Thursday, July 9, 2009

Barrie should grow up, not out.

(Written for "Root Issues" in the Barrie Examiner:

In a two-sided spat like the one between Barrie and Innisfil/Simcoe County about growth, we assume one side is right and the other wrong, and once one wins, the issue is settled. But sometimes it’s not so simple – sometimes both sides are wrong, no matter who “wins”.

Barrie’s stated need for southern expansion is for new industry, so-called “employment land”, to offset existing residential development. Certainly Barrie must re-balance employment and assessment. Quite simply, we need more jobs in Barrie. But will the Bill 196 border change meet that need?

The face of Ontario’s economy is changing. The era of huge sprawling new manufacturing complexes is over. Industry in Ontario is in retreat – moving south or overseas, or just shutting down. Barrie has seen employer after employer leave; industrial-zoned land sits idle or is flipped to commercial use. Rising oil prices will eventually bring industry back to Ontario, but on a smaller scale to serve local rather than global markets. Newer industry is cleaner and quieter than before, so need not be banished to the far fringes of the city. Most of it will fit smaller land parcels like those already available, and may prefer locations close to existing employee homes and amenities. In that light, Barrie already has the land for the industrial needs of a future localizing economy. This would precisely suit the intensification promoted by the City and Ontario’s Places to Grow.

Even stranger, the eastern block of annexation is clearly intended for more residential development, undermining the whole exercise of re-balancing. Barrie’s perceived shortage of residential land is of one type: single-family detached housing. Existing vacant, idle, or under-used land within Barrie’s current borders offers huge potential for a variety of denser uses like apartments (high- or low-rise), condos, townhouses, and especially residential-over-commercial. Barrie is chock-a-block with one-story strip malls or plazas that could very easily be upgraded with affordable housing above stores or offices. This may not meet our current building patterns or zoning, but those are man-made rules, less harmful to change than the facts on the ground: the fields and forests to be destroyed to build yet more south-end subdivisions.

With spirited effort, we could accommodate necessary industrial and residential growth within our existing borders. Or, if Barrie hasn’t room enough for new residents, why are we breaking new ground to the south instead of filling in the blank spaces in Midhurst, just to Barrie’s north? That’s a settlement area already integrated into greater Barrie. With its adopted secondary plan, it would avoid the planning delays involved with the southern moratorium lands. If we intend new residents to work in Barrie instead of commute to the GTA, wouldn’t it make more sense for them to live to the north than the south? That would also relieve pressure on the Lake Simcoe watershed, as the Lake Simcoe Protection Plan urges. The Conservation Authority’s own report bluntly states that this expansion is premature, as it is sure to increase, rather than reduce, harm to the Lake.

So, if Barrie is wrong, does that mean that Innisfil and Simcoe County are right? Actually, no. Their plan, euphemistically calling for “a community of communities”, is a recipe for more unsustainable growth – rural sprawl. The County plan sprinkles population growth to just about every town or village, yet none of these are likely to become denser as a result; in fact, quite the opposite. Most or all of that “planned” growth is aimed at communities with no transit, some without even municipal sewage treatment. The province is fully justified to reject this plan and re-distribute the majority of planned growth to Barrie, Orillia, and the larger towns of Alliston, Bradford and Collingwood in its Strategic Vision for Growth.

Having been assigned that growth, I challenge those “target” cities and towns to do everything in their powers to fit it into current settlement areas. In fact, they should look at seeking additional powers from the province to remove unnecessary barriers to healthy and sustainable density and intensification. We must learn to live sustainably and stop sprawling; there is no better time to begin than today. Re-think annexation.

Erich Jacoby-Hawkins is a teacher, father, volunteer, and politician.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Alternatives should be explored before closing Prince of Wales

(Written for "Root Issues" in the Barrie Examiner:

A serious mistake is being made. The Simcoe County District School Board is in the process of closing Prince of Wales elementary and redistributing its students to three other schools.

Public schools provide a number of important community benefits. Obviously they prepare our children with the foundations of society’s knowledge and ideas. But they are far more than that – they are also key and irreplaceable parts of our community. They serve as a place for both children and adults to gather – during school hours and outside – and even when empty, are a powerful symbol of the identity of a community.

Earlier in the past century, before the automobile became the primary method of transportation, we walked. In the countryside, one-room schools could be found every few miles. In cities, each neighbourhood competed with the next to see who could support the best facility to anchor their community.

Nowadays, of course, it is impractical for rural children to walk miles. Our education system isn’t suited to one-room, all-ages education, and rural roads may not be safe year-round for long walks, so busing is the standard. But cities provide density and the safety of sidewalks, allowing most children to walk to a public school. The reason we live in cities – rather than Ontario’s beautiful countryside – is to be closer to community functions, like schools. To live in a city, yet be unable to walk to school, runs contrary to the raison d’etre of urban life. For this to happen because the Board has decided to close an existing school – for reasons unfathomable – is perverse.

In the midst of an epidemic of childhood obesity, kids spend more time in front of televisions, computers, or game screens than you can imagine (until you witness it). For many, their only exercise takes place at school. Schools try to provide as much physical activity as possible, but it must compete in a very tight schedule with the critical “three R’s” and for funding of teachers and facilities. Extra-curricular activity also contributes, but is much more haphazard and depends largely upon aptitude, funding, and available time. Walking to school, by itself, can add hours of healthy exercise to each child’s week. Presenting no staff or facility cost to the Board, it applies to all of the students in the area, regardless of their personal or family situation. If the default is to walk to school, parents have to make a conscious decision to drive their children instead, losing this health benefit.

Recent studies have shown a very clear link between walking to school and improved student health. Once you put students on a bus and take them out of area, this benefit can not be retrieved. A neighbourhood school also makes it far easier for children to participate in healthy extra-curricular activities because they can go home and return more easily, or don’t have to arrange a ride to or from school to take part.

Being able to walk to school is not merely a factor in students’ physical health. Parental involvement has measurable educational benefits. Families are far more likely to be involved in school life during the day or evening if they can walk there. Forcing parents to drive creates barriers to those who don’t have a car, or don’t have one available while one spouse is at work.

Since the dawn of civilization, schools have served a wider role than simply presenting the curriculum. They are a community meeting hall, a rallying point, a place for children of all ages to play outside of class time. Many worthy initiatives began as a few citizens meeting after hours in an empty classroom. Ontario’s Good Places to Learn report recognizes these critical qualities, but our Board’s own valuation process merely paid lip service to them.

Given the love, care and hope we have for our children’s future, schools serve as the beating heart of the community, a physical repository of neighbourhood identity and pride. To cut out this heart for the mere sake of expediency strains credulity. Before the doors of Prince of Wales close forever, the Board needs to reconsider ALL of the alternatives that have been identified to keep this heart beating.

Erich Jacoby-Hawkins is a teacher, father, volunteer, and politician.