Sunday, August 31, 2008

Welcome to Steam Era!

My only family connection to Milton is my uncle Bill. Bill Tom lived here with his wife and their three daughters during the 60s and early 70s, and was the vice-principal at the high school where my son is attending now.

I was too young to remember visiting them here, but apparently I did because one year, for my birthday, Bill gave me an old photo of my mother at the annual Milton Steam Era pushing me in a baby carriage. I'll try and find it so I can show you.

Steam Era takes place every Labour Day weekend at the Milton Fairgrounds about two blocks from my house. Every year, steam engine and antique tractor aficionados gather from across the province (and some from without) to show off their beauties, all lovingly restored and polished. It's one of those little sub-cultures that most people are never even aware of, but here in Milton it's a pretty big deal.

Here's what I get to watch every year from my front yard as they make their way from the Fairgrounds to the parade up Main Street.

It's on right through Monday - c'mon by and check it out!

Monday, August 11, 2008

My Garden: First Fruits

Through no fault of my own, my veggie garden has been growing like gangbusters over the past few weeks - likely the result of all the rain we've been getting. The weeds and oregano have also been growing like mad, but I've managed to keep the worst of them down.

I've already been harvesting the bok choy (which is looking more like Swiss chard these days and making me question my memory), and have gathered a couple of handfuls of snap peas and some gianormous snow peas. And this week, my first tomato started turning red!

That one is on the heirloom plant I bought from Willow Creek. It grew weeks before any of the others and has just been sitting there, biding it's time. The rest are starting to catch up, though. They all look like giant jalapenos.

My other tomatoes are all doing well, too...

... as are the mutant snow peas.

And I could have sworn this was bok choy. It certainly doesn't have that weird metal-on-teeth taste you get with chard... well, whatever. Leafy green stuff - it's all good.

Today I bought a book called "The Edible Canadian Garden", which has all sorts of very useful information that I probably should have had, you know, before I planted. But next year's garden is going to be awesome.

Hmm... maybe a greenhouse...

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Sustainable Wine

They just ran this fascinating piece on CNN about a Napa Valley vineyard that has taken great strides towards sustainable farming. Which is pretty remarkable given that California is one of the most over irrigated, over fertilized, chemical ridden farming regions on the planet.

Shafer Vineyards
used to be a traditional California wine operation, with bare soil between the vine rows cleared of every living thing by gallons of pesticides. Then the owner realized that if he planted cover crops like clover and vetch between the rows during the winter, not only would they provide habitat for beneficial insects like ladybugs and lacewings, but they would also prevent soil erosion, retain moisture, choke back other weeds, and when they died off in the summer, restore nutrients to the soil.

Since then, Shafer has taken other steps such as encouraging songbirds, raptors and bats to control pests, composting, setting up an irrigation pond and recycling all their water, and converting the winery to solar power.

Go to for more.

What I love about all this is that not only is it good for the planet, good for the soil and good for the wine - it's that aside from the solar panels, it doesn't cost the farmer a thing and saves him thousands in input costs. And although they don't mention how much the solar panels cost, they did mention that they used to spend $40,000 - $50,000 a year on electricity, whereas now they only spend about $1,500 to run the irrigation pumps - and that will be replaced with solar soon.

I think about this every time I hear farmers complain about Dion's carbon tax and how much it's going to raise they diesel and fertilizer costs and I just shake my head. But I know it's not that simple unless you run something like a winery where you're growing, processing, packaging and distributing everything yourself.

However, if you rely on corporate-owned refrigerated warehouses and processing plants, and mega supermarket chains that demand perfection, uniformity and durability in order to have a market for your crops, then your options for alternative farming methods are going to be limited.

I don't know what the solution is, but I hope the growing awareness of food-related issues on the part of the public will provoke a fundamental change in the system.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Canada in Transition

The CBC recently did a piece on Rob Hopkins and the Transition movement. It focused on Transition Town Totnes in England, as this is where the concept has been most thoroughly embraced and implemented. It also talks to people who are working towards starting similar initiatives in some Canadian towns and cities like Peterborough, Ontario and Port Alberni, BC.

If you've never heard of the Transition concept, here's how the website defines it:
A Transition Initiative is a community working together to look Peak Oil and Climate Change squarely in the eye and address this BIG question:

"for all those aspects of life that this community needs in order to sustain itself and thrive, how do we significantly increase resilience (to mitigate the effects of Peak Oil) and drastically reduce carbon emissions (to mitigate the effects of Climate Change)?"

It's a unique approach that focuses on permaculture principles and re-localization (local food, local energy, local industry, even local currency) as ways in which communities can make the transition to a much lower energy future.

There are many things I like about the Transition approach. One is that it's not doom and gloom. In fact, it's been described as "more of a party than a protest march" because it envisions a future without fossil fuels as actually being better than the world we're living in now.

Another thing that sets Transitions apart is that it tackles peak oil and climate change as two parts of the same problem instead of dealing with them in isolation.

The consequences of the 'one or the other' approach are beginning to be seen in the U.S. presidential campaign, where concerns over GHG emissions and climate change have suddenly fallen off the radar in the face of rising energy prices. Politicians from both parties are suddenly desperate to start drilling everywhere they can, and are eager to be seduced by the false promise of 'clean coal', ethanol, oil from shale, and anything else they can find that will allow them to continue feeding America's addiction and (consequently) pump even more carbon into our atmosphere.

On the other hand, many proposals aimed solely at reducing greenhouse gas emissions, such as carbon capture and storage, tree-based carbon offsets, and some rather imaginative proposals for re-engineering our atmosphere, fail to take the inevitable consequences of peak oil into account.

Some of the specific methods and 'consciousness building' exercises they propose are a bit hippy-dippy even for me (please, don't make me do the 'web exercise'), but the basic philosophy is sound and may be ideally suited for a country like Canada with its abundant resources, and where the remnants of the old farm, village and market town landscape can still be glimpsed under the sprawl, waiting to be revived.

(cross-posted from Canada's World)

Saturday, August 2, 2008

How Walkable Is Your Neighbourhood?

This is very, very cool.

There's a website called Walk Score where you can actually find out your neighbourhood's "walkability rating", based on proximity to grocery stores, parks, shops, restaurants, libraries, etc.

It's not a perfect system, particularly for smaller Canadian places like Milton. For example, none of the three closest grocery stores to my house are listed, nor is the movie theatre, and they don't include things like banks, schools or the post office. Still, it's a neat way to get a quick idea of just how walkable any neighbourhood is.

For example, if you just enter "Milton, Ontario", it comes up as 70/100, or "Very Walkable". However, that's for a location corresponding to Town Hall, right in the heart of downtown. If I enter my address on Commercial St., it comes up as 62, or "Somewhat Walkable". I suspect it would do better if those grocery stores were in there.

My son's friend lives in one of the '70s developments in the NE quadrant of town - his house scores a 58, only slightly less than mine. However, a friend of mine in another older development in the SE quadrant only gets a 32, or "Car-Dependant", although that is definitely because there are things missing from the map.

As for the new developments, here`s a random sampling:

Dixon Drive: 30
Weller Cross: 13
Yates Blvd.: 10
Lancaster Blvd.: 10
Pettit Trail: 18
Ferguson Drive: 12

Just for fun, I also entered the Toronto addresses for my first home near Avenue Rd. & Lawrence (only 37, but still pretty), my second home near York Mills and Bayview (30 - ouch!), and my first apartment on Dovercourt (80!)

Of course, none of this takes into account things like street width and design, trees, sidewalks, bike accessibility, etc., but it's still a lot of fun. So you tell me - how walkable is your neighbourhood?

Friday, August 1, 2008

The 'Building Complete Communities' Post-Summit Report is Here!

I'm excited! Aren't you excited?

Esther Shaye (Garth Turner's right hand woman) attended this summit of urban planning experts and regional and municipal leaders back in June, and was so excited she couldn't wait to call and tell me about it when she got back. Today, one of the co-sponsors of the event (the Canadian Urban Institute) released its post-summit report, along with presentations by CUI President Glen Murray and others.

The focus of the summit was primarily on service and infrastructure funding challenges and solutions for municipalities (particularly in Halton and Peel), but at the same time summit presenters emphasized that designing that infrastructure around compact, complete, sustainable communities isn't just a good idea - it's a necessity.

Complete communities require a financially sustainable growth management strategy, but they also require that we design our communities in a new way. This presents new challenges to municipalities where suburban expansion into rural areas has been the norm. As such, these new communities can be more costly to develop and maintain to the standards GTAH residents currently enjoy.

Affording this type of development in the GTAH requires a commitment to fiscal reform and innovation as far-reaching as the commitment to developing in a completely new way to implement the vision for the Growth Plan.

To summarize the road-blocks that need to be addressed and overcome:

• Development Charges that are calibrated to “business as usual” growth and not the rapid, compact form of growth projected in the Growth Plan.
• Cash flow issues related to the partial/delayed payment of Development Charges.
• Long-term operating and maintenance costs of infrastructure not covered by Development Charges.
• A regressive property tax structure.
• Inadequate funding for growth-related provincial infrastructure and servicing (this includes not only the building of schools, community centres, and day care facilities but also their day to day operational funding).

Murray's presentation is particularly interesting as it cites several reasons why developing 'complete communities' based on New Urbanist principles is going to become even more vital in the future. These include:

- Climate change: both because of the necessity of reducing GHG emissions from transportation and housing, and because we will need to accomodate a new wave of 'climate refugees' very soon.

- Economic changes: "In the past, three out of every five jobs in Canada were in the manufacturing sector. Today, in Canada’s “New Economy” 80% of job growth is in knowledge-based industries, with the remaining 20% in service industries. This type of growth promotes the development of centres of innovation and is attracting a new and creative workforce to Canadian communities. This workforce has different needs and preferences than the one our communities were planned to accommodate. The creative workforce is attracted to urban centres where arts and culture are vibrant, recreational facilities are state-of-the-art, and lifestyle choices are wide-ranging. Communities that are able to attract and accommodate this new workforce often enjoy increased community assets."

- Demographic shift: because for a rapidly aging population, issues like walkability and easy access to health, social and cultural services are becoming increasingly essential. Also because our multicutural and multi-ethnic society has different needs and wants than those for whom the suburban model of development was designed.

Anyway, it's a great read for anyone interested in urban development issues, and does a great job of explaining exactly what kind of infrastructure funding challenges our municipalities face in a way that we lay people can understand.