Sprawling city at a crossroads
As Toronto and its suburbs grow relentlessly,
the challenge will be to learn from past mistakes
and develop wisely, WALLACE IMMEN writes
Source: City of Toronto
Monday, September 25, 2000
Can anything be done to stop sprawl in the Toronto area from becoming ever more disfiguring and uncontrollable, steadily driving down the quality of life in the city?
The Globe and Mail asked planners, environmentalists and urban thinkers whether we are learning from our past mistakes quickly enough to survive as a livable urban area.
Over the next week, a series of stories will focus on flash points in the city and its regions, where officials are trying innovative approaches to grow in a smarter way in the future.
Tuesday: York's green strategy.
Wednesday: Durham -- small town, big plans.
Thursday: Parallel universe in Peel.
Friday: Halton's development showdown.
Saturday: Toronto opens for growth.
ake time out as you rage in today's stop-and-go traffic and turn your mind to 2020, when politicians share a common vision and life in and around Toronto is good.
In that dream world, traffic is not gridlocked, even though the population has increased by nearly two million people in an area that stretches continuously from Hamilton in the west to Port Hope in the east.
Centres of population are concentrated and connected to other centres, making transit use viable and convenient.
Thanks to co-ordinated planning and strict enforcement of rules across the entire Toronto area, towns and cities grow from the centre out, rather than leapfrogging across undeveloped areas; as a result, woodlots, waterways and other natural features are permanently conserved, not only for humans, but also for wildlife.
In this vision of the future, most development has been focused on corridors along Lake Ontario, reducing the creep of development on environmentally sensitive land north of the city.
Open green space is a feature of developed areas, even ones with large populations. Farmland is a permanent part of the landscape, legally protected from development.
Former industrial sites and obsolete buildings are now condominiums and offices, and vacant lots take on roles more worthy than parking lots.
Because communities have been kept compact, and stores and offices are mixed into neighbourhoods, there is less need to commute or even to get into a car simply to buy a loaf of bread.
And the air is gloriously clean, since decreased car use and increased reliance on transit have reduced pollution and time-robbing congestion on roads.
In your ample spare time, you could take your family to a neighbourhood park or visit a heritage site that has been preserved as part of new development.
Now, snap out of it.
It's just a dream today, and unless the goals of public officials and like-minded politicians are strictly maintained, the reality of 2020 will be a nightmare of disconnected subdivisions whose residents cram the roads with cars that spend more time braking than accelerating.
Lou Wise has a unique view of how the Toronto area is sprawling.
From his vantage point as a pilot, he can see curving lines of homes, driveways and barbecue pits taking random bites from what was once green space.
"Villages that nearly stood still for decades are suddenly growing by leaps and bounds," Mr. Wise said. "Within a few months, forests can disappear completely."
Wetlands and streams vanish as they are filled in or buried to become storm sewers.
Mr. Wise is a veteran pilot from Don Mills who specializes in taking aerial photographs of Toronto's suburban spread for environmental groups. His images help the groups document over time how concrete and cars are smothering nature.
But you don't need a bird's-eye view to fear the worst about sprawl.
Today, you might question why traffic moves at a tedious crawl, even when it's not rush hour. What happened to the farms? And was the sky always brown?
Imagine the future, with millions more people needing homes and competing for space on the highways of Toronto and its megaburbs.
That's much more than a dire prediction. That's reality.
The latest estimates show Toronto will continue to be Canada's biggest urban-population magnet, growing relentlessly by as many as 100,000 people a year.
Not only is it the city of choice for immigrants, who can find communities of people here with similar backgrounds, its growth generates technical and service jobs that attract workers from other parts of Canada.
Over the next 30 years, more than two million people, or the equivalent of the current population in the city of Toronto, will be added to the Greater Toronto Area. At least a million more cars will fight for space on the roads every day.
Newcomers will have to live somewhere, and if you think you won't have more neighbours, think again.
There will be an unprecedented need to build new homes, everywhere from downtown Toronto north to Barrie, and from Hamilton west to Port Hope.
Unless the current spread of development is slowed, twice as much land in the Toronto area could be developed in the next 20 years as was covered during the past two centuries.
Even if you don't care whether streets of homes or stands of trees fill the horizon, unless sprawl is contained, in the future you will be breathing air that is less healthy, and living with increasing stress and diminishing options.
"We've reached the crisis point and unless something is done quickly, Toronto is facing a declining quality of life," is the sombre verdict of Gardner Church, senior associate with the Canadian Urban Institute, who has been studying Toronto and its regions for years.
This may be the last great opportunity for the city and its regions to make decisions that keep sprawl in check.
Sprawl is already in the spotlight because of public protests against developers' plans to put thousands of homes on the environmentally sensitive Oak Ridges Moraine in York Region. That moraine is the source of rivers and ground water for most of the Toronto area.
Traffic gridlock, lack of transit options and preservation of farmland and the environment will be issues for every region in November's municipal elections.
Meanwhile, municipalities are reviewing their official plans for growth in the face of a rush by builders to get approvals for new subdivisions and industrial parks.
They are looking for more muscle to fight developers, who can appeal to the provincially appointed Ontario Municipal Board, which can overrule decisions made by municipalities.
While the regions and municipalities promise to get tough on growth, protect natural features and encourage development and use of transit, critics say the words have no authority.
"They all say they are limiting sprawl, but it's really a hoax. What's happening on the ground doesn't resemble the plans," said Pamela Blais, an independent consultant who has spent the past two years studying population and employment patterns across the Toronto region.
The areas around the city will face the most profound changes. York, the already heavily urbanized region north of Toronto, and Durham, to the east, will both double in size within 30 years; projected growth for Halton, to the west, lags not far behind.
Even the city of Toronto, which for years was losing population to the suburbs, will have to find housing for as many as 500,000 more people, and actually has a population-growth target of as much as one million.
What worries even the optimists is that most of the building is being done outside the boundaries of the City of Toronto, and mainly in single-family subdivisions that are the least efficient for transit and the most expensive to provide with services.
Ms. Blais found that with each new development, the number of people housed per hectare has been steadily dropping.
"That's particularly sad. Not long ago, Toronto was known throughout the world as the city that works," Mr. Church said. "Cities around the world studied it as the place that had best figured out how to cope with urban growth. Now, it seems, we've forgotten how."
Until the Second World War, Toronto's growth was on a European model, with houses closely packed on small lots, and small shops an easy walk away. In the old city, development occurred only after transportation and services were already in place, making some of the early "streetcar suburbs" attractive and convenient places to live.
But postwar development drifted to an U.S. suburban model, with houses on big lots built on maze-like streets that were inconvenient even for cars. Stores were segregated from residential areas in strip malls, and businesses were zoned into isolated industrial parks.
Toronto managed to keep suburban growth contained with the help of the province, which as recently as the 1970s was trying to create a broad greenbelt around the city as a boundary to urban growth.
But that plan lacked political will. Today, what might have been public green space is taken up by the private toll road, Highway 407. Suburbs quickly engulfed farmland on the other side of the breached greenbelt.
In recent years, Toronto's city government and the province, which once worked together to keep suburban development compact and orderly, have distanced themselves from what the regions surrounding Toronto are doing.
The province shifted responsibility for planning to local municipalities, and the city has been so preoccupied with a provincially mandated amalgamation of services that for the past four years it has had little time to look beyond its borders.
Dozens of municipalities now independently make disjointed and myopic planning decisions without co-ordinating with their neighbours, leaving residents with problems such as all-but-useless bus routes that don't connect.
Growth is happening so quickly that ad hoc decisions are common. Mistakes are difficult to avoid and take years to correct.
But planners and officials in the city and all the regions say that this experience and their past mistakes have taught important lessons. They are rethinking official plans to keep growth more compact in the future, without having to build endless blocks of high-rise towers that create uncomfortable urban canyons.
More than anything, the new approaches promise to get tougher about protecting farms and green space from encroaching suburban development.
Milestones on road to sprawl
1913: Leaside, Toronto's first suburban-style development, with winding streets and space for cars, designed by Frederick Todd.
1943: City Planning Board projects Toronto population will grow by 35 per cent over 30 years. Actual growth from 1943 to 1973 was 130 per cent.
1944: City breaches former northern boundary of Lawrence Avenue with planned subdivision east of Dufferin Street.
1953: Work begins on planned community on former horse farms in rural area known as Don Mills.
1968: Provincial Toronto Centred-Region Plan recommends setting firm urban boundary to limit loss of farmland and green space.
1976: Province proposes setting aside Parkway Belt two kilometres wide parallel to Highway 7 as green space to contain the city.
1978: Province scraps parkway plan, and homes begin rising in Erin Mills, the first of many "planned-community" developments to be approved on the promised greenbelt.
1990: Remnant of the parkway land becomes right of way for Highway 407.
1996: Greater Toronto Area Task Force recommends population growth be concentrated in existing urban areas. Provincial Tory government begins shifting responsibility for planning to municipalities.
1999: Environmental groups ask province to create park belt along Oak Ridges Moraine, north of former Parkway Belt. Province does not respond.
2000: Developers appeal to Ontario Municipal Board for approval to build more than a dozen suburbs on the proposed moraine park belt.
Cities good and bad
VICTIMS OF SPRAWL
Los Angeles: Its smoggy freeways are anything but free-moving, by day or night. Dozens of independent cities in the region have promoted roads and snubbed transit alternatives.
Detroit: Motor City trashed its transit system and built expressways that let suburbs stretch more than 50 kilometres from a virtually abandoned city centre.
U.S. cities in general: Federal policies in the 1950s encouraged tearing down older buildings in cities and building expressways to open up suburbs.
ROADS TO RECOVERY
Oregon, Georgia: State governments have set boundaries for urban growth. Municipalities have to defend the boundaries; if they build new water or sewer connections, or schools, outside them, all state funding will be cut off.
Portland, Ore.: The city pioneered merging residential development with commercial and civic buildings, and introduced rules that encourage compact communities featuring pedestrian amenities and parks.
More than 200 U.S. cities: They have put initiatives to impose legal limits on development on the November ballot.
The GTA' population explosion
Predicted increases in population, 1996-2031, for the GTA and its regions.
1996 2001 2011 2021 2031
GTA 4,781,000 5,284,000 6,260,000 6,975,000 7,450,000
Toronto 2,463,000 2,594,000 2,855,000 2,915,000 3,000,000(% of GTA) 51.5% 49.1% 45.6% 41.8% 40.3%
Peel 882,000 1,000,000 1,185,000 1,350,000 1,400,000(% of GTA) 18.4% 18.9% 18.9% 19.4% 18.8%
York 612,000 760,000 1,010,000 1,200,000 1,360,000(% of GTA) 12.8% 14.4% 16.1% 17.2% 18.3%
Durham 474,000 530,000 710,000 900,000 1,000,000(% of GTA) 9.9% 10.0% 11.3% 12.9% 13.4%
Halton 350,000 400,000 500,000 610,000 690,000(% of GTA) 7.3% 7.6% 8.0% 8.7% 9.3%