Sprawling Cities

The Upward and Outward Debate

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Urban sprawl can be a good indicator of growth and development but requires foresight. As cities continue to swell outwards, it is important to understand what causes this phenomenon and what its implications are.
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According to the David Suzuki Foundation, although Canada is one of the world’s largest countries, over eighty percent of its population lives in urban areas along or near the U.S. border. In Winnipeg, urban boundaries are growing at twice the rate of its population. Calgary covers an area similar in size to New York but has only one-tenth the population.

Sprawl occurs when urban areas uncontrollably expand into lower density areas, appropriating available land. Rapid population growth, poor planning and consumer preference all affect the rate at which urban sprawl occurs.

Individuals and families escape urban density in favour of larger homes on spacious lots outside of the city, but many are unaware of the repercussions of this outward migration. Urban sprawl can affect the health of the individual, the family, the community, the government, the economy and the environment.

At first glance, home prices in the suburbs appear more affordable, but rising property taxes to support the development and diminished resale values can take their toll. Meanwhile, property values continue to grow in urban areas.

The loss of farmland has greater consequences than people realize. Reductions in food production affect supply which increases the need for food imports, often at higher costs to the consumer. Development makes it even more difficult for farmers to sustain their operations, hurting the environment and food security.

The loss of green space and land also lowers rainwater absorption which can lead to excessive flooding. This was witnessed in 2013 when the city of Toronto suffered one of Ontario’s costliest natural disasters when record rainfall, exceeded the ground’s capacity to absorb the water. Flooding cost the city time, resources and nearly $1 billion.

In addition to the costs associated with building suburbs, urban sprawl results in greater transportation and water and sewer infrastructure prices. The costs of maintaining these systems come at great expense to the community and the government. Building and maintaining roads can cost much more than funding public transit, and this infrastructure expansion has the unintended effect of destroying productive available lands and habitats for wildlife.

One of the most significant impacts of urban sprawl is the increased dependence on personal transportation as many retail and commercial centers within the community are located at a distance from residential areas.

Upwards of seventy percent of greenhouse gas emissions are related to personal transportation. This commuter-culture causes stress for the individual, the environment and the economy. Congestion on highways and roadways not only slows down the productive members of society, but it also slows down the movement of goods, increasing costs.

If a person spends an hour a day in the car commuting to and from work, it is the equivalent of nine working weeks each year. Between strain on the quality of life and the stress associated with traffic jams and the risk of collisions, the commuter lifestyle does not promote good health and wellbeing.

Spending hours in a car each day leads to a sedentary and isolated lifestyle. Reducing available time for meal preparation makes the convenience of fast food all the more appealing. This, combined with less exercise means that obesity is a common by-product of long commutes resulting in greatly increased health care costs. Paired with stress, it is a recipe for disaster.

Additionally, public health care costs related to air pollution continue to escalate. It is estimated that, in Canada, 21,000 people die prematurely from complications related to air pollution every year. The Ontario Medical Association has placed provincial air pollution related healthcare costs at $1 billion in hospital admissions alone.

There are higher concentrations of pollution around highways, and this is a very real concern for residents of Ward 5 and 6 in Etobicoke, Ontario. These residents live in a transportation hub of the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) with a convergence of major highways and great volumes of vehicle traffic.

At the intersection of Highway 427 and the Gardiner Expressway, there are high levels of contaminants such as nitrogen oxides, benzene, particulate matter and benzo(a)pyrene which can have adverse impacts on health. Smog and particulate matter are a substantial cause for concern for the health and quality of life of these residents.

The revenue raised from property taxes and development fees, which are meant to offset the assorted costs of development, is insufficient. The shortfall has been estimated at nearly $60 billion.

Despite urbanization, sprawl is not inevitable. With proper planning that considers both present and future needs, communities can be built in more effective, sustainable ways.

Living closer to work, school and retail is not always possible, but more public transit use is a good way to reduce the strains of urban sprawl on the built and natural environments.

Transit depends greatly on reasonable fares and accessibility. It is also the responsibility of the planning department and the government to ensure communities are designed to be self-sustainable, which includes improved access to services on a local and regional scale. Proper planning can save money, time and improve safety in the long term.

Mississauga, considered part of the Peel Region and the GTA, is feeling the after-effects of decades of sprawling development. Mississauga has to contend with air and water pollution from rapid urban development. It also endures noise pollution from the nearby Pearson International Airport. Some neighbourhoods have signs warning of noise disturbances overhead.

Mississauga’s city centre contains Square One Shopping Centre as well as a growing number of high-rise residential and commercial developments. However, many of its residential areas are located a distance from this core.

Though the city centre serves as a transit hub, Mississauga’s transit system pales in comparison to its neighbour Toronto and fails to connect the community efficiently. More investment is needed to bolster this resource.

There is hope that $1.3 billion spent on a light rail transit (LRT) project will connect south Mississauga to Brampton in the north and improve public transit along the city’s main commercial corridor. This corridor is also home to the unique Britannia Farm, a two-hundred-acre greenspace owned in trust by the Peel District School Board for educational purposes.

The city is making future-minded decisions that will benefit the community, dealing with the impacts of sprawl and reinventing itself in the process. There is a push from past leadership to develop protected lands to help drive property values down to make housing more affordable, but this is the same mindset that led to the city’s present sprawling dilemma.

Mississauga is anticipating $45 billion in construction over the next fifteen years, much of which will be vertical in hopes of raising its population density. There is a significant amount of activity planned including waterfront reclamation projects, commercial and residential development and conservation efforts along the lakeshore.

There are many ways in which various levels of government can respond to urban sprawl. From policy changes to drafting legislation to protect land from development and encouraging the purchase and update of available housing stock, the government can be active even if damage has already been done.

Governments can designate reinvestment areas. Downtowns in an increasing number of cities and towns across North America are doing this as they rediscover the importance of the city’s core. Governments can also establish tax increment financing and other development incentives to encourage a denser use of the city centre.

Existing neighbourhoods and greenspace can be protected while communities simultaneously reinvest in empty and brownfield corridors. It is important to protect natural resources by establishing growth boundaries and designating reserves of land. This is achieved by buying land and development rights and limiting the amount of new development.

Decades ago, the Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC) identified that changes to building standards that made communities more compact, increasing population density, would significantly lessen capital and infrastructure costs per unit. It is important that housing stock is diverse, including smaller, innovative home styles that will allow communities to reach established density goals.

In addition to changing the regulatory environment, governments should be investing in viable public transportation systems and promoting their use. Canada recently did away with a tax break for transit users that had been a motivation for many people in urban areas to use public transit rather than driving to work each day.

Other ways in which sprawl can be mitigated is by creating rooftop gardens, utilizing carbon dioxide through energy conversion technologies, improving biodiversity and by building smaller communities upwards rather than outwards. All of which work to restore sustainability and improve the quality of life.

Measure Twice, Cut Once

While all of us are familiar with the old saying ‘you get what you pay for,’ when it comes to construction projects, the words of legendary American business magnate and philanthropist Warren Buffett ring especially true: “Price is what you pay. Value is what you get.”

November 17, 2017, 11:36 PM EST