While Toronto was mesmerized by a debate on the mayor's football passion last week, Philadelphia was announcing plans for it's Park(ing) Day, an international fest that converts parking spots into pocket parks.
Though the celebration occurs in 162 cities and 35 countries, I mention Philly because of its $1.6 billion Green City, Clean Water plan to redesign its water system. The project features a galaxy of urban greenways that will soak up snow and rain runoff and deal with sewer overflow, a major headache in Toronto.
The slogan for the Philly master plan is "Soak it up" - which could well be misheard in T.O. as "Suck it up," since we're fast losing our once-secure reputation for infrastructure leadership.
Funny how I came on this just as the federal House started up for the fall and NDP leader Thomas Mulcair came under attack once again for his critique of tar sands policy.
I like two things about what Mulcair is doing. He's starting a dialogue on alternative economic approaches long enough before the next election to reposition the NDP as a planner of new ways to create wealth, not just better ways of distributing it.
And he's highlighting the steep economic costs of the reckless, subsidy-driven pace of tar sands development, pointing to the way the artificially bloated Canadian petro-dollar has helped sink Quebec's and Ontario's manufacturing sector.
I only wish he'd pull more out of his green hat and be clearer about where new jobs should come from if we don't seek an expansion of highly subsidized foreign branch plants building gas-guzzlers.
All of which brings me back to infrastructure and its potential to outdo the old manufacturing sector for good jobs. According to a Federation of Canadian Municipalities engineering report released this month (just in time to be sidetracked by the coaching debate), the cost of overhauling city infrastructure across the country is $172 billion - a figure that doesn't include the snafus that will become more normal as global warming sets in.
But infrastructure isn't just a necessary expenditure. It can also be a serious investment that saves more than it costs - if it's eco-friendly. Philadelphia, for instance, has prioritized soil-water-plant systems (marshes, green spaces and naturalized waterways) rather than new sewer pipes. Because it requires ongoing upkeep, green infrastructure generally needs a lot more labour per dollar spent than heavily capitalized grey infrastructure.
The second business case figure is 250,000. That's the number of workers now employed in only one province by corporate members of the unpoetically named Green Infrastructure Ontario Coalition.
"We're already bigger than the auto sector, and we've barely started," says the Coalition's exec director, Steve Peck. As he does the counting, he includes parks staff, urban foresters, green roofers, landscape architects, groundskeepers, all backed by engineers and builders.
This is an industry that can double its current employment if it gets its share of the millions destined for water-related construction alone. Peck, also founder of industry-based Green Roofs for Healthy Cities, has a global overview. He worries that T.O. and Ontario, where many eco plans were developed 15 years ago (check NOW's archives), are losing the chance to lead this sector and reap the consulting fees and contracts for an upcoming worldwide industry.
Toronto does have a lead on green roofs, thanks to a local bylaw. But it's falling behind on eco strategies like green walls - an ivy-league strategy for covering walls with leaves that capture dew and rainwater one moment, then give it back as evaporation as the day warms. It's also trailing on urban orchards and the development of marshes. There's not even a rain barrel campaign. And the province has yet to undertake a major campaign to restore Lake Ontario as a world-class fishery, both a food source and a tourist draw.
The hidden breakthrough news about these kinds of projects, Peck points out, is that most of them don't depreciate with age. They get better each year as the plants in the marshes and waterways grow - not the norm for many purchases, certainly not cars or old-style infrastructure.
Mulcair's got the national spotlight. He could make it his business to offer a future-oriented economic alternative that isn't resource-dependent, but resourceful.