Opinion: Smart Growth Planning Looks Up and Not Out

You might have heard someone say that house prices are going up because of provincial smart growth policies. It’s not true. But people are saying it.

They’re saying it because the provincial government is doing a review of its smart growth policies. And some people in the development industry are used to making money by building new subdivisions over farmland.

Smart growth is about growing up instead of growing out. It’s about creating more liveable urban areas while protecting farmland and the environment. The provincial Greenbelt has set aside specific lands for protection, while the Growth Plan requires municipalities to make room for more residents in existing urban areas and to expand those areas more slowly and with more residents than they did in the past.

These plans are popular. So, after 10 years of experience, the province is figuring out how to make them stronger. But some have an interest in more urban sprawl.

Their basic argument is that if they were allowed to build on more farmland around the edges of our cities, buying a home would be cheaper. This, they contend, is simple supply and demand: more houses mean lower prices.

It sounds like it could be true. But it’s not. There are two main problems with this argument.

The most obvious problem is that there is no shortage of new land for building homes. As the Neptis Foundation found, even in the Greater Toronto and Hamilton area, where growth pressure is highest, three quarters of the lands designated for urban development haven’t been built on yet. We have more than enough land available under provincial plans.

But there’s a bigger problem with the simplistic supply and demand argument. The issue isn’t land. It’s space. The most expensive homes are those in the most desirable areas.

Truthfully, most people can’t afford to own a big house with a private yard in the most popular parts of our cities. There simply isn’t the space to build enough single-detached homes in the most desirable areas to meet demand and keep home prices low. If location didn’t matter, the average price of a house in downtown Toronto would be the same as in Oshawa, instead of about five times as much, as Toronto’s chief planner Jennifer Keesmaat often points out.

In this context of limited space, home buyers need to consider what their priorities are. Families must choose what they value most: size, location or price. Some who can afford it will buy expensive, detached houses in places like downtown Toronto. Some will choose to live in more dense townhomes or apartments, and stay close to where they work or where they want to live. Some will move to the outskirts of our cities, or even to other cities, and accept long commutes, expensive transportation and less time at home, in exchange for more space at a lower price.

So the question becomes: given limited space, how should we build our communities? We can continue to build sprawling cities that pave over farmland and environmentally sensitive areas, but we do so at a huge cost. It’s at the cost of harming our agricultural sector, our groundwater supply and the unique ecological systems that surround us.

It’s also at the cost of high taxes. Decades of sprawl have taught us that sprawling communities are inefficient communities. It costs much more to provide urban services to suburban residents than to people in more dense neighbourhoods. Municipalities across Ontario are struggling to provide services to areas that have been built inefficiently.

When faced with the actual choices, most Ontarians agree that we can’t afford to repeat the mistakes of the past. We need to grow our cities and make them more efficient and liveable, while also protecting our countryside. That’s why the provincial government is looking to strengthen their smart growth plans, rather than tear them apart, as some in the development industry would have them do.

For housing to be more affordable, we don’t need to build on even more land. What we need is real housing choices for diverse families. The vast majority of our existing housing is single-detached homes. We continue to build those. But we need to build more townhomes and apartments to accommodate more people in the places where they want to be. Only when we have more housing in more neighbourhoods will homeowners and renters be able to make meaningful choices about where and how they want to live, and what trade-offs are right for them.

Kate is a co-founder of Smart Growth Waterloo Region, and a PhD candidate in political science at York University studying the politics of growth management.