Is Nanaimo’s Sustainability Sustainable?

David Brown: Sept. 19, 2012

The word sustainability is derived from the Latin sustinere (tenere, to hold; sus, up). Dictionaries provide more than ten meanings for sustain, the main ones being to “maintain”, “support”, or “endure” Since the 1980s sustainability has been used more in the sense of human sustainability on planet Earth. The most widely quoted definition of sustainability is associated with the Brundtland Commission; namely , “sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

The notion of the ecological footprint (developed by retired UBC professor, Bill Rees) provides a more concrete way of expressing sustainable development.  The ecological footprint approximates the amount of arable and agriculturally or ecologically productive land area it takes to sustain one human or group of humans, say in a family or city, based on their use of energy, food, water, building material and other consumables. In other words how much land area is required to support a person’s or a group’s standard of living. Bill Rees argues that our current North American lifestyles are already not sustainable.

So what?

The word “sustain” or derivatives thereof appear by my account 23 times in the City of Nanaimo’s 2011 Annual Municipal Report. It is used in various ways in various contexts but rarely, if at all, in a Bruntland Commission or an Ecological Footprint way.

The first referential way it used in the Report is under the heading “Engineering – 2011 Performance”. The passage reads “Sustain, improve, construct and maintain in a cost-effective and efficient manner, all municipal infrastructures to meet the future needs of the community.” Sustain in this sentence appears to mean something like “keep going”. Further down still under “Engineering – 2011 Performance” passages read ”Maintain and improve a transportation network that enhances the safety, livability and sustainability of the community and “Plan and design the transportation network for the longer term to enhance safety, livability and sustainability.” The latter use of sustainability might suggest a Bruntland application but the report talks primarily about road projects in Nanaimo such as the Bowen Rd. widening. Sustainability in this sentence thusly seems to mean meeting the needs of increasing vehicle traffic.

Subsequent sentences under the Engineering or Public Works components of the Report include “Sustain and improve the service life of utilities infrastructure to meet the current and future needs of the community.”, “Maintain and improve a transportation network that enhances the safety, livability and sustainability of the community” and “Update Water Supply Long Range Capital Plan on an annual basis, to ensure funding levels remain sustainable; develop asset management strategy for existing water supply assets”. These statements could probably be best paraphrased as “We got to keep expanding our roads and utilities to keep pace with new developments.”

When the report says “Manage the finances of the water utility on a sustainable basis.” it obviously means coming up with revenue to expand the water utility; i.e. sustaining the revenue stream. When it says “The ongoing challenge for the Engineering and Public Works Department is to manage the City’s assets in an efficient, effective and sustainable manner while maintaining a level of service that meets the community’s expectations.” it is talking about the maintenance or enhancement of the standard of living. We are a long ways from the sustainable development of the Bruntland Commission.

Under the Report’s heading “Future Issues & Trends” we learn that “Sustainability Initiatives, include: “Right sizing vehicles; Electric and hybrid vehicles; higher purchase cost and projected lower operating cost.” I suspect that City Hall’s understanding of sustainability is akin with that of the aging rock star who built a three million dollar plus earth house on a Gulf Island. If the whole world followed suit with earth houses, of course, there would be no land area or soil left to grow any food. For City bureaucrats it is LEED standard buildings at double the cost; hybrid vehicles that only seemed to get purchased when a public entity is buying them; social housing on Bowen Road where the per unit cost for a 550 square foot unit exceeds $300,000.00. In other words, it is about “environmental showcases” which simply are not reproducible at a scale which could have any significant impact on the ecological footprint.

Nanaimo in a Bruntland or ecological footprint sense is the opposite of sustainability. It is a twenty kilometer long corridor built along a single highway (with several offshoots). It is a low density community with 95% of its retail space located in vehicle parking lots. There are virtually no commercial facilities which one would normally access by foot. Even most of the higher density residential development is not close to retail facilities. The surrounding farmland produces less than 2% of the community’s food supply. The City and its environs produce no energy and virtually no manufactured products.

In fact over the last sixty years or so Nanaimo and environs has become less and less sustainable – back in 1950’s Vancouver Island was largely food self-sufficient and it supplied a significant part of its energy needs. If it had suddenly been cut off from the rest of the World, its (human) population would with some privation have been able to survive. Not so today when less than 5% of the Island’s food is sourced on-shore.

The closest that the Nanaimo’s 2011 Report comes to using “sustain” in an ecological footprint sense is in relation to planning when it talks about “A density bonus system which awards additional density to a development which meets or exceeds the City‘s sustainable amenity criteria.” These comments are made in connection with density initiatives such as laneway housing. Laneway housing, however, is a trivial densification tool – the real action in Nanaimo in the housing sector continues to take place in North End subdivisions.

When push comes to shove, of course, Nanaimo approves every major new development that comes along including a Parking Lot-Big Box Complex at the South entrance to the City and a so-called “Resort” on the Cable Bay lands. The City’s containment boundaries are neatly wiped off the map. So even though lip service is occasionally given to the notion of sustainable development, it is not followed.

Our erstwhile City Managers could take some real measures to lead us to reduce our ecological footprint. They could become fanatical about increasing population density and halting any further green field development. They could advocate that the City no longer require every new subdivision to be outfitted with paved roads and underground utilities. Most of all they would start with theirown salaries – rather than ask for 3 or 4% wage increases they would ask for wage reductions because real sustainability; i.e. an ecological footprint which is supportable long term is only possible with a reduction in average consumption and consumption will only be reduced if collective buying power is reduced.