In May, Fredericton will choose a mayor in the midst of a global climate emergency that can no longer be ignored. The task of cities in addressing this emergency is more urgent than ever.
Municipal governments and urban planning can play a crucial role in helping us reduce carbon consumption, just as they helped drastically increase it from the mid-20th century onward. Many younger people would be surprised to learn that governments in the developed capitalist world were fully aware of climate change in the 1960s, and that cities were doing more to reduce emissions in the 1970s than they were in the 2000s or even the 2010s.
Our backward march on carbon emissions was the result of a new ideology that came to power in the 1980s, one that repositioned government in relation to the market. Rather than relying on the power of democratic government to regulate the oligarchic corporations that had emerged in the 20th century, government instead would step back and let the market do its thing.
This meant that reducing emissions and adopting new, low-carbon technologies was left to market forces of supply and demand, rather than to the imperatives of the public good. This was a complete turn-around from the consensus that prevailed after World War II.
So-called “big government” became unpopular, and it was no longer viewed as a force for good that could help us democratically decide how to organize our economic life. Instead, corporations would deliver the goods. But 40 years on, they haven’t.
Government-corporate cooperation have brought us urban areas where we must adapt to burning ever more fossil fuels. Our lives are embedded in what sociologists call “high-carbon networks,” from which we cannot easily withdraw.
Our city is divided by more than just North and South sides. Since the 1970s, Fredericton’s urban planning has spatially segregated commercial, office and residential uses of space in specific neighbourhoods that are distant from one another and require cars in order to traverse.
Suburban space and the retail corporations attracted to large numbers of people living suburban lifestyles changed not just our city, but also the way we shop, and even the way we eat and entertain one another.
Large chains paved over their front yards so distant shoppers could park more easily (today, we even let people pave over their back yards in residential areas so they can park, stripping value and green space from our city). For 60 years, this helped our city’s economy grow, and even as recently as the debate about paving over the woodlot 10 years ago for Costco, we were told it would create new jobs and attract people to our community. In short, building a high-carbon city was good for business.
Our day to day lives and our day to day living routine—especially dinner—is dependent on high-carbon networks. We drive cars, we consume large amounts of electricity to run our offices and our households.
This is our high-carbon network in Fredericton. And it is very costly to us. In addition to future environmental mitigation costs, we already spend huge sums of money on transportation to maintain our lives in this high-carbon network.
In addition to public transportation expenses ($30 million, a quarter of Fredericton’s municipal budget in 2019), collectively Frederictonians spend about $407.6 million per year on cars—including finance, fueling and insurance (1). That is almost four times more than the entire municipal budget of the city. Needless to say that with the exception of families that own car dealerships or gas stations, not very much of this money is staying in our community.
It is easy to see how working together, we might be able to shift to living in lower-carbon networks by working on our mobility sector alone. We can rely on the market—individually we can all make small decisions about what to buy. But that won’t change infrastructure in our city, which we are all part of whether we like it or not.
If municipal planning in the last century sought to maximize carbon consumption—which was profitable for the corporate oligarchs who had by then taken over our economy—in the 2020s it will throw carbon consumption into full reverse.
This will mean disrupting the spatial segregation of business, commerce and residential areas in our city, as other municipalities are already doing (building condos, for instance in mall parking lots).
Downtown spaces are also being revitalized through new office and condo development. More people than ever live on their own—including many who are in committed relationships. As this trend continues to play out, expect more condo development downtown. The municipality can encourage this by rethinking its back alleys and laneways—completely undeveloped—between King and Queen Streets, behind the buildings that front the street. Creative urban planning will transform these spaces in ways that will make us think we were crazy not to have done it sooner.
Downtown will also see the most new office construction in the 2020s. Gone are the days of the suburban office park (sorry Knowledge Park and Bishop’s Dr.). The federal fisheries ministry will pay Irving owned Commercial Property Ltd for its suburban office space for another 35 or so years. But it will be empty by the end of the 2020s. Those jobs and others like them will be moving to low-carbon urban communities—in or out of Fredericton. It will be up to urban planners to build the “great little place” that will attract capital and skilled workers to the city in an economy that factors in carbon pricing. If we don’t build low-carbon networks in Fredericton, jobs and people will go to another city that does—maybe even outside of Canada.
Can we make winter warmer in Canada with urban planning? Arguably, the high-carbon networks of distant suburbs and mall parking lots was nice in California (where it was invented) but a bit brutal at -20, where the green spaces of our “green city” are decidedly not green at least 6 months of the year.
We can do better than we have been doing. All we have to do is imagine. For instance, what will become of the monstrous parking lot and open field in the triangle between Sobey’s, the old train station and the old Canoe factory? The future of our city plays out in these spaces—currently owned by Irving’s CPL.
Our houses, our mobility, our hopes for the future of our lives and our families—all are deeply connected to carbon emissions. The task is daunting. Many pundits hail the hope of youthful activists who will do away with the mess the “old people” have left them, but the problem is not people who happen to be old (through no fault of their own). The problem is much, much deeper, and it requires that we find new ways of discussing it.
No municipal government is going to radically transform your home, your mobility or the way you plan for the future of your career, your family, or your friends. And if it did—forcing us all into denser, more efficient apartment buildings, onto buses and into materially less decorated lifestyles—all but a few hard-core communists and environmentalists would revolt in anger.
Yet, municipal governments will have to play a much more important role in helping us shift our lives into networks that are low-carbon, and it will have to do so now very very fast. This means a new municipal plan and zoning by-laws that encourage new types of low-carbon housing. It will also require a new Community Planning Act at the provincial level that will make secondary plans for urban neighbourhoods enforceable. It may also mean a new role for public utilities in the absence of private sector competencies.
The costs of high-carbon networks will be passed on to developers who invest in high-carbon lifestyles. It may even mean restricting new types of development that will not be able to pay its way in a world where fossil fuels are much more restricted.
A big challenge will be working with private sector developers to get them to recognize the future, and to buy in and develop new competencies, which are currently still tied to high-carbon networks.
Switching to low-carbon networks in Fredericton needs municipal leadership in revamping mobility in the city. Rather than a transportation network that increases private consumption and private sector profits, we need to learn from the efficiencies we get from our public health care system. We need to pool expenses and reduce costs for all of us, without sacrificing convenience. We can do that, and urban planning in Fredericton in the 2020s will help.
These are daunting challenges, and there is good reason for people to be feeling anxious about the way the world is going.
The days of high-carbon living and high-carbon politics are numbered. Rather than ruminating about the end of the world, we have to imagine what our low-carbon city will look like.
Hope in the 2020s will come from realizing that another world is possible.
Matthew Hayes is the Canada Research Chair in Global and International Studies at St. Thomas University. In 2012, he ran an ideas-based campaign for mayor, focusing on complete communities. His book Gringolandia: Lifestyle Migration under Late Capitalism highlights North American retirees’ desires for unique urban spaces–and their migration to Latin America to find them.
1. Annual private vs. public mobility costs in Fredericton are based on the following statistics: Rate of car ownership: 549,514 registered vehicles under 4,500kg in New Brunswick in 2018 divided by total private dwellings occupied by usual residents in 2016 (all data Statistics Canada): 1.72 cars per household in NB (proxy measure for ownership in Fredericton). Average cost per vehicle: $9,000 per year (in 2017, source: CAA, includes depreciation). Number of households in Fredericton: 26,328 (Statistics Canada Census 2016).