Interviews

Interview: Ajax Mayor on Sprawl, Developers, and Sustainable Growth

Ajax Mayor Steve Parish answers questions about Durham's sprawl-friendly regional plan and what it will take to make regional planning more transparent and sustainable.

By Ryan McGreal
Published May 27, 2009

On May 14, 2009, the Toronto Star published an op-ed by Ajax Mayor Steve Parish titled "Sprawl a slam dunk for developers", detailing the pernicious influence of property developers on municipal politics and decrying Durham Region Council's regional growth plan, which violates the imperatives in the provincial Places to Grow framework.

Ben Bull drew some much-needed attention to this surprisingly blunt analysis, writing, "it's nice to know that at least one city Mayor is calling his compatriots to account and sitting on the right side of the discussion."

RTH contacted Mayor Parish for an interview to learn a bit more about what is going on in Durham and what it will take to make regional planning more transparent and sustainable.

Interview

Ryan McGreal, Raise the Hammer (RTH): I must confess to some surprise that a mayor of Ajax, of all places, would write what you did about the problems of sprawl. Have you always championed smart growth or are you a more recent 'convert'?

Steve Parish, Mayor of Ajax (SP): I have always been an outspoken advocate for the environment and sustainable development. In 2000, I championed the adoption of an 'environment first' official plan for the Town. I am a huge proponent of Ontario's Greenbelt initiative, and in fact, I successfully advocated that all of Ajax's urban lands be placed in the Greenbelt. I am an avid cyclist so I am quite aware of the need for smart growth.

RTH: In a speech to municipal leaders last November, George Smitherman said, "I'm giving very careful consideration to the priorities of municipalities who have done their work to meet the growth plan. ... When things are tough, I will stand behind those who stand up for the Growth Plan." Are Durham regional planners aware of this, and do you think refusing to accept the Growth Plan will hurt Durham's prospects at getting provincial support for its infrastructure projects?

SP: Yes, it should! In fact, I will be lobbying the province to stand up to Durham.

RTH: What do you think needs to change to reduce the political influence of developers at the municipal level?

SP: Ban developer contributions to municipal candidates! The study by professor Robert MacDermid of York University regarding the influence of campaign contributions [PDF link] is quite compelling. There is a direct tie.

RTH: What can be done with the existing low-density suburbs of Ajax to make them more livable?

SP: Simple, common sense changes - active transportation, mixed uses, more employment close to home.

RTH: I grew up in an Ajax suburb built in the early 1970s. Unlike today's suburbs, the land was not leveled but was left to rise and fall; mature trees were left in place, and a network of trails connected our neighbourhood with parks, schools, local shops and even the waterfront. It passed the "eight minute popsicle" test. When and why did developers stop building neighbourhoods like this, given that they materially improved the living standards of their residents?

SP: Because of development and our need (as people) for more. And because we believe endless consumption is okay despite evidence of the limits of growth. I am proud to say that in Ajax we try to be mindful of this by implementing smart growth strategies.

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 Ted Mitchell (registered) | Posted May 27, 2009 at 22:40:56

Wow, mayor of Ajax, fantastic opinion piece.

How did he get elected, it seems so unlikely. Because we could learn something from that in the Hammer.

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By ajaxian (anonymous) | Posted May 28, 2009 at 01:07:03

That's easy Ted. Sprawl in ajax is so bad, even it's residents can't stand it.

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By Frank (registered) | Posted May 28, 2009 at 08:30:34

I love the comment about stopping the campaign contributions from developers. Think that'd work here?

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By jason (registered) | Posted May 28, 2009 at 09:18:55

Mayor Fred pulled it off just fine.

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By Ryan (registered) - website | Posted May 28, 2009 at 09:52:46

Think that'd work here?

It would if the province changed municipal election law to prohibit it.

In Hamilton's last municipal election, several candidates, including Mayor Eisenberger, made commitments not to accept any corporate or union donations.

http://raisethehammer.org/article/356

Eisenberger spent a total of $60,000, compared to $236,000 for incumbent Mayor Larry Di Ianni.

http://raisethehammer.org/blog/567

There's a strong case to be made that this actually helped Eisenberger's campaign. Refusing to accept corporate donations puts you at a tactical disadvantage - less money to spend - but a strategic advantage by cultivating a sense among prospective voters that you aren't in the pocket of the home builders.

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By jason (registered) | Posted May 28, 2009 at 10:14:11

and then, once elected, he can focus on doing what's best for the city instead of spending the entire term looking to repay the election donors with all sorts of pet projects and backroom deals.

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By UrbanRenaissance (registered) | Posted May 28, 2009 at 10:38:33

>

Think that'd work here?

It would if the province changed municipal election law to prohibit it.

This would be a huge step forward in our political process. How about a total ban on donations unless they come from an individual and are less than $500? Our politicians work for us not for whichever union or developer gave them the biggest contribution.

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By geejayn (registered) | Posted May 29, 2009 at 19:28:51

I'm not sure what people who talk about "sustainable growth" have in mind.There are only three ways to handle population growth: increase density, build up, or build out. There are practical limits to the first, unless we want our cities to look like those in China, India and Pakistan. There are also obvious limits to building up. That leaves building out, which is what people are objecting to. Although young singles, seniors, or childless couples may be willing to forgo having a backyard, families with children are usually not. There is just no substitute for having a place for the kids to play and the dog to romp, to cook burgers on the gas grill, and to enjoy privacy outdoors. A park is no substitute for all this.Sad to say, but one man's spaciousness is another man's (i.e., Ryan McGreel's )sprawl.Greenbelts are not the answer. This just pushes people from the suburbs into the exurbs, the area on the other side of the greenbelt. It is interesting how "devlopers" have become the villains of the piece.If deveopers were building what the bicycle-huggers wanted(and these developers donated heavily to politicians who supported the bicycle-huggers), there wouldn't be a word of complaint against them.The answer is (and don't laugh at this) no growth or negative growth.Shall we get back to reality? Sprawl is inevitable. Fire away!!

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By Meredith (registered) - website | Posted May 30, 2009 at 22:37:58

Terraces are a fairly commonplace answer to the desire for extended private outdoor space, and there's many North American and European cities where it is the norm to raise your family in a condo, apartment, or if you can get one, stacked townhome.

Simply because we're not yet used to the concept in this city (and it's still fairly new in most of Canada) doesn't mean we're right or perspectives cannot change. The people I know in Switzerland and Toronto who are living that lifestyle are enjoying life just fine with their kids. For them, the ability to do that is luxury, not suffering. A backyard is no more a need or a right than we've created it to be over far less than a century.

It's certainly an enormous hurdle when we live in a city where high-rise living is generally a result of poverty rather than choice and the quality of accomodations reflects that.

However, thinking one's particular perspective and culture is the only "reality" that has ever existed or will exist is rather naive and shortsighted... our ancestors would likely be scandalized by how all of - including myself - all to some degree buy into our current culture of extravagance and entitlement.

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By beancounter (registered) | Posted June 03, 2009 at 23:13:47

What is the "eight minute popsicle" test, Ryan?

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By Ryan (registered) - website | Posted June 04, 2009 at 01:01:10

What is the "eight minute popsicle" test, Ryan?

A child moving under his or her own power can get from home to a place that sells popsicles in under eight minutes. :) It's a broad but surprisingly useful proxy for the basic livability of a neighbourhood.

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By jason (registered) | Posted June 04, 2009 at 21:56:44

geejayn, please share some of these 'obstacles' to increasing density in our cities.

I assume you can do better than our homebuilders association which have made fearmongering comments in the past about Hamilton allowing another 100 Century 21 Buildings as the only way to increase density.

I'd like to hear some proof as to why densifying Hamilton automatically means that the city will look like Delhi, India.

Ever been to Boston? Paris? Brooklyn? Vancouver?

All with superior quality of life than Hamilton. I don't recall thinking that Boston looked like Delhi last time I was there, but maybe I'm missing something.

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