Air Quality, The Green Connections and Governance, Ottawa, 1997-2006

Carousel Talk at Club of Rome, Conference Ottawa, 20/09/2013

Before I begin a brief description of the air quality measures we took while I served on City Council, I should set the context for you. In November, 1997, I was a brand new Regional councillor, just elected. But before I had time to open my office at City Hall, eastern North America was struck by the largest weather disaster that the nation had ever seen. A six day ice storm closed down cities all across the north-east from Ontario all the way to Nova Scotia via Quebec, New Brunswick, New York State and Vermont.

The heart of the storm was the black triangle that went from Ottawa to Kingston and east to Montreal. Large sections of our city had no electrical power. Montreal came close to losing its ability to pump potable water and sewage and once that happens you have lines of refugees leaving the city because without water it’s no longer habitable. The army was mobilized and we moved into emergency response mode. Ultimately there was about 5 billion dollars in insurance claims which set a record for a climate event.

After the ice storm, the newly elected Regional Chair, Bob Chiarelli called a Smart City Summit and for two days our new council heard talks from some of the best urban thinkers in the world. They either came to Ottawa to speak themselves or were teleported in on a large screen to the council chamber. Out of that Smart City Summit came a new commitment to a greener more, sustainable city and a new understanding of the inter-connectedness of the environmental problem.

For example, poor air quality couldn’t be isolated into a bubble of its own. It was connected to just about everything else we did from how we governed ourselves to how we travelled and lived. Like most North American cities, we were 98 per cent dependent on internal and diesel combustion engines, both of which were highly polluting. We tackled this part of the problem by starting an aggressive transition to surface electric rail. The first part of the problem was to just convince people it could work. Many were not sure. So we started the cheapest way possible by converting an old freight line into a short 8 kilometre city diesel rail service with three leased trains to test if reintroducing surface rail would be acceptable to the public. It was.

The test line ridership exceeded expectations from the beginning. The O train which is what the three trains came to be called was followed by an international competition for the first arm of a city wide surface light rail system. The city’s procurement process won a national award and in 2006, a contract was signed to begin construction of a 28 kilometer North-South line from the distant suburbs to the city centre. It would have been the cheapest, longest surface rail project in North America.

The next step was getting an east west electric line underway to offer an alternative to the east-west busway and the expressway. We proposed to do this to the west along Carling Ave hooking into the North-South line at Preston and Carling.

What does all this have with air quality? Well, Ottawa is a white collar town, there is very little heavy industry. Most of the city’s pollution comes from the very ordinary needs of life, heating and cooling homes and driving our cars. The largest single polluter is the 417 expressway which goes through the centre of our city, not far from here. Just the north south electric line alone would have immediately reduced carbon emissions by 26,000 tons annually. It would also have continued to improve air quality because rail based growth creates a tighter settlement pattern than roads do. The city presently expands our road way system at more than a hundred kilometers each year. As a result, there are fewer people today occupying more geography and fewer people per capita using transit than in 1960.
A large part of the difficulty in creating a more sustainable city with cleaner air and cleaner water has been that few people really understand the inter-connectedness of the problems being dealt with at City Hall. The public did did not see surface electric rail as an air quality, environmental issue but this is what it was. They looked at it as a debate about rail versus buses or rail versus cars or surface rail versus a tunnel in the city centre.
You can’t do much about transportation or air quality or any other issue if you don’t have three things 1) research data which describes the problem; 2) publication of the data; 3) public discussion of the data such that a consensus for action can be built.
We tried to tackle this problem after the Smart City conference by opening up City Hall’s governance to the public. We moved towards a participatory budget modelled on Porto Alegre in Brazil. Here citizens have more time and the capacity to influence the city’s spending priorities as well as its reductions. (They preferred their taxes spent on human services versus more asphalt eg more day care, more transit, better health care.)

At the same time, we created 15 citizen advisory committee for everything from preservation of heritage buildings to air and water quality. The citizen committees principal cost were a city clerk to help them keep the minutes and convene the meetings. It paid off, we began to see lively debates at Council with much more attention paid to the nitty-gritty of running the city from the anticipated transition to light rail to air and water quality, and local food supply.

If there was a bottom of the barrel on environmental action air quality was it. Prior to 1995, there were two air quality monitors in the entire city. To put this in perspective, Oxford, U.K. has 300 and in 1995 as part of the cutbacks in the federal and provincial governments terminated the Queen Street air quality monitor. This was a significant loss as it was the only monitor we had that captured traffic emissions in a congested part of the city at rush hours. Both of these monitors were full sized permanent type ones with a broad range of pollutants measured including PM 2.5 and PM10, NO2.

Then we got lucky, sometimes lightening does strike in a good way, the satellite air quality project was funded by National Research Council to promote standardization of the data from the on the NASA AURA satellite. This resulted in an unprecedented increase in air quality observations from July 1 2007 to July 1 2008. The remote sensing mapping from the AURA satelitte was done by a firm in Kanata. They were able to refine the 10 km maps possible from raw data to approximately 1 km resolution. The city had never had data like this before, suddenly city managers were able to start building an air quality map of the city upon which new policies can be based as the Region of Halton is doing today.

At the same time the city also acquired two “portable” monitors thanks to donations from the federal governments and to the City’s Public Health Department. This included the loan of the very sophisticated air quality van owned by Environment Canada and the calibration of the ground monitors by Environment Canada labs. (Accurate calibration is a complex technical achievement and absolutely necessary for any successful air quality monitoring.)

The city’s part in this was providing an air quality, manager who with help from a couple her colleagues won a well deserved award of excellence from the city. Her special skills were in networking and getting advice and significant support from DOT, MOE and the City of Gatineau without which the project would have been a bust. This position was declared redundant in 2013 and air quality priority has been downgraded.

She was not alone. The 15 advisory committees have been disbanded and the sustainability focus that had begun in Ottawa after the Smart Growth Summit has collapsed back into business as usual. The new mayor elected in 2006 cancelled the city’s north-south light rail line and all the old road projects were back on the table. Widening of the city’s east-west expressway is now underway as is the most expensive drive way in North America – 57 million dollars for a kilometer long access from Riverside Drive to a big box mall.
Air quality reports were cancelled because they considered to be dangerous to the economic health of the city and the citizen advisory committee has been disbanded. For example, what would happen to high rise land values if you found out that an intensely developed downtown corner had the dirtiest air in the city? Or that a primary school was being located at the dirtiest suburban location possible? What you don’t know, can’t hurt you, right?

A critical air quality report by the consultant firm Senes has never been made public- only a summary was presented to Committee. It’s equally difficult for the public to understand the environmental and health consequences of the loss of the north south LRT, because the public was never presented with comparison data for environmental trade-off between the 4 kilometer tunnel and the new north south light rail system.

We live in a complex world. The costs and the pain of the 500 premature deaths from poor quality in Ottawa are largely invisible and not assumed by the city, but by the provincial health system. The costs of the ice storm were largely born by the private insurance system, not city tax payers. The costs of cancelling the light rail program were never evident because the benefits never had a chance to be felt. Figuring out what the city’s priorities should be require citizens to make connections and understand the consequences of city action and inaction across a broad range of activities.

I don’t see much hope for change in the immediate future. After 2006, the city snapped back to business as usual and the developer driven model that has been in place since 1950 and it’s still there.

There’s very little glory and not much attention, but there should be. Over half the world’s population now lives in cities. Over eighty percent of this country does and over sixty percent in only 10 cities. Somehow we need to find the public energy to focus on the connections that can move all cities towards one that can survive until the end of this century and one that won’t.
I am confident that one day people will start to see the connections between air and water quality, transportation and urban geography. We will abandon this old developer driven model and begin addressing the very real problems that face us with new solutions and new approaches.  Right now, our civic job has been reduced to keeping sustainable options in front of people. This is an essential task for without an idea of how this city and every other city can function to provide better air quality, better water quality and economies of scale, not diseconomies, there is no hope.
I would like to thank the organizers of this conference for helping us to give people hope by keeping alive the ideas necessary for creating cities and societies that will endure.

Clive Doucet

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