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Trading cars for shelter is a win-win

Downtown Toronto. Image: tsaiproject/Flickr

Who could possibly be against doing something that would be both good for the environment and improve housing affordability in our biggest cities?

By turning public land devoted to noisy, dangerous and polluting vehicles into social, co-op, or rental housing, it is possible to put a dent into runaway climate change while improving housing affordability and urbanity.

Radio Canada recently reported on a 14-storey co-op set to be built just behind the Bell Centre on the southern edge of downtown Montréal. The Coopérative Montagne Verte will have 136 units, which will make it the largest housing co-op in a single building in Montreal. Having received a piece of city land, the co-op will be financed in equal measure with public funds and a longterm mortgage. If all goes according to plan hundreds will gain access to affordable housing in an area with easy access to employment and services by foot, bike and mass transit.

In discussing the barrier to building more co-ops Radio Canada claimed, "the scarcity of land in Montréal is also an important issue." This is absurd. In fact, one of the city's principal problems is the abundance of public land devoted to noisy, dangerous, and polluting vehicles, which contribute significantly to the climate crisis (40 per cent of Montreal's greenhouse gas emissions are from transport.)

Near where the Coopérative Montagne Verte will be located, for instance, is a highway that has gobbled up a large swath of the city centre. Thousands could be housed on the public roadway and the adjacent areas by it destroyed.

In what would be a more straightforward cars-for-shelter exchange, Boulevard René-Lévesque is wide enough to build a row of lodgings with a narrow street on each side. Thousands of family sized social or co-op or rental units could be built, and it would improve the city for its inhabitants and the planet. While it may seem radical, this move would simply be a return to before buildings were demolished to widen the street in the 1940s and 50s.

Other car spaces in the city centre could easily be turned into affordable housing. The three blocks of McGill College between Cathcart and Sherbrooke, or a number of other non-through streets between Sherbrooke and Saint Catherine on the western edge of downtown, could be reclaimed for multi-story dwellings. To the east, avenue du Parc Lafontaine between Sherbrooke and Rachel is wide enough to build a row of smaller units with a narrow street on each side.

With housing affordability an even bigger issue in Toronto and Vancouver, there would be much to gain by turning public roadway into co-op, rental, or social housing there. The land destroyed by the centrally located Gardiner Expressway could house thousands. Rather than spending $3.6 billion to fix the monstrosity, Toronto could subsidize housing on this prime piece of public real estate.

Proof that cars-for-housing exchange is not pie in the sky, Vancouver City Council voted to remove the Georgia and Dunsmuir viaducts at the eastern edge of downtown. Their plan to build thousands of housing units (30 per cent "social housing") is better than the status quo, but not ambitious enough. The city should eliminate the boulevard that is part of the current plan and turn it all into a car-free housing oasis. Ideally located for getting around by foot, bike, and Skytrain, the area reclaimed for housing should also be extended along Georgia Street into downtown.

A whopping 27.4 per cent of Toronto is roadway. Another 13 per cent is parks and open spaces -- a share of which goes largely unused because of the unpleasantness of adjacent traffic filled streets. I was unable to find the exact proportion of Vancouver and Montreal devoted to roadway, but a significant share of those cities is also devoted to noisy, dangerous, and polluting vehicles.

We need to build a coalition centered on environmentalism, urbanism, and housing rights that would push to turn swaths of this land into social, co-op, or rental housing.

Image: tsaiproject/Flickr

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