Planning Issues in The City of-Waterloo

Greg Romanuk,
Development Services Group,
City of Waterloo,
Waterloo, ON

The rehabilitation of Laurel Creek is a very complex process involving many political jurisdictions, property owners and special interest groups. One important player in this process is the City of Waterloo. This report will highlight the City of Waterloo’s perspective on certain issues surrounding the rehabilitation process and the problems that they pose to the City of Waterloo.

Brief History of Environmental Planning in the City of Waterloo

The City of Waterloo presently incorporates environmental issues in all of its planning projects. This approach to municipal planning has not always been used however.

Approximately 18-20 years ago, the City of Waterloo incorporated very little information from an environmental perspective in its planning policies and in the background information gathered for specific projects. Any environmental information that happened to be presented was included at the request of the private sector.

About 1977, there was a general movement toward environmental awareness in the academic community, including the University of Waterloo, that was quickly transferred to the local community. This movement continued into the 1980s and 1990s, fueled by a strong public concern with environmental issues and a firm political support. Locally, such action cumulated in a series of studies, prompted by the city's growth and governmental support of environmental initiatives. These studies covered such diverse topics as flood control, urban valley lands and of course, the Laurel Creek Watershed.

It retrospect, it was quite clear that the studies performed on the Laurel Creek Watershed were only possible because of a strong political will. In order to make further gains in this field, it is important that this political will be maintained and strengthened.

Major Issues Facing The Rehabilitation of Laurel Creek

There are many issues that are pertinent to the rehabilitation of Laurel Creek from the City's perspective. These issues can be divided into three major categories:
  1. Macro Level Issues
  2. Issues on an Area Basis
  3. Micro Level Issues

Each of these categories of issues will be dealt with separately.

Macro Level Issues

There are many large-scale issues affecting the process of rehabilitating Laurel Creek.

The first macro concern is the complexity of the rehabilitation process. Throughout many studies, an extensive body of knowledge has been gathered on this issue. Unfortunately, this information is highly technical in nature, making it difficult for the majority of community members to comprehend its impact. With governmental operations geared toward community members, one major challenge facing the planning department is integrating the technical knowledge into existing planning policies and procedures. In order to meet this challenge, it is essential that several agencies (i.e., City of Waterloo, UW, GRCA), act together to convert the technical information into a feasible implementation plan. This meeting of different disciplines is not easy however, as it involves cross political boundaries and many different points of view, goals and expectations. In short, dealing with complex information will require a lot of time and focus.

Cost is another major issue. The City of Waterloo has spent millions of dollars on Laurel Creek to date and the work is only beginning. Continued political momentum supporting the rehabilitation of Laurel Creek will be influenced by careful cost/benefit analysis of recommended projects and an understanding of external cost factors.

Closely related to the issue of complexity is the application of science. Without a simplification of the technical data surrounding the issue, there is a danger that the "technocracy" could cause an imbalance of power during the political decision-making process. To prevent the "technocrat" from dominating the process, it is important that information be simplified and integrated into a public participation process. This leads to another concern however. Many people have suggested that the Laurel Creek issue is much too complex to simplify, precluding attempts at public involvement. This is simply not true. With a little effort, information can be simplified and a public education program developed to ensure that every member of the public can participate.

As mentioned earlier, cross-boundary issues must also be considered. Laurel Creek traverses many political jurisdictions with potentially conflicting planning issues. It is important to bring all of the parties together to reconcile issues.

Finally, monitoring of Laurel Creek is another important issue. The City of Waterloo is presently looking at an extensive monitoring program, designed to meet the objectives of the Laurel Creek Watershed Study. To date, the monitoring program has involved active participation from many agencies. The important concerns that still need to be addressed include coordination of the program, cost-sharing and simplification of the gathered data.

Area Basis Issues

One major area issues concerns sub-watershed studies. Many sub-watershed plans have already been made for various areas along Laurel Creek. Unfortunately, these plans are very lengthy and technical raking inaccessible to the public. Therefore, many of the actions taken to date based on these plans have been based on a sense of "trust." The decision makers have trusted and acted upon the advice of the technocrats, without a clear understanding of the reasoning behind the action. As the decision making process moves toward increasing community involvement, this form of decision making cannot continue.

Another issue surrounds specific environmentally sensitive areas and specific feature management. Most of the work done along the Watershed to date involves green filed management. These areas are more easily managed, due to fewer landowners and their rural locations. Problems exist in managing urban environmental areas, which have existing structures and fragmented land ownership to contend with. The complexity of land ownership makes dealing with questions involving coordination, implementation, cost-sharing more difficult. Another concern is the growth rate of the city. The City of Waterloo has set aside large tracts of land on its west side as environmental green lands and naturalization projects. These areas act as ecological buffers and transition zones. While these areas are fairly isolated right now, eventually more than 20 000 people will live in suburbs that encroach on, these areas. The City of Waterloo has recently decided to develop a trail system through these areas to keep future human traffic away from the most sensitive areas.

Micro Level Issues

There are two major micro issues that must be considered. First, the stewardship role of the individual in rehabilitation efforts must be encouraged. Second, the management of each individual site must be considered. Meeting and enforcing regulations at each site can be difficult, especially when responsibilities are not clearly defined.

Conclusion

Of all the issues involved in the rehabilitation of Laurel Creek, there are three important threads from the City of Waterloo's perspective.
  1. In the City of Waterloo, the academic community has been of tremendous help in helping the corporate and public sectors find and assimilate information into their planning processes.

  2. The information gathered to date is still fairly complex. In order to better relate to the issues surrounding Laurel Creek, everyone must take a step back from the problems, re-digest a simplified form of the information and then reenter the discussion with a better understanding of the issues.

  3. Partnerships are the keys to success. The many different parties involved, such as the City of Waterloo, the Grand River Conservation Authority and the University of Waterloo, must form partnerships to deal with the complexity of this issue. No party has the means to tackle the issue on their own.

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