In order to survive, we have to stop toying with getting to green and embrace the responsibility of making our way sustainably.
Words by Steve Pecar
Hybrid cars, solar panels, recycling depots. Unheard of just a few years ago, these environmentally friendly measures have elbowed their way into the mainstream.
What gives? Have we finally woken up and smelled the organically grown coffee? Everywhere we turn today, we are being confronted by the green revolution as people hop on the bandwagon in an effort to make sound environmental and health choices.
As consumers and marketers wrap their heads around these ideas, others are looking at the bigger picture and how all the pieces of the future’s puzzle fit together.
Dan Leeming, an urban planner, realizes the complexity of the puzzle and what is needed to complete that picture. He is member of the Mississauga Urban Design Advisory Panel and a partner in The Planning Partnership, a firm dedicated to urban design and building sustainable communities.
“We really have no choice but to look at this,” explains Leeming. “A lot of people believe our communities are not working, or not evolving in a sustainable way. We have to rethink what we’re doing for our long-term survival.”
This means more than just putting a composter in your backyard and buying some running shoes.
Sustainable building requires us to look at all aspects of our communities and ask how we can make them more self-reliant, engaging, accessible and long-lasting. The expected results will not only have positive effects on the environment, but will improve our health too.
In his presentation Getting to Green: Understanding the value of sustainable communities, Leeming argues that four factors—rising energy costs, an aging population, public health and climate change—are converging and that we are just one generation away from crisis mode.
He believes that when we design new communities and reconsider existing ones, it’s the consideration of these factors that could save us from ourselves. But he also believes we all must play a part. “All of these issues are so closely linked,” Leeming says. “One really relies on another. We have to fit it together to make it work.”
Some of the recommendations of Getting to Green:
• Build neighbourhoods and towns in patterns that accommodate people’s everyday needs. In other words, stores, parks and workplaces should be located close to where people live. If people can walk to work we will be less reliant on cars, plus we will be getting more exercise.
• Ensure an equitable distribution of housing mixed with transportation options. Mingling various housing densities that incorporate all lifestyles will mean everyone will have equal access to all amenities in a sustainable community. Easy access to public transit will mean more people will use it.
• Create compact urban forms that build upon existing urban areas and decrease regional sprawl. In many cases, we have to use what is already in place; we just have to use it better. Urban sprawl pushes people too far away from where they work, shop and play.
• Preserve a region’s agriculture heritage and environmental systems. Retrofitted, compact urban communities will curb the urban sprawl that is gobbling up our valuable farm land. Fresh food that is grown and raised locally is usually cheaper and healthier, and contributes to our well-being. Stopping urban sprawl will also help us maintain our fragile ecosystem that plants and animals rely on to survive.
These points may seem pie-in-the-sky, but they are achievable. We are in fact accomplishing many of them now.
The blue box program was laughed at when it was introduced. People didn’t know what to do with them. They know now. Is there a household in Mississauga that doesn’t have a recycling bin at the curb each week?
Leeming says that young people play a key part in the greening of our society, as the lessons they learn in school are put into practice when they get home. “Younger people are energizing the environmental movement,” he explains. “They are ready and willing to work to make the changes necessary for us to move forward in a positive way.”
Government is also playing a role. While there has been resistance to legislated change, nudging business in the right direction is something government understands and does well. The City of Mississauga, for its part, has been developing the Living Green Master Plan, which will guide a somewhat politicized approach to a sustainable future. This multi-pronged approach will encourage all stakeholders in the community to think differently. Some are already doing that.
Corporations such as La Capitale Financial Group, the Baxter Corporation and AeroCentre V are pursuing LEED-NC (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, New Construction) initiatives. This certification system was developed by the U.S. Green Building Council, and it guarantees that a building’s water efficiency, energy use and emissions have been streamlined to minimize its environmental impact.
Some companies are also doing lots of little things that add up and will make a difference. Mississauga’s Hewlett-Packard, for instance, has set up recycling depots for employees where electronics and accessories can be brought in. Preferred parking for carpoolers encourages workers to leave their cars at home. Programs also exist for working at home and there are shower facilities at some locations for cyclists—that’s both healthy and green!
Ultimately, the biggest player in the sustainability movement is Joe Public. If he buys in, there’s no telling what can be achieved. We have seen how the blue box program succeeded, and with the same level of encouragement, the public should be able to broaden its scope.
At one time when you saw a family on their bikes, they were just seizing the opportunity to get some fresh air. Now, families head out on their bikes each day to go to both school and work. It’s this new type of commitment that shows how the pieces of the puzzle can fit together. More fitness and less pollution can coexist quite comfortably. Almost as important is the need for the public to demand healthier, environmentally friendly communities.
In his film An Inconvenient Truth, former U.S. Vice President Al Gore had many takes on the environment and global warming, but it was his view of ourselves that was intriguing: “We have everything, save perhaps political will,” he said. It’s that political will, the one that won’t let money or self-interest get in the way of doing the right thing, that will save us.
“We have to ask tough questions of ourselves and our leaders,” says Leeming, “and we have to demand good answers.”