I’ll admit I have a few urban obsessions that gnaw at me. Backpacks on the TTC, for example… But nothing gets me more worked up than the steady erosion of green space and tree canopy of our neighbourhood streets. And it has turned me into a bit of a vigilante.
Earlier this spring on my morning patrol of my neighbourhood with my faithful Labradoodle, Ira, I took to tweeting photos of the front yards of neighbours who recently paved over their entire frontages or critically damaged the roots of a mature city trees in the name of landscaping. I was a bit alarmed at how many examples I was able to find within a few short blocks of my house.
Concerned as I was of the brazen contempt of by-laws designed to protect our urban greenspaces, the response from institutional Toronto was even more distressing. From the city to our guardian environmentalists, no one seems to care about what is arguably the most preventable source of pollution contaminating our urban environment.
Excess storm water regularly overwhelms our storm sewers causing the flooding and failure of critical transportation, transit and energy infrastructure. Much of this toxic runoff ends in ecologically sensitive creeks and rivers and dumps into the lake. Some of this debris is captured in a massive storm water holding tunnel constructed in the late 1990’s which has improved the quality of our beaches. But the expense of treating and incinerating this sludge is considerable – not to mention that has also become an atmospheric issue.
A series of escalating email and phone exchanges with my local councillor led to multi-departmental meeting of the three city departments responsible for protecting our front yards: Forestry, Works, and Buildings. Intended as a means to plug intercity gaps of jurisdiction, the meeting exposed a gong show of by-laws and bureaucracy run amok.
I learned that there is only one forestry inspector for the entire South District (Toronto & East York) to police both front and backyard trees from harm or removal. And Forestry can expect no help from Buildings – not even to report whether a required tree protection zone has been erected around trees within a construction site. Worse still, the Works department (responsible for enforcing by-laws for the city portion of front yards) have un-appealable, carte blanche powers of discretion over the most ambiguous of policy intentions – powers and policies that favour those who seek to pave over paradise.
I used to blame the influence of suburban politicians for the proliferation of driveway widenings and other intrusions of hard paving over soft landscaping in our urban neighbourhoods. So I was surprised to learn that sub-urban Mississauga have taken the lead on this issue.
Rejecting the byzantine brew of by-laws and departmental jurisdictions that Toronto has in place, Mississauga’s new landscaping policy is simple: “Property owners will be charged based on the amount of hard surface area on their properties. The more hard surface you have, the more water runoff you are creating and the more you will be charged. The less hard surface you have, the less you will pay.” Makes sense. Property owners who allow more run off, cost the city more, and thus will pay more. To avoid the tax property owners can remove unnecessary hard paving. Meaning: Mississauga will not only halt over paving, it will reverse it.
Tackling excessive storm water runoff is more than local pollution issue, it is a pressing environmental concern that is rising to the forefront of the entire Great Lakes watershed. Last summer the water supply of entire City of Cincinnati was poisoned beyond a boil water order, for example. Toronto has a proud history of tackling of changing behaviors that negatively impact our environment and quality of life – from garbage, to water usage, to energy consumption. It is now time that it shows the same leadership on storm water runoff. If for no other reason so that I can focus on the TTC backpack scourge.
Richard Joy is Executive Director of ULI Toronto. Previously, he served as Vice President, Policy and Government Relations at the Toronto Board of Trade, and was the Director of Municipal Affairs and Ontario (Provincial Affairs) at Global Public Affairs. Follow him on Twitter @RichardJoyTO or email at Richard.Joy@uli.org