Most Canadian cities have been looking for affordable housing alternatives for several decades. Since purpose-built rental housing became so difficult to build starting in the 1980s, cities have grasped at the low-hanging fruit, such as allowing secondary suites and laneway housing. Both allow cities to add some smaller, more affordable units in established residential neighbourhoods; increased density is another bonus.

Secondary Suites

Secondary suites (self-contained units within existing dwellings) are allowed in cities such as Vancouver, Montreal, Calgary, and smaller cities such as Kelowna. CMHC surveyed 650 municipalities located within Canada’s Census Metropolitan Areas and Census Agglomerations in 2014, and found that 88% of the large municipalities (populations over 100,000) permit secondary suites as well as 85% of medium-sized (30,000-99,999) and 82% of small (5,000-29,999) municipalities. Often they are basement apartments, but they can be arranged differently depending on the city’s bylaw.

Vancouver has a really easy to understand guide for property owners who want to create a secondary suite with diagrams showing the possible configurations. CMHC estimated that there were 26,000 secondary suites in Vancouver in 2014: one-fifth of the city’s rental housing stock. Vancouver and Edmonton allow the units as-of-right in residential land use zones. Calgary introduced new rules to streamline the process for approving secondary suites this spring, in part hoping that the many illegal units in the city would comply with the new rules during the two-year amnesty period. Other cities, like Mississauga, have struggled to implement secondary suites, introducing then modifying their by-law and process several times. Toronto has allowed secondary suites since 1996.

Laneway Housing

Laneway housing units are more unusual in Canadian cities. They are found in cities with the prewar grid street pattern, because they face onto back lanes and not onto the street. Edmonton first allowed them (calling them “garden suites”) in 2007 and eased restrictions on them in 2015 to allow them in most areas of the city. The city is expected to have a new laneway housing strategy in place this year. In Vancouver, a laneway housing guide, formal guidelines, regulations and an application checklist make it easy for property owners to develop them. Calgary has a guide to laneway suites that follows two households through the process of approval and building them. In Ottawa, rules allowing “coach houses” (secondary units that are not contained within the main dwelling) were just introduced last year and still face opposition in wealthier neighbourhoods like Rockcliffe Park.

Toronto has lagged behind these cities: Council rejected a proposal for laneway housing in 2006. They have objected to the idea on the grounds that laneway units would require servicing along the lanes, they would interfere with existing services like garbage collection, and they could change the character of existing neighbourhoods. The city has an astonishing 2,400 lanes available (300 km of underused space). They decided to review laneway suites last July, and held community meetings through the winter. A survey of 3,000 residents in December found that 91% of residents supported the idea. Finally, chief planner Greg Lintern acknowledges that even in traditional neighbourhoods, there has been gradual change such as decreasing family sizes. A new report recommending that the city adopt laneway housing will make its way to the East York Community council this week, then City Council next month.

Secondary suites and laneway housing are just two ways that cities can introduce affordable housing relatively easily, and with a reduced impact (visual, number of households/people, parking demands) compared to larger-scale rental apartments that are still difficult to build. There will still be communities that oppose them, though, so planners still face the challenge of public education and collaboration to make these successful.

 

A couple of months ago, I reported that vehicle licensing rates among youth and young adults in British Columbia had decreased. Now Alberta is reporting a similar trend (“Driver’s licenses not a priority, say young Albertans,” CBC News, August 5, 2014). Alberta Transportation reports that the rate of licensed drivers aged 15 to 24 has decreased by 20% in the past 20 years, from 90% to 75%. While this isn’t as great a decrease as that seen in BC (ICBC reported a 70% decrease among 20-24-year-olds from 2004-2013), it’s pretty big news in Canada’s oil-producing province.

As in other younger populations, Alberta researchers have cited the prevalence of social media for interacting with friends and the higher cost of living that today’s young people must incur in rent and tuition. But access to transit is also mentioned, aligning with the results of several high-profile studies in the US, Great Britain, Japan, Sweden, and North Korea. Rather than just suggesting that car ownership is merely delayed a few years while millenials establish themselves, Dr. Alex de Barros from the University of Calgary suggests that young people may opt for more sustainable transportation options now and in the long run.

After last night’s torrential downpour in Toronto and last month’s flooding in Alberta, climate change deniers in Canada must be having trouble making their usual arguments. There has been an increase in unusual weather this past decade, which the World Meteorological Organization recently called “the warmest decade since record-keeping began.” On average, Canada gets 20 days more of rain now than it did in the 1950s. Before 1990, only three Canadian disasters surpassed $500 million in damages–but in the past decade alone, there were nine.

Last night, Toronto received over 90 mm of rain; the average monthly average is 74.4 mm. Toronto Hydro reported that 300,000 people were without power at one point, including up to 80% of Mississauga residents. Drivers were stranded in their cars, which were left abandoned as rain waters overtook them, and passengers on a GO train to Richmond Hill had to be rescued by marine units after it was overcome with water. Some subway stations flooded, and power and signal problems caused major delays. Even the stalwart Toronto Island ferry was disabled by power failures.

On June 20th, many Alberta cities experienced severe flooding, including Calgary, High River, Okotoks, Canmore, Lethridge, Medicine Hat and Crowsnest Pass. 100,000 people in Calgary were evacuated from their homes, including those living downtown, as the Elbow and Bow Rivers overflowed. Dramatic photos from the event show the entire city submerged under flood waters.

The NASA ISERV camera on the International Space Station captured these pictures before and after the flood.

The NASA ISERV camera on the International Space Station captured the photo on the right after the flood.

Calgary Transit has posted photos of the damage to rail tracks, bridges and trains being towed down the street after flood waters receded. The city wasn’t safe either…a mere two weeks later, another flash flood hit the city. City officials say it will cost at least $256 million to repair damages, including $25.6 million to repair historic city hall, $50 million for the Calgary Zoo and $11.7 million to repair Calgary Transit facilities. Some estimates go as high as $1 billion total. Across Alberta, the total will rise to $3 to 5 billion and the provincial government has already pledged $1 billion. Some fault lies in poor planning, as this Vancouver Sun article describes (“Disaster recognition lost in the floods”, July 8, 2013):

Three major floods occurred during the period of 1875 to 1902, and early Calgary residents were well aware of the flood danger. Between 1932 and 2005, however, there was not a single major flood in the city, perhaps lulling people into a false sense of security. During that period and more recently, thousands of homes were built on floodplains within the city limits. –Dr. John Clague, Director of the Centre for Disaster Research, SFU

Some Canadian cities have actively sought climate change adaptation, but federally there isn’t much momentum yet for strategies like flood control as there was in previous decades–the Flood Damage Protection Program ran from 1975 to 1990, inhibiting development in low-lying areas. Dr. Clague reports that in Calgary, residents opposed the designation of flood-prone land urged in several City of Calgary reports, as they didn’t believe a flood risk existed and thought the designation would decrease their property values. This year’s flood was preceded by an earlier one in 2005.

Economic, ecological, and community resilience have risen to prominence among urban thinkers, politicians, and planners in the past few years, perhaps due to these increasingly unstable weather and unusual climate events. Today, Mary Rowe of the Municipal Art Society of New York City will be at the Canadian Institute of Planners conference in Vancouver as part of a debate on climate change adaptation and the responsibility of planners to relocate people to less hazardous areas. Other participants will be Jack Basey (BC planner), David Brown, (McGill University planner professor), Christine Platt (Commonwealth Association of Planners), and moderator Mark Seasons (University of Waterloo planning professor). Mary works on environmental sustainability and resilience, and spent five years as coordinator of the New Orleans Institute for Resilience and Innovation working on post-Katrina community recovery. She will also speak tonight on community-based resilience: http://communityresilience.eventbrite.com/#

After weeks of predicting a tight race in Alberta’s provincial election, pollsters are scratching their heads. Articles such as “Wildrose on track for majority with a week to go in Alberta” (The Globe and Mail, April 18th) were widespread just a few days ago. Yet somehow, Premier Alison Redford led her Progressive Conservative party to its 12th consecutive majority government with 62 seats, while Danielle Smith’s upstart Wildrose Party has become the Official Opposition party with 17 seats. The popular vote was closer: Redford captured 44% of the popular vote and Smith 34.5%. So what happened in the battle of conservatives?

Premier Alison Redford. Photo: John Lehmann, The Globe and Mail

Some sources report that strategic voting played a major role: those who may have voted Liberal or NDP may have voted PC to keep Wildrose from power. Albertans seem to have shown a healthy skepticism for the Wildrose party, particularly issues of gay rights and racism raised by two Wildrose candidates (Allan Hunsperger and Ron Leech, neither of whom was elected). Other centrist and left voters may have disapproved of the party’s stance on the fundamental right to refuse a medical service–such as abortion–based on religious objections, and their refutation of climate change. But another interesting factor has emerged: the polls weren’t really that accurate. Only a few polls, such as that by Leger Marketing, asked voters whether they were undecided: they found that up to one-fifth of voters were undecided in the final week of the campaign. Despite technological advances, polling has not become more precise, and the margins of error are significant: lest we forget, not a single poll predicted Stephen Harper’s majority government in last year’s federal election.

Wildrose also had poor support in Alberta’s cities. PC support was strong in Edmonton and Calgary: the province’s two largest cities hold half of its seats, 44 in total. In Calgary, the Wildrose party took only 3 of 25 ridings while in Edmonton Wildrose failed to win a single one. Lethbridge, Red Deer, and Fort McMurray were also overwhelmingly PC. It seems that urban Albertans preferred Redford’s Joe Clark-style conservatism, while many rural residents considered the PCs too centrist. But many journalists are saying that the values, views and opinions of Alberta voters may have been too complex to capture using polls.

Alberta’s election pitting Redford and Smith against each other would have had a historic result no matter who won. Only nine women in Canadian history have ever served as provincial/territorial premier: five were elected leader of their party while it was in power, and four were elected premier in a general election. Redford became premier in October when she was elected leader of the party, and this win makes her the first female premier elected in Alberta. BC’s Christy Clark is in a similar position: she became premier after Gordon Campbell resigned in 2010 and narrowly won his seat in a by-election. If she were to win the general election next May, she would become the province’s first elected female premier (Rita Johnson briefly held the position of premier in 1991 after Bill Vander Zalm resigned and she was elected leader of the Social Credit Party, but she was defeated in the 1991 BC election). With this win, Redford also marks a second milestone: the PCs will become the longest-standing provincial government in Canadian history by the end of this term.

In my previous post, I wrote that many Canadians don’t know much about municipal planning processes, the implications of the legal division of powers in Canada, and what this means for service provision in our cities. In this vein, readers might be interested in some examples of municipal efforts at citizen engagement that go beyond the often-uninspired public meeting.

Participatory budgeting originated in Porto Alegre, Brazil in 1989. It’s driven by core principles such as democracy, equity, community, education, and transparency. Thousands of citizens assemble in Porto Alegre each year to elect delegates to represent each city district, prioritize demands, serve on the Municipal Council of the Budget, and produce a binding municipal budget. Proponents of participatory budgeting say that because people with the greatest needs play a larger role in the decision-making process, spending decisions tend to redistribute resources to communities in need. In Porto Alegre, for example, there has been a marked increase in funding for badly-needed sanitary sewer projects and schools. Participatory budgeting is used in about 140 municipalities in Brazil as well as towns and cities in France, Italy, Germany, Spain, the United Kingdom, India and Africa. It is used for municipal school, university, and public housing budgets.

The process has also been used in several Canadian municipalities: Toronto Community Housing Corporation (TCHC) allows its tenants to participate in decision-making on local, neighbourhood and city-wide spending priorities. TCHC’s participatory budgeting process first took place in 2001, when tenants were asked to help decide how to spend $9 million per year (13.5% of TCHC’s budget); 237 local capital projects were funded. In Guelph, residents allocate a small portion of the City’s budget through the Guelph Neighbourhood Support Coalition. Since 1999, neighbourhood groups have been sharing and redistributing resources for local community projects, including recreation programs, youth centres, and physical improvements to community facilities. In 2005 some 10,000 people participated in the process and 460 events and programs were funded.

In a review of participatory budgeting efforts in Canadian cities, Josh Lerner and Estair Van Wagner outline several challenges for participatory budgeting in Canada: the fact that Canadians are extremely diverse in language and culture, the small scale of these efforts so far, the limited power of citizens in the process, the fact that none of them have fundamentally changed their cities’ political systems or created a more progressive social agenda, and the potential for the process to become co-opted by politicians.

City of Calgary "Our City. Our Budget. Our Future."

Other efforts at participatory processes in budget planning have included the Cities of Toronto, Calgary and Vancouver. In each case municipal officials encouraged citizens to get involved in the City’s budget planning. For the 2004 City of Toronto budget, Mayor David Miller initiated the Listening to Toronto consultations. A City Budget Community Workbook was posted on the website and seven public sessions were held. This wasn’t participatory budgeting (participants didn’t help formulate priorities that were then adopted); in a process similar to integrating feedback from public meetings, participants’ ideas were used to guide City Council during the drafting of the budget.

In February 2011, Calgary Mayor Naheed Nehshi opened up the budget planning process to the public through a citywide engagement process. In “Our City. Our Budget. Our Future.” the City aimed to help people feel like they were part of the process, make the budgetary process clearer by simplifying communication from city staff, and gather ideas on the budget. Their online budgeting tool allowed users to see how much each department currently spent, and what an increase or decrease in areas like transportation or safety would look like. The City heard from 24,000 people during this process. Again, citizens’ ideas were considered in drafting the budget, which was adopted in November 2011. The new three-year budget resulted in property tax rate increases of 6.0% in 2012, 5.7% in 2013 and 6.1% in 2014 and included (among other things) additional funding of $1 million for Calgary Transit, a reserve fund of $3.5 million for snow clearing in 2013 and 2014, a $225,000 increase to the Calgary Arts Development Authority.

“We used to do things like open houses and town halls when we had those discussions. And what we learned this time around is that the open houses and the town halls are the most expensive and least successful part of the process.”– Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi

A screen shot from the City of Vancouver Budget Allocator

The City of Vancouver followed suit this year, encouraging citizens to get involved in the 2012 budget process. In addition to attending public meetings and completing an online survey on budget priorities, a section of the City’s website lets users to download a primer explaining how the budget works (how the city raises funds, what percentage of taxes goes to pay for utilities, fire and police services, etc.). The interactive tool lets them “be Councillor for a day, see what it costs to run a city.” This simple tool gives you options to remain at the current level of funding or to increase or decrease funding levels in each area. When you’ve finished making your budget, the Budget Allocator tells you whether you have a surplus or a deficit, and how much you would have to raise taxes to cover the increased costs. You can submit your budget, along with the reasons for your choices, directly to city staff: if you’re a local, go to www.talkvancouver.com/Budget 2012 before February 10th to have your say.

In short, there are varying levels of participation in budget processes, from consultation to surveys to participatory budgeting. In addition to various levels of power for the participants, the educational aspects differ as well: one could argue that while Toronto, Calgary and Vancouver have made strides in educating the public on the budgetary process, they stop short of allowing residents to learn how to prioritize spending objectives and vote on them. Nevertheless, Canadians in other municipalities might want to find out how their budget works, when their budget is up for adoption and what the process is for citizen involvement. With so many online and interactive ways to get involved, there seem to be many opportunities to inform and involve communities that may not participate otherwise: young adults, immigrant groups, seniors living in facilities, etc. High school teachers, college and university professor could use the online budgeting tools in civics, planning, political science, or urban studies courses. Immigrant groups could organize online participation at a community event. Residents and health care support workers could help seniors participate. If your municipality doesn’t currently encourage participation in the city budget process, ask your councillor to suggest the idea.

Update: check out the latest national issue of Spacing magazine for integrated approaches to public engagement in Saskatoon, Vancouver, and Halifax (“Speaking with Your City” by Rachel Caroline Derrah).