Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Sprawl - Cause and Impacts

A different take on what ails local government today can be found in Lawrence Solomon ‘s book Toronto Sprawls - A History (U of T Press, 2007).

His theme is this:

Government did not take a supporting role in creating the mess of urban sprawl we have today but rather took “the lead role” and “also directed the show.”

The book, a lean 120 pages, puts forward a well-documented case that citizens wanted to live in more compact cities. Governments “acted not to satisfy the public’s desires but to frustrate them.”

For example, early 20th century local government was antagonistic to the idea of low rise apartment buildings as a dangerous social intervention that ”compromised child rearing, promoted sexual promiscuity and otherwise threatened family life.” Ever wondered how the term “Toronto the Good” originated?

Suburban growth was actively promoted by government throughout the century. First (around 1902) there was the garden suburb movement which addressed the “overcrowding” issue; then an unsuccessful attempt to enhance town life with indoor rural industries following WWI; then the Veterans Land Act that tried to entice veterans into becoming part time farmers.

All these policies were failures as they were not congruent with people’s desires.

The Fifties and On

With the establishment of Metro Toronto (1953) government moved to “partial amalgamation, full sprawl” the very purpose, Solomon argues, being to take taxes from the city (Toronto) “in order to fund services needed in the suburbs” (North York, Scarborough etc..).

This trend continued through the Robarts/Davis years with more partial amalgamations(Halton, Peel Durham and York.)

It has played out with the City of Toronto initially subsidizing the Metro suburbs through various levies and now Metro residents subsidizing the costs of the GTA suburbs through provincial taxes.

The author depends on research from the sixties (Clark - Suburban Society) to make the case that most people who left for the burbs moved there “half heartedly.” Apparently they would have preferred the superior lifestyle of the urban centre. Your blogger has some doubts on this point.

It is clear though that prior to “subsidized sprawl” the burbs were developing compactly along transportation corridors.

What Might Have Been?

The author believes that had governments the will sprawl could have been stopped years ago. The City of Toronto could have achieved densities similar to the desirable areas of the world’s great cities and accommodated the population of Metro and most of the GTA.

What Can be Done?

Solomon says sprawl can still be stopped. Congestion pricing, replacing market value assessment with user fees or other forms of taxation and by allowing widespread deregulation are some options.

Food for thought.


**In spite of legislative restrictions 20,000 new apartment units were created from 1921 to 1931 typically in three and four storey walk ups.

**The four lane Toronto Bypass (the 401) was described as a “motorists dream” providing some of the most soothing scenery in Metro - “a long way from the big city” when completed in 1956.

**Latest density figures (people per acre)

Old City of Toronto 28.0
North York, Etobicoke, Scarborough 10.13
GTA Regions 6.8