When I first moved to Peterborough in the fall of 2003, the city was embroiled in a debate about something called “the Parkway,” a proposed major new road connecting the city’s South and North Ends. Like any good young idealistic Trent student, I duly voted “no” in the referendum that year, confident that my fellow citizens, and our municipal government, would agree that extensive road construction projects cutting through the city’s greenspaces were something best left in the 20th century.
The Parkway was defeated in that referendum, but with turnout below 50% the results were non-binding. The Council of the day voted to not build the Parkway, but left it in the city’s Official Plan. After Daryl Bennett’s election as Mayor in 2010, City Hall began actively pursuing the Parkway plan again, hiring consultants in 2012 to conduct a study of the plans with a goal of beginning construction as early as 2014.
That plan is now in shambles, after the provincial government determined this September that they will require a full Environmental Assessment of the Parkway—and, in particular, the proposed bridge over Jackson Park—before allowing construction to begin.
Whether the Parkway actually gets built or not, this latest chapter in its sordid history says a lot about how our city government does business, its relationship with the public, and how it envisions the future of Peterborough—and many of the things it says aren’t flattering.
The City did prepare an Environmental Assessment for the Parkway already, which it submitted to the Province in 2014. Despite the long history of the Parkway as a contentious project, the one filed then was a “Municipal Class Environmental Assessment,” the type of assessment used for routine municipal infrastructure projects. By filing the project under that process, the City was arguing that the Parkway was a road project like any other, and as such didn’t need approval from the Ministry of the Environment.
As is now evident, the Ministry doesn’t agree. In 2014, they received 88 requests from the public for a more detailed individual assessment. According to the Peterborough Greenspace Coalition, that’s the most submissions the Ministry has ever received on an Environmental Assessment.
After two years of consideration, and a more detailed report about the Parkway earlier this year, Minister of the Environment Glen Murray ordered a full assessment on September 16, 2016. In his order, he noted the widespread public concern about the Parkway plan and potential environment impacts in Jackson Park, which he deemed were not adequately addressed in the City’s prior reports.
In a sense, the Parkway isn’t just a road, but also a vision of what Peterborough should look like in the long term.
Significantly, the order for an Environmental Assessment specifically requires that the City study alternatives that minimize impacts to Jackson Park, and prepare a consultation plan that presents these alternatives to the public.
In response to this news, Mayor Bennett released a statement arguing that “the Liberal government has effectively stymied growth in our community.”
In a sense, the Parkway isn’t just a road, but also a vision of what Peterborough should look like in the long term: that the engine of growth in the city would be continued expansion of suburban housing developments, especially in the North End. By claiming that another delay for the Parkway is such a large obstacle for growth, Mayor Bennett reinforced his support for that vision.
It’s not surprising, then, that his statement frames the matter in partisan terms. For the last ten years, the Province, under Liberal leadership, has been clear that it doesn’t see that sort of development being sustainable: their Growth Plan for the Greater Golden Horseshoe mandates denser development and the protection of greenspace, across cities from St. Catharines to Peterborough.
The Parkway is unique, at least for this Council, in that the City’s plan doesn’t line up with the Province’s objectives. As it turns out, the Province isn’t afraid to intervene.
The strength of the opposition to the Parkway locally suggests that it’s not just the provincial government that imagines Peterborough’s future could involve something other than suburban sprawl. As is often the case with tough political issues in Peterborough, the debate around the specific issue is a reflection of a larger difference in visions for what our city could be—and the City’s approach seems to have been “get public input, then do it anyways.” However, the Parkway is unique, at least for this Council, in that the City’s plan doesn’t line up with the Province’s objectives. As it turns out, the Province isn’t afraid to intervene.
The Mayor’s reaction, and the fact that the best plan City Council and staff could come up with was “hire more consultants,” suggests that this wasn’t a possibility City Hall had prepared for. With the project waiting for provincial review for over two years, it wouldn’t be unreasonable to expect that time would be used to develop alternatives, or a contingency if the initial assessment was rejected, but that wasn’t the case.
For better or worse, the Parkway’s been in the City’s Official Plan for almost 70 years now, and isn’t going anywhere just yet. In early October, Council voted to proceed with the Environmental Assessment process, but it will be a few more years at least before any result can be expected.
When the chance next comes around to break ground on the Parkway, it will be the decision of a new City Council.
With a municipal election about two years away, that means that when the chance next comes around to break ground on the Parkway, it will be the decision of a new City Council. Mayor Bennett closed his statement in September by reminding us to “reflect upon this decision as we move into the next election cycle.”
No matter what you may think about the Mayor or his time in office, that’s advice worth heeding.
Cover photo by B Mroz.