Design for Democracy: Parks over planes, planes over people

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"The island and our waterfront are public assets, and we must not turn over these public assets to narrow private interests -- not to a casino, not to a mega-mall operator, and not to an expanded industrial-scale airport."

- Trinity-Spadina MPP Rosario Marchese

One of my great theatrical delights is to watch the cast of councillors hash out the most pressing issues of our time in Toronto's City Hall.

Transit, congestion and public space are always at the top of the roster, and in the afternoon of Tuesday, May 7, the expansion of Island Airport's runways to allow CS100 jets was discussed heatedly. The scope of this council meeting was Shakespearean in grandeur -- it debated whether the rights of citizens to enjoy the Toronto Islands, one of the most beloved and frequented parks in Ontario, were more important than the rights of a privately held company to enrich itself at the public's expense. This jousting match about public assets vs. private rights and the Island Airport has been raging, on and off, since 1937.

Porter Airlines had padded the Council Chambers with approximately 40 supporters in yellow "I am on board with Porter" T-shirts; behind them, dressed in black T-shirts, were COPE Local 343 Porter Airlines refuellers, who have been on strike to protest unsafe working conditions and wages far below industry standards, since January 17.  On the other side of the public gallery were the NoJetsTO camp, concerned urban planners and citizen journalists. The two opposing sides watched each other warily as they tweeted up a storm of thrust, parry and counter-thrust in the Twitterverse, looking up occasionally to see whether their jab landed squarely on the opposition. NoJetsTO is clear that they are not opposed to any airline operator in particular, just expanding the airport for jets, replacing turboprops, what they call "the Pearsonization" of Island Airport.

Flying jets to Island Airport

On April 10, the owner of Porter Airlines, Robert Deluce, announced that Porter inked a conditional deal for 12 of the aircraft, with an additional 18 to be purchased at a later date to the tune of $2 billion.

Deluce was able to walk his request on to Mayor Ford's executive committee to ask for special dispensation so that only Porter Airlines would be able to fly these "whisper jets" (a newly minted term for marketing purposes) from Island Airport, and to push for a report in early July; Councillor Pam McConnell said "it was exceedingly disrespectful of City Council to receive an announcement from New York City that these planes were already purchased without Council's approval." The projected cost of the initial phase of the consultation will be $275,000, and the second, if approved, upwards of $800,000.


If CS100 jets are granted permission to be flown by Porter Airlines, it necessitates the extension of both the north/south and east/west runways into Lake Ontario by 168 metres, plus a likely to be mandated 150-metre runway safety area, at each end -- the equivalent of six football fields (see scale diagram above, provided by NoJetsTO). Councillors' concerns about the loss of economic opportunities -- particularly for tourism, the $1-billion film industry and real estate -- as well as cutting off emergency service access to the Toronto Islands, increased noise levels for the Music Garden (designed by internationally renowned cellist Yo Yo Ma and landscape designer Julie Moir Messervy), and the disruption of boat traffic in the inner harbour, were asked to be included in the consultation.

More questions than answers

The difficulty with Porter's proposal is that the "whisper jets" have not yet been built; councillors asked pointed questions of Deputy City Manager John Livey, whether the jets could be tested on the runway at Island Airport, so they could hear the difference in noise level between the Q400 turboprops and the CS100s. A scientifically projected versus experiential data monitoring debate ensued between Livey and councillors Vaughan, Matlow, Carroll and Fletcher -- will the jets violate the Tripartite Agreement's noise exposure forecast (NEF) in their longer take-off times, frequency, angle of approach, and engine maintenance? To maintain the present turboprops, Porter runs their engines for 20 minutes, which can be heard for kilometres. Will this sound be higher for jets and will this engine testing be accounted for in the noise data analysis of the airport expansion? And why is Waterfront Toronto not part of a public consultation, when it has invested $1.26 billion in waterfront revitalization, and thousands of condos have been constructed in the last decade? More than the waterfront and the Islands will be affected -- many more parks and beaches will be affected along Lake Ontario. What will the Toronto flight schools do if they are evicted by commercial airlines? And why are we not protecting our primary source of drinking water, Lake Ontario, from jet fuel exhaust and run off? What goes up, comes down, and CO2 and particulate matter from jet exhaust is double or four times more potent than CO2 generated by engines on the ground.

Already, the noise level of Porter's planes violate the existing Tripartite Agreement. The Agreement specifies that only STOL (short take-off and landing) aircraft are to be flown in and out of the airport in a commercial operation; Q400s are not STOL. They also violate the noise restrictions at the Island Airport (EPNdB). With such flagrant violations why should we trust that the jets they are buying will be 'whisper' quiet as marketed? How can we ascertain that the preliminary report paid for by the Toronto Port Authority will be objective, and who will be the designated payee of the larger report? And does the very short time-frame allocated for the reports allow for a full environmental and economic analysis on all the beaches and waterfront along Lake Ontario that will be impacted, beyond the immediate vicinity of the airport?

Health and environmental concerns

As a past member of the Clean Train Coalition, I have encountered these types of questions before in my analysis of the official environmental assessment of the Air Link, in 2012, rebranded the "Union Pearson Express".

Thumbing through banker's boxes of data, I watched the benchmarks for acceptable baseline data for air, water and noise pollution shift like sand to enable the purchase order for the Sumitomo diesel trains.

I realized then that facts can do whatever the researcher wants them to do, particularly if there is an imposed deadline, rushed and commissioned by the proponents of the transit infrastructure. In the Union Pearson Express's case, the deadline of the 2015 Pan Am Games has forced the link to Pearson Airport to be constructed quickly with diesel trains, only to be replaced with electric several years later. If Porter Airlines is allowed to expand, it will duplicate international flights from Pearson Airport, and take business away from the Union Pearson Express and Pearson. Between kerosene-based jet exhaust and diesel rail traffic, the amount of pollution will be multiplied in the most densely populated area of the Greater Toronto Area and the waterfront; this smog comprised of nitrogen dioxide and sulfur dioxide has been proven to be carcinogenic by the World Health Organization in 2005.

 Melissa Goldstein

Photo: Melissa Goldstein

This toxic dust lodges in the lungs and in the heart, and is said to be a factor in Alzheimer's; the Waterfront School and St. Stephen's Daycare located near the ferry docks to Billy Bishop are witnessing asthma in preschool children for the first time. Will the environmental assessment of the expanded airport also include the increased pollution of the rail corridor, and be able to realistically project the double whammy of the accumulation of toxins of rail and jet emissions in our water, soil and air? There are so many variables that cannot be projected as part of this speedy two-part consultation; a motion proposed by Councillor Matlow has ensured an independent fairness commissioner to assess the report, but opposing councillors could not stop the sole sourcing of the contract due to the restrictive timeline. Cleverly, Councillor Vaughan narrowed the scope of the study so that the bird sanctuary, the historic LGBTT nude beach at Hanlan's Point, noise levels and the extension of the runways to encroach upon the maritime boundaries would be excluded from the scope of possible modifications to accommodate Porter's needs, although the 15 councillors opposed to jets could not block the initial study.

All three signatories of the Tripartite Agreement must sign off to enable this expansion -- the city, Toronto Port Authority and the federal government. The TPA has been asked to foot the bill of the consultation and have always backed Porter's growth. City Hall is the landlord of the lease to the airport, and the TPA is millions of dollars in arrears in back taxes, much of which Porter might be required to pay. As Councillor Mike Layton pointed out, "You don't give a promotion to someone if they aren't showing up for work, so why are we considering an expansion and added benefits if they're not holding up their end of the bargain currently."

Loss of a green refuge

Although I am concerned about whether the full scope of the data is used for the environmental consultation, including its projected cumulative impact on our environment until 2033 (the year the Island Airport's lease expires), my greatest fear is loss of the Toronto Islands Park System held in common as a relatively quiet, clean, green refuge. Each year, there are 1.22 million visits to the Toronto Islands, and 12.5 million visitors to the Harbourfront Centre, to escape the heat of a city building more and more high rises, with less and less green space. Immigrants hold family reunions, lovers walk arm in arm on the boardwalks, and international tourists navigate the flower-filled maze of the Toronto Island homes in bemused wonder. Many of those visitors cannot afford to flee to cottages, yet can afford $7 for the round trip on the ferry. As Baye Hunter, an Islander and Adult English as Second Language teacher says:

"Many of my students really love the Toronto Islands, but come from countries where speaking out against a government would send them to jail, or cost their life. So even if they oppose airport expansion, they have no voice. Increased flights over the parks would really take away from their enjoyment of Toronto."

 Melissa Goldstein

Photo: Elizabeth Littlejohn

As the Greater Toronto Area becomes more dense, with a projected density of 44 per cent by 9.2 million over 25 years, where will people go to play sports, reunite, swim and stroll? The Islands are, on average, 3 to 5 degrees Celsius lower than the city centre. Viewed from the Islands, the Toronto skyline shows the silhouettes of cranes building massive 60- to 100-storey high rises. I have witnessed a sunset above Toronto, acid in its beauty, and realized that its fluorescent oranges and reds were the reflection of rays of light bouncing off emissions from cars, trucks and planes. I question why Porter, or any airline, would be allowed to expand its operations over our treasured public assets -- our parks, waterfront, beaches and lakes -- when it is expanding to offer flights already provided by Pearson Airport? And as a taxpaying citizen who lives close to the Union-Pearson Express, and will deal with its increased noise and air pollution in 2015, it is hard for me to accept that a couple hours of convenience for passengers to fly out of the centre of a major city, on duplicated international flights, is more important than my right to clean air, or to flee to the Toronto Islands or waterfront, on days which are becoming hotter and hotter.

A special thank-you to Baye Hunter for her contribution.

Elizabeth Littlejohn teaches sustainable design, social innovation and new media. The column "Design for Democracy" focuses on sustainable design solutions for a greener future.

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