Low density development on greenfields or elsewhere is a net cost to society and should be curtailed accordingly. Strategies should be developed and implemented to account for and to factor into decision making the actual cost of sprawl, reflecting its negative impact on the environment, on the social fabric of our communities and neighbourhoods, on our physical health, and on our political economy.
For Simcoe County, including Barrie and Orillia, the proposed density and intensification targets effectively continue the status quo approach to long term growth planning. Simcoe County would be allowed to keep the intensification and density targets that were established under alternative targets given for its 2008 Official Plan. These changes beg the question – what is the vision that the province has for the communities of Simcoe County? Is it a political vision, changing according to the whims of the government of the day, or is it evidence-based planning, utilizing established best-practices done with the best interests of the public in mind?
Currently, low density sprawl dominates Simcoe County. Densities around the county range from the 50 ppl/hectare to well below that in some of the more rural communities. We know that greater densities are needed to support transit and move communities away from car dependency – a development pattern that is costly, inequitable, unhealthy and results in high carbon emissions. The Ministry of Transportation’s own guidelines for building a transit supportive community suggests that to provide basic bus service, a minimum of 50 people per hectare is needed, otherwise the transit service is inefficient and difficult to sustain economically. Even a bus service supported by 50 people per hectare, such as in Barrie, isn’t the kind of transit that is widely available to all residents or allows enough reliability and flexibility to shift transportation patterns away from single vehicle use toward more efficient modes of mass transit.
The proposed “status quo” targets literally cement a development pattern that increases pollution, inequity and municipal debt for the long term. Simcoe County’s population could increase 96% by 2041 from 2011 level. As Hemson Consulting outlined, this could mean that our region could see as many as 900,000 residents by 2041 with Barrie alone growing to 253,000 people. So how we encourage growth in Simcoe County cannot be predicated on how we’ve grown in the past, but rather needs to be based on how we should build communities of the future. We would prefer that the province recognize the growth that Simcoe County will be facing and help support and usher in policies that ensure this growth is not a burden on our future economy.
If the province allows the proposed targets to stand, and allows Simcoe County communities to build mostly as they have for the past few decades, a pattern of growth will proceed that values development of spread out lots with single-detached homes with larger lawns over the preservation of farmland, more expensive road and water infrastructure over ecosystem services, longer commutes and higher fossil fuel emissions over active transportation, increased inequality and poorer health outcomes over a healthy economy. This will negatively impact our economy by reducing our ability to rely on the many benefits provided by clean water, farmland, and green spaces. This effect could be seen clearly over one decade ago as outlined in the Intergovernmental Action Plan (2006):
“Unique growth and development challenges exist in Simcoe County and the Cities of Barrie and Orillia (study area). South Simcoe and Barrie, in particular, are experiencing increased development pressure, and are expected to continue to have rapid growth. A number of the municipalities in the study area rely on inland water systems which have been demonstrated to be under strain (for example the Lake Simcoe watershed has known issues as a result of phosphorous loadings). Without intervening action, the available potable water and aquaculture of these watersheds are threatened.”
This quote has aged well and could easily have been written today instead of over one decade ago. The effects of ill-managed growth continues to wreak havoc on our water systems.
The impacts are also seen in our loss of farmland and greenspace. According to Statistics Canada, Barrie’s footprint grew 550% over the past 40 years mostly gobbling up farmland and semi natural space for a total loss of roughly 150 km2. Neptis Foundation determined that from 2006-2012, Simcoe County zoned 13,000 hectares of green space (mostly farmland) to designated greenfield areas – the most in the Greater Golden Horseshoe. This despite the fact that they were experiencing a fraction of growth compared to York, Waterloo and Peel and with an existing oversupply of land for development. Under the current proposals to the Growth Plan, this pattern of low density development will continue. Unbelievably, it is proposed to continue while we know that the province loses hundreds of acres of farmland per day to development; while Lake Simcoe struggles to assimilate urbanization to the detriment of its ecology and dependent industries; while we know that the assimilative capacity of the Nottawasaga River has already been maxed and while Simcoe County already sits on an excess amount of land zoned for development and employment.
Where is the balance in this approach? Where are the limits that ensure that communities are growing sustainably? Where are the aspirational policies that support the economies and communities of the future?