Tuesday, May 27, 2014

The Real Costs of Urban Sprawl Are Unsustainable

When Northern Ontarians contemplate urban sprawl, we may think of homes and businesses creeping up Highway 400 on our drive into Toronto. We may shake our heads at the loss of productive farmland, and wonder how it is that Southern Ontario decision-makers have embraced such an unsustainable form of urban development. As we sit in traffic on the 401, we may feel grateful that in the North, we don’t have to deal with the problems of sprawl that our Southern neighbours face every day.

However, we in the North seem to be equally enamoured with the development form known as “urban sprawl”. We’ve convinced ourselves that there is a demand for low density subdivisions on the fringes of built-up areas. We believe that it’s better for the City to collect taxes from people’s homes than from vacant lands. We justify sprawl because we perceive it to be less costly to build and maintain than new higher density developments in existing areas.

Unfortunately, the arguments in favour of suburban sprawl - demand, tax revenues and development costs – are part of an interconnected myth which too many elected officials throughout the Province continue to subscribe to.

As with everything, it’s important to look at a complete range of costs and benefits before determining whether a project is sustainable over the long term. James Howard Kunstler, author and urbanist, describes the North American project known as “suburbia” as being “the greatest misallocation of resources in the history of the world.” Recent studies which looked at the costs of sprawl in Canada seem to confirm Kunstler’s opinion.

Many believe that suburban development is driven by the market demand of homebuyers. In their October 2013 report, “Suburban Sprawl: Exploding Hidden Costs, Identifying Innovations”, Sustainable Prosperity determined the biggest factor for home buyers was the price of a home. Purchasers often favour a home in suburbia which is initially cheaper to buy than a comparable home in a built-up area. However, when long-term costs are factored in, such as the ever-rising cost of vehicular transportation, suburbia begins to look less attractive for a homeowner’s bottom line.

Certainly, suburban homes are far less attractive options for municipal governments, which must extend hard services such as roads, sewer and water lines to new subdivisions. Low density homes hardly ever covers the true costs of servicing, and taxpayers are left to pick up the tab for new roads and pipes. The idea that “development pays for itself” due to higher tax revenue is certainly not what municipalities across Canada are actually experiencing.

Development charges, where they exist at all, often don’t differentiate between urban in-fill and suburban greenfield development. In some parts of Ontario, that’s changing, as municipalities like the City of Kitchener are area-rating development charges. By charging more for costlier-to-service low-density residential, Kitchener’s development charges are helping direct new development to less expensive locations.

Keen to collect new taxes, the real costs of sprawl are often hidden to growing cities. In booming Southern Ontario, municipal decision-makers have relied on increased revenues from new taxes and development charges to keep property tax hikes in check. However, with the pace of growth starting to slow in some of the GTA’s inner suburbs, like the City of Mississauaga, property taxes are starting to rise, as cities look for sustainable ways to pay for infrastructure maintenance.

In Northern Ontario, where tax growth from new development will be modest, it’s even more important that we question the need to build new roads and lay more pipes for development on our urban fringes. We simply can’t afford to continue buying into the myths of sprawl.

(opinions expressed in this blog are my own and should not be interpreted as being consistent with the views and/or policies of the Green Party of Canada)

Originally published in the Sudbury Star, Saturday, May 24, 2014 (online: “May: Real costs of urban sprawl unsustainable", May 24, 2014), without hyperlinks.

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