Category Archives: Environment

Mill Race Park

One of my favorite places in the Region is Mill Race Park, although not a building per say, designed by Adres Kalm landscape architect in 1979, it a very successful place in the Galt area.  The location at Park Hill Road and Water street is the site of the former mill race that served the Turnbull mill across the street, now only ruins remain.  The mill has undergone many cycles of use and is currently being converted into a restaurant and banquet hall.  A good compliment to the ever popular wedding ceremony site of the park.

The park is always busy in the summer and provides endless permutations of use. From wedding ceremonies, to walking your dog, to having and ice cream, to fishing, the designer has provided so many possibilities for this park that is always occupied by someone.

The park has variety of levels that allow you to explore the river is a variety of scales and distances.  You can walk closer to the street and peek down into the old mill race 15 feet below you which still echoes with rushing water.  You can enjoy the terrace that overlooks the river with a great view of downtown Galt and the bridge crossing the river.  The amphitheater is a site for many festivals and weddings throughout the summer.  Or you can get up close and personal with the river by walking down the stairs to each the actual rivers edge.

Your experience of the park is always complimented by an ice cream cone or fries from LA Franks concession stand. A little short on cash, don’t worry LA Franks accepts all your leftover Canadian Tire money. All too often I run into old friends and acquaintances also enjoying an milk shake.

The design eloquently incorporates the history into a modern successful park that will always be a favorite for me.

Guest Blogger Krista Hulshof

 

The Hillborn House

My favourite building in the Region of Waterloo can be found hidden away on a quiet street, sitting atop a steeply sloping site, surrounded by trees, overlooking the Grand River in Preston. It is neither a vaulted hall of academic learning, nor a time capsule for our artistic heritage. It is not burdened with the task of resurrecting our downtown cores, nor with convincing taxpayers that their money was well spent. My favourite building serves a much humbler, but no less important purpose: as a house and home.

Designed by acclaimed Canadian Architect Arthur Erickson is 1974, Hillborn House is an example of a modern architecture that is sensitive to place and that takes its cues from the surrounding landscape. Where the threshold between interior and exterior space, between the built environment and the natural is blurred.

The Design of the house is simple in its conception: a series of monolithic masonry walls, set parallel to one another following the contours of the land. They seem to hold back the earth to create space and organize the programme into a series of terraces that step down towards the river. The space between the monoliths is filled with glass, framing views up and downstream to the river. The entrance and main circulation stair cut through the masonry walls, down the centre of the plan, with rooms and spaces organized to either side. As the stairs step down, the ceiling seems to heighten, amplifying the feeling of space as you move through the house. The masonry walls protrude up through the roof – the interior design articulated on the exterior – creating and enclosing exterior patios and gardens up on the roof. The material palette of stained wood and clay brick is of the land, reinforcing a connection to the site. When the sunlight hits these surfaces it fills the home with a warm, soft light.

The house is by no means a modest one, boasting an interior swimming pool and sauna, a space designed to house a baby grand piano, and an amazing soaker tub in the master ensuite. The tub is sunken into the bathroom floor so that you are looking out level with the forest floor. An incredible place to let one’s mind drift, lost in daydreams.

I was fortunate enough to have visited the house once, nearly11 years ago, when the Owner invited my first year architecture classmates and I over for a tour. So, maybe I am remembering the house though a nostalgic lense. Or perhaps it is more important that it has made such a lasting impression, or that I could see myself living there. I would love to see it again!

Guest Blogger Matthew Muller

Insurance Anyone?

We’ve all got enough high school biology to appreciate that the big fish eat the little fish and so on down the line, but even simple, straight line interdependence has become a somewhat abstract concept these days. The line from our resources and capacities to our needs is getting very, very long. Salads don’t come from fields anymore. They just come from the store. The effort needed to move the ingredients 3,000 km to our table is buried in the transaction price, and we give it little thought. Over a half century of cheap energy and a “resources without limits” attitude has produced a cornucopia of goods in our neighbourhoods, and a progressively more entrenched idea that the citizen’s role in the ecosystem is as the unquestioning top-of-food-chain consumer. I consume, therefore I am.

The provocative documentary The End of Suburbia sets out much of the issue. One can argue with the timing, but a collision between finite resources and an attitude of infinite consumption seems inevitable.

There are, of course, some major problems with this attitude, not the least of which is using our unrealistic consumption model to judge quality-of-life issues, and public investment. How do we judge the value of public services to which we all have access, and for which we all pay? Can we put a price on having someone answer the phone, and responding with help, when we dial 911?

Well, ….., there are fiscal models that allow us to do exactly that, courtesy of the insurance industry. An example is the fire brigade widely used before the era of publicly funded fire departments. Your purchase of fire insurance, after an insurance appraiser evaluated the risk and potential loss of your premises, meant the insurance company would send their fire brigade to fight the fire, presumably to reduce the amount of its loss payout. The cost of the fire brigade was hidden in the insurance premium.

A comparable idea today might be the auto insurance plan, assessing your car value and your driving habits, and providing potential repairs for an upfront monthly fee.

So, where are your premiums headed? Going up? And the coverage you get? Going down?

Another financial plan for firefighting involves standing in front of your burning house and negotiating a price for assistance, after the fire starts. This second plan is usually more expensive, although involves many fewer customers in the transaction. Victims of this year’s snowstorm on the 401 (at least those without CAA membership) found out the price of a tow truck when it was wanted in two places at once. Highest bidder, anyone? What happens when I can fill up your tank, or his, but not both? Oooh, I’m a rich man!

There are reasons, you see, why we are willing to pay for services that we may never use. We share the burden together, and undertake the risk together. It forms a part of our quality of life, and supports our peace of mind. As a bonus, the public fire department might save you, not just your house. It’s also more efficient and cheaper in the long run to share the fire department than to have your own.

Across our province there are any number of excellent projects that would increase our public storehouse of benefits and capacities for all to enjoy and use. Some of these, like rapid transit initiatives, are physical infrastructure. Others are less tangible, and strengthen our helping hands as neighbours. We struggle to value these public benefits, however, precisely because they can’t be bought and sold in the marketplace. We share them in ways that make fiscal sense, but are beyond market forces. As a citizen I understand the value, but as “taxpayer” I want to see a measurable outcome, within my commoditized and very private point of view. What’s in it for me, right now? Why do I pay for schools if I have no children? [Well, … , how about because someone has to pay into the Canada Pension Plan while you draw out of it, or tend your sick bed, like perhaps that educated child you helped to create!?]

To borrow an old saw, we want to know the price of everything in today’s dollars, but understand the future value of nothing. Since we can’t put a market price on future amenities (the value of inspiring and beautiful streetscapes and landscapes, breathable air, and the water quality of our streams, to name a few), nor restrict their enjoyment to paying customers only, we lack the tools to properly debate and decide questions of public goods. We are less and less committed to the common will necessary to create amenities for the future. Both debate and effort are especially difficult when the path of dependence from polluted air back to its origins in the tailpipe of my car is not understood, or worse still willfully ignored.

A second problem with our present arrangements is that the systems upon which we rely have very little redundancy. No Plan B. What exactly is our backup plan if fossil fuels aren’t limitless and the public purse bottomless? Electric cars? Ah, … , and where will the electricity come from?

Right! … From the outlet in the wall!

Our lack of understanding about the length and fragility of the energy chain, back through the utility grid to the power plant to the fuel source, leaves us vulnerable to bad decisions in good times. Solutions to our problems appear simple, because they seem close at hand (just plug the car in!) when in fact they are very distant (Saudi Arabia, or at the end of a long and energy-intensive industrial process in the Tar Sands).

Real alternatives will take time to build, and we won’t have that time if the need for a Plan B becomes suddenly and blindingly obvious. One way forward is to strengthen and support alternative networks and simple interdependences that are still in place, yet overlooked because they are not valued or sold. Support for local food networks, investment in neighbourhood relationships (with programs such as Kitchener’s Festival of Neighbourhoods, an initiative that our firm supports) and protection for the arable land in our watershed are inexpensive insurance schemes that ensure these pieces of infrastructure are still available when Plan A (the no-peak-oil-don’t-worry plan) springs a few leaks.

One of the most important civic elements in this insurance kit is sustainable rapid transit. In the unlikely event that we cannot discover, refine, package and transport enough things to burn in our cars and electricity plants, environmentally sustainable transit might become a wildly popular option for getting around. Better to have it ready, and in use, rather than wishing for it when it’s too late. No amount of investment in asphalt will be useful if the refinery runs dry.

Taxpayers are busy judging the value of public transit and other public benefits using 2011 accounting and studies that compare these systems to investment in more asphalt for the car.

That’s like judging the value of the fire department on a day when your house isn’t burning down!

Insurance anyone?

 

A New Year of Tax Fraud

 

Municipalities will be ringing in the New Year by ringing the cash registers, once again collecting their revenue from one slice of citizens, and using it to subsidize another. Their New Year’s resolution should be to stop this fraudulent practice, and bring tax fairness to forms of urban development that are economically and environmentally sustainable.

This practice was highlighted at a recent conference held in Toronto, called “Retrofitting and Planning Sustainable Suburbs”. Although the conference was short on answers, a presentation by Peter Katz (Director of Smart Growth for Sarasota Florida) on long-term fiscal stability for communities was most revealing. In it, Katz compared tax revenue to urban density, with surprising results.

Both our regional and local governments generate their revenue, and incur their expenses, across a specific geography. A local comparison of three different properties in this landscape shows the subsidy from higher density to lower.

The three properties?

1) A 14 storey Downtown Kitchener condo (66 units, .7 acre including its associated street area, located on a street corner used by many of us)

2) a 7 storey historic and well-kept rental property (36 units, .5 acre including its street area, 90 feet of frontage along a street used by many of us)

3) a typical suburban home (1 unit, .12 acre, 45 feet of frontage, along a street used by only its inhabitants)

The typical suburban property is valued at about $200,000, and generates $2,250 of revenue for City and Region (ie., provincial education taxes excluded).The condo property carries $9.9 million of assessment on the municipal rolls, and generates $110,000.The rental building is valued at $2.55 million, but by virtue of its more than double tax rate relative to condo and single family home assessment, that $2.5 million generates $55,000 of revenue for the City and Region.

By comparing the revenue to the area of property and street necessitated by each, we can begin to see the enormous disparity, and the size of the suburban subsidy. The suburban home sends about $14,000 per acre to City Hall. Astonishingly, the condo sends $160,000 per acre even when the corner streets are used in the calculation. That’s more than 10 times the revenue of suburban development. The rental units cough up $115,000 per acre, taken in large part from citizens with little or no savings or net worth.

Multiply these numbers over and over, and you get the picture. Katz, in his presentation of numbers for his community, shows a similar effect on the commercial side. Strip malls and local suburban malls, with their massive parking and wasteful use of adjoining streets, generate about the same tax revenue per acre for Sarasota as suburban residences. No more.

What do our local condo owner or renters get for their tax bill? Garbage and recycling pickup, like the suburban homeowner? No. They pay extra for that, on top of their tax bill. Given that about 50% of municipal expenses are dependent on response times and density (25% of Kitchener’s costs are related to fire coverage alone over its network of streets), the tax bill could be seen as a fraud perpetrated upon sustainable development by suburban voters. Worse, the 36 unit rental property requires snow plowing, police drive-by, asphalt repairs and replacement, for only 90 feet of street. Its equivalent in the suburbs, on a dollar for dollar revenue basis, requires 1200 feet. Worse, that thirteen times length of infrastructure, paid for with utility rates common to all electricity, water and gas users, is maintained by all users equally. In addition to that subsidy, the renters must maintain their private pipes common to the units within the building, through their rent.

We’ve known for a long time that municipal property taxes transfer money from those without the means to pay to suburban voters with net worth, and the Ontario Government has directed municipalities years ago to end this practice. This directive has for the most part been ignored. Now, to grind salt into the wound, let’s add the subsidy: from sustainable, walkable, transit-friendly existing or new development to unsustainable existing and the suburbs-to-come, paid year after year. Properties generating $100,000 or more per acre are paying for municipal services for other areas of the city that incur the costs, yet generate only about $14,000 per acre. In business terms, it makes no sense whatsoever.

And what is the attitude of suburban voters to this largesse? On transit investment to support densification, or quality downtown urban infrastructure? Don’t do it. On taxes? We need relief. On municipal services? We don’t get our fair share. On change to allow density and a greater variety of uses? Don’t touch us!

Given that “Smart Growth” apparently means 40% residential development within built-up areas, and 60% outside it, and given that commercial and employment development can go where it wishes to chew more farmland, our municipal leadership will continue to massively subsidize low density development with capital and operating dollars, while talking a good game.

For this New Year, let’s resolve to end this fraud. It’s not enough to promote sustainable development. We’ve got to stop penalizing it.

Commuting for the Common Good

Downtown London has the John Labatt Centre (the “jail”, I think it’s known as), and Hamilton its Copps Coliseum. Sundry dreams of replacing Kitchener’s Aud, and inevitably the subject of a location for it, contain the seeds of a dilemma: build on the outskirts where land is cheap, in a sea of surface parking, or struggle with a central site that brings citizens and event visitors alike to the heart of the community.

Guelph’s solution to the issue was pure serendipity. Commission a study of various locations for a replacement to Memorial Gardens, throw in the combination of failed mall, the vision of an overreaching developer, City guarantees, a dash of reality, and “voila”, the City owns a perfectly viable sports, small convention and entertainment complex in the heart of the community (with a few twists and turns!)

Waterloo has, admittedly, its centrally-located Recreation Complex, but the decision regarding Rim Park took another approach than reinforcing the vibrancy of the Waterloo core. Let’s not dwell on the twists and turns of that project, set down in reams of court documents and electoral ballots. Let’s just look at the location decision.

Years ago a Waterloo taxpayer riding the transit system to its last stop tried to hijack the bus, to actually get the driver to take him far enough out of the City to see what he was paying for, Rim Park. No kidding! I read it in the paper! No transit route actually went there at the time, and Mayor Woolstencroft was overheard to say that transit wasn’t an item that got much priority in the location decision. It got me thinking. With speedskating season upon us, and our family once again making the long trek to Rim Park three times a week, it’s reminded me again that the decisions we make in the pursuit of the cheap, “greenfield” solution never seem to include the long term costs.

Let’s take Rim Park as an example. Bear with the math for a minute.

Voodoo Math 101

Forgetting the outdoor fields, we’ll concentrate on the four ice surfaces, two basketball courts and three soccer fields. Maybe 6 hours of activities each day, say 250 days a year? An average of 20 people using the surface each hour. Give or take, (and at least in an overly optimistic business plan, if not in reality) that’s 270,000 car trips to Rim Park each year. Over the life of the facility (hopefully 50 years, given a few repairs and renewals) that’s 13.5 million trips.

Voodoo Math 102

Rim Park is a 7.5 km drive from the centre of Waterloo at King and Erb. Using incredibly silly assumptions about how easy it is to get around in this Region, and gross generalizations about who is using Rim Park’s facilities, let’s consider the commute we’ve set up with that location decision.

If the facility is used by Waterloo residents only, and it sits about 7 km from centre, in the far upper corner of Waterloo, AND users are equally dispersed across the City, AND nobody carpools, AND we don’t make too many mistakes with all this, then I figure the average commute to Rim Park for each user is about 8 kilometres. The same calculation for a location in the centre of the City is 4 kilometres. So the “difference” we can assign to the location decision is 4 km. Commutes go there and back, so 8 kilometres in total!

Voodoo Economics (with apologies to Mr. Reagan)

Assuming the minivan with the hockey bag in it gets 10 km to the litre, and the litre of gas is $1 CDN, and we drive the extra 100 million kilometers involved with the choice of Rim Park’s location (13.5 million times the eight kilometre “commute difference”), then we’ve spent $10 million dollars on gas alone.

Could we have picked up a site in the core of Waterloo for $10 million more than that cornfield cost? Likely.

Would that central site hold its value if Rim Park and the Recreation Centre created a powerhouse of leisure, conference and event possibilities for Waterloo’s core? Absolutely.

Would children be able to get to those ice pads and ball courts using public transit, helping to create ridership and cut our subsidies for 50 years to come? You bet.

Would all those hockey teams have to jump in the car during all those tournaments to visit the same ersatz roadhouses they visited two weeks ago in Mississauga, or would they sample some uniqueness and authenticity within Waterloo’s core (large LCBO excepted)? I suspect the latter.

Had I been asked to contribute a few dollars a year to buy a valuable site for Rim Park, rather than a few more dollars a year to drive to a cheap one, I’d hope that I’d choose some exciting possibilities for the heart of my community, and save a few bucks. Not that I was asked, mind you. I live in Kitchener.

Oh, I see. My turn next. Hopefully any decision about a new Aud for Kitchener will keep the commuting costs in mind. The lure of cheap land to park the very cars needed to get there is a no-win proposition.

Locating our high schools using the same logic might help with that school bus bill we pay each year. Teenagers taking anything other than public transit to get to high school makes no sense at all, and yet our school boards’ choice of high school locations is driven by the same lure of cheap land involved in the Rim Park decision. The dislocation between the transit system and our high schools is no laughing matter. It costs us big time.

Let’s locate our major institutions for a larger efficiency. Our forefathers knew better. The taxes, the gasoline purchases, and the cost to our environment all come out of one pocketbook.

We Are What We Measure

The media runs a business story every so often about how the growth in consumption of oil or some other commodity was down some enormous percentage. Yeegads! It has a graph and everything, so it must be true. It takes a while to extract some facts from the dour headline, storyline, graph, and article itself. Underlying it all is that world consumption of the item had risen once again. It just hasn’t risen as quickly as it had the year before. No mention as to whether the previous year was a historical anomaly, or what the continued growth in consumption might mean. But the tone in these articles is always glum. The news? That growth has taken a nose-dive through one statistical unit measure, one year-over-year. Why exactly would we present a story about one of our planet’s more pressing matters (consumption and resources) in this way?

The old adage: “You get what you measure!” might well apply to these “rate of change” statistics. Might the media be debasing our sense of real value, our connection to real issues? No longer content with its moniker as “dismal science”; or even to measuring a real and even-handed relation between real people, their needs and their means; economic reporting and statistics are now rife with sophisticated “moving averages” and tracks of trends. The up and down of it all no longer seems to matter. It’s whether the up is more upper! It’s not the getting from here to there, or even the speed at which we’re moving. It’s about the trend, the acceleration! Our economic attention span has shifted from planning the quality of our future to planning for speculation. The year-over-year is becoming the thing itself, because the only decision is whether to buy or sell.

There are very few places in a mature and stable system (whether an eco-system, an economy or a community) where a focus on acceleration, where a perception that moving is standing still, is a good thing. A start-up company, an emerging market, a child’s learning; sure, we can understand that zoomier is better.

But once up to speed, is it logical or even safe to continue this focus not just on growth, but on rate of growth?

When forecasts predict fewer cars on the road, That’s a “negative growth” in yesterday’s terms, and a practical free-fall on the year-over-year growth chart, if we use our handy “change in growth” graph. But do all of these statistical trends, no longer climbing so optimistically, really spell doom for our quality of life?

Grow or die!! Growth is inevitable! No growth means no jobs for our children, no increase in tax revenue. These are the mantras of planning, chanted religiously at shareholders’ and council meetings alike. But perhaps, just perhaps, these are the chants of the speculators rather than the true stakeholders.

Those who focus on year-over-year statistics; changes in car sales, housing starts, or increases in tax revenue to name a few; have an overriding interest in acceleration rather than the quality of the thing itself.

We’d all love a little 7% return on our investments. It’s a modest year-over-year increase that will keep pace with inflation and leave a little something to increase our spending power through the “magic of compounding” with which our mutual funds have made us so familiar.

Consider this rate of growth in a community context, however, and it may not seem quite so modest. 7% per year growth means roughly a doubling each 10 years. Regional population 500,000 to a million by 2015. Two million by 2025, four by 2035. Bigger certainly, but better? Shall we double our water consumption each ten years, double the footprint of the cities on our landscape? Double the services or pollution needed to support a quality of life just to the level we enjoy today? Every ten years? Our Region faces the possibility that water consumption will hit a supply wall. Ditto for converting rural to sprawl (although not anytime soon, and over quite a few dead bodies). Setting aside the question of whether we should, is it even possible?

And yet in spite of it all, growth is still our great sacred cow.

Do we make our plans for balance, stability, or maturity?

No, we worship quantifiable, compounded growth, using an ROI-al mentality. We measure it and report it and graph it ad nauseam. By doing so we embed in our decision-making a conventional belief in the power of numerical acceleration to change our lives for the better, to increase the quality of our lives.

The factual evidence for this belief, some would argue, is really quite scarce. Eben Fodor, in his 1999 American study “Better Not Bigger: How to Take Control of Urban Growth and Improve Your Community”, takes issue with whether the urban growth machine really lowers taxes for individuals, makes more or better jobs and housing available to them, or creates a better quality of life. The logical extension of the “Bigger is Better” argument is that more of things makes for better things. Where we measure some items but ignore others, the statistics are used to prop up the conventional wisdom of growth. Yes growth has impact (so the explanation goes), but to others! To us, the benefits! The costs will fall elsewhere.

This is the illusion of economics, where the “externalities” are never measured, and the qualitative ignored where it cannot fit.

In a world of finite resources, in a regional landscape of finite size needing careful balance, as we increasingly turn to issues of quality over quantity, the growth in statistics of growth will hopefully take a downturn. We will no longer be persuaded by “intensity reductions” that plan for increased pollution at, wait for it…, a slower rate each year per unit produced. We will finally start to ask “Is it better?” rather than “Is it bigger?”

Prosperity Without Growth?

How do we generate equitable prosperity within an ecosystem (a planet, a watershed, a community) without using the growth model that we are addicted to?

as governments, as consumers, as businesses.

All the numbers tell us that the growth model is unsustainable, but are we listening? The following link will take you to a talk by Dr. Albert Bartlett of the University of Colorado at Boulder.

Please take the time to view this series of Youtube videos (8 parts) where the mathematics of our reliance on the growth model are explained in simple, yet powerful terms. While the talk is called Arithmetic, Population, and Energy, the series is posted under the title

The Most IMPORTANT Video You’ll Ever See

Then, if you’re still up for it, take a look at Dr. Tim Jackson, professor of Sustainable Development at the University of Surrey, setting the stage for positive discussion of what we must work toward if we are to create viable alternatives to the growth model that informs so much of our present dilemma:

Prosperity Without Growth

The United Kingdom has a Sustainable Development Commission (SDC) that issued in 2009 its report of that title, a “thinkpiece” offered by Dr. Jackson.

both the report and its critics key in on the components of the present system: reliance on growth and consumerism for the expanding economic pie that allows for stability in the face of inequality (that is, I am better off so increasing inequity is less painful to bear) and its relation to the destruction of the environment that appears so necessary to sustain the model. A trajectory that we know leads to the cave.

An important part of how we design our communities and spaces, says Dr. Jackson, is the role that public space plays in ensuring that inequality remains tangible, and consumers do not retreat fully from relation with one another, so that the larger issue of where we are headed can be discussed and addressed.

We agree.