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.

About Hardy Stevenson and Associates Limited

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