Pickering airport? Time to hit reset
Does Toronto need another airport? Would Pickering alleviate traffic pressure? Here’s an argument against the building of Toronto Pickering…
In response to International Airport Review‘s previous consideration: ‘Does Toronto need another airport?’ We bring you a reaction article from Mary Delaney of Canadian organisation Land Over Landings, who answers with a vehement ‘no’.
March 2 marks the 45th anniversary of the announcement of a new airport for Toronto. How did this plan come about?
The idea originated in the late-1960s, when flying was becoming more accessible to the public. The thinking seems to have been that air travel was heading for a sky’s-the-limit passenger boom. The plan for a major international airport at Pickering, on Toronto’s border, was publicly announced on March 2, 1972. The federal government expropriated for this “public work” 18,600 acres (7,527 hectares) – a total of 815 properties, including 126 working farms, many businesses, and two entire villages. There was no real recourse for those affected. The argument was that the airport was needed, to relieve a looming capacity crisis at Toronto’s main facility. Pickering was scheduled to open by 1979, and some 40-50 million passengers were expected to be using it by 2000.
But the airport wasn’t built. What happened?
Grassroots activism is what happened: inventive, attention-getting antics balanced by dead-serious research. While the attention-getters were keeping the story alive on the front pages and nightly newscasts, the backroom strategists were consulting with experts, amassing data, and developing their arguments.
The argument was that the airport was needed, to relieve a looming capacity crisis at Toronto’s main facility…
They found that the site hadn’t been ideal, despite government assurances. (It had been a last-minute, egregious compromise, born of the participatory democracy of the times, in that nearly everyone had been involved in the site-selection process, getting agreement was impossible, site after site was mooted and rejected, and the final choice became the one that raised the fewest objections – not least because it hadn’t been in the running until the last minute and its inclusion had largely been kept secret.) The strategists also found that Toronto’s existing airport could expand, despite government denials.
They found that Pickering wasn’t needed; passenger forecasts had been wildly inflated. They found that the federal government hadn’t been entirely forthcoming on costs to Ontario, the project’s junior partner and on the hook for the airport’s infrastructure (roads, sewerage). After the grassroots strategists took their arguments to the Ontario government, the two levels of government found themselves at loggerheads. On September 24, 1975, the Ontario Cabinet voted to pull out of the project. The following day, a furious federal government shelved the airport.
That was more than four decades ago. What followed?
What we call “airport by stealth.” Transport Canada held onto the land and rented out some houses and farmland – but all on 1-year leases, the message being that the hiatus would be brief and the airport would be built. Forty-two years later, 1-year leases are still the norm, with disastrous consequences for the whole area.
They found that Pickering wasn’t needed; passenger forecasts had been wildly inflated…
Lessees are still prevented from making repairs or improvements to properties, and are deterred from investing in them. For farmers, only grain-cropping for cash has been feasible in the circumstances. Houses, barns, and outbuildings inevitably deteriorated, were eventually left empty, boarded up, then demolished. There were fewer and fewer residents; businesses closed or moved away. In effect, the site was slowly and deliberately readied for airport construction.
The wider area, blighted by proximity to what are now called the Federal Lands, has become an economic desert: few jobs, no airport on the horizon, no sign of one. Toronto’s air passenger volumes have never reached those feverish predictions of the sixties and seventies. Toronto Pearson International has expanded, can still do so, and is nowhere near capacity. Last year it processed just over 44 million passengers, the number its Pickering reliever was supposed to be handling by 2000. As for any airport’s real limiting factor – aircraft movements – Pearson’s have increased by only 7% since 2000. Yet Transport Canada remains fixated on the 1960s project. The department has commissioned study after study to prove the need for Pickering. All have failed. A new one is currently underway.
Where does Land Over Landings fit into the story?
The original grassroots movement was called People or Planes. But by 2005, there were hardly any people left on the Lands. Pushing the government to return the land to the original owners was pointless by then; too much time had passed and most of the families and their descendants were scattered far and wide.
The farmland remained, though, as well as the many clean streams. So we regrouped and changed our name. Land Over Landings better reflected the new reality – part of which was the inescapable fact that the world was experiencing unparalleled population growth and, simultaneously, massive farmland loss. Which explains our tagline: “Because food is a GROWING concern!”
We also found that putting all our effort into fighting against something was soul-destroying, whereas positivity, successes, and the hope of more successes served to keep people strong, especially when in it for the long haul. We needed to be for something that people could relate to, support, and be inspired by. That “something” was obvious: this vast tract of most-productive (Class 1) farmland on Toronto’s doorstep. Why destroy such a valuable, irreplaceable, natural resource? Why not capitalise on it, turn it into an agricultural powerhouse, a source of safe local food for Canada’s largest urban centre? Our change of focus seemed misguided to some at first. Not sexy. Not particularly interesting. Too soft. But the times were changing. Concerns about global food security were becoming front-page news. We turned out to be prescient, and support for our vision was almost immediate.
Why destroy such a valuable, irreplaceable, natural resource?
We worked with our federal representatives, making the case for preserving the Lands for food production. Our first success came in 2013 (coincident with the government’s re-announcement of the airport plan, but on a smaller scale; the re-announcement, as it happens, went nowhere). That day, a quarter of the expropriated site was protected within Canada’s first national urban park. We increased our efforts and, in 2015, saw a second tranche transferred to the park. Just under half of the original site remains at risk, but we’re convinced that we’ll see it protected too.
Why be so certain of a win?
We’ve mentioned the park, so let’s start there. The Rouge National Urban Park is dedicated to showcasing nature, culture, and agriculture. If a Pickering airport were built, the peace would be constantly shattered by the roar of aircraft overhead; much of the park lies squarely under the approaches of two planned runways. The RNUP is a wildlife sanctuary, as are all our national parks, and its farmers will be transitioning to sustainable, mixed-farming practices – a planet-friendly type of farming that happens to attract birds and other wildlife. Yet airport regulations require hazardous wildlife to be dealt with in ways that ensure aircraft safety. The wildlife hazard zone would cover a broad swath of the park, overriding the park’s protection mandate. It’s impossible to see how this circle can be squared.
In “Does Toronto need another airport?” (Phil Fine’s January 17 interview with York University’s Fred Lazar), Professor Lazar laid out many of the reasons why a Pickering airport isn’t and won’t be necessary. No need to repeat them here, except to add that Toronto Pearson is making plans to become a mega-hub, Canada’s pre-eminent international airport, and is one of a dozen area airports (many of them seriously under-utilised) forming a coalition to handle future air-traffic increases. Pickering isn’t in the equation.
But more than anything else, what underlies our thinking is the issue none of us can afford to ignore. Climate change is already upon us. It will affect everything. Writer George Monbiot warned last October, in his article “The Flight of Reason,” that “you cannot build new runways and prevent climate breakdown.” The article’s trigger was the Heathrow third-runway decision, but Monbiot’s arguments are universal.
Climate change is already upon us.
The world has signed onto the Paris Climate Change Accord. If the health and welfare of our children and their children mean anything to us, everyone needs need to face up to the fact that a signature on this document means nothing unless all necessary actions, including unwelcome ones, are undertaken to keep our planet habitable.
In terms of airports, the actions have been slow in coming. But on February 9, 2017, Austria’s Federal Administrative Court rejected an application to expand Vienna-Schwechat Airport, on the grounds that the additional runway would increase CO2 emissions and cause unacceptable loss of agricultural land. The judges cited as the basis for their decision the country’s national and international commitments on climate protection.
Whether the plan is to expand an airport or build a new one, the issue is the same: if the aviation sector’s forecasts and growth plans aren’t factoring in climate change and its likely effects, then they are inadequate and irresponsible. Aviation still relies on burning fossil fuels. Flying is a luxury, not a basic human right. The unfettered growth of the sector isn’t guaranteed.
When Pickering airport was first announced 45 years ago, the world’s population stood at 3.8 billion; now it’s almost 7.5 billion and the U.N. is predicting 9.7 billion by 2050. We face unprecedented climate crises in this century – floods, droughts, rising sea levels, mass migrations; many, probably most, will affect food security. The Toronto Food Policy Council has found that the city, in an emergency, would run out of fresh food within three days. (Perhaps the same applies to every large city the world over.) Which is why we’re advocates for the protection of the Federal Lands. It’s why we view the perpetual Pickering airport project as long past its best-before date (if it ever had one). There’s no assurance that today’s global food supply chain will remain reliable as we navigate the unknown future. Protecting sources of fresh local food is becoming a matter of paramount importance.
It’s why we believe that our federal government will come down on the side of an agricultural future for this farmland and will protect the area in perpetuity for the food needs of Toronto and beyond. By turning the Lands into a “public work” at last, the government will at last meet the terms of the Expropriation Act.
So… a Pickering food hub, not a Pickering airport?
Absolutely. We have the rich soil, a temperate climate, reliable rainfall, and a unique opportunity here. At least 200 different kinds of foods can grow in this area. Orchards could be replanted. Farms could start growing vegetables and soft fruits again. There could be livestock and poultry farms, dairies, bakeries, butchers, and food processing facilities. Bistros and restaurants, farm markets and B&Bs, hiking trails connecting with the Park. Farmers living on these lands again, farm services coming back. New farmers, unable to afford to farm near the metropolis, could lease small and affordable acreage on the Lands and get a solid start here. A food hub would attract new businesses, energise the many hamlets that have struggled to survive a half-century of limbo, bring the area to life again. It would be a place for developing innovative farming techniques to help reduce GHG emissions and improve crop yields. A provider of fresh food and fresh air to burgeoning Toronto, a tourist destination in its own right, an ideal companion to the Rouge National Urban Park. It would mean new jobs, starting now, for an area where new jobs have been virtually unknown for more than two generations.
That’s our vision, and why we say it’s time to reset the plans for these lands, drop the airport idea, and look to the real needs of the 21st Century.