  This may be unlikely, despite the fact that is the spirit of the law.  Nor could they sell the laneway home by itself. Chalk that problem to inflexible zoning, again.

But what if the contractor had been allowed to build row houses?  Depending on the design, this could have made for between six and eight homes.  Add to that the separate laneway houses, and we have, say, ten homes instead of three, well below the million and a half plus asked price.  As a neighbourhood homeowner, I would welcome that on my block.

And if let architects get a bit creative, it would make for a cool neighbourhood.  Below is the video that features Patrick Condon and Scot Hein of UBC giving examples; well worth a look.

Written by enviropaul

April 22, 2017 at 1:30 pm

Flooding in Florida: a preview of our future?

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Photo miami news times

Does anyone ever get used to living with repeated flooding?  As sea levels rise, this is a question that has become pressing.  Greater Vancouver is not immune; False Creek Flats, Crescent Beach, parts of Tsawwassen, to say nothing of Richmond and YVR, all these areas are low-lying at at risk of flooding.  But some other cities are in a worse situation – or should I say, are feeling the impacts sooner.

FLA: the future coastline

Take Southern Florida.  The whole tip of the peninsula is expected to be under water in a few hundred years.  But flooding during high tides is already a common occurrence in places like Miami or Fort Lauderdale.  Indeed, Miami may be the city that is most at risk in terms of financial exposure ($278 billion), even more than other coastal cities such as Guangzhou, New York City, and far worse than better prepared Amsterdam.

Much has been written about flooding in Florida, as any google search will reveal.  I thought I’d go with excerpts of some of the best articles.  For instance, here’s Katherine Bagley (InsideClimateNews) reporting on a flood in Fort Lauderdale (the so-called Venice of America):

Already, water regularly creeps over sea walls, lapping against foundations every few weeks. When the earth, moon and sun align to drive waters as much as 18 inches above normal, the resulting King Tides inundate whole streets and neighborhoods. The city is racing to put climate resiliency measures in place, but they face a nearly impossible foe.

“There are winners and losers,” said Keren Bolter, a climate scientist who grew up here and studies sea level rise. “But in a few decades, most waterfront properties in Fort Lauderdale will flood for days, weeks at a time.”

“See that house right there—the white ranch-style one?” Bolter said one day in late November, during a balmy, sundrenched ride on a yellow water taxi through Fort Lauderdale’s waterways. She glanced at her smartphone to consult a database compiled by her company, Coastal Risk Consulting.  “That property flooded 11 days last year. By the late 2030s it could have water on its property 267 days per year.”

Elizabeth Kolbert visited Miami for the New Yorker.  She writes:

We’d come to a neighborhood of multimillion-dollar homes where the water was creeping under the security gates and up the driveways. Porsches and Mercedeses sat flooded up to their chassis.

“This is today, you know,” Wanless said. “This isn’t with two feet of sea-level rise.” A truck from the Miami Beach Public Works Department pulled up. The driver asked if we had called City Hall. Apparently, one of the residents of the street had mistaken the high tide for a water-main break. As we were chatting with him, an elderly woman leaning on a walker rounded the corner. She looked at the lake the street had become and wailed, “What am I supposed to do?” The men in the pickup truck agreed to take her home.

[In the Shorecrest neighbourhood] the water on the street was so deep that it was, indeed, hard to tell where it was coming from. [UCS researcher Nicole] Hammer explained that it was emerging from the storm drains. Instead of funnelling rainwater into the bay, as they were designed to do, the drains were directing water from the bay onto the streets. “The infrastructure we have is built for a world that doesn’t exist anymore,” she said.

Kerri Sheridan describes a flood in the Keys:

On Key Largo, a tropical isle famous for snorkeling and fishing, the floods began in late September. While people expected high tides due to the season and the influence of a super moon, they were taken by surprise when a handful of streets in the lowest-lying neighborhoods stayed inundated for nearly a month with 16-inches (40-centimeters) of saltwater.

By early November, the roads finally dried up. But unusually heavy rains in December brought it all back again.

It has to be stressed: this is not a freak, once in a lifetime flooding.  It is recurrent, common, predictable even.  Given that, it is surprising that the situation has not yet affected the real estate market.  Continues Sheridan:

For now, south Florida real estate is booming. More than half of transactions are paid for in cash, a sign of the powerful influence of foreign investors on the real estate market.

“So far we have not been seeing buyers being concerned with sea level rise, which I’m a little surprised given all the media attention it has garnered lately,” said Lisa Ferringo, president of the Marathon/Lower Keys Board of Realtors.

Adds Bagley:

“All of South Florida is building like crazy, like there is no tomorrow, which is true, unfortunately,” said Wanless, the University of Miami scientist. “The plan is to build these homes and sell them to the Iowa pig farmer who has worked all his life to retire here, or get a nice investment for his grandchildren. They are being hoodwinked.”

This leaves homeowners and banks on the hook for countless dollars in lost property values.

“If we follow the federal government’s estimates, we could be at 6.6 feet by the end of the century,” Wanless continued. “That curve puts us at 2 feet by 2048. That’s barely a mortgage cycle away.”

Eventually, the market is bound to catch up; insurance may no longer be available, banks may no longer offer mortgages.  This creates a vicious cycle; a lot of money is needed to address the problem.  And there is a gentrification angle, compounding the social issues.  Bagley again:

The good news is that much of Fort Lauderdale’s historically black neighborhood, known as Sistrunk, sits on a small hill a few feet higher in elevation than the wealthy oceanfront areas, said [environmental justic activist Audrey] Peterman. But environmental justice advocates worry that even if these communities are spared the worst of sea level rise, they could still lose their homes as wealthier families look to relocate to higher ground.

“It is climate gentrification,” said Nicole Hernandez Hammer, an expert for the Union of Concerned Scientists on how climate change impacts Latinos in Southeastern states. But in South Florida, with the ocean to east, the Everglades to the west, and sea level rise bubbling up through the bedrock, there will be nowhere else for these communities to go.

But what, exactly, is causing the problem?  Why is Florida so much worse than elsewhere?  Part of the problem is that Florida lies over porous limestone.  Explains Bagley:

Fort Lauderdale can’t take the simpler approach of cities like New Orleans or Amsterdam of keeping floods at bay with levees and seawalls. Like most of South Florida, its porous limestone bedrock lets water creep under and through the foundations of any defense, said Hal Wanless.

Compounding the problem is the issue of fresh water.  As sea levels rise, the water tables also rise, and that means less space to absorb rain water.  It also means that salinity levels are rising in water wells.  But most of the fresh water is at the surface, in the Everglades.  The giant wetland is badly polluted (the sugar industry being a key culprit).  But the main problem is simply that the waters of the Everglades need to flow out – into the coastal areas already besieged by coastal flooding.  Kolbert:

Even today, with the Everglades reduced to half its former size, water in the region is constantly being shunted around. The South Florida Water Management District, a state agency, claims that it operates the “world’s largest water control system,” which includes twenty-three hundred miles of canals, sixty-one pump stations, and more than two thousand “water control structures.”

When the system was designed—redesigned, really—in the nineteen-fifties, the water level in the canals could be maintained at least a foot and a half higher than the level of high tide. Thanks to this difference in elevation, water flowed off the land toward the sea. At the same time, there was enough freshwater pushing out to prevent saltwater from pressing in. Owing in part to sea-level rise, the gap has since been cut by about eight inches, and the region faces the discomfiting prospect that, during storms, it will be inundated not just along the coasts but also inland, by rainwater that has nowhere to go. Meanwhile, what’s known as the saltwater front is advancing. One city—Hallandale Beach, just north of Miami—has already had to close most of its drinking wells, because the water is too salty. Many other cities are worried that they will have to do the same.

What is to be done?  There is little help forthcoming from the State, which has managed to tie itself up in knots between denying the reality of climate change and preventing the growth of the solar industry.  As is often the case, the municipalities are left holding the bag.  Some are coming up with innovative flood management approaches at the local level.  Write Joey Flechas and Jenny Staletovich of the Miami Herald:

The sea started boiling up into the street. A major Miami Beach road was under water. Tourists sloshed to hotels through saltwater up to their shins, pants rolled up, suitcases in one hand, shoes in the other.

But one corner of Miami Beach stayed perfectly dry. In Sunset Harbour, which has historically flooded during seasonal high tides, the water was held at bay last month by a radically re-engineered streetscape that will be put to the test again this week with another king tide.

The design — featuring a street and sidewalk perched on an upper tier, 2 ½ feet above the front doors of roadside businesses, and backed by a hulking nearby pump house — represents what one city engineer called “the street of tomorrow.”

I have reproduced the diagrams that accompany the article, above, and these illustrate pretty innovative thinking.  The problem with this sort of systems, though,  is that they are costly, and their effects are strictly local.  Further, their impact can only be temporary if the seas keep rising.  Continue Flechas and Staletovich:

With flooding growing from occasional annoyance to economic concern, in 2012 the city crafted a bold blueprint for overhauling an antiquated stormwater system that relied on gravity to drain into the bay. Higher tides increasingly backed up the drain pipes and even reversed the flow, turning the system into a conduit to pump seawater up through sewer grates onto heavily traveled arteries like Alton Road.

The new system collects flood waters, screens out large debris like plastic bottles and pumps it back out into Biscayne Bay through one-way valves known as backflow preventers that keep rising Biscayne Bay waters from flooding drainage pipes. The plan also calls for raising seawalls, most of which are on private property, and raising some roads.

But even Mayor Philip Levine, the biggest cheerleader of efforts to “rise above” sea level rise, would acknowledge that pumps alone represent a temporary fix – a 30- to 40-year buffer. If future projections hold true, more roads will have to be raised — along with buildings — as the rising sea pushes up through the porous limestone sponge underlying much of South Florida. First floors might have to be vacated, rusting infrastructure replaced, codes and building elevations dramatically beefed up.

Raised road, patio at original level, Miami Beach

This is a pretty daunting prospect, of course.  But, albeit on a smaller scale, it would not be the first time a city picks itself up and raises itself.  Chicago did exactly that.  The city had realized that, being level with Lake Michigan, it was too exposed to floods, and built too low for its sewers to work properly.  First to be raised, in January 1858, was a four-story brick building that was lifted by nearly two meters above grade.  The operation was so successful that all buildings were similarly lifted.  Roads were then built above grades, with sewers and storm drains below.

Or maybe the future approach could be inspired by harbourfront designs in Hamburg, Germany.  In HafenCity, the concept is to allow the flodd waters in; ground floors are built either to be flood proof, or to let flood waters in in such a way that no damage results.  All the buildings are connected by elevated pedestrian walkways and bridges at first-floor levels, so that occupants and workers can still come and go (and reach dry ground downtown, if needed).  This approach was also to retrofit the nearby Speicherstadt district; the Unesco-heritage site, a former warehouse district, is now home to fancy offices, stores and restaurants that can likewise be reached by elevated walkways in the event of a flood.

Then again, maybe Florida will just keep getting flooded.  Does anyone ever get used to living with repeated flooding?  Floridians may well have to, at least judging by the leadership at state level.  Journalist and author Carl Hiassen parodied governor Rick Scott for banning the words “climate change” from the lips and pens of state employees.  Hiassen:

Please pay no attention to recent news reports about my administration banning the use of the terms “climate change” and “global warming” in official documents, letters or emails. There is no official ban.

All communications among state employees are routinely diverted for review by my staff members who, when appropriate, re-phrase the content.  For example, residents in Miami Beach are blaming so-called climate change for raising the sea level and causing frequent flooding of streets and neighborhoods.

The crisis poses an undeniable threat to the tourism and real-estate industries, and I’ve acted swiftly. At my direction, the state Department of Environmental Protection will henceforth define the situation in Miami Beach as a “permanent high tide.”

Written by enviropaul

April 9, 2017 at 11:24 am

Aqueduct (a quick read)

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Adele Perry’s latest book about the Winnipeg aqueduct is a little gem (no surprise, given that the author is a historian who won a Clio award for her On the Edge of Empire about BC’s history).  It’s a short book that exposes the dispossession of the Shoal Lake 40 Anishinaabe First Nation to make way for the aqueduct intake.  Why Perry chose the topic can be found here.

A quick synopsis: at the turn of last century, Winnipeg was growing rapidly, claiming the title of Western Canada’s Metropolis.  But disease, particularly typhoid, was rife due to of lack of sewers and bad water supply.  The city eventually decided to get quality water from Shoal Lake, all the way across the Ontario border.  This required the okay from the International Joint Commission, in one of the formative decisions for the commission that deals with watersheds that straddle the US-Canada border.  The 150km long aqueduct was built, on time and budget, al little marvel of engineering.  To ensure a supply of good quality clear water, a dam was built across one of the inlets of the lake, to prevent the waters of Falcon river, tainted brown by natural humic acids, from reaching the intake.

Of course, there was no consultation with the local Anishinaabe inhabitants; some government reports claimed that the aqueduct would not affect the local community in any meaningful way, contradicting other reports that claimed that there was not even a community there.  The deck was stacked, clearly.  There was a vibrant community there, self-sufficient not only from the local wild resources (abundant fish, wildlife, wild rice) but also from agriculture.  Among the complaints that were dismissed by Indian Affairs, there is a record of the efforts of Chief Redsky in 1918 to be heard and get compensation.  He described the loss of lands (over 1500 hectares) as “enormous, consequential, and deeply unfair…the best part of the reserve…very good farming, good timber, good hay land.”

This story is reminiscent of the so-called rape of the Owens Valley, in California, following the (mostly illegal) appropriation of the Owens River water by the city of Los Angeles for its own aqueduct.  This is the story that was the setting for the oscar-winning movie Chinatown; many people have heard that story.  But who tells our own stories?  What do we know about our own water? Perry quotes from fellow historian Patricia Limerick who argues that “the forgetting of where water comes from is made possible by modernity.”

Learning about the injustices of the past, and about how we continue to profit from them, is a first step on the road to truth and reconciliation.  Before we can even acknowledge the injustice, we need to know it, and Perry’s book is a great contribution to uncovering the past.

The slim book is illustrated by numerous historical photos; but one criticism of it would be the lack of maps, which makes following the details a bit difficult at times.  I googled the aqueduct and realized it is back in the news, in a key controversy.  The aqueduct, the sole water supply of the city of nearly 800,000 inhabitants is threatened by the proposal for the east-west oil pipeline. According to Council of Canadians, the proposed pipeline is in the worst possible location: “Where the groundwater drains north, the pipeline is south of the aqueduct; where the groundwater drains south, the pipeline is to the north.” Not to mention the impact to the local First Nations who live along the joint path of the aqueduct and the pipeline, who are once again (almost) forgotten in the process.

Perry, Adele 2016. Aqueduct: colonialism, resources, and the histories we remember.  Winnipeg: ARP books.  Proceeds from the sale of the book go to Shoal Lake 40 First Nation.

Written by enviropaul

March 22, 2017 at 5:18 pm

Willoughby and the missing middle

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The view from Willoughby.

The Willoughby neighbourhood, in the Township of Langley, is abuzz with construction.  There is something unexpected about what is being built there: a lot of townhouses and mid-rise condos.  In other words, the kind of density that is praised by urban planners and afficionados of smart growth.

It’s a bit unexpected: the township is at the furthest remote of Metro Vancouver.  This is where one would expect sprawling ranchers and large lots.  But maybe because land is cheaper this far away from downtown, these condos and townhouses  are more affordable than in Vancouver proper.  Townhomes are priced at about half a million, and condos start at a quarter million. It’s absurd that a quarter million dollars for a condo should be considered affordable, but that’s the crazy situation here; these new developments are a welcome addition to the housing stock.

New raingardens, new townhouses

And the construction is nicely integrated within the city’s fine plans for integrated stormwater management.  The Vesta development at Milner heights, for instance, has conspicuous raingardens and infiltration swales.

So what’s not to like?  Quite a bit, unfortunately.  I took a walk along 208th street.  Of course, there’s a lot of construction, and the street is a connector, so it’s not a bucolic environment.  But even where the condos are newly finished and occupied, it’s not very inviting.  I walked through a complex of three-story buildings, just across from the ambitiously named Willoughby Town Centre.  It is serviced by an access path that snakes around the buildings.  As a result every building is completely surrounded by pavement.  There is little green growth anywhere.  Adding to the sense of oppressiveness, all you see at ground level are garages.  Whatever happened to porches and flowered window sills?

A sea of pavement

This is precisely what problem is with these new developments: they are designed for cars.  They have to.  There is public transit, yes.  Since the development started, there is now a bus along 208th.  I use the singular because I have never seen it.  I have to believe that one can actually catch this 595 bus, and take it all the way to the Carvolth exchange, maybe, and have to wait there for another bus to somewhere.  It’s dispiriting.  No wonder that folks in Langley voted against a new tax to improve transit, if this is what their experience with transit is like.

Smart car, sure, but smart growth, not really




This is not to slight the Township.  But good development needs good transit, but that essential tool is not one the planners can wield.  It’s all decided in Victoria.  That’s the basic flaw in how Metro Vancouver is run: we have no say on transportation.

This is another form of the missing middle.  In urban planning, the expression usually refers to the lack of smaller houses and townhomes, in mid-density developments, that is typical of cities like Vancouver: a lack of availability for the middle of the market, between subsidized housing and million-dollar single-family homes.  But the missing middle could also refer to this Willoughby plan.  It may be a fine development, but it is in the wrong place, far from the centre, away from transit. It – or developments of a similar density – should be located much closer to the centre, to be useful to a larger number of people that should not have to depend on cars.

I went back to the Willoughby Town Centre.  It’s too new to have any charm, obviously, and there’s too much space for cars.  All the stores are the same chains you’d see everywhere, from Shopper’s Drug Mart down the line.  But at least there is an independent coffee shop with character, Mattu’s.  On a Monday morning, around 10:30, it was quite busy.  Locals seem to use it as a community focal point.  Maybe there’s hope after all.

Written by enviropaul

March 20, 2017 at 8:46 pm

The unexpected costs of oil

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The (oil polluted) community of Tadoule, Northern manitoba

It’s easy to be single-focussed about the environmental consequences of using oil and other fossil fuels.  Many of us think about climate change but we easily forget other aspects, especially those that are unexpected.  It’s not just climate change, nor even just air pollution.  I was reminded of that after reading a couple of excellent books recently.

I recently posted a review of one of these books, Shaun Loney’s An Army of Problem Solvers.  He describes the situation in the first nations community of Northlands, in northern Manitoba just south of Nunavut:

There is more money spent on diesel and its cleanup that on housing, economic development, and healthy food combined.  It is another instance of abundant government money available to spend on a problem.  The diesel is job killing, environmentally backwards, and brutally expensive.

On my flight into Northlands from Winnipeg, I met reps from a soil-remediation company who were familiar with the community. They had been there many times before on lucrative government contracts.  They were on their way to undertake a half-million dollar contract to take soil samples and come up with a remediation plan.  A multi-million dollar contract to actually clean up the soil would follow.  None of this creates local jobs.

Northlands uses diesel mostly for power and heat.  Their situation is far from unique (a good review of the situation in other northern communities can be found in BriarPatch magazine on-line).

The 2013 I-5 bridge collapse over the Skagit River (Seattle Times).


I always have a few books on the go.  I was just finishing Elly Blue’s 2016 Bikenomics (how bicycling can save the economy.  Portland: Microcosm Publishing) on the heels of Loney’s book, meditating on some of the more absurd costs of oil dependence, when I read Blue’s comments about the Skagit River Bridge collapse.  This is a bridge that is part of Interstate 5 in Washington State.  But this wasn’t another case of poorly-maintained, crumbling infrastructure: the bridge was in fine shape before the collapse.

The part of the story that never got more than a passing mention in the media is that the bridge did not collapse because of structural defects…The cause of the collapse was a truck that struck the bridge overhead structure several times.  The truck was too large for the bridge, taller than the maximum height indicated for crossing and larger than the bridge’s designers, half a century earlier, had likely ever imagined a truck could be.  At the time of the collapse, the truck was in service delivering heavy oil-drilling equipment from the Port of Vancouver, Washington, to the Alberta Tar Sands oil fields.  The equipment was housed in large containers for the trip, and it is one of these empty containers that struck the bridge struts on the southbound trip.

These are just two examples of costs that we don’t often associate with oil, just two among many.  Oil pervades the economy, of course, and so one expects issues associated with oil to crop up in unexpected places.  This isn’t to say that we should get off oil overnight.  But, at the same time, oil shouldn’t get a free pass; the damages that oil causes, from air pollution and soil contamination to unexpected infrastructure accidents should all be part of the tally.  Then we can make wiser decisions.

An Army of Problem Solvers (a book review)

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an_army_of_problem_solvers_coverA friend loaned me a book called “An Army of Problem Solvers”, by Shaun Loney.  She didn’t push – “You may find it interesting, I dunno”.   Usually I’m weary of books with that kind of titles;  they tend to cause the eyes to glaze with a mix of dry-as-dust policy discussion and naïve, feel-good stories.  So I started the book in the middle, chapter five, because this is where some community energy projects were described.  I figured there’d be some meat there, at least.

Indeed.  Loney starts with a description of the Rainy River $160 million, 25 MW solar farm.  This is an Ontario installation of 130,000 solar panels that covers about 120 ha.  All of it is community power.  The band makes money form it; most of the income goes towards paying back the financing, but that still leaves about one million in annual profits, which are plowed back into the community.  This project has given the band more independence and clout in self-governing, as do all community power projects.  This one, incidentally, was made possible by the much decried Feed-in-Tariff (FiT) created by the government of Ontario.

Manitoba Hydro has a Pay As You Save (PAYS) system.  This is used for financing energy efficiency retrofits and insulation for some first nations projects, such as the Fisher River first nation, which has led to the creation of a self-supporting company, Fisher River Builders, who are providing energy retrofit services to a variety of clients.

But the federal government gets in the way; the financing fee on the utility bill is considered an ineligible expense for people in social assistance.  An $8 million partnership between Aki Energy and the Waywaysecappo First nation in northern Manitoba was turned down by Indian and Northern Affairs (INAC).  INAC ruled that the social assistance money can’t be used to pay such projects.  The case hit the media; this embarrassed the government into backing down and offering to “restore the funding”.  They were then doubly embarrassed to learn that there was no funding to be restored; this is an independent contract, driven by the bottom line, and not some kind of subsidy.  They offered to pay the $8 million themselves; the partners declined.  Why? Because this would not only be unfair to others who have paid earlier, but mostly because it reinforces the vision of bands as immature wards of the state.  Argues Loney:

The reason they offered the money is because this way they can maintain control.  We often hear that INAC is a colonial department.  This is a good example.  Force the high-cost, low-impact so that they can maintain control.  Apparently, this is preferable to the low-cost, high-impact approach that gives communities the tools they need to be successful.

There are no food stores in the Garden Hill First Nations community.  Food is brought in from away, distributed periodically.  17% of the community members suffer from diabetes.  Yet Garden Hills used to be self-sufficient: country food (the product of hunting, fishing and gathering) was available, but also locally grown vegetables, as well as meat and dairy produced by members of the community.  What happened?  The Indian Act.  One case illustrates the situation.

Stan McKay told me that his parents sold one of their five cows so Stan would have pocket money when he was away [in school].  But this was done only with permission from the Indian Agent and at a cut-rate price.  They had to go through him because it was illegal for Indigenous people to sell anything off-reserve without permission of the Great White Mother’s agent [this was only repealed in 2014].

The historical overview is full of depressing stories like this.  Thankfully, the bulk of the bulk is just the opposite: examples of effective solutions (Garden Hill is now home to the Meechim community farm and orchard).  I was aware of some of the issues, but many of the petty rules and frustrations described were completely new to me.  A bit of a shock, one that shook me out of my complacency that, as a non-aboriginal person, this is not my issue, but a mere historical wrong that “others” should fix.

This is where the book is particularly important and salutary.  Loney asks what the role of a non-aboriginal – a settler, in other words  – should be:

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission reports reminds us that a key part of the reconciliation process involves those of us who are not Aboriginal becoming aware of our own personal stories and how they connect to the past and present lives of Aboriginal people.  Through this we gain a better understanding of the broken spirits among us and the role we must all play on the road to reconciliation.  The Indigenous reality is not an Indigenous problem.  It is a Canadian problem.  Or, more accurately, it is a Canadian opportunity.  As Stan McKay says, reconciliation is a path we must all walk together.  One of the most important steps we can collectively take is to create the conditions to allow local economies to re-emerge.

Wow.  That is true for First Nations, but it is also true for the whole country: community projects, be it food or energy, create jobs and reinvest money in the local economy.  What is true for a community like Garden Hills First Nation is also true for Prince George or a Vancouver downtown eastside.

Need I specify?  I read the whole book, and my eyes never glazed.


Loney, Shaun 2016An army of problem solvers: reconciliation and the solutions economy.  Available from

Shaun Loney is a former Manitoba civil servant turned social entrepreneur; he is an Ashoka fellow (look up the association up here).

Written by enviropaul

March 5, 2017 at 6:45 pm

The buses of Hamburg, part three: supported and innovative

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All aboard the hybrid bus!

All aboard the hybrid bus!

In my last posts on the buses of Hamburg, I mentioned that the bus system is great.  Buses flow down Mönckebergstrasse seamlessly, without impacting the retailers of the street negatively; no mean feat considering this Hamburg’s equivalent to our Granville street.  I also mentioned that buses are on time and go everywhere, even to as surreal a destination as a sand dunes area within city limits.

The bottom line is that it is enjoyable to take the bus.  It’s a simple reality that is easy to overlook.  But there, it works.

Obviously, this doesn’t happen by accident.  There is a lot of government support behind it.  It is interesting to compare the numbers between Hamburg and Metro Vancouver, because the populations are not that different.  There are 2.5 million people in Metro against 1.7 million in Hamburg; but the numbers are fairly similar if we include some of the areas near Hamburg, such as Geesthacht, Pinneberg, Norderstedt, or Ahrensburg, all accessible from Hamburg’s transit system.

Last time I checked, Metro’s TransLink had 1307 full size buses on the road, versus only 777 buses in Hamburg.  Yet, the service seems better in Hamburg than in Vancouver.  The difference in land area that the buses service partially explains that situation:  Hamburg covers 755 square kilometers, against 2900 for Metro.  Obviously, it is difficult to provide service on urban sprawl.  This remains true even if we add the areas of the four municipalities mentioned above and include the smaller towns in between, we’re still under 1000 km2.  To make it fair, one ought to shave off from Metro all the forested and mountainous area not serviced by transit – or roads, for that matter, and get a more realistic service area of about 1500 km2.  And for a fair comparison, one needs to add the 80 or so blue buses of West Vancouver.  But there’s still better service in Hamburg.

But the main reason for the discrepancy is that the Hamburg buses play a supporting role to its very extensive rail system: 930 km of commuter train lines, 289 stations, and nearly 2000 train cars. (In contrast, the skytrain has about 80 km of lines and 300 cars.)  So there’s no equivalent of the under-capacity 99 B-line in Hamburg; there’d be a train already.

A fuel cell bus downtown Hamburg

A fuel cell bus, downtown Hamburg

Another way in which Hamburg demonstrates its support for its bus system is by adopting new models, with the objective of improving air quality and lowering the carbon footprint.  Hamburg has no trolley buses, and the bulk of its fleet runs on diesel.  But it has recently acquired eight Volvo hybrid articulated buses.  With regenerative braking system and lithium batteries, these buses reduce their CO2 emissions by 75%.  In addition, the fleet now includes six hydrogen fuel-cell buses; these, of course, produce no carbon emissions at all.

These new additions are the first steps of a very ambitious program: Olaf Scholz, Hamburg’s mayor, declared in 2014 that as of 2020 any new additions to the fleet will be zero-emission fuel cell buses.  In Hamburg, this is the sort of thing that a mayor can decide.

Another hybrid bus

Another hybrid bus

In contrast, the fleet of Vancouver fuel cell buses, all twenty of them, has been sold off following a very successful demonstration run between Whistler and Vancouver during the 2010 Olympics.  This was decided by TransLink, for financial reasons.  It’s difficult not to be disappointed by this turn of events.  Hamburg has been testing its buses on regular city runs for years, and this is why they can be confident in their decision.  A short run focussed on the Olympics, on the other hand, is enough for proof of concept, but much too short to really put the buses, and the system, through their paces.

This is not to slag TransLink.  Every system has its own peculiarities, and TransLink can only do what a particularly tight-fisted government in Victoria will allow.  They have great people and cheerful, helpful bus drivers.  Everything is in place to make riding the bus as fun an experience as in Hamburg.  Everything, except…well, we could use more buses, and more drivers.


Written by enviropaul

February 20, 2017 at 7:52 pm