Getting To Know Us: The benefits of smarter planning

This is a part one of three posts outlining our “two sides of the coin” approach to advocacy, or our focus on achieving what is known as “co-benefits”.

In this post, we focus on the first side of the coin, which is planning our communities in a way that is more efficient and that enhances the quality of life for residents.

Introduction

Defining "Environment" in a Comprehensive Sense

Spend just a little while with us, and you’ll quickly understand that when we say “environment”, we mean it in the classical sense, which is, “the area in which something exists or lives”. In other words, it includes the areas of our homes, our neighbourhoods, and our cities, as well as those areas more commonly associated with “the environment”, such as the wilderness or the global commons.

Maximizing Co-Benefits for Communities

In this post, the first of three that are planned in this series, we cover why planning our communities in a way that maximizes what are known as co-benefits makes a lot of sense, including by reducing the burden on the taxpayer and increasing quality of life and enjoyment.

Part two, which focuses on environmental benefits, and part three, which ties parts one and two together, as well as provides more specific information on our efforts, are in the pipeline, so keep an eye out!

The Greenbelt and Municipal Planning

Understanding the Greenbelt's Role in Ontario's Planning Regime

As an organization that focuses primarily on issues surrounding the Greenbelt, you might be a bit surprised by our focus on municipal planning and urban areas. The Greenbelt is a crown jewel on Ontario’s planning regime, and it helps to both direct development toward areas where it’s most beneficial, by, in large part, restricting sprawl, this, in turn, helps protect the valuable natural assets, such as farmland, fresh water, and clean air, that enable our high quality of life.

We think it is important to view the Greenbelt in this context, as a policy that serves as the foundation stone of Ontario’s prosperous and sustainable future. The Greenbelt, in other words, is a valuable tool that our Province has to shape land-use in a way that improves our cities, towns, agricultural areas, and natural habitat.

It’s crucial to underline, accordingly, the fact that, as a tool, the Greenbelt can be further implemented – enhanced and expanded – for the benefit of all Ontarians.

Impact on Municipal Budgets

Land-use and climate action! What could be more exciting than that!?

But seriously, land-use is a pretty dry topic on the surface – zoning, development applications, approval processes and appeals… (although the right of citizens to appeal has been severely curtailed in Ontario of later by the Ford government).

For evidence of how dry this stuff is, one need look no further than council meetings, where the vast majority of attendees are suits, representatives of developers. The reason they are there is pretty obvious – they stand to make money if they are able to get a decision going their way.

The Approvals Process, and Citizen Engagement

For citizens, on the other hand, attending these meetings is taking time from family or other social obligations – and it’s time they aren’t paid for, or, for the most part, time that would result in financial benefit to them.

Thus, the decks tend to be stacked at these meetings.

Councils, elected by the public, generally do their best to ensure decisions aren’t outrageously at odds with the public’s interest. But, councillors are often overworked and under-resourced, and need to rely on information given to them by city staff (also often overworked and under-resourced). In this scenario, it isn’t difficult to see the opportunity for developers to step into the gap and provide information and resources that buttress their claims.

For us at SCGC, a lot of our focus is on these processes because they determine where houses get built, and conversely where houses don’t get built (which happens to be where farmland and natural habitat is preserved!).

To be clear, building houses in not the issue – it’s where they are built that is typically the problem.

Below we briefly sketch out the first of these components.

Challenges and Solutions

Infrastructure Problems, a Growing Threat

Our suburban style of living, while there are a lot of nice things about it, is putting a huge hole in municipal budgets.

The roads that we use to get to and from work, to drop our kids off at school, to purchase groceries and to visit the mall, all cost a lot to maintain.

In 2021 the Financial Accountability Office of Ontario (FAO) released a report that puts the municipal infrastructure deficit at more than $50 billion. This is how much it would cost to bring roads, bridges, and other municipal infrastructure to a state of good repair.

Spread out infrastructure is less efficient and more expensive to maintain. The cost is likely to only increase as climate change results in more extreme weather, placing additional stress on it. (The FAO did a report on this, too.)

Why Sprawl Is So Attractive

One of the biggest bang-for-buck transformations that a municipality can do is convert farmland into urban development. This goes for developers, too, which is why many of them love to build sprawl.

The purchase price of farmland is low, relative to a similar size of land with existing infrastructure and development. When this land is brought into the urban envelope, its value increases dramatically.

(Witness the recent Greenbelt scandal, where plots of land value at $240 million prior to being given permission to build skyrocketed to a value of $8.523 billion once lands were removed from protections.)

This, of course, is extremely profitable for developers, and municipalities can, for a period of time, also feel like they have come out ahead. The newly added tax base contributes much needed revenue, which can be used to address those infrastructure needs outlined above.

The Economic Drag that Sprawl Creates Over Time

But, over the course of several years, that spread-out infrastructure in the newly developed area, along with pre-existing spread-out infrastructure, starts to act as a drag on municipal coffers, and ultimately creates a net-negative revenue flow – more goes out to maintain it than comes in from the tax base it services. (By some estimates, municipalities receive just 10 – 20% of revenue vs liability over the lifetime of these developments. Any business run this way would have been bankrupted long ago, and yet that’s what we demand of our elected leaders.)

Factoring in the costs of pollution associated with needing a car to access amenities, like groceries, not to mention the contribution to climate change those cars make, and those costs only grow.

This is why experts in the area have taken to calling sprawl a “Ponzi scheme” and “Ontario’s tar sands“.

A recent study by the City of Ottawa found that, every year, it cost $465 per capita to service residents in low density areas, while it took in $606 more per capita than it spent from those living in high density areas.

Sprawl is an expensive, and inherently inequitable form of development. Those living in suburban sprawl areas don’t pay the full cost for the infrastructure servicing them, with those living in more dense parts of the jurisdiction, which often tend to be those who are also less well off, subsidizing their cost.

Click the image for a larger version.

Sustaining Sprawl at the Cost of Other Services

When our local governments are constantly needing to increase revenue simply to maintain what we’ve already got, it puts a huge amount of pressure on other services, including many that we place high value on.

These services include cultural activities, funding for public transportation, for affordable housing and mental health, parks, libraries, schools and emergency services all have to compete for a slice of the funding pie, and many are limited due to the pressure on budgets that municipalities face, in no small part thanks to unsustainable patterns of urban development.

Even more pressure is added to the mix when costs associated with a rapidly changing climate are factored in.

As severe and unpredictable weather events ramp up, investments need to be made to ensure infrastructure, such as storm water systems, are able to cope. What were considered “100-year storms” just a decade ago are now likely to happen on an almost yearly basis, and the rare events – those 100-year storms – will be even wilder.

Moving Forward

Promoting Walkability and Mixed-Use Development

Over the past few decades, there has been a growth in the number of planners interested in how the way that we build our communities can improve quality of life for residents, enhance economic vitality, as well as promote a healthy environment. Much of the impetus behind this emergent practice is in response to the negative impacts that car centred planning, such as sprawl, has had on the livability of the places we call home.

Practices like promoting walkability in neighbourhoods, ensuring there is a range of housing choices and a mix of building types, with proximity between residential and commercial areas, accessible schools and other services, such as transit, as well as green-spaces such as parks and playgrounds, are some of what advocates of this form of planning promote.

Well-known planners in this area include Brent Toderian, former Chief Planner for the City of Vancouver, Jennifer Keesmaat, former Chief Planner for the City of Toronto, as well as Charles Marohn, of Strong Towns, to name a few.

And, while more conventional approaches to urban planning remain dominant, these ideas have filtered through. Concepts like complete streets, transit oriented design, along with a growing awareness of the risks of and vulnerabilities to climate change impacts, are increasingly present in high-level policy and planning documents.

(Until it was effectively scrapped by the Ford government, the Growth Plan placed a premium on complete communities, reflecting many of the principles outlined above.)

Photo of John St., Toronto, showing a street with many people walking on it, as well as people sitting on chairs at tables on the street. The widewalk has been extended to enhance walkability. Credit City of Toronto.

This image, taken from the City of Toronto’s website outlining their efforts to create more complete streets, illustrates how many municipalities are trying to reinvigorate streetscapes and enhance the experiences of the residents who live around them.

Credit: City of Toronto

Conclusion

We can build our communities in a way that improves our quality of life, that supports a thriving economy, and that promotes a healthy environment. Cities like Toronto, Calgary, Vancouver, and Montreal are implementing projects in-line with many of the goals outlined above.

By enhancing the livability of our urban areas, including with increased public transit and active transportation like walking, we mitigate negative impacts like carbon emissions and health risks associated with sedentary lifestyles. These are some of the co-benefits of better planning.

In our next post in this series, we look more closely at how poor planning impacts the environment.

-/-

This work by Simcoe County Greenbelt Coalition is licensed under CC BY-NC 4.0

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