As most of you know, I’ve just started a new position at the Dalhousie University School of Planning. I’ve often thought that one barrier to effective public consultation in planning is the lack of knowledge about urban planning issues, such as the relationship between density and public transit provision or how a municipal plan sets out land use guidelines. It’s great to find out that Dal students are on the same page.

A few years ago, two undergraduate students, Byung Jun Kang and Uytae Lee, started producing videos that aim to educate the public about a variety of planning issues. The videos are between three and six minutes in length, and they often use humour to illustrate thorny issues. In September 2015, they incorporated as a non-profit co-operative called PLANifax that includes Byung Jun and Uytae as executive directors, three board members (current students and alumni), and many volunteers. Students do all kinds of work such as GIS mapping, finding planning documents and getting permission to use them, filming, and conducting interviews with planning staff. For example, third-year student Juniper Littlefield has directed and narrated a number of videos and Uytae (now in his fourth year) has acted in many.

Some of the videos are general in nature, such as their “Planning Basics Episode 1: Planning Process” (2016) which gives a brief overview of how planning works in Canada, including the Planning Acts, regional and municipal plans, and the role of planners and councillors. This is the first in a series aims at people who know little about the planning process, so I’m really interested to see how it progresses.

Transportation is a major theme in the videos: an upcoming initiative will involve how we use transit maps for navigation and information. In “A Case for Protected Bike Lanes” (2014), students partnered with local paper The Coast and the Halifax Cycling Coalition to show the cycling environment on some of the city streets by showing how dangerous it would be for a pedestrian to use the narrow afterthought of space on the right side of the road. They peppered the video with statistics on cycling safety: in the city’s Active Transportation Plan, over 40% of Halifax residents expressed an interest in cycling if it were safer. Halifax’s transportation plan states that it wants to double the rate of cycling by 2026.

In “Cars vs Pedestrians” (2015) students discuss the proposed hike in Provincial fines for pedestrian crossing infractions to almost $700. They ask whether our crosswalks are set up to encourage or deter use, showing examples of intersections that are difficult to cross as pedestrians: long signal timing, deceptive curb cuts, very long blocks present real barriers.

“What you Need to Know about HRM’s Centre Plan” (2016) goes over the region’s newest planning initiative and interviews some of the planners at HRM, and lets people know how they can get involved in the process.

Some of the videos explore historical issues. In “Down with the Cogswell Interchange” (2014) students explore the historical and present-day plans to take down the interchange and replace the streets with a more traditional grid street pattern. The stretch of arterial overpasses is just 1 km long, and doesn’t do much to handle traffic anymore. Students do a good job of reviewing the critical planning decisions that changed history, such as Gordon Stephenson’s A Redevelopment Study of Halifax, Nova Scotia (1957). It was based on this report that city council decided to build the interchange, among other ill-fated decisions like demolishing the existing African Canadian community Africville (which the students show as the proverbial “elephant in the room” at about the four-minute mark in the video). They really packed a lot of information into a six-minute video!

In a video profiling Halifax’s Viola Desmond (2014), a black businesswoman in the city with a hair salon on Gottingen Street, students touch on the history of racism in the city. Desmond’s car broke down on a business trip through New Glasgow in 1946, and while waiting for it to be repaired she decided to watch a movie at the Roseland Theatre. She was asked to leave because she was sitting in the whites-only main floor seating, refused to pay the one-cent difference in ticket prices to sit in the other section. She was eventually escorted out by police and spent the night in jail on a tax evasion charge. This occurred nine years before the famous Rosa Parks incident in the US. Desmond took action against the Province of Nova Scotia, who didn’t formally apologize and pardon Desmond until 2010. Her gravesite is in the Camp Hill Cemetery in Halifax.

PLANifax shows a tremendous initiative by students, many of whom are undergraduates who moved to the city to study planning. Their “outsider view” on the city and region is critical, because this distance allows their work to be instructive for anyone who is just beginning to understand planning as a practice that shapes so much of our urban environment. Here’s hoping PLANifax can live up to its hope “to be to planning what Bill Nye was to science”!

 

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Book launch postcard-Vancouver

 

Last September, I took a position as a Visiting Assistant Professor at the University of Oregon. Even though the position was only for nine months, and required me relocating across the continent to the US, I decided it was worth it. For those of you in a PhD or postdoc, you probably understand this decision–we are all taught that academic jobs are scarce and that we should jump at the chance to take whatever we get. Private sector professionals in urban planning often balance local and international contracts–the larger firms regularly bid on jobs in the US, South America, Europe, and Asia. For those of you working in the public sector, one of the last bastions of job stability, my decision may make less sense.

Contract, temporary, and precarious work has hit virtually every sector and industry. You would be hard pressed to find an office environment, trade, or career option that does not begin with unpaid internships, years of job insecurity, and/or lack of employee benefits. I know people in fields as diverse as nursing, education, and accounting who have had difficulty securing permanent or even long-term employment in their fields. On the other end of the spectrum, it’s not uncommon for a seasoned professional with over twenty years’ experience in their field to go out on their own as a consultant. Academic job scarcity has been intensified during the era of “adjunctification”, which began back in the late 1980s and has reached epic proportions in the US and Canada. For every three retirements, a planning department may be able to hire one new assistant professor. Limited-term teaching-only contracts are now all the rage.

I worked short-term contracts in landscape architecture and public sector research before returning to graduate school, then kept at it during the six years it took to get my Masters and Ph.D. I decided to apply to the Ph.D. because I wanted to do research–not necessarily academic research, but I wanted to apply the methods I had learned in graduate school to help solve real world problems. With that end in sight, I tried to maintain my connection to the practice of planning by attending events hosted by the Planning Institute of British Columbia and met local planners at events hosted by the School of Community and Regional Planning. I also published three peer-reviewed publications, a book review, a couple of freelance articles, and hundreds of blog posts here.

During the final year of my Ph.D. I began looking for research contract work–it was 2010 and the US recession was in full swing. I knew that it could be some time before I found an academic position and in the meantime I wanted to keep doing research. I soon found a contract with a local non-profit working on a housing program evaluation, then another similar evaluation, and then a contract for a study on social enterprises in affordable housing. By this time I had finished my Ph.D. and was on the job market for the second time.

In the spring of 2012 I had a number of job interviews and that May I received three job offers within two weeks. The best of these was a two-year research position at the University of Amsterdam studying transit-oriented development. After careful consideration (it involved an international move, visas, and putting my possessions into storage while I was away), I decided to take the position.

During the two years in Amsterdam I taught a metropolitan transportation planning course and the masters research colloquium, conducted research on the iTOD project, met regularly with the project team from two other Dutch universities, organized a monthly meeting of transportation researchers in the department, and helped plan an international housing conference. I signed a contract with Oxford University Press for my first book, published three articles, an encyclopedia entry, a book review, and two freelance articles. I had five interviews with universities for tenure-track positions.

But despite all this, I found myself without a position at the end of my postdoc in the summer of 2014. I decided to regroup and focus my energies into planning practice–by then I had spent four years on the academic job search and I just wasn’t feeling it anymore. I returned to Toronto, where I’d lived during my undergraduate degree, and started a contract position at the provincial government. I had finished my required years of experience to become a professional planner, so I took the next step towards becoming a full member of the Canadian Institute of Planners. Planning faculty and friends (especially those who were now postdocs) kept encouraging me to apply to tenure-track positions, so I did. I had an interview in the spring of 2015, and after it was unsuccessful I got reckless. I applied to a couple of one-year positions. I was tired of interviewing–bone tired. I was tired of trying to downplay my academic expertise in public-sector interviews, and tired of downplaying my consulting expertise in academic interviews. I felt a surge of anger when anyone asked “But what do you want to do–be a professor or be a consultant?”, as if I had a choice in the matter.

Finally, the University of Oregon bit. The contract was in a planning program with a stellar reputation for experiential learning–the students work on real world projects, so my consulting experience was as valuable as my academic training. Spending nine months teaching, including designing a course where students worked with a municipality on their affordable housing plan, was valuable in so many ways. Not only did I hone my teaching skills with some of the best instructors I’ve ever met, but working at an American school somehow made me viable on the academic market.

Even as I decided, in the fall of 2015, to give it “one more go”, I knew that I’d likely be unsuccessful. In fact, a consultation with Kellee Weinhold from The Professor Is In reinforced that as a candidate who has been on the market for five years, my chances of getting a tenure-track job were next to nothing. She told me that schools prefer the linear career path: finish the PhD, get a tenure-track position where you will continue research on the same question(s). There is no tolerance for postdocs that diverge from the path or time spent working outside of academia, even though the market has basically eliminated the linear career trajectory. But despite her foreboding, I was offered six campus visit interviews across the US and Canada. I spent a total of 24 days travelling over three months, while teaching two courses. A few days after my last interview, I received the print copies of the book I’d begun working on back in 2012. A few weeks later, at the end of April 2016, I had two tenure-track job offers. I’m happy to announce that I will be starting at Dalhousie University in the School of Planning, Faculty of Architecture and Planning, on July 1st.

It’s the end of a five-year road that involved working in three countries, gambling on three short-term contracts, and buying/selling household goods innumerable times. Filing taxes in the US, Canada, and The Netherlands. Making lifelong friends who are now working in London, Birmingham, Amsterdam, Den Haag, Groningen, and Brisbane, and overjoyed to begin collaborating on research. It’s been a long road, and I certainly wouldn’t advise others to “keep applying” in perpetuity. People mean well, but there has to be a better solution than this. Not everyone can sacrifice this much–some of the best candidates out there may not be able to pick up and move to another country for a one- or two-year contract. At some point, most of us decide we want stable, well-paying jobs–we have to give up the endless annual cycle of applying and interviewing. We ask too much of our aspiring academics, and also our aspiring teachers, nurses, and accountants–much more than was ever demanded of the generations that came before. Eliminating the majority of long-term and permanent contracts, devaluing our skilled workforces, and discriminating against those whose career paths have been more erratic than linear (yet somehow stayed employed during one of the worst recessions in history) are not the answers to economic efficiency. We need to restore those long-term and permanent jobs that help guarantee more equitable workplaces, more productive employees, and more satisfied “clients”, whoever they may be. The University of Oregon, under new President Michael Schill, recently decided to hire 80 new tenure-track professors in the next five years to bring us up to a higher ratio of permanent to non-permanent faculty. I’d love to see other schools take similar approaches to fixing a problem that has strained the higher education system to the breaking point.

Book launch postcard-Vancouver

As most of you know, I’m currently a Visiting Professor at the University of Oregon at the Department of Planning, Public Policy, and Management. One of the reasons I took the position was the university’s amazing Sustainable City Year Program, which has been running for six years now. This year’s partner is the City of Redmond, a rapidly growing city of about 20,000 on the east side of the Cascade Mountains in Oregon’s High Desert. The City identified a list of projects in the spring of 2015 that they needed help with, and the result is 22 courses at the university focused on Redmond.

I’ve been working hard at designing one of my winter term courses, Housing Policy, around one of Redmond’s identified interests. They adopted an Affordable Housing Strategy in 2007, which was unfortunate timing with the mortgage crisis striking the US the following year. Now that it’s time to review the strategy, Redmond is looking for ideas on the AHS.

I typically design my courses with a lecture on one day and an application and reflection activity on the next–Oregon courses are always on two separate days (Tues/Thurs or Mon/Wed). For this course, the students will be divided into groups, with one focusing on the policy side and the other on the implementation side.

  • On the policy project, students will review the AHS and Comprehensive Plan, as well as other relevant policy documents. They will be looking for areas of overlap and points of implementation for key AHS strategies.
  • On the implementation side, students will be designing an interview guide that they will use in interviewing key informants (planners, housing associations, community groups) to determine barriers to implementation of current and proposed AHS strategies.

Students will be able to work on the group project during the weekly application and reflection sessions. This is a mixed undergraduate/graduate course, with eight undergrads and three grads. It’s similar in makeup to a course I taught last term, Seminar in Sustainable Transportation. This does require some extra thought in terms of assignments, in this case getting the Masters students to be responsible for managing the projects and making sure everyone is following the schedule, for a separate grade.

Tomorrow we start off with a bang, and Friday we have our field trip to Redmond where we’ll meet with Grant Program Manager Chelsea Dickens and Assistant Program Administrator Ginny McPherson. I’ll be updating you from time to time on the course.

By now we’ve all heard about the Syrian refugee crisis and listened to the arguments for and against welcoming high numbers of refugees into our countries. Municipal and regional governments must also consider how they will adapt to hundreds or thousands of new residents in their cities.

By the end of this year, Germany will welcome over a million refugees from Syria and at least thirty percent of them will be formally accepted as refugees. For a variety of reasons, German mayors have been overjoyed to add these new residents to their population base–to rebuild their labour and tax base, repurpose abandoned housing or other surplus buildings, or take advantage of new funding for housing designated by the national government. Germany has an aging population and one of the lowest birth rates in the world.

Short-term housing needs are at the top of the list of considerations for municipalities and regions–in cities like Berlin, sports arenas and even airports have been used for emergency housing. German ministers recently met to rewrite the country’s rigorous building code to allow hundreds of thousands of prefab public housing units can be built in mere months–up to 35,000 this year and another 35,000 next year. Housing Minister Barbara Hendricks pledged $270 million for this rapid construction and also doubled municipalities’ existing $770 million budget for public housing.

Refugees are allotted into cities by quota, depending on cities’ size, labour market, and demographics: for example, the less diverse a city, the more likely it will receive a higher number of refugees. Berlin is obliged to take 5% of all refugees. There are 16 German regions, and special trains from Munich allow refugees to travel to their new homes.

Shrinking cities, like Leipzig, see the incoming refugees as both a responsibility and and an opportunity for renewed growth–with labour market shortages and BMW and Porsche factories, there are ample opportunities for newcomers. Other cities, which may have surplus housing leftover from booming economic times but no real industries to offer jobs, are in weaker positions. Cities such as Neukolln, where half of the population does not speak German as a first language, have not been assigned any quotas because they are already diverse, and likely to attract refugees and immigrants in the second wave of migration because they have a variety of economic opportunities and ethnic communities.

While there are obvious problems with trying to resettle refugees in areas that may not offer them the cultural, language, and other support they need to thrive, these issues could be partially addressed through targeted service provision in addition to the new housing. For example, providing resettlement and counselling support to those who have fled intolerable political persecution, employment support, language classes, and opportunities for children and youth to socialize and learn about their new country. Offering micro-loans to accepted refugees who would like to start their own businesses may help in the establishment of ethnic grocery stores, credit unions, and other services for the Syrian community. While these efforts may not be enough to keep refugees in German cities cities that do not offer long-term economic or social inclusion opportunities, they would be critical in preventing isolation, frustration, and the development of income-enforced enclaves (where people live because they feel have no other economic or socio-cultural ability to move out). While it’s natural for ethnic communities to form around social, religious, or language needs, people should be able to work, go to school, or do everyday activities with members of other ethnocultural groups. Extraordinary efforts also need to be made in cities/regions that had previously been shrinking: they would have to supply more teachers, more health care workers, more public transit service to serve the increased population.

This is assuming that the German public accepts the long-term integration of refugees, which could be a problem. Like many countries, short-term economic integration (like their “guest” worker category for Turkish men from the 1960s and 1970s) has been accepted, but long-term is another story. It was just this year that the German Parliament passed legislation to allow children of migrants who were raised or educated in the country to adopt German citizenship, while keeping their own. It remains to be seen whether Germans will accept the influx of Syrians in the long run.

When I received an offer from the University of Oregon to become a visiting assistant professor this fall, I decided to try and find out as much as possible about what it meant to be in this role. Although sessional, adjunct, and visiting professor positions have become much more common in recent years (in what some call the “adjunctification of academia“) I really couldn’t find many articles out there on what it was actually like to be a visiting prof, and those I did find were on the negative side.

I should preface this by saying that in community and regional planning, it is common for adjuncts teach many of our courses, as practical experience in planning is considered a major strength to bring to the teaching environment. We aren’t “ivory tower” academics in planning–for the most part, anyway. At UBC, where I did my Ph.D., courses such as cost benefit analysis, regional planning, and housing policy were routinely taught by planners working at local municipalities or in private practice. Often these were well-known planners like Ann McAfee, Larry Beasley, Mark Holland, and Michael Gordon. Although the Planning Accreditation Board sometimes frowns on the practice, the reality is that the strengths far outweigh the weaknesses of incorporating adjunct teaching into planning degrees. Here at the University of Oregon, non-tenure track faculty regularly teach courses such as land use planning, professional development, environmental impact assessment. They also lead the Sustainable City Year Program, Community Planning Workshop, and Oregon Leadership in Sustainability (OLIS) certificate, three hands-on opportunities for students to work on real projects with community partners. One of the reasons UO hired me was because I have a lot of practical experience, including consulting, working for non-profits, provincial and federal governments, and private practice.

This is not to discount the very real problem of universities taking advantage of young scholars, particularly since the Great Recession, but really since the mid-1980s, as full-time tenure-track positions have given way to part-time, temporary, adjunct positions. But, as planning is perhaps “more practical” than many other degrees out there, it means that our PhDs are often able to find jobs in government, non-profits, private practice, or in research organizations. I can think of two colleagues from UBC: one works at a very successful development firm and the other worked in government for several years and recently started a non-profit organization. It’s also very common to have years of work experience before starting a Ph.D. in planning. So we aren’t as hard pressed to shoehorn our academic skills into “real world” jobs if academia doesn’t provide us wtih opportunities, as I found when I attended meetings of the Versatile PhD in Toronto. Young people in PhD programs such as history, english, and sociology who were thinking about non-academic (or alt-ac) careers were having a particularly hard time transitioning from cv’s to resumes, research to practice, and scholarly work to client-based work. Even those in the hard sciences were facing a transition from lab work to industry professions.

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Getting used to the UOregon campus, this is me in front of the Dads’ Gates

Since I had a hard time trying to make the experiences of visiting profs in non-planning fields apply to my own situation, I’d like to describe what things are like so far. I think it’s important that other potential visiting profs out there know more about this option. First, it’s important to note that I am fully accepted as a member of the UO faculty, including attending faculty meetings, having an office where students can come during office hours, attending the annual faculty retreat and orientation for new Masters students. I’ve read other articles where the authors noted their peripheral status as a faculty member, but I’m happy to report that isn’t the case at UO, where I was whole-heartedly accepted and introduced to everyone from department staff to faculty in allied departments to students that I will be advising this year. Second, I’ve been given the opportunity to attend new faculty orientation, benefits orientation, and Canvas training (as the UO is switching from Blackboard to Canvas this year), all of which I’ve done in my first few weeks on campus. There are lots of other training opportunities through the Teaching and Learning Centre and the university library as well. Third, my colleagues have been exceptionally welcoming and excited about me becoming a part of their team for the coming year. They’ve helped get me used to the administrative structure of the department and university and answered lots of questions on teaching responsibilities, assignments, grading, and advising Masters students. The staff has also been exceptional in helping me adjust to life in PPPM (Planning, Public Policy and Management).

I am in a teaching-only position, as it only lasts from September to June, which doesn’t leave a lot of time to apply for/receive research funding. I am replacing two faculty members who are on sabbatical, and teach two courses per term for three terms. I have so far had ample time to plan the courses for the Fall term, which are familiar to me: a seminar in sustainable transportation and the masters research methods course on research design, very similar to the two courses I taught at the University of Amsterdam. The Winter term includes housing policy and an introduction to planning, which will require more work to prepare, and in the Spring term I will repeat the intro with a larger class (with TAs) and add land use planning as well. The schedule means that I start out easy (with courses I have taught before and smaller class sizes) and gradually need to put in more time (developing new courses and teaching larger classes), another clue that my fellow faculty members really thought about how to transition me into teaching this year.

The obvious downside is that I had to relocate from Toronto to Eugene, and an international move is not the easiest thing to do with just a couple of months notice. The administrative adjustment is not quick or easy, nor is finding an apartment and furnishing it for nine months–I was super lucky that a staff member in the department helped out with these tasks. Luckily, Eugene is a college town and everything from rental leases to internet service is based on nine-month contracts! There is also no guarantee that this position will lead to other positions in academia, tenure-track or otherwise. For those of you keeping track, I have been searching for a more permanent position in academia since 2010, but have been able to secure a two-year research gig, a ten-month government contract, and start up my own consulting practice in the meantime. I chose to see this gig as a nine-month contract similar to the one I recently completed in the provincial government in Ontario, and to accept the fact that the world is moving away from permanent employment and that there is a lot to be gained from learning new perspectives and teaching in a new context. Because UO’s focus is on integrating research and practice in sustainability, I will be able to take this experience into future teaching either as a tenure-track or adjunct professor. I’ve come to accept that in the future I’ll be doing some research, some writing, and some teaching–whether it’s as a consultant or as a tenure-track faculty member.

Classes start this week, and I’ll be updating you on how the term goes. But so far, this visiting prof gig is pretty sweet, and for those of you who are on the academic market, it may be a good option for you if you’re willing/able to relocate for a mere nine months, you are able to work in a supportive work environment and are well compensated. If you have small children or family to support in your current town, a partner with a location-dependent job, or if the salary you’re offered is not enough to compensate your relocation for a short term (e.g. for planners, it is less than you would make in a practical planning or consulting position in your own town), then you might want to forgo these types of opportunities. Also, if you have your heart set on a career in academia and can’t accept the fact that this type of position may not lead you there, you might want to skip it. There is no right or wrong path, only the one that makes the most sense for your life and situation.

Reversing former mayor Rob Ford’s decision to slash the municipal budget by decreasing transit service, Mayor John Tory and TTC Chair Josh Colle have announced service improvements on the city’s 33 busiest bus and streetcar routes starting this fall.

With a $95 million transit investment in this year’s City budget, increases to service will be in off-peak times where ridership growth is strongest. Colle estimates that 55 million passenger trips annually will benefit from the service increase, and 2 million additional trips could be generated. Tory linked better transit service to the city’s poverty reduction strategy, saying that people need transit to access jobs. Improvements to 61 bus routes on overnight and all day service were announced earlier this year.

Tory began taking action to reverse Ford’s cuts to transit immediately after winning the 2014 municipal election, approving of many of the TTC’s suggested service improvements released just before the election. Running on a platform of regional express rail, Tory seemed to view transit as at least part of the solution to Toronto’s wicked transportation problem. But recently he took a more conservative stand on the Gardiner Expressway proposal before council, favouring the hybrid alternative rather than removal of the eastern section of the expressway.

You’ve spent several few hours of your time attending public meetings hosted by your municipality on the development of a new plan. You had to rearrange your child care and leave work early to attend. Wouldn’t you love to know how your comments on the proposed plan were used?

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A page from the 2013-2014 Implementation Update

You may have heard about the City of Vancouver’s Greenest City 2020 Action Plan. Launched in 2010, the Action Plan planning process included a public engagement campaign that allowed residents to crowdsource ideas in an online forum. The Plan has ten goal areas, each with a specific 2020 target. The question asked in the forum was “How can we achieve reach our 2020 targets?” Guided by City staff, who moderated the forum, answered questions, and clarified levels of responsibility in implementation, participants suggested ways in which to meet the targets. Ideas were then reviewed and consolidated by staff, and participants were then able to vote on the ideas. As the status of an idea changed (under consideration, planned, started, completed, or declined), every person who voted on, commented on, or submitted the idea was notified by email. Since 2011, the City has published its progress on meeting the targets. The Greenest City 2020 Action Plan won the 2012 Sustainable communities Award from the Federation of Canadian Municipalities.

Five years after participating in the online forum, I still receive Greenest City Newsletters. They contain information about events in the city (e.g. Bike to Work Week, the BC Commuter Challenge, the proposed Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain Pipeline) and ways that residents can help meet the goals, such as using a rain barrel for collecting water to be used for lawns and plans. At the bottom of each section, they site the relevant Greenest City goal: Green Transportation, Climate Leadership, Clean Water. And each newsletter has dozens of links to City initiatives and programs.

Just last week I received an update that the City was already meeting its Greenest City 2020 goal for transportation mode share: 50% of all trips in the City are now made by walking, cycling, or public transit. This is a major increase from 40% in 2008. There are almost 100,000 bike trips per day in the City. Vancouver has done a lot to mainstream cycling, including designated cycling routes with signals at bike height and installing protected bike lanes on the Burrard Bridge, Hornby Street, and Union. Many of these changes have been introduced through pilot projects, which were carefully evaluated before becoming permanent.

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A screen shot of the May 2015 newsletter

In the past few years I have visited many universities in Canada, the US and Europe, and I often get to speak to local planners and scholars in urban planning. Every one of them has been amazed at the Greenest City newsletters. Not only was the planning process itself innovative, but the way in which the City has kept in touch with participants on how the plan is being implemented is very unusual. Many municipal planning websites are difficult to navigate–it can take some sleuthing to find the official plan, by-law, or meeting information that you need. All of the information for the Greenest City is in one place, so it’s easy to see the progress that’s been made, like the establishment of the Greenest City Fund to implement the ideas in the Plan, strategies on climate change, a new program on recycling food scraps, and improvements to walking and cycling routes. The newsletters make it easy to understand all of the policies, programs, and initiatives that directly relate to the plan, and they’re written in non-specialist language and designed with compelling graphics.

Obviously, Vancouver is a large city and its planning department has more resources than a small or mid-sized planning department might have. However, partnerships with universities and colleges might make it easier to reach out to residents and keep them up to date on planning initiatives, particularly on the social media front. City councillors might also be willing partners in communicating progress on implementation, since many of them send regular newsletters to their constituents. Most cities haven’t caught up to online participation methods, and don’t have well-organized websites or regular email updates for their residents. Practicing planners regularly check out plans, policies, and programs in other municipalities to inspire their own work, so providing clear online information and regular updates might inspire policy transfer and innovation in other places.

London,_Ontario,_Canada-_The_Forest_City_from_above

As a planner educated in British Columbia, there are number of things about Ontario’s system that make little sense to me, first and foremost the Ontario Municipal Board and its stranglehold on urban development. There are other oddities too, like the lack of coordination between provincial plans and lower-tier plans within the same upper-tier municipality, and the seemingly unending appeals that are allowed on virtually any planning decision–despite the requirement of the Planning Act to include public participation/consultation in planning processes.

No other province has an independent administrative board that hears as many appeals on municipal planning disputes as the OMB: in 2011, the City of Toronto had 121 cases at the OMB involving 240 days of hearings. The system favours the party who can pay more for legal advice, usually developers, while community associations hold fundraisers to build up hundreds of thousands of dollars in anticipated fees. And most disturbing of all, it isn’t just cases of individual buildings or lot disputes that make it to the OMB–it is currently permissible to appeal an entire municipal official plan. Even though a municipality is required to update its official plan every five years, the plan has often not made it through the OMB by the time a new one is required (go online and download your municipality’s OP and you’re likely to see an entire section at the front listing all the policies that are still at the OMB due to “site specific issues”). This “death by a thousand swords” is diluting any sustainable, innovative planning approaches that municipalities dare to produce and slowing planning to a standstill. And it’s completely unnecessary: no other province has an adjudicative tribunal with the scope and power of the OMB.

Surprisingly, all of this might be changing in the near future. When Kathleen Wynne won the provincial election last summer, she set out mandates for the provincial ministries. The priorities for the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing included:

  • Moving Forward on Social and Affordable Housing
  • Improving Land Use Planning
  • Reviewing Provincial Growth and Greenbelt Plans
  • Reviewing Municipal Governance
  • Strengthening Partnerships with Municipalities
  • Amending the Building Code
  • Reviewing Disaster Response
  • Developing a Community Hubs Policy

MMAH is making steady progress on these goals, including the coordinated review of the Growth Plan for the Greater Golden Horseshoe, Greenbelt Plan, Oak Ridges Moraine Conservation Plan and Niagara Escarpment Plan, which is now at the stage of public consultation.

A couple of weeks ago, MMAH announced that it is proposing sweeping changes to the way land use planning is done in the province, in fulfilment of its mandate which recommended a review of the scope and effectiveness of the Ontario Municipal Board, amending the Planning Act and Development Charges Act to improve planning and develop more sustainable communities, requiring citizen input during the planning process and reducing the number of applications to the OMB. The proposed Bill 73, Smart Growth for Our Communities Act, aims to introduce the following changes to the Planning Act:

  • Two-year moratoriums on development applications–no official plan may be amended within two years of its adoption. This also applies to zoning by-law amendments.
  • Limitations on applications to the OMB, including put an end to global official plan appeal, ending appeals to lower-tier plans not in conformity with upper-tier plans, and ending appeals to any part of an official plan implementing provincial policy related to the Greenbelt Act, Clean Water Act, Growth Plan forecasts, or settlement area boundaries
  • Additional emphasis on public participation–requiring Official Plans to include a description of public participation to be undertaken during OP amendments, zoning by-law amendments, minor variances, consents, and plans of subdivision and requiring Councils to actually explain how public comments affected their decision on development applications
  • An extension of the 180-day period for decisions on Official Plans and Official Plan Amendments–currently anyone may appeal an authority’s failure to make a decision in respect to an OP or OPA if a notice of decision hasn’t been made within 180 days. It is proposed that this be extended by another 90 days
  • New criteria, designated by the Minister, for minor variances that would be over and above those set out in subsection 45(1) of the Planning Act
  • Extending the review cycle of the Provincial Planning Statement and Official Plans to ten years, rather than the current five year cycle
  • Requiring park plans and reducing cash-in-lieu of parkland for residential subdivisions
  • Introducing additional transparency and accounting requirements for Section 37 (Community Benefits), which allows municipalities to collect money to be used for community benefits such as affordable housing and public amenities
  • Introducing mandatory planning and advisory committees for upper- and single-tier municipalities in the province
  • Allowing the Minister and upper-tier municipalities to require a Development Permit System for prescribed circumstance

Proposed changes to the Development Act include:

  • Improved capital recovery for transit through development charges–currently capital costs for services are reduced by 10% when calculating development charges unless the service is included in a list of services for which no such reduction is required. Bill 73 proposes to add transit to this list
  • The requirement for background studies supporting development would be expanded to include an asset management plan, showing the financial sustainability of all assets through their life-cycle
  • Additional reporting requirements on the use of funds

This is a remarkably bold set of amendments which will likely do a lot to streamline planning within the province. Putting an end to several of the most controversial practices (appealing an entire official plan, amending an OP days immediately its adoption, and appealing policies that aim at implementing provincial policies or plans) is likely to find favour among planners and public administrators in the province and contribute to a less complicated system overall. Extending the deadline for issuing a decision on an OP or OPA also makes sense–it’s often difficult for smaller municipalities, or overworked larger ones, to respond within the current timeline. The City of Toronto, like other municipalities in the province, has been working towards a Development Permit System. Many of the other proposed amendments deal with clarity and legitimacy–wouldn’t you like to know how your comments were used in a development application decision, or how your municipality used the funds they collected to be used for public amenities? Clarity and legitimacy were addressed in the debates on Bill 73 in the Legislative Assembly as well. Overall, it’s like a breath of fresh air is finally making it past the stodgy gatekeepers of Ontario Planningland.

The First Reading of Bill 73 was on March 5th and by April 21st it was in the debates preceding the Second Reading. You can monitor the progress of Bill 73 here.