The trouble with dense cities
Mississauga tries to reverse the effects
of urban sprawl while Caledon aims
to save its countryside from obliteration
Thursday, September 28, 2000
MISSISSAUGA -- Set your mind back to the 1950s, when homes began to sprout on the farmland of Mississauga to offer a carefree, car-oriented alternative to Toronto, the big city to the east.
Today, Mississauga is a car-clogged big city in its own right that's quickly running out of open land.
The transformation hasn't gone unnoticed in rural Caledon, just a 20-minute drive north, where you still can't see the homes for the trees.
Many residents of the sparsely populated agricultural community moved there to avoid crowds and are enthusiastically supporting efforts to minimize growth.
Both areas are in Peel Region, which has tough decisions to make in the face of an explosion that's expected to raise the region's population from one million today to 1.35 million in 20 years.
It is part of a sprawl crisis: unprecedented growth faced simultaneously by Toronto and its four regions, including Peel. The greater Toronto area's population is expected to grow by nearly two million in the next two decades.
Peel Region is already home to more cars per capita than any other place in Ontario.
To accommodate the extra people and their cars while preserving the character of the communities, Peel's official plan asks that all municipalities work hard to try to double the number of people living on each square kilometre of land.
"If we don't increase the density, we have to expand the boundaries of the areas that can be developed," said Robert Gepp, senior planner for policy in the region. "But that's urban sprawl." Covering more fields with subdivisions creates more costs and even longer commutes than residents already face.
Selling density to the city or the country is difficult. "Residents say, 'We don't like dense development.' " They want big lots, Mr. Gepp said.
Peel has a poor record of upholding guidelines for long. In the past, Mr. Gepp said, local municipalities anxious to promote growth were too willing to bend rules in the name of progress.
Now Peel is trying again. Its official plan promises to preserve, protect and enhance the region's environment and resources.
This time, there seems to be more will to set firm boundaries to development, while at the same time promoting growth of centres with enough population to make transit an alternative to driving, Mr. Gepp said.
It takes a vast amount of space to build the subdivisions of single-family homes common in the suburbs. New developments being built this year will house an average of about 18 people per hectare. There are about 70 per hectare in single-family homes on smaller lots in a neighbourhood such as Toronto's Beaches. High-rise condominiums can house several thousand per hectare.
Mississauga has decided to try to concentrate population, hoping to make transit a viable option because it has learned that even eight-lane roads are not the answer to congestion.
One of the most aggressive efforts is in the area around the city centre, the district along Hurontario Street between Burnhamthorpe Road and Highway 403. A new hub for Mississauga's transit system has opened at its heart, the entrance to Square One, the vast mall that in the 1950s represented an ideal suburban city centre.
Now the city is scrapping rules that restrict apartment developments in the area and do not allow a mix of commercial and living space.
"We have basically said you can build anything you want as long as it is high-density," said Thomas Mokrzycki, commissioner of planning and building. "You can build to the lot line and as high as you want."
Developers are enthusiastic, he said, and the city has had a number of proposals for buildings to mix commercial and residential use around the centre, which years after it was developed still has huge empty lots and small businesses surrounded by parking.
The city hopes that with shopping and entertainment options within walking distance, people will have less need to use their cars and will learn to use transit. But people in Mississauga question whether drivers will want to switch.
Mississauga may be trying to reclaim Square One, but this is tiny in scale compared with the rest of the community, real-estate development consultant Barry Lyon said. The problem with the suburbs, and Mississauga in particular, is that it is nearly impossible to change from low to higher density.
"People in the suburbs were born with wheels on," Mr. Lyon said. "It is extremely difficult to recycle areas with unnecessarily wide roads and large setbacks that favour the car over people."
To the north, residents of Caledon are hoping Mississauga's effort to increase its housing stock relieves the pressure to build new homes on their farmland.
Caledon's population is 40,000, mostly on generous lots. That is slated to more than double over the next 20 years under a formula that's part of the region's official plan, but several resident groups are calling fast growth bad thinking and hint they would rather separate from the region than be swallowed by creeping suburbia.
"I'm not convinced we can jam another 45,000 people into Caledon and still have countryside left," said Nicola Ross of the Caledon Countryside Alliance, a community group that encourages people to think of countryside in the area as a permanent feature rather than land waiting to be developed.
Citizens groups opposed not only to housing growth but to opening more quarries have persuaded town council to establish tighter limits on all growth.
The town voted to contain new growth in three areas and developed a policy that years worth of stone and sand in the area's many quarries must be depleted before the town will permit new ones.
Local residents say that's not enough. They are pressing the region, which sets the long-term population goals, to recognize Caledon's rural character.
"Give the region an A for effort," Ms. Ross said. "But I doubt it's going to have much effect." The Countryside Alliance argues that the region's official plan does not get at the root cause of urban sprawl: the predominance of so-called horizontal development, single-family homes on big lots that have pushed the fringes of the urban area right to the border of Caledon.
Ms. Ross said that while Caledon, with its rolling hills and ample greenery, may look rural, it's already coping with very urban problems. Roads, many of them still unpaved, are torn up by heavy traffic; air pollution is getting worse, and well water the residents depend on is being threatened by quarrying and sewage.
Homes can't be built close together because they depend on well water and septic systems. Fast population growth would require putting in sewer systems and water supplies. The town, now patrolled by the Ontario Provincial Police, would require its own police force.
All that would open the door to more intense development because once services are in place, developers can argue they should be used to full capacity, Ms. Ross said. And in no time at all, the countryside could become just another part of the city.
It will be increasingly difficult to defend countryside and farming in an ever-expanding greater Toronto area, Caledon councillor Ian Sinclair said.
So far, Caledon has been successful at fighting developers who appeal the rulings to the Ontario Municipal Board, including a victory four years ago in which the board rejected plans for a development of 3,500 homes as inappropriate to the area. Mr. Sinclair credits that decision with scaring off other big development schemes.
But the province's efforts to promote efficiency by amalgamating levels of government is a threat hanging over the whole region.
Creation of a single city of Peel lumping Caledon with highly urban Mississauga and Brampton would destroy the rural area, said Mr. Sinclair, who also sits on the region's council.
"We would probably end up with one or two votes on an amalgamated council. That wouldn't be enough to hold the line in a highly urban region."
If it came to that, Mr. Sinclair said there would be local support for a separatist movement, and he suggests an alternative for Caledon would be to join with a more rural neighbour, such as Dufferin.
"I've floated the idea around and I'll tell you the citizens are very receptive," he said.
In the face of remarkable pressure throughout the Toronto area to keep spreading, Mr. Sinclair said, "there has to be some place that keeps the environment first."
Can anything be done to stop sprawl in the Toronto area from becoming even more disfiguring and uncontrollable, steadily driving down the quality of life in the region?
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 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.
Monday: Paradise or parking lot?
Tuesday: York's green strategy.
Wednesday:Durham -- small town, big plans.
Today: Parallel universe in Peel.
Friday: Halton's development showdown.
Saturday: Toronto opens for growth.
Join the debate on urban sprawl at globeandmail.com