Climate change and COVID-19 are likely the two biggest challenges that our generation will face. We responded to COVID at warp speed because we could see the death and destruction that it was causing, and it seems that we are well on the way to bringing it under control within about a year of its genesis.

Climate change will, over time, likely inflict at least as much death and destruction as COVID, but we are taking our sweet time in dealing with it, presumably because climate change moves more slowly and does not have the immediate impact that COVID does. That does not make it less of a threat to the planet.

The new policy brief prepared by Sean Giverin and Charles Conteh, for Brock University’s Niagara Community Observatory, reminds us that local governments are on the front line in dealing with climate change, and that land-use planning is an important tool that they have in dealing with it. (Full disclosure: I was the founding director of the Observatory about ten years ago, but have not had much involvement since I retired.)

The main thrust of the brief is that local government decisions can have a major impact on the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions that are a prime cause of climate change. Specifically, land-use planning is a major tool that can have a significant impact on GHG emissions.

However, local governments do not have complete control over land-use planning; it involves what academics call multilevel governance. Local governments are part of a network of organizations that collectively make planning decisions. No single organization in the network has complete control, but some are more influential than others.

There are provincial rules governing the planning process and identifying certain provincial interests in planning decisions—for example, preservation of agricultural land, housing supply, building strong communities, and so forth.

The provincial government has traditionally pushed the idea of “smart” growth. There will be significant growth in southern Ontario; there is no point in fighting that. However, smart growth seeks to structure this growth in ways that protect the environment at the same time that it benefits local residents and businesses which are a part of the growth.

Some of the principles of smart growth are: develop complete neighbourhoods that limit the need for long trips to shop, entertainment, or work; ensure developments are walkable and bikeable; use already developed areas more intensively rather than sprawling into green space.

In Niagara, provincially created, locally oriented bodies such as the Niagara Escarpment Commission and the Niagara Peninsula Conservation Authority play a role. And, if that’s not enough, the Region of Niagara and the area municipalities all share a role in the planning process. Just navigating this maze is difficult, but the brief provides some advice about how these various bodies can work together.

These agencies have a mandate to encourage public engagement. This allows residents and businesses many opportunities to make their views known and influence the making of planning decisions.

The groups and individuals involved in the network provide a great example of multi-level governance. Decisions are not dictated by any one organization, rather decisions are products of the interactions of the participants in the network.

On the one hand, this proliferation of agencies involved in the process slows down decision-making, which can be frustrating for proponents of new projects. On the other hand, planning decisions will have a major impact on the future of a municipality for generations. Municipalities should resist the pressure to rush into what is effectively an irrevocable decision.

The system is meant to work fairly slowly and deliberately, so that all participants have an opportunity to learn about proposed developments, and to make their views about them known. It is meant to be open to participation by any and all interested groups. Local groups should be vigilant in protecting the system that allows them this level of participation.

However, there is a provision in the Planning Act that seriously threatens this idea of multilevel governance—Minister’s Zoning Orders (MZO). This allows the Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing to cut through all this red-tape and multilevel governance to approve a development unilaterally. In Stratford, the minister recently approved construction of a huge glass manufacturing plant, much to the consternation of many local residents. And MZOs are not subject to appeal.

MZOs were conceived as a way of dealing with issues in remote areas without much development and few governing mechanisms. However, they are now being used more frequently to shortcut public involvement in planning decisions. This does damage to the planning system described in this brief that goes to great lengths to invite public involvement.

Giverin and Conteh’s work gives a good picture of how the system should work and how residents and businesses can participate in the process. We should be vigilant to maintain this system and avoid shortcuts that speed up the decision-making process at the cost good public participation.

David Siegel is Emeritus Professor of Political Science, Brock University.