Is Our City Accountable Enough on Eco Issues?

Unless something changes, St. John’s will continue to lack targets needed for public accountability and motivation on environmental sustainability.

The City of St. John’s and environmental advocates such as Sheilagh O’Leary seem to see city-led environmental initiatives through two different lenses.

Because while O’Leary, a former city councillor and mayoral candidate, says St. John’s sorely lacks on environmental actions, Councillor at Large Dave Lane says he thinks the city is doing a lot to help the environment.

O’Leary cited recent online city budget consultations that neglected the environment as a category for discussion, and council’s decision to “smoosh together” its environmental and urban forest advisory committees as reasons why the city is “going down the wrong road in terms of environmental advocacy and protection.”

“To me that’s a big red sign that says (environmental initiatives) are going to be buried,” she said. “Environmental issues are never going to see the light of day because there’s always more pressing issues.”

But Lane said that appraisal “misses the mark.” He said he thinks the re-organization of council’s committee structure will actually help promote environmental initiatives such as the city’s urban forest.

Lane said St. John’s has lots of environmental projects on the books – from planned naturalized storm retention ponds to detailed policies on development in wetland areas. He said the city’s draft municipal plan, Envision St. John’s, includes “environmental systems” as one of its core themes.

To St. John’s’ credit, earlier this year the city became the first in Atlantic Canada to join David Suzuki’s Blue Dot Movement, which says humans have a right to  clean air, clean water, and safe food, and commits St. John’s to rally the province for better environmental legislation.

But the city does lack a direct, results-oriented environmental sustainability policy – even if, as Lane argued, the environmental values of its draft Envision plan are “driving all decisions” by city staff.

It’s one thing to say city decisions are always informed by environmental concerns and environment-themed sections of city planning documents. It’s quite another to set firm, visible sustainability goals that commit to results – as other, more proactive Canadian cities have done. Actions make the difference on environmental change, not value statements.

O’Leary said cities such as Vancouver, whose mayor Gregor Robertson has become a national leader in city-rooted environmental initiatives and goal-setting, have made concrete commitments to reduce carbon emissions and waste.

“He’s a mayor who gives a damn and thinks that the city should have a role, and I believe St. John’s should be going down that same path,” she said.

Lane said a unified environment-related policy would make a “huge difference” for St. John’s.

“I think if we came out and said, ‘we endeavour to be a sustainable city by, say, 2030,’ and put some measurable goals on that, that’s hugely motivational,” he said, adding a direct environmental goals policy would mean “accountability to what our actions are as a council.”

Nevertheless, St. John’s still doesn’t have such a unified environmental plan. Lane said he’s not sure why, but he doesn’t think it’s something the city is currently pursuing.

Unless that changes, St. John’s will continue to lack the over-arching targets needed for public accountability and motivation on environmental sustainability.

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