Commentary

Hamilton's Sustainability Potential: Taking the Leap

Hamilton is on an "impressive trajectory" to develop into an urban hub of modern sustainability, but must first get beyond "a lot of inertia" that still exists in the city.

By Dave Heidebrecht
Published January 27, 2014

Chris Turner
Chris Turner

Hamilton is on an "impressive trajectory" to develop into an urban hub of modern sustainability, but must first get beyond "a lot of inertia" that still exists in the city.

These are the words of sustainability expert Chris Turner of Leap Works Sustainability Consulting, who spoke to a large audience at Mohawk College on Thursday morning. Hosted by Mohawk's Sustainability Office, Turner's powerful and well-argued presentation titled "Sustainability, Renewable Energy, and Clean Technology" covered local sustainability challenges and opportunities in the context of a global shift towards a sustainable future.

Comparing the current stage of this shift to the years preceding the industrial revolution, Turner spoke of visionary merchants who invested in projects - such as the Erie Canal - that at the time were looked at as foolish and wasteful. In hindsight, however, those merchants who saw the changing winds of industry ultimately benefited when things really took off.

In the same manner, Turner argued that that those already invested in renewable energy are ahead of this inevitable paradigm shift. Though it is hard to see the benefits of this leap from within the current ideology of limitless growth that our global economy has been built upon, a paradigm shift is a must.

A Necessary and Achievable Shift

If we stay on our current trajectory, estimated to see a 4 degree Celsius increase in global temperature by 2100, the impacts could be catastrophic.

Arguing that we need to get our global emissions levels on target by 2050, Turner used examples of progress in both Germany and Denmark to explain that progress thought to be impossible only ten years ago is now a reality.

Referring to a comment by renowned sustainability thinker Paul Hawken to a recent group of young graduates, Turner acknowledged that we can make this shift while still enjoying our cars, phones, and computers, and other technologies, noting we "still want the machine to do all the things that it does."

"Civilization needs a new operating system. You are the programmers, and we need it within a few decades." - Paul Hawken

Turner went on to explain that although Ontario's Green Energy Act has been a public relations failure, it is still one of the best pieces of legislation in North America. As he explained, we can't "lose our nerve" now despite a lack of social and political will.

Germany, which gets much less sun than Canada, has already developed smart houses that use solar power and other renewables to power themselves. In fact, newer houses not only pay for their own energy use but can also earn up to $4,000 profit each year for their owners.

Smart and Clean Technology

Smart energy grids that will see homes and vehicles taking from the grid when energy is cheap and selling back into the grid when energy is expensive are already being developed.

Electric vehicles, also seen as a pipe dream only ten years ago, are now on the verge of fueling (bad pun intended) a transportation revolution that could see our vehicles charge while we're asleep and potentially sell-off excess energy back into the grid while we work.

Just as the industrial revolution completely transformed our social and economic landscape two hundred years ago, Turner noted that our future could see "a totally fossil fuel free economy that works better for consumers than anything we have today."

In short, we have the technology, but we need to realize (sooner than later) that the leap into a sustainable future is not an option, but an essential shift that will improve our lives economically, socially, and environmentally.

Hamilton's Sustainability Potential

Early on in his talk Turner shared with the audience that this was his third visit to Hamilton in the past twelve months, emphatically stating, "The more I come here the more excited I am about the potential for this city."

Toward the end of his presentation he revisited this statement. Applauding the recent use of tactical urbanism to take some "very very simple first steps" in contributing towards a sustainable urban environment, Turner pointed to Hamilton's historic downtown infrastructure as the perfect environment from which to rethink urban design and sustainability.

Flashing images of pedestrian and cyclist friendly streets in Copenhagen, and alluding to shifts taking place in New York City and Vancouver, Turner suggested what a future Hamilton might look like: a city that is an urban hub of renewable energy, where community-scale projects see communities and co-operatives owning their energy supplies while living in a thriving urban environment.

A Future Vision of a Sustainable Hamilton

Inspired by Turner's presentation (and with a little imagination), a future Hamilton might have walkable streets and open squares that are more pedestrian and cyclist friendly.

Our brownfields might be transformed into thriving hubs of renewable industry, keeping greenfields for local agriculture, while setting new examples for remediation and redevelopment.

Hamilton neighborhoods and community co-ops could profit from contributing to a smart electricity grid. Hell, we might even see a small windfarm along the waterfront where steel mills once soared.

Painting this picture may seem foolish to many living in Hamilton today, including our political and economic elite. For those who are paying attention to the larger picture, however, change is coming down the line and Hamilton is well suited to take advantage.

Turner acknowledged that it is hard to see the benefits of sustainability from the unsustainable track we're currently on, but not impossible. If Hamilton as a whole approached this paradigm shift with an openness to learning from the change that is already taking place, painting this picture of a sustainable Hamilton could get easier and easier.

In Turner's words, "it's all sitting there waiting," all we have to do is take the leap.

This article was first published on Dave's website.

Dave Heidebrecht is the Manager of McMaster University’s Office of Community Engagement.

11 Comments

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By matthewsweet (registered) | Posted January 27, 2014 at 13:49:12

What follows are not my own original points, but others have expressed them and I happen to buy in. Therefore, while I admire Mr Turner's optimism, calling a future of electric cars and wind farms "fossil fuel free" ignores entirely the fact that mass production of personal vehicles (regardless of fuel source) is fully dependant on fossil fuels, ignores the fact that industrial sized wind turbines are only possible due to fossil fuels, when you account for manufacturing techniques, supply chain logistics, transportation of finished goods etc. And no, we can't expect to have cell phones and computers without fossil fuels, for precisely the same reasons. Society's dependance on fossil fuels does not begin and end at the fuel pump. Further, we can't expect the same quality of life and consumption of energy without fossil fuels, simply because the amount of energy contained in fossil fuels cannot be matched by so-called sustainable energy sources. Consumption will necessarily have to be reduced as we reduce our use of fossil fuels, whether that reduction in use happens voluntarily or not.

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By ViennaCafe (registered) | Posted January 27, 2014 at 18:53:36 in reply to Comment 97227

Excellent points. As well, if we wait until 2050 to get our act in gear, it is too late.

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By -Hammer- (registered) | Posted January 27, 2014 at 20:14:17

Here is the most fundamental Mantra that Council should adopt when dealing with any developer in the city. "We want Higher not Wider".

You will be charged an arm and a leg if you want to build on the outskirts of the city. We will subsidize buildings over 6 floors, more for every floor above that, more if you take out a parking lot or a brownfield while doing it and more the closer to the core you get. We won't issue a demo permit unless you have architectural drawings of your future building & post a bond on the development.

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By Keith (anonymous) | Posted January 28, 2014 at 00:52:03 in reply to Comment 97242

But they can't because, for the most part, their hands are tied by the Planning Act.

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By Joshua (registered) | Posted January 27, 2014 at 23:51:16 in reply to Comment 97242

Will this vision make the downtown core into endless apartments; or, how does a mix of commerce, industry, and residence exist in this scenario? Where does the growing of your own food happen; is it a sort of housing balanced with communal gardens aesthetic?

Comment edited by Joshua on 2014-01-27 23:51:35

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By seancb (registered) - website | Posted January 28, 2014 at 11:06:59 in reply to Comment 97245

The food growing should be happening on the fertile land that is just a few kms from the city core. Instead we systematically convert it to sprawl homes and big box stores. Witness aerotropolis and the suburbanization of waterdown (get ready for the cloverleaf at clappisons - a poster child for sustainable development)

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By Joshua (registered) | Posted January 31, 2014 at 15:15:15 in reply to Comment 97253

The short-sighted loss of green-space will wreck us down the road, pun intended. Just this morning, my wife and I went to Costco in Ancaster and there was so much pavement and water sluicing toward the drains. Had there been trees and grass....

Do you think the push for an individual environmental assessment by Ken Stone and David Cohen is going to help push back against the proposed cloverleaf?

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By Mal (anonymous) | Posted January 28, 2014 at 11:01:37

Comparing the current stage of this shift to the years preceding the industrial revolution, Turner spoke of visionary merchants who invested in projects - such as the Erie Canal - that at the time were looked at as foolish and wasteful. In hindsight, however, those merchants who saw the changing winds of industry ultimately benefited when things really took off.
In the same manner, Turner argued that that those already invested in renewable energy are ahead of this inevitable paradigm shift."

Considering the massive government subsidies that are buying the fortunes of renewable energy, I'm not sure that the comparison to the industry-led Erie Canal is apt.

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By matthewsweet (registered) | Posted January 28, 2014 at 13:34:21 in reply to Comment 97252

As opposed to the massive government subsidies that buy the fortunes of the fossil fuel industry?

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By Mal (anonymous) | Posted January 28, 2014 at 22:32:48 in reply to Comment 97255

Meant to type "buoy", but I get where you're going. All forms of energy are subsidized. But however valid the point, it would be outside of the analogy invoked, namely that of 19th Century industrialists taking a leap of faith by investing cast sums of private money in the construction of something that they believed would repay the investment.

Again: "Turner spoke of visionary merchants who invested in projects - such as the Erie Canal - that at the time were looked at as foolish and wasteful. In hindsight, however, those merchants who saw the changing winds of industry ultimately benefited when things really took off."

I am unaware of comparable leaps of faith in the renewables sector. As you point out, the closer analogy would appear to be that of the status quo, not the frontier mentality of 200+ years ago. Even would-be paradigm shifters like Pembina can't see their way out of that box, and instead simply call for shifting the subsidy from one industry to the next.

This would presumably be in addition to the sweetheart 20-year renewables contracts already handed out in many Western countries and submarkets. Not that such windfalls are necessarily reliant upon producing power: thestar.com/news/queenspark/2013/09/11/ontario_paying_for_wind_turbines_to_not_produce_electricity.html

Then again, the mythology of the canal builders may have been laid on with a trowel:

"Thomas Jefferson said that 'making a canal 350 miles through a wilderness is little short of madness,' and President James Madison vetoed a bill that would have provided federal land grants to help New York with the project. Nevertheless, despite scoffing at the project known as 'Clinton's Ditch'--named after the canal's chief backer, Governor DeWitt Clinton--the engineers, diggers, and political leaders and voters in New York persisted. Altogether, roughly 85 percent of the capital for the Erie Canal came from the New York state government and local governments along the route."

digitalhistory.uh.edu/disp_textbook.cfm?smtID=2&psid=3509

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By justin_eyes (registered) | Posted January 31, 2014 at 15:40:47

I want Hamilton to be a centre of sustainability and for the city’s leaders to choose innovative and creative tactics to make the city a better place to live; and don’t get me wrong, I really do want Hamilton to be the best city to raise a child in. However, I want to see the city start at the most basic level before getting distracted by big visions. What about an aggressive program to clean up the streets and reduce litter? Or what about making public transit a real priority instead of just a campaign promise? We need to start at the basic level, on the streets where residents and visitors walk every day, instead of beginning by dreaming up the big stuff like thriving brownfields, waterfront windfarms, and smart electricity grids. It’s time to stop getting distracted and start making Hamilton a better place to live from a grassroots street level, and after that (and only after that), let’s make Hamilton the sustainable city it could really be one day.

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