We are fast approaching the Peterborough municipal election, which occurs on October 22. An election is not just a changing of the guard in leadership. It is also an ideal time to start a conversation about the kind of city, and the kind of future, we want to build. There are many challenges facing this city right now, many ideas about directions the city could go, and many opportunities to build towards those futures.
Recently, we have been speaking to local community organizers, thought-leaders, advocates, activists, and citizens about their visions for the Future of Peterborough. We will be publishing these interviews over the next weeks and months, and encouraging you, our readers and the citizens of Peterborough, to have your say.
Brianna Salmon is executive director of GreenUP, the local non-profit that promotes environmental sustainability in the community. Brianna has been instrumental in creating and growing programs like B!KE, Peterborough Pulse, and the Active Neighbourhoods Canada Peterborough Project. Brianna has been recognized as one of Peterborough “Top 4 Under 40” by the Peterborough Chamber of Commerce and are a recipient of Trent University’s Young Alumni Leader Award.
What do you believe are the most important issues facing Peterborough right now?
There are a lot of important issues, but I feel like environmental sustainability and resiliency needs to be top of mind. Over the last few years, we’ve seen some of the impacts issues like climate change have on our communities. That’s a lens through which I try and view decisions at the municipal level. It informs all kinds of activity around infrastructure, planning, spending, etc.
Here in Peterborough, flooding is a really obvious outcome of climate change. But I think habitat loss, loss of biodiversity, increased carbon emissions—these are all really important environmental issues, and ones that have bearing globally, but that also impact us very directly locally. The risks associated with not addressing environmental sustainability at the municipal level are well known, but how to address that in a proactive way is still something we need to working toward a little bit more.
What are you seeing in the community you’d like to see more of?
Especially if we think back 20 years, I think there’s so much more literacy around environmental sustainability and how we can support that, both among the population here in Peterborough, but also among municipal decision-makers. When we look at things decision by decision, there’s lots of headway to be made, but when we look at things through a longer-term lens, there really has been quite significant change around the way we understand the health of our environment, and the ways in which we can shift our behaviour to support that healthy environment.
Working with younger people in our community, kids and youth, really highlights that. The literacy they have around the environment, and the ways they act to support healthy environment, it’s so much different than it was even when I was growing up! They’re not yet our decision-makers, but it’s really heartening to see that. I think they understand how directly impacted they’re going to be by things like climate change, and that’s a reality other generations weren’t confronted with at such a young age. So that’s something that gives me some hope.
What is your ideal vision for the future of Peterborough?
I would love to see Peterborough be a place that supports individual, community, and environmental health, because I think those things are really tied together. We need to be addressing all those things when we’re making decisions that impact our shared future and the future of the ecosystem we rely on.
Viewing things through the lens of health, environmental, and human ecosystem health is a shift in the way we think about planning our city and making decisions, but I think it’s one that’s really critical.
What do you believe we need to do to get there?
I think we need to find ways to balance our short-term needs as a community, and also support a progressive and long-term vision. Thinking about the environment can really inform things like planning, transportation, and social services, but there are also all kinds of short-term needs and demands that inform those things as well. It can be too easy to say, ‘This is the demand we see now; we need to meet it.’ That’s true to some extent, but that demand is informed by our built and social infrastructure.
As an example, the conversations around infrastructure and the right of way are often centred around the car, because so many people drive right now. Meeting the demands of vehicles is something we need to do, because so many people are driving right now—but they’re driving because we’ve prioritized driving for so many years.
So it’s not enough to just say, ‘We need to do this one thing because we see this demand.’ We also need to recognize that having a really auto-centric community isn’t healthy, for people or for the environment. We need to shift that, and we know shifting that means starting to prioritize, in ways that are incremental or significant, other modes of transportation. As driving becomes less convenient, as other modes become more convenient or more available, that demand is going to shift.
It isn’t a static thing; it’s a consequence of the way we’ve planned our communities. It shouldn’t just be about meeting current demands; it should be about supporting a more sustainable progressive future, and recognizing that demands will shift.
And I think that’s hard in a four-year electoral cycle. You hear so much of the, ‘I need this now.’ It can be a more difficult (and potentially unpopular) political decision to pursue the longer-term vision, especially when it means that perceived needs in the short term aren’t being met. A road isn’t being widened, or things like that.
I think that’s how we get there: to try and understand what that balance is, and to be shifting it where we can—especially in longer-range planning opportunities, like the Official Plan, the Transportation Master Plan. Those are really the opportunities for us to start identifying how we can make that change over, not just a four-year period, but a 25-year period.
How could the people of Peterborough help to accomplish this?
By taking action where they can, but also by trying to understand what some of the long-term impacts might be as they relate to certain decisions locally, and trying to keep that as part of the conversation.
Individual actions matter a lot in our community, and there’s only so much that organizations or governments can do. They can do a lot, but individuals need to be thinking about the impacts of our behaviour and trying to take action where we can, and where we see barriers to action, working to address that—whether that’s by getting involved in local politics, or by supporting broader coalitions of residents, or community members.
One of the things people can do is to recognize the importance of all those small things we do each day, and how much of an impact they can have on the health of our community and the health of our environment. It’s easy to start to feel like you don’t have any agency around issues related to the environment, that it’s not having an impact. It really is, but I can appreciate the dissonance between the decision to ride your bike, and feeling like that impacts climate change. It’s going to be the big policy decisions, the big investments, and then it’s also going to be the things we do like that.
If folks are feeling like there’s too much dissonance there, I think getting involved with local organizations that help to advance some of the things they care about—whether it’s the health of environment or other issues—can be a really nice way to create some bridges. To feel like, ‘I’m doing this thing, I’m biking to work, but I’m also participating in this program where there’s a thousand people doing the same thing. I see the impact it has, and I see the ways that decision-makers might respond to seeing action on a collective scale.’ GreenUP and other organizations try to be that bridge, so that people can really feel connected to a broader movement, and can also feel heartened by the small choices they’re making each day.
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