Should Pickering airport be built? No.
On April 9, the Toronto Region Board of Trade held a luncheon to pitch the latest effort in a decades-long string of failed attempts at building a Pickering airport as a fantastic new economic opportunity. But Durham region residents shouldn’t be fooled: it was a short-sighted attempt to sell a megaproject that will never deliver on its promises and an outright denial of the threat of climate change.
The event positioned the airport as the centre of an “aerotropolis” where instead of the airport being on the outskirts, businesses and communities are built around it and their success is directly linked to it. Not only does that sound like a terrible way to design a community, it’s a massive gamble that’s doomed to fail. We need only look at Montreal’s Mirabel airport to see how wrong we’ve gotten major airport projects in the past.
However, that didn’t stop famed urban theorist Richard Florida from exclaiming the importance of airports in facilitating the “global flow of knowledge” and asserting that great cities need multiple international airports. Florida is renowned among urbanists for his “creative class” theory of urban development, which has made a profound contribution to the remaking of cities for elites.
Academic and consultant John Kasarda literally wrote the book on the aerotropolis model, so he was a natural fit for the event. Kasarda flies around the world selling cities on his vision. Architecture critic Rowan Moore wrote that an aerotropolis would require taxpayers “to pay handsomely for an environment created almost entirely to serve the needs of business,” while urban analyst Aaron Renn pointed out that it’s best-suited for authoritarian governments and “the reality is likely rarely to match up to Kasarda’s expectations.” Pickering won’t be the exception.
The truth is that the Golden Horseshoe doesn’t need another airport. It already has Toronto Pearson, Billy Bishop, and Hamilton — the latter of which has been picking up low-cost carriers. The region’s airports have more than enough capacity, and there’s a plan to work with smaller airports in southern Ontario if more is needed. But we shouldn’t ignore how irresponsible it is to propose a business-as-usual economic plan when climate change will make it outdated quicker than many people admit.
Last year, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned that we have until 2030 to cut global emissions by 45 per cent or we’ll exceed 1.5ºC of warming. Then, earlier this month, a government report showed that Canada is warming at twice the global average — we’ve already experienced 1.7ºC of warming since 1948 and we’re due for more precipitation, flooding, water shortages, and wildfires as a result.
But yes, let’s ignore all that and pin Durham residents’ futures on a secondary or tertiary airport. Can no one think of anything better?
Instead of a new airport, the farmers who’ve been living for decades on one-year leases, wondering if this is the year they’ll finally lose their farms, should be given the security they deserve.
In the face of a warming world and the disruptions to food production that will accompany it, we should preserve the farms that surround our cities, not tear them up for speculative megaprojects that won’t yield the returns promised in over-optimistic reports and seductive slide shows.
And if people are genuinely concerned about transportation links and capacity, they should be pushing for high-speed rail to connect Toronto with cities around Ontario and other major centres: Ottawa and Montreal; Detroit and Chicago; and Boston, New York City, and Washington, D.C. High-speed rail would reduce travel times, cut down on short-haul flights, and reduce the emissions generated by those trips.
The proposal for a Pickering aerotropolis is firmly focused on the past. It will never live up to the hype, and it’s the very opposite of what the region should be pursuing in the face of climate change. Residents would be best not to be seduced by the false promises of well-paid consultants and reject these plans from which they’ll see no real benefit.
Paris Marx a socialist, a traveller, an urbanist and is pursing a master of arts in geography at McGill University.