Allison Hanes: Quebec needs to get serious about curbing sprawl

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Every year, another 0.6 per cent of the most populated regions of Quebec is covered in artificial surfaces.

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“Drive until you qualify” has been the mantra of buyers looking for affordable homes in greater Montreal’s hot housing market — at least it was before rising interest rates and soaring gas prices took a toll.

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But this trend long ago became unsustainable for individuals and the planet alike. It has resulted in Montrealers moving further afield driving longer distances in bigger vehicles to get to work. It’s no wonder tailpipe pollution is Quebec’s most significant and continually growing source of greenhouse gases, accounting for more than 40 per cent of emissions. It’s also a quandary record investments in public transit and the electrification of transportation alone won’t solve.

Even if the pandemic and its work-from-home edict curbed unhealthy commuting habits for some, it also created an insatiable appetite for properties with more room and outdoor space even further from developed areas. This vicious cycle is pushing our 2030 emissions reduction targets and the objective to make Quebec carbon neutral by 2050 out of reach.

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An expert advisory panel is thus calling on the government to use a new architecture and land-use bill it is set to unveil imminently to put the brakes on sprawl. In a report made public Monday, the Comité consultatif sur les changements climatiques proposed two critical recommendations for the forthcoming legislation: imposing a moratorium on building new highways; and a freeze on developing in natural areas.

The land-use reform is the ideal opportunity to usher in more sustainable practices across different but inter-related sectors, like municipal affairs, urban planning, transportation, housing policy, economic development, nature conservation and climate adaptation.

“This new policy must mark a major turning point from past practices and become a powerful tool in the fight against climate change,” the consultative committee noted.

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After all, protecting biodiversity by leaving woods, wetlands and meadows untouched is the second-most effective thing that can be done to limit global warming according to the most recent scientific report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. These areas must be looked at as natural infrastructure and valued for the services they perform, like absorbing carbon and mitigating the impact of severe weather.

Yet every year, another 0.6 per cent of the most populated regions of Quebec is covered in artificial surfaces. Between 1994 and 2007, an area of land the size of Laval was built on. The committee says Quebec should set aside 30 per cent of its territory for conservation — and that it can’t just be in the uninhabited hinterlands.

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Countless studies have shown building roads only encourages their use, driving demand for development and services even farther away. The median distance between home and work increased 15 per cent in Quebec between 1996 and 2006, the report notes, while average annual distance driven rose 29 per cent between 1990 and 2007. This data makes the Quebec government’s claims that its “third link” tunnel project between Quebec City and Lévis won’t further promote sprawl all the more laughable.

Yet even Monday, Quebec Transport Minister François Bonnardel defended previous comments he made that derided densification as “in fashion” and defending the choice of families who don’t want to live in downtown high-rises — completely misunderstanding the concept. Young, green mayors recently elected in Quebec called him out on his attitude in La Presse, while urging Municipal Affairs Minister Andrée Laforest to be bold in her vision for the soon-to-be-tabled law.

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Quebec must empower the municipalities who are leading the way on fighting climate change.

The advisory committee’s call for a moratorium on development in natural areas echoes recent conservation efforts by towns like Hudson and Pointe-Claire. The Montreal Metropolitan Community just adopted a temporary freeze on new construction in sensitive areas across the region’s 82 municipalities. If Quebec were to follow suit province-wide, it would set the right tone and level the playing field.

Quebec’s new law must arm municipalities with more formidable legal tools to stand up to deep-pocketed developers, like expropriation powers and the right of first refusal to buy lands of ecological or public interest. (Montreal already has the latter). And it must give cities and towns greater financial means to acquire properties at fair prices that won’t bankrupt municipal coffers.

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Getting people to switch to electric vehicles won’t get Quebec far enough toward its climate goals without an accompanying shift to smart planning policies that facilitate the use of public transit or active means of transport — be it in urban neighbourhoods, suburbs or small towns.

There are high hopes for Quebec’s anticipated land-use legislation. If it lives up to expectations, it could become one of the most important environmental laws on the books.

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