A recent article about urban sprawl from the Toronto Enviroguide magazine, an insert in Toronto Life.

URBAN SPRAWL - Toronto at the Crossroads - Build up or out.

By Jennifer Prittie

The Greater Golden Horseshoe is one of the fastest-growing city-regions in North America. Unless the immigration tap suddenly gets turned off, we must figure out how to accommodate the four million new residents who will move here over the next three decades. Right now, it appears to many people that the way we are going to do this is to continue to sprawl.

What is urban sprawl? It’s the spread of new lowdensity building that eats up greenfields, clogs roads, worsens air quality, and requires a vast amount of public money for infrastructure building and maintenance to sustain it. “It’s just an incredible waste of resources,” says Andrew Athanasiu of the environmental group Earthroots. Some effects of sprawl are obvious. GTA residents see farmland being plowed under for subdivisions and notice driving times within and between GTA municipalities are getting exponentially longer.

But development that avoids sprawl is not so easy to sell to a community that doesn’t see itself as urban or at least quite as urban as planners envisage. For example, the infamous Minto condo towers, under construction at Yonge and Eglinton on the intersection’s southeast corner. Ontario's Liberal government has designated Yonge and Eglinton as a “priority urban centre” that will absorb a chunk of the one million population influx projected to arrive in the megacity by 2030.
That kind of intensification—or building where there is already infrastructure such as transit, roads, schools, health care and water mains—may be a ratepayer’s nightmare, but it’s also a crucial strategy for limiting the costly, unsightly mess of urban sprawl. And therein lies a major disconnect that must be resolved if the greater Toronto area is ever to control sprawl.

Observers aren’t sure why, but as awareness about sprawl has grown in the GTA, there hasn’t been a corresponding willingness to take action, including learning to put up with redevelopment in your own backyard.

“I think it’s fair to say people have an appreciation for the costs and downsides to growth. They sit on highways, not moving, and they understand that,” says Brad Graham, assistant deputy minister with the province’s Public Infrastructure Renewal ministry. “I think it’s also fair to say there isn’t the same appreciation for the solutions.”

Sprawl-related controversies such as development on the Oak Ridges Moraine, plans for the “Big Pipe”—as it is called, to support growth in York Region and major new roads such as the Red Hill Creek Expressway, increasingly permeate the news.

According to "Places to Grow: Better Choices. Brighter Future," the provincial discussion paper released this summer: “If current patterns of development (in the Greater Golden Horseshoe) continue, by 2031 commute times will increase by up to 45 per cent, automobile-related emissions will increase by 42 per cent, and new development will consume more than 1,000 square kilometres of valuable farmlands—about double the present size of the city of Toronto.”

Sprawl also has lots of hidden costs, in particular the price of infrastructure upkeep. The McGuinty government has said it must invest a staggering $100 billion in Ontario’s infrastructure “deficit,” with about half that sum going toward repairing existing infrastructure. While developers initially pay for much of the new infrastructure that accompanies growth, when that money runs out, upkeep falls on taxpayers rather than just people who benefited from a development.

“The rest of us have been footing the bill for that lifestyle,” says Athanasiu. If those long-term bills were reflected in the cost of a new subdivision home, he argues, there wouldn’t be such a disparity between urban and suburban housing prices. “If people were to pay the full cost of sprawl,” says Athanasiu, “I don’t think they would buy it.”

But as complex as the issue is, observers see reason for hope. They note the province is working on many sprawl-related fronts, including the Greenbelt Act, changes to the Planning Act and the "Places to Grow" paper, which will be turned into legislation this fall. One key proposal would make the Ontario Municipal Board (OMB)—the unpopular planning tribunal— follow intensification principles so that it can’t just approve whatever development it wants.

“That would make a huge difference,” says Chris Winter, co-chair of the Ontario Smart Growth Network, a coalition of 40 environmental and other groups that formed in 2003 to fight sprawl.

The "Places to Grow" paper contains lots of ideas that have been circulated by previous governments. Critics are encouraged by a stronger tone although they’re also taking a wait-and-see approach in case the ideas get watered down when they reach the legislation stage this fall.

The paper aims to direct new growth to 26 priority urban centres that have the best transportation infrastructure, access to services and highest employment density. In Toronto, those centres are Yonge-Eglinton, North York and Downtown Waterfront). Municipalities will have to create growth plans in line with that strategy and the province will focus infrastructure money on those centres.

“Before municipalities start looking to greenfield development, they’re going to have to have fairly rigorous intensification strategies,” says Graham.

The paper mentions a wide array of other means to steer growth to the 26 hubs, such as promoting brownfield redevelopment, and financial and regulatory incentives for developers.
The strategy has come under fire for not curtailing growth outright: in other words, it’s not going to prevent new subdivisions from being built. Moreover, while it stipulates that 40 per cent of new growth must occur within existing urban boundaries, that target is far lower than other jurisdictions around the world including Vancouver, where the figure is 70 per cent.

Graham says that a public awareness campaign will be part of the government’s implementation strategy, though it’s too early to discuss details. No one seems to know yet what sort of an awareness message could be relied upon to change people’s deep-set thinking. Neil Rodgers, president of the Urban Development Institute (UDI) Ontario, which represents the land development industry, is tired of Torontonians “talking a great talk” on urban sprawl.

"We’ve evolved to the point where everybody wants to stop sprawl,” he says. “But when it comes to their neighbourhood, when they have to be part solution, they’re vehemently opposed to intensification.” He notes there is as much opposition to small-scale redevelopment—which is what intensification will mean for most GTA neighbourhoods—as there is to large-scale intensification at hubs such as Yonge and Eglinton. Rodgers has even seen proposals to turn single-family homes into townhouses incite a furor. “Ratepayers are freaking out everywhere,” he says.

Mark Winfield of the Pembina Institute, a national environmental think-tank, points out that the U.S. development industry, in particular the Urban Land Institute, a development and real estate organization, has already recognized that for intensification to work, developers must be proactive about building within the character and scale of a neighbourhood, and also use better design. “If developers are not more sensitive about local concerns, intensification is not going to fly,” he says.

Urban Sprawl: How to get involved

Earthroots
401 Richmond St. W., Suite 410, Toronto, ON M5V 3A8
Tel: 416-599-0152.
E-mail: info@earthroots.org
Web site: www.earthroots.org (click on Greenbelt Ontario link - or visit www.greenbeltontario.org)

Earthroots needs volunteers to write letters, do research and show up for demonstrations.