Get in the Habit
The Power of Local Investment
The True Cost of Sprawl
Get in the Habit
Expert planners, doctors, economists and policy analysts agree that increased urban density and healthier commutes make financial and ecological sense, and lead to greater well-being. There are manifold benefits to escaping car reliance by getting around under your own steam or by public transit. As Ottawan Chris Bradshaw notes, cars are not just costly and unhealthy but also inherently anti-social insofar as they “convert public space into private space.” So the less we are in them, the better for all concerned.
Even if it means foregoing that extra bathroom, try to live within walking or cycling distance of school, work, shopping and entertainment to avoid the stress, hassle and expense of relentless car travel. Make, fix and grow things at home to to spare that extra trip to the store. Get to know your neighbours by closing off your street for a block party. Take vacations that don’t require financially and environmentally costly travel by car or plane.
Eat organic foods that are in season, made by local producers. Check the Ottawa Farmer’s Market web site to find fresh local produce at multiple downtown locations. As noted by Mike Barrett of Natural Society, our meals commonly travels thousands of miles, with the result that food transportation consumes large quantities of fossil fuels; produce often needs to be picked while unripe then gas-“ripened” after transport, artificially preserved and irradiated; and local small farmers lose out to agribusiness monopolies. Not to mention that “locally grown, fresh food actually tastes like real food.”
Click here for a good introduction to the dynamics and benefits of local and regional food systems. For a variety of Ottawa organizations devoted to sustainability see the Slow Ottawa blogroll and the National Capital Green Map. The map indicates green business, organizations, groups and farms throughout Eastern Ontario and Western Quebec.
The Power of Local Investment
To foster long-term economic resilience it makes a lot of sense to shop at locally-owned stores, rather than buying online or at absentee-owned corporations. Michael Shuman’s Local Dollars, Local Sense (nicely summarized in this one-hour talk) makes a convincing claim that most stock market investors would be far better off investing in their homes and communities. In this conversation on the Peak Prosperity podcast Shuman notes that “the most profitable companies in Canada have ten to twenty employees and they have about double the profitability of the firms that are being traded on the Toronto Stock Exchange where everyone has their money.”
As Shuman and co-author Barry O’Neill note in a recent Vancouver Sun article, locally-owned businesses keep a greater amount of money circulating locally due to the “local multiplier effect” and the consistency of the results is incontrovertible:
More than two dozen studies have shown that every dollar spent at a locally owned business generates two to four times the economic development impacts as a dollar spent on an equivalent non-local business. (No studies have shown superior impacts from chains.) Every dollar spent locally therefore means two to four times the local jobs, two to four times the local income and wealth effects, two to four times the local taxes, two to four times the local charitable contributions.
Other benefits mentioned by the authors include include the increased stake of local owners in the community, making them more likely to keep the business in the area; the distinctiveness of the culture that results from small business ownership; and the fact that the multiplier effect extends to other realms of civic life such as public health, social equality, and democratic participation.
As noted in this review Shuman puts forward the following very practical recipe for community prosperity:
Rule #1: Maximize the percentage of jobs in your local economy that exist in businesses that are locally owned.
Rule #2: Maximize the diversity of your businesses in your community, so that your economy is as self-reliant and resilient as possible.
Rule #3: Prioritize spreading and replicating local business models with outstanding labour and environmental practices.
In Canada as in the US context described by Shuman there are many barriers, such as accredited investor regulations, set up to prevent all but a privileged few from certain forms of investment. But luckily there are many ways we can all invest locally, such as shopping at independent local merchants.
For credit unions and other co-ops see the relevant section here.
For more on the benefits of local purchasing go here and here.
For a guide to local food see the Eat Green page on this site.
The True Cost of Sprawl
But what does local even mean in a country where (according to the last decent census) 74% of commuters drive to work, 5.6% are car passengers and only 12% take public transit? For an informed Canadian perspective on the true cost of urban sprawl see this October 2013 report from the policy experts at Sustainable Prosperity. Most municipal economies remain hampered by an irrational allocation of public resources in favour of car travel, which leads to higher overall costs. From a purely financial perspective, reports Leigh Gallagher, suburban sprawl amounts to a “giant Ponzi scheme.” As Toronto planner Pamela Blais explains in her book Perverse Cities, Canadians flock to the suburbs due to “crude public policies” in which “a wide range of urban goods and services are subject to inaccurate price signals, including housing, non-residential properties, transportation and utilities. Mis-pricing creates hidden, ‘perverse’ subsidies and incentives that promote sprawl while discouraging more efficient and sustainable urban forms.”
Tax incentives for commuters are by no means the only way we privilege car culture to our collective detriment. Long car commutes entail many externalities (i.e. hidden or indirect costs) including the financial and health liabilities of air pollution, traffic accidents, car maintenance, insurance costs and the sheer mental and physical strain of all that time in the car. The evidence is in: it’s statistically proven that commuters tend to lead shorter, unhappier, over-medicated lives, and that the ill effects of car dependence extend to every creature on the planet.
“By investing in downtowns rather than dispersal” writes Vancouverite and Happy City Charles Montgomery “cities can boost jobs and local tax revenues while spending less on far-flung infrastructure and services.” Suburban Nation/Walkable City author Jeff Speck promotes a comparable smart growth philosophy in this TED Talk and this entertaining, well-illustrated hour-long talk. Here‘s an hour-long conversation about Walkable City proposals that works well in audio format.
See also our Eat Green page, and consider the many local initiatives on our Sustainable Economies board below.