If not for beauty, then at least for our safety…
Visitors to Canada are often shocked and dismayed to discover how we Canadians have allowed utility companies to dominate our precious public streetscapes with their ugly, antiquated and after the Great Christmas 2013 Ice Storm – unreliable and unsafe utility poles and utility lines. Many Canadian cities including our largest Toronto have some of the least attractive streetscapes in the developed world yet Canadians have remained complacent to this outrage. Perhaps the ridiculous and unsafe power outages tens of thousands of Canadians have experienced over the Christmas 2013 holiday will finally awaken us to this completely unacceptable reality. Europeans do not allow this unreliable ugliness and Americans have been far ahead of Canada in the “undergrounding” of utility lines for decades. While Municipal and Provincial bureaucrats and Urban designers and planners have remained uninterested in the mere issue of “aesthetics'”, perhaps the issue of public safety will make them act. As the accompanying photograph shows, this street in Rothesay, NB was completely cut off by the collapse of an old leaning utility pole after the weight of the ice and snow on the lines proved overwhelming. This collapse was not caused by trees or tree limbs covered in ice, it was due to a poorly maintained and over laden utility pole. Utility companies continue to add more and more lines, fibre optic cables and systems to antiquated lines and poles, and in this case an entire neighbourhood was cut off from emergency vehicles and services. The only answer is a complete overhaul of our public streetscapes and the installation of utility lines in underground conduit. We need a new federal-provincial-municipal Streetscape infrastructure program that will allow utility companies to invest in new “Smart Grid” technologies in order to enhance energy sustainability, replace old inefficient street lighting with new LED lights saving 60% on energy costs, and implement new fibre optic systems in safe, reliable underground conduit. All these benefits are in addition to the billions of dollars saved in maintenance and repair of these unreliable overhead utility lines. Politicians often talk about “shovel ready infrastructure projects”, well undergrounding of utility lines and the planting of trees are literally shovel ready. We can put thousands of Canadians of all skill levels to work immediately and beautify our cities, towns and villages by planting trees and burying utility lines. All it takes is for Canadians to demand better from our public leaders and now is the time.
We used to have such an infrastructure program called the “Main Street Program” in the 1970s. All across Canada cities towns and villages had their main streets or central business districts streetscaped. Utility lines were buried, new sidewalks were built with decorative brick, various levels of curbing materials, street furnishings and street lighting was all included and most importantly trees were planted. Today these beautiful and mature trees provide much-needed shade, coolness, filter our air and provide shelter to birds and other animals including ourselves.
The thought of senior citizens freezing in a Toronto Condo or a Rothesay house or even worse the illnesses and deaths related to carbon monoxide poisoning all because our electrical utility system failed is intolerable. The reality is many utility companies and their executives make millions of dollars by renting their utility poles to third parties and this is why they have refused to embrace undergrounding even while we the public have granted them free access to our street right-of-ways. Utility company executives and bureaucrats lay the blame on trees of course, and our beautiful tree-lined streets and avenues like we have in Rothesay, or in many neighbourhoods in Toronto will now be under threat like never before. It will be open season on our beautiful streetscapes, street trees and canopies but utility companies will never suggest it is their over laden, unreliable and unsafe utility poles and cables to blame. Make no mistake this is an issue about dollars and it is also about beauty, but most importantly it is about public safety. Bury the utility lines, and bury them now!!