7 September 2021

Dr. Trevor Hancock

697 words

Last week I noted that none of the main parties – those likely to form the next government – have yet recognized and accepted the scale of the global ecological crises we face, to which Canada contributes disproportionately. Nor have they recognized the implications for Canadians and the rest of humanity, including the threat these crises pose to our human rights.

David Boyd, a BC-based environmental lawyer and currently the UN Special Rapporteur on human rights and the environment, noted in a recent blog posting: “Among the human rights being threatened and violated by the global environmental crisis are the rights to life, health, food, a healthy environment, water, an adequate standard of living, and culture.” Which is why he is a leader in the efforts to establish the right to a healthy environment in Canadian and international law.

Regrettably, Canada remains one of the few countries in the world that does not recognize that people have the right to a healthy environment – and that we also thus have a duty to protect nature and ensure the environment is healthy.

Admittedly, in April 2021 the Liberal government introduced Bill C-28, which would have amended the Canadian Environmental Protection Act to include the recognition of the right to a healthy environment. But the Bill, while welcomed as a good start by important health and environmental organisations, was also criticized by them as too weak.

Problematically, the right to a healthy environment would only be in the preamble to the Act, with no clear legal powers to ensure it is fully implemented. Even worse, the Bill stated that this right “may be balanced with relevant factors, including social, economic, health and scientific factors”. In other words – well, you sort of have that right, but not if economic or other factors are considered more important. Thus making money could triumph over your need for a healthy environment – as it has done for many years.

Anyway, Bill C-28 failed to proceed beyond first reading and was not even debated, indicating how little importance Parliament gives to this vitally important issue.

So one question to ask your candidates is: Do you and your party recognize that Canadians have a right to a healthy environment, that this right is not subject to modification for economic or other reasons, and that you will commit to introducing and or supporting legislation to enshrine the right to a healthy environment and, ultimately, to include it in the Canadian Constitution?

Another way in which Canada’s lack of interest in and support for the right to a healthy environment manifests is that Canada did not support a March 2021 Statement put forward at the UN Human Rights Council calling for “international recognition of the right to a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment”.

The Statement was proposed by the governments of Costa Rica, the Maldives, Morocco, Slovenia, and Switzerland and supported by almost 70 countries. Canada was not alone in failing to support it; other unsupportive major planet-harming countries were the USA, the UK, Australia, China, Russia and India.

The Statement was however supported by 15 major UN organisations, from the International Labour Organization to Unicef and the World Health Organization, all of whom recognized that the “rights of present and future generations depend on a healthy environment”. It was also supported by more than 1,000 civil society, child, youth and indigenous peoples’ organizations.

Happily, there is a growing global movement not only to recognize the right to a healthy environment, but to create a Global Pact for the Environment. The Pact, which the UN has been considering, would be a legally binding global instrument establishing “the right to a sound environment and the duty to care for the environment”. But ultimately, David Boyd suggests, “the right should be added to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights”.

So a second important – indeed vital – question you should ask your federal candidates is whether they will support the adoption, globally, of the right to a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment and its addition to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. If they and their party are seriously concerned about the wellbeing of this and future generations, they must answer ‘yes’.

© Trevor Hancock, 2021

thancock@uvic.ca

Dr. Trevor Hancock is a retired professor and senior scholar at the

University of Victoria’s School of Public Health and Social Policy

The planet-sized elephant in the election room

31 August 2021

Dr. Trevor Hancock

697 words

In a December 2020 speech at Columbia University, the UN Secretary General said: “the state of the planet is broken. Humanity is waging war on nature. This is suicidal”, adding “Making peace with nature is the defining task of the 21st century. It must be the top, top priority for everyone, everywhere”.

A February 2021 UN Environment Program (UNEP) report, “Making Peace with Nature”, is blunt: “Humanity’s environmental challenges have grown in number and severity . . .  and now represent a planetary emergency”. Noting “human well-being is critically dependent on Earth’s natural systems”, the report identifies the three “self-inflicted planetary crises” we must address simultaneously: the climate, biodiversity and pollution emergencies.

Yet we are failing to meet even the agreed upon targets for climate change, protection of biodiversity, land degradation neutrality, protection of oceans and marine resources and the safe management of chemicals and waste. As a result, says the report, the web of life – of which we are a part, and upon which we depend – is unraveling.

These human-driven ecosystem changes thus represent a threat to the stability and sustainability of our society and the wellbeing of the global and Canadian populations, as well as the wellbeing, indeed the continued existence, of many other species.

So you would think the main federal parties would make the theme of making peace with nature a core element of their election platforms – and you would be wrong. To be sure, the parties all address climate change, with varying degrees of serious but generally inadequate commitment, have something nice to say about protecting our lands and waters (although the word ‘biodiversity’ is conspicuous by its almost total absence) and acting on some forms of pollution and in particular addressing plastic wastes.

But none of the parties addresses the underlying problem, which is that our entire way of life and our economy are unsustainable. The central fact is that globally we use 1.7 times the Earth’s bio-capacity every year, and almost five times that much per person in Canada. In other words, as a country we take almost five times our fair share of the Earth’s limited bio-capacity and resources, while disproportionately polluting the Earth.

The central challenge we face in the next couple of decades, then, is how we reduce our ecological footprint around 75 percent, share the Earth more with those who have less (including other species) and yet ensure a good quality of life for all Canadians.  

Continuing the ‘making peace’ metaphor, the UNEP report outlines both a peace plan and a post-war rebuilding program. There are recommendations for governments in three broad areas: Address Earth’s environmental emergencies and human well-being together; transform economic and financial systems so they lead and power the shift toward sustainability, and transform food, water and energy systems to meet growing human needs in an equitable, resilient and environmentally friendly manner.

But, notes the report, this will involve overcoming “vested and short-term interests” – those who do very well out of the current system (such as the fossil fuel, chemicals, mining, forestry, agricultural, automobile and consumer products industries), and want to maintain the status quo.

Among the specific recommendations that challenge a ‘business as usual’ approach are to “include natural capital . . .  and environmental costs . . .  in decision-making”, end fossil fuel subsidies, and develop and use alternatives to GDP.

These, then, are some of the transformative changes we need to see at the core of the platform of any party aspiring to form the next government. And they need to start happening right now, because time is short – “the coming decade is crucial”, says UNEP. This is not something that can be put off for another election or two.

Any party with pretensions to caring about the wellbeing of young people and future generations, as well as the wellbeing of the Earth itself, would make these issues the core of their platforms. Sadly, however, making peace with nature does not seem to be a top priority among Canada’s main political parties, and thus not a priority for whomever forms the next government. This is the planet-sized elephant that the main parties are trying to ignore in this election.

© Trevor Hancock, 2021

thancock@uvic.ca

Dr. Trevor Hancock is a retired professor and senior scholar at the

University of Victoria’s School of Public Health and Social Policy

‘Neither left nor right, but ahead’ – Why the Greens are different

24 August 2021

Dr. Trevor Hancock

700 words

As anyone who has ever Googled my name could tell you, I was the first leader of the Green Party of Canada in the mid-1980s. That was in part because I had deep roots in green or ecological political thinking, dating back a decade before that. In 1974 I had been an area organiser for the People Party in the UK, attending the founding convention as a delegate.

The People Party, as it was then called (it soon became the Ecology Party and then, with the success of the German Greens later in the 1970s, the Green Party) was one of the first two ecological political parties in the world; the other was the Values Party in New Zealand.

So as we approach the latest federal election, I thought it would be helpful to discuss what it is that makes the Greens so distinct. To understand this, we have to go back to the intellectual roots of the party. In 1972, the UN held its first UN Conference on the Environment, in Stockholm, which led to the creation of the UN Environment Program.

Among the many books published for the conference, three stand out in my mind. The first was ‘The Limits to Growth’, commissioned by the Club of Rome from the World Systems modelling team at MIT. Its stark conclusion was that under a ‘business as usual’ model, “the limits to growth on this planet will be reached sometime within the next 100 years. The most probable result will be a sudden and uncontrollable decline in both population and industrial capacity.”

Although massively attacked by the business and political elite because it undermined their central message of endless economic growth, subsequent reviews have found that, decades later, we remain pretty much on the path they forecast.

The second book was the ‘unofficial’ conference report – ‘Only One Earth’; its title speaks for itself. But it was the third book, ‘Blueprint for Survival’, that led to the creation of the world’s first ecological political parties. Originally published as a special edition by The Ecologist, a radical ecological magazine established in the UK in 1970, the book was clear-sighted in both its diagnosis and its treatment:

“The principal defect of the industrial way of life with its ethos of expansion is that it is not sustainable. Its termination within the lifetime of someone born today is inevitable”, the authors wrote, adding, ominously and, I would argue, presciently, “unless it continues to be sustained for a while longer by an entrenched minority at the cost of imposing great suffering on the rest of mankind.”

Finding little prospect that current political groupings could or would act to address this dire situation, the Blueprint stated boldly “the situation . . must now give rise to a national movement to act at a national level, and if need be to assume political status and contest the next general election.” And it was that rallying cry that led to the creation of the Values and People Parties.

So to be clear, what separates the Greens from the mainstream political parties is that they recognise that the central social, economic and political issue of the 21st century is that there is indeed only one planet, there are real physical and ecological limits to growth, and the myth of endless economic growth in a finite world is insane.

For Greens, then, the perennial left v right squabbling about who gets to control and benefit from the ever-expanding pie is to completely miss the point; the pie cannot continue to expand, indeed it must contract. Globally, we already consume the equivalent of 1.7 planet’s worth of biocapacity and resources. Here in Canada we take almost five times our fair share, and have to reduce our footprint by almost 80 percent.

The struggle for social justice is deeply rooted in the fact that the limits to growth requires a radical global and societal redistribution of the Earth’s limited resources – recognising also that other species are entitled to their fair share. The Green message must focus squarely on our long-term ecological wellbeing; as the German Greens memorably put it in a 1980s-era slogan, Green politics is ‘neither left nor right, but ahead’. 

© Trevor Hancock, 2021

thancock@uvic.ca

Dr. Trevor Hancock is a retired professor and senior scholar at the

University of Victoria’s School of Public Health and Social Policy

B.C.’s ‘natural gas’ is both unnatural and unhealthy

17 August 2021

Dr. Trevor Hancock

699 words

If you have used the Tsawassen ferry terminal this past week, chances are you will have seen a large billboard asking “How healthy is natural gas?” and pointing you to a website – unnaturalgas.org. The billboard and website are the work of the Canadian Association of Nurses for the Environment (CANE) and the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment (CAPE); I am proud to say that some 30 years ago I was one of three co-founders of CAPE and for some years was Chair of the Board.

The billboard is part of their campaign to raise concerns about the health effects of so called ‘natural gas’. Interestingly, attaching the term ‘natural’ to gas seems to have resulted from the fact that originally much of the gas used as fuel in the 19th and early 20th centuries – think of Victorian gas-lit streets and parlours – was manufactured by ‘gasifying’ coal. As a child growing up near London, I can recall the local ‘gasometer’ where this gas was stored – and I can remember the smell.

In contrast to manufactured gas, ‘natural gas’ – which was known of centuries ago – was found as a naturally occurring substance underground. But it did not begin to be widely exploited until the 20th century, eventually displacing manufactured gas.

Of course the term ‘natural’ was a boon to those marketing gas; attaching the word ‘natural’ to a product always makes it sound better – wholesome, good for you. But calling something natural doesn’t make it good; arsenic and mercury are natural, but also dangerous, harmful to our health.

In reality, natural gas is just another fossil fuel, as natural as coal or oil, although it burns more cleanly and with lower greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. But it is 95 percent methane, and methane has about 80 times the climate changing potential of carbon dioxide.

So while it is not a problem when burned because that destroys the methane, creating mainly carbon dioxide and water, it is a big problem if it is unintentionally released during its production, processing, storage and transportation, so-called fugitive emissions. 

In fact, the latest report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, released on August 9th, drew particular attention to methane, with the Chair of the Working Group that wrote the report, Panmao Zhai, noting “limiting other greenhouse gases and air pollutants, especially methane, could have benefits both for health and the climate.”

Here in BC, according to the governments own GHG Inventory, fugitive emissions from the oil, coal and gas industries released the equivalent of 4.3 million tonnes of CO2 in 2018, more than 6 percent of all emissions; three quarters of those fugitive emissions came from the gas sector. But a July 2021 article in Environmental Science and Technology by two Carleton University scientists suggested the emissions from the oil and gas sector in northern BC are really about double what is being reported.

Moreover, around 70 percent of the gas Canada produced in 2018, and around 70 percent of our gas reserves, are ‘unconventional’ – tight gas, shale gas, or coalbed methane – according to a January 2020 report from CAPE on the health and climate impacts of fracked gas. That means they need unconventional extraction, namely fracking – and there is nothing natural or healthy about the fracking process.

So when you hear government and  industry talk about liquefied natural gas (LNG), you should do an edit in your head – its actually liquefied fracked gas (LFG). Fracked gas, as CAPE and CANE note, “is a health hazard — for families in BC who live beside the LNG-fracking industry that produces it, for people who burn it in their homes, and for the climate change that is devastating our planet.”

CAPE and CANE are calling for a moratorium on fracking expansion; support for a just transition for workers moving in to the new clean-energy economy; investments in zero emissions buildings and the banning of natural gas hook-ups in all new buildings by 2023; and the ending of all fossil fuel subsidies. 

You can learn more at the Unnatural Gas website mentioned earlier, where you will also find a link to enable you to sign on to their letter to Premier Horgan.

© Trevor Hancock, 2021

thancock@uvic.ca

Dr. Trevor Hancock is a retired professor and senior scholar at the

University of Victoria’s School of Public Health and Social Policy

If we lose the carbon sinks, we are sunk

10 August 2021

703 words

This week an important new report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) states bluntly “climate change is widespread, rapid, and intensifying.” The Co-Chair of the Working Group that produced the report, Panmao Zhai, said we need “strong, rapid, and sustained reductions in greenhouse gas [GHG] emissions, and reaching net zero CO2 emissions”.

As discussed last week, there are two ways to achieve net zero: Reduce GHG emissions (principally carbon dioxide, but also methane, nitrous oxides and other gases) or increase the absorption of these gases – primarily carbon dioxide – in natural or human-engineered ‘sinks’; in reality, we need both.

Natural sinks are described by the Council of Canadian Academies – currently undertaking an assessment of the potential of Canada’s carbon sinks for Environment and Climate Change Canada – asnatural systems ― plants, soils, aquatic and marine environments ― that absorb more carbon from the atmosphere than they release”.

Therein lies their value, and hence their interest for Environment and Climate Change Canada; what if we could expand the ability of these natural sinks to absorb carbon, keeping it out of the atmosphere?

The problem is that the ability of the main sinks to absorb more carbon is in doubt. In fact, far from the sinks helping us, they may become sources of GHG as a result of human interference, poor management and climate change – which is itself human-induced. So as climate change impairs the sinks, it worsens climate change!

One example of this is very apparent in BC and around the word today – forest fires and other forms of deforestation. Globally, a 2017 study published in Science reported that the world’s tropical forests are now a source of carbon, primarily due to deforestation and degradation or disturbance of natural forests.

They emitted over 400 million tonnes of carbon annually, which is equivalent to around 1,500 million tonnes (or 1.5 billion tonnes) of carbon dioxide. Considering total human emissions of carbon dioxide are around 36 billion tonnes, we can see this is a significant problem.

A paper published last month in Nature, titled “Amazonia as a carbon source linked to deforestation and climate change”, found that far from being an important carbon sink, as it once was, the Amazon’s ability to absorb carbon is in decline. In fact, they found the Amazon has become a carbon source in its Southeastern regions, due to “the intensification of the dry season and an increase in deforestation”.

Meanwhile, here in BC our forests, which used to be important carbon sinks, are now huge carbon emitters. In a July 5th article in the National Observer, using data from B.C.’s official greenhouse gas inventory, Barry Saxifrage found that on average in the 1990s the forest absorbed 84 MtCO2 (millions of tonnes of carbon dioxide), while on average each year in the 2010s the forest emitted 39 MtCO2. This large shift, he found, has two main causes: the massive increases in wildfires and, at the same time, a decline in absorption of carbon dioxide via forest growth.

So BC was on average worse off by 123 MtCO2 annually in the 2010s compared to the 1990s; in fact, in 2018 wildfores led to almost 200 MtCO2 of emissions. Considering that BC’s human-created GHG emissions in 2018 (the latest year for which data is available) were 67.9 of MtCO2, this is obviously a huge problem, and one we must reverse.

Forests are not the only natural sinks where we have problems. Current land use and agricultural practices – and the high-meat diets that drive them – make plants and soils major emitters. But Drawdown, an important organisation working on carbon reduction, lists 22 different interventions that could make land use a major sink, absorbing many times the amount of carbon we emit today.

But it will require major social changes across many societies, including “ecosystem protection and restoration, improved agriculture practices, and prudent use of degraded land” as well as “reducing food waste and shifting to plant-rich diets.”

If we lose our major sinks – if they become major sources of GHG emissions – we are sunk. But if we can mobilise globally and locally to protect and manage our carbon sinks, we might yet manage a smart transition to a net-zero future.

© Trevor Hancock, 2021

thancock@uvic.ca

Dr. Trevor Hancock is a retired professor and senior scholar at the

University of Victoria’s School of Public Health and Social Policy

Denying net zero is ‘simply not on’

3 August 2021

Dr. Trevor Hancock

702 words

Readers of this paper were recently treated to a classic piece of ‘light your hair on fire’ misinformation inspired by the fossil fuel industry. In a July 31st column, Gwyn Morgan informed us that achieving net zero greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 2050 “would require phasing out fossil fuels that currently supply 84 percent of global energy”, that the G7 plan to achieve net zero “defies the laws of physics” and that “it’s clear that ‘net zero’ is simply not on.”

If achieving net zero emissions by 2050 defies the laws of physics and is simply not on, that must be news to the International Energy Agency (IEA), hardly a hotbed of wild-eyed radicals. In May 2021 the IEA released its “Net Zero by 2050” report, sub-titled “A Roadmap for the Global Energy Sector”.  The report notesthat 50 countries, representing 70 percent of global emissions, and including China and the USA, have committed to net zero by 2050.

It must also be news to the European Commission, which adopted a set of measures on July 14th that will reduce net greenhouse gas emissions by at least 55% by 2030, compared to 1990 levels, on the way to making Europe the world’s first climate-neutral continent by 2050. But let’s be clear what ‘net zero’ really means.

First, it does not mean no GHG emissions or no fossil fuel use. In the Paris Agreement on climate change, countries agreed to “achieve a balance between anthropogenic [human-created] emissions by sources and removals by sinks of greenhouse gases in the second‐half of the century”. ‘Net zero’ means that overall there would be no net increase in the level of GHGs in the atmosphere.

To achieve net zero we have to either reduce our emissions or find ways by which the Earth can absorb more GHGs through its carbon sinks. In practice, we need to do both, although emissions reductions has received most of the attention so far; next week I will dig further into the potential to expand carbon sinks.

Clearly, the IEA believes achieving net zero, while very challenging, is do-able. Their report states: “In the net zero pathway, global energy demand in 2050 is around 8% smaller than today, but it serves an economy more than twice as big and a population with 2 billion more people”.  Moreover, “the energy sector is based largely on renewable energy”, with “two-thirds of total energy supply from wind, solar, bioenergy, geothermal and hydro energy”.

This would not mean phasing out fossil fuels, although they would be dramatically reduced. While noting there would be “a huge decline in the use of fossil fuels”, the IEA reported that compared to the “four-fifths of total energy supply today”, fossil fuel’s contribution would fall to “slightly over one-fifth by 2050”. It would mainly be used “in sectors where low-emissions technology options are scarce”, as well as in facilities using carbon capture technology and in creating plastics.

Of course, what troubles Morgan and other fossil fuel advocates is the IEA’s avowal that “there is no need for investment in new fossil fuel supply in our net zero pathway.” The IEA foresees coal demand declining “by 98 percent to just less than 1% of total energy use in 2050”, while “gas demand declines by 55 percent . . . and oil declines by 75 percent”.

Nobody is suggesting this will be easy. Recognizing that “not all technologies are available on the market today”, the IEA calls for “an unprecedented clean technology push to 2030”. The IEA suggests this requires a doubling of annual energy sector investment by 2030, but notes that by 2050, average annual energy investment takes only 1 percent more of GDP than in recent years.

Moreover, this pathway means “universal access to sustainable energy is achieved by 2030” and the creation of 30 million jobs, compared to losses of about 5 million jobs in the fossil fuel sector; this must be handled with care, ensuring a just transition for these workers.

The pathway to net zero is tough, but do-able, and brings many social, economic, ecological and health co-benefits, as the IEA and European reports make clear. It is the denial of net zero that is simply not on.

© Trevor Hancock, 2021

thancock@uvic.ca

Dr. Trevor Hancock is a retired professor and senior scholar at the

University of Victoria’s School of Public Health and Social Policy

Building child-friendly communities means protecting future generations

28 July 2021

Dr Trevor Hancock

700 words

“The well-being of children is the ultimate indicator of a healthy habitat, a democratic society and of good governance.” So stated a resolution passed at the second UN Conference on Human Settlements in 1996, leading Unicef, the UN Childrens Fund, to create its Child Friendly Cities Initiative that same year.  It is seen as a vehicle to implement the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child at the local level.

To become a Child Friendly City, cities should implement a nine-point framework that includes having “strategies for children, regular reports on the state of the city’s children, independent advocates for children, opportunities to listen to children’s views”, and other governance measures. The aim is “to consider the best interests of children in formulating and coordinating policies, services and other government action.”

Unicef reports there are almost 1,000 Child Friendly Cities worldwide; in Canada, there are 49 in Quebec as part of an NGO-led provincial initiative but few seem to be in BC.

But my specific interest here, following on from my two latest columns, is the implications of a child-friendly approach for the design of housing and other aspects of the built environment, especially here in BC.

The Society for Children and Youth of BC (SCY) began its child and youth friendly communities project in 1998. It has a toolkit for interested organisations and has developed pilot projects in New Westminster and Vancouver. Abbotsford and Surrey, among others, have developed a Child and Youth Friendly Strategy, but I am not aware of anything similar in the Greater Victoria region.

Even before the SCY project Bob Yates, a local planning consultant, wrote a 1995 report for the Society on child-friendly housing. A guide for housing professionals, the report identified a set of nine principles and then discussed how to plan a child-friendly housing project, how to design a child-friendly housing unit, how to build better communities for children, and how to manage housing through involving youth.

More recent local examples include a 2009 report prepared for Abbotsford by Cherie Enns, a social planning consultant, and most recently, a comprehensive book – Child in the City – by Sidney-based planning and urban design consultant Kristin Agnello.

Based on a series of consultations in Abbotsford, Enns reported that “what is most needed for future housing development has been the need for mixed-use neighbourhood design with affordable rental and owned housing.” Her report includes an extensive checklist for various aspects of child-friendly neighbourhood design, covering issues such as parks and other amenities, housing, transportation, schools and security.

With respect to housing, she suggests child-friendly forms include courtyard housing – which “creates a specific public space that is shared by the residents” – and co-housing, while neighbourhoods should have discernible social centres and an elementary school within one mile.

Available free through her Plassurban website, Agnello’s easy-to-read and well-illustrated book takes the view that “an environment that addresses the needs of children . . . is one that is friendlier and more accessible to people of all ages and abilities”. So make it work for children and we all gain.

She provides a comprehensive overview of policy, regulatory and financial measures, as well as nine design guidelines and 35 design objectives for both housing and neighbourhoods, all summarised in two simple charts. As well, she emphasises the importance of engaging children in participatory planning, writing: “To plan our cities in a way that enables children to be co-authors of their own communities is key to a sustainable – and inclusive – future.”

But if indeed “the well-being of children is the ultimate indicator of a healthy habitat, a democratic society and of good governance”, surely that must include not only today’s children, but the wellbeing of future generations of children. That is the deeper meaning of child-friendly communities.

In this age of climate change and other global ecological crises, the CRD and all our local municipalities must dedicate themselves to the wellbeing of future generations by  reducing our overall ecological impacts, taking only our fair share of the Earth’s biocapacity and resources.  The region’s municipalities need to embrace both Unicef’s Child Friendly Cities Initiative and develop plans to become ‘One Planet’ communities. Our children require it of us.

© Trevor Hancock, 2021

thancock@uvic.ca

Dr. Trevor Hancock is a retired professor and senior scholar                                                                                 at the University of Victoria’s School of Public Health and Social Policy.

We need to build ‘Gentle infill’ for affordable, healthy neighbourhoods

21 July 2021

Dr. Trevor Hancock

699 words

In Canada we are 80 percent urbanised and spend 90 percent of our time indoors, making the built environment one of the most important determinants of our health. As a leader in the creation of the modern Healthy Cities and Communities movement, I continue a long tradition of considering the public health implications of housing and urban design, which includes the ecological and social impacts of such development.

In the face of an ecological crisis that includes massive and rapid climate change, resource depletion and loss of biodiversity and a social crisis that includes heightened inequality, insecure work and social disconnection, how do we create living places that are affordable, sustainable and good for our physical, mental and social wellbeing?

The concept of sustainable community design has been around for many decades. Not coincidentally, one of the early books  – Calthorpe and Van der Ryn’s “Sustainable Communities” – came out in 1986, the same year the Healthy Cities project was launched in Europe. Several other urban movements are related to the theme of healthy and sustainable urban design, including Smart Growth, New Urbanism, Livable Cities, Happy Cities – the list goes on.

What they all have in common is what has more recently come to be called ‘gentle density’. Championed by Vancouver-based urban planner Brent Toderian, this approach is about “building smarter suburbs that are more mixed, compact, walkable, and transit friendly”, he wrote in 2013. 


However, gentle density is not just for suburbs; we need ‘gentle infill’ in the urban core. In her 2016 article on this topic, Kathleen McCormick quotes Peter Pollock of the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy in the USA, who described the approach as “trying to find ways to make infill compatible with surroundings to achieve urban design goals and enable production of more housing.”

A 2017 article by Katie Hyslop in The Tyee discussed examples of gentle infill (also, she noted, called ‘sensitive’ or ‘ground-oriented’ infill) in the Lower Mainland. These “can take many forms, from building in-house secondary suites, to adding laneway homes, town/row houses, duplexes, triplexes, and quadplexes to a single family home lot.” What characterises such an approach is that “nothing is higher than stacked townhouses”, she wrote.

Many ‘gentle density’ projects are multi-family dwellings, but on a human scale; not large, impersonal high-rises. Vancouver-based Charles Montgomery and his team at Happy City have been looking at how to design Happy Homes: “multi-family places where people are happier, healthier and more connected”. They found that “mixed-use neighbourhoods that encourage walking are most likely to be associated with positive social encounters and a strong sense of community” and that “access to nature is strongly linked to positive neighbourhood relationships and trust among community members”

But while the physical design is important, so too is the social design. Among the ten princiiples they identified are the need to create opportunities for people to participate in the design and management of their project and do meaningful and enjoyable things together.  

There are a number of environmental and social benefits to this approach. The environmental benefits include avoiding the need for further destructive urban sprawl; creating smaller and more energy efficient homes that require fewer resources to build and operate, and car-free or low car-dependency living that reduces greenhouse gas and other pollutant emissions.

The social benefits include more affordable housing which, if built in walkable, bikeable neighbourhoods, reduces the need for car ownership, as I discussed last week. This frees up income for other purposes. Other social benefits include less time spent commuting and more convenient access to daily necessities in a ‘15-minute neighbourhood’.

All of these environmental and social benefits result in health co-benefits. These include less air pollution and climate change, more physical activity and reduced obesity, and more social connection. The good news is that there are a growing number of small-scale ‘gentle infill’ projects being proposed and developed in the region’s core, with potential benefits both locally and regionally.

So it is time to consider the first recommendation of a recent Declaration endorsed by many leading Canadian urbanists that municipalities should update their current zoning policies to allow “gentle density to be built, as-of-right, alongside houses in low-rise residential neighbourhoods”.

© Trevor Hancock, 2021

thancock@uvic.ca

Dr. Trevor Hancock is a retired professor and senior scholar at the

University of Victoria’s School of Public Health and Social Policy

The difference between social, supportive and affordable housing

14 July 2021

Dr. Trevor Hancock

702 words

From time to time fierce debates erupt over proposals to introduce more dense housing into residential neighbourhoods. I suspect that part of the problem is a failure to distinguish between housing that is affordable, social housing and supportive housing, as well as a related concern about loss of property values.

Particularly in the wake of reports of crime and violence linked to temporary accommodation for people who are homeless and have been moved into some form of congregate housing, I think when people hear the terms ‘affordable’ or ‘social’ housing, they assume this means that the ‘hard to house’ and criminal element are about to be dumped in the midst of their community.

This is far from the truth. So let’s distinguish between these various forms of housing.

Affordable housing means just what it says: housing that the average person can afford, be it ownership or rental, private or public. The Canada Mortgage and Housing Company (CMHC) says that for housing to be affordable, it must take less than 30% of a household’s pre-tax income. A 2020 CRD study, using 2016 Census data (the latest available then) found that beteeen 30 – 50 percent of tenant households in the CRD were spending 30 percent or more of their income on housing costs.

The Victoria Foundation’s 2020 Vital Signs report found that in 2019 someone working 35 hours per week for the then minimum wage of $14.60 per hour would spend 47 percent of their income to rent an average bachelor apartment (at $965 per month); they would need to work 55 hours per week to bring that down to the acceptable 30 percent level. And of course, when you spend that much on housing, you have less to spend on food and other daily necessities.

A very revealing map from a 2020 CRD report on housing and transportation costs shows that when the two costs are combined, the cheapest places to live are almost all clustered in the Core (Victoria, Esquimalt, Oak Bay and southern Saanich), as well as Sidney, with annual household costs ranging from $22,000 – $29,000; the highest costs are in the West Shore and Saanich Peninsula, ranging from $30,000 – 38,000.  

So the Core is where we should create more affordable housing, perhaps following local urbanist Todd Litman’s 2018 suggestion that every neighbourhood grow by 1.5 percent annually to match the growth rate for the Region. The aim must be to create the ‘15-minute neighbourhood’, where what you need on a daily basis is available within a 15 minute walk, bike or transit ride.

When it comes to social housing, the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness (COH) notes “While all social housing is affordable, the term ‘social housing’ refers more specifically to housing that is subsidized by a level of government”. It is just housing for ordinary people whose incomes are insufficient to afford market-price housing.

In large part we have a problem today because the federal social housing program was cancelled in 1993, resulting in “drastic reductions in the amount of affordable housing available”, as the COH notes. On top of that, we have created an income crisis; low income wages have stagnated, minimum wages do not deliver a living wage, jobs have become less secure and benefits have been reduced, all in the interests of low prices for most of us and profits for business.

It is important to note that social housing is not the same as supportive housing, although the latter usually requires government or NGO support. The COH describes supportive housing as housing that includes “individualized, flexible and voluntary support services for people with high needs related to physical or mental health, developmental disabilities or substance use” – people who could be members of our own family or those of our friends and neighbours.

In the end, perhaps the simplest test is this: Can your children or grandchildren live somewhere nearby? Probably not. If not, we need to fix it. We must encourage a serious investment in social housing, policies that increase higher wages and income supports, and the creation of  ‘gentle density’, car-free, low-rise in-fill in neighbourhoods that fills the ‘missing middle’ gap in housing while being is more ecologically sustainable. More on this next week.

© Trevor Hancock, 2021

thancock@uvic.ca

Dr. Trevor Hancock is a retired professor and senior scholar at the

University of Victoria’s School of Public Health and Social Policy

Sorry about the Earth, but we need to make money

7 July 2021

Dr. Trevor Hancock

699 words

Two weeks ago, my column on why we need to stop subsidising industries that harm our planet and our health was published at the height of the heat emergency that affected BC, killing hundreds of people and setting off large and deadly forest fires. So why on Earth are we spending scarce public resources to prop up the fossil fuel industries that are the underlying cause of the climate emergency and that we need to wind down?

I could understand if the funds were being used to transition those industries and their employees into clean and renewable energy production. But too often they are used to support business as usual. The most recent example of this idiotic approach is a new report from the International Institute for Sustainable Development in Winnipeg.

Looking at three as yet uncompleted pipelines (Trans Mountain, Keystone XL – now cancelled – and Coastal GasLink), they found “cumulatively, Canadian governments have provided over CAD 23 billion in government support since 2018”. Much of that is in the form of loan guarantees rather than direct funding.

But as the report’s author, Vanessa Corkal, noted in a July 7th Times Colonist article, such loans and guarantees “encourage companies to make choices they wouldn’t otherwise make”. They may have some short-term benefits, but they mean other, wiser long-term choices are not made, making this a betrayal of future generations.

It’s not just the fossil fuel industry. There are many other examples of counter-productive uses of public money to prop up industries and practices that are harmful to people and the planet.

A January 2020 report on “Subsidising extinctions” by three UBC scientists in the journal Conservation Letters noted: “In 2010 world governments agreed to eliminate, phase out or reform incentives that harm biodiversity by 2020.”  Yet, they added, “few governments have even identified such incentives, never mind taking action on them.”

There is a local example of this right here in BC, noted Dr. Jessica Dempsey, the lead author for the UBC study noted above. They looked at three coal mines in northeastern BC that are located in the home of the threatened Central Mountain caribou. The mines benefit from the Mineral Exploration Tax Credit.

A December 2020 UBC news release quotes Dr. Dempsey: “Our research shows that not only do the costs of mining activity in northeastern BC outweigh the benefits, but the public is in fact helping to fund the extinction of caribou by subsidizing exploration and development.”

Then there are fisheries. Rashid Sumaila, a professor at UBC’s Institute for the Oceans and Fisheries and director of the Fisheries Economic Research Unit, co-authored a 2019 UBC study in the journal Marine Policy on the impact of subsidies on small scale fisheries. They found that in 2018, of the total $35.4 billion (U.S.) in subsidies, globally, $22.2 billion, or 62 percent, went to ‘capacity enhancing’ activities, which illogically seek to increase fishing capacity at a time when the world’s oceans are already heavily overfished.

Here in Canada, they reported, 45 percent of the $853 million (U.S.) in subsidies in 2018 went to beneficial actions, but 22 percent went to capacity-enhancing actions, while the rest was ’ambiguous’. But why would we spend a single penny on capacity-enhancing subsidies, never mind $194 million (U.S.).

Fisheries subsidies pale in comparison with farming subsidies. A September 2019 report from the International Food Policy Research Institute found that governments around the world shelled out over $700 billion of support for agriculture, but that “only around 15 percent of this support is for public goods”, by which they mean better nutrition and environmental outcomes. In fact, they observed, subsidies “are rarely being deployed to drive sustainable outcomes, and more often pull in the opposite direction.”

The overall  attitude that emanates from many of these industries and the governments that support them seems to be ‘Sorry about harming the Earth, but you have to undertand that we need to make money, and this is the price we have to pay for progress’. And of course, by ‘we’ they really mean you, not themselves; they are not the ones who are harmed by their practices. This is a deeply immoral economy driving a deeply immoral society.

© Trevor Hancock, 2021

thancock@uvic.ca

Dr. Trevor Hancock is a retired professor and senior scholar at the

University of Victoria’s School of Public Health and Social Policy