the view from inside: Plans, Climate & Automobiles.

We’re told that changing policies is difficult – and in some ways it is; there’s a lot of moving parts and a lot of details to consider. But we also see examples of sweeping policy changes all the time, at all the levels of government – just look at how much changed during Covid-19. It’s totally possible, if we have the political will (and public pressure – that’s where you come in) to do it.

Want an alternative to reading? Listen instead. Duration is 6:44.

So…We need to talk about cars.

Halloween is my favourite holiday, always has been (yes this is going somewhere).

It’s ‘come as you aren’t’ night.

We can imagine ourselves as different people, living in different worlds.

I’ve always been fascinated with this spooky day because social norms get suspended – kids are encouraged to take candy from strangers; we knock on doors of people we don’t know; people fill the streets; cars are told to get out of the way because kids are trick-or-treating.

I love reimagining what our streets could look like if we broke more social norms, especially those norms that are hurting us and the Earth.

“I love reimagining what our streets could look like if we broke more social norms, especially those norms that are hurting us and the Earth.”

People in the street signal something special, whether a holiday, a protest, or Open Air Dunlop here in Barrie, because the streets are not made for people – they’re made for cars. Streets are public spaces, so why aren’t they built for the public?

A lot of how we live is shaped by what our neighbourhoods, towns and cities look and feel like.

The physical spaces that we live in influences how we think, act and perceive the world (and how we move through it).

Physical structures plus social structures like individualism, patriarchy, racism and colonialism can make us think and behave in certain ways that are harmful to others, the natural world and ourselves.

We’re well aware that we have to reduce car use in order to reduce emissions and meet global climate targets (and no, electric cars can’t do this – they only offer a step on the way).

Great, so cities can just invest in better public transit and make more bike lanes and we’re good right? That’s a big part of it, but it goes a bit deeper than some policy changes and reorganizing budgets. I think you know this.

A deeper shift.

Cars are universal in our culture – our lives are literally built around them.

The rapid development of Canadian cities and towns in the last half of the 20th century prioritized cars, making city planning policies and practices assume that we will use cars and keep sprawling cities forever and somehow not run out of land or oil. It was a different time.

But the problem is that many of those policies and practices are still being used, despite the fact that SO much has changed in the 21st century so far – oh yeah, and climate breakdown is a thing. 

We’re told that changing policies is difficult – and in some ways it is; there’s a lot of moving parts and a lot of details to consider. But we also see examples of sweeping policy changes all the time, at all the levels of government – just look at how much changed during Covid-19. It’s totally possible, if we have the political will (and public pressure – that’s where you come in) to do it.

“…we also see examples of sweeping policy changes all the time, at all the levels of government – just look at how much changed during Covid-19.”

A lot of us are willing to make the major changes that we need to combat the climate crisis. Many are willing and eager to transition away from cars and to public transit and active transportation – it’s necessary to reduce emissions, it protects our forests, farmland and water, and it will build happier, healthier and nicer communities.

A difficult message.

But not everyone will so readily make this leap – not when every other Youtube ad is: Car = Freedom.

Cars mean a lot to people – status, identity, masculinity. That makes it personal (and shows how successfully the market can convince us that we need things that we don’t, even when they cause harm). 

People don’t want to give up their cars or trucks because they perceive that to mean giving up their freedom or their status.

Because we are so embedded in the lifestyle of consumption, taking away our stuff can feel like taking away who we are. I don’t have to tell you that that’s not a very healthy or meaningful way to live.

Planning for people and planet, not profit.

When we plan for cars – aka urban sprawl – we get more cars.

So, if we know we need less cars, why are we still planning for more by building highways and approving development outside of current boundaries? Isn’t that the opposite of climate action? Yes, yes it is. 

But with smart planning that centers our carbon budget and our wellbeing instead of short-term profit, this can change. 

Instead, let’s reimagine our communities as ones that cover the needs of diverse people within the limits of regional ecosystems, and that have a strong public sphere where people can socialize, create and learn. We can plan for what are called ‘complete communities’. 

Community supported, advocacy for a safe and secure future.

Governments have failed to act to protect our communities and the futures of our children and grandchildren, and they continue to treat our environment as if it’s incidental to life, rather than a foundation for it.

We need strong community organizations to fight for our future, now more than ever.

Please consider donating to support our work. It’s people like you who make us possible.

“…let’s reimagine our communities as ones that cover the needs of diverse people within the limits of regional ecosystems, and that have a strong public sphere where people can socialize, create and learn.”

These are neighbourhoods that have our basic needs nearby and are built for ‘intensification’, which means filling in the spaces that we already have within city limits. Basically, we can take the space currently for cars (roads, driveways, parking lots) and fill that in with things that we actually need like:

  • Affordable housing of mixed types (apartments, townhouses, and detached homes) that address different needs of different people – growing families, students or seniors who want age in their own neighbourhood. 
  • More small local businesses in the neighbourhood (instead of big shopping centers made for big companies), so that money stays in the local economy and it’s easier to shop local 
  • And parks, community gardens and greenspaces

And all of this is on top of the health benefits of planning for people instead of cars:

  • Less air pollution and related illnesses 
  • Less noise pollution 
  • Safer streets
  • Protected farmland and water sources to brace for climate impacts 
  • Active lifestyles 
  • Less pavement means more heat control for the coming heat waves, especially in urban areas 
  • More social cohesion (people feel connected, feel like they belong, have social support networks and people are just plain nicer to each other!)

All of these things work towards social justice too, because the economic, health and accessibility issues created by planning for cars impacts marginalized populations the most.

What would your street look like if it was redesigned for living instead of driving?

Would people gather in their front yards with people instead of fenced-off backyards?

Would people treat each other better?

Would people use that extra space to grow food or plant pollinator gardens?

Would you have street parties?

Full on snowball or water gun fights on the street?

Picnic tables, public art, music, BBQs?

What could you have instead of a driveway?

Would people work together to build a street-long haunted house on Halloween? (That’s what I would do tbh). 

When we can picture a community that centers health, equity and the environment, we can create those communities. Reimagining the places where we live now opens up paths towards what those places can be in the future.  

I, for one, would love to know how all of you would redesign your street for living instead of driving, no matter what kind of street you live on!

Kelly, signing off. 


P.S – I think of these blog posts as an ongoing discussion. You can share your comments below, on social media (links below!) or get in touch with me at kelly@simcoecountygreenbelt.ca.

Kelly Gingrich

Kelly Gingrich

Kelly is SCGC's Youth Engagement Lead. She has a M.Ed. from OISE, and a B.A. (Hons) from Laurentian, where she specialized in Sociology. She's particularly interested in environmental education.

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