A Study in Sprawl

Environmental Urbanist Vol. 1, Issue 1.

In the early 2000s, urban sprawl in Calgary had been spreading out of control for decades.  With no natural boundaries on the prairies to restrict growth, the city continued to grow further and further away from its downtown, as developers bulldozed up agricultural land and built cheap tract housing at considerable profit.

By 2013, mayor Naheed Nenshi had had enough, and knew just which lever to pull to wake people up to the fact that the long-term cost of delivering services to these far-flung suburbs greatly exceeded any development charges the city was levying.  His statement rocked the development community in Calgary.

“All Calgarians currently subsidize development of new suburban communities by approximately $4,800 per home.  In 2012, this subsidy cost Calgarians approximately $33,000,000…That subsidy has led to nearly $1.5 Billion in debt to The City of Calgary.”

– Naheed Nenshi

Mayor Nenshi knew how to sell the benefits of reducing sprawl to Calgarians. He phrased it in terms of a per home cost that was being borne by all existing Calgary households.

The solution took a few more years, but in 2016, partly as a result of the outrage created by Nenshi’s calculation, Calgary implemented a new fee on greenfield development that shifted the burden from existing homeowners to developers and those buying homes in these new developments. That fee gradually increased until 2018 and is now a powerful policy tool helping to reduce Calgary’s municipal debt and restore sanity to the housing boom that has been somewhat stalled by the collapse in the price of oil.

The costs of urban sprawl in Canada are massive. Whether it’s the destruction of prime agricultural land for housing, or the greenhouse gas emissions caused by vehicle dependent development, it’s a situation that is costing our climate dearly.

Also, as Mayor Nenshi pointed out, the development charges levied to suburban builders to offset the costs of providing services such as first responders, parks, roads, sewers and water never come close to recouping the actual cost of providing those services. 

Cities rarely have the courage to stand up to developers and recoup the entire cost of delivering services in their development charges. In the U.S. this has led to a $5 trillion infrastructure deficit.  In a city like Hamilton, it’s a hefty $2 billion.

In Ontario, it seemed that developers had figured out a solution to Calgary’s issue of anti sprawl politicians cutting into their profits.

In 2018, Doug Ford’s Progressive Conservative government rode to power on a wave of anti-Liberal sentiment.  This sentiment was fueled in part by a group, or an individual to be precise, called Ontario Proud.  Jeff Ballingal was a former Conservative party insider who began paying to spread memes and images on social media under the name of Ontario Proud, denouncing the liberal government.  His memes were catchy, concise, and often played fast and loose with the truth. They spread like wildfire.

After the election was over, it was revealed that hundreds of thousands of dollars of Ballingal’s funding had come from developers and builders, including green field developers like Mattamy Homes.

In November of 2018, the Ford Government announced that it would be reviving discussions on the 413 highway the previous government had shelved only a few months earlier. This highway would wend its way through some of the most productive agricultural land in the most important agricultural region in Ontario.

The Ford Government claimed that it was needed to reduce congestion on the nearby 401 and 407 highways.  But  one study (that has since been scrubbed from the government’s website, but is available by web archive) shows the highway would reduce commuting times by 30-60 seconds.

Then the Star revealed in an investigation that eight of Ontario’s most powerful developers owned thousands of acres of prime land situated near proposed off ramps for the highway. The province had already indicated it was willing to implement Ministerial Zoning Orders to override municipal zoning decisions. It was clear that if the highway was built, a whole lot of agricultural land was going to disappear under asphalt and tract housing.

Elsewhere in Ontario – in fact all across Ontario – the rules were also changing at the municipal level about how quickly cities should expand, and who got to make those decisions.

Since 2005, municipal growth had been ruled by the Places to Grow act which restricted sprawl, provided incentives for increasing density, and managed the impact of cities on the surrounding land.

In 2018, the province changed those rules, and required municipalities to review their urban boundaries in preparation for what the province said was going to be massive population growth.

The changes established minimum population growth targets, reduced density requirements, and introduced ‘market demand’ as a justification for determining the housing mix. Finally, the province stipulated the municipalities needed to plan as far out as 2051, which if the last 15 months has taught us anything, is a difficult proposition at best.

While some municipalities like Ottawa and Markham are planning massive boundary expansions in response to the province’s mandate, other cities are pushing back.

In Hamilton, a group of people delegated to a city hall committee in March to protest the city’s lackluster consultation on its own urban boundary expansion. Farmers, environmentalists, and concerned citizens lined up on one side, while developers and builders lined up on the other.

By the end of the meeting, council had committed to a paper survey to be delivered to mailboxes across the city, and for the first time the option of ‘no boundary expansion’ would be presented.

The West End Home Builders Association – an organization of largely greenfield developers – leapt into action with Op Eds in the local paper and sponsored social media posts insisting that the only way Hamilton could meet it’s growth targets would for the class A agricultural land surrounding the city to disappear under new suburbs.

Environmental groups also began to organize, and Stop Sprawl lawn signs began to sprout all over the city. In their own Op Eds they explained the range of things the city could do to add density in a gentle way. 

These included changing the calculation on new home land use from 1960s levels to modern levels (modern lots are much smaller), accounting for seniors downsizing into apartments, and encouraging secondary dwelling units.  None of which the city had done when it calculated how much room it would need to grow.

At the time of writing this, it is too soon to tell which side will prevail. However it’s clear that between the fight against the 413, which is also still underway, and the push back against urban boundary expansion, the public is waking up to the dangers of sprawl and is willing to do something about it. Opposition to the fast tracking of environmental studies on the 413 highway was so vocal and widespread that the federal government has now said it will intervene and impose its own environmental study on the route.

It will be interesting to see what happens next.

The Ocean is Coming

The Guardian reported this week about the extraordinary measures being taken by Key West political leaders (well, those of them who acknowledge that their homes are slipping beneath the sea) to shore up their part of Florida from the inexorable march of sea level rise.

Because the Keys sit on top of a porous limestone base, on sunny days at high tide the water bubbles up through the ground and can pool on the roads.  Residents have to wash their vehicles constantly to avoid them being eaten away by salt water, and the area is quickly dividing (even further) into haves and have nots, the former who are able to adapt to the effects of climate change, and the latter who will probably be forced to move.

Years ago I sat in on a McMaster lecture on climate change by the person who developed Hamilton’s climate change strategy, Brian Montgomery, and the starkest lesson from the class was that adaptation strategies favour the wealthy, whereas mitigation helps everyone, but often at the expense of the wealthy.

Meanwhile, there is some evidence that rising sea levels affected the condo collapse in Miami last week. The condo itself sits on more of the porous limestone that much of Florida is built on and there are suggestions that the dramatic sea level rise Miami has been spending millions to fend off may eventually be found to have played a role.

Food Prices and the California Drought

Canada is a significant importer of food from the U.S. And Ontario alone, despite having the most productive farmland in Canada is a net importer of food, to the tune of about $10 billion a year. While California may seem very far away, it grows a significant percent of the fruit and vegetables eaten in the U.S. which means either we are importing food directly from California, or we are importing food from other jurisdictions who are then importing food from California. And yes that sounds insane, but Ontario actually does a fair bit of that.  Exporting significant amounts of produce that could be eaten here, and then importing similar food from lower cost sources in the U.S. and Mexico.

Only now we may be seeing the beginning of the end for agriculture in California. Farmers facing record shattering drought are bulldozing up almond orchards, letting fields to fallow, and walking away from their farms.

It’s a great reason for Canadians to advocate for greater domestic food production, and to make sure we don’t pave over all of that beautiful farmland to build subdivisions.

Bird Friendly, yes Indeed!

Nature Canada announced a few weeks ago that Toronto, Calgary, Vancouver and London have all now been certified as Bird Friendly Cities.

Certification involves adopting a bird protection strategy which focuses on reducing human threats to birds (such as free roaming cats and buildings with large glass windows), protecting natural areas that birds use as habitat, and engaging citizens in bird conservation.

With recent news about huge die offs of migrating song birds in the U.S., along with some disturbing reports of diseases affecting migrating birds in the southern U.S., birds need all the help they can get.

Nature Canada’s certification is also being pursued by a number of other cities across Canada, including Hamilton and Burlington in Ontario, who have formed a working group to encourage their respective city halls to take action. You can find them on Facebook to learn more.