Nine Lessons on Making Multi-Family Homes More Resilient

55 Livingston Road, one of Park Property Management's buildings impacted by Toronto's 2013 ice storm and power outages.

55 Livingston Road, one of Park Property Management’s buildings impacted by Toronto’s 2013 ice storm and power outages.

About 20 years ago, Hardy Stevenson and Associates Limited was part of a team that prepared an aggressive strategy for residential, industrial, commercial and institutional waste reduction, reuse and recycling (3Rs) in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA).  As the urban planners and social scientists, our role was to both develop and evaluate the effectiveness of the 3Rs policies. The evaluation piece was telling.  We realized the proposed residential 3Rs’ policies focused solely on people living in single family homes. Drilling down further, the draft policies were also skewed toward English-speaking, well-educated people with a British heritage, who were middle-aged, fit and moderately affluent.

Given that most Toronto residents live in multiple family housing, do not have a British heritage, are of all ages and have varied domestic situations, education and economic circumstances, it became clear that our report was biased.  Why? The team preparing the 3Rs’ policies only saw GTA residents through their own eyes and circumstances.

What does this mean for rethinking sustainable and resilient communities?  Our focus across Canada during the last five years has been on planning for sustainable communities and not resilient ones.  And, many of the municipal Integrated Community Sustainability Plans (ICSPs) I’ve helped author and I expect many other plans, have the same biases.  While broad public consultation tends to improve the representativeness of some Plans, such as the King Township and the Greater Peterborough Area’s ICSPs, this is not enough. Too often ICSPs across Canada recommend a sustainable future as seen through the Steering Committee and consulting team’s world view perspective.

I’ve written elsewhere that social and environmental stress to our urban areas caused by the GTA 2005 power outage, 2013 floods and ice storm give us pause and allow us to think about whether we should give priority to planning for sustainable communities versus planning for resilient ones.   A community sustainability plan recommends implementing some of the best ideas about how to improve our social, environmental and economic quality of life in our cities and rural areas.  However, when most GTA residents are without power for up to nine days, spending time in idling cars to stay warm, throwing out food and thinking about visiting long-lost relatives who might muster up a warm meal, we really need to shift our thinking to urban and rural resiliency planning.

If we start thinking about planning for resiliency for most urban residents, the first question on our minds should be: how will people in Toronto’s multi-family homes fare?  What about people from diverse cultures, age groups and economic circumstances who don’t live in single family homes?  And, what lessons can we apply for resiliency planning?

Because they live in rental apartments or condos, most Toronto residents don’t have wood stoves or natural gas fireplaces to help them keep warm.  They don’t have to clean up downed branches.  But, without electricity, they do have to walk up and down many flights of stairs to reach their front door.

Margaret Herd, Vice President, Residential Property Management, Park Property Management

Margaret Herd, Vice President, Residential Property Management, Park Property Management

To better understand where we might begin a conversation about resiliency, we talked to Park Property Management (Park).  Park owns and manages 69 buildings across Ontario with the majority being in the GTA. During the 2013 ice storm, three of its buildings were without power for more than one day and two were out for four days.  Several of its west end Toronto buildings lost power and experienced flooding during the 2013 flood.

How were Park and its tenants affected?  Because Park has resilient practices, its tenants did remarkably well.  However, there were challenges, such as providing support to people in the upper floors of high-rises and those who are vulnerable, including a 101 year-old tenant.

Why?  Park has corporate management practices and Critical Event Plans that prepare it to deal with social and environmental stress.  These plans make it more resilient.  Corporate management complies with the Ontario Fire Code, Building Code and other laws applicable to multi-family buildings.  However, its property managers and superintendents are also trained to implement the Crisis Event Plan.

What lessons can we learn about building resiliency among residents of multi-family buildings?

1. The Ontario Fire Code requires fire alarm batteries be constantly charged by being hard wired to the electrical system. However, without electricity backup, fire alarm batteries don’t last. As a result, Park needed to assign security staff to actively monitor for fire.  Would planning for urban resiliency mean we need to assess the Fire Code in terms of how it performs when cities are without electricity for an extended period of time?

2. Without electricity, boiler rooms went cold and there was the potential for boilers to freeze. Without electricity, during a cold snap the water systems and sprinkler systems were also at risk of freezing. Even if Park drained the water, there was some risk of sump pumps not working.

3. Large multi-family buildings need to have functioning electrical back-up generators. Margaret Herd, Vice President of Residential Property Management for Park stated, “After two GTA power outages in one year, Park decided to implement a five-year plan that would provide backup generators for each building, preferably fueled by natural gas.”  Each building’s generator should be able to keep one elevator in service and the fire system operable. While it’s safe to say that adding more fossil-fueled generation is not recommended in any of Canada’s 200 urban sustainability plans,  it is a practical recommendation for an urban resiliency plan.

4. Park now sees the need to identify the critical electrical requirements of each building.  Supplying electricity to booster pumps to supply water to higher floors, to hallway and stairwell lights and to entry doors is identified as a priority.  Current urban sustainability thinking calls for community-based electrical generation and distribution.  Given that the Provincial grid was operating with no difficulty, it was community-level electrical distribution that became the problem.  Will community-owned electricity generation provide reliability in an urban setting?  If we are going to view local electricity generation and distribution through a resiliency lens, should we start by focusing on community electricity demands for which the supply of electricity is critical?

5. The Fire Code requires multi-family apartment building landlords to have a list of people who need assistance in the event of an emergency.  Park’s lists are updated monthly.  However, the superintendents of each Park building check on vulnerable residents even when there are no emergency situations.  They have contact information about next of kin and during the ice storm they helped tenants make phone calls if their telephones didn’t work.  Bell Canada land lines worked.  Rogers land lines didn’t.   Sustainability plans typically suggest that residents make changes in behaviour that will deliver improved social and environmental sustainable outcomes.  We can learn from Park that being part of a resilient city means we are expected to take care of our neighbours and those most vulnerable as the primary behaviour for achieving these outcomes.

6. After the 2013 summer floods, Park learned about the importance of supplying tenants with bottled water and glow sticks. Apparently glow sticks are good for both telling rock bands to turn up the volume and lighting up stairwells.  During the 2013 ice storm, property managers also had windup flashlights and chargers to allow cell phones to be energized.  If you’ve travelled to the developing world, you’d understand how precious these micro conveniences are.  Do these developing world devices need to be a fundamental part of a resiliency plan for Canada’s largest city?

7. Park understood that its obligation to tenants extended much deeper than simply providing accommodation.  It delivered non-perishable food to the lobby for those tenants who were running out of food. It opened up recreation centres as warming areas in its other buildings with power and encouraged tenants to use them.

8. With respect to road salt, Park was in the same boat as everybody else. Salt supplies sold out across the GTA.  Its maintenance crews did what they could to find extra supplies and to use them to help tenants avoid falls.  Current thinking about healthy communities tends to require people and municipalities to manage and minimize their use of salt.  Does thinking about resiliency mean that we start with the basic premise that applying salt can keep people healthy?

9. As did I, they found that Twitter was an excellent source of communication. However they observed that some municipalities, emergency response organizations and local utilities across the GTA were not active on Twitter. Thus, Park’s property managers couldn’t pass on to their tenants information about how the storm and power outages were being addressed.  A significant resiliency lesson is that communications and new forms of social media have become valuable, particularly in an emergency.

What recommendations and advice would Park have for other people living in multi-family housing and other private landlords to improve their responses to social and environmental stress in the future? In general, Park found that because it experienced power losses earlier in the year due to the 2013 floods, the plans put in place served them well during the ice storm later in the year. In terms of resiliency, Margaret Herd, recommends that all landlords develop and adopt Crisis Event Plans. In addition, she states, “We have all of the Plans colour coded.  It’s important to get across to building staff that those plans are to be kept current and procedures are to be followed.”

What could the City of Toronto and Toronto Hydro have done to better support tenants in multiple-family homes?  Margaret reported, “In our experience, both the City and Toronto Hydro were quite good in supporting Park’s superintendents and property managers.”   One building without power with many seniors was located in the Guildwood area of Scarborough.  While there was little that the City of Toronto or Toronto Hydro could do on private property, the fact that public sector staff were in constant communication with superintendents and property managers went a long way. “The key was making sure they were talking to someone who knew what was going on,” said Margaret.

What are the lessons for resiliency planning?  First, a big shout-out to Park Property Management.  Well done.  The experience of Park presents lessons for resiliency planning that can be shared across the GTA, particularly for the majority of City of Toronto residents who live in multi-family buildings.  Much of its success came down to the desire to exceed the requirements of the Building Code, Fire Code and other regulations.  Its team learned about how to be resilient and combined lessons learned by creating a living environment that would protect residents. If we are to move from thinking about ‘sustainable’ communities to thinking about ‘resilient’ communities, there is a lot planners and policy makers can learn.

Dave LowerRes Oct 2013David Hardy is a Principal of Hardy Stevenson and Associates Limited (HSAL).  He is a Registered Professional Planner and trained facilitator and has extensive experience in these areas. Dave has participated in over 125 environmental assessments. He has also facilitated close to 1,000 strategic planning meetings and public consultation plans for public and private clients; conducted multi-stakeholder consultation and mediation in many sectors; and completed environmental planning assignments for a variety of water and waste water projects.

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Seven Ways to Rethink Toronto’s Resiliency

Edited IceStormBusShelter

If there is a ‘positive’ about the July 2005 North Eastern power outage, 2013 Toronto flood and recent Southern Ontario ice storm with power outages, it is, they allow the opportunity to rethink how we can build sustainable and resilient societies. Because these events stress the social and natural environment, they allow us to assess our current approach to planning for sustainability.  We can also draw conclusions about how different social and environmental planning might be if seen through the lens of ‘resiliency,’ in addition to sustainability.

Over the last five years, the Government of Canada reallocated the Gas Tax to allow municipalities to develop Integrated Community Sustainability Plans (ICSPs).  While I haven’t done a count, I believe 200 municipalities across Canada completed such Plans.  Hardy Stevenson and Associates Limited (HSAL) worked with LURA Consulting to complete Sustainability Plans for four municipalities.

Toronto has neither an ICSP nor a Resiliency Plan.  If it did, would an Integrated Community Sustainability Plan or Resiliency Plan have helped the City avoid social and environmental disruption?

If the sustainability concepts implemented elsewhere were applied in Toronto, would it have made a difference?   What would change if Toronto implemented the same sustainability concepts adopted by other municipalities, such as the Greater Peterborough Area?

The Greater Peterborough Area (GPA) represents a large population (but nowhere near that of Toronto) and captures a large geographic area (twice that of Toronto).  Its Sustainability Plan is also current and sets out the sustainability purposes that are typical of these plans across Canada.  The Plan sets out, “Goals, Strategic Directions, and Actions to foster healthy environments, people, and economies by guiding the way to reducing environmental impacts, strengthening social networks, and increasing economic prosperity.”

ICSPs look at sustainability through themes.  For the GPA, the themes are organized into three pillars: economic, environmental, and social/cultural.  While the GPA Plan doesn’t address resiliency, what would a Plan for Southern Ontario look like if it did?  If Toronto started down the path of creating a Resiliency Plan what lessons could Torontonians learn from the power outages, floods and ice storms?  Here are a few of my observations starting with a big picture shout out.

  • In spite of the leadership challenges facing Toronto specifically, as well as Southern Ontario Townships, Cities and the Province in general throughout 2013, Mayor Ford, other Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area (GTHA), Southern Ontario Mayors and Councillors, Premier Wynne and MPPs stepped up, showed leadership and performed well.
  • Municipal staff and Hydro staff across Southern Ontario were excellent.  They deserve our full praise.

But what did we learn?  If we use the goals of the Peterborough Sustainability Plan as a touchstone, what could we do to improve resiliency?

1. Agriculture & Local Food – We will feed ourselves sustainably with local, healthy foods.

While there is no count on tonnage wasted, it’s clear that the floods, ice storm and related power outages resulted in many people throwing out spoiled food.  Just look at the line up for food cards.  Retailers and smaller food stores also experienced food spoilage.  The outages didn’t last long enough for people to experience starvation and water supplies were always available.  However, over the holiday season there were lots of examples of neighbours and families sharing meals. People reverted to eating canned and packaged foods, as the ‘local, healthy foods’ were not to be found.  Many people experienced challenges on how to cook the food.  While eating locally from local farmers markets is a sustainable option, during an ice storm it is not a resilient option.  Does resiliency mean that we take precautionary steps to make sure local foods stores have power and stay open during times of social and environmental stress? Do we inform people earlier to use nature’s natural refrigerator by placing the food in a secure location outside?

2. Climate Change – We will reduce our contributions to climate change, while increasing our ability to adapt to climate change conditions.

There will be many arguments about whether the floods and ice storms are caused by climate change.  However, after several visits to China and witnessing the coal-fired pollution there, I added to my thinking about climate change. The worse smog day in Ontario generates many times less pollution than the best day in Shanghai. Ontario’s coal plants are shut down and through Metrolinx we, at least, have a plan for reducing emissions from internal combustion engines.  We all share the same atmosphere.  As a resiliency action, wouldn’t it be more productive for Ontario’s environmentalists to stand beside the Falun Gong protesters at the Chinese Embassy?

3. Economic Development & Employment – We will create and retain prosperity by providing investment and employment opportunities.

While the holiday season Ice Storm came at a time when many people were off work, there were still thousands of people across Southern Ontario who lost pay because they could not make it to work.  People like me who develop Sustainability Plans tend to come up with rather elitist solutions:  they can work from home.  However, the working poor do not work from home.  They lose paid time.  Would a resilient solution open the potential for the working poor to make up the time or perhaps get income support due to unique climate events beyond their control?

In terms of investment and employment, parts of the GTHA economy were quite active  during the ice storm.  Public sector staff got overtime, double and triple time.  In my opinion, every dollar on their pay cheque is deserved.  In relation to the private sector, I was happy to pay a plumber to repair a burst pipe in my home on Boxing Day at double time. While he was helping our family, he was turning down work.  The electricians, tree and debris removal firms were also busy.  Resiliency was occurring in the form of urban renewal.  The question is, are there parts of our build form (homes, stores, roads, schools and other facilities) that can be strengthened to improve resiliency before the next ice storm?

4. Energy – We will minimize the amount of energy we use and maximize the production of local, dependable sources of renewable energy.

While the summer of 2005 power outage meant people largely lost air conditioning and electrical energy, it was the ice storm that had the greatest implications for resiliency.  It was a sustainability sadists dream.  Natural gas-fired furnaces are a major local source of climate emissions and they didn’t work.  People were forced to minimize the amount of energy they used.  The power was out for up to nine days for thousands of people during a Southern Ontario cold snap.

People certainly turned to producing local dependable energy, but it was not renewable.  Even though the Provincial energy grid was up and running the whole time of the 2013 Ice Storm, it was the local electrical distribution system that experienced problems.  As a consequence, Southern Ontario quickly became a fossil fuel energy system.  Many lucky homeowners were able to keep warm by using gas and wood burning fireplaces (most found themselves with a lawn full of wood from downed tree branches).  Where installed, some people used gas-fired generators to produce electricity.  I expect that there will be quite a demand for the installation of home-based, gas-fired electrical generators over the next few months. The majority of Toronto residents live in apartments and had no way of generating their own heat.  Others learned that they owned something called an ‘electrical stand pipe’ that they were responsible for maintaining and repairing.

Current thinking about sustainable energy points to adopting neighbourhood-generated electricity from wind, solar and natural gas co-generation.  These sustainability options do not include the installation of a gas-fired electric generator in each home and a diesel-fired back-up generator at each apartment building.  But, would these generators be a resilient option?  Given weather conditions and the size of the demand, wind and solar would have been ineffective.  Natural gas generated electricity would have been the resilient option, but only if it included an underground electrical distribution line to each home.

5. Healthy Communities – We will be a community where everyone has the opportunity and support to achieve their physical, social, mental, emotional and spiritual potential.

The Greater Peterborough Area’s sustainable goal for a healthy community is lofty. Peel Region and other Regional Municipalities are on the forefront of the trend to rethinking how to build healthy communities through land-use planning.  That said, what did we see during the ice storm?  On day one, Sunnybrook and East York General Hospital were both without power.  Calls to City of Toronto Emergency Services spiked to an all-time high. People experiencing carbon monoxide poisoning increased fivefold.  Many people couldn’t receive phone messages or make outgoing calls because:

1) They no longer had land lines and they had no electricity to charge their cell phones or computers;
2) They subscribed to a phone company that was not able to energize its customers’ phone lines to enable telephone calls.

If we view urban and rural planning through a sustainability lens, it involves helping people achieve their full health potential. If we view urban and rural planning through a resiliency lens, it means: ensuring the technology that keeps hospitals open works; teaching people not to bring combustion sources indoors; being more rigorous in installing carbon monoxide protectors; and informing people about the need to have a properly functioning land line.

6. Natural Assets – We will preserve, enhance and restore our natural assets to maintain ecological health.

Many urban ICSPs see enhancing and restoring natural assets, as preserving forested areas, maintaining wetlands, building trails and planting more trees in urban areas.  Given the significant social and economic effect of trees falling on homes, cars, power lines and across roadways during the ice storm, would a ‘resiliency plan’ require rethinking how we approach our urban and rural tree canopy?

People living in rural areas of Ontario tend to be more understanding of the need for Hydro crews to cut back the tree canopy from power lines and roads.  People in the City of Toronto appear to have taken fewer precautions.  Indeed Toronto calls itself a “City within a Forest.” If we wanted to become resilient city, would we start asking questions about how we best manage the forest?  The Eastern Ontario Model forest has a lot to teach the people of the GTHA as they were a huge source of expertise during the Eastern Ontario ice storm.  For example, birch trees and cedars tend to be affected more by ice.  Where are these trees closer to power lines?  Trees don’t live forever.  Are many of the city’s trees reaching the point when they will be falling down anyways?  Would resiliency mean we should be replacing these trees with new trees, particularly where they are close to major roads or power lines?

7. Transportation – We will have an accessible transportation network that places priority on active and efficient modes of transportation.

While the transit departments of Southern Ontario municipalities did an admirable job of keeping the fleet on the road/ rails and the road systems operating, there were gaps during both the summer power failure and winter ice storm. Toronto’s subway and streetcar system were out of commission for at least a day for some runs.  There were about 500 street intersections where the traffic signals didn’t work for some time during the ice storm and none of them worked when power failed in 2005.  There were few automobile accidents in the ice storm, as I expect people already had a cautious winter driving mindset.  However, the summer power outage saw a significant rise in accidents.  I listened to friends say: “I forgot there were traffic lights at that intersection so I sailed right through.”

Integrated Community Sustainability Plans across Ontario tend to see sustainability as:

    • Public transit
    • Urban planning that locates transportation dependent land uses in closer proximity
    • Bike paths and trails

If we started to think about resiliency, would we be planning for a power back-up that would allow electricity for a four-way red flashing light at intersections?  Do we accelerate options that strengthen the existing transit system?  Are there marginal operating improvements that may not be cost effective under normal operating conditions, but would be a prudent resiliency expenditure under social and environmental stress?

When we have a society under social and environmental stress, we are able to test assumptions and plans for how we want to live in a sustainable manner.  The recent ice storm, earlier power outages and floods enable us to consider whether municipal sustainability plans should be reconsidered through the lens of resiliency planning.

What do you think? What’s your response to questions posed in this post? Do you have other observations about rethinking Toronto’s resiliency?

Dave LowerRes Oct 2013David Hardy is a Principal of Hardy Stevenson and Associates Limited (HSAL).  He is a Registered Professional Planner and trained facilitator and has extensive experience in these areas. Dave has participated in over 125 environmental assessments. He has also facilitated close to 1,000 strategic planning meetings and public consultation plans for public and private clients; conducted multi-stakeholder consultation and mediation in many sectors; and completed environmental planning assignments for a variety of water and waste water projects.

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We Built Toronto with People’s Needs at the Forefront

TorontoSkylinefromIslandIn honour of World Town Planning Day on November 8, I’d like to highlight a couple of city changing insights beyond the ‘bricks and mortar’ projects that I think helped build the City of Toronto.

My passion has always focused on how urban change affects people and vice versa. And, that’s why Hardy Stevenson and Associates Limited (HSAL) pays so much attention to public consultation and the social, cultural and socioeconomic impacts of projects.

First spotlight on socio-economic and cultural changes in the suburbs

Early in my career, I was actively involved with the Scarborough and then Metro Social Planning Council.  The Metro Social Planning Council published what I felt was a ground breaking “Suburbs in Transition” report in the late 1970s.  This report prompted many of us to change our thinking about how our City was growing differently than its US urban counterparts.  In contrast to the poverty in the inner core of US cities, it highlighted how Toronto’s suburbs were becoming immigrant reception centres with working class characteristics.

Prior to this report, planners directed city building investment dollars toward the inner City, which is where they considered most poverty existed. Fortunately, these perceptions are changing but slowly.  It’s still hard to get people to see that denying the suburbs the same resources that wealthy core Toronto neighbourhoods benefit from, such as subway transit, can hinder socio-economic advancement across the City.

Fast forward to a recent weekend in mid-October when our Rotary Club sponsored a career education workshop for 22 high-achieving Scarborough secondary school students, where I spoke to them about careers in urban planning.  In the 1960s to 1980s, most students attending this type of educational event would have had European backgrounds.  This year, all the students had South Asian or Caribbean roots.  I asked the kids if any had parents who were professionals or business owners.  Only one student put her hand up and her mom owned a restaurant.  All of their parents are essentially striving to help their children have a better life.

When I speak in other cities I point out that as Torontonians, we take pride in our multicultural diversity.  We don’t have race riots, sectarian car bombings or inner city ghettos.  Toronto (from the Rouge River to Etobicoke Creek boundary) has all races, creeds and cultures working together as city builders to create a better life for their children.  Efforts are made to be inclusive. Shouldn’t all cities be like this?

Affordable living for everyone

Second, in the 1970s, I was also actively involved with the Federation of Metro Tenants and sat on the board for a short while before Jack Layton took over as President.

The City was becoming like many US, European and Asian cities where the rental housing market was spinning out of control and rents were in some instances going up 25 to 75 per cent in one year.  There were a number of us ‘community organizers’ who helped to organize tenant associations across Toronto and in the suburbs. (North York  had its own tenant Council, which became quite powerful.) Together they pressured the Province to bring in ‘Rent Control’ and a full package of tenant rights.  While work must continue, Rent Control meant that the City would no longer be ‘gutted’ of affordable housing.

The role of the urban planner must extend beyond the bricks and mortar by taking steps to ensure that a broad spectrum of people, with varied socioeconomic backgrounds and cultures, can thrive for the long-term.

Happy World Town Planning Day to all my colleagues, particularly those who pursue bold, people-focused initiatives that make their cities affordable and viable places for everyone to enjoy a high quality of life.

Dave LowerRes Oct 2013David Hardy is a Principal of Hardy Stevenson and Associates Limited (HSAL).  He is a Registered Professional Planner and trained facilitator and has extensive experience in these areas. Dave has participated in over 125 environmental assessments. He has also facilitated close to 1,000 strategic planning meetings and public consultation plans for public and private clients; conducted multi-stakeholder consultation and mediation in many sectors; and completed environmental planning assignments for a variety of water and waste water projects.

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Integrated Human Services Plans Deliver Major Social and Economic Benefits to Municipalities

Human Serve to Municipal Image1When you add costs, public health, community safety, education, social and other human services are typically a municipality’s largest budget item. Canada‐wide research by Hardy Stevenson and Associates Limited (HSAL) found that integrating Human Services Plans with growth management plans, opens doors to improved municipal governance and program performance across a broad range of areas.

Our research and experience show a well‐thought through Human Services Plan (including social services) can:

  • Improve the effectiveness of human services delivery – The process of developing a Human Services Plan can broaden thinking and encourage cross‐ departmental (Treasury, Works, Planning and Community Services) understanding and collaboration to achieve human service goals.
  • Encourage economic investment – Companies deciding where to locate and their employees are looking for a municipal commitment to provide a high quality of life for all residents (e.g. early childhood education, immigration support, preventative health care).
  • Support Triple Bottom Line (TBL) analysis ‐ Human Services Plans provide social data important for TBL assessments (the formal assessment of economic, environmental and social or societal implications of municipal policy decisions).
  • Improve success of funding requests ‐ Foundations and senior levels of government are more likely to fund collaborative funding requests than multiple, less coordinated requests from organizations with overlapping mandates. A Human Services Plan becomes the action plan supported by the broader community and thereby increases the likelihood of successful funding.

Can a well-thought through Human Services Plan enhance your growing municipality’s governance and performance in one of these ways? If so, please contact us to learn how we can provide the expertise to help you achieve your objectives.

(Note: A version of this article was initially published in HSAL’s Social and Environmental Assessment Bulletin, Summer, 2008 but its principles are still relevant today.)
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A Strain on Safety: Power Plant Works to Mitigate E. coli at Cherry Beach

This article was written by Leslie Hetherington and first appeared in the July/August, 2013 issue of Water Canada. It is re-printed here with permission.

Strain on Safety Article ImageOn a summer day, residents and tourists often flock to one of Toronto’s many Lake Ontario beaches. However, leisure activities can be curtailed by high levels of Escherichia coli (E. coli) in the lake water. Although most E. coli strains are harmless, some can cause serious health problems to humans who swallow them or swim in water that has been contaminated by them. To protect the public, Ontario warns against swimming when tests show 100 E. coli-colony-forming units per 100 millilitres (CFU/100 mL) of water at a specific beach and has set this value as a Provincial Water Quality Objective (PWQO).

As a local natural gas-fired power plant with a community focus and an active ecological sustainability strategy, the Portlands Energy Centre (PEC) is well aware of the threats E. coli pose to nearby Cherry Beach, an eco-labelled Blue Flag beach for its adherence to strict global standards.

Water Canada July/August 2013 CoverThe 550-megawatt (MW) PEC was built in 2008 to meet 25 per cent of Toronto’s electricity needs, primarily during peak demand times, and offset emissions from Ontario’s coal-fired generating stations. During operation, it takes water from Toronto Harbour’s ship channel and turning basin for generation processes and cooling, treats it on site, then releases it into the discharge channel and back to Lake Ontario’s Outer Harbour.

Some E. coli in sanitary sewer and stormwater runoff from Toronto neighbourhoods north of the plant enters the ship channel and turning basin from two of the city’s overflows and then enters PEC’s water intake. From there, it may be inadvertently transferred to the Outer Harbour through normal discharge of cooling water, and could potentially reach the popular Cherry Beach.

As part of its Certificate of Approval for water permits, the Ministry of the Environment (MOE) requires the PEC to implement an E. coli control program for the water it uses, but the plant’s management chose to go further.

In 2008, it hired EcoMetrix Inc., an environmental consulting firm, and embarked on a comprehensive four-year E. coli monitoring program during the summer months that included the ship channel, the discharge channel, the intake basin, the Outer Harbour, Cherry Beach, and the Eastern Gap.

During the first summer, the firm established a baseline by measuring E. coli concentrations before the plant was operational. As expected, these data revealed no direct relationship between E. coli in the discharge channel or the ship channel during pre- operations.

The consulting firm followed this research in 2009 by looking for relationships between E. coli levels and various aspects of the plant operations. This included studying the effects of operational factors, including volume and temperature of the cooling water intake discharge flows. The team also studied how rainfall influenced E. coli concentrations. In the third summer, team members collected daily samples for 22 weeks to research potential associations between E. coli in cooling water effluent and E. coli at Cherry Beach.

Efforts also included measuring E. coli levels throughout the Outer Harbour after significant rainfall events to narrow down the most probable source of E. coli that could potentially impact Cherry Beach. Findings suggested that the Keating Channel running from the Don River, via the Eastern Gap, was the most likely source of E. coli to affect the popular beach.

Monitoring studies found that changes to flow volume and water temperature caused by plant operations did not appear to influence E. coli concentration in the cooling water effluent. Similarly, E. coli levels in the discharge water were generally the same as those in the intake basin. From this they concluded that on its own, discharged water from the plant was unlikely to increase E. coli concentrations at Cherry Beach.

The same could not be said for precipitation. “We saw E. coli concentrations typically spike to 3,600 to 8,700 CFU/100 mL, during the two to seven hours after we received at least 10 millimetres (mm) of rain within a 24-hour period,” explains Robert J. Eakins, an associate and senior fisheries ecologist at EcoMetrix. “Our modelling studies further indicated that when these E. coli levels reach 3,500 CFU/100 mL, they could potentially cause corresponding levels at Cherry Beach to rise above 100 CFU/100 mL.”

More importantly, in 2011, the team began to test the effectiveness of using a specialized hyper chlorination process to treat the cooling water effluent to reduce E. coli in it. They pumped a small amount of sodium hypochlorite into the effluent, followed by sodium bisulfate to neutralize and reduce chlorine concentrations to levels below 0.01 milligrams per litre before it’s discharged, as specified in the Certificate of Approval. The impact was almost immediate; E. coli levels in the effluent decreased by approximately 90 per cent within five seconds of treatment.

“With these results, we began to ask what steps we could take to treat more than the mandated amount of water we use and create farther reaching benefits,” says Curtis Mahoney, general manager at PEC. “We coordinated with the City of Toronto and the MOE to implement a larger-scale control program to mitigate E. coli that threatens Cherry Beach and help maintain Blue Flag swimming conditions, even during seasonal periods of heavy rainfall.”

Building on four years of research, the team developed an E. coli control program for 2012 and implemented it during the June to Labour Day beach season. Each treatment was triggered by a rainfall in excess of 10 mm within 24 hours, so E. coli was reduced when concentrations were potentially high. Treatment began once the rainfall threshold was reached and continued for 24 hours after the rain had stopped. Since evaluation was a priority, E. coli levels were carefully monitored with water tested from both the plant’s intake and discharge waters.

Results were promising, showing chlorination significantly reduced E. coli concentrations in the effluent relative to the levels measured in the intake water. In fact, E. coli levels in the effluent were usually well below the PWQO of 100 CFU/100 mL after treatment. Furthermore, Cherry Beach was only posted as unsafe for two days in 2012, compared to an average of six days during the previous five years.

This summer, the team plans to collect hourly samples before, during, and after significant rainfall events to explore potential program refinements, such as shortening the duration of each chlorination treatment.

With PEC’s program and concerted efforts from other organizations, this summer should offer residents and tourists many carefree hours enjoying Toronto’s Cherry Beach.

Since 2008, Hardy Stevenson and Associates Limited (HSAL) has been working with the Portlands Energy Centre on its ecological sustainability strategy, as well as its communications and stakeholder relations. To learn how HSAL can advance your organization’s communication goals, visit

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Environmentally Yours on World Environment Day

Macleans Environmentally Yours Cover ImageIn recognition of World Environment Day, we are highlighting a link to a recent Macleans article: Environmentally Yours, as featured in the April 29 issue of Macleans, and posted on the Portlands Energy Centre (PEC) website.

Written by award-winning Canadian writer Gabrielle Bauer, this feature provides a comprehensive overview of the global state of the environment, Canada’s perspectives and initiatives and what individuals can do to help.

We worked with PEC to convey its story, which is cited among others from Canadian organizations embracing sustainability.  (For more about PEC and other sustainable power plants, check its Sustainable Power Plants site.)

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Power Plants and Communities: Rethinking the Relationship

OPJ CoverFollowing the break-up of Ontario Hydro in the late ‘90s, provincial energy policy migrated to the Premier’s office. This, tightly centralized decision-making is reminiscent of the circumstances almost a century earlier when Sir Adam Beck led protests at Queen’s Park. Beck’s cry for ‘Power for the People’ was a demand that an independent body take into account broad public interest when deciding provincial energy policy. Whether it is a wind, solar, nuclear, biomass or natural gas plant, energy facility plant developers and local communities compete for political decisions that will favour their interests.

Rethinking Article ImageLand-use and environmental planners play a significant role in the review and approval of electric power plants for most sources of generation. Their involvement can include completing environmental assessments as experts and reviewers, site selection, site plan approval, land use approvals and advising councils regarding the appropriateness of power plants as a land use. Over the last few years, policy, legislation and regulations pertaining to power plant siting have shifted.

Challenge of current relationships

As a proposed land use, all forms of energy generation pose challenges. While municipal approval requirements have largely been removed for wind and solar projects under amendments to the Green Energy Act, public concerns have not abated for some proposed developments. Traditional fossil and nuclear plants require approval under a range of municipal, provincial and federal acts and …..

Download PDF of complete article, which was written by Dave Hardy, MICP, RPP, first appeared in The Ontario Planning Journal, May, 2013 issue, and is re-printed here with permission.

Since 2008, Hardy Stevenson and Associates Limited (HSAL) has been working with the Portlands Energy Centre on its communications, including its stakeholder relations, as well as its ecological sustainability strategy.  This experience, prompted us to write the attached article.

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The Value of the Benefits Blueprint

This opinion editorial (Op Ed) first appeared on April 25, 2013 in the Telegraph-Journal, Saint John, New Brunswick, and is re-printed here with permission.  
Dave Hardy, president of Hardy Stevenson and Associates Limited, believes that the Benefits Blueprint drawn up to combat ‘boom and bust’ in the province still has merit as a way to plan for and secure economic growth. Photo: Peter Walsh/telegraPh-Journal archive.

Dave Hardy, president of Hardy Stevenson and Associates Limited, believes that the Benefits Blueprint drawn up to combat ‘boom and bust’ in the province still has merit as a way to plan for and secure economic growth. Photo: Peter Walsh/Telegraph-Journal archive.

A generation ago, urban and rural planners worried about “boom bust” effects associated with large mining, energy and infrastructure projects. We observed people, money and machinery coming to communities that were unprepared to address rapid growth during the construction stages and unable to cope with the economic decline and out-migration that often follows construction. These effects also occurred when a single-industry community saw its workforce being laid off due to a company’s changing economic circumstances.

While we still have examples, such as in the early days of Fort McMurray, Alberta, we’ve learned much about how to manage growth. Today, most communities across northern Canada and other high growth areas gather information about a company’s plans well in advance. They identify what community plans and projects need to be in place to foster “best outcomes” for residents. In some instances, they negotiate and sign Impact Benefit Agreements with project proponents. In other cases, they leverage the boost to municipal and provincial tax coffers.

Today’s best examples feature communities that have not only prepared themselves to be resilient, but have embraced economic opportunities as they occurred, and thrived. There is no boom and bust. Instead, there is steady, predictable and managed social and economic development. Infrastructure and institutions expand as the economy expands. Moreover, benefits accrue to all sectors of society, including those people most in need.

In 2006, Saint John area residents and the province faced a watershed moment. Major investments were planned and underway, including a new potash mine in Sussex, a liquefied natural gas facility and pipeline in Saint John, the refurbishment of the New Brunswick Power Point Lepreau Generating Station and a possible second nuclear reactor. The most significant of these was a second oil refinery in Saint John. To plan for effective growth, community leaders developed a “Benefits Blueprint,” which I worked on. The Benefits Blueprint was just that: an action plan that would manage a period of transformative growth and energize sustainable communities across the province.

I believe the Benefits Blueprint got it right and still has merit. The Summary of Phase 1 Findings states,“the ultimate goal is clear: the growth must be about people. We must ensure that everyone in every part of New Brunswick, benefits.”

The unique and most important characteristic of the Benefits Blueprint is its focus on integrated planning. It outlines a process for ensuring growth happens in such a way that benefits the most people across the province of New Brunswick. I’m particularly proud that the Benefits Blueprint considered how to ensure the province’s most vulnerable and disadvantaged citizens would benefit. In addition to ensuring the host communities would be well equipped to address growth, the Benefits Blueprint would set the stage for generations of opportunity.

The process of identifying challenges and priorities was also notable. The Benefits Blueprint brought together a diverse group of individuals and organizations from throughout the Saint John community and the province who shared a common vision – making their community a better place to live, work and play. Today I see that balanced network approach through the True Growth 2.0 initiative.

Community leaders functioned as a working group. A larger advisory forum was established. Individual citizens, community groups and different levels of government were consulted on how to best achieve social and economic transformation.

The Benefits Blueprint was completed in 2008 and continues to be one of the world’s best examples of such a plan. In fact, the Benefits Blueprint won the IPAC Deloitte Public Sector Leadership Silver Medal for Enterprise Saint John in 2010.

Other communities have since taken parts of the Benefit Blueprint and adopted it for their own purposes. For example, the blueprint’s community “action plans” architecture was recently examined by the Greater Peterborough Area Economic Development Corporation in Ontario for its Integrated Community Sustainability Plan. As a Canadian model for managing growth, the Benefits Blueprint was, in some ways, ahead of its time.

Innovation was centred on the recognition that economic growth and its resulting benefits and challenges are a shared community responsibility. The Benefits Blueprint recognized that the management of change must be more than the responsibility of government or a single economic development agency. Then, as now, everyone needs to play a role in making growth happen and ensuring the rising tide raises all boats.

In 2009, the timing was not right for proceeding with the Eider Rock Refinery, which was the core project driving economic development. Yet, work towards greater social and economic development did not stop. Saint John area communities have since made important advances in various sectors including information, communications and technology; energy and advanced manufacturing; health and life sciences; and tourism, based on the True Growth 2.0 strategy.

Five years out, the Benefits Blueprint continues to be the key to both local and province-wide prosperity. With the potential opportunity to refine oil from western Canada, it may now be time to revisit the Benefits Blueprint to ensure that all residents of Saint John and New Brunswick benefit.

David Hardy is a Principal of Hardy Stevenson and Associates Limited (HSAL).  He is a Registered Professional Planner and trained facilitator and has extensive experience in all of these areas. Dave has participated in over 75 environmental assessments. He has also facilitated close to 1,000 strategic planning meetings and public consultation plans for public and private clients; conducted multi-stakeholder consultation and mediation in numerous sectors; and completed environmental planning assignments for a variety of water and waste water projects.

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How to Move Your Home Renovation Forward with Municipal Approvals

RenovationImageYou finally have enough saved to start that home renovation. You are ready to build the extension and drive in the first nail.  Before breaking a sweat you decide to contact your friend to lend a hand.  You share your exciting plans with him and he informs you that you may need permission − not from your family − but from your municipality.  Where do you start?

Your friend explains that depending on the nature of your project, you will likely need a building permit from the municipality and will need to apply for a variance from the local Committee of Adjustment (CoA).  To appear before the CoA, you will need to complete a CoA application and include a description of your proposal and a review of the Zoning By-law, among other things.

A Zoning By-law is a municipal regulation that controls the use of land in a community. If a land use, such as a single family home, is prohibited by the Zoning By-law then it is not allowed.  The Zoning By-law also establishes more specific requirements, including exactly where buildings and other structures can be located, lot size and dimension, building height and setbacks from the street. In a practical sense, the Zoning By-law dictates what you can do on your property.  You will also need an authorization form signed by all registered owners of your property, have to pay an application fee and need to prepare scaled plans of your proposal for review. It is also advisable for you to obtain a ‘preliminary project review/pre-application applicable law review’ to identify all aspects of your proposal that don’t comply with the Zoning By-law and to determine if other approvals are required.

Unless you are an urban planner, architect, property developer, municipal planning lawyer or have been involved in a construction project that requires municipal permitting before, you are likely unfamiliar with the municipal development approvals process.

A CoA is appointed by municipal council.  It is authorized by the Ontario Planning Act to grant minor variances from the provisions of the Zoning By-law, to permit extensions, enlargements or variations of existing legal non-conforming uses, and give consent to a land owner who wishes to sell, convey or transfer an interest part of their land. The CoA is also authorized to provide consent for terms of an agreement, such as a mortgage, easement or lease that commits land to a use for a period exceeding 21 years. And the CoA has the authority to issue a “certificate of validation” and to give “approval of a foreclosure of or an exercise of a power of sale in a mortgage or charge.”

If you are appearing before the CoA for your renovation project, you are likely seeking approval for a minor variance from the Zoning By-law or permission to extend or enlarge a legal non-conforming use.  As seeking approvals for extending or enlarging legal non-conforming uses can be complex, I will limit this post’s focus to minor variances.

If for example, you plan to enlarge your kitchen and this involves moving an exterior wall closer to your neighbour’s property than the minimum 0.5 metre side yard separation required by the Zoning By-law, you cannot obtain a building permit for construction without first applying to, and receiving, a minor variance from Zoning By-law, through the CoA.

How do you maximize your chances of success at a CoA meeting about your minor variance application? Here are some key steps:

1. Educate yourself – Go to your Municipality’s website and review the CoA’s role, hearing procedures and authority. Next, review the Zoning By-law for your location and familiarize yourself with the requirements.  Finally, review the Official Plan to gain a better understanding of your municipality’s urban growth and development philosophy. The information you learn will be invaluable.

2. Consult your local councillor and municipality – If you haven’t done so already, speak with the municipal building and planning departments.  They can give you further guidance, input and clarification about your project and CoA procedures. Alternatively, consider retaining a professional, such as a land use planner, to represent you at the CoA meeting. Land use planners routinely deal with CoA meetings and are familiar with CoA procedures, as well as planning legislation and regulations.

Next, talk to your local municipal councillor about your project − from constructing a garage or bedroom to extending your kitchen or constructing a gazebo in your backyard. Councillors are familiar with neighbourhood sensitivities and will be able to shed light on where the opposition, if any, will come from.  They also understand CoA procedures and may be able to provide good advice. Be sure to ask them what you can do to ensure your project is most suitable for your neighbourhood.  Your councillor will appreciate your professionalism and candor.  It will also prepare them to respond to your neighbour’s potential concerns.  Of course, you will then heed the councillor’s advice, present yourself professionally and express a genuine concern for your neighbours’ interests and how your project fits the neighbourhood’s character. 

3. Attend a CoA meeting in advance – If you have time, attend a CoA meeting.  A schedule should be posted on your municipality’s website but if not, contact them and inquire.  At the meeting, pay attention to the process, the questions the CoA asks, as well as any concerns and recommendations it raises.  Also consider the issues, concerns and recommendations voiced by the public.  Take notes and think about how this information applies to your project.  

The CoA schedule typically cites the purpose or nature of the application; find an application for a project similar to yours and attend that meeting.  CoA applications are available for public review.  It is also a good idea to review existing applications on file to get a sense of the information provided by applicants with similar projects.

4. Share your proposed project – Honesty is the best policy.  Discuss your plans with your neighbours and other homeowners on your street.  It is always best to be transparent about your plans, particularly with the people who may be directly affected by your project.

Legally, the Planning Act requires municipalities to notify all registered property owners within 60 metres of your property about your CoA application.  It’s best for these people hear about your project from you early on, rather than being surprised by a legal notice from your municipality.

When meeting with your neighbours, discuss any issues they might have and try to resolve as many of their concerns as possible. This is easier said than done and depends on the relationship you have with your neighbours, but it doesn’t hurt to try in good faith.

The CoA will be pleased you sought input from your neighbours, who in turn, will appreciate your willingness to hear their perspective.

5. Prepare a presentation – Be ready to provide an overview of your proposal at the CoA meeting and to articulate why you believe it should be granted approval.  Before approving a Minor Variance, the CoA must satisfy itself that the proposal meets the four tests in the Planning Act pursuant to section 45(1).  State how your proposal satisfies each of the tests.

The four tests are that the variance is:

  • Minor in nature
  • Desirable for the appropriate development or use of the land,
    building or structure
  • In keeping with the general intent of the Zoning By-law
  • In keeping with the general intent of the Official Plan

If possible, include visual materials, such as architectural renderings, images of your home, your neighbour’s home, your street and neighbourhood’s character.  It is also a good idea to take photographs of similar projects that other nearby homeowners have undertaken. This will provide members of the CoA with additional information and support your position.

6. Prepare responses to potential concerns – Prepare to address the Committee’s concerns, which should focus on the four tests cited (step 5).  Determine how your proposal passes each test.  Then, be ready to address your neighbours’ concerns about your proposal and the impact it has on their property, lifestyle, privacy, etc.  Also be set to address the affect your project may have on the neighbourhood’s character.  Hopefully no concerns will come as a surprise, as they should have been raised during your initial consultation (step 2).

7. Be organized – Find out how many members sit on your municipality’s CoA.  Bring sufficient copies of your presentation and other supporting materials for each committee member; ensure they are neat, well organized and free of spelling mistakes.

8. Look professional, act professional – First impressions count.  Wear professional attire and use formal language. Listen to all points of view and be courteous at all times.

Do you think your upcoming renovation requires municipal approval? If so, please contact us if you have questions or would like a professional land use planner to represent you at the CoA meeting. 

(Note: This post was initially published on December 13, 2011 but re-issued in February 2013 due to timely relevance.)

AS Cropped photo for blogAndrzej Schreyer , R.P.P. is a senior land use and environmental planner with Hardy Stevenson and Associates Limited and a member of the Ontario Professional Planners Institute and the Canadian Institute of Planners.  His experience includes developing and implementing public participation and communication plans, managing social impact assessments and land use studies in support of infrastructure projects and preparing community-based strategic plans.

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