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Whisper These Words … Shovel-Ready Projects

Calling all municipal staff, councillors and regional district directors…

Are you ready? You never know when money might be available for a good project. It could be the spending fever that happens every February, just before the end of the financial year. It could be a foundation that decides to change its priorities, and make climate change or affordable housing a priority. Or it could be the next financial crash.

The next crash will doubtless arrive, sooner or later, and when it comes the government in Ottawa will shovel money to stop Canada’s economy from falling into a depression. It has happened before, and it will happen again. No less an organization than TD Canada Trust has told its staff that a financial crash or ‘readjustment’ happens on average every eight years, so the next may come in … well, you can do the math.

It might be caused by the collapse of the housing bubble in China, or the banks’ excess trading in derivatives. It might be a decision by Greece to default on its debts, or a bank failure linked to the record levels of consumer debt. Whatever the cause, it would be a brave person who bet on it being delayed as long as 2020.

The money will fly. But where will it land? Whisper these words … shovel-ready projects.

In 2009, following the 2008 crash, Victoria International Airport had a project primed and ready to go. They wanted $24 million to build a series of roundabouts to shave 30 seconds off the trip to the airport. The fact that the new interchange boggles the most experienced driver, and has been called “Amen Corner” and “an engineering and logistical feat so complex as to foil even the most diligent of first time motorists” is neither here nor there. My point is that it got its funding because it was -ready.

On nearby Salt Spring, Island Pathways got twice the funding it asked for because their project for off-road, multi-use pathways around Ganges was shovel-ready, with financial partners ready to play.

Back in 2009, if the Capital Regional District and the Victoria cycling community had been prepared, that $24 million could have built 240 kilometres of safe, separated bike lanes.

With that salutary lesson in mind, what’s possible, bearing in mind the urgent need to tackle the climate crisis, as well as addressing poverty, homelessness and the need for more affordable housing?

A shovel-ready project is one where the planning, costing and engineering studies (if needed) have advanced to the stage where activity can begin within 180 days. If the criteria is “within 90 days”, you end up with simple programs to fix potholes or do road resurfacing.

So here are some possible projects, which if developed now could be filed away ready for when the moment arises.

1. Pedestrian Projects

Every community has projects that would make walking safer, easier and more attractive and get people out of their cars, meeting their neighbors and shopping on foot. Cycling/walking projects create 11-14 jobs per million dollars compared to 7 jobs per million on highway projects.[1]

Possibilities include pedestrian trails and walkways, complete street retrofits, car-free streets, safe walk-to-school routes, and lists of pedestrian improvements created by engaging people in local walkability workshops with photo-visions to imagine a more walkable future. If your council does not have a walkability strategy, a good way to begin would be to create a public process to research and develop pedestrian friendly projects.

2. Cycling Projects

If you create a community that’s good for an 8 year old and for an 80 year old, you will create a community that’s successful for everyone. This is an 8-80 City

Increased cycling creates jobs and boosts the local economy.[2] In 2014, the World Health Organization found if people in major European cities cycled as much as they do in Copenhagen, 10,000 lives could be saved and 76,600 job opportunities created.[3] In Britain, a study found that the cycling economy employed 23,000 people, generated over £500 million a year in wages and £100 million in taxes.[4] In Portland, Oregon, thanks to the city’s investments since 2008, bikes have created 1,150 jobs, $90 million has been pumped into the Portland economy and 155 bike businesses have been created.[5]

Safe bike lanes, bike routes, safe bike routes to school, safe ‘Dutch intersections’ and cyclist education projects all need funding. Does your community have a Pedestrian and Cycling Masterplan targeting 30% to 40% cycling trip modes, similar to those seen in Holland or Copenhagen? If yes, ask your planning staff to make sure the top projects are shovel-ready. If not, convene a meeting with your most active cyclists and start planning now. 

3. Transit Projects

Public transit always needs more funding, and the American Public Transportation Association has found that for every $1 million of investment, more than 50 jobs (mostly private sector) are created, 44% as a direct result of the investment and 46% through productivity effects, household savings, improved employer labor access and reduced congestion costs, generating a $4 economic return to a community for every $1 invested.[6] Rural communities benefit from transit too, as the success of the Salt Spring bus shows.[7]

A community needs good transit to build its economy, enabling people to get to work and preventing traffic congestion from making people flee the downtown areas in favour of the suburbs. [8] In Montreal, a study found that public transit was a powerful economic development mechanism for the city, and a 2% increase in the public transit modal share resulted in 19 million fewer car trips a year.[9]

While we’re talking transit, what about the state of the nation’s bus shelters? In many areas there is nothing more than a post stuck into the ground without even a timetable, so passengers have no idea when the next bus is coming and no shelter from the elements. Where is the community innovative enough to invite community groups to design and build their own shelters, with sign-off from a local engineer? There’s got to be jobs in that.[10]

4. Urban Farming Projects

Urban farming is generating a lot of interest, and with help from active non-profits such as LifeCycles in Victoria, Cowichan Green Community in Duncan and the Vancouver Urban Farming Society great projects can happen.

In 2011, in his UBC MSc thesis, Growing Vegetables in Metro Vancouver: An Urban Farming Census, Marc Schutzbank found that ten urban farms sold $170,000 worth of produce on 4.19 acres, supporting 30 paid employees. Urban farms do more than sell produce. They also educate their communities about food production and provide space to explore intergenerational and multicultural food cultures.[11]

In 2013, the team behind the Five Boroughs Farm in New York City needed to convince Mayor Bloomberg to support them, knowing that he was famous for tweeting “In God We Trust. Everyone else, bring data.” In response, they created an Urban Farming Metrics Framework that showed how thirty types of activity that occur through urban farming support seventeen health, social, economic and ecological benefits.[12]

In Los Angeles, Food From the ‘Hood turned an abandoned football field into a two acre farm with 25% of the proceeds going to a scholarship fund for local youth, resulting in $250,000 being spent on sending local youth to college. Every $1 invested in urban farming generates $6 worth of vegetables, while solving some of a city’s most serious problems and providing benefits for nutrition, exercise, and mental and physical health.[13]

How to proceed? Seek expressions of interest from local organizations engaged in urban food or farming.

5. Building Retrofit Projects

What about all the buildings that are wasting energy because they are so leaky and inefficient? Every community that has signed BC’s Climate Action Charter has pledged to reduce its carbon pollution, and buildings produce a significant chunk of a community’s emissions. 

GreenJobs BC found that construction and retrofitting create between 10 and 18 direct and indirect jobs for every million dollars of increased output. This compares to one job for every $4 million invested in oil and gas extraction.[14]

In Europe, where the EU has made a serious commitment to carbon reduction and has a goal that 3% of publicly owned buildings be retrofitted every year, the Energy Efficiency Industrial Forum found that investing €1 million in upgrading the energy efficiency of the building stock creates on average 19 new direct jobs. The numbers vary from under ten in Scotland and Denmark to almost 30 in Canada, or 20 jobs per million Canadian dollars.[15]

That tallies with America, where ACEEE found that retrofit projects support approximately 20 jobs per $1 million invested, compared to 17 jobs per million for the economy as a whole.[16]

How might a home energy retrofit project become shovel-ready? Put out a call for Expressions of Interest and invest a small amount of time in seeking two or three players (non-profit or commercial) that have the capacity to deliver a project. Provisional buy-in from BC Hydro or FortisBC as partners would help, so that a project could link to existing incentive programs.

6. Affordable Housing Projects

Most communities have an affordable housing crisis; it’s not just in Vancouver and Victoria that people on lower incomes can’t find a decent place to live. For the homeless, too, most non-profit agencies now recognize that “housing first” is the core solution, sorting out problems with addictions and mental health once people have a roof over their heads. That’s certainly how Saskatoon reached its goal of zero homeless.  

Clearly, jobs can be generated by building affordable housing projects, at 20 jobs per $1 million invested. Invite the relevant agencies and groups to a meeting, and encourage them to prep up projects that could be shovel-ready for the next financial crash.

7. Arts Projects

Whether it is murals, dance, drama, festivals or sculpture, the arts are an essential part of a healthy, happy, sustainable community. The Canadian Conference of the Arts reports that job-creation in arts and culture varies between $20,000 and $30,000 (40 jobs per million invested) compared to 3 to 10 per million for jobs in medium and heavy industry.[17]

Issue a notice to local arts organizations, suggesting that they prepare projects that meet various criteria, while being totally clear about the context.

8. Tree-Planting Projects

96% of Canadians feel it’s important to plant trees to sustain a healthy environment and improve the quality of life for future generations, and most people want more trees planted in their communities. Trees provide a host of benefits, including rainwater capture, air quality improvement, energy savings, wildlife habitat, health benefits (walking and jogging in the woods) and carbon sequestration. They also offer beauty, peace and joy. [18]

In Japan, the health benefits of ‘forest bathing’ (Shinrin-yoku) are widely recognized, thanks to volatile substances in the forest air called phytoncides, which have been shown to reduce blood pressure, heart rate and stress hormones.[19] In Metro Vancouver, for each dollar spent on forestry, residents receive $4.59 in benefits each year, including energy savings, infrastructure and city cost savings, and health care savings.

Tree planting needs forward planning. One way to proceed would be to put out a call for expressions of interest, targeting local clubs and non-profit societies. Tapping into the spirit of volunteering will get more trees planted, in which case the jobs created would be for the team-leaders.  

9. Entrepreneurial Job Creation

The projects described above are classic “shovel-ready” projects, where the government needs to distribute money rapidly to offset the impacts of a financial crisis. The opportunity can also be used to fund serious long-term job creation by providing support for projects that encourage future entrepreneurs, including youth, First Nations and ethnic minorities.

Futurpreneur Canada provides financing, mentoring and support to aspiring business owners aged 18-39, with more than 2,800 volunteer mentors.  There are several similar programs, such as the Y’s Youth Mean Business in Vancouver, the Women’s Enterprise Centre, operating across British Columbia and Start-Up Canada, with Start-Up Communities in Prince George, Smithers and Langford. 

A key to developing an initiative might be to build a relationship with these organizations, and ask what is needed to start one locally. If shovel-ready dollars can be used to fund the beginning of a permanent job-creation initiative that could serve the community for decades to come, that would be a great investment.

10. Other Projects

In every community there will be other potential projects that would provide community benefits, so letting the community know about the potential opportunity might bring out suggestions. It might be a skateboard park, an expansion of a Big Brothers Big Sisters project, or the transformation of a Food Bank into a Community Food Centre where people on low incomes learn how to grow their own food and cook healthy meals on a limited budget, as The Stop Community Food Centre has done in Toronto. 

Becoming Shovel-Ready

This might be new territory for some municipalities, and there’s obviously a need to avoid the impression that there are existing funds for projects of this kind. With good communication, misunderstandings can be avoided, and a portfolio of shovel-ready projects can be assembled.

Since this is public money, it would be important to develop a checklist for a project to win a place in the portfolio. As well as the practical need for a project to be ready within 180 days, projects might earn points for social inclusion and environmental sustainability.

Some may see this as an excessive level of planning. But remember—back in 2009, Victoria got $24 million worth of crazy roundabouts that shave 30 seconds off the trip to the airport instead of 240 kilometres of safe, separated bike lanes, because one project was shovel-ready, and the other was not.


Guy Dauncey is author of The Climate Challenge: 101 Solutions to Global Warming (New Society Publishers, 2009), and Communications Director of the BCSEA.

[1] Economic Benefits of Walking and Cycling

[2] Bicycling Means Business: The Economic Benefits of Bicycle Infrastructure

[3] Cycling can create at least 76,600 jobs and save 10,000 lives every year in major European cities. WHO, April 2014. 

[4] Cyclists pump £3bn into UK economy, says LSE report

[5] Bikenomics: How Bicycling Can Save the Economy

Portland’s Green Dividend

[6] The Economic Impact of Public Transportation Investment: Stories from Around the Country and  www.eesi.org/briefings/view/051514transit

[7] Public Transit on Salt Spring Island

[8] Mass Transit Investment Also Matters for Economic Mobility.

[9] Public transit: a powerful economic-development engine for the metropolitan Montreal region

[10] 15 Unusual and Creative Bus Stops

One tiny Austrian village has the seven best bus shelters in the world

Bus Stop of the Month

Bus Stops Around the World

[11] Growing Vegetables in Metro Vancouver: An Urban Farming Census 

[12] Data Farming: Demonstrating the Benefits of Urban Agriculture. This Big City, March 2013. 

[13] How Urban Farming Can Transform Our Cities — And Our Agricultural System. Climate Progress, 2012. 

[14] Buildings, Energy Efficiency Retrofits and Green Jobs in BC. GreenJobs BC, 2012. 

[15] How Many Jobs - A Survey of the Employment Effects of Investment in Energy Efficiency of Buildings. EEIF, 2012 

[16] How Does Energy Efficiency Create Jobs? ACEEE Fact Sheet

[17] Canadian Conference of the Arts: Culture and Creativity as Economic Engines, 2012. 

[18] The Value of Urban Forests in Cities Across Canada. TD Canada Trust, 2014.  

[19]  Effect of forest bathing trips on human immune function 

Forest Bathing – A Healthy Walk in the Woods.