November 07, 2012

Transition Erin promotes healthy urban design

As published in The Erin Advocate

The organized response of Erin residents to the Solmar subdivision proposal is part of a world-wide movement to design the urban environment with features that enhance human health.

The Transition Erin group started meeting earlier this year, but kicked into high gear after learning that Solmar Development Corp. was about to submit its application to transform 300 acres in the north end of the village.

The plan for commercial, industrial and recreational development, along with 1,240 homes over 30 years, needs intense scrutiny, and Solmar is eager to engage not only with Town staff and councillors, but the general public.

Community groups, whether for or against development, are not constrained by planning procedures, and can hold public meetings and have extensive input well in advance of the formal process with town council.

Transition Erin is clearly in favour of new development, including a sewer system, to help expand the industrial and commercial tax base, and improve the housing mix. In last week's Advocate, the group was critical of the development proposal for its initial lack of detail, and insufficiency of desirable features. Solmar's plan is being judged against a set of 11 principles (outlined below) that would allow Erin residents to "achieve their highest level of health".

In September, Transition Erin held a meeting with a presentation by Paul Young, of Public Space Workshop, to learn how citizens can engage in planning discussions and shape their community by influencing developers and politicians.

"You need to build a constituency of support and a coordinated response," said Young, stressing that healthy, inclusive, sustainable communities have sufficient density to provide local jobs, recreation and shopping.

They provide a range of housing types, and have a good trails network for pedestrians, cyclists and wheelchair users. They are more economical to build and service, and help preserve farmland. Older neighbourhoods tend to be more walkable and livable than many new subdivisions.

"Our built communities are having an impact on all sorts of health-related issues," he said, noting that lack of physical activity is leading to more obesity and diabetes. "We're stuck in the car, we're getting heavier and less physically active, and chronic disease is going up."

Based on a concept of sustainability called permaculture, the Transition Town movement encourages communities to build up their resilience, in response to expected shortages and price increases for oil, extreme conditions due to climate change and the uncertainties of an unstable economy.

Rob Hopkins, a permaculture pioneer and a driving force in the Transition Town movement in England, wrote in 2009: "By shifting our mindset, we can actually recognize the coming post-cheap oil era as an opportunity rather than a threat, and design the future low-carbon age to be thriving, resilient and abundant – somewhere much better to live than our current alienated consumer culture, based on greed, war and the myth of perpetual growth."

Awareness of sustainable living principles is expected to lead to more walking and cycling, less use of fossil fuel energy and more reliance on local farms and gardens instead of long-distance food chains. "Green" community design has become fashionable.

As of 2010, there were more than 400 official Transition Town projects in the UK, Ireland, Canada, the US, Australia, New Zealand, Italy and Chile. You can get more information about the new Erin group at Contact them by email at Check out the Guelph group at

Transition Erin's first principle in evaluating the Solmar subdivision is that Erin must retain its rural charm and scenic environment. Existing natural features and mature trees should be preserved, and the architecture should reflect the local heritage.

A strong sense of community would be promoted through connected gathering places such as parks. They want it to be attractive, with street views of house fronts, gardens and open spaces, not high fences and garages.

It would be designed for minimum impact on the environment, through good water management, energy efficiency, resilience to extreme weather, and accommodation for use of local renewable energy sources.

There would be housing suitable for young families and seniors, and local jobs to reduce the need for long commutes. There would be convenience stores and other small retailers within walking distance of most homes. Public facilities would be easily accessible, and cycling would be promoted with bike shelters and racks. There should even be provision for possible future bus stops and shelters.

Safety would be promoted with adequate night lighting and clear sight lines around parks, public buildings and along various pathways. Connection with older parts of Erin village would be promoted with trails and walkways that link to existing routes.

With so many significant wetlands and valuable environmental features in and near the village, "the new development should do its utmost to preserve and protect the natural systems."