I wrote this as a Comments piece for this week’s issue of The Uniter.
Going green is more than planting flowers and pruning trees
Slapping the “green” label onto anything in these days of heightened environmental awareness is an easy way of inducing congratulations and approval from a public whose knowledge of environmental issues is growing daily. This is exactly what the City of Winnipeg did when it released its 2007 operating budget, which highlights, among other things, “increased funding for clean and green services” as a major priority area for the upcoming year. The city is finally taking some real steps to acknowledge the various environmental concerns—a dying Lake Winnipeg, climate change and impending oil price hikes. Sounds good, right? Taking a closer look at the document, however, reveals that the city’s version of “green” is hardly in line with the environmentally conscious efforts that the public has now come to expect from the term. Of course, the lack of environmental awareness at the civic level of government has become something to be expected.
According to the budget, the few items that could pass for being “clean and green” include an extra $390,000 for flower beds, $150,000 for scrubbing downtown’s sidewalks and $700,000 to start catching up on the massive backlog in pruning public trees. Things around town might look a bit nicer, but the actual environmental benefits are next to nothing. Clean? Yes (kind of); Green? No.
None of this is surprising when you consider what else the city has passed into being in recent months. The other major financial document, mid-January’s 2007 Capital Budget was the largest in the city’s history as a result of considerable provincial and federal transfers. Yet, even with the “cost-savings” that are reportedly to be had from Mayor Sam Katz’s new favourite buzz-phrase, public-private partnerships (P3s), precious little money was given to new, truly green initiatives. Meanwhile, the inherently unsustainable practices of extending low-density, single-use and automobile-dependent land uses and transportation modes maintained their strong presence within the document, with the proceeding Waverley West subdivision being the most obvious example.
In addition, the Winnipeg Free Press noted on Feb. 15 that the mayor and council delayed having any sort of discussion about a rapid transit reserve fund until 2008, let alone actually contributing any money towards a fund that would one day be used for Winnipeg’s rapid transit system that has been 40 years in the making.
Mayor Katz is quoted on his personal website as saying that “we all recognize that if we want to be competitive, we have to continue to improve the way we operate.” Winnipeg and indeed all of Manitoba has been struggling in recent years to keep in step with our richer neighbours to the west; even Saskatchewan has made the jump to a ‘have’ province. Their luck to have vast oil reserves sitting underneath their boundaries reinforces the notion that Manitoba and Winnipeg simply must improve their operating standards to have any sort of chance; the status quo has led to fairly stagnant growth and even decline, yet it is the path that continues to be followed.
It does not have to be that way. With its proximity to vast hydro-electric generating stations and a burgeoning wind power industry nearby, as well as a large university population, Winnipeg seems ideally suited to capitalize on the growing ‘green collar’ jobs that make up one of the fastest-growing economic sectors in much of the world.
Vancouver’s traditional role as a mining and resource-extraction city has changed to become a very health-oriented, active lifestyle one. The once heavily industrial and racially segregated port city of Oakland, California has started to ride the “green wave” thanks to unlikely alliances of social justice, labour and environmental activists, who have seen benefits for much broader sectors of the population. Toronto publishes a Green Guide and actively supports environmental initiatives with its annual Green Toronto Awards. The Regional Municipality of Waterloo, Ontario was once a sleepy agricultural and industrial area; it is now a haven for high-tech professionals seeking the quality of life that can be found in the clean and forward-thinking cities, as evidenced, for example, by the council-supported plans for the provision of a rapid transit link between the region’s three major cities that have a combined population of less than Winnipeg’s.
All over, cities, like their individual citizens, are taking steps to reduce their environmental footprints, to use less water and to properly treat what has been used, to combat climate change by reducing the need to use one’s car. The clean, environmentally-positive businesses which seek to deal with green issues that other, more progressive cities are actively pursuing (or becoming home to as a result of the synergy of like-minded people) has resulted in Winnipeg falling further behind them in attracting and retaining the residents needed to drive the green economies that will necessarily shape our nation’s future.
A considerable amount of initiative lies with the public, businesspeople and entrepreneurs to bring about change if and where they see it needed, but the City’s role in fostering a climate (pardon the pun) to promote these ventures can not be understated. The impression that a city puts forth will necessarily dictate where its priorities lie, and whether the city is overall, conducive to progressive environmental, social or artistic work.
Winnipeg, in the long term, will fare much better by changing the status quo and actually taking real steps to going “green”. Unfortunately, many of our policy-makers cannot see past their current terms in office, and the kinds of people and businesses who can help make those changes are not giving us a second glance.
And, ladies and gentlemen of council, please don’t count planting flowers and pruning trees as being ‘green’ initiatives; they aren’t, and acknowledging that fact will be the first step in changing the collective consciousness towards environmental issues.