By: Tim Gray Published on Fri Nov 28 2014
Ontario’s world-renowned Greenbelt Plan is a winner, with polling showing that over 90 per cent of the public support it. It protects farmers’ lands and our food supply, the forests that clean our air and shelters the headwaters of Lake Ontario that is the source of drinking water for millions. The Greenbelt is also helping shape the cities in which increasing numbers of us want to live. But not in the way some in the development industry would have you believe.
The Greenbelt, and associated urban growth related policies, aim to concentrate development in existing cities and towns. It is a road map for how the Greater Golden Horseshoe can grow in ways that foster prosperity and a better quality of life.
The claim from some is that these protections are causing all kinds of urban maladies including high house prices and clogged TTC trains. There is a wealth of research that shows such claims are not founded on evidence but rather a desire to go back to the 1950s model of growth where farmland and forests gave way to widely dispersed communities that were linked only by highways.
Let’s look first at housing trends. Are people being forced like cattle to live in denser cities because there isn’t enough land to build subdivisions to the north of Georgetown or Ajax? Not according to a recent study by the Royal Bank of Canada and the Pembina Institute which found that there is no shortage of land within the GTA to accommodate construction of single-family homes. Instead, people are moving to the cores of our larger cities because they want the jobs, community and convenience offered there. They don’t want the long commutes that characterize sprawl development.
Our public transit systems are packed because more people are using them every year. This is not just because more people are moving to downtowns, but also because they can no longer tolerate the constant parking lots that exist on our highways. Sprawling development created this problem and building more communities accessible only by car just means there will be more packed highways at rush hour. The only way to fix this traffic gridlock nightmare is to give people viable public transit options. Transit is a perennial and constant debate in the GTA because solving it is critical to our economic and social future.
Growth on farmland and forests is also very expensive. It costs 50 per cent more for a town or city to service development in new areas than it does to plan growth where water, sewer and roads are already in place. The higher cost of serving these inefficient developments is passed on to existing residents.
Another fact is that although these plans were approved eight or nine years ago, they are actually “new” in terms of implementation because many were held up at the Ontario Municipal Board by development interests. They are just now starting to guide development toward in-fill and higher density in most cities and towns. The densification that has happened over the last 10 years has occurred largely because of pre-existing planning choices by cities like Toronto and because of the demand of people who want to live where they can walk, bike or take transit within their community.
Tim Gray is the executive director of Environmental Defence.