Monday, July 28, 2008

The Island as Sustainable Community

In many ways, an island is the perfect environment to examine issues of local sustainability. Not only are the boundaries clearly defined, but the costs and consequences of relying on food, goods and jobs from beyond those boundaries are considerably amplified and therefore particularly visible.

I just got back from a week-long trip visiting my sister on Salt Spring Island, BC, so I thought it might be useful to examine how a place like that functions and just how sustainable and resilient it really is.

The Island

Salt Spring Island is located off the east coast of Vancouver Island, directly north of Victoria, and is the largest of the Southern Gulf Islands. The population consists of about 10,000 permanent residents, but summer brings large numbers of tourists to the island. The largest town is Ganges, and there are two smaller towns, Fulford and Vesuvius Bay, which also serve as boarding points for ferry service to other islands and the mainland. The terrain is mountainous, but there are large areas of good farmland in the valleys and at the north end of the island.


Salt Spring is becoming famous for its local wines and cheeses. Many of the farms on the island grow organic produce and other crops, and there is some livestock as well - notably lamb and dairy cows. The grocery stores all carry a good selection of local foods, and there is a very well attended weekly farmers' market in Ganges.

The problem is, the abundance of local food available on Salt Spring is largely an illusion. According to a study conducted in 2005 examining produce farming on the island, only about 5% of the food consumed on Salt Spring is actually produced there. The rest, about four million pounds a year, is ferried in.

The reasons cited for this surprisingly low percentage were varied: the low percentage of active farmland engaged in commercial produce (about 6%); reliance on manual labour rather than appropriate mechanization; lack of farm labourers and lack of affordable rental housing for labourers; lack of larger scale processing and storage facilities, etc.

The study found that producers are, for the most part, selling all of their crops. And, at this volume at least, most prefer to sell retail rather than wholesaling. At the same time, retail grocers and some restaurants reported that they are not able to source an adequate supply of quality Salt Spring produce to meet their requirements. At present Salt Spring produce represents only about 5% of all the produce being transported onto the island.

Clearly, the island is not even close to growing enough produce to feed the population. Changing this situation would mean significantly increasing production. The study found that there are a number of commercial farmers interested in doing this. If this is to happen, however, many obstacles will have to be addressed including: improving the efficiency of farm work through appropriate mechanization; business planning to ensure financial sustainability; and engaging the community in supporting local food security with their food dollars.

One thing I noticed that was not mentioned in the study was that much of the food production on Salt Spring is geared towards the tourist and export markets, with highly specialized and expensive items like artisanal cheeses and wines dominating. While this type of food production is vital to the local economy, it isn't going to feed 10,000 people.

Map of Salt Spring Island showing
Agricultural Land Reserve

For more information, read the 'Plan to Farm' document, which addresses all of these issues and proposes concrete solutions. The plan was prepared for Salt Spring Island but the ideas are also applicable to other rural communities such as Milton.


Most energy used on Salt Spring Island is electrical, even for home heating, although low and high efficiency wood stoves are also fairly common. Electricity is supplied from Vancouver Island via undersea cables; as far as I am aware, none is generated on the island. An energy strategy study from 2005 suggested an investigation of local power generation on a scale of about 5% through wind, solar and micro-hydro, but so far nothing seems to have been done.


Aside from a few small privately owned boats, access to the island is entirely through BC Ferry service. A return trip for one person in a car ranges from about $40 to Vancouver Island to over $100 to the mainland. Trucks pay more.

As far as local transportation goes, while the towns themselves are very compact and walkable, getting there from the rural areas or from other towns still generally requires the use of a car. Cycling even moderate distances is difficult for all but the most hardened athletes due to the terrain, and even for them it's a hazardous undertaking because the roads are narrow and twisting with no shoulder, and the drivers all take them at full speed.

One common and rather unique form of local transportation is hitchhiking. Driving the main Fulford-Ganges Road it is not unusual to spot three or four people by the road with their thumbs out, and they rarely have to wait long for a ride. While in most parts of the country hitching a ride can be a rather dangerous proposition for both rider and driver, on Salt Spring the community is so small and tightly knit that it's considered a safe and efficient form of ride sharing.

Salt Spring recently instituted a public transit system, but so far it is somewhat underused.

Economy, Employment and Housing

Ferry costs make commuting off the island for work pretty much out of the question for most, and bringing in outside workers for summer jobs or farm work is made even more difficult by high housing costs and lack of available rental units.

The economy on Salt Spring is largely tourism-related, with a high percentage of residents who run their own crafts or other businesses, or who are employed in the service sector.

A large artist and artisan community sells its wares principally through the '100% Local' Saturday Market in Ganges, which draws thousands of people every week from the island and beyond. However, with a worsening economy and high fuel prices now resulting in a new surcharge on ferry rates, there is concern that those tourist dollars might be at risk and that the community might need to become even more self-sustaining economically.


While Salt Spring Island is in many ways a model of local sustainability, and the people there take great pride in their local foods, wines and crafts, it is clear that the island still has a long way to go towards becoming truly sustainable and self-sufficient. But the potential certainly exists for Salt Spring Island to feed, power and employ itself. It has done so in the past and could easily do so again.

Happily, enthusiasm for and understanding of sustainability issues is extremely high among island residents, and many practical solutions have already been worked out in detail. So it's really only a matter of time before those solutions begin to be put into place on a broad scale.

Now we just need something like that for Milton.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Milton Draws its 'Line in the Sand' with Region

From today's Milton Champion:

Town setting growth 'rules' with Region

The Town is laying out ground rules that it wants the Region to follow when it comes to local residential growth beyond 2021.

The proposed list of growth principles prepared by Town staff went before town council at an information workshop held Monday afternoon.

The item comes in response to the Region's Sustainable Halton plan, which is being developed to steer future growth while preserving and protecting things like greenspace and farmland.

As part of the process, Region staff has come up with five concepts that show how about 2,400 hectares of 'greenfields,' or undeveloped land, in Milton and Halton Hills could accommodate 120,000 people and the needed community infrastructure between 2021 and 2031.

(...) In response to the concepts, [Town] staff developed a list that tells the Region the Town will accept residential growth beyond 2021 only on the basis of the following principles, including:

- Balanced residential and employment growth based upon a minimum .5 employee-to-resident ratio

- Increased financial support from the Region relating to capital projects, with transportation/transit and water/wastewater systems as a priority

- Encouraged financial assistance from the Province for hospitals, schools and transit, including things like legislative changes to development charges

- Continued and respected input into the Region's evaluation of the proposed growth concepts, all the while respecting Milton's Strategic Plan goals and objectives

- That the cost of providing lake-based servicing to Halton Hills be borne by Halton Hills' landowners/developers, and that Halton Hills development doesn't impede Milton's ability to manage its growth

What I find most interesting about this list of "principles" is that every one of them is about money.

The sad thing is, the 'Sustainable Halton' plan is actually very good. Although it takes as a given that the population and urban area of Milton will expand significantly (which it already has), and although the suggested population density for new residential developments is shockingly low (50 people + jobs/hectare), it does take into account things like continuity and preservation of as much agricultural land as possible, recognition of the special needs of the greenhouse/market garden areas along Eighth Line, the integration of rail, transit and automobile transportation corridors and hubs, etc.

That's the big picture. The smaller picture - the actual implementation of this plan on a local level in terms of individual housing, retail and industrial developments, is the purview of the Town of Milton. But instead of going with the spirit and intent of the Region's plan and exploring innovative ways of creating sustainable new urban spaces (such as New Urbanist concepts, or, say, this development in Ottawa), the Town long ago chose to simply hand over the design of housing and retail developments to private corporations whose only purpose is to maximize profit per hectare.

The result, which may or may not adhere to the overall land use recommendations of 'Sustainable Halton', nevertheless makes 'New Milton' look like exactly the same barren wasteland of ticky-tacky houses and big box stores covering Brampton and Peel when viewed from street level.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

The Farmers' Market as "Third Place"

One of my fellow bloggers over at "Canada's World" recently posted a fascinating piece on the concept of 'Third Places':

Ray Oldenburg coined the term “Third Places” in 1989 to distinguish between one’s home (first places) and work (second places). Third places are those public locales that make you feel safe, comfortable and happy. Where you are likely to bump into someone you know. These are the coffee shops, street corners and park benches where people of a certain stage of life tend to gravitate, therefore increasing the chances of chance encounters.

Unfortunately, as our cities suburbanized and our movements became encased in personal automobiles, the number of third places in our lives has diminished. The fear of the uncontrollable spaces outside our private property has taken away the apparent randomness of kids meeting other kids as they prowl the empty spaces the working class leave behind at night. Uncertain exchanges and tentative acts of bravado with the kids two-streets over have been replaced by play dates and organized entertainment. Surprising conversations at the corner pub are losing ground to packed coffee houses silently listening to headphones and typing on laptops. Walkabouts to the local shops are a quaint pastime, whereas one-stop-shopping big-box-store efficiency is an everyday reality.

I had this in mind on Saturday as I did my weekly rounds at the Farmers' Market. At one point I bought myself one of the Scholarship Cafe's famous peameal-on-a-bun sandwiches, and as I stood on the sidewalk eating it I watched for these sorts of 'chance encounters' between people.

I counted at least half a dozen within earshot just in the five minutes or so that I stood there. Just people smiling and waving and saying "Hi! Howareya?" and starting up conversations.

This is why I focused on people-watching with this week's video. As you play it, keep an eye out for the interactions between people, as well as the variety of ages and social groups represented.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Garth on Sprawl

Our much maligned, beleaguered and beset MP Garth Turner managed to sum up many of the issues of urban sprawl on his blog today, with particular focus on the situation here in Milton. He even led with this shot of Mattamy's assembly line house factory:

I'm sorry, that just creeps me out.

Turner covers most of the bases, although he doesn't go so far as to present any concrete solutions. I suspect that there aren't many from a federal perspective. My response was as follows:

I got my first up-close look at where my new neighbours are living while (coincidentally) distributing Garth Turner fliers over the past few weeks.

Several things struck me:

1) In the two and a half or so hours I spent pounding the pavement, I saw exactly two other people using the sidewalks - one walking a dog, and another handing out newspapers.

2) The reason for this may be the fact that there is absolutely no shade to be found. Anywhere.

3) The second development I walked through wasn't bad, but the houses in first one (which was only a year old) all had peeling paint, heaved up paving and crumbling concrete on their steps and porches.

There are many, many things wrong with suburbia, particularly in its current, "insta-house" incarnation. Garth has covered most of them, but one thing we all have to remember is that the people living there aren't the enemy.

Too often in Milton I've heard disparaging, marginally racist comments made about "those people" who have suddenly invaded our town, as if somehow they are to blame for the mess. In fact, not only are they the victims in all this, they are actually responsible for the only upside in this whole fiasco: added racial and cultural diversity in Milton.

Hell, I can actually buy some decent East Indian junk food now!

By all means, blame the developers, although they are only doing what corporations do - maximizing profits. Even better, blame the municipal politicians who, seduced by the siren song of millions in added property taxes and development fees, have rubber stamped every single development application that has crossed their desks with the sole caveat that there be at least one Big Box complex for every eight square kilometres of McHouses.

The fact that they have suddenly realized that all the development fees they've been charging don't begin to cover the costs of servicing these developments, and in fact come too late to help anyone for years after they move in, elicits exactly zero sympathy from me.

And yet, they keep handing out those permits like candy and continue to leave all the fussy business of urban planning to corporations whose sole purpose is to squeeze as many high-priced, low-cost houses as they can into hundreds of undervalued acres of former farmland that we may never, ever get back.

They should all be run out of town on a rail.