Comments on the Draft Regional Sustainability Strategy (RSS)

Vic Derman

Presumably, the overarching goal of the Regional Sustainability Strategy (RSS) exercise is to produce a strategy containing a vision, goals, policies and procedures that will enable a sustainable future region. While the draft RSS contains many laudable ideas and goals, It doesn’t yet reach that goal.  

The draft reads almost like a list or “grab bag” of things we would like to accomplish. It doesn’t structure goals so as to determine what in the “grab bag” is really central and critical. This was a problem of the Regional Growth Strategy (RGS) which resulted in a lack of vision and a lack of focus. Many good things were accomplished under the RGS, but they tended to be accomplished in isolation and often weren’t indicative of a systematic approach to sustainability. We really can’t afford the same direction this time around.

The draft could be improved by re-structuring it to reflect both levels of importance and critical interactions. The first step in doing this should be to establish the highest level priorities. The number one priority should be global sustainability with a special emphasis on climate change. Despite our dependence on “Spaceship Earth”, we continue to degrade its primary life support systems. Any sustainability strategy must recognize the risk of continuing this degradation. While systems are being damaged in a variety of ways, climate change presents an extremely urgent imperative. There should be very strong wording recognizing this imperative in the RSS along with an explanation of why virtually everything we do must maximize greenhouse gas (GHG) reduction. We cannot, of course, solve climate change or other global issues by ourselves. But, the collective efforts of thousands of communities, including our own, can make a massive difference. The draft needs to make a very strong case for “Thinking Globally and Acting Locally”.

Local sustainability should be a second priority. The strategy should further define this priority by canvasing environmental, social and economic local issues essential to a sustainable future region. It is, again, important to recognize which of these issues is central to sustainability and to explore critical interactions between them.

Quality of life and place should be established as a third priority. It is, most certainly, related to aspects of local sustainability. Nevertheless, its impact is significant enough to mandate a place on the top rung of the hierarchy. Quality of life and place is extremely important to present and future residents for the lifestyle it affords them. Beyond this, however, it is a central issue for the future region’s economy. We are in competition with urban areas throughout the world for infusions of wealth, skill and talent. Those that possess these things can go anywhere. Why will they come here?  There are a number of things we can do to attract them, but quality of life and place is likely our greatest economic “ace in the hole”. We need to build on this ace and insure everything we do protects quality and life and place and enhances it.

The three priorities can establish clear direction towards a vision for a future region that: provides leadership in responding to global sustainability issues, addresses the myriad of factors central to local sustainability and builds an exceptional quality of life and place that meets the highest expectations of residents and serves as a central plank in attracting wealth, skill and talent to the region. These priorities need to be “front and center” in the first part of the RSS. The rest of the strategy can then be built around them.

Key principles or goals involved in addressing these priorities include the following:

Design with nature - Insure that man-made systems mimic or are compatible with natural systems. It makes no sense to work at cross purposes with the spaceship. A “natural” approach to stormwater and watershed based planning are examples of such design.

Minimize energy and resource use – Accomplishing this is critical to GHG reduction and conservation of scarce resources. When planning new systems and infrastructure, conservation should come first for both energy and resource use with “wastes” being minimized. Whatever “waste” is produced should be utilized as a resource to the highest degree possible. The region should also demonstrate leadership in moving to renewable energy and a low carbon economy.

Beneficially use the critical interaction between transportation and land use – Land use and transportation are inextricably linked. Choose a sprawling land use system, and transportation problems will follow. On the other hand, making the wrong transportation choices such as continued road expansion outward, encourages undesirable sprawl patterns. Together, the interaction between land use and transportation form the foundation of the region. It is essential to get this foundation right. The RSS should strongly emphasize the central and critical role of land use and transportation interactions in establishing the fundamental structure of the region.

The RSS should also recognize the impact of street treatment on surrounding land use. Streets designed primarily as “conduits” to move vehicles minimize opportunities for human interaction and exchange. As a result, they also minimize land values in adjacent neighbourhoods. We should avoid creating “conduits” such as much of Blanshard Street.

Choose a compact land use pattern – Compact land use is an essential element of a variety of goals including: maximizing GHG reduction, minimizing resource use, protecting natural and rural areas, reducing traffic congestion and maximizing quality of life and place.

Move away from “auto centric” transportation – A balanced transportation system with mode shifts in favour of walking, cycling and transit is also essential to a variety of goals including GHG reduction, minimizing congestion and quality of life and place. Commitment to a compact land use pattern makes cycling and walking a viable alternative. However, appropriate infrastructure and local destinations must also be provided. Finally, it should be noted that transportation is an enabler of land use.

Insure that cities are “designed for people” – Like other North American cities, we have allowed auto centric transportation choices to dominate much of our urban form. We must recognize that transportation should serve the urban landscape, not dominate it. We can change this by insuring that our region is designed as a “people place”. Downtown cores and centres, in particular, need to be filled with attractive people spaces that make them dynamic, interesting and exciting places to congregate and interact.

Commit to creating complete communities – Insure that a wide variety of retail, services and recreational opportunities are located close to residential density in more compact communities. Accomplishing an appropriate mix provides obvious transportation advantages and also helps to foster a sense of community. Oak Bay village and Cook Street village are existing examples of complete communities.

Make denser communities a livable, attractive alternative to single family housing – It is essential that compact, denser communities are seen as viable, attractive alternatives to single family. If they fail to accomplish this, a clear and undesirable division is created between those lucky enough, or wealthy enough, to get single family and those who got “second best” in denser communities.

To make denser communities competitive with single family, they should be built around a rich amenity package. In particular, a hierarchy of green spaces should be created with the intent of replicating, as much as possible, the advantages of single family backyards. Density does not need to feel hard edged.

Design for change and resiliency – Clearly, the challenges of climate change will require resilient future communities. In addition, we are probably on the edge of “the next industrial revolution.” The new revolution will develop around a host of technologies featuring renewable energy and other innovations designed to address the daunting problems we face. Our region needs to be designed with maximum flexibility and ability to adopt these technological changes and assume a position of leadership in implementing them. In addition, we will need resilience built into a region which will have to adapt to the changed world of global warming.  As a side note, all major principles would likely have a number of specific policies or initiatives listed under them. This principle would, for example, be a natural location for local food security.

Commit fiscal resources to necessary changes – Without commitment of the fiscal resources necessary to a sustainable region, talk about change is just that and no more. Capital expenditures for all future projects should reflect our commitment to a sustainable region. Operational procedures should also reflect that commitment. In times of snowfall, for example, standard operating procedures should insure that walking, cycling and transit, our three highest transportation priorities, remain a viable choice. Similarly, regular maintenance of cycling and pedestrian infrastructure should be a high priority.

Lay the groundwork for a viable future economy – Much can be done to plan for a strong economic future including: creating the necessary infrastructure and investing in innovation, education, research, research, application and entrepreneurs. It’s important, however, to emphasize the fact that quality of life and place will likely continue to be this region’s singular economic ace.

The draft RSS contains many of these principles in one place or another. However, presenting them together in a section immediately after the discussion of highest priorities would provide a much more direct and powerful picture of where we need to go.

Finally, the draft RSS needs to contain a section detailing how it will actually direct future decision making. The three priorities could, for example, become lenses through which all decisions must pass. Similarly, the principles detailed above could become a second set of lenses. If the RSS does not consistently shape decision making then it runs the risk of becoming shelfware. That would be an unfortunate outcome.

Also, the draft RSS needs a section that describes how progress towards the vision it presents will be continually monitored and reported out.

Specific comments on sections of the draft

 As mentioned previously, much stronger language recognizing the imperative of climate change should appear early in the document.

 On page 4, language describing the relationship of the RSS to other plans should more strongly identify the RSS as an “umbrella” document and should identify the need to review existing documents within the context of the RSS.

 On page 19, a 33% reduction of GHG’s by 2020 is identified (Compared to 2007 levels. Some regions have accomplished this to 1990 levels, a much more desirable starting point). Is this aspirational only? If not, what is the current state of GHG production compared to 2007 and what needs to be done to accomplish this goal within 5 years? Also, what sort of targets  will be required by 2030, 2040 and 2050 and what sort of changes will be required to meet these presumably more aggressive goals? The RSS needs to look out much further than 5 years and it needs to set the stage with a program for accomplishing goals. Also, this initiative “cries out” for a program of continual monitoring and progress reports.

 On page 20, language identifies the intent to “encourage a greater share of trips” by preferred modes. Can we really afford targets that appear to be only aspirational? During the 10 plus years of the RSS, such aspirational targets resulted in very little being accomplished. Perhaps it is time for harder targets along with a description of how those targets will be reached. This is another area that absolutely needs a process of continual monitoring and progress reports.

 On page 22, there is some discussion about TDM. However, it is not very robust. More aggressive approaches to TDM should be canvassed. This page discusses GHG reduction. It would be a good point to include a commitment that all future projects must aim  to maximize GHG reduction as an absolute given.

 On Page 38, policy 4.1 talks about the need for compact land use. This policy should come earlier in the document to reflect its critical nature not after things such as affordable housing. Affordable housing is not insignificant but it is not on the same level of importance as achieving a compact land use pattern. Placing this policy next to the transportation section, which also should appear earlier, would be appropriate.  

Also, there needs to be much stronger recognition of the importance of land use and transportation choices interacting to create the foundation for regional structure. All in all, this section is indicative of a failure to establish levels of significance.

 On page 23, there should probably be language describing the importance of urban forests.

 On page 24, the language describing the CRD response to GHG reduction is not very robust.

 On page 25, there is talk about inspiring hope and creating opportunities for future generations. This section absolutely needs to emphasize the need for transformational change, including the need to embrace new technologies and approaches and the need to very aggressively approach GHG reduction. Without this sort of “paradigm shift” there really isn’t a great deal of hope and there certainly won’t be many opportunities. This is not the place for rose coloured glasses.

 On page 26, the section on energy is extremely important to future sustainability locally and globally. It needs to come much sooner in the document and needs to establish the logical connections to other goals such as climate change response. Again, the language and policies contained here could be more robust.

 On page 29 and 30, strong language on the central importance of quality of life and place to the future economy needs to be included.

 On page 41, the integration of land use and transportation is finally discussed. Like the rest of section 4, this is a keystone initiative that really needs a more prominent position in any final document. This section, again, could serve to recognize the interactive role of land use and transportation choices in establishing the very foundation of the region. Also, it needs to emphasize the role of transportation as an enabler of land use and the importance of enabling the right things.

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