The Region of Waterloo, a regional municipality located in Southern Ontario, created an Official Plan that sets growth and density targets over the next twenty years. With the goal of intensification, the region limited urban boundary expansions to only seventy to eighty-five hectares from 2011 to 2031. In response, a consortium of developers took the region to the Ontario Municipal Board (OMB), a judicial body that rules on disputes over planning in the province of Ontario. The appeal succeeded, with the OMB ruling in the developers’ favour, opening up 1,053 hectares of land for low-density development. Concerned citizens, conservationists and proponents of smart growth were mobilized, determined to stop the sprawl. Naturally, the region has submitted a counter appeal, hoping to overturn this decision.
The presence of institutions of higher learning and tech companies have attracted many talented individuals to the region and contributed to a booming population forecasted to increase from the current estimates of 559,000 to almost 740,000 by 2030. For supporters of sprawl, low density development could be the quick and economical solution to the issue of housing the region’s growing population. However, they must not fail to acknowledge the long-term consequences associated with the effects of suburban sprawl.
Without laws to limit development to existing built-up areas, developers will continue to build further out of city limits. The lack of financial incentives to build in the downtown area could lead to a dearth of different housing choices, especially ones that cater to families. This could exacerbate the exodus to the suburbs by families, as property and land values soar in the downtown areas. Existing housing units might be snapped up by millennials, who are marrying and having children later in life. A downtown lifestyle, where walkability and proximity to work and amenities are key, is their preferred option.
A family living in the suburbs might be at a disadvantage compared to a family living downtown. The increased dependence on the car as the primary mode of transportation means higher transportation costs, especially as gas prices continues to soar. They might also lack ease of access to better employment opportunities that are located in the city.
Sprawl development could cause the region of Waterloo’s ION light rail transit (LRT) system to struggle to achieve target ridership as the population will be too spread out over the region. If this happens, the public transit system might not be sustainable financially, relying on subsidies from the government. Other financial costs related to sprawl include the costs of building roads and expressways to link the suburbs to the city. Furthermore, the municipalities will have to incur costs to construct new water and sewer pipes to provide service to the new homes out in the suburbs.
The debate about sprawl is a toss-up between short term economic growth and immediate results versus long term sustainability issues which might not be apparent in the short run. Is it prudent for the region to limit growth outside the existing urban boundaries? Will it be seen as limiting the region’s growth and prosperity, especially as development could leap-frog to surrounding cities and regions? What do you think?
Credits: Images by Becky Loi. Data linked to sources.