Public Information Sessions ‘Were A Great Missed Opportunity’ To Address These Key Issues
By John Bacher
During the third week of this November 2015, the Regional Municipality of Niagara held three public information sessions in the Niagara, Ontario municipalities of Grimsby, St. Catharines and Port Colborne.
The meetings focused on three separate but connected issues. Those issues are the planning of transportation, water and sewer services and the new five year review of the Niagara Regional Official Plan, required by the Planning Act.
It is a good thing that these issues are combined so that for instance, water and sewer lines are not extended beyond urban growth limits.
The roughly 150 people blessed to take part in these information sessions were able to meet Niagara staff and consultants developing the policies under review. What was helpful for the process is that there were copies of background reports. These included two worthy reports on “Whole Streets”, the region’s current transportation policy, and the bible for land use planning in the Niagara Region, the Dillon report. What was helpful about the process is that citizens engaged in it learn valuable background information, for instance, where sewer and water lines are actually located.
What is most disturbing about the meetings is that it is clear that the Niagara Region is still trying to revive the blessedly cancelled by the provincial government, mid-peninsula expressway. (it would have bisected Niagara in a wall of concrete, breaking up farms and forests) This proposal featured prominently on a map in the public meetings, is the main goal of the Niagara Region’s current transportation policy, which hopefully go into the dust bin of history.
The two reports on Whole Streets did offer some hope of how to remediate some of the ugliness that dominates public spaces in Niagara. In one of the report there was a positive vision of the future of Niagara Stone Road from the outskirts of east St. Catharines to the Old Town of Niagara-on-the-Lake.
The Whole Street study photographed a current scene of this major route for tourists from the Queen Elizabeth Highway to the former provincial capital. It showed how a stretch of what is an introduction to our region for millions of visitors looks treeless, bleak and desolate, drained into an ugly ditch. A computer generated image of the future properly showed a new gateway. This had a tree lined road, with a separated trail for cyclists. Most significantly, the ditch had become a beautiful bio-swale, with wildflowers purifying the water draining down from the road.
Other parts of the Whole Street reports however, showed how the Niagara Region is still mired in anti-ecological ways of thinking. The street scenes proposed all showed concrete curbs, relegating bio-swales to rural areas.
Such an approach is contrary to an effective cycling strategy. Cities such as Portland, Oregon, which has been a successful model in getting people to shift from cars to bikes done so by the lure of riding along the softer edge of swales than tire busting curbs. Curbs also encourages a flood of contaminates from streets into storm sewers, adding to water pollution and summer time beach closures.
What was strangely missing from the display boards and reports was background information related to environmental issues in the Niagara Region. While the sewage and water lines were on the board, there was nothing reported on how well the system is working to make it possible to swim in the beach waters of Lake Erie and Lake Ontario.
Protected environmental areas such as provincially significant wetlands could be seen on maps featured on the display board through dark green colouring. More permissively designated Environmental Conservation Areas could also be seen in lighter green. But there was nothing in any of the maps’ explanatory legends to clearly indicate what these two colour shadings represented. Nor was there any explanation of what the Niagara Region’s environmental policies are.
The failure to clearly map existing environmental protected areas on display boards is quite unfortunate as it ignores an important requirement for municipal governments under the current Provincial Policy Statement, which came into effect on April 1, 2015. This is a requirement that official plans now have policies on the issues of climate change and bio-diversity.
One of the consequences of taking climate change and bio-diversity seriously would be to scrap the more than a decade-and-a-half old idea of construing a mid-peninsula expressway through the heart of the region’s rural lands above the Niagara Escarpment. The construction of this expressway would perpetuate automotive dependency, resulting in the spewing of more greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere.
By cutting through forests and farmlands, the expressway would alo fragment habitats for threatened and endangered wildlife.
Taking climate change and bio-diversity seriously would also discourage any urban boundary expansions through the regional government’s five year review.
To develop strategies for climate change and bio-diversity through the land use planning process is challenging. The issues are complex and the solutions controversial. Fort Erie for instance, has for several years demanded that protections on provincially significant wetlands within its urban boundaries be removed. Doing this however, would be totally against strategies for both climate change and bio-diversity.
The wetlands that the council wants to pave over are important as sinks for greenhouse gases and are important refuges for threatened species.
Developing good strategies on climate change and bio-diversity requires a lot of information, which needs to be shared and discussed. The public meetings held by the Niagara Region last week were a great missed opportunity to get this process going.
John Bacher is a historian and t author of three books. The most recent “Two Billion Trees and Counting: the Legacy of Edmund Zavitz Dundurn Press, 2011), describes how our landscape was rescued from desertification. He is currently working as a researcher with the Preservation of Agricultural Lands Society and as a Greenbelt Campaigner for the Sierra Club of Canada.