Policy Brief: Barrie's Housing Community Improvement Plan (CIP)

Barrie’s CIP is a key policy supporting its goal of ensuring that 15 to 20% of all new housing units are affordable.

Introduction

Barrie is engaging in public consultation on its Housing Community Improvement Plan (CIP), which is meant to support its goal of ensuring 15 – 20% of all new housing is affordable.

The CIP using a combination of incentives to stimulate development of desired housing outcomes, including grants and loans.

Details of the plan are available here.

For those wishing to participate, key dates, also noted on the City’s website here, are:

  • May 8th Public Meeting
  • May 29th General Committee Meeting
  • June 5th Council Meeting

Environmental Considerations

Sustainability and Energy Efficiency: The plan encourages developments that exceed minimum energy efficiency standards and incorporate high-quality urban design. High-quality urban design is characterized as projects that provide “a mix of uses on site or within the building, or provide additional on site amenities such as childcare facilities and community amenities”.

The prioritization of such projects is good, but the value of prioritization depends on demand, which intersects with a number of variables somewhat beyond the control of the municipality, including the housing market and the perceived demand/benefit to developers in building such projects.

Density and Land Use: The CIP supports medium and high-density housing, which can be more energy-efficient than low-density alternatives and better supports public transit, reducing per capita greenhouse gas emissions. However, the document could benefit from explicit incentives or requirements for integrating green infrastructure or renewable energy technologies into new developments.

Recommendations

Integrate Green Building Standards: Incorporate mandatory green building certifications (such as LEED, including specifically LEED ND, Passive House, or a similar standard) for all new developments seeking CIP incentives. This would ensure energy efficiency and sustainability are built into the core of new housing projects. This would also help establish quantification for potential carbon credits realization.

Promote Renewable Energy: Offer additional incentives for developments that integrate renewable energy sources, such as solar panels or geothermal systems, which can reduce long-term energy costs and environmental impact.

Examples

  • Toronto: West Don Lands: This neighbourhood is a notable example of LEED ND certification in Toronto. The development was designed with a focus on sustainability, featuring green roofs, energy-efficient buildings, and extensive stormwater management systems. It’s part of the Waterfront Toronto initiative, which aims to revitalize the city’s waterfront with sustainable urban neighbourhoods.
  • Vancouver, British Columbia: Southeast False Creek (Olympic Village): This development is one of the most well-known LEED ND Gold-certified communities in Canada. Originally constructed for the 2010 Winter Olympics, the area serves as a model for sustainable living with energy-efficient buildings, a neighbourhood energy system, and comprehensive recycling and composting programs.


Green building standards not only help reduce the environmental impact, but also often result in long-term cost savings for residents and businesses, helping to address affordability in the long-run.

  • Toronto: The City of Toronto has implemented the Home Energy Loan Program (HELP), which offers low-interest loans to homeowners who wish to improve energy efficiency and incorporate renewable energy technologies in their homes. Additionally, the Toronto Green Standard (TGS) incentivizes developers to exceed provincial building standards, including the use of renewable energy systems, by offering development charge rebates.
  • Guelph: The Guelph Energy Efficiency Retrofit Strategy (GEERS) is a plan to help homeowners finance residential energy upgrades through property-assessed payments. While primarily focused on energy efficiency, the program supports the inclusion of renewable energy installations like solar panels.
  • Ottawa: Ottawa offers a Green Home Program that provides financing to homeowners who are looking to make energy-efficient upgrades or install renewable energy systems. The city facilitates this through a Local Improvement Charge (LIC) that is tied to the property, not the owner, encouraging long-term investments in renewable energy.
  • Mississauga: As part of the Living Green Master Plan, Mississauga has explored incentives for sustainable development, including promoting renewable energy sources. The city encourages green roofs, solar energy, and sustainable building practices through various planning and building incentives.
  • Hamilton: Through its Sustainable Hamilton initiative, the city promotes various environmental sustainability programs, including incentives for energy audits, retrofits, and the installation of renewable energy systems. The city works closely with utilities and non-profit organizations to facilitate these programs.

Affordability

Financial Incentives: The CIP outlines various financial incentive programs, like the Per Door Grant and the Tax Increment Equivalent Grant (TIEG), which aim to increase the affordability of housing. These incentives are crucial for enabling the development of affordable housing units, which supports economic diversity within communities.

Affordability Duration: The requirement for affordable units to remain affordable for a minimum of 25 years is a strong point, ensuring long-term benefits. However, longer durations or permanent affordability could further strengthen community stability and housing security.

Recommendations

Long-Term Affordability: Increase the minimum affordability duration from 25 years to perpetuity or a significantly longer term. This can be structured through land trusts, long-term affordability covenants, or other legal mechanisms to ensure that housing remains affordable for future generations.

Inclusive Housing Models: Encourage the development of cooperative housing and other inclusive housing models which can provide more stable housing options and foster community among residents.

Examples

  • Toronto: The City of Toronto has been involved in various initiatives to promote long-term affordability. One of the significant tools is the use of the Toronto Community Housing Corporation (TCHC), which manages a large portfolio of social and affordable housing that is intended to remain affordable in perpetuity. Toronto also explores land trust models, especially for community land trusts that can maintain affordable housing indefinitely.
  • Hamilton: The City of Hamilton has been proactive in using tools such as municipal housing facility agreements that require affordability for a minimum of 20 years and often up to 25 years or more. Additionally, Hamilton has supported the development of affordable housing through its municipal non-profit corporation, CityHousing Hamilton, which provides long-term affordable housing.
  • Ottawa: Ottawa has implemented a variety of programs and policies to ensure long-term housing affordability. The city has worked through the Ottawa Community Land Development Corporation to develop affordable housing projects that remain affordable through long-term covenants and agreements.
  • Waterloo: The Region of Waterloo has utilized inclusionary zoning policies and land leases to maintain long-term affordability. These methods often tie affordable housing units to perpetual affordability or extend for durations that significantly exceed typical 20-25 year terms.
  • Kingston: Kingston has explored affordable housing policies that include long-term affordability mechanisms, such as long-term leases and restrictions that are placed on the properties to ensure they remain affordable housing assets for extended periods.

Walkability

Proximity to Amenities and Transit: The plan emphasizes development near transit facilities and community amenities, which is excellent for promoting walkability. This approach supports a reduced reliance on automobiles, contributing to lower traffic congestion and pollution.

Mixed-Use Developments: Encouraging mixed-use developments can enhance walkability by colocating residential, commercial, and recreational spaces, which minimizes the need for long commutes.

Recommendations

Pedestrian-Oriented Design: Require developments in the CIP to follow stringent pedestrian-oriented design principles, such as safe, well-lit sidewalks, pedestrian plazas, and other public spaces that encourage walking and reduce automobile dependency.

Diverse Mixed-Use Requirements: Set specific requirements for the percentage of commercial, recreational, and community service spaces in mixed-use developments to ensure that these are genuinely mixed and serve the local community’s needs.

Examples

  • Toronto: The City of Toronto’s Avenue and Mid-Rise Building Study encourages mixed-use developments along designated avenues. The guidelines suggest incorporating ground-floor retail and service uses in new mid-rise buildings, enhancing street-level activity and providing necessary services to residents and the community.
  • Vancouver, British Columbia: While not in Ontario, Vancouver’s Northeast False Creek Plan sets precise requirements for mixed-use developments, including the allotment of space for commercial, cultural, recreational, and community uses. This plan aims to create a vibrant, multi-use community hub that supports a high quality of life for its residents.
  • Mississauga: In its Downtown21 Master Plan, Mississauga outlines the transformation of the city centre into a vibrant, mixed-use area. The plan mandates a mix of commercial, residential, and open space uses to ensure the downtown serves as a dynamic urban centre.
  • Ottawa: The City of Ottawa’s Community Design Plans often include guidelines for mixed-use development that emphasize the inclusion of commercial and community service spaces. For instance, the Scott Street Community Design Plan focuses on integrating a mix of uses to support local needs and enhance urban vitality.
  • Kitchener: Kitchener’s Downtown Action and Investment Plan promotes mixed-use development that combines commercial, residential, and recreational uses. The plan aims to create a balanced urban environment with accessible community amenities.

Public Engagement

Consultation Process: The plan is prepared for public consultation, which is indicative of an inclusive approach. However, the robustness of this model would depend significantly on the extent and effectiveness of the outreach. Ensuring that diverse community voices, especially those from underrepresented groups, are heard can strengthen the plan.

Transparency and Accessibility: Making detailed program information and application processes available and easily understandable is crucial for effective public engagement. The plan’s use of an online portal is positive, but additional efforts like community meetings, workshops, and printed materials could enhance accessibility.

Recommendations

Diverse Engagement Strategies: Utilize a variety of engagement strategies tailored to different community groups. In addition to the online portal and public meeting, utilize focus groups, and printed materials distributed through community centres and local businesses.

Continuous Feedback Loop: Establish a continuous feedback mechanism where residents can provide ongoing input into the CIP’s implementation and effectiveness. This could include digital forums and annual community feedback surveys.

Examples

  • Toronto, Ontario: The City of Toronto has utilized a variety of engagement strategies for its Feeling Congested?transportation consultation process. This included online platforms, interactive workshops, and public meetings to gather input from a broad range of residents on transportation priorities.
  • Hamilton, Ontario: Hamilton’s Engage Hamilton platform showcases the city’s commitment to diverse engagement strategies. This platform uses online surveys, virtual town halls, and interactive mapping tools to gather community feedback on different city projects, including its long-term waterfront development plans.
  • Calgary, Alberta: Calgary’s myCalgary portal includes features for ongoing public feedback on various urban projects. Residents can provide continuous input, which the city uses to adjust and improve projects as they develop.
  • Ottawa, Ontario: Ottawa uses a combination of Ottawa Insight surveys and interactive tools on its Engage Ottawa platform to maintain a continuous feedback loop with residents. This feedback informs the city on the effectiveness of services and projects, including community improvement plans.

Additional Recommendations

Ensure Equitable Access to Incentives

  • Transparent Scoring and Selection Criteria: Make scoring and selection criteria for financial incentives completely transparent, and provide workshops or consultations to help potential applicants understand how to maximize their applications’ success.
  • Proactive Outreach: Actively reach out to smaller developers and community groups that might lack the resources to navigate the application process. Offering technical assistance could democratize access to CIP benefits.

Monitor and Adjust Policies Based on Outcomes

  • Robust Monitoring Framework: Develop a robust framework for monitoring and publicly reporting the outcomes of the CIP programs. This should include metrics on economic impacts, environmental benefits, and community feedback.
  • Flexible Policy Adjustments: Ensure there is flexibility in the CIP to make adjustments based on real-world outcomes and emerging community needs. This could include adjusting incentive amounts, eligibility criteria, or program focus areas based on periodic reviews.

Potential Issues

  • Risk of Gentrification: While the plan focuses on increasing housing supply and affordability, there is a potential risk of gentrification if not carefully managed, where rising property values could displace long-time residents.
  • Sufficiency of Incentives: The effectiveness of financial incentives in actually making projects feasible can vary, and the competitive nature of grant applications may mean not all worthy projects receive funding.

Conclusion

Barrie’s CIP is a positive step towards a city where affordable housing is integrated across various developments, promoting social equity and diversity. The focus on both rental and ownership options reflects an interest in, and we hope commitment to, providing a range of housing solutions suitable for different demographics.

By incentivizing the construction of both nonprofit and market/for-profit developments, the plan seems well positioned to support a thriving economy while also addressing housing needs. This dual focus is likely aimed at balancing immediate housing demands with long-term economic stability.

The Ford government has made a mess of planning. Now, municipal governments have a chance to correct some of that.

Our open letter on the reversal announced by this government to changes made to municipal official plans, outlining our concerns with a lack of accountability and transparency in how the Minister is proceeding.

The Greenbelt scandal is a symptom of a larger problem, of a trend towards a lack of accountability in democratic decision making.

Anyone who follows the news in Ontario will know that this government has been forced into a humiliating retreat in its attempt to give land from the Greenbelt to a select group of well-connected developers.

Screenshot of CBC's coverage of Ontario Premier Doug Ford announcing the reversal to Greenbelt land take-outs. Credit CBC.

This screenshot is from CBC’s coverage of Premier Ford’s announcement of the reversal of the Greenbelt land take-outs.

As you read through the rest of this piece, consider the theatre of this image, with the many MPPs arrayed behind the Premier, and the difference between that nod to collective accountability and the private message from the new Minister to mayors.

See more of CBC’s coverage here.

What is less well known is that another major policy reversal, with many parallels to the Greenbelt scandal, is currently underway, too. For many, this second reversal may be even more impactful than that which deals with the Greenbelt.

At around the same time that Greenbelt lands were being carved up, municipalities across Ontario were sending their Official Plan to the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing for approval.

Official Plans are the result of years of hard work. Town halls were held and public engagement portals established so that residents could be involved in the process, providing input into how their communities would be shaped over the coming years. Municipal staff, mayors, and councillors worked to incorporate this feedback, representing a dialogue between local government and citizens, into the plans, such that they reflected the priorities of communities they represent. And, finally, these plans were debated and passed by municipal councils, elected by and accountable to their constituents.

The process in Ontario is for these plans, passed by municipalities, to then be sent on to the Ministry for approval. This is in large part due to the role that the provincial government is meant to play in overseeing and coordinating regional planning. So, accordingly, plans were sent to the Ministry. Within short order, however, many of these plans were returned with lines crossed out, words replaced, and whole paragraphs added.

Official Plans Changed Unilaterally

In Hamilton, the Official Plan was changed so that thousands of hectares of farmland meant to remain off limits to development was, instead, opened up for development. (Ryan Amato, Chief of Staff to Minister Clarke and who was central to the Greenbelt scandal, was also involved with this decision.)

Closer to home, Barrie’s Official Plan was edited to water down requirements for affordable housing and increased density, among many other changes that developers wanted but hadn’t been included.

Often the changes made by the Ministry closely follow language used in requests for changes to the plan that were made by third parties, namely developers or their representatives.

Again, well connected developers had what seemed like a preferential connection to the Minister’s office that, in effect, placed their interests above that of the public. The result was the overriding of the processes of public engagement that helped to shape the Official Plans passed by municipalities. Voices of community members, as a consequence, were ignored and shut out.

This is a view of community ownership that sees it as belonging to developers, rather than those who live and work there.

Retreat, or Attempt to Do An End-Run

The retreat from these changes are likely an attempt to stem the deluge of negative responses to the government’s misleading of the public, to their preferential treatment of some of the province’s wealthiest individuals, and to their disregard for due processes and democratic accountability.

On the Ministry’s website, the announcement of the reversal states that they would “wind back provincial changes to official plans and official plan amendments”. In the statement there are two specific exceptions, namely, “in circumstances where construction has begun” or “where doing so would contravene existing provincial legislation and regulation”.

That’s what the Minister is telling the public.

What he’s telling mayors, privately, is very different.

The End-Run

In an email to mayors, recently leaked to Environment Defence, the Minister makes assurances that the province will accept, “changes that the municipality would like to see made to the official plan, based on the modifications that the province had previously made, and which you [the Mayor] support.” (Emphasis added.)

A clipping of the letter, which was leaked to Environmental Defence, that Minister Calandra sent privately to mayors, in which he indicates they may make unilateral changes to Official Plans.

Find the whole letter on Environmental Defence’s website, here.

As with the Greenbelt scandal, decision making authority is being removed from the processes previously established.

Public input and engagement is left out, due and deliberate process is left out, incorporating the expertise of staff is left out. Those with access to mayors, whether inside or outside of established channels, have the advantage.

The informality of this is exactly what characterised the process, or lack thereof, that led to the Greenbelt land take-outs – trips by MPPs and staff together with developers to Las Vegas, invitations to family weddings where manilla envelopes with instructions on which land parcels should be removed from the Greenbelt were passed between developers and members of the government, government members using personal phones and email for correspondence, which makes it difficult for records of communications to be obtained.

Why Due Process is Important, and Conclusion

It seems strange to have to say this, but necessary given the repeated actions of this government – due processes exist for a reason, which is that they are transparent, accountable, and as such provide outcomes that benefit all of society, not just a select few.

The Ministry has it right with its public statement – Official Plans should be reinstated as they were passed by municipal councils.

The Minister, however, does not have it right with his private message to mayors. Even with so-called “strong mayor” powers, mayors do not have the mandate to unilaterally change an Official Plan.

To that end, we are heartened that some mayors of affected communities, including Barrie’s, seem to have come out in favour of fully reinstating the Official Plan as it was developed through the established process.

This is important, we believe, to underline democratic principles of due process, including public participation and accountability.

It is also important as it reaffirms the mandate linked to the passage of the Official Plan, which was that of the previous council. Substantial changes to work done by past councils, or any other government for that matter, without using established processes, is an extremely problematic precedent to set.

We recognize that as time passes changes may be necessary, but this must be done using the processes in place. The Official Plan is updated every 5 years, and processes such as secondary plans can address changes outside of that timeframe. These processes include council, public engagement mechanisms, and ensure that any changes made remain accountable to the public.

Official Plans are among the most important components of planning and building our communities, the places where we live, play, and work. They deserve to be given the highest level of consideration, which includes the best possible process of deliberation.

Adam Ballah

Adam has worked with SCGC since, almost, its conception. He holds a Masters Degree in Environmental Studies from York University, and is deeply interested (and concerned) with intersections between risk, vulnerability, and security when it comes to climate impacts.

Vertical Sprawl and Building Sustainable Communities

By building spaces that prioritize equity, diversity, and inclusion, we are setting the foundations for a future that is more sustainable.

You’ve probably heard of sprawl. Largely residential areas that are characterized by roads, single family homes with front lawns and backyards, a garage, elementary schools located nearby, parks with playgrounds in them.

In its most extreme form, sprawl features cul-de-sacs and ‘monster’ homes – dead end roads that provide no use to anyone but those who live there, and houses characterized by ostentation, by outward appearance rather than craftsmanship or construction quality.

Sprawl, thanks in large part to the power of marketing, represents the modern version of the American dream. Bigger is better. Appearance matters more than substance. Fake it ’till you make it.

These are places where cars are needed to access basic amenities, such as grocery stores, pharmacies, doctors offices… The standard definition of urban sprawl, in keeping with the scene described above, is “the spreading of urban developments (such as houses and shopping centres) on undeveloped land near a city.”

This isn’t to say that the feature of appearance over substance isn’t based on a cold calculus, that it is absent a substantive rationale. For developers, sprawl is attractive for a reason.

Farmland surrounding built-up areas can be purchased relatively cheaply. Once it is brought within the urban boundary and approved for a subdivision, the value of that land skyrockets. And there’s a perverse incentive built into this system, which is the more land that is developed, the less land there is to build upon. As the supply of available land is constrained, the value of it grows.

There is a historical rationale for sprawl, too. Post World War II, housing development was a key economic stimulus program. Building homes provided income, which in turn went towards purchasing homes, and all of this helped to support the massive increase of the middle class.

But this was the ‘golden age’ of modernity. A time when there seemed to be no limits on what humanity was capable of.

Ad from the 50s showing suburbia, with two women, streets, lawns, and cars.

An ad from the 1950s. Lots of lawn and green spaces held promise for those looking for a contrast from the concrete jungles of downtown.

In the aftermath of the war the vision of a utopia, with peaceful neighbourhoods, open spaces, privacy, and the ability to do as you like, carried powerful appeal.

The Costs of Sprawl

To those living in the 1950s, building in a way that spread outward, as opposed to the more compact form of city downtowns, was a no-brainer. More space meant freedom, and in particular freedom from the noise and smells and traffic – and difference, specifically racial differences – of downtowns. Suburbia meant privilege, and meant white.

The costs associated with building, and then maintaining these spread-out communities were a feature, not a bug – government largess meant jobs, and the economy was booming.

But, as we’ve since discovered, there are problems that arise when we do too much of something and don’t account for the impacts.

Fossil fuels and our heavy reliance on cars have led to the ever-growing problem of climate change, for example. With regard to sprawl, the car-centric design has made it difficult to move beyond our reliance on fossil fuels.

Additional problems, or impacts that weren’t accounted for in the decades past, have also cropped up.

Land that otherwise provides a great deal of value to the public, providing food when used for agriculture or ecosystem services, including air and water filtration and carbon sequestration, when allowed to remain in its natural state, is destroyed for a built form that is extremely expensive to maintain. The public loses the value of the services that nature provides and also has to pay for infrastructure, including roads and wastewater, which is stretched too far between houses for the tax base to sustain. Sprawl is always heavily subsidized.

The issues outlined above are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the costs of sprawl, leading many to advocate for changing the built form from sprawling outwards to one that focuses on increased density within already built-up areas.

High rises offer the promise of greatly increasing the number of people located on a given plot of land. More people equal more densely located tax revenue, which, in turn, supports greater public services, such as transit, parks, libraries and community centres.

A photo of streetcars in Toronto, Ontario. Restaurants are in the background, with patio seating on the sidewalk. Photo by Debora Fontana on Unsplash

On the surface, more high-rise buildings are a good thing. But, as is often the case, there are caveats and trade-offs that need to be understood so that we don’t repeat the mistakes of sprawl. With intensification, there can also be what is known as vertical sprawl.

Vertical sprawl refers to buildings that are, for the most part, taller than several storeys.

One of the authorities in the area, Brendan Gleeson, of the University of Melbourne in Australia, defines vertical sprawl as “the poor-quality, high-density buildings that are increasingly compacting our cities.” In other words, these are the high rises that you’ve most likely seen in cities around the world.

Problems of Vertical Sprawl

Vertical sprawl has a number of problems, some of which it shares with the more conventionally understood horizontal sprawl. Below we take a look at some of them.

Social Brittleness, or Lack of Diverse Experiences

To answer the question of what a proper urban density should be, Jane Jacobs noted that it is more a matter of performance than of abstractions about quantities of land and people. She, rightly we believe, focuses on what the purpose of the built environment should be directed towards, arguing that “densities are too low or too high when they frustrate city diversity instead of abetting it.”1Jacobs, Jane. The Death and Life of Great American Cities: Orig. Publ. 1961. Vintage Books, 1992

But why is diversity such an important thing to cities?

In horizontal sprawl, diversity is reduced by reliance on the car, primarily.

Due to the greater distance between houses, the length of roadway connecting them, as well as neighbourhood to neighbourhood, a car is needed just to access most neighbourhoods. While there are often transit options in the suburbs, these tend to be minimal, the use of which carries a degree of friction that represents a barrier to access rather than a preferred alternative to car transportation.

Further reduction in diversity occurs when cars are used as the primary mode of transportation simply due to the fact that, when inside are car, there is a greater degree of separation from the outside world. Travelling in this isolated state from the house to the grocery store and then back again removes a significant portion of interactions that could occur between those two locations. 

Previous slide
Next slide

These graphics show the possibilities for social interactions in a car dependant suburb, and a walkable community.

In the suburb, interactions are greatly reduced due to the primary role that cars play in transportation, while in a walkable community they are greatly increased due to the amount of time people spend in proximity to one another.

In a walkable community, these interactions take place in the public sphere, and can occur as happenstance. Unpredictable meetings like these present opportunities to meet and get to know people you might not otherwise come into contact with. This helps to build a sense of community by strengthening connections and shared experiences among those within it.

Furthermore, the unpredictable or happenstance nature of the meetings that occur in these settings help to ‘cross-pollinate’ experiences between different communities, leading to the creation of overarching ‘inter-communities’ that increase diversity of understandings, experiences, and opportunities. These inter-communities are particularly fertile soil for the creative and innovative activities that are so crucial to flourishing cities.

High-rises can contribute to a greater number of people within a space, increasing the interactions that occur, but there are also drawbacks that are inherent in the tall built form that can actually reduce the diversity of experience in the shared spaces surrounding them.

Above several floors, construction costs increase rapidly. This is due to simple factors, such as the increase in time that it takes for workers and materials to get to the construction site. Taller buildings require more complex engineering solutions, as well. High rises are notoriously bad at retaining energy, requiring a large amount of air conditioning in the summer and heat in the winter. These factors, and more, lead to an increase in cost for units built above several floors, making them more expensive to purchase. (We will pick up on this point and how it relates to resilience and security a little later on.)

This raises obvious concerns regarding the role of high rises in addressing the lack of affordable housing.

By limiting residency to those above a higher income than what could be met with the mid-rise form, this also acts in as an exclusionary filtering process that is similar to that observed in horizontal sprawl outlined above, albeit absent reliance (for the most part) on a car to access basic amenities. Those most likely to frequent areas surrounding the high rise, namely the residents of it, will tend to fall within a more narrowly defined social category.

The greater costs associated with high rises tend to drive rent up in surrounding areas, contributing to gentrification, which results, first, in economic exclusion and then, second, in the corollary social exclusion.

In 2020 the Toronto neighbourhood of Parkdale experienced a take-over of sorts. A struggling neighbourhood for a long time, it had become something of a success story as residents co-created solutions to address issues associated with poverty and addictions.

When a large corporation bought up much of the housing stock, things began to change.

Read the article >

There are caveats to this dynamic.

First, condos can be built in such a way as to provide lower cost, more affordable housing. The Jane-Finch area in Toronto is an example of this, as are a number of apartment complexes in Barrie, and any number of cities across North America. 

That said, unit size tends to be small, so that as many as possible can be packed into the floor space. Small unit size is a major reason why condos are not seen as a viable alternative to a detached or semi-detached house for many families.

Second, the gentrification effect that condos may have, even luxury ones, one surrounding rents can be ameliorated by the increase in housing supply the condo brings to the market. This, of course, is in dynamic relationship to the business case for building – demand justifies the development. If rents in the area surrounding the building offer a more attractive alternative to those offered by the building itself, the development will be in trouble. That said, there is at least short-term evidence showing that rents surrounding developments of high-rise buildings do, in certain circumstances, go down.

What these caveats suggest, however, is that, if the goal is reasonably priced, family-sized units, high-rises are unlikely to be the best option.

We tackled the issue of tall sprawl on a recent episode of our Tree Planters podcast.

It’s a great companion listen to this article, so queue it up for your next walk!

Economic Brittleness, or Lack of Diverse Opportunities

As the value of land surrounding high rises goes up, mom-and-pop stores and locally owned businesses find it increasingly difficult to maintain a presence. This is particularly true for businesses that offer unique goods. As their margins are often razor-thin, and any lag in revenue can be catastrophic.

The brittleness of this dynamic takes a few steps to understand.

As with shopping plazas associated with horizontal sprawl, it is primarily corporate businesses that have pockets deep enough to be able to afford the higher rates associated with high rises. Corporate retail is often characterized by what is known as ‘the Walmart effect’, in which employees are paid wages that are closer to the bottom end of the spectrum.

Smaller, more diverse land ownership, can help increase competition for rent, maintaining some degree of downward pressure, helping smaller businesses gain a foothold that is otherwise far more difficult for them to find. By pricing out competition, large landowners, such as those who build and operate malls or corporate plazas, are better able to monopolize rent demands.

This quote, from the excellent book, “The Gardens of Democracy”, by Eric Liu and Nick Hanauer, pushes home the point:

The market is the first force that has led to the shriveling of citizenship. The classic case is the Wal-Mart effect. A town has a Main Street of small businesses and mom-and-pop shops. The shopkeepers and their customers have relationships that are not just about economic transactions but are set in a context of family, neighborhood, people, and place. Then Wal-Mart comes to town. It offers lower prices. It offers convenience. Because of its scale and might in the marketplace, it can compensate its workers stingily and drive out competition.

 

The presence of Wal-Mart leads the townspeople to think of themselves primarily as consumers, and to shed other aspects of their identities, like being neighbors or parishioners or friends. As consumers first, they gravitate to the place with the lowest prices. Wal-Mart thrives. The small businesses struggle and lay off workers. They cut back on their sponsorship of tee ball, their support of the food bank. As the mom-and-pops give way to the big box, and commutes become necessary, lives become more frenetic and stressful. People see each other less often. The sense of mutual obligation that townsfolk once shared starts to evaporate. Microhabits of caring and sociability fall away. In this tableau of libertarian citizenship, market forces triumph and everyone gets better deals – yet everyone is now in many senses poorer.2Hanauer, Nick; Liu, Eric. The Gardens of Democracy. Sasquatch Books, 2011.

The Gardens of Democracy is, hands down, one of the best books addressing the problems of our democratic society today.

You can purchase it using our affiliate link by clicking on the image, below.

The Gardens Of Democracy: A New American Story Of Citizenship, The Economy, And The Role Of Government

High rises function similarly, both with respect to residential units and associated commercial units, and, albeit in a less direct way, with respect to surrounding residential and commercial property.

Resilience and Security

Just over a month has passed since Russia invaded Ukraine. Gas prices have shot up, due to the interconnectedness of global energy markets, Russia’s large role therein, and sanctions, as well as other moves, against Russian oil.

Drivers and a man pushing a lawnmower line up at gas station in San Jose, Calif., on March 15, 1974. AP.

Drivers and a man pushing a lawnmower line up at gas station in San Jose, Calif., on March 15, 1974. (AP)

Taken from NPR this article under fair-use guidelines for educational purposes.

We’ve been here before, a few times. In the 1970s, the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries, or OPEC, reduced exports in protest of the United States’ support for Israel in the Yom Kipper War, prompting shortages and lineups at gas stations.

There’s a through-line in thinking about how to address these crises, stretching from at least the 70s to today, which is that energy security, and accordingly economic security, is best ensured by increasing domestic supply and diversifying international supply.

There is little attention paid, however, to reducing the need for supply in the first place, yet this is one of the best bang-for-buck solutions available.

You will note, illustrated in the picture above, that one of the aspects of our economy that is most exposed to oil price fluctuations are internal combustion engine (ICE) automobiles, and you may be already making the connection between our reliance on automobiles and horizontal, car dependant sprawl.

Only about 12 – 30% of the energy that we put into an ICE vehicle results in movement. The rest is lost to engine and driveline inefficiencies (thermal or heat loss, for instance), as well as used for accessory purposes.

Combine this with the increased travel distance that sprawl induces, and residents are stuck between a rock and a hard place when it comes to their reliance on the car.

This high reliance creates a form of lock-in, a dependency that limits the options of residents when something like a natural disaster happens. (Or a not so natural disaster like the OPEC embargo of the 70s.) This lock-in makes people highly vulnerable to changes that are beyond their control.

For an in-depth discussion of security issues related to energy and the Russian invasion of Ukraine, listen to Ezra Klein speak with economic historian and writer, Daniel Yergin.

The Ezra Klein Show >

This is vulnerability is particularly acute when, to overcome the hazards caused by circumstances beyond their control, such as the flooding of a main road, a high degree of resources, such as energy, is required.

The same dynamic happens with tall buildings. As noted above, the taller a building is, generally, the less energy efficient it is. To overcome this inefficiency we throw energy at it, in the form of air conditioning or heating, in the form of elevators to overcome the height barrier, in the form of increasingly complex engineering solutions for waste and other challenges present.

As this just finished project in Hamilton demonstrates, high-rises can be built with a very high degree of energy efficiency. But, all else being equal, a mid-rise, built to the same specifications, is more energy efficient than a high-rise.

The key point of this dynamic, which is missing, unfortunately from the discussions of most experts, including that on the Ezra Klein Show linked to here (still a highly recommended show and episode), is that we are perfectly capable of building in a far, far more efficient manner, and that by doing so we will greatly improve the resilience of our communities and the security of our nation.

As this just finished project in Hamilton demonstrates, high-rises can be built with a very high degree of energy efficiency. 

Public Dynamism Is Needed for a Healthy Society

Vertical sprawl has another characteristic that inhibits the vitality of surrounding public space, which is known as “time to street.” Put simply, this refers to the amount of time that it takes to reach the street from a residence. The higher the residence, or farther away that it is from the street, the longer it takes. This represents a barrier that inhibits propinquity in the public space surrounding the high rise. 

Time to street is a characteristic that is, in some respects, shared with more conventional sprawl, though the understanding has to be reframed slightly.

Viewed as the time that it takes residents to access areas meant for public life, such as playgrounds and parks, the time that it takes for residents of horizontal sprawl to access them is clearly longer than is desirable for a vibrant public sphere. 

A healthy, vibrant public space is fostered by low barriers to public activity and interaction. Benches and public furniture that encourage people to linger and inhabit a space, a diversity of activity, including walking, running, cycling, busking, eating, options for shopping, all combine to create the bustle that brings life into a space.

Accessibility to public spaces, drawing on multiple transportation options that bring people into it, as well as the function of the space itself being amenable to all, regardless of ability, age, orientation, economic or social situation, or any other attribute, is the lifeblood of a healthy society.

Photo of a woman in a wheelchair and another sitting on a bench in a park. The woman on the bench is showing the woman in the wheelchair her phone. Credit Gustavo Fring.

The architect has an opportunity to meet a small business owner, or a restaurant server, or an artist, or someone struggling with addictions, or a student… you get the point.

The value of this is that it helps reinforce and reproduce the dynamism of the public space.

When people meet others who are not from their particular walk of life, their understanding of society at large grows – a greater appreciation is developed for the needs that the student might have, such as for lower tuition rates or better access to apprenticeship opportunities, in the case of post-secondary students, or the life-affirming services associated with harm reduction for the individual struggling with addition.

Contrast this diversity of activity with the more regimented form typical of sprawl – where a walk to get groceries in a livable community comes with the likelihood of meeting a neighbour, the drive to get groceries in a suburban area encloses the individual within a metal box from their house to the store. Once at the store there may be the opportunity for interaction, but this is less than what might otherwise be since those driving to the store are from a much larger catchment area, and so also less likely to share commonalities with each other, such as their children attending the same school.

An screenshot of a streetscape, taken from the City of Barrie's Urban Intensification Guidelines document.

Screenshot of a streetscape photo included in Barrie’s Intensification Area Urban Design Guidelines. Note the many shops and wide pedestrian area.

What Does This Mean For Simcoe County?

Here, in Simcoe County, we see far more horizontal sprawl than vertical sprawl. Smaller communities, availability of land, proximity to Toronto for work, and the so-called ‘drive until you qualify’ effect, along with the limiting effect that the Greenbelt has upon sprawl, leading to it ‘leap frogging’ over it, combine to create welcoming conditions for urban boundary expansion.

In Barrie, however, which is the largest city in the area (and, as a single tier municipality, not formerly a part of Simcoe County) there has been recognition recently of the need for intensification.

The City of Barrie’s Intensification Area Urban Design Guidelines document shows renderings with buildings no more than several storeys tall, lining streetscapes with wide pedestrian walks, shops, and lots of greenery. The guidelines state that the maximum allowable height of new buildings should be set at 8-storeys, (i) going on to note: 

“generally, new buildings should have a mid-rise scale (4 to 8-storeys that promotes human- scaled development, minimizes adverse impacts on adjacent streetscapes, and provides appropriate transitions to nearby residential neighbourhoods.” (67)

Allowable heights may be increased at “Key Opportunity Sites”, but only up to at height that is equal to a 1:1 ratio with the right-of-way width, or 11 storeys, whichever is less. 

Screenshot of artistic rendering of a streetscape, taken from Barrie's Intensification Area Urban Design Guidelines. Credit City of Barrie.

This screenshot of an artistic rendering of a streetscape is taken from Barrie’s Intensification Area Urban Design Guidelines.

By far the majority of imagery used in this document highlight mid-rise development, street-level stores, and dynamic pedestrian spaces.

While there has been far more of this type of development occurring in Barrie recently, there is also a seeming disconnect between what is advocated in the guidelines, noted above, and what is occurring in the downtown area. This 3D rendering, shown by a developer during a community information session, with building storeys highlighted by Reddit user “throwawaybarrie”, shows proposals that are currently underway or that will be soon.

Proposed high-rise developments in Barrie, Ontario. Credit u/throwawaybarrie.

Rendering of the proposed developments in Barrie’s downtown, shared by a developer at a public meeting. The image has been marked up to show building heights, in floors, by Reddit user “throwawaybarrie”. 

A side-note: the nearest grocery store to these buildings is an 18-minute walk.

Admittedly, guidelines are guidelines, not mandates, and council is not required to adhere to them. But the seeming divergence from a document, created by staff to help guide how the City grows, should be questioned.

Developers seek to build in a form that best maximizes their profit. For land that is cheaper, this tends to mean houses that are more spread out, with a higher premium placed on the sale of the land and associated building. With land that is more costly, such as that in more built-up areas that is closer to existing amenities, there is a need to increase the amount that the resulting building can bring in. Accordingly, a developer will want to maximize the number of units they are able to sell on the plot of land. There is a limiting factor to this, however, which is that, as noted above, the costs associated with building a high-rise increase dramatically beyond several floors. 

The type of building that a developer wants in a given location, in other words, will tend to match their ability to extract a degree of profit from it. For an extremely tall building, such as those lining Billionaire’s Row in New York, the units can be sold of exorbitant prices, while in downtown Barrie, a more modest height reflects the premium a developer is able to charge for the units in the building.

Conclusion

If anything, the gap between low-rise and high-rise – the so-called “missing middle” – is an indication of a top-heavy market, wherein a relatively small number of developers, who are able to access financing for larger developments, have far more sway than smaller, more locally rooted, developers.

Funding and other tools, including target permitting changes, should be made available to help those seeking to build mid-rise developments, those who want to do the type of construction that mirrors what Barrie’s intensification guidelines set out.

The missing middle, in other words, is more about livability maximization than profit maximization.

In most of the discourse surrounding housing and affordability in Ontario, let alone Canada, much of the emphasis is on built form, with proponents arguing in favour of increased density, calling those who oppose high-rises in their neighbourhoods NIMBYs, short for “not in my backyard”, framed as a pejorative.

Those who want to keep their neighbourhood the same are, thus, against more affordable housing, and, as a recent article by a prominent planner argues, consequently also blocking progress towards a more just society.

What accusations of NIMBYism fail to adequately address, however, is a history of planning and development that has created a certain type of community. This is a community that has certain characteristics that also acts as barriers to change, and in particular to the type of change advocated by proponents of increased density. Large-scale planned development, whether horizontal or vertical, is extremely difficult to change, it is brittle in many respects, and the sociality of those inhabiting it reflects this.

It should surprise no one, then, that a built form based on single homeownership, wherein that home is the primary means of economic security and those inhabiting it see themselves mirrored in those around them, that this is a form resistant to change. What is it that the people inhabiting these spaces care for? How to conceive of and experience their ‘backyard”? What shapes and constrains a community, in other words, and how do we help an established community feel confident and safe about becoming something very different?

A photo of a woman and child walking, taken from behind. The woman is holding the child's hand. Trees and fall leaves line the path ahead of them. Credit Krzysztof Kowalik.

The key point here is that the built form enables certain types of community. Accordingly, if you want community that enhances civic spirit, that contributes to a sense of shared purpose and common goals, that helps people cut across social and economic divisions to foster greater social understands and cohesion, you need to building spaces that welcome those type of experiences. Furthermore, and continuing from the above, if you want a community that is more open to change, you need to reflect that in the built form. Allow for modularity, for creativity, for re-purposing to suit changing needs. The dynamism of such spaces has exponential returns.

One thing that needs to be addressed here is whether and how building more mid-rise than high-rise will limit urban expansion. As argued above, mid-rise development, and missing middle development generally, is more conducive to a strengthened middle class, such that there is greater social and economic equity through society. 

Alternately, sprawl, both horizontal and vertical, with its higher degree of private capital, increases social and economic polarization. 

It is well known that the most powerful factor in reducing population growth, a key driver behind urban expansion, is greater equity and, in particular, empowerment of women. By building spaces that prioritize equity, diversity, and inclusion, we and setting the foundations for a future that is more sustainable.

If you are to draw one conclusion or take-away from this piece – the TL;DR – it is that building, and the built environment, should reflect the needs and aspirations of a community, rather than the needs of an individual or small subset of a community.

Related Content

Photo of several high-rise apartment buildings, with blue sky above and trees below. Photo by Galen Crout on Unsplash

Vertical Sprawl

By building spaces that prioritize equity, diversity, and inclusion, we are setting the foundations for a future that is more sustainable. Sprawl, including vertical sprawl, is not the right way to do this.

Read More »
Photo of a highway bridge. Credit Ajai Arif.

The Bradford Bypass – Clearing the Air

There are a lot of misconceptions, myths, and misunderstandings regarding the role that highways and cars play in our economy, and the impact they have on our environment and communities. Many of these are coming to the fore with the Bradford Bypass. Here we address some of them.

Read More »
Arial view of suburban sprawl. Credit Blake Wheeler.

The New Growth Plan Puts Sprawl Over All

We can no longer treat land use as its own issue, nor can we always assume that growth is always a net benefit to our communities. This is simply not true. We can grow our communities in ways that provide affordable housing, protect our natural spaces and water and aspire to create healthy, vibrant centres where people can live and work.

Read More »

The View From Inside: Make it make sense

Let’s continue this conversation and demystify the planning process to make it make sense for the climate justice movement.

Look, I understand the problems with development, urban sprawl, and digging up wetlands. I know how these contribute to climate change and make us more vulnerable to the impacts of it. I understand the changes we need to make to prepare for worsening climate chaos. I’m sure you do too.

Finding out about individual projects in my county, city, neighbourhood, is a whole different matter. For one, you need to know the actual name of the development or project to look for info about it. I’ve been paying attention to Barrie’s Official Plan – I read through the draft, I provided some feedback via the website. I know the Plan wasn’t enough, but I found I could only understand this in general terms – I couldn’t address the specifics of planning, the specifics of what exactly needed to be pushed for.

We know we must pressure provincial and local governments for bold climate action (we say ‘bold’, but we really just mean ‘adequate’, which means very bold for the status quo). We can name things like better public transit, investing in renewable energies and retrofitting buildings, naturalizing our parks, etc. But it’s hard to figure out what’s happening inside the process to actually make these things happen (or not happen).

"I knew development hurts ecosystems and drives climate change (literally drives it, in cars), but it just seems so ubiquitous – how do we stop corporations and councils from developing land when it’s so hard to get clear information about specific projects?"

Understanding how the local planning process works is crucial in the fight for climate action.

But here’s the thing – there’s so much about planning that isn’t so readily shared. I’ve been realizing that there’s so much more going on. I’ve found out about so many development projects, many right here in Barrie. See, I knew development hurts ecosystems and drives climate change (literally drives it, in cars), but it just seems so ubiquitous – how do we stop corporations and councils from developing land when it’s so hard to get clear information about specific projects?

Okay, so you see construction for a development project. You know it’s probably for-profit and won’t come close to meeting any climate standards. What do you do? Stopping projects once they’re started is hard, especially when our entire system is built to do everything for profit, no matter the real cost. This is why putting on the pressure during planning is so important.

These projects get sorted and contracts get signed long before the Earth gets dug and construction signs go up. This part is not so visible to the public. Sure, the councils must make some of this publicly available, but you really have to know what to look for and understand what the technical reports, bylaws and zoning stuff mean to do anything.

It’s like they make planning as uninteresting and seemingly inconsequential as possible so that people don’t actually get involved. A citizenry that’s not informed can’t participate very well.

Community supported, advocacy for a safe and secure future.

Governments have failed to act to protect our communities and the futures of our children and grandchildren, and they continue to treat our environment as if it’s incidental to life, rather than a foundation for it.

We need strong community organizations to fight for our future, now more than ever.

Please consider donating to support our work. It’s people like you who make us possible.

"...if I’m not a planner, why should I care? Turns out, the MCR is a big review of Simcoe County’s planning until 2051. It will determine how the County will plan and develop for the next few decades."

An example – the MCR, or Municipal Comprehensive Review. I hadn’t really heard much about it until recently and information on it is vague and bureaucratic. Cool, so if I’m not a planner, why should I care? Turns out, the MCR is a big review of Simcoe County’s planning until 2051. It will determine how the County will plan and develop for the next few decades.

AKA, it will determine whether or not Simcoe County meets the 2030 and 2050 climate targets.

Reduce emissions
50% by 2030

Reduce emissions
to zero by 2050

That’s a simplification to be sure, and only one implication of the MCR, but that’s a pretty big deal that people should know about. How did I not hear about this sooner?

And there’s other examples: MZOs (or Municipal Zoning Orders) basically let the province override local rules to push through development projects without the public consultation or environmental assessment parts of planning – two of the main parts of the planning process. The Ontario government has ordered a lot of these for private developers here in Simcoe County, and some are going to cut into local wetlands and other habitats that should have been protected.

Planning for climate change means planning within an ‘settlement boundary’, which is a limited amount of space that can be used to build new buildings and roads. This stops urban sprawl and the creation of new subdivisions or commercial areas that require more roads and cars to get to, and protects the land that we have left from being dug up for development.

Many current development projects aim to change the ‘zoning’ or categorization of land from ‘farming’ or ‘environmentally protected’ to ‘industrial’ so that it’s allowed to be developed. This means that we’re losing ecosystems and farmland that we need to protect to make our communities resilient to climate change and avoid flooding and food shortages.

My point is that learning about how planning works is important because it helps us get climate justice happening on the local level. It helps us understand how these changes can actually play out through local government.

"...learning about how planning works is important because it helps us get climate justice happening on the local level"

But there’s a lot to learn and not a lot of clear information, so how can we learn more?

  • Well, doing some quick research is a start – look for local groups that have campaigns about local development issues (like the Rescue Lake Simcoe Coalition and Simcoe County Environmental Youth Alliance). 
  • Simcoe County Greenbelt Coalition is working to become a good resource that translates the planning process into clear and simple terms for youth and the public (check out our Issues Map to see some of the current development projects happening in your community and how to get involved). 
  • Talk to your friends and others you know about how the planning process today determines a lot about your lives and the lives of future generations. 
  • Talk to classmates and teachers – is there a local issue that you can learn about as a class and turn into an action project? (hint: city planning can connect to all subjects in the curriculum, no matter what grade you’re in!).

Let’s continue this conversation and demystify the planning process to make it make sense for the climate justice movement.

Kelly, signing off. 

P.S – I think of these blog posts as an ongoing discussion. You can share your comments below, on social media (links below!) or get in touch with me at kelly@simcoecountygreenbelt.ca.

Picture of Kelly Gingrich

Kelly Gingrich

SCGC Youth Engagement Lead

How Can You Get Involved?

  1. Contact Kelly using the email provided above.
  2. Follow us on social media using the icons below.
  3. Sign up to our newsletter at the bottom of this page to stay informed on developments with growing the Greenbelt and limiting sprawl.

Related Content

A photo of scaffolding on a construction site. Photo by Tolu Olubode on Unsplash.
Affordable Housing

Analysis: More Homes Built Faster Act

Recent moves by Ontario’s government seem likely to create conditions for a number of crises in the next few decades that, when combined, are greater than the sum of their parts. This is what’s known as a “polycrisis”, a term popularized by economic historian Adam Tooze.

Read More »
Photo of an urban park, with benches on which people are sitting in the foreground and lawn and trees in the background. Photo by I Do Nothing But Love on Unsplash .
Planning

Simcoe County 2022 – 2051 Land Needs Assessment

…value in the context of a community is achieved through livability, which in turn drives economic and social dynamism. Propinquity, or the accessibility of the areas we inhabit, whether that’s for people we socialise with or for consumer good or employment, is the key metric to achieve in this regard. Build communities for people and good things happen.

Read More »

Subscribe to Our Newsletter

We send out a once-monthly newsletter full of information on what’s happening in Simcoe County and beyond, including information on how you can take action to protect the health of your community.

Hi there!


Use this form to send an email to our general inquiries address.

Photo of a giraffe's head against a clear blue sky. Credit Gary Bendig.
Please enable JavaScript in your browser to complete this form.
Name

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.

Hi there!

Use this form to send Margaret an email.
Please enable JavaScript in your browser to complete this form.
Name

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.

Hi there!


Use this form to send Adam an email.

Adam-2
Please enable JavaScript in your browser to complete this form.
Name

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.

Hi there!


Use this form to send Julie an email.

Please enable JavaScript in your browser to complete this form.
Name

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.

Thank you for signing up!

Be the change!

You have more power than you think.

Make a choice for a better future.

Donating to SCGC means your impact is local, direct, and helps build better, more sustainable communities in central Ontario.

Subscribe to Our Newsletter!

A monthly missive, full of information on what’s happening in Simcoe County and beyond, community polls you can vote on, and deep dives into key topics.

Become part of our network. Stay informed. Take action. Protect Ontario.

Friends. Online censorship by unaccountable tech companies, combined with an all-out assault on the Greenbelt by Ontario’s developers/government, make this a perilous time for the future of democracy and the power of the people in Ontario.

We need to build new ways of empowering those who believe in accountability, in a healthy environment, and in communities ready to thrive in the economy of tomorrow.

Join our supporter network and stay informed about efforts and actions to protect the Greenbelt, to build communities that support the health and well-being of people, and to lay the foundations of a resilient, climate friendly future.

Please enable JavaScript in your browser to complete this form.
Name
Address (Optional)
How did you hear about us?(Optional)