What Are Environmental Assessments For?

In the process of replying to the thread about streamlined Environmental Assessments, I made remarks that deserve a post of their own.

My concern is that a lot of bilge has flowed recently about what the EA process is supposed to protect, and the strong implication is that if we don’t hurt any plants or wildlife, the EA has done its job. Moreover, public input is seen as a nuisance holding up much-needed works.

My criticism lies with the underlying assumption that somehow the professionals present perfect transit schemes that, but for rabblerousers like me, would have made Toronto a paragon among transit cities worldwide years ago. This is complete nonsense, and many of the fights that have entangled EAs have turned on the absence of good planning and design, not to mention, until recently, complete ignorance about alternatives in transit technology.

Wearing a Transit City hat, yes, it would be wonderful to see these lines built as fast as possible, but wearing my advocate’s hat I look at the fact that there was virtually no consultation before the network was announced. This time, it happens to be a scheme I support, but who knows what a new political crew might bring?

The centre poles on St. Clair are a prime example. Clearly, the decision on that design had been taken long before the first public consultation, and the staff were absolutely immovable on the subject. This design has been repeated on Fleet Street.

I understand that the new street lights for St. Clair had already been purchased, or at least selected, even though the project didn’t have official approval. The fact that they have had to be replaced at least once, possibly twice because the designs were unsuitable, tells me all I need to know about the expertise that went into that choice. The politicians who are loathe to criticize staff realized only after the line was up and running that the design could have been better, and even this was not enough to change the style for the phase now underway.

Why should we care about street lights? Well, these lights were the underlying reason for the centre poles because originally there would be far fewer side poles much further apart with much more powerful, but fewer lamps. That scheme didn’t work out, and the side poles are in fact at the same spacing as the centre ones. This is but one example of the stupidity that can occur even when the technical folks are challenged, and much worse design flaws may fly through under the guise of an expedited review.

Those centre poles, in turn, limit the ability of buses and emergency vehicles to use the right-of-way. Word on the street is that the emergency services were told to shut up and accept the design even though they didn’t like it.

If we actually had a meaningful planning process in this city, we would discuss design issues and neighbourhood impacts. I’m not saying we should stop projects in their tracks, but that often the pros get it wrong, and there needs to be a mechanism for review and fine tuning.

There are specific provisions about the content of an EA, from the Environmental Assessment Act (RSO 1990, Chapter E18):

(2) […] the environmental assessment must consist of,

(a) a description of the purpose of the undertaking;

(b) a description of and a statement of the rationale for,

(i) the undertaking,

(ii) the alternative methods of carrying out the undertaking, and

(iii) the alternatives to the undertaking;

(c) a description of,

(i) the environment that will be affected or that might reasonably be expected to be affected, directly or indirectly,

(ii) the effects that will be caused or that might reasonably be expected to be caused to the environment, and

(iii) the actions necessary or that may reasonably be expected to be necessary to prevent, change, mitigate or remedy the effects upon or the effects that might reasonably be expected upon the environment, by the undertaking, the alternative methods of carrying out the undertaking and the alternatives to the undertaking;

(d) an evaluation of the advantages and disadvantages to the environment of the undertaking, the alternative methods of carrying out the undertaking and the alternatives to the undertaking; and

(e) a description of any consultation about the undertaking by the proponent and the results of the consultation.

Just because you want to build something doesn’t absolve you of the need to review alternatives and consult with people.

If we build infrastructure that harms neighbourhoods, this will have an impact on quality of life, on economic activity, even on the attractiveness of the transit system. As I have said before, “the environment” includes neighbourhoods.

It is worth quoting the definition of “environment” from the Environmental Assessment Act:

1. (1) In this Act,
“environment” means,

(a) air, land or water,
(b) plant and animal life, including human life,
(c) the social, economic and cultural conditions that influence the life of humans or a community,
(d) any building, structure, machine or other device or thing made by humans,
(e) any solid, liquid, gas, odour, heat, sound, vibration or radiation resulting directly or indirectly from human activities, or
(f) any part or combination of the foregoing and the interrelationships between any two or more of them,

in or of Ontario;

Quite clearly, the Act is intended to protect not only the flora and fauna, but also the communities affected by a project. Anyone taking the narrow view hasn’t read the legislation.

I’m all for moving transit projects forward quickly, but we must get past the idea that just because it’s a transit project, it must be ideal and we cannot criticize it. If the new timelines are to be enforced, then the TTC, GO Transit, Metrolinx and their armies of consultants will have to be much, much more responsive when issues are raised. Today, we can wait months for feedback on proposals even from “friendly” EAs where the staff actively try to engage the community. The new timelines invite staff to run the clock and say “sorry, that may be a great idea, but we had to file our documents last week”.

This is a recipe for exactly the sort of contention that led to the Environmental Assessment Act in the first place, and it will give transit projects an unjustified bad name in the very communities they seek to serve.

17 thoughts on “What Are Environmental Assessments For?

  1. I am in complete agreement. While for the most part, Transit City is a great vision, there are still a lot of questions concerning design, stop spacing, engineering work required for the road widening that will be required in sections, and what parts of routes like Jane require “alternative treatment”. These need to be worked out and designed to create the best overall environment for the neighbourhoods and environment that these lines are supposed to benefit.

    And while many still blame the Weston folk for holding up the airport rail link and Georgetown corridor improvements, the EA was so flawed that it deserved to be thrown out, and a great example of a project harming a neighbourhood without even providing benefit to mitigate the damage. Would Blue22 as planned be going ahead today, without the critical discussion on what type of service is needed, with the proponent acting as its own environmental consultant?

    Steve: The Weston Community Coalition’s circular sent just last night includes:

    Weston Community Coalition
    February 10, 2008
    Environmental Assessment Still Delayed

    Recent news reports that the Provincial Government has a new streamlined EA for Transit projects should not change the EA for the Blue 22 project. It is delayed, not by NIMBYism, nor by the community group (your Weston Community Coalition) but by the Provincial Government itself. The Minister of the Environment has delayed approving or denying the terms of reference for over a year. Despite the ‘spin’ put on this by the media and politicians, the community has not impeded the environmental assessment.

    We are still awaiting answers from the various ministers, and have not heard anything from our MPP since meeting with her late last year.

    Meanwhile, an editorial in the Star suggests that the St. Clair project was delayed for two years due to an overlong EA. Sorry, Toronto Star, but part of the delay was caused by a lawsuit based on the premise that the EA was flawed, not on the EA itself.


  2. I’m not saying that social issues aren’t part of the process. But when I’ve dealt with them – the caveat is outside of Toronto – social issues just haven’t been a major part of the process. It’s a very minor part of the process – and isn’t where the time, effort, and $ are expended. If anything, that part (the societal benefits) is often used to trade off against impacts to the natural environment.

    This is ironic – as a consultant, EAs create income for me, but I’m arguing that the process is out of control (point – I’ve never worked on and EA within the City of Toronto). As a transit advocate – particularily streetcar advocate, the EA process has delayed and terminated many a transit project – but you’re advocating that they should be continued, despite that huge potential that they could just be used to eliminate Transit City.

    You’re looking for a process to control final design. EA isn’t, and never has been that process. Nor is the official plan. I think we all agree that the centre poles for the St. Clair line is moronic – but the location of poles isn’t part of the EA process.

    The real question is how to allow the public to contribute to the process in a constructive manner. But you know that a public process is going to bring out the NIMBYs in force – and they’ll spend all the time and money just trying to duck and run, because the public process is invariably biased towards those trying to stop the project – than those who couldn’t care less, or who benefit. Yes, the Cherry Street EA worked – but we’re dealing with near-vacant industrial lands, and an area so clearly in need of redevelopment, that there just wasn’t many NIMBYs to be found. Running an LRT down the middle of Sheppard, eliminating 2 lanes of traffic, in a congested area, is going to piss people off, and they are going to make more noise than anyone else – most encouraging it to be built as a subway. Shutting this down as much as possible, is the only way it will get built in any reasonable timeframe.

    Steve: I understand your overall position, but disagree with the premise that the EA isn’t the place for design issues. The TTC and its consultants have spun a wonderful web to impede design reviews and this really annoys people who support the projects in principle, but object to specific details. Some LRT projects are all about design — how do we fit a major new use of road space into a community. Some may find community consultation a pain in the butt, but if transit expects to maintain political support, meaningful consultation is essential.


  3. Why do we need all these so-called experts – engineers and planners – when advocates and concerned citizens can do a much better job and planning and design. So much for “professional” engineers/planners.


  4. Steve sorry if I’m repeating your position, but it would appear to me that the aesthetics of any proposed development (transit or otherwise) is to part of the EA. IMHO that’s what they mean with:

    “c) the social, economic and cultural conditions that influence the life of humans or a community,”

    The only way you can determine what a community really wants is to consult them, or did I miss something? If this takes more time than planned and the initiative is delayed, it’s time well spent for all the reasons listed.


  5. This post leaves me puzzled. On the one hand, you say that we need an EA process to get good design. On the other hand, you discuss the St. Clair fiascoes where either the EA did not help or the issue may have been beyond the EA’s terms of reference.

    I don’t think anyone is arguing that we should just build stuff somewhere without thinking about it. But when the old EA process was cumbersome, time-consuming, and money-consuming, and the results are St.-Clair-like and WWLRT-like, well, *why not* just go ahead without the EA? Why spend time and money to get bad results when you can spend less time and money by skpping the EA, for differently-bad results.

    Just because an EA is *supposed* to deliver good results (and apparently occasionally does, witness Cherry Street), if the majority of the time the results suck, then the EA process isn’t working. Maybe the whole thing needs to be majorly overhauled and renamed (“rebranded”). My own one experience with the WWLRT EA didn’t leave me with any desire to repeat the experience.

    Steve: We seem to be coming at the same purpose from different directions. The change in the length of EAs seems designed to please the bureaucrats who are tired of having to explain themselves to concerned citizenry. If we actually had first class proposals come forward before EAs were launched, people might be less inclined to gum up the works. Indeed, on St. Clair, there were many like me who said “yes, I support the project, but not how they are doing it”. However, the situation was so polarized that any criticism was lumped in with those who were diehard anti-project forces.

    Another point that seems to have been forgotten in all this is the recent adoption of the Class EA process for transit projects. This has already cut the projected time for an EA down from two years to one, without eliminating public input and review.

    As I have said before, the change presumes that we have good plans to start with, but often that’s not what is presented and criticism/opposition, call it what you will, is the inevitable and necessary result. As long as the professionals regard any form of public input as something to be endured and bypassed as quickly as possible, we will continue to be the city known as “Toronto the good enough”.

    [That is not my line, please don’t applaud or cite it if it were.]


  6. Watch what you wish for — EAs as they stand now will completely derail all the Transit City light rail lines. Is that what you want? I can just see it now: Sheppard … “a subway extension will have to be considered” … Finch … “we don’t need a light rail line”. Projects could be delayed by years.

    If EAs were in place in the 50s/60s, I can guarantee you that the BDU subway would NOT have been completed by 1968. Can you imagine what an EA would have done to the BD section in its current alignment north of Bloor? … especially with the negative effect it had (ie. land expropriation, empty alleys, etc.)? If everyone in the community was called out back then, and my folks told me about people who lost their homes to BD, what do you think would have happened?

    The EA process doesn’t mean we’ll get the “best possible project”, because such a creature doesn’t exist. Everyone will always have a different opinion on what’s best. Do what Madrid is doing … stop overanalyzing and get the job done.

    Steve: Be careful what I wish for indeed. This blog has been filled with comments about the problems of Transit City, why we should build subways, busways, canals, who knows what else, anything but LRT. There was a time I felt as if I were single handedly running EAs for every line all at once.

    Here’s my concern: suppose Transit City had been announced as a busway network. Would I object to the lack of consultation? Would I say “the fix is in” and mutter darkly about some busbuilder who had the government in their pocket? The EA, in its formal sense, is far from perfect, but we need a way for people to address the issues and options and to tell the professional planners “try again, you can do better”.


  7. My disappointment isn’t with the push to cut back on EAs — like Ed, I find it hard to have much fondness for that process — but that there doesn’t seem to be a push to make community consultation more efficient and effective.

    I believe you’ve pointed out in the past some of the catch-22’s of the EA process — e.g. you can’t discuss detailed design until the EA is approved, but once it’s approved the detailed design magically appears, fully formed. If — and I realize it’s a big if — we had proper public consultation in the detailed design phase, wouldn’t limiting the scope of the EA phase help avoid a stealth design phase? There’s also an advantage to getting quickly to the point where arguments to “do nothing” are officially off-topic. Yes, I know this won’t help with something like the WWLRT — but then the current process doesn’t seem to be helping with the WWLRT either.

    As for the design process, I’ve never understood what happens in those long gaps between public meetings. Aren’t there full-time staff on each project? If so, the scary thing is that the project team must be making assumptions and decisions that are months old by the time they get presented to the public. No wonder they have a limited appetite for change — a new idea or change in assumption could invalidate many weeks of work.

    We might be able to put technology to good use to make all this consultation easier. Sure, still have a few public meetings, but between meetings use a blog to make public the details, assumptions, and decisions as they unfold. From the comments, the project team gets immediate feedback to refine their ideas or to realize that a particular issue is important enough to hold open for the next public meeting. As an example of this process working, I’d point to Roncesvalles: I don’t think that EA has even started yet, but the plans have already gone through a couple of rounds of improvement thanks in part to details being posted on several unofficial blogs.

    But ultimately, it’s hard for the province to legally mandate good consultation — responsibility lies much closer to home. Does the TTC score its consultants on how well they perform? (Surely there’d be a world of difference — even among people who didn’t get their way — between e.g. St. Clair and Cherry on a simple survey question like “Did you feel the project team listened to your concerns?”) Are the Commissioners prepared to recognize the difference between good and bad work, and step in to send bad designs back to the drawing board, or will they reactively defend every process as flawless?

    Steve: Yes, it’s amazing how some plans do their consultation so well. I think that Roncesvalles is working because this is first and foremost a planning exercise about the streetscape and community, and the transit scheme is piggybacking on that process. Indeed, Roncesvalles will only have an EA because the dollar value of the project exceeds the threshold at which the requirement kicks in.

    On St. Clair it was the exact opposite.

    On the waterfront, there has been excellent consultation again because this is seen as a planning process first and a transit EA second. Planning consultation machinery is fairly well-defined in Toronto, although it can vary depending on the support of local councillors, but at least it’s there.


  8. If Nicholas Fitzpatrick comes into EAs thinking anyone raising questions about a proposal is simply a ‘NIMBY’, then we likely won’t have a good atmosphere for constructive input. I think EA consultant should:

    1. be respectful of the people in the impacted neighbourhoods – meaning not pre-judge them AND
    2. be impartial

    The more built up an area – and the more history it has – the more the EA needs to get into the finer points. These have real impacts on people lives.


  9. I think the the new time limit on EA’s is a crude way of curtailing a circus such as ocurred on St. Clair where it was reported that SOS followers shouted down any solution other than mixed traffic and disrupted meetings to achieve its end. I suspect that resulted in less time available for constructive criticism. How should an EA handle SOS-style groups?

    Steve: Elsewhere in this thread is a suggestion that EAs should exploit web-based consultation. Each medium has its problems, but on the web, one certainly avoids the effect of crowds drowning out reasonable questions.

    Related to this will be the need for project teams to be responsive to suggestions QUICKLY with reviews and alternatives so that there is a real discussion, somewhat like the sort of thing happening here except on a community rather than an individual basis.

    A big problem today is that the technical people don’t want to propose anything publicly until every agency from here to the North Pole has signed off on it, and this wastes a vast amount of time in the process. There needs to be more of the “this might work” with caveats. If the technical folks don’t want to engage in that sort of discussion, well then, the new streamlined process will fail miserably. They will spend all their time talking to each other and no time talking to the public.


  10. The other pervasive misrepresentation in the hyperbole around EAs is the use of the word “NIMBY.” Last I checked, NIMBY stood for “not in my backyard.” When I see community groups rallying to make a major urban infrastructure project fit better into their neighbourhood or have a more practical purpose other than just for people passing through, that’s not NIMBYism, that’s people preserving their property values. The goal of many community activists is to improve their patch in the city quilt, not to halt all “progress” at any cost. I don’t live in Weston, but I would sure resent being labeled a NIMBY for wanting a better option than Blue 22.

    Steve: This may sound outrageously pretentious (although this is my blog after all), but I don’t have a “back yard” as such living in an apartment building. However, my view is over the Don Valley to downtown at Bloor Street, and in many ways I regard the entire city as my back and front yard. What happens in any community affects the city as a whole — good projects in one part of town will inspire better projects elsewhere and every neighbourhood benefits.


  11. This is all useful – there is quite a chorus of enthusiasm for the truncated EAs. But there is a great need for an improved quality of initial offering, and one has the very distinct impression that much of the public consult is for the show of it, not the substance. EAs are limited too – they aren’t really looking at the embodied energy/resource of what’s being built, and we’ve had some real problems with failing cyclists in major transit projects eg. Spadina, St. Clair though the energy requirement for bike operation is far less than transit and a lot less than the mobile furnaces.


  12. Exactly. In my attempt to shorten my previous post I overstated my point on property values and might have given the incorrect impression that greed was the motivation. My point was that people want to live in good neighbourhoods, and that in turn increases quality of life, property values, etc. To stretch the fabric metaphor, if each community/neighbourhood is a patch on the greater city quilt, then the municipal infrastructure is the thread that holds it all together. If one patch is not well connected, then you get a gaping hole in an otherwise lovely quilt.


  13. Dave R wrote: “If Nicholas Fitzpatrick comes into EAs thinking anyone raising questions about a proposal is simply a ‘NIMBY’, ”

    I said nothing of the sort. Dave has misunderstood my point. I think an example will show where I was going. If for a given project, 30% of the people are in favour, 60% are neutral, and 10% are against – in my experience is at the public meetings, it will not appear that only 10% of the room is against the plan. Few of the 30% show up, even fewer of the 60%, and a whole lot of the 10% are the ones steering the agenda … leading down the garden path of hydrogen powered buses, etc.

    Steve wrote “The TTC and its consultants have spun a wonderful web to impede design reviews and this really annoys people who support the projects in principle, but object to specific details.” Steve, you keep saying that the EA process precludes detailed design. And while there’s little point working on detailed design, before you nail down your main option – I don’t see anything per se in the EA process that precludes final design on issues that are important to the community – it’s certainly not required, but to preclude it is a choice, as far as I can see. I think there is room to do a better fight on some of these issues. For St. Clair middle poles – were those running it, asked to document where in the legislation they were precluded from getting into these issues. And after Phase 1 has been completed, has anyone filed a complaint with PEO about the design precluding the use of the ROW by emergency vehicles, and thus the designing engineer has “failed to make reasonable provision for the safeguarding of life, health or property of a person” – which would be professional misconduct.

    Steven DS writes “that’s not NIMBYism, that’s people preserving their property values. ” Oh come on, a small group of people sabotaging a project that would benefit a large group of people, simply to protect their property values is a text-book case of NIMBY. Blue22 might well be fatally flawed – but how one can say that this isn’t a case of NIMBY is beyond me. I can only conclude that those fighting that label, see some kind of negative connotation? There’s no general negativity to the acronym NIMBY. If City of Toronto every resumes their talk of building an incinerator in the Portlands, I’ll be the biggest NIMBY out there.


  14. To respond to Nicholas Fitzpatrick:

    “I said nothing of the sort. Dave has misunderstood my point. I think an example will show where I was going. If for a given project, 30% of the people are in favour, 60% are neutral, and 10% are against – in my experience is at the public meetings, it will not appear that only 10% of the room is against the plan. Few of the 30% show up, even fewer of the 60%, and a whole lot of the 10% are the ones steering the agenda … leading down the garden path of hydrogen powered buses, etc. ”

    1stly – if people take the time to come to a consultation – you should listen to them. (And don’t roll your eyes when they ask about hydrogen buses – my clients ask for seemingly dumb things – but there is usually something perfectly valid behind the requests.)

    2ndly – if you are finding that the agenda has been polarized – that’s probably because a preferred direction has been stated. This automatically tells people that their input is not valued.

    Input gathering techniques such as Quality Function Deployment (QFD) (aka “The House of Quality”) stress capturing the requirements without judgement – and using a graphical ranking tool to balance of the needs of the different stakeholder groups. The process is open and helps assuage fears that that a results has been cooked up.


  15. Dave R wrote “if people take the time to come to a consultation – you should listen to them.”

    Of course you should – I’ve never suggested otherwise, or done otherwise. You always learn something from the public, at a public meeting – and it’s never what you’d have expected.


  16. To Nicholas Fitzpatrick’s comment: “Oh come on, a small group of people sabotaging a project that would benefit a large group of people, simply to protect their property values is a text-book case of NIMBY.”

    I hope you are not implying that just because a project benefits a large group of people that it is somehow right even if it causes significant disadvantage to a smaller number of folks in the area where it is put through. And yet, such a crude utilitarian approach probably sums up the bureaucratic mindset more times than we care to admit.

    Steve: There is a subtler issue here. While the immediate effect may be on a “small” neighbourhood, what happens is that the people who propose and design projects learn that they can do as they please without worrying about the consequences. The St. Clair project has its share of problems, some of which were self-inflicted by the project team. It’s a very small step from slagging off one group as “NIMBYs” to treating anyone who disagrees with the message of the day as someone who can be ignored. If any agency or politician wants to critique someone’s position, do it on the merits, not by dismissing your opponents as acting in their self-interest.


  17. Steve,

    I agree with some of your comment to my post, but I would also add that attacking someone’s position as “self-interested” isn’t really a rational attack at all.

    That someone’s position is based on self-interest doesn’t invalidate that position. Whether we care to admit it or not, we all act or take positions out of self-interest — though of course we define that “self-interest” in different ways (and not all “self-interest” is expressed as NIMBYism).

    The issue shouldn’t be whether our position is a self interested one or not but whether it is a position that at least considers the claims, obligations and needs that others have on us in what should be a mutually reciprocal process. All too often “NIMBYism” gets equated with “self-interest”. And all too often, the charge of “NIMBYism” is used to dismiss a position without even bothering to consider whether or not the position presented has any merit.

    Steve: Exactly. It’s easier to dismiss someone as a NIMBY than to address their position as deserving of review. It’s the sort of thing I try to do in the comment threads here (even if I disagree with some contributors) because a civil debate will bring out more details and expose all readers to various points of view. Also, it forces me to examine my own positions and rationales, something far too few of the folks who run Environmental Assessments seem very comfortable doing.


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