Finding Balance in Caledon: The Urban/Rural Divide

In less than two decades Caledon’s population will be 75 per cent urban. Can its countryside values survive the shift?

June 16, 2015 | | Environment

In less than two decades Caledon’s population will be 75 per cent urban. Can its countryside values survive the shift?

For Yevgenia Casale, Caledon’s repeated designation as the safest community in Canada in an annual survey by Maclean’s magazine was key to the decision to move her family to SouthFields Village five years ago. Situated on the urban/rural divide on Caledon’s southern border, SouthFields offered Casale a combination of proximity to city amenities and an opportunity to escape the rough edges she saw developing in her Brampton community.

An advertorial in the Toronto Sun described SouthFields as a community where “residents enjoy a rich village life, where neighbours know each other by name and the community connects together. It’s the kind of life you want for your family. Children walk to SouthFields Village Public School or play outdoors at one of many community parks. Neighbours gather at the Village Centre and, in winter, the parkside pond is a picture-perfect skating scene.”

Demonstrating just how firmly SouthFields sits on the urban/rural divide, the advertorial went on, “Just up the road are the farmers’ markets and quaint country stores that define the Caledon lifestyle, and the convenient city amenities of Brampton are nearby.”

One of the first to move into the new subdivision that forms part of Caledon’s Mayfield West, Casale was an Energizer bunny of community activity. She organized a community day to bring her then small group of neighbours together with each other and local businesses. She sent out a newsletter called SouthFields Village Voice that morphed into a glossy magazine named Caledon Spectrum. She chaired the new school’s parent council, cofounded the Southfields Village residents’ association, and started the SouthFields farmers’ market. She harangued the Welcome Wagon for stuffing its new-resident bags with coupons for Brampton rather than Caledon businesses. (She is also an occasional contributor to this magazine.)

Casale now admits that when she moved to SouthFields she didn’t understand the sheer volume of population that would soon follow. Or that completion of the promised elements of the “walkable” community – a village shopping core, a school, a library – would fall so far down the priority list. Or that an industrial development was slated to go in cheek-by-jowl with the new houses.

Concerned that “the town’s hunger for a commercial-industrial tax base” trumped community building, she ran for Caledon council in the last election – and was soundly defeated by the incumbent Gord McClure, a local farmer.

Disappointed, exhausted, and now set to move across the municipal border to Nobleton, Casale departs with a warning: “Farmers aren’t the future of Caledon. They want to sell and leave.” Then she drops the bomb: “SouthFields is the future of Caledon.”

For longtime Caledon residents, especially those who live rurally, it’s tempting to dismiss her message as sour grapes.

That would be a mistake.

In less than two decades Caledon’s population will be 75 per cent urban. Can its countryside values survive the shift? Photo by Rosemary Hasner / Black Dog Creative Arts.

In less than two decades Caledon’s population will be 75 per cent urban. Can its countryside values survive the shift? Photo by Rosemary Hasner / Black Dog Creative Arts.

She is quite right. Traditional farming is disappearing from Caledon’s landscape. Particularly along a narrow strip on Caledon’s southern border – home to some of the best agricultural land in Canada – where the topsoil has been removed, woodlots cleared and sewers laid to make way for a combination of industrial/commercial development and suburban housing. It is being turned into what the Toronto Sun advertorial described as “wide lots, smaller lots, green space lots, pie-shaped lots, ravine lots – lots of lots!” that are part of a dense “master-planned” community. Casale points out that because farmers with large holdings can benefit from sales to developers, they are often the most eager to relax development restrictions.

Casale is also correct that, based on population distribution, Caledon can no longer claim to be a rural municipality. In growth mode since the early 1990s, by 2011 Bolton and Valleywood were already home to more than half the town’s 60,000 residents. Partly in response to the dictates of the province’s 2006 Growth Plan for the Greater Golden Horseshoe, the region of Peel has set a population target for Caledon of 108,000 by 2031 – a number the town is pushing to increase to 113,000. Either way, it means that in the not-too-distant future some 75 to 80 per cent of Caledon residents will live in suburban communities that look a lot more like Bramalea than Belfountain. By 2041, another 33,000 will join their ranks.

In sharp contrast to the Growth Plan, three other provincial policies – the Niagara Escarpment Plan, the Oak Ridges Moraine Conservation Plan and the Greenbelt Plan – ensure the vast majority of Caledon’s countryside, some 80 per cent, is largely protected from residential and industrial development. Caledon is the only jurisdiction in the Greater Toronto Area with such vast swaths of land subject to all four of these provincial plans, and certainly the only municipality that has to crowd tens of thousands of people as well as considerable commercial/industrial development into such a narrow strip of what was once prime agricultural land.

Given this scenario, Caledon is a complex place to work as a planner. Haiqing Xu, Caledon’s manager of policy and sustainability, describes his work as “exciting.” He says, “There is no other place in the GTA that has all of the policies and issues.”

The challenges that have Xu sitting on the edge of his chair include residential and commercial/industrial development, agricultural policies, heritage resources, tourism, aggregates, conservation and more. The effort before him will call upon the theoretical knowledge he gathered while completing his PhD in town and regional planning in the U.K., as well as the practical tools he’s assembled working in Caledon, Halton and Toronto.

“Farmers aren’t the future of Caledon. They want to sell and leave,”
says Yevgenia Casale. “SouthFields is the future of Caledon.”

Given his time spent in England, where countryside thrives an hour’s train ride outside of London, along with his expertise and considerable enthusiasm, perhaps Xu, who was born in China and lives in Brampton, will be up to the nuanced task of finding a way forward in such a complicated environment.

Along with his colleagues at the town, Xu is figuring out how best to cope with the two solitudes of urban and rural lifestyles, and all the intricacies in-between.

To meet its population target – which Xu says is required “to complete the community and attract more employment to rationalize our tax base” – and with space limited by the three provincial conservation plans, Caledon is building dense suburbs such as those that radiate out from Bolton’s historic core, as well as Mayfield West, which has three components: Valleywood and Mayfield West Phase 1 (including SouthFields), both now built out, and Mayfield West Phase 2, on the west of side of Hurontario, which has been approved for development.

To help pay for new infrastructure and provide residential services such as sewers, treated water, gutters, paved streets, garbage pickup and fire protection, the town is filling in the gaps between subdivisions with mammoth factories such as the Canadian Tire warehouse near Bolton. The company paid a whopping $6.8 million in development charges and will be levied with annual municipal taxes of about $800,000. Monarch Plastics Group will be similarly charged if it goes ahead with a proposed 300,000-square-foot blow-molding plant which, much to the consternation of residents, is slated to be located directly across the street from some SouthFields homes.

Even so, Caledon will have a tough time keeping its budget balanced. The expense just to keep up with these plans is considerable. Serving roughly the same population, there are 15 planners employed by Caledon, compared to only four in Dufferin County.

Complicating things is Queen’s Park’s move from a bottom-up to a top-down approach to planning. Planners in Caledon have to comply with sometimes conflicting rules set out in the four provincial planning documents, as well as region of Peel and town of Caledon zoning bylaws, which the town’s new mayor Allan Thompson admits haven’t kept up with the frequent provincial policy changes.

“The problem,” says Thompson, “is our [Caledon’s] zoning is so out of date that it is impeding progress.”

The Credit River is one of the defining features of rural Caledon. Click for larger image. Photo by Rosemary Hasner / Black Dog Creative Arts.

The Credit River is one of the defining features of rural Caledon. Click for larger image. Photo by Rosemary Hasner / Black Dog Creative Arts.

Given what Xu describes as the “must comply” attitude of the provincial government, planners have to follow the rules much more closely than before, often being forced to apply urban standards to rural situations. One Belfountain resident likens the level of frustration that comes when you call the town’s planning department to that normally associated with attempts to reason with your satellite TV provider.

Located near Belfountain, Heatherlea Farm Market – a popular on-farm retail store where you can buy meat, preserves, yogurt and other locally produced goods – illustrates the problem.

Heatherlea owners Pat and Gord McArthur have been consumed by a two-year battle to obtain the approvals they need to move their business from their home to a larger, standalone, roadside building. Potential fodder for a Dan Needles’ play, their experience would be comical if it weren’t so costly. Pat says, “It was as if the town looked for every obstacle it could find to put in our way.”

The failure of planning policy and development approvals to align with one another, philosophically or technically, converged on Heatherlea as it did several years earlier on Spirit Tree Estate Cidery, the busy eatery, apple farm and local retailer on Boston Mills Road near Cheltenham. Despite town policies that specifically encourage on-farm businesses exactly like Heatherlea and Spirit Tree, it took the personal involvement of Mayor Thompson and Xu to change the town’s attitude from what-rule-can-we-find-to-prevent-this-business-from-succeeding to how-can-we-make-it-work.

Long overdue and with the intent of avoiding such future debacles, the town is undertaking a comprehensive study to identify and harmonize the zoning and policy conflicts that plagued Heatherlea, Spirit Tree and others, while still protecting neighbours from the traffic and noise farm businesses may cause. That process was assisted last year when the Provincial Policy Statement was amended to support on-farm enterprises.

Xu doesn’t agree with many of Queen’s Park’s strict rules. He says, “I feel the province needs to recognize the stewardship of the environment by the farming community.”

With similar ideas about the social-ecological role of rural Caledon, and backed by the town, University of Waterloo professor Stephen Quilley co-initiated a three-year study called “Hedgelaying in Ontario’s Greenbelt.” Quilley’s inspiration comes from his birthplace in England where thorny hedgerows regularly border farm fields, and where the simple use of the word “hedgerow” conjures up images of grazing sheep and hay-filled wagons.

Rural England’s natural hedges do a lot more than a page-wire fence. Traditionally they shelter livestock from wind, sun and rain, and demarcate property. More recently, researchers report they also prevent soil loss, reduce flooding, moderate temperature, store greenhouse gases, provide natural snow fencing, and support pollinator species and other wildlife.

Quilley writes, “Hedgerows are naturalized but fabricated features, which are recognized for their provision of ecosystem services, a traditional craft supporting skilled labour within local economies, and an emblem of local vernacular.” He hopes by encouraging rural areas that are under mounting pressure from “population growth, urbanization, climate change and ecosystem stresses” to develop their own version of hedgerows, people will value and protect the countryside.

Quilley notes that while the English cherish their countryside, Canadians romanticize wilderness. We identify with wolves and grizzly bears rather than cows and sheep. We prefer hiking trails to footpaths. While England has William Wordsworth and John Constable, Canadians revere the landscapes depicted by Robert Service and the Group of Seven.

Caledon falls somewhere between the two. It is more wild than Constable’s England, but more pastoral than the Group of Seven’s windswept pines. Quilley’s project is intended to encourage Canadians to value and identify with such “emblems of the local vernacular” as split-rail fences, stone walls, farm markets, hiking trails and rural architecture. Moreover, in future phases, he hopes to build hedgerows – both actual and figurative.

One of the best examples of what Quilley has in mind is Spirit Tree Estate Cidery. What seems to be a great place to pick up some apple juice and buy a Cider House Blues pizza topped with local wood-oven-roasted potatoes, fresh rosemary, honey and, of course, apples, is actually Caledon’s version of a hedgerow.

Tom Wilson and Nicole Judge, who own the business, chose the site because of all the apple trees that naturally populate the land. They added some new varieties and, like hedgerows, these trees supply pollinators, cleanse the air and store greenhouse gases. Made in their micro-cidery, Spirit Tree’s unique cider attracts a flood of customers. The restaurant is a meeting place for locals and a destination for hikers and cyclists.

Similarly, Heatherlea Farm Market sells beef raised on the farm, and if Gail and Phil Winters who own Winterbrook Farm succeed, they will be making beer from hops they already grow on their land north of Belfountain. Then there are wood turners who use fallen trees to create silky smooth bowls that attract people to the Alton Mill Arts Centre, syrup producers who distill their elixir from the “blood” of maple trees, makers of preserves who use fresh-picked berries from the rich soil on Caledon’s Peel Plain, and craftspeople who wattle furniture from local willow. These too have the potential to become Caledon’s “hedgerows.”

Focusing on these local crafts and foods, the trails that link them, the eco-services they provide and their economic contribution could go a long way toward nurturing the cliffs, forests, rolling kames and kettles, meadows, farmyards, and historic towns and villages that occupy the majority of Caledon’s 668 square kilometres. It could help the town actually become what many people think it is or want it to be.

In 2014, a Toronto Life article suggested Caledon “is not so much a town as an evocation of a fantasy – a mythological place that exists primarily in people’s imaginations.” That sort of place – the one that Caledon isn’t quite – is aptly described in the new visitors’ guide released by Headwaters Tourism. It reads, “This is where both arctic swans and hungry travellers stop on their way home. Where every creek, barn and chicken has a name.”

“I don’t believe planners should impose their ideas
on a community. Our job is to facilitate and allow the
community to envision and develop its own character.”

Notably, the tourism association didn’t use “quaint,” an adjective that adorns Caledon’s blue roadside signs. Quaint means “attractively old-fashioned” or “pleasantly strange,” which was not part of the vocabulary used by a small group of community-minded residents to describe Caledon’s future. Freed from having to focus on protecting Caledon’s green space, they went beyond the worthy platitudes of a safe, resilient and sustainable community that is innovative, inclusive and affordable. They want a living, working, environmentally and economically productive landscape.

Hedgerow businesses may never deliver $800,000 in municipal taxes, but collectively the levies they pay add up. They draw tourists and tourist dollars, provide ecosystem services, and cultivate community.

But are Caledon’s “hedgerows” enough to attract residents from Caledon’s burgeoning suburbs to visit, much less cherish the open spaces beyond their courts and crescents?

Xu repeats the oft-quoted line that Caledon is a “community of communities.” He sincerely wants Belfountain, Inglewood and Cheltenham to retain the personalities they have developed organically over 150 years. That model of development is very different from the master-planned community of SouthFields where the residential population preceded the commercial centre. That centre where “neighbours gather” in the type of advertorial that attracted Casale is now conceived as a regional shopping centre similar to Brampton’s Trinity Common. Meanwhile, action on creating a smaller commercial area, of the sort more likely to attract independent businesses and act as a gathering place, is on hold because it is located in the planning zone for a 400-series highway.

“I don’t believe planners should impose their ideas on a community,” says Xu. “Our job is to facilitate and allow the community to envision and develop its own character.”

A map of the master-planned community of Caledon’s Mayfield West. Valleywood and Phase 1 are built out. Phase 2 is approved for development. Click for larger image. Map courtesy Town of Caledon.

A map of the master-planned community of Caledon’s Mayfield West. Valleywood and Phase 1 are built out. Phase 2 is approved for development. Click for larger image. Map courtesy Town of Caledon.

Fair enough, but if people are drawn to SouthFields for its proximity to the city, will they ever feel vested in Caledon’s countryside? As Xu said, such attitudes cannot be imposed, but perhaps they can be encouraged through such initiatives as Quilley’s. And such attitudes as Casale’s.

While she is frustrated with the town’s planning process, Casale says people move to SouthFields because they want to be part of the safe, tranquil community advertised in the brochures.

“Community is not about density,” she says. “It’s about how people live and engage together.”

In his 1945 novel Two Solitudes, Hugh MacLennan explores tensions between the English and French in Canada. Attempts to homogenize the cultures of Canada’s founding nations ended long ago. Tensions remain, but we now celebrate and make allowances for our differences. Perhaps Caledon might be guided by the epigraph from MacLennan’s distinctly Canadian novel. It reads, simply, “Love consists in this, that two solitudes protect, and touch, and greet each other.”

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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