The Smart Growth Cure

Everybody is talking about it, but can it really save us from urban sprawl?

September 16, 2001 | | Back Issues

Ask just about anyone these days and they’ll agree: Urban sprawl is bad. It’s hard on the environment, a headache for commuters, and it robs tax coffers.

For once, Queen’s Park, many municipal governments and community leaders, and a number of businesses are on the same road. They’re all touting a strategy called Smart Growth as the big fix. Unfortunately, interpretations of what Smart Growth means in practice are as confusing as the system of onramps leading to Ontario’s 400-series highways.

All the rage these days, Smart Growth is an idea borrowed from the United States. Former Toronto mayor David Crombie, now associated with the Canadian Urban Institute, is all abuzz about its application to the Toronto area. His six principles of Smart Growth include promoting cities as the engines of the economy, containing urban sprawl, providing transportation alternatives, providing housing choices, creating community, and protecting natural areas and culture.

American cities, plagued by overwhelming traffic congestion and deteriorating neighbourhoods, were the first to recognize the need for a new model for growth, one that moved away from the traditional form of suburban sprawl.

According to former New Jersey governor Christine Todd Whitman, “Suburban sprawl [was] eating up open space, creating mind-boggling traffic jams, bestowing on us endless strip malls and housing developments, and consuming an ever-increasing share of our resources.”

A recent report by the Texas Transportation Institute illustrated the magnitude of just one aspect of the problem. It calculated that, across the United States, traffic congestion costs US$78-billion per year in wasted time and burned gasoline.

Maryland and Oregon are the Smart Growth capitals of the U.S. Maryland’s Smart Growth program has three goals: to save the most valuable remaining natural resources, to direct state resources to support development in areas where the infrastructure is already in place, and to avoid the cost of building unnecessary infrastructure. A raft of programs, many involving tax breaks, encourages Smart Growth development. For instance, Maryland’s Job Creation Tax Credit Program encourages mid-sized and smaller businesses to set up close to where their employees live in order to reduce commuter traffic.

Oregon has taken a very different, more regulatory approach to curbing sprawl. Each of the state’s 240 cities has an urban growth boundary beyond which urban development cannot occur and infrastructure, such as sewers, cannot extend.

The area around Toronto is one of the fastest growing regions in North America. It will take over 80 per cent of the two and a half million more people expected to flood our province by 2015. That’s an annual influx equivalent to eight Orangevilles or ten Boltons. Each year, these people will fill about 44,000 new homes and, if urban sprawl goes unchecked, occupy at least 1,000 additional hectares of land. More cars will clog the linear parking lots that pass for highways in southern Ontario and the number of smog alert days will surely rise.

The hills of Caledon, Dufferin and Erin are on the border of Ontario’s population boom zone. One look at the suburban-style housing that rises abruptly out of the farmland just north of Snelgrove, the growing collection of big-box stores along Orangeville’s First Street or the cars that back up in Caledon Village during rush hour brings home the fact that urban sprawl is already uncomfortably close to home.

Perhaps the blight of urban sprawl has been described best by American author James Howard Kunstler: “We drive up and down the gruesome, tragic suburban boulevards of commerce, and we’re overwhelmed at the fantastic, awesome, stupefying ugliness of absolutely everything in sight — the fry pits, the big-box stores, the office units, the lube joints, the carpet warehouses, the parking lagoons, the jive plastic townhouse clusters, the uproar of signs, the highway itself clogged with cars…”

Can Smart Growth save us from that grim fate? The program set out by David Crombie and the Canadian Urban Institute and the successful experiences of some U.S. cities suggest it can. But the Smart Growth Strategy for Ontario, released in April amid much fanfare by Ontario premier Mike Harris, appears to have slapped a Smart Growth label on the same old development strategy.

Speaking from a prepared text, Premier Harris made it clear that, in Ontario, Smart Growth is mostly about improving things for automobiles. Caledon mayor Carol Seglins, who was on hand for the premier’s speech, was so surprised by its car-friendly theme that she wondered if he was reading from the wrong speech.

When, in May, Queen’s Park announced it will spend $1.2-billion on roads and only $250-million on public transit, it became obvious the provincial government may be talking the Smart Growth talk, but it isn’t very interested in walking or taking public transit.

The Sierra Club of Canada quickly voiced its concerns. Awarding Premier Harris a grade of F+ for his Smart Growth policies, the Sierra Club explained that trying to curb congestion by building roads is like trying to diet by loosening your belt.

In Erin, Mayor Rod Finnie complains that the focus on roads “confirms my fears that Smart Growth is really just a euphemism for more and bigger…More cars and trucks mean more emissions mean more environmental and health problems.”

Edmund Fowler, an associate professor of political science at York University and author of several books about urban sprawl, says the province’s planned expansion of 400-series highways demonstrates that it assumes the same pattern of sprawling development will continue. The car will be further integrated into our lives, and nothing will change.

The lack of a direct 400-series highway has, so far, helped protect Caledon, Erin and especially Orangeville from the explosive growth experienced by Newmarket and Barrie. But that’s about to change. The 410 already connects the QEW and the 401 with Brampton’s north end. The plan now in the works would extend the 410 from Mayfield Road across country – across prime agricultural land, in fact – to Highway 10. Related plans to broaden the thoroughfare that already splits Caledon Village to accommodate five lanes of whizzing commuter traffic will further erode that village’s sense of community.

More lanes of asphalt might keep some commuters off back roads and relieve traffic congestion for a time, but a look at the 400 to Barrie, or the 404 to Newmarket during rush hour, brings home the truth: Build it and they will come.

And who will fill up the new 410/Highway 10 extension? Potentially, more and more people living in Orangeville and Alton and Shelburne in what Lewis Mumford, an American critic, describes as a “multitude of uniform, unidentifiable houses, lined up inflexibly at uniform distances, in a treeless communal waste.”

Developing an alternative to the bleak vision of row upon monotonous row of houses that give the family cars the best room in the house is a key objective of Smart Growth. The strategy is called New Urbanism, and once again we have our American neighbours to thank for it.

New Urbanism is an attempt to put community back into communities by exchanging garages with front porches, cold wide-open thoroughfares with narrow, cozy streets, and expansive backyards with public parks. The idea is that neighbours might actually meet and get to know each other in a New Urbanism community.

Orangeville’s Montgomery Village is a Canadian pioneer of New Urbanism. Marvin Green owns River Oaks Group Inc., the company from Oakville that built most of Montgomery Village’s first phase. He grew up in a 1950s subdivision and came to believe that housing developments shouldn’t spread endlessly across agricultural land. He saw the need for communities that mix high-quality, compact urban homes with public amenities such as parks, schools and retail stores.

Cars in Orangeville’s Montgomery Village are consigned to garages in back lanes.

The first phase of Montgomery Village boasts detached garages, back lanes, and a variety of detached, semidetached and row housing on lots that are about half the width found in conventional subdivisions. The straight grid pattern streets are narrower than usual in new communities, and every house features a home office that is specially wired for Internet access. Kids can meet in a number of playgrounds, hike the trails that crisscross the development, and walk to the nearby high school from homes that, for the most part, are adorned with front porches meant for use on sultry summer evenings.

A newer development at the south end of Erin village features a string of reproduction century farmhouses. Although this community reflects few other characteristics of New Urbanism – the streets are decidedly thoroughfare-like and the houses sit atop expansive lawns – the historic architectural style suggests a sense of permanence and familiarity that eludes the aluminum-sided or faux-brick construction in more typical suburbs.

In Inglewood, resident developer David Graham says he was guided by the bible on New Urbanism in the countryside, Randall Arendt’s Rural By Design, when he created his plan for the 75-unit South Slopes development. David Graham’s office walls are lined with watercolour impressions of what he hopes the new community will look like one day.

Though the proportions of these modern renditions of old Ontario brick homes somehow differ from the genuine article on the main streets of Inglewood or Hornings Mills, for example, there is something appealing about them. It’s often suggested that the draw of New Urbanism is nostalgia. Nostalgia for a time when life was more simple, when stay-at-home mums shared neighbourhood gossip as they hung out the laundry, and three hours a day weren’t taken up in a mind-numbing rush to and from work in the city.

But can changing the façade of a house change the lifestyle of its inhabitants? Can a return to front porches and gingerbread bring back a slower, gentler pace of life? Can back lanes alter the fact that for many of us a grand Saturday morning involves driving from big-box store to fast-food restaurant?

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  • If Montgomery Village is a test case, it would appear not. It turns out that when a University of Guelph student attempted to survey how residents liked living in their New Urbanism community, she found few people at home (a sure sign that residents were living a 1990s, not a 1950s lifestyle), so she left the surveys tucked in people’s front doors. A low response rate, she later learned, was because few homeowners had picked up the survey. Most of them rarely ventured onto their front porches.

    And David Graham’s dreams for Inglewood have eroded even before the first sod is turned. His original plan called for a 90-unit, adult lifestyle community with walking trails, a small business centre and fitness facilities, all within a 15-minute walk of Inglewood’s General Store. But with compromises to meet community demands and a seemingly slippery set of rules from regulatory agencies, he’s had to pare down his plans to only 75 units on wider-than-hoped-for streets, with no business centre or fitness facilities. The process has been so disappointing, he now wonders if he’ll bother to build South Slopes. “Besides,” he says, “with all the changes and delays, I wonder if I can make it economically viable.”

    Another proposed development, Mono Settlement, north of Orangeville, features some aspects of New Urbanism, but defies other Smart Growth principles. The developer promises “narrow streets and laneways connecting commons, greens, shops and pubs within the village,” along with architecture that “will find its origin in the people who settled Mono from 1840.” But the local citizens’ coalition opposes the development, primarily because the massive 400-home development, east of Highway 10 at 25 Sideroad, has no proximity to any existing settlement.

    Dropping such a community in the middle of the countryside not only takes agricultural land out of production, it breaks with the Smart Growth idea that development should be intensified within existing communities where the infrastructure is already in place.

    Following this logic, estate development – whereby houses are plunked down one after another on two-acre or five-acre or ten-acre lots – is a thing of the past in many rural municipalities. Most of Caledon’s growth, for example, is planned for three serviced urban centres, avoiding agricultural land or environmentally sensitive areas, and reducing the need to extend costly infrastructure. Such compact urban development also makes public transit more economical.

    That growth management strategy has gained Caledon a reputation as a place where nature comes before development. In the May issue of Toronto Life, the cover story on urban sprawl paints Caledon as a place where its municipal councillors “have been consistent in their defence of natural features.” By comparison, the author says, “Richmond Hill’s council, like those of Newmarket, Vaughan, Markham and Aurora (and unlike Caledon’s), has invited development with open arms.”

    But even in Belfountain, perhaps Caledon’s most environmentally-conscious community, it’s been an effort for residents to get town staff on the side of Smart Growth. The Enterac development planned for the hamlet’s southern edge includes many aspects of New Urbanism. Smaller homes would be built on lots similar in size to those in the village centre. Walking paths along an existing farm lane would connect the two communities included in the 66-unit plan. Narrower streets, ditches rather than curbs and sidewalks, old Ontario architecture, and limited street lighting would round out the list of New Urbanism features.

    The compact design means that 70 per cent of the property would remain undeveloped green space. It would be donated to the community to be used as Belfountain chooses. Should Enterac receive final approval, the developer promises to donate revenue from the sale of one lot to cover property taxes and other associated costs to keep up the donated land.

    Robert Boraks is a Belfountain resident and architect who helped get residents and the developer to agree on the planned community. He explains, “The Enterac subdivision plan tries to adapt to the site’s unique biophysical parameters such as water-flow patterns and the slope of the land. Normally, engineers mould the environment to the subdivision plan.” Although the Enterac proposal appears to embody Smart Growth principles and to reinforce Caledon council’s green reputation, town staff balked at Belfountain’s unique approach.

    When presented with the Enterac plan, Hans Muntz, head of the town’s infrastructure department, announced that his policy is to standardize development criteria across Caledon. He wants the same Bolton-style development, including wide streets, curbs and gutters, fire hydrants and modern street lighting, in new developments in Belfountain, Cheltenham, Palgrave and Alton. Belfountain residents, needless to say, are pushing the town to smarten up. as long as Orangeville attracts people who rely on their cars, garages that are easy to get into and driveways that don’t require much shovelling are what sell.

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  • While the New Urbanism plan in Belfountain may be stymied by municipal policy, at least some of Montgomery Village’s challenges may relate to consumer preference. Chris Matson, a planner who worked on the development, admits the concept has been a hard sell. Tellingly, the second and third phases of the development have reverted to conventional design. The lots are wider, the density lower, the homes fully detached, and the garages are back out in front.

    Andy Kidd, president of Devonleigh Homes, the company building Montgomery Village’s newer phases, says that as long as Orangeville attracts people who rely on their cars, garages that are easy to get into and driveways that don’t require much shovelling are what sell. Still, phase-one developer Marvin Green insists some of the failures of the New Urbanism model are due to the lack of government-sponsored incentives.

    “There’s nothing motivating a developer to develop wisely,” he says. For example, development charges (the sum paid by a developer to a municipal government to cover the costs of services) are the same for a 20-foot lot as they are for a 70-foot lot. This encourages low-density urban sprawl.

    The problem is that Smart Growth can only succeed if it is implemented as a package. New Urbanism can’t do it alone. Municipalities can’t do it by themselves, nor can the most willing developers. Putting everything together, as they’ve done in Maryland and Oregon, takes considerable will and vision by all parties.

    Caledon mayor Carol Seglins, the new president of Ontario Small Urban Municipalities, says she is attracted to Smart Growth precisely because of the new partnerships it promotes among businesses, governments, and interest groups. She quickly lists several projects in Caledon that could proceed if provincial ministries would team up with her government and some local businesses: a Highway 10 pedestrian overpass, a master rehabilitation plan for Caledon Village, and cleanup and revitalization of the La Standa and LCBO building site in Bolton’s core.

    These and many other bright — let’s call them smart — ideas bubble over when municipal leaders are asked for their opinion on the topic. Erin mayor Rod Finnie says, “To me, building a highway to get people to work is not Smart Growth. To me, it should be about making communities viable within themselves.” Dufferin warden John Creelman adds, “Our objective should be to get those commuters out of their cars and into public transit.”

    That’s the kind of comment the provincial government is likely to hear over and over again as it holds public consultations about Smart Growth across Ontario. With so many on board, it’s hard to understand why Queen’s Park can’t move beyond its love affair with cars and its pre-occupation with paving over agricultural and environmentally-sensitive land.

    But perhaps final judgement should be reserved until September. That month, the government will release its report on Smart Growth. At that point, the people of Ontario will know for certain if Premier Harris is serious about Smart Growth or just using the name, as the Sierra Club suggests, “to ‘greenwash’ the strip-malling of Ontario.”

    About the Author More by Nicola Ross

    Freelance writer Nicola Ross lives in Alton and is the author of the bestselling 'Loops and Lattes' hiking guide series.

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