Hey you! (And me). Stop filling & killing our planet.

This post covers responsible consumption and disposal, what really happens to your “garbage” in landfills, and some of the innovations taking place around the world to reduce plastic and textile waste. 

Responsible consumption and disposal has been on my mind lately for reasons personal and professional. Personally, I recently overhauled my apartment and threw out a lot of unnecessary items that I realized I’d been hanging onto “just in case”… before I had the enlightening realization that a future maybe isn’t reason enough to have present clutter.

Professionally, in the community foundation movement we’ve started rallying around the global Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) – 17 targets that include the lofty goals of reducing poverty, ending hunger, halting climate change, improving gender equity, building more inclusive cities, and protecting life on land and in the water.
My first entry-point was last year when I got to accompany the Canadian delegation to the UN’s Habitat III summit in Ecuador (an amazing experience, even moreso that it only takes place every 20 years). 

SDG #12 sets the platform for responsible consumption and production, and of all the goals, I think it’s the easiest for anyone to start with  – whether as an individual who cares, or as a responsible corporate or government entity. Nothing has value to you when you’re dead. And possessions don’t make us happy – it’s the people in our lives and experiences we share that do. So we, the world, need a complete overhaul of mindset. And it’s the wealthy countries, with the spending power to influence (decrease) global production trends, that should lead the way.

I know this is a heavy topic… and it’s heavy on Mother Earth too. For we are such a wasteful species. Let me illustrate this to you with some of the facts I’ve uncovered. Like me, you may be dismayed to learn of the waste and damage we have caused to date. (But keep reading – I’ll highlight some hope at the end).

For starters, a recent study out of the U.S. found that humans have produced as much plastic as the weight of 25,000 Empire State buildings since 1950!  The Huffington Post reported that if you were to spread out all this plastic ankle-deep, it could cover an area the size of Argentina, the eighth-largest country in the world! The same study found that only 9 per cent of that plastic had been recycled, 12 per cent incinerated, and the rest – a whopping 79 per cent – has ended up in landfills, oceans and other natural environments.

What are the implications of all these plastics in the landfill? Most plastics take up to 400 years to decompose (and some chemicals up to 1,000 years). The toxic chemicals in plastic can leak into the ground and pollute waterways, harming wildlife and people. In fact, Environment Health News reported that the carcinogenic chemical known as BPA was found in 90 per cent of premature babies.

It’s a similar story with clothes that wind up in landfills. With cheap manufacturing in developing countries substantially lowering the cost of clothes production, this has resulted in lower prices for the developed world. The result? For decades North America and Europe (in particular) have gorged on temporary clothes for cheap, fleeting thrills. Consumers in North America are buying and disposing of five times more clothes now than we did 25 years ago, author Elizabeth Cline covers in her book, Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion (2013).

To appease their conscience, people (myself included) often donate their used and unwanted clothing to local charities, which sometimes make their way into appreciative hands. But half of the clothing donated in North America ends up overseas in developing countries, The Huffington Post reports. There, donated clothes undermine local jobs and fashion, reduce people’s earning power, harm the economy and local culture, and end up homogenizing and mainstreaming cheap “fashion” even more.

You might be surprised to know that when natural fibres (cotton, linen and silk) or semi-synthetic fibres (like rayon) are buried in a landfill, they produce potent greenhouse gas methane when they degrade. But unlike organic foods, clothes can’t be composted (even if made of natural fibres) due to all the chemical processing they’ve gone through during their interactions with bleach, dyes, screenprints, etc.

Do we really want a world where everyone’s clothes are made out of toxic, poor-quality materials? A world in which cultural influences are no longer visible? I sure don’t.
(If you’re interested, the Netflix documentary, The True Cost, explores the sickening treatment of garment workers in more detail. (I believe these clothes are produced by our blood“…))

With all this in mind, I was curious to know how waste and recycling is managed in my city… and what more can be done – in Ottawa and around the world. Here’s what I learned:

  • Almost all residential waste from Ottawa is processed and disposed of in Ottawa, while most commercial and institutional waste is exported, much of it to northern New York state. Source: City of Ottawa. 
  • Because about 50 per cent of Ottawa’s garbage is organic material, the City of Ottawa implemented a “green bin” program in January 2010 to collect organic waste and convert it to compost. The City keeps 10 per cent of the converted compost for community-based tree planting and gardening, while the waste management facility keeps 90 per cent, sharing compost with Ottawa farmers. The green bin program is expected to divert 70,000 to 80,000 tonnes of waste from Ottawa’s landfills. Source: Ottawa Life. 
  • The City of Ottawa also runs a paper and plastics recycling program. In 2016, 21,700 tonnes of paper and plastics collected in the black and blue bin curbside recycling program resulted in $9,765,000 of revenue, according to the City. The materials collected are sorted at a Material Recovery Facility, baled, and shipped to the highest bidder.
    It always gets me excited when we can leverage economics for environmental (or social) good. Especially as behavioural change is easier to achieve when there’s an incentive behind it.

Looking at innovations in Canada and around the world:

  • There are textile recycling companies across Canada. 
  • Companies are exploring “closed-loop technology” for fashion, where instead of going from single-use to landfill, textiles would loop from factory to store to buyer’s closet to secondhand retailer to textile recycler, and then back to the textile factory to start the lifecycle over. However, commercially scalable, closed-loop textile recycling technology is still five to 10 years away, Newsweek reports.
    (Part of the trouble, they note, is that once cotton is dyed, treated or blended with other materials, the process no longer works).
  • A company called etee has developed alternatives to plastic wrap – a reusable, natural and biodegradable organic cotton and reclaimed leather-based product that offers spillproof properties and keeps your food fresh in place of plastic. The company says you can expect 120-150 uses. 
  • Also see RePack. 
  • Researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology are working with the Plastics Environmental Council (PEC) to encourage manufacturers to add certain chemicals during the production phase, which would help the plastic to biodegrade in landfills, and produce methane and gases that could be converted to energy. Learn more here. 
  • The Guardian reports that large companies have developed plant-based alternatives to conventional, petrol-based plastic, and that smaller companies are focusing on developing recycling technology to tackle the plastic in our oceans and landfills. 
  • The UK-based Ellen MacArthur Foundation is doing a lot of research and work to promote the concept of the “circular economy”, which is based on three principles:
    1. Preserve and enhance natural capital by controlling finite stocks and balancing renewable resource flows.
    2. Optimize resource yields by designing for remanufacturing, refurbishing, and recycling to keep components and materials circulating in and contributing to the economy.
    3. Foster system effectiveness
 by controlling and reducing land use, air, water and noise pollution, release of toxic substances, and climate change.

So where does this leave you, me, and our planet? Are there equal parts waste and damage, hope and opportunity? I would like to think yes… and just for now. Because watch us unite as responsible citizens to tip that scale.

So here’s my request…

To individuals:

Let’s each consider how we can reduce our own consumption – in general, and especially with textiles and plastics.

Buy less. (Take it from the best-selling Marie Kondo: how many of those items truly “spark joy” for you?).

Create a revolution with our wallets by buying from eco-conscious suppliers and avoiding the cheap, mass-manufactured knockoffs and lure of possessions we really don’t need. Money talks, the market listeners, and the conscious shopper is more powerful than you realize.

Recycle more mindfully, and start to protect our planet as we would our own bodies and families.

To manufacturers:

You can be environmental leaders, while elevating your reputation and bottom line profits. From sourcing from renewable and sustainable suppliers, to using longer-lasting materials that are less likely to break down, optimizing your production mechanics, minimizing waste and maximizing recycling output, you can set the stage for “greening” the manufacturing world.

To corporations:

You can ethically source your suppliers to support those that are making the above changes to protect our planet. Again, money talks, and yours can do so at a large scale for maximum influence.

To governments:

All of the above, plus consider policies you can introduce to “green” your procurement processes to give preference to responsible suppliers with sustainable and eco-friendly practices.

Create business conditions and incentives that will encourage more businesses to adopt environmentally friendly practices.

Use your purchasing power sustainably. Buy within your country to support local jobs, strengthen the national economy, and take a stance against the mass manufacturing of cheap, low-quality goods and poor labour conditions.

Set a principled example throughout government. Ensure your workplace policies and practices minimize waste and support recycling.

Introduce policies that pivot the country from depleting finite resources to pursuing renewable energy sources.

Work with the private sector to align their values, practices and commitments.

Work with the education sector to ensure that environmental responsibility is part of the core curriculum not just a periphery undertaking.

Make it easier for citizens to make eco-conscious decisions that are affordable, to minimize waste, and to recycle more easily in their own homes.

– – – – –

Rather than continuing to lead Mother Nature to her demise, we can set the standards – personally and professionally – to support our planet and species in health and longevity.

It’s time to think beyond our own lifetime.


When is rapid transit coming to north-east Ottawa?

Warning: Nerdy transit column ahead. Not suitable for all audiences. 😉

Northeast Ottawa needs rapid transit. This is a fact.

I’ve spent close to half of my years in Ottawa living in the Beechwood area – attracted by its river and trail proximity, closeness to the Byward Market, and cheaper rental costs. Yet, every time (and that’s three times now) I ultimately leave the neighbourhood in search of an area less isolated and, I must say, more rapidly connected. For those who don’t know, the area is just east of downtown – you cross the Rideau Canal and then the Rideau River, and then find a cosy community running parallel to the Outaouais River, flanked by the wealthy and tree-rich Rockcliffe neighbourhood to the north and the colourful Vanier community to the south. It’s a lovely community with some great new restaurants, a supermarket, an exciting new icecream sundae store, a pet store, cafes and a farmer’s market during summer. However …

There’s a (transit) hole in my neigbourhood, dear Liza, dear Liza…
The trouble is, Beechwood feels like an island, especially if you’re a public transit user.
The closest station for accessing rapid transit is either Hurdman Station (almost 5 km south, down the Vanier Parkway), St-Laurent Station (just over 5 km south-east of Beechwood) or Rideau Centre (close to 3 km away – in the heart of downtown). The problem with each of these stations is that passengers need to take “milk run” buses to get to each of them, and buses often only run once every 15 – 20 minutes, which really extends the length of the journey.

Now that we’re approaching 2018 – the revered year when Ottawa gets its 12.5 kilometre Light-Rail Transit (LRT) system in place – many areas of the city are rejoicing. Perhaps most excitingly (sinkholes and all…) Ottawa’s LRT system will include a 2.5 km underground portion running below the city centre to remove the trains (and buses they’re replacing) from clogging Rideau Street, the Byward Market, and the central business area.

Ottawa’s new LRT system: the logistics
> The electric LRT line will provide rapid transit between Blair Station in the east and Tunney’s Pasture Station in the west, connecting at Bayview Station to the O-Train Trillium Line (which takes people south to Carleton University, then finishes at South Keys station).
> Encouragingly, a connection further south to the airport and then beyond to the exploding bedroom community of Riverside South is planned for 2021 as part of “stage 2”.
> In the east, the LRT line will be extended from Blair Station to the heart of Orleans by 2022.
> In the west, Kanata’s Moodie station will be connected by 2023 and the City is already exploring three Kanata transit options for extending the rapid transit further west to the Canadian Tire Centre.

(I know that’s a lot of text to absorb so you can view the City’s transit map here).

Stage 2 LRT Map

This map was created by the team at http://www.stage2lrt.ca/

Ultimately, the eastern, western and southern communities will be well served by rapid transit… but what about the residents in North Vanier and the Beechwood area? They will still have to catch the bus to one of the above-mentioned transit stations. For some residents this will mean having to head south or southeast to connect with the LRT line at Hurdman or St-Laurent stations before returning north to downtown…

On a positive note, the City’s Transportation Master Plan (2013-2031) has recommended the extension of bus-only hours on existing priority lanes between Blair and Rideau stations, and the introduction of new exclusive lanes east of St. Laurent. We definitely need a faster way to travel down Montreal Road, understanding that when public transit offers better access, connectivity and speed, it increases the number of transit users, which has positive implications for local businesses in the area too.

I was also encouraged to read about new and more direct Beechwood bus routes being introduced to the area, but I must say that these backtracking/zig zagging routes drive me crazy. Besides, the residents of Vanier/Beechwood still have to catch a bus. In 2018, people! Which brings me to …

Transform St-Laurent Blvd into a north-south rapid transit line 
St-Laurent is a wide boulevard with multiple lanes in each direction and a grassy strip running down the centre. To me, this offers several options for introducing a rapid transit line there. At present, a trip down St-Laurent is a miserable experience of strip malls, car yards and parking lots. No question, it’s a street designed with the car in mind. I would love to see bike lanes and rapid transit lines added there, following the theory of designing for people, not cars.

If we tried to make St-Laurent Blvd more bikeable, walkable and transitable, how would that affect the culture and streetscape? Would we see more outdoor patios and public spaces emerge? Would the chain stores and strip malls be replaced by local businesses, and more art, theatres, cafes and restaurants – not located at the rear of parking lots – but instead close to wide, pedestrian-friendly, tree-lined sidewalks? (A novel and remote concept for the St-Laurent area at present! And don’t get me started about why parking lots are taking up valuable surface space when they could be shifted underground…)

A St-Laurent rapid transit line could connect at St-Laurent Station and further south at Walkley Station. From there it would be an easy switch of lines for passengers wishing to head south towards the airport or north towards Heron Station, for example.

There is hope. But what about political will?
About Heron Station, I was excited to read City Council unanimously voted to connect it westward through a new rapid transit corridor along Baseline Road. Once this occurs, we will have three quarters of a rapid transit grid complete, and will just be missing this eastern north-to-south link I have proposed. (So, any City Planning folks who stumble across my blog post, I hope you’ll give this consideration!)

Besides, my idea for a St-Laurent north-to-south rapid transit line is nowhere near as complex or awesome as this system that Adam Bentley put forward in 2010 (good job, Adam!) It is so wonderful I will leave you to contemplate his map in awe.
Truly a transit utopia for Ottawa-Gatineau and surrounds!

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What my time at Habitat III taught me (UN conference on Housing and Sustainable Development)

When you think of the UN, you have certain perceptions. Mostly I think of the prestige that accompanies it, the nobility of attempting to unite the hundreds of diverse countries – in economy, stature, values, environment, conflict, comfort, etc. – around the common agenda of advancing our one planet for greater good. For we truly are all connected; the import/export of each country affects the other, and no clearer is our commonality than when you are flying between countries and touching down on the opposite side of the globe in landscape you swear you just left.

Anyway, my point (aside from that we are all connected on this fragile earth) is the honour and immense undertaking the United Nations commits itself to. So it was a real privilege that the organization I work for, Community Foundations of Canada, gave me the opportunity to accompany my COO to Habitat III, The United Nations Conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development, which only takes place once every 20 years, making my attendance all the more rare and special (thank you, CFC!).

One of the beautiful things about Habitat III is that attendance is free – helping to level the playing field for more countries to attend. (Each attendee must still pay their airfares, accommodation, food, vaccines, visas, etc., but). I had no idea what to expect, but imagined very formal proceedings, the highest degree of attire and most diplomatic of engagements. This was very likely accurate for the formal proceedings, where Ministers and Heads of Delegations came together to present their country’s statement and ratify the New Urban Agenda (which obviously I wasn’t privy to), but it turned out the special sessions and side events were accessible to all and far more casual in nature. People still dressed nicely (but not everyone – I saw a few ripped jeans), yet nobody was suited up.

I compliment the organizers of Habitat III for securing a very safe event, with thorough security procedures and, after the first day, short queues to enter. The site itself – La Casa de la Cultura Ecuatoriana – was aesthetically very pleasing, and following the first day of getting over the altitude adjustment (2,800 metres above sea level Quito is situated), I found the venue very comfortable, despite the three levels of stairs that felt like small mountains on that first day.

My takeaway from my first (and who knows, hopefully not my last …) UN conference was that it is not the forum for diving deep on an issue, for despite having world-class experts presenting, each only receives a relatively short period to speak, and let’s face it, who can drill down in eight minutes – substantially? But it was a great opportunity to get up to speed on a range of issues, and be in the right place and space to fortuitously run into like-minded people from a range of countries, who quite potentially had the stature to effect policy change in their country or at least begin the dialogue. And even within your own country, it was a wonderful opportunity for new dialogues and relationships to form. I think many members of the Canadian Delegation (which Community Foundations of Canada was officially a part of) left with new connections as we did, and possibly altered ways of thinking.

Below are some of the highlights for me; and I’ll start with mentioning that 170 countries unanimously adopted the New Urban Agenda (which is not a treaty, but a set of guidelines for governments to implement).

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How to Rebuild a City: Lessons From Hurricane Katrina

I was in New Orleans a few years ago now, enjoying myself in a city that never sleeps, that has rhythm and music to the core, and spicy, southern-fried seafood, well, to the bone. I took a water tour of the bayou in a pontoon to check out alligators and hang low with the swampland shrub.

Another of my highlights was a bike tour through the Lower Ninth, which bore the brunt of Hurricane Katrina – a neighbourhood that was never built to withstand broken levees unleashing with fury. For the Lower Ninth has that perfect storm of being situated lower than river level, its many buildings far below code, and most of its inhabitants too poor to do anything about that or live anywhere else. It certainly wasn’t a neighbourhood all doom and gloom though; no, it was also known for its community, its gaiety, its music!

While there, I met champions of the Mardi Gras, ensconced in a backyard cultural museum.

And in the wake of that devastation to hundreds of homes – whose walls were no resistance to water that swelled two storeys high in same cases – the Calvary entered… in the form of “stararchitects” such as Brad Pitt … who championed a green rebuild, using low-impact, sustainable and earth friendly products that would better withstand water influx in future, while giving a lift to inhabitants and showcasing that the Lower Ninth was crushed no more. I think part of this might also have been an attempt to help self-esteem and neighbourhood pride recover in the area. You can look up his “Make it right” project.

Of course, some people preferred the charm and familiarity of their old homes, and there was certainly mixed reaction to colonization by eco-development …
By the way, if this all interests you, you can read more about it in my blog post, Like a Hurricane (Named Katrina).

Meanwhile, this post is “part 2”, and is going to look at the resiliency of the Lower Ninth and New Orleans at-large. It’s inspired by a book I bought while down there, “How to Rebuild a City: A Field Guide From a Work in Progress”.







And… I’ve got to say this is a blog post I coincidently started the day before the wildfires that tore through Fort McMurray and surrounds in Alberta.

So whatever your interest; whether you are civic-minded and keen to understand ways in which communities have historically reset themselves following disaster, or pragmatic and wanting to be prepared in the event of a natural disaster destroying your city, read on to my “Cole’s Notes” of just how to rebuild a city …

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The Nine Lives of Buildings … (c’mon, they deserve more than one)

I tend to take buildings as they are. If they’re particularly shabby, I might notice they could use some TLC, perhaps a paint job, new windows, an expanded deck. I guess I mostly view buildings through a renovation lens. But typically I don’t stop to consider where the building is at in its cycle of life.

Cue Jill Stoner, the new Director of the Azrieli School of Architecture and Urbanism at Carleton University, who spoke to a packed auditorium for the Forum Lecture that kicked off Ottawa Architecture Week 2015.

Stoner told the story of the Nine Lives of Buildings. Buildings, as seen through her eyes, are natural resources to be adapted to future lives. “Once buildings are built, consider them rich in resources – like a forest,” Stoner explained. “Think inclusively… of density, social connectivity.”

Yet we live in a society where it’s not always second nature to adapt something that already exists. Instead, people – consumers – want to be masters of building destiny; the first to own, design, build their house, putting their unique stamp on materials and style.

And architects themselves? That’s a whole other story.

“We need to grow out of the “Starchitecture” culture,” Stoner admonished. “Architects must play a major role in more minor projects. The measure of success must become more forgiving. Otherwise we’re going to fill the planet up with buildings, and that’s not what we want to do.”

So what are the “nine lives” of buildings within the constructed landscapes that form our cities? How can we navigate this seamless fabric of the decadent and the dilapidated, the haves and the have-nots?

The Nine Lives of Buildings:

1. New construction 

(I know; given the above comments, it seems unlikely that this would be the first step, but so be it, it was).

2. Abandonment

When buildings live on in “a time absent of human agency”. Consider abandonment a prequel to lives that will follow, advised Stoner.

3. Demolition

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Is there any beauty in brutalism?


Department of National Defence

Those of us who work or pass through downtown Ottawa are familiar with the Department of National Defence building, the unsightly (in my opinion) concrete mass that sits atop of MacKenzie-King Bridge, “guarding” entrance to the Rideau Centre. But have you ever noticed that when the sun strikes it on a particular angle, the waffle-like shape of its exterior casts creative shadows on the ground? Do you know it was intentionally designed to perch up on its concrete posts two storeys above ground level so pedestrians could have the street to themselves?

Such was the thinking of Ottawa’s famous planner, Jacques Gréber, in the 1960s when he conceptualized the Ottawa that we know today. Gréber was an advocate for separating people from cars – which is the right idea in my mind… except that he allowed cars to take precedence. (Side note: The glorious Wellington Street boulevard that parades alongside the river in front of Parliament was given over to cars, while pedestrians were relegated two blocks over to wander the narrow corridor of Sparks Street…).
Sarah Gelbard, urban theorist

Sarah Gelbard, urban theorist

Such are the interesting tidbits you will learn with Sarah Gelbard on her newly created Ottawa (de)tours walk. Sarah, an architecture and urban theorist now studying her Master’s degree in Urban Planning in Montreal, will be returning to Ottawa throughout the summer to try and convince sceptical people like me that the concrete mass that defines the “brutalism”  architectural style actually has its beauty.

I took the first of her tours last night, and held very little conviction that she could move me from my belief that brutalism is as oppressive as it sounds. But I was wrong.

The premise is that brutalism, while fortified on the outside, is actually very welcoming and sociable on the inside. (Hear it in Sarah’s words in this Spacing Ottawa article that explores how “Brutalism architecture is like the blind date who has a great personality“).

Our tour began at the National Arts Centre (NAC) and indeed, once you brave the steps from street level on Elgin up into its mysterious, outdoor concrete corridors, you are greeted with surprise gardens, wide public platforms, and unexpected social spaces. Geometric designs penetrate everything from the concrete paving, to the details in the roof, with astounding symmetry.

IMG_4754   IMG_4759

The problem is that brutalism architecture is so unwelcoming on the outside that many people likely don’t even know they can take those few steps.

There is a reason for that; the Cold War era of brutalism’s rise being no coincidence. Further, brutalism’s core components include intrigue, drama, contrast, surprise. The aforementioned NAC building, for example, has been repeatedly criticized for “turning its back” on the Elgin Street boulevard out front. Yet, it was designed to be viewed from the canal, and to “reward” the people who were drawn into its interiors.

Through Sarah’s eyes, it is possible to view concrete in a new way, and actually start to believe there is creativity and perhaps – yes – even beauty in brutalism.

Although, it remains by no means my favourite architectural style.


I don’t want to give away too much at this point, as I really encourage you to take Sarah’s tour, which will offer many more stops through downtown Ottawa, with Sarah highlighting the architects, dates, and thinking that dominated key evolutionary points in Ottawa’s brutalism movement.

I also encourage you to step into the “unknown” with Ottawa (de)tours. They offer walks worth taking.

Zibi: Modern marketing meets developers’ purse strings

I went to check out “Zibi” on the weekend, or rather the site Zibi will dominate in future (once it clears all multi-stakeholder approvals). Zibi (pronounced “Zeebee” and representing “river” in the indigenous Algonquin language) is the 37-acre land redevelopment project of Windmill Development Group and Dream Unlimited Corp. The developers are in the process of transforming the abandoned islands of the former Domtar site – situated at the  picturesque and presently inaccessible Chaudière Falls – into a mixed-use mélanger of townhouses, low- and high-rise condos, office space, commercial buildings, and outdoor squares, framed by the frothy Falls, ever-changing Outaouais River, and imperial Parliament Hill. Before

Gatineau is the starting point because, unlike Ottawa, the land on that side of the river is not being contested by Aboriginal groups. Occupancy will start in 2017 with two six-storey condos, 66 and 75 units apiece. (This Ottawa Citizen article forecasts 1,200 condo units housing 3,500 residents to be build in the next 12 to 15 years). I was heartened to read an estimated 11 heritage buildings to be restored, and 22% of the total site to be green space, much of it along the river.
I’m supportive of this initiative because I see it effectively acting as a second downtown hub, one that will extend the livelihood of Ottawa and Gatineau’s downtown cores, while bridging both cities; an “in-between” utopia upon the water (if done right). With the added bonus of people being able to choose whether they wish to live in Ontario or Quebec. In other words, to cross over or stay put (the latter not necessitating the headache of having to adopt new tax, public health or education systems).
But what also stood out to me as I visited the grand sales opening on Saturday was the wonders of modern marketing and technology meets property developers’ purse strings…

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