Urban sprawl: The sustainability of the PMAD solution

Satellite picture of the urban sprawl in Montreal Metropolitan area (NASA)

The environmental assessment system in Quebec appears advanced in regards to its environmental law, unique sustainable development act and unique independent public consultation body, the Bureau d’audiences publiques sur l’environnement (BAPE). It is therefore expected that in Quebec, even the smallest projects “which could significantly affect the environment” would also be subject to an extensive evaluation and that the public has “the right to be informed and to express its opinions by way of public consultations” (MDDEP). Nevertheless, many projects that can modify far greater geographic extents than many industrial projects and can affect entire ecosystem processes are not subject to an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) under the Environmental Quality Act, even if they are expected to greatly impact the environment (see c. Q-2, r. 22  & c. Q-2, r. 23).

In the case of housing and urban development projects the actual law “makes it possible to develop vast areas of land without knowing its environment characteristics and condition, its potential impacts, without informing and consulting the population, and without any follow-up plan” (CQDE, 2011, translation mine). Thus, in the past 30 to 50 years, the greater area of Montreal was urbanized without any consideration for EIAs which has resulted in major environmental, social and economic issues related to urban sprawl.

Land uses on the north shore of Montreal, Blainville satellite picture (Inter-environnement Wallonie)

In response to a continuous tendency of populations to leave the urban center, a lack of land available for future housing projects and industrial growth along the periphery of the island, high traffic volumes and resulting carbon dioxide, in April 2011, the Communauté métropolitaine de Montréal (CMM) developed a major contingency plan, the Plan Métropolitain d’Aménagement et de Développement (PMAD). This metropolitan land use and development plan answers these problems and public concerns on related issues including: the preservation of remaining agricultural land, wooded areas and wetlands; the quality of life related to fragmented land uses and transportation and health issues related to smog and heat islands. The PMAD objective is to stop the urban expansion by increasing the density of the urban perimeter and integrating urban land use and public transportation in transit oriented development (TOD). With theses new neighborhood it aims to promote a sustainable way of life in the suburbs by increasing commuting by train and local service planning. MRC and municipalities are obliged to comply with.

Issues with this proposed project are directly related to its degree of transparency, or lack thereof. We do not know how the objectives, mains issues, the benefits of this plan were determined. Who did the assessment and what its scope? What was the decision process, who was involved? Although this project will affect approximately 3,7 million people, impact about 4 360 km2 of land and affect the future of 82 municipalities (PMAD, April, 2011) it appears no impact assessment was deemed necessary. Even so, the CMM is saying that its plan is sustainable and that their consultation process was a good example of participatory democracy (PMAD website). Yet, not only the existing independent consultation body of Quebec (BAPE) was not given a mandate to asses this project and consult the public, the CMM public consultation ethics does not respect the same guidelines as the one apply by the BAPE agency. Even if 17 public consultations were held from September 28th through October 21st of 2011, no information on the plan was then provided (none !). The public hearings consisted only of brief presentations from citizens, civil groups and elected officials. In addition, the consultation was held by the proponent itself only a month before the adoption of the plan and the project committee did not even study the citizen feedback as they outsourced 344 briefs to a survey firm (Leger Marketing, 2011).

Additionally, information made available to the public on the PMAD by the CMM is very limited. The consequence of this is that the population is not aware of the issues surrounding this development plan of the CMM.

A Short animated film presented by the ONF on the problems and concerns emerging from the urban sprawl (SAGACITE) – follow the link to see the video

This short animated film highlights the rationale behind the need of rethinking the planning of suburban areas. However, it shows a simplified and positive view of the problems and solution of urban sprawl as the information made available on the PMAD. In reality, this simplified rationale does not encompass the complex reality of space occupation and urban development; municipalities are not homogenous. With the PMAD plan they offer a unique model of urban planning to existing urban fabrics and to environment and communities that are not identical. Moreover, some deeper  issues weren’t address at all.

The CMM procedure and consultation process could have benefited from the Quebec EIA system, which would include a comprehensive baseline study and public participation process, a rigorous implementation program with a follow-up plan including indicators on specifics issues and alternatives solutions. “We don’t comprehend how the PMAD will be asses in the absence of follow-up indicators” (MRC Sainte-thérèse de Blainville PMAD brief, 2011, translation mine). Moreover, the BAPE involvement in the process would have promoted the 16 sustainable development principles of the Quebec sustainable development law. As it is, the PMAD potential results in term of sustainable development are as highly questionable as its decision and evaluation process.

To learn more about the CMM Plan Métropolitain d’aménagement et de développement (PMAD ): http://pmad.ca

References :

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