Restrictive land use setbacks climate efforts

NoteThis opinion piece by Dylon Martin was originally published on The Uniter website on June 4, 2020.

Neighbourhood change, especially in trendy, upscale neighbourhoods, is a heated topic across Canada. But Green Party of Canada leadership hopeful Glen Murray’s take on the issue is at odds with the party’s climate goals.

Murray, the former mayor of Winnipeg and Ontario environment minister, tweeted on Feb. 21 that “The character of Fort Rouge/Crescentwood neighborhoods are under attack. Loss of character buildings, setbacks and front yards and most devastating(ly) the cutting of funds for sustaining our boulevard elms. They are dying off in large numbers. Replacement trees are few and poor choices.”

On April 29, Murray announced his candidacy for leadership of the Green Party. A signature issue for the party is the importance of fighting climate change.

Land-use policy, which Murray’s tweet touches on, is critical to fighting climate change. Sadly, Murray’s sentiment is mostly misguided.

Restrictive land-use rules, such as those that mandate larger front yards, prevent more housing units in urban areas. This makes cutting back on carbon emissions to stop climate change harder.

Building more housing in existing neighbourhoods is known as “infill.” Infill leads to lower greenhouse emissions for many reasons.

One reason is that it can shorten peoples’ commutes. Infill homes are in older areas built on a grid and often closer to downtown centres. This can mean it’s easier for residents to bike or walk to work.

Even for mature communities further from the city centre, the grid-based neighbourhood design makes running bus services easier than in the cul-de-sacs of far-flung suburbs. This is borne out by looking at mode share statistics from the 2016 census for Winnipeg. In the older neighbourhood of Crescentwood, nearly 25 per cent of people got to work by non-car modes of transportation, whereas in newer Lindenwoods, that figure is only 10 per cent [1].

Building more housing in a given area creates consumer demand that can be conveniently served by local shops. Increasing neighbourhood populations can help shops that depend on local foot traffic, but it can also motivate entrepreneurs to set up new local shops. More people getting groceries by foot or bike rather than by driving a gas guzzler is a win for the climate.

Building infill housing in already-developed communities takes advantage of existing infrastructure like roads and pipes. Infrastructure renewal or capacity upgrades are sometimes needed, but this is much less work than is required to extend new pipes or lay new pavement in expanding suburbs. An analysis of the Adelaide metro of Australia bore this out, finding infrastructure costs for infill developments to be one-third of greenfield developments, the sprawl-oriented alternative to infill.

These financial savings also come with greenhouse savings. Laying down new pipes and building new roads is energy-intensive. Clearcutting for new suburban developments has further negative climate impacts.

Denser, multi-family infill is especially helpful. Multi-unit residential buildings consume less energy per area of floor space because of shared walls. Infill developments, as new builds, also have higher energy efficiency standards than older buildings.

Infill helps Winnipeg with fiscal binds, too. Between 1971 and 2019, the geographic area of Winnipeg grew 96 per cent, while its population only grew 37 per cent. The city is now stretching every dollar over a much larger service area. This, coupled with a property tax freeze Murray instituted, which proved so politically popular it lasted 14 years, means city service budgets are in a crunch. This includes tree care, which has suffered tremendous backlogs in recent years.

Higher-density neighbourhoods generate higher property tax revenue, which can help cities in a bind. Decarbonizing through initiatives like tree planting requires massive public investment.

Many climate-oriented activists and politicians are recognizing the importance of better land-use policies in fighting climate change. Chlöe Swarbrick, a New Zealand MP with that country’s Green Party, got her political start as an Auckland mayoral candidate. During that race, she argued that artificial barriers to new housing had to go, and the process to approve housing needed to be streamlined.

Winnipeg’s own Greenhouse Gas forecast says 50 per cent of new residential builds need to be infill by 2031 for Winnipeg to be on a low-carbon path. Furthermore, it says 42 per cent of housing needs to be multi-unit residential. This is why Murray’s laments against neighbourhood change and for restrictive land use are truly a setback to climate justice.


1. 2016 Census City of Winnipeg Neighbourhood Profiles for Lindenwoods and Crescentwood