Special Report: Aerotropolis

Thinking Beyond the Hunch: An Interview With Michael Desnoyers and Jack Santa-Barbara

The co-founders of Hamiltonians for Progressive Development respond to Mayor Larry Di Ianni on aerotropolis, planning, and public participation.

By Ryan McGreal
Published September 15, 2005

Ryan McGreal, Raise the Hammer: In his interview with Raise the Hammer, Mayor DiIanni said, "My hunch is that it's desirable [to develop the aerotropolis]; otherwise, we wouldn't even have launched the studies. But let's look at the results of those studies before we jump to those conclusions that some have already jumped to that this is not appropriate." Is the city prepared to conduct these studies in good faith, or are they merely looking to justify decisions already made?

Michael Desmoyers and Jack Santa-Barbara, Hamiltonians for Progressive Development: We find it surprising that the Mayor and other members of Council would vote for the largest urban boundary expansion in recent history based on a "hunch" that aerotropolis development will be desirable. This is a huge decision and requires careful study first.

Is this responsible? The move to expand the urban boundry has set in motion a process that we may not be able to stop once developers have bought up lands around the airport. This could put the city at significant legal and financial liability. To do this on a "hunch" does not strike us as responsible.

RTH: When I asked him about the widespread public opposition expressed at the June 15 and June 28 public meetings, he responded, "I think we need to take people's comments very seriously, and I think City Council did take them very seriously, and that's why we commissioned the study that will try to answer some of the questions people raised at the meetings." Is that a fair response?

HPD: The public at the June meetings clearly asked for a delay in the aerotropolis expansion until such time as the concerns raised were answered. First the Committee and then the Council made the decision before the concerns were addressed. These actions speak louder than what has been said about the "need to take people's comments very seriously."

In business, actions such as those taken by the City are usually done after the studies tell you it makes sense. HPD feels there are many unbusiness-like practices about this whole aerotropolis process. Making major decisions before you have good information is only one example.

We can only assume that the "studies" referred to by the Mayor are the secondary plans and the Master Planning process which are part of the GRIDS process and were already under way at the time the Council decision was made. We are not aware of any "new" or additional studies that were commissioned as part of addressing our concerns.

RTH: When I expressed my concern about declining oil production, Mayor DiIanni responded, "If the story of mankind [sic] teaches us anything, it's that innovation is the order of the day," and that with innovation and technology, "I think we'll see more air travel rather than less." Is this a realistic expectation?

HPD: Of course innovation is important. But innovation has to obey the laws of physics and the other sciences. The scientists who know the most about the oil issue, oil geologists, are telling us that there is going to be a large and growing gap between the amount of oil the world wants, and what is going to be available after the peak occurs.

Other scientists, various energy experts and engineers, are telling us that technology will only partly fill that gap. They are telling us that we cannot expect a technical solution as the only answer to this problem.

Innovation is indeed necessary. This is what HPD is saying. What the Mayor and Council do not seem to realize is that they have to be at the forefront of innovation in order to ensure the energy gap the scientists are telling us about is not going to drive Hamilton into a hole.

They have to innovate how they do land planning, how they use energy, how they support public transportation, how they attract sustainable businesses to Hamilton, how they ensure people have adequate water and food as well as jobs.

How the City takes care of its citizens all changes once peak oil arrives. HPD is saying the City must innovate now to prepare for these changes. The aerotoropolis is exactly the wrong direction from what is needed. It is outdated thinking and will not provide the kind of innovation required to allow Hamilton to prosper.

The rising costs and availability of fossil fuels will impact the economy significantly especially in the area of air travel and air cargo. To suggest that human ingenuity will solve the problem of putting 100,000 ton aircraft into the air by alternate means is simply uninformed. There will be air travel certainly for the next 200 years but it will get so expensive that it will essentially not be an effective method for mass transportation.

RTH: Groups like Citizens at City Hall (CATCH) have made much of the fact that the Ontario Ministry of Municipal Affairs is appealing the city's urban boundary expansion, but Mayor DiIanni cited Ontario Mayor Dalton McGuinty saying on the Roy Green show that aerotropolis will be an exciting opportunity for Hamilton. Why do you think the province is sending mixed signals to Hamilton on the appropriateness of the aerotropolis plan?

HPD: More clarity from the provincial government would be desirable. The fact that the Ministry has launched an OMB appeal against the City's aerotropolis plan indicates there are some very strong concerns about what the City is doing. We look forward to working with both the Province and the City to make sure Hamiltonians benefit from all planning decisions.

RTH: In defence of a major industrial development on what are currently rural lands far from downtown, the Mayor said he "prefer[s] seeing this community as a holistic community," that is, a community in which every part needs attention. Is this understanding reasonable?

HPD: Industrial and commercial development is possible in many locations, and there are already lands available for this type of development. What the City does not seem to grasp is that this type of development will also change dramatically with peak oil.

We should be thinking about the kinds of clean, sustainable businesses we want to attract to Hamilton that will really thrive when peak oil has a larger impact than what we experience now at the gas pumps. Industrial and commercial development that relies on transportation could be at high risk after peak oil. We need to be thinking about this and focus on development that is least risky.

The Mayor's use of the word "holistic" is interesting. HPD sees this as important, but we don't see the City doing it. A core concept of Vision 2020 is integrating economic, environmental and social goals in all major decisions. This is our understanding of a "holistic" approach.

The City seems to think that some economic development here, and something for the environment there, and another program for social issues there, all add up to a holistic approach. The challenge for sustainable community development is to integrate these goals into each and every major decision. The Council doesn't seem to get this approach. They are stuck in what may have been considered good planning in the past. They need to innovate.

The waterfront trail development is a good example of how economic, environmental and social goals were all met in a single project. We need more examples like this. Thinking holistically takes more effort than the old way. It also takes more creative input from the community. This is what HPD would like to see.

Another question to ask about airport planning is whether the airport would survive if it was not allowed to have 24/7 flights? It is one of the few airports anywhere to have such unrestricted operations. If it is genuinely an economic engine for Hamilton's future it would not need this feature contributes to a degraded quality of life for many in the city and beyond.

RTH: The Mayor insists that the aerotropolis plan is not circumventing GRIDS process, saying, "We've started a process into which the GRIDS process will work very nicely and into which the GRIDS process fits very beautifully." Is this correct?

HPD: Again, this is backwards. GRIDS is supposed to be the overriding planning process. GRIDS is not supposed to fit into the aerotropolis, the aerotropolis is supposed to fit into GRIDS, and it doesn't. It violates most of the GRIDS principles that have been articulated as good planning principles by the GRIDS process. The City's own reports state this.

Why is the Mayor and Council so set on aerotoroplis when it does not meet the publicly stated GRIDS principles?

The aerotropolis concept is included in ALL of the growth scenarios put forth by the GRIDS process. This is at the direction of Council. How can effective alternatives be considered under these conditions?

RTH: Hamiltonians for Progressive Development believes in "increasing community engagement" in planning as demonstrated by the Vision 2020 process. In the mayor's words, "you take all the opinions, you put them all into the mix, and you move forward." Is this how you envision "increasing community engagement"?

HPD: The cement mixer approach to city planning is not exactly what HPD has in mind. Grinding everything down to the lowest common demoninator will not move us forward. We feel what the City has done with aerotropolis is to throw in too much sand and not enough gravel - the right proportion of the essential ingredients is what is needed.

HPD envisions a much more collaborative process where not just "opinions" are considered ( which are clearly important because they reflect different values), but also facts, and where these viewpoints and information are actively sought from the broad community.

We envision an "engagement" process that is more open to new ideas, and where ideas put forward are responded to and challenged in terms of how they meet the Vision 2020 standards. The Hamilton Community Foundation understands this issue of collaboration and they have an very powerful model that we believe has applicability to City planning.

RTH: When I asked the Mayor why every GRIDS proposal included aerotropolis, he answered, "it would have contradicted all the other policies that councils before us and our council has put together in terms of trying to use those lands for the best use of our community." Is this fair? Does the city already have a strong public mandate to develop aerotropolis?

HPD: I think this question of what is the best land use for the airport is a great question. This is one of the basic questions that should be asked. To answer "aerotropolis" without even asking the question is the problem we now face. The Mayor and Council seem to have assumed that the airport should be developed and are now engaged in conducting studies to support that hunch.

HPD feels we should start with the basic question as to what is the best land use for the lands now occupied by the airport and around the airport. We know of at least one study that asked this question about an existing airport, and the answer was to get rid of the airport; that there were better uses for the land.

We don't know if this is the situation in Hamilton, and we won't know unless we ask the question. This is the kind of "out of the box thinking" that we need to explore. The conclusion from this kind of conversation might very well justify the airport, but who knows where the conversation will take us.

We know that Pearson has capacity to expand for many years even if air traffic increases in the future as it has in the past. Why would we want to compete with Pearson? I think it would be very interesting to ask a transportation consultant like Richard Gilbert if he believes there is likely to be many airport closures in the near future.

We don't think it is fair to say the city has a strong mandate to develop the aerotropolis. It is one thing to say that you are going to develop the lands and believe you have support and something quite different when you say that you might spend $200 million doing it and expect the same level of support. Truth of the matter is we simply don't know, but the freight train has been set in motion.

RTH: In response to challenges, the Mayor says, "We're being criticized for launching a process that will get some of these answers, and then we're being criticized for not having the answers before we launch the process." Have we overreacted to the city's plans?

HPD: HPD approves of getting answers. We just feel they should be obtained before making a major decision that has attracted OMB appeals from both citizens and the Provincial government. What is difficult to grasp about the idea of having answers before you make a decision? The Mayor and Council have not answered this simple question.

Technically, the city has followed the process according to the planning act. However, HPD has some deep concerns about a process that allows such massive changes to the community without adequate public collaboration and study BEFORE the decision is made. The aerotropolis concept is possibly the most significant decision made by Hamilton Council in the past 40 years. Should this not be treated with a higher level of scrutiny than, say, putting a Stop sign at the end of a street?

RTH: Asked about environmental impacts, the Mayor said, "Wouldn't it be great to have some light rail system...? But even if people have to drive cars, you know, a 15 minute ride to the airport may be better than a 45 minute drive to the GTA." Does he have a point?

HPD: A light rail system is an interesting idea. But to the airport? Is that really the highest density traffic that we should be serving with a light rail system? Another interesting "hunch" by the Mayor? Let's be sure there will be an airport there in ten or twenty years first before we consider more transportation options to get people there.

Michael Desnoyers is the President and CEO of Etratech. He is a Computer Electronics Engineering Technologist who has designed and invented numerous electronic control systems for volume production. He joined TRW's engineering division after several years' research and development experience with NCR. As Engineering Manager of the TRW Appliance Products Group, Michael effectively co-coordinated design and manufacturing group activities as well as marketed this group's products to expand the customer base. His work at TRW provided Michael with a complete grounding in every aspect of the craft now practiced at Etratech, including electronics engineering, design, marketing and manufacturing experience. Michael is involved in a number of community organizations, including the Burlington Chamber of Commerce.

Jack Santa-Barbara, Ph.D, is an Associate of the Centre for Peace Studies of McMaster University, Hamilton, Ontario, Canada. Initially trained as an experimental social psychologist, Jack's thesis work in the 1970s was on conflict resolution. Following several years as an academic and researcher, Jack founded a company that became the largest of its kind in Canada, and in 1997, the company won the "50 Best Privately Managed Companies," award sponsored by the Financial Post as a national competition. Subsequent to selling his company at the end of 1999, Jack has become more active in peace work, participating in the Centre for Peace Studies' Afghanistan Project, which also involved Johan Galtung. More recently, Jack has founded a new institute to promote integration of ecological and economic goals in government decision making.

Ryan McGreal, the editor of Raise the Hammer, lives in Hamilton with his family and works as a programmer, writer and consultant. Ryan volunteers with Hamilton Light Rail, a citizen group dedicated to bringing light rail transit to Hamilton. Ryan writes a city affairs column in Hamilton Magazine, and several of his articles have been published in the Hamilton Spectator. He also maintains a personal website and has been known to post passing thoughts on Twitter @RyanMcGreal. Recently, he took the plunge and finally joined Facebook.

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By grahamia (registered) - website | Posted April 25, 2006 at 08:31:47

I wonder if the statement 'technically, the city has followed the process according to the planning act' invalidates the concern that it has 'decided' before it has 'planned'?

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By Ryan (registered) - website | Posted April 25, 2006 at 09:13:39

grahamia,

The city is considering six scenarios for its long term growth strategy, and all six include the aerotropolis - this despite the fact that the aerotropolis plan violates seven of the city's nine principles for desirable growth.

By "technically", I believe HPD means the city went through the motions of planning without any intention of listening to the public, debating its merits openly, or changing its mind as circumstances change (like $75 a barrel for oil).

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By Grandma (anonymous) | Posted June 10, 2006 at 11:27:08

What are the implications of declining oil stocks for the 'aerotropolis'? Has Mayor DiIanni considered this? The concept worked for other communities in the past, but the future is entirely a different matter. Is DiIanni capable of thinking beyond the present? I think not. His head is in the past, in the destructive development policies of the last century. Hamilton needs leaders who can make the leap and envision Hamilton as a city of the future. Following worn out paths of unsustainable development is just stupid.

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