May 16, 2005

Surging urban growth places growing pressure on quality of air, water, land, says FCM study

Booming urban economies have created environmental challenges for Canada's largest cities and urban areas, according to a new report from the Federation of Canadian Municipalities (FCM). Growth, the Economy and the Urban Environment is the third theme report in FCM's Quality of Life Reporting System (QOLRS) series.

"While a vibrant local economy is generally considered to be a positive feature of quality of life, there is a real risk that continuously expanding urban populations, increasing incomes and growing economic activity will result in increased pressure on the quality of air, water and soil," the report states.

FCM President Ann MacLean, Mayor of New Glasgow, Nova Scotia, said the report demonstrates the need for municipal, federal and provincial governments to work together to meet the challenges created by growth.

"Many of the challenges facing Canada's cities and communities are part of larger issues that cannot be addressed by municipal governments alone. Municipal governments will continue to take the lead on issues that affect their communities, but we need the co-operation of all orders of government to find and deliver long-term solutions," she said.

The report is based on data from the 20 cities and regional municipalities that make up the Quality of Life Reporting System. The participating municipalities, which together make up 40% of Canada's population, include: Calgary; Edmonton; Halifax (Regional Municipality); Halton (Regional Municipality), Ontario; Hamilton; Kingston; London; Niagara (Regional Municipality), Ontario; Ottawa; Peel (Regional Municipality), Ontario; Quebec (Metropolitan Community); Regina; Saskatoon; (Greater) Sudbury; Toronto; Vancouver; Waterloo (Regional Municipality), Ontario; Windsor; Winnipeg; and York (Regional Municipality), Ontario.

Individual sections of the report analyze five sets of economic, environmental and demographic trends in the 20 QOLRS communities during the perod from 1991 to 2002. The environmental trends examined were municipal solid waste management, transportation and air quality, and municipal water supply and water quality.

Although complete data for the entire study period were not available from all 20 communities, the survey's key finding with regard to municipal solid waste (MSW) management was an increase in total volumes of waste, even though waste recycling and diversion rates rose consistently and succeeded in slowing the rate at which MSW was sent to landfills. Sustained growth in solid waste, says the report, places pressure on municipalities to expand waste diversion programs and find new disposal sites. The sustained demand for expansion of disposal facilities risks degrading landscapes and increasing soil and water contamination.

Of the 13 municipalities reporting solid waste data for 1996 and 2002, the per-capita volumes of waste collected rose in eight, were unchanged in one and fell in only four. It is worth noting, says the report, that the municipalities reporting a decrease or no change were also among the largest by population. Curbside recycling rates rose steadily over the 1991-2002 period, from 11% of total waste collected in 1991 to 18% in 2002. Waste diversion rates (including recycling, yard waste, hazardous waste and organics composting) rose from 20% of all waste collected to just under 32% during the same period, the study found. These improved recycling and diversion rates, however, were not enough to offset the increased volumes of waste generated in the 20 communities.

The section on transportation and air quality examines commuting patterns between 1996 and 2002, along with air quality trends from 1991 through 2002. During the second half of the study period, the study found that commuters continued to rely overwhelmingly on the automobile, travelling slightly longer distances between home and work, although those in larger centres travelled farther than average.

While commuting trends are only partially responsible for air pollution, this same period also coincided with higher concentrations of ground-level ozone. Increasing numbers of smog advisories in several of the QOLRS municipalities signalled health risks, the report adds. Concentrations of other key atmospheric pollutants in the municipalities, such as sulfur dioxide, fell to well within acceptable levels during the 1991-2001 period

Per-capita water consumption in the 20 QOLRS communities rose slightly between 1991 and 1999, while still remaining well below the national average, the study found. Wastewater treatment systems were generally able to to keep pace with the growing demand for water, although the report points out that this rising demand not only places a strain on Canada's natural resources, it requires increased investment in water infrastructure and wastewater collection and treatment systems. Another survey finding indicated only a small proportion of wastewater lacking at least secondary or tertiary treatment, and this proportion is declining as well, notes the report.

More information is available from Robert Ross at the FCM, 613/241-5221, ext 399. The full report may be viewed on the FCM Web site, www.fcm.ca.

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