Thriving – sustainably – in the long term:  Following Aurora’s example


by Theresa Peluso

In Part 2 of my series of articles on sustainable development, I elaborated on Mississippi Mills’ wealth of natural and social capital.  We could make sustainable development happen here!  Other communities are already developing their economic potential in a sustainable way, and showing us how to get started.

For example, let’s look at Aurora, an affluent town in the Greater Toronto Area.  It is different from Mississippi Mills in a number of ways:  it has one tenth of the geographical area, and more than five times the population of Mississippi Mills.  The median family income for Aurora was $155,000 in 2009, almost double that of our own municipality.  Although most of Aurora’s economy is connected with the several dozen industries and head offices located there, the town also values its natural environment; namely, its location within the Oak Ridges Moraine.  The latter, a 160-kilometre-long stretch of rolling hills and hummocks, forms the headwaters for 65 rivers and streams that empty south into Lake Ontario and north into Lake Simcoe, and provides clean water to over a quarter of a million people with wells, and habitat for a variety of plant and animal species.

Aurora has had a Corporate Environmental Action Plan (CEAP) in place since 2010.  If you click on this link, and read the introduction, you’ll see that Aurora, despite its differences relative to our municipality, also has many similarities.  It is close to a larger centre (Toronto), and its residents consider it “a welcoming and dynamic town with a strong sense of community pride and volunteerism.”  Aurora is also “committed to healthy and inclusive lifestyles inspired by natural heritage, historic culture, diverse neighborhoods, thriving businesses and natural environment.”  In addition, “Aurora is a mosaic of contemporary living in charming heritage surroundings that continues to attract those looking for the ideal mix of small-town friendliness and urban amenities.”  And, the “Town is home to land with soil capability to accommodate agriculture, encompasses three separate headwaters, open spaces, natural areas, wildlife and wildlife habitat/corridors.” To me it sounds very much like a description of the character of Mississippi Mills, and what we aspire to be.

What can we take away from Aurora’s CEAP to make our own municipality more sustainable?  By the way, our next-door neighbor, Carleton Place, is already working on a CEAP for their municipality.  As historic rivals, we wouldn’t want them to outshine us, would we!

The stated purpose of Aurora’s CEAP is “to protect and enhance the natural environment, promote environmental sustainability, integrity and conservation of resources, and create a practice of environmental stewardship within the community”.  The plan is set up in four sections that are structured around the four elements of Greek mythology: air, water, fire (energy), and earth (land).  Each action specified in the plan is directly linked to the natural environment, and is assigned short-, medium-, and long-term milestones.

Here are some of Aurora’s successes and commitments to date.

To sustain and improve air quality through the reduction of vehicle emissions, the Town of Aurora has installed traffic circles, added a Smart Car to the municipal fleet, and installed 17 idle-free zone signs at six town-owned facilities.

To decrease water consumption, a holding tank was installed to catch the runoff from a nearby splash pad, as well as rainwater, which is used to water trees, new sod and hanging baskets on the town’s streets.  The hanging baskets, being fitted with reservoir-based containers, require less water than previously.  Aurora has also undertaken stream-bank and erosion-control projects, such as providing vegetation enhancements and buffers, to restore and protect the town’s creeks and water courses.  In addition, the town initiated the retrofit of four existing stormwater management systems, which had the effect of decreasing runoff by up to 80 percent, lessening the amount of phosphorus entering Lake Simcoe by up to 84 kg per year, and reducing weed growth in waterways by nearly 42 tonnes per year.

To decrease energy consumption, Aurora has participated in an energy efficiency program  set up by York Region, installed green-building technology and retrofits to save on gas and hydro consumption, and committed to purchasing green power for its town hall.

To protect natural habitat and soil quality, and to increase tree cover, Aurora established a 170-acre wildlife park (part of their total of 46 parks comprising 700 acres), created a community arboretum, used ecologically-friendly building materials to renovate and repair the town’s facilities, built 57 km of trails and bicycle paths, installed boardwalks over environmentally sensitive areas, replaced the use of commercial fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides with biological controls, decreased the use of road salt, promoted the use of native trees on town-owned land, and improved the town’s trail systems by installing permeable surfaces and eliminating lighting.

While some of these initiatives aren’t suitable for a municipality with our large area and small population, many of them could certainly help us to start using our resources more sustainably.

In Mississippi Mills there are a few locations with No Idling signs, but at present the municipality has provided no public education about the needless pollution and carbon emissions caused by this behaviour.  More needs to be done, as the Carleton Place Environmental Advisory Committee (EAC) is hoping to do by proposing an anti-idling bylaw as part of its own CEAP.  Also, perhaps our municipality might consider replacing, as needed, its vehicles with more fuel-efficient or electric vehicles.

Regarding hanging baskets with reservoir-based containers, our municipality has installed these on our bridges during the summers, and they have been worth the additional cost.  Perhaps our municipality could, in addition, install rain barrels in suitable locations to minimize the need to use well water for watering.  The plants would flourish because rainwater contains extra nutrients such as nitrogen, and lacks the salts found in well water.  While it’s true that our municipality has promoted the sale of rain barrels to residents, it could perhaps lead by example. One difficulty is that the hanging baskets are kept moist using a watering truck, which has a tank from which the water is pumped up into the baskets.  Currently this water is supplied from the wells at the Ramsay Garage and/or the Pakenham Arena.   Because of the stop-and-go operations and the filling procedures, using rain barrels or tanks for supply may not be feasible.  Perhaps the garden beds in Almonte and Pakenham could have rain barrels placed nearby and used as needed.

Regarding stream bank and erosion control projects, there doesn’t seem to be much evidence of efforts in this area.  One example of this lack of regard for shoreline vegetation is the development on the Mississippi River at the end of Spring Street, where the developer was allowed to clear the land right down to the river, destroying the previously existing shoreline vegetation.  Perhaps if our municipality had had strong safeguards against such destructive activity, this problem could have been avoided.

On the question of stormwater management, our municipality is in the process of implementing stormwater management systems in Almonte and Pakenham, in accordance with guidelines from the Ontario Ministry of the Environment (with the input of the Mississippi Valley Conservation Authority). The aim is to manage water flows so that any changes to the landscape do not negatively affect the original drainage, and so that the new system can accommodate 5-year and 100-year design storms.  Where possible, stormwater management facilities are sized or upsized to benefit other lands.  With the planned upgrading of the below-ground infrastructure on Mill Street in Almonte, it is hoped that measures will be taken to prevent pollutants in the run-off from entering the river, such as stormceptors (a stormceptor is a system of chambers and filters attached to inlet pipes and grates to process chemicals in run-off from roads) and bioswales (planted strips along roads).

Reducing energy consumption happens to be an area where our municipality has already made great strides.  Following passage of the Ontario Green Energy Act in 2009, our Department of Roads and Public Works implemented a thorough overhaul of its facilities by relamping them; replacing heating and ventilation systems with high-efficiency models; and reducing heat loss through added insulation, retrofitted windows and installation of heat-ventilation-recovery systems.  Our municipality is also fortunate to be able to take full advantage of our very own, locally-produced hydro power, through the Mississippi River Power Corporation.

What about protecting our natural habitat and soil quality, and increasing tree cover?  Our municipality is blessed with many beautiful, thriving natural areas for residents and visitors to enjoy.  Unfortunately, our record here is mixed.  On the plus side, planned amendments to the Municipal Community Official Plan include the definition of a Natural Heritage System, which is a system of cores (many of which are already designated Provincially Significant Wetlands (PSW) and Areas of Natural and Scientific Interest (ANSI)) and linking corridors, to protect habitat for our many wild creatures.  In addition, plans are in the works to include a site-alteration bylaw, which will prevent damage to environmentally sensitive areas from development.

Still on the plus side, Mississippi Mills uses little or no road salt in the winter, and, in compliance with the 2011Ontario Pesticides Act, no longer uses chemicals to control weeds in parks and playing fields.  Mississippi Mills has also partnered, on occasion, with the local field naturalists to address environmental issues, such as identifying ash trees to monitor the emerald ash borer invasion.  As regards permeable trails, Mississippi Mills has built and enhanced the Riverwalk along the Mississippi River with paving stones and garden beds, and maintains natural paths in Gemmill Park.  Our municipality is also a leader with its Dark Skies Policy, which restricts light pollution for the benefit of residents, especially astronomers, and wildlife.  As for active transportation, thanks to the enthusiasm of local cyclists, our municipality has celebrated Bicycle Month every June for the last seven years, with events geared to include people of all ages and abilities.  Mississippi Mills is also in the final stages of completing its Transportation Master Plan, which includes an active transportation component.  Although numerous cycling and hiking enthusiasts, and other residents too, have expressed their concern about the prevailing trend to prioritize motorized transportation at their expense, it remains to be seen whether the final plan will include their proposed solutions.

Another area of concern is how our municipality will deal with Lanark County’s plan to spray county roads in our area with herbicide to control wild parsnip – it is hoped that the decision will be to opt out of the spraying.  With respect to planting trees, our municipality, thanks to the enthusiasm and diligence of the Beautification Committee, has advertised the sale of trees to residents, has promoted the benefits of trees every April during Arbour Week, and has planted numerous shrubs and trees in the various parks and hamlets of our municipality, as well as the towns of Almonte and Pakenham.

On the negative side regarding natural habitat and soil cover, we have had, as a result of the deliberate disregard of environmental impacts by some of our elected officials, the continuing deterioration of the Appleton wetlands (designated a PSW), because of the refusal by these officials to acknowledge the cause:  the continued artificially-maintained high water level of the river where these wetlands are situated.

In conclusion, it looks like our municipality has a lot of environmentally friendly initiatives in place.  Still, there are some areas where it can improve; for example, implementing anti-idling measures, protecting the shorelines and wetlands, reducing water use, and promoting active transportation.  Perhaps we can launch a friendly challenge to Carleton Place with a Community Environmental Action Plan of our own!