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Books How Toronto can answer the planet’s urgent call to mitigate climate change

Excerpt from House Divided: How the Missing Middle can Solve Toronto’s Housing Crisis, Edited by John Lorinc, Alex Bozikovic, Cheryll Case and Annabel Vaughan, Coach House Books, 280 pages

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In the next generation, the fact of climate change caused by human behaviour will become a dominant theme, if not the dominant theme, in our politics. Climate scientists are already telling us that humanity faces a global emergency. According to a 2018 United Nations report, the most likely increase in average temperature – of 2.7 degrees above pre-industrial levels by 2040 – will have disastrous consequences and displace tens of millions of people. Mainstream scientists believe the opportunity to avoid serious change has now passed; the question is how much ecological destruction and human suffering climate change will wreak. We have an obligation to mitigate that change.

That means changing how we live and where we live. These are local questions. The only ethical imperative for urban planning in the 21st century will be to mitigate the effects of climate change. If we want to substantially reduce our society’s carbon emissions, we need to end sprawl and put more people’s homes within walking distance of their workplaces, schools and amenities. We need to get as many people as possible out of cars and onto mass transit.

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Buildings, transportation and electricity use are major sources of carbon emissions in Canada, adding up to about half of the total in 2016. Transportation is the second-largest source of carbon, closely linked to the output of the largest emitter: oil and gas production.

Transportation, according to most North American estimates, generates more carbon emissions than buildings. The American journal Building Green, in a 2018 paper, examined new office buildings in the U.S. The authors found that car commuting by office workers accounts for 11 per cent more energy than is used by the buildings where they work, even when those buildings are new and follow regulations for energy efficiency.

This is true in Toronto as it is elsewhere, and the details have a lot to do with land use.

The term ‘neighbourhood character’ is a euphemism for something ugly

In a 2007 academic paper, Jared R. VandeWeghe and Christopher Kennedy estimated the per capita greenhouse-gas emissions for “residential activities” (essentially, housing and transportation) for census districts across Greater Toronto. They concluded that car use generated significantly more carbon emissions than buildings did.

They also found dramatic variances within the city. Most of the neighbourhoods in the downtown and nearby – i.e., the pre-Second World War walkable city – had average emissions ranging between three and five tonnes per capita per year. Other areas, including parts of East York and a large swath centred on the Bridle Path (along with almost all of the 905 region), had average emissions ranging between eight and 13 tonnes per year. In places where the car dominates, our carbon footprints are double or even triple.

Buildings have their own sizable emissions footprints. The larger our homes and workplaces, the more energy they consume. Much of this energy is drawn directly or indirectly from fossil fuels. The construction of new buildings and the production of building materials also generate significant carbon emissions. It is possible to build homes that are more energy-efficient, but the math is difficult. An average single-family house, of around 2,000 square feet, will never be able to compete with a 1,000-square-foot unit within a multifamily building.

The development industry’s reliance on concrete – an extremely high-carbon material – in apartment and condo construction does hurt the case for multifamily housing. But increasingly, there is a green alternative: wood, including new assembly techniques known as mass timber. These are now being used to construct mid-rise buildings in Toronto.

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More to the point, regular wood-frame construction is both cheap and common for buildings up to four storeys. The missing middle can and should be made largely of wood. The current pattern of concentrating density into high-rise towers – which have structures and underground garages made of concrete – substantially increases the carbon footprint of Toronto housing.

This quick analysis leads to a clear conclusion. If we wish to reduce our carbon footprint, then the single most powerful tool at our disposal is middle-density intensification in established, walkable neighbourhoods.

But how will the climate imperative shape local land-use policy? It’s easy to imagine that federal and provincial policy will require cities to plan for lower-carbon development.

There is precedent. In the Toronto region, the Greenbelt Plan imposed by the province more than a decade ago did important work in curbing sprawl. In this moment, we need to go much further.

Progressive American politicians are making an urgent and explicit case for zoning reform. In California, Governor Gavin Newsom has called for dramatically increasing the construction of housing in zones served by transit, building on the energy of young progressives who see yimby – Yes In My Backyard – as serving the interests of affordability and sustainability.

In short, some American progressives now clearly understand the connection between land use and the climate, and such thinking is taken for granted in transportation and land-use planning across most of Europe. Many Canadian progressives have been slow to follow, and the reasons are complex. But, essentially, this blind spot is the legacy of Jane Jacobs.

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In Canada outside of Quebec, and certainly in Toronto, opposing new development of all kinds is a political default for many on the left. In the early 1970s, the Reform movement in Toronto politics rolled back the pro-development agenda of the 1960s. Young progressives argued to save the old neighbourhoods of the city, then socially and economically mixed, from aggressive development.

Jane Jacobs herself was a friend and a mentor to the Reform movement’s politicians and planners. They shared her love for the small scale, fine grain, variety and diversity of the old Toronto neighbourhoods: the “sidewalk ballet” that she identified in the working-class streets of the West Village in Manhattan and found, too, after relocating to Toronto.

But much has changed since the anti-blockbusting fights of the 1960s and 1970s. House owners in Toronto are now affluent. Their dwellings are worth much more, on the whole, than the “luxury condos” that many people like to decry. And as they fight new developments, many neighbourhood groups demonstrate their political power.

However knee-jerk their dislike of change, however frank their opposition to “double density,” Toronto homeowners can justify their nimbyism by wrapping it in Jane Jacobs’s values. But let’s be clear: They are no longer the underdogs, protecting inner-city immigrant enclaves from the wrecking balls. Today, the mainstream Torontonian opposition to denser housing, captured in the Yellowbelt and associated policies, is in fact locking down much of the city to new residents of all stripes.

But thus far, there have been few calls for zoning reform in Toronto or the region. This is where the climate crisis must alter the discussion: We now have an urgent reason to reconsider our outdated assumptions about the social importance of “stable” neighbourhoods.

Anti-growth sentiment is hollowing out too much of the old Toronto, and it’s stopping postwar Toronto neighbourhoods from evolving into more urban and walkable places. More neighbourhoods that are dense with people, dense with different kinds of activity, rich in amenities, and served with transit. This is what Toronto needs now, and it is what the planet now demands from Toronto.

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