The Regional Municipality of Durham, known informally as the Durham Region includes eight cities, townships and municipalities in Southern Ontario. Established in 1974, the region has focused on the strengths of each member community working together to build a safer, stronger and more comfortable place to live for all residents. The Durham Region’s blend of suburban and rural areas results in a diverse portfolio of economic strengths, as it features an impressive agricultural sector while also being a major center of the Canadian automotive industry. The region is also the Clean Energy Capital of Canada as the home of both Ontario Power Generation and Ontario Tech University’s Clean Energy Research Lab.
Bringing the Regional Broadband Network to the Underserved
The Durham Region’s sprawling mix of suburbs and large rural areas has left gaps in connectivity for those in its remoter regions due to the high cost of installation. To address this issue, the Durham Regional Council adopted the Regional Broadband Strategy in 2019. After surveying the community and local service providers to learn more about costs and areas most in need of upgrades, the Council developed the Regional Broadband Network, an ambitious project that aims to build 700 km of fiber optic cable with off-ramps into each community. With the government handling the costs of the backbone itself, local internet service providers would be able to focus on delivering faster, more reliable solutions. The Durham Region has currently directed $2.8 million in funding to develop the first 35 km of the backbone fiber trunk through particularly underserved rural areas and has submitted applications to the provincial and federal governments for more funding to bring the full project to life.
Providing Access to Residents of All Ages and Incomes
To ensure that all residents can access the best available learning tools and environments, the Durham Region has developed a program to help eligible families obtain the Canada Learning Bond. The Canada Learning Bond provides low-income families with financial assistance to access post-secondary education options for their children. The Region recognized that families face a variety of barriers in signing up for the bond, as the process is complicated and requires working with a financial institution, meaning that only about 40% of eligible children currently receive the bond. To help local families overcome these barriers, the Durham Region formed a partnership between the municipal, provincial and federal governments, local school boards, community partners, financial institutions and SmartSaver.org—a national charitable organization that connects low-income families with information about the Canada Learning Bond. These partners came together to host sign up events and offer eligible families everything they need to get the bond, which resulted in over 300 additional families with 500 eligible children receiving the Canada Learning Bond in 2019. The Durham Region transitioned to a virtual event in 2020 and plans to continue expanding the program until every eligible family has the help it needs.
Even with proper internet access, the modern world of online services can prove difficult or even impossible to navigate, particularly for the Durham Region’s large older population. To assist its older residents in making use of essential web services, the Oshawa Senior Citizens Centres created a Digital Inclusion Program in 2017. The Senior Citizens Centres provide low-cost beginner computer and technology classes, making use of free internet available in all such facilities as well as computer labs and cyber cafés for senior citizens. Training programs focus on basic digital literacy, including the Brain Gym program, which uses iPads to assist seniors with dementia. More than 3,000 seniors have participated in the Digital Inclusion Program since its founding.
Developing Clean and Efficient Energy and Transportation for the Region
To serve as a first-mile/last-mile transit solution for residents, the Town of Whitby, where the Durham Region’s government is headquartered, created a partnership in 2019 with Durham Region Transit, Smart Cone Technologies, Pacific Western Transportation, Ontario Centres of Excellence and Autonomous Vehicle Innovation Network. The partnership will deliver a one-year in-service automated shuttle pilot to connect south Whitby to Whitby GO Station. The shuttle route will include a series of sensors that collect data and deliver key information to the shuttle and operations control center, enhancing safety and efficiency. Prior to launch, the project partners will deliver a communication engagement and education campaign to make residents aware of the new service. The pilot project will be the longest route deployed in all-season weather and in mixed traffic conditions to date, and the data collected from the project will help advance deployment of on-road autonomous vehicles across the country. As of 2020, all funding has been secured and all preliminary test, permitting and contracts have been completed for the pilot project. It is set to deploy in April of 2021.
Due to rising flooding, high heat days and other impacts of climate change, the Regional Council declared a climate emergency in 2018 and began development o the Durham Community Energy Plan (DCEP). The plan seeks to accelerate the transition to a clean energy economy in the region while providing additional economic and social benefits at the same time. The DCEP outlines a path to electrifying transportation and retrofitting building stock to address Durham’s largest contributors to greenhouse gas emissions, with work beginning on the first community-scale projects in 2020. On the residential side, the Durham Home Energy Savings Program was created to stimulate homeowner demand for energy-efficiency-related home renovations, including various energy retrofits. The program aims to eventually retrofit most of the region’s over 200,000 existing single-family homes by 2050, providing 40-50% energy savings per home. The Durham Home Energy Savings Program will launch in mid-2021 with an initial four-year implementation plan.
Balancing and addressing the needs of eight different cities, townships and municipalities has provided the Durham Regional government with valuable experience since its founding. The region has built on this experience to strengthen its large and diverse community through improved connectivity, access, education and energy planning that promise to deliver a better future for all.
Photo by Chris Harte