Rick Mercer One-tonne Challenge

By Bruce Firestone | Architecture

Sep 29

[Neo-urbanist catalysts and anti-catalysts]

Some time ago, I saw a Rick Mercer GOC (government of Canada) produced television commercial titled the “One Tonne Challenge.” My eldest daughter, Rachel turned to me after the commercial and asked, “How do I personally go about reducing my carbon footprint, Dad?

That is one of the problems with well-meaning initiatives like this—they get folks worked up about environmental issues but offer no real solutions.

I actually went to the Government of Canada’s website and saw that the only practical solution they offered that I could find was this—when your kids are brushing their teeth, turn off the water. Right, that ought to save a few micro-grams of CO (2) a year.

This can only be thought of as a bit of government greenwashing like, say, adding a green sheen to a coal fired plant by painting its smokestacks a pretty color.

The answer I gave Rachel, instead, is this—live close to where you work. If there is one thing we can each do to lower our carbon footprint in a significant way, this is it. It’s simple, easy to understand and, today, many cities and towns are promoting this idea along with significant changes in their urban planning and design principles. Cities like Ottawa and Kingston are making densification (more people per sq km) and intensification (more mixing together of different uses) a local priority.

By moving closer to where you work, you can reduce your greenhouse gas emissions by more than 1.25 tonnes per annum, assuming you drive a car with an engine size of ~ 1,500 cc and are currently driving 30 km, one-way to work while your new residence is just 5 kms from your workplace.

Imagine if new subdivisions fully embraced the FEHAJ (for every home a job) concept so your commute was zero—you live-work-play-create-shop-make all in one place?

Developing policy planning tools and outside-the-box ideas as a way of attracting investment, entrepreneurs and residents will spur innovation, creating/permitting development of mixed-use communities where people can live in affordable, live-work-play, create-make-learn-grow, entertain-shop, exercise-grow-socialize, diversified-visitable, neo-urbanist[1], walkable, animated neighborhoods that are both economically and environmentally sustainable.

This—living and working in the same place—will do more to reduce congestion and revive “dead” office and industrial districts than anything else I can think of… place-making, where not every trip is a car trip.


Like a good engineer, I created my own online utility (a spreadsheet actually) to help folks understand the implications of long-distance commuting for work. You can find it here, https://docs.zoho.com/sheet/published.do?rid=y0e292f09c21c127e45a988f0d549fecdc246

Here’s what it looks like—

[1] Please see urban catalysts and anti-catalysts in the appendix below to view some neo-urbanist planning principles in action—what to do and what NOT to do.

HOW TO USE THE CO (2) CALCULATOR:                                                        

Step 1          Calculate the distance to work that you drive in kms. (one way).                                

Step 2          Select which vehicle type is closest to the one you drive.                               

Step 3          Estimate how many days you drive to work each year and put that number in cell C20.                                    

Step 4          Simply insert the distance in the table above (Column D) where appropriate and the final column will show you how much CO (2) your trip to work is generating in tonnes per annum.                                               

The maximum amount of CO (2) you would could save each year by living closer to work is your total CO (2) produced in the drive to and from work each year if you could live walking distance of work by moving.                                  

Alternatively, you can put in the difference between the distance you are currently driving and what you would drive if you move closer to work but not within walking distance.                                                                                                              

This is an estimate only!                                                     



A whole lot of work done in the environmental field is greenwashing—it won’t help anything other than your brand (maybe). Real sustainability is extremely difficult to achieve; in fact, it’s probably impossible. Every living thing changes its environment in some way. The question is scale and degree.

Probably the best humans can do is to mitigate the damage they are doing to the planet.

In a highly prescient 1991 science fiction novel, Garden of Rama, authors Gentry Lee and Arthur C Clark[1] describe how a tiny colony of humans (2,000 souls) divided into three tribes viciously compete for leadership and resources onboard an enormous, space-faring annular ring (built by an unknown alien intelligence)… eventually ruining their environment and expiring their limited resources. It’s scary how well-described the onboard environmental degradation is and how comparable to modern reports that humans are doing the same to planet Earth circa 2020.

It’s so adept, I am going to re-read it!

[1] Clark was an engineer, scientist and novelist. His best-known work, 2001, a Space Odyssey, was made into an epic film by Stanley Kubric. He also had serious technical skills—he was the first to work out the mathematics behind geostationary orbits, which allow us to position satellites in space that remain in place above a static point on earth—if you watch space-based television or ever use GPS (foundational to every smartphone mapping app), thank Arthur for that… He also was among the first to propose space elevators to geostationary orbit.


Bruce M Firestone, B Eng (civil), M Eng-Sci, PhD

Real Estate Investment and Business coach

Century 21 Explorer Realty Inc broker

Ottawa Senators founder











Image source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:The_Garden_of_Rama.jpg
Image source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:122-%D1%8F_%D1%82%D0%B0%D0%BD%D0%BA%D0%BE%D0%B2%D0%B0%D1%8F_%D0%B1%D1%80%D0%B8%D0%B3%D0%B0%D0%B4%D0%B0.jpg


During my time teaching at Carleton University’s Azrieli School of Architecture and Urbanism, I put together a list of urban catalysts and anti-catalysts, predominantly guided by neo-urbanist principles…

Here’s an excerpt from Real Estate Handbookhttps://brucemfirestone.com/product/real-estate-handbook/:

Catalysts and Anti-Catalysts affecting Urban Growth and Development


Common traits found within cities, boroughs and communities that are experiencing prosperity

Here is a list of urban catalysts/anti-catalysts put together by the author during his time at Carleton University’s School of Architecture–

• Education

• Employment

• Honest City or State Government (a precondition for economic take-off)

• De-Regulation of Zoning By-Laws- use of ‘performance zoning’, reliance on building code, health code, fire safety and ‘do no harm’ rules

• Mixed Use Development (i.e. Commercial, Residential, Recreational, Educational, Markets, Cultural and Entertainment)

• Adequate Public Transit System- big time people movers allowing higher densities

• De-Segregation of Social Structure

• Distribution of populations- mixing of income groups and socio-economic strata, dispersal as opposed to concentration of ‘unwanted’ uses such as shelters, halfway houses, rooming houses, duplexes, triplexes, jails and other ‘less desirable’ development amongst many communities to create less threatening environments

• Mixing together of building forms to produce a variegated skyline and individuation of address

• Requirement for architectural intervention to give building forms individualized expression and design promoting civic pride and a sense of self worth while avoiding tract housing look and feel as well as inferior construction and materials

• Renewed Civic Presence

• A Visible Police Presence & (On-the-Beat) Interaction Within the Community

• A General Respect for Public and Private Property and quasi public spaces (the ‘public room’)

• Zero Tolerance Towards Acts of Vandalism, police on the beat and out of their police cruisers

• Investment by Public and Private Interests- encouragement of gentrification through tax holidays and other special assessments including reconstruction of public infrastructure including roadways as beacons (initiators) of economic development

• Strong Public Interest & Motivation

• Supportive Political Advocacy instilling a sense of hope and civic pride back into the community

• Land Growth Potential

• Establish and Maintain Basic Social Infrastructure (i.e. Health, Education, Sanitation, Day Care, Recreational Facilities etc.)

• Municipal and Collective action re. Funding and Tax Incentives with Respect to Civic Reform and Urban Renewal.

• Involvement of various Community and Urban Interest Groups (i.e. C.N.U. or Congress for New Urbanism etc.)

• Build UP not Out! (minimum densities not maximums!)

• Look to ‘Smart Growth’ Solutions and innovative design to exploit underdeveloped sites

• Home Ownership and belongingness (identification by the people with their surroundings giving them mental, physical, spiritual and, eventually, financial stake; a feeling of possession)

• Mixing of uses, variation in housing types and dispersion of ‘less desirable’ uses leaves a buffering role for the single family home

• Sense of ownership cause people to remain in the same neighborhood even as their financial situation improves

• Institutions (cultural, educational…), domains of shared values and interests, neighborhood participation and programmatic ideas and themes (festivals, street dances, mural art, …)

• Gardens, market gardens, urban farms

• window-on-the-world architecture (retail and residential uses at grade emptying onto the street with zero frontyard setbacks)

• use of glazing and portals at grade

• presenting your buildings to the street (+.5 to 1 metre to road grades)

• o sideyard and frontyard setbacks

• traffic calming including on street parking, left turns permitted

• gridded streets and connectedness between neighborhoods

• connected open space, conservation subdivision design

• parks need active recreation to act as a hub for the community- passive recreation is not sufficient to improve community safety

• uniform transition lines (eg, retail at grade with different treatment transitioning to offices and residential above at prescribed height above grade)

• parking underground or at rear or on-street

• vertical windows

• golden section design

• steep pitched roof lines with eaves

• complete roof treatment

• consistent street planting and uniform tree placement

• boulevard design instead of collector streets or freeways

• front porches

• granny flats, in-home apartments, above garage apartments, duplexes, triplexes, brownstones, row housing, rooming houses permitted

• work from home, in home businesses permitted with employees- increase in use of expensive infrastructure including housing stock and increased daytime block safety

• Civil dialogue between urbanists and environmentalists

• Consensus or, at least, a process for reaching civic consensus (eg., charettes) amongst community groups, urban planners, municipal politicians, developers, residents, conservationists and other special interest groups

• clear legal title

• legal process for obtaining clear legal title through power-of-sale process

• sanctity of contracts

• protection of private property rights from confiscatory policies restricting uses including building form and type of use, rent control, density limits, downzoning, signage, wind rights, air rights, riparian rights, subsurface rights, grazing rights, …

• protection from arbitrary expropriation

• broadband access

• adopt-a-cop programs- direct community interaction with police

• higher density residential communities using low rise, street oriented housing forms instead of high rises, encouraging development of ‘theatre of the street’ and block safety

• home grown solutions, local initiatives, taking matters into ‘your own hands’, community ‘buy-in’ supported by appropriate public policy

• enterprise zones

• government supported micro-loans to local entrepreneur start-ups

• tax abatements (realty taxes, excise taxes, duty free zones, …)

• mortgage availability for purchase and renovation of derelict, abandoned and deficient buildings and homes

• repopulation of downtown

• repopulation of abandoned sites

• replacement of parking lots and unsafe parks with residential buildings

• Feng Shui- letting the light in, managing building pressures and the wind, respecting the top of the mountain and high places and views, nestling structures into hillsides, locating windows and doors and people spaces so they relate to inside and outside realities

• Constructing welcoming buildings- bringing the outside in and the inside out (tropical climes and northern climes too)

• ‘Organic’ architecture- structures that seem to have grown on their sites rather than having been constructed


Common traits found within cities, boroughs, and communities which have experienced serious urban decay

• Corruption in city or state government

• De-Industrialization

• De-Population- flight to gated communities and suburbia

• Property taxes levied on improved values instead of unimproved land values (a tax on renovation)

• Racial, Social and Economic Segregation

• Crime (“Value can only be created when social order prevails”)

• Neglect- ‘holes’ in the urban fabric

• Abandonment- land and buildings achieve negative value (rent curves are negative)

• Tax sales- city repossessions for unpaid taxes

• Obsolete, Oppressive and overly specific Zoning By-Laws

• “Broken Windows Syndrome”

• Rent Control

• Homelessness

• Neighborhood Pollution (i.e. litter, air, water, soil, etc.)

• Suburban Exile/Suburban Apartheid

• Lack of Adequate Public Transit System

• N.I.M.B.Y. Mentality

• Building OUT instead of UP

• Social/Economic Dependence

• Lack of Public Resonance, Concern or Civic Pride

• Low Development Density

• Shortage of Urban Infill

• Dis-Investment by Public and Private Interests

• Lack of Basic Social Programs (i.e. Health, Education, Sanitation, Day Care, Recreational Facilities etc.)

• Tenements (a.k.a. “Towers In The Park”) and derelict and abandoned buildings

• Unemployment

• Home invasions

• Criminal and disruptive elements living in neighborhoods and the ‘next door’ apartment

• absentee ownership

• failed renovations

• fraudulent speculators

• mortgages in excess of FMV (fair market value)

• shoddy workpersonship and incomplete work

• mortgage defaults

• tax liens and foreclosures

Defining Characteristics of Urban Deterioration*

(* North American Physical Clues that distinguish areas of urban decay)

• Overgrown, derelict sites

• Street lights out.

• Peeling Paint

• Broken windows

• Numerous “For Lease/For Sale” signs

• Prostitution

• Drugs

• “Panhandlers”

• Homeless

• Roaming Gangs

• Absence of police, or excessive police presence

• Graffiti

• Ports

• Heavy industry

• Air pollution

• Noise Pollution

• Abandoned cars

• Defended institutions and homes

• Razor wire, barb wire, security fencing, video surveillance

• Large recent immigrant population and those just starting out.

Bounding Characteristics of Urban Class Distinction

• Highways and freeways

• Railroad tracks

• Racial Segregation

• Parkland

• Waterfront access

• Elevations (higher elevations imply higher rents except where access to water and waterfront takes priority)

• Wind Directions… west side is usually the prosperous areas are located, while depleted areas are more commonly seen to develop on the east side. (“Go west young man, break bread in the new land…” First immigration began from the east and as people began to prosper, they generally moved west.)

Tags: housing shortage housing policy catalysts anti-catalysts

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About the Author

Bruce is an entrepreneur/real estate broker/developer/coach/urban guru/keynote speaker/Sens founder/novelist/columnist/peerless husband/dad.