recent article about urban sprawl from the Toronto Enviroguide
magazine, an insert in Toronto
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
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
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
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
"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
401 Richmond St. W., Suite 410, Toronto, ON M5V 3A8
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.