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. 

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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.

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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.

Municipalities in the Lake Simcoe region, including just recently Barrie, are being asked to weigh in on the Bradford Bypass, a proposed highway that would run just north of Bradford, through the Greenbelt and Holland Marsh, to connect the 404 and 400 highways.

There have been a number of statements and assertions made in support of the project. Environmental organizations, including ours, and community members argue, however, that these points either don’t hold water, or that they represent ways of planning that are outdated in an age of environmental crises.

Let’s look at some of the main arguments supporters make and why they are wrong.

Argument 1: It isn't our problem

This argument is tied in with jurisdictional concerns, but there’s an important distinction to be made between the political boundary, on the one hand, and the impact of the project on the environment, on the other.

Let’s start with the jurisdictional concerns and then move on to the environmental impact concerns.

It’s a well established political norm to work across political boundaries to address issues that may have an environmental impact. Perhaps the most prominent example of this is the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which has members from 195 nations. A less well known, but much older, example is the International Joint Commission, which was established in 1909 and works to address issues affecting the quality of water along the border between Canada and the United States. Much of The Great Lakes are overseen by this body.

Environmental impacts, we now understand very well, are often difficult to contain, particularly when they occur in the fluid dynamics of air and water, and so work across jurisdictional boundaries is crucial to address them. 

Photo of Barrie's waterfront during sunrise.

A more local example of the importance of working across political boundaries to address environmental impacts is our Conservation Authorities, which are established according to the natural boundaries of watersheds, and so attempt to capture, in a sense, the environmental impact of our actions.

Now, to address the more localized impacts and whether a highway in Bradford will affect those of us living in Barrie.

Part of the rationale for building the highway is to accommodate the projected population growth in Simcoe County, not simply the growth that is expected in the Bradford area. The vehicle trips this project is intended to accommodate come, in large part, from surrounding municipalities, including Innisfil and Barrie, which sends commuters down the 400 highway toward Toronto and the GTA. 

(As an aside, there have also been a number of comments made, including by the mayor of Innisfil, that discount the voices of those who don’t live in the immediate area. These voices come from communities the Bypass is meant to serve. Accordingly, the decision of whether to continue to pour public funds into highways and car-centric development will impact how communities are shaped in these surrounding areas, determining, for example, whether there’s money available to ensure residents there have access to well-connected transit and/or safe cycling and walking routes.)

Argument 2: A new highway will reduce emissions and help combat climate change

The notion that a highway will reduce emissions seems to be based on the idea that vehicles stuck in traffic emit more greenhouse gases than those not stuck in traffic.

On the surface this seems like a reasonable argument, but the data, and experience, doesn’t back it up. Below, we cover two of the most glaring reasons why this doesn’t hold. 

Induced Demand

As more roads and highways are built, the consequence is more use of roads and highways – one begets the other. As roads and highways make land more accessible commercial centres are built at interchanges and residential areas are developed, and with this more vehicles flood into the extra capacity that has been created.

This phenomenon is known as “induced demand,” and it has been shown to happen over and over again when roads are expanded and highways built to “ease congestion.”

(Who doesn’t want congestion eased? The problem is that this just doesn’t accomplish that. Want to spend less time stuck in your car? Stop building roads as the primary way of getting everywhere.)

Evidence shows that the eventual result of these efforts to ease congestion is always more congestion. (Some of you may have also noticed that increased demand is exactly the business case proponents are making for the highway, so there’s that, too.)

The Free Burger Analogy

Here’s a great analogy of that helps explain induced demand.

Imagine that 10,000 free hamburgers are placed in the central square of a city, with a lead time of preparation and notice given to the public (as would happen with building a highway).

What would happen?

People would come and eat the hamburgers, and soon there would be none left.

There would soon be a problem, however.

More people would come to get the free meals than what’s available.

The solution?

Put out more free burgers. And so on and so forth.

Alternatives, such as the taco joint down the street, would be decimated.

This is exactly what happens to public transit and walkable communities every time we build more highways and car-centred sprawl.

See the original post here.

There’s also this explainer, but it doesn’t include hamburgers… you’ve been forewarned.

Idling cars produce more GHG emissions than moving cars

Studies show that this is a myth. Emissions are actually strongly correlated with the distance and rate or speed of travel, and weakly correlated with the level of congestion.1Congestion and emissions mitigation: A comparison of capacity, demand, and vehicle based strategies

Vehicles travelling at higher speeds emit more GHGs than those moving at lower speeds. Building more highways and inducing more people to travel at higher speeds leads to higher emissions. This is compounded by induced demand, which sees more vehicular traffic occur.

There are further reasons why this argument is no longer valid.

Vehicles sold today are increasingly equipped with kill switches that turn off the engine when the car is stationary. Accordingly, vehicles stopped in traffic are producing very little, if any, GHG emissions. Further, and this is linked to a lengthy explanation below, government policy is increasingly geared towards promotion of a modal shift from vehicles with internal combustion engines to those with electric drives. In both cases emissions from idling, even without the research noted above, is made moot.

Argument 3: We need highways to prepare for growth

It is true that we need to plan and prepare to meet increased growth. The question that needs to be answered, however, is how can we do this in a way that is efficient? In other words, how do we make the best use of the resources available to us? (More people means more pressure on resources. If we plan prudently we can ensure that that pressure is lessened, so that our communities can continue to rely on clean water, vibrant green spaces, and fertile farmland.)

Here again highways fail to make the grade.

Highways, most often used to transport a single person per car, are possibly the least efficient option for transportation.

This lack of efficiency – the cost that cars have – has real impacts on our society, including on municipal budgets.

There is currently a multi-billion dollar infrastructure deficit in Ontario, much of it related to roads. This is a cost borne by the taxpayer.2Canadian Infrastructure Report Card

(Roads and highways, if you think about it, are basically subsidies to developers, since they cost more for the public to maintain than they return to the economy when compared with alternatives such as complete communities linked by rail. See the graphic below for more on this.)

Click for a larger version. Learn more about these costs at thediscourse.ca/scarborough/full-cost-commute.

If we are serious about preparing to accommodate the projected growth in population that our region will see in the coming decades, we need to be looking at options that are efficient, that give the best return to the taxpayer, that protect the crucial resources our communities rely on, such as wetlands that filter water, forests that provide habitat for wildlife and filter air of pollutants, and farmland that provides us with healthy, local food.

This last point, the value of supporting a local food ecosystem, is particularly important given the price shocks we have been exposed to with a stretched out global supply chain. It’s also particularly salient given the area this highway will impact, the Holland Marsh or the “Salad belt”, which has some of Ontario’s most valuable, productive farmland. 

The increasing cost of food is something we’ve all experienced over the course of the pandemic, and it’s a factor that will only increase in volatility as climate change increasingly impacts agricultural areas in closer to the equator. The US breadbasket, for example, and the aquifer it relies upon, the Ogallala Aquifer, the country’s largest, is facing serious risks due to increased temperatures from climate change.

Congestion is a drag

This argument is pretty straight forward – the more time people and goods spend stuck in traffic, the more money and potential productivity our economy loses.

Even if you’ve entirely bought into the notion that the best economy is the most productive economy (there is a growing chorus from economists and activists taking issue with this notion, pointing out that the goal of our economy should be to promote the health and well-being of citizens, rather than the simplistic, never-ending pursuit of GDP growth, and the corollary impacts it has on the health of the environment, as well on our social and mental health) the straight forward solution to this would be to plan for strongly connected, complete communities.

These are communities in which efficient transportation is prioritized, enabling people to get to and from work easily and without relying on cars. (Cars and their operation, after all, suck up a lot of financial resources that could otherwise be circulating within the local economy.)

Argument 4: We will all be driving electric vehicles soon, so we don't need to worry about emissions

There are other ways in which our car-centric planning, which highways perpetuate, is creating problems. Many jurisdictions will be hard-pressed to meet GHG emissions targets due to the over-reliance on cars that our communities have – a long history of building for cars rather than for people.

A key method for achieving a large portion of reductions, though even with this their targets, for the most part, are still badly missed, is encouraging a modal shift in transportation from internal combustion engines to electric vehicles. 

A reliance on EVs for emission reductions raises several red flags, however. EVs are an important tool in transitioning to an economy that is in line with what’s needed to ensure a safe planet for our children and grandchildren, but they are just that, a tool to transition.

The more that we rely on EVs the greater the risk we build into our strategies for reducing GHG emissions, and, importantly, our environmental and social impact.

Again, this is one of those issues that on the surface appears to be a no-brainer, but it’s exactly for this reason that it’s problematic.

Phantom reductions

EVs, on their own, represent a stark contrast with the heavy impact we now know is associated with cars using internal combustion engines. Run an EV in a garage with the door closed and you don’t have any problems.

Where things start to get tricky, however, is when you consider the complete cost of the EV, including the source of the power an EV is using and the materials required for its components.

The electricity used to power an EV may not be from a renewable source. Ontario currently generates part of its power with natural gas. Natural gas is a source of methane, which, gram for gram, is one of the most potent GHGs. 

Most of the natural gas that we use in Ontario, and this goes for home heating and cooking as well, comes from Alberta and BC, where fracking is used to extract it from the ground. Methane is released in the process of fracking as well, along with a number of other highly damaging environmental impacts. There is also an increasingly large liability of abandoned wells, which the public is likely on the hook for.

Picture of an oil drill with a red sunset behind it. Credit Zbynek Burival.

“Most of the natural gas that we use in Ontario, and this goes for home heating and cooking as well, comes from Alberta and BC, where fracking is used to extract it from the ground.”

The important point here, however, isn’t necessarily the type of power that is being used, but rather the ability of governments to effectively control the type of power. Relying on EVs for emissions reductions may be an effective political win locally, but without an ability to determine where the power is coming from, governments are taking a risk that emissions will simply be displaced from one jurisdiction to another.

The control, or lack thereof, that local governments have over the power generation mix pales in comparison to their control over where the materials used in EVs come from.

This is where risk starts to increase exponentially. Emissions reductions can be claimed locally, but what in fact has happened is they have been displaced elsewhere. This opens the door to a race-to-the-bottom scenario where some jurisdictions are forced to compete for emissions, becoming a dumping ground for the reductions gained in wealthier areas. This dynamic is already occurring, with certain parts of the world, largely in the global south, competing to attract economic investment by slashing environmental regulations. (And here in Ontario, the provincial government’s COVID economic recovery strategy has been largely based on skirting environmental regulation in order to push forward with developments.)

Perpetuating colonialism

The components used in batteries come, in large part, from countries in the global south.

Lithium is largely found in arid regions of Bolivia and Chile. Mining lithium requires huge amounts of water, as well as sulphuric acid, and the use of these resources is wreaking havoc on local environments.

A copper mine in Chile.

Cobalt is mostly mined in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where child labour is often implicated and a near complete lack of environmental regulation and protections exists.

While we don’t use power generated in these areas, we are nevertheless displacing a huge environmental burden onto them with our efforts to reduce our emissions through our reliance on EVs.

This is not only an environmental issue, it is also, and perhaps more importantly, a social justice issue.

Those of us who are able to afford an EV are far more responsible for climate change than those who live in these areas of the world.

Placing the burden of our emissions reductions on those who are not responsible for climate change represents a profound injustice. This is a continuance of colonialism, whereby the externalities of our economic and social activity are dumped, effectively, onto regions and people who don’t have the means to defend themselves, people and communities who are already at a disadvantage due to centuries of the very same colonialism, the extraction of value, that has so greatly benefited the global north. Such a dynamic is a taking over of their environment, of their communities and their farmland and their rivers and streams and aquifers, for our purposes. To the extent that we rely on solutions with a long tail, whereby the impacts are felt in ways that we do not have to directly grapple with, we assume an increased risk of wrong and error associated with that activity. 

Additional costs

Recycling of the materials associated with EVs represents another challenge that municipalities will have to face.

While current lithium-ion batteries are difficult to fully recycling, new solid state batteries anticipated to come online soon should be easier. This is a double-edged sword, however, meaning that while the impact to the global south may be somewhat reduced (see induced demand for why this won’t solve the problems here), it will make it more likely that this is a service that local governments are expected to support.

There are also factors that many governments don’t seem to be including yet in their future estimation of infrastructure costs, namely the added weight associated with EVs and the impact that will have on roads.3Vehicle Weight vs Road Damage Levels 

This means that as more EVs use our roads, we will need to increase road weight tolerances, which means we’ll be increasing the amount of aggregate that we need to mine or recycle. All of this increases the amount of money that we need to spend on car infrastructure.

Conclusion

We really need to be planning now for the communities that we want in twenty, thirty, fifty years from now. We need to do this in a way that preserves and enhances the natural resources that we have, so that our economy can continue to flourish for our children and grandchildren, and not be depleted in the short-term here and now.

Build within the urban boundary for density so that people can access groceries and workplaces and schools and parks by walking and cycling. This has benefits for our health and wellbeing as well as for our pocketbooks freeing up money in the household budget, otherwise spent on cars, that can instead be spent on quality time with family and friends.

Freeing us up from the expense of owning and operating a car – the second-biggest expense in Canadian households – also makes it possible to transition to a four-day work week, further supporting the health and wellbeing of citizens and helping to reduce the impact that our economy has on the environment.

Build high-speed rail between urban hubs so that we don’t need highways, and situate neighbourhood car-sharing nodes, so residents can access efficient and affordable personal transportation options if required.

All of this, compared to the costs associated with building highways and pouring money into mitigation the costs that will follow them, is in fact easy. All it requires is vision and leadership.

Young girl with a bubble. Credit Leo Rivas.

How Can You Get Involved?

  1. Links and resources are available here: linktr.ee/stopthebradfordbypass
  2. Visit our Bradford Bypass issues page to learn more about the project.
  3. Donate to help us fight this highway! See how some of our efforts have paid off in a Toronto Star/National Observer investigation into the highway.
Photo of a highway bridge. Credit Ajai Arif.
Planning

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 photo of the Holland Marsh, with Lake Simcoe in the distance. Credit Jeff Laidlaw.
Climate Change

Bradford Bypass

The provincial government is proposing a highway that would connect the 404 with the 400. The proposed route passes along the northern edge of Bradford, and through portions of the Holland Marsh.

Read More

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.

The Ford government is rolling back progress on building healthier communities.

How Did We Get Here?

The transition from 1950s sprawl development to smart growth policies as a provincial concern was really solidified by Premier Mike Harris. 

Yes, that Mike Harris. 

Despite his first term, which gave municipalities more freedom to grow as they wish, by the second term key grassroots movements to protect the Oak Ridges Moraine demonstrated to the public how sprawling growth patterns were hurting our water, our land and our health. 

In response, the Harris government decided to get sprawling growth patterns under control and set up a series of Smart Growth Panels across Ontario. 

That was in 2002.

Central Zone Smart Growth Area map.
Central Zone Smart Growth Area map.

The Central Zone panel, which included Simcoe County region, concluded early on in its mandate that the status quo sprawl and growth at all costs mentality would lead to dire consequences for the region by 2035 including: commuting trips that would take 45 percent longer, mostly due to congestion; a marked deterioration in air quality; worsening delays in the movement of goods; and higher taxes.1Neptis: Smart Growth and Places to Grow

Complete Communities Connected by Public Transit

The panel sketched out a concept of how growth in this area should go to avoid those outcomes – its vision relied heavily on compact, complete communities connected by public transit: TTC rail, GO rail, bus rapid transit, and inter-city and inter-regional rapid transit. There were also delineated areas for protected natural zones and an awareness of agricultural lands that were under increasing pressure from growth. 

When the Liberals came into power in 2003, they used a lot of the concepts from the Smart Growth Panels to form Ontario’s first Growth Plan. The award-winning Growth Plan directed growth to form complete communities and stop sprawl.

Ontario's Growth Plans, through the years.

Cover of Ontario's Growth Plan 2020

Growth Plan (2020)

This is the most recent version of the Growth Plan, revised by Doug Ford’s government, which contains many of the problems pointed out in this post.

Cover of Ontario's Growth Plan (2017)

Growth Plan (2017)

The plan as it was under the previous Liberal government.

Cover of Ontario's Growth Plan (2006)

Ontario's Growth Plan (2006)

The original the Growth Plan, titled “Better Choices, Better Future.”

Unfortunately, these efforts were short lived.

A series of amendments and regulations watered down the objectives over the years, but at its core it still aspired to keep sprawl in check through limiting growth in rural areas, ensuring large developments were on municipal services, promotion of public transit, climate change considerations and rigorous criteria in order to expand settlement areas.

So why the history lesson on planning? 

Well it’s important to note that governments, over previous decades, have been trying to avoid the situation the province is now promoting, which is sprawling subdivisions, and with a very little strategy to deal with climate impacts, water impacts, and loss of farmland and biodiversity that come with it.

What is Happening Now?

It’s not hyperbole to say that the changes  made recently by the province with respect to growth and planning take us back to the 1990s. Some of the problematic changes include:

  • Density targets for our region have been scaled back tremendously.

This calculation outlines how efficiently we use land to house people and places of employment.   

  • The limits that were put on growth, previously known as population allocations, are now set as a minimum target, not as a maximum as they were before.
  • Formerly, settlement areas could only be expanded during the Official Plan (OP) process, so long as evidence is presented to demonstrate need. Now  they can be expanded up to 40 hectares outside of the OP period.
  • New developments no longer need to prioritize being serviced by municipal water or wastewater – septics and communal septics are now allowed more easily.

This enables development to get into more natural, rural areas, and puts water quality at risk.

  • Calculations to determine how much land must be set aside for new growth outside of built upon land have changed too.

The municipality must now plan for growth to 2051. This means that in the middle of a pandemic with no knowledge of how work/commute/travel patterns will change, municipalities must decide by June, 2022, how much new land to give up to development.

It also means that due to COVID restrictions this Municipal Comprehensive (MCR) process, that requires public consultations, is limited to online interactions. That’s why many communities are asking their local government to delay these decisions until people can properly consult with staff and neighbours.

  • Municipalities are now forced to calculate how much land based on market needs.

Simply put, there are two ways to calculate this – looking to see what you will need in the future based on changing demographics, what you already have planned, and anticipated need (e.g. more rentals/apartments/seniors residences etc.)…

OR

…you can look back to what has historically been provided by the market (e.g. detached homes, McMansions) and then just extrapolate that forward. 

The current government chose the second option.

This means that in places like Simcoe County where large homes dominate housing stock, we can expect more of that despite more people requiring smaller units and apartments (seniors downsizing, youth, low income).

This also means that more of our green spaces and farmland will be sacrificed to provide for McMansions and sprawl, while people who need housing types that are more affordable (laneway homes, stacked townhomes, apartments) will be mostly ignored.

Photo of "McMansions". Credit: Brett VA - CC BY 2.0.
Photo of "McMansions". Credit: Brett VA - CC BY 2.0.

Why Is It A Concern?

In all of this we need to understand one simple truth – how we grow and where we grow has a massive impact on climate change, water health, biodiversity and our health consequently. 

Growth patterns lock in centuries of impacts and GHG emissions. 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.

Or, we can grow our communities in ways that use 1950s thinking to deal with 21st century challenges – which will lead to more sprawl, more highways and less public oversight.

One path chooses the needs of the people and our natural communities, the other helps line the pockets of speculative developers at the community’s expense. 

Unfortunately, the province’s policies are 60 years behind the evidence and science, and our communities, now and in the future, will be worse for it.

How Can You Get Involved?

  1. Push back against mega-projects, such as the Bradford ByPass, The Orbit, and the Upper York Sewage Solution.
  2. Share your concerns on social media.
  3. Sign up to our newsletter to stay informed on developments with growing the Greenbelt and limiting sprawl.

Links to Further Reading

Related Content

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Climate Change

Issue In Brief: Understanding the Carbon Tax

The debate around the carbon tax frequently misses its broader economic and environmental benefits. By effectively addressing the externality of carbon emissions, the carbon tax stands as a critical component of Canada’s strategy to combat climate change and promote sustainable growth. Clear communication and understanding of the policy’s benefits, including the progressive rebate program, are vital in navigating public concerns and fostering support for this essential environmental initiative.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Upper York Sewage Solution

York Region is pushing for a massive wastewater treatment facility. This facility will serve a massive increase in sprawl in the area, and will dump effluent into important water bodies.

2009 – York Region begins work on UPSS; Environmental Assessment (EA) process is started.

2010 – Terms of Reference approved. 

2014 – EA completed.

2016 – Ministry review completed.

Proponents submit Stakeholder and First Nations review.

Provincial Duty to Consult determined to have not been met.

2010 – Part of the UPSS project – the York Durham Sewage System forcemain twinning and pumping station modification work – is separated out and exempted from the EA process. Construction on this part proceeds.

Present – Waiting for a decision by the Province.

What's happening?

York Region is planning to increase its capacity for wastewater treatment. The rationale is that this is required to meeting a projected increase of roughly 150,000 in population by 2031.

A key aspect of this project that is important to recognize that it is more than the sum of its parts. The EA for the project, on its own, does not capture the impacts the wastewater treatment facility will have on the region.

While the impacts of the wastewater treatment facility on its own are of concern, the knock-on impacts of increasing capacity for development in the area, which is what this project accomplishes, cannot be separated out from the wastewater treatment facility itself. One leads to the other.

Quick Facts

Inadequate First Nations Consultation

Effluent Contains Pharmaceuticals

Impacts to Aquatic Ecosystem

Why is it a concern?

Lack of Consultation with Georgina Island First Nation

The duty to consult with First Nations that has not been fulfilled.

Chippewas of Georgina Island First Nation Chief, Donna Big Canoe, has outlined concerns that the project would infringe on hunting and fishing rights, and stated that the province and region have not done enough to explore alternative solutions.

Sprawl

One of the biggest problems with this project is the financial justification is not on solid ground. This is a major reason why, as the thread embedded below outlines, the Region has had a on and off approach to implementing it.

As the thread notes, York has put a lot of money into servicing areas closer to the GTA, but the development in the area didn’t materialize to the extent that justified this cost, putting York deep in the red financially.

The UYSS, however, is intended to service an area to the north, bordering on the southern shores of Lake Simcoe.

There is the potential for increased development that this project opens up, as mentioned above. Without a strong commitment to build complete communities, and to focus on the sustainability of the region those communities are situated within, this project simply doubles down on business as usual for developers in the GTA, which is to build cheap sprawl on farmland.

Protect Lake Simcoe

Learn more about the threats facing Lake Simcoe and take action to protect it.

Currently, approximately 3 out of 5 residents in York Region commute more than 30 minutes each way to work every day, and just under 1 out of 5 drive more than an hour.

While York is starting to work towards increased intensification, it is important that its ability to direct growth beyond these areas remains constrained. The Region, for example, states that towards the end of the anticipated planning period to 2041 employment growth will shift towards what are currently less populated, and less integrated in the regional urban fabric, ares of Georgina and East Gwillimbury. It also states that additional urban lands will be required to accommodate forecasted growth.1York Region: Preferred Growth Scenarios – 2041

The capacity of the UYSS is 1/3 unfilled through 2031, allowing for continued growth through the projected lifespan of the facility.

How Can You Get Involved?

  1. Learn more about the threats facing Lake Simcoe and take action.
  2. Share your concerns on social media.
  3. Sign up to our newsletter to stay informed on developments with growing the Greenbelt and limiting sprawl.

Links to Further Reading

Related Content

Photo of a highway bridge. Credit Ajai Arif.
Planning

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 »
Bird's eye view of a wastewater treatment facility. Credit Van Bandura.
Featured

Upper York Sewage Solution

York Region is planning to increase its capacity for wastewater treatment. The rationale is that this is required to meeting a projected increase of roughly 150,000 in population by 2031.

A key aspect of this project that is important to recognize that it is more than the sum of its parts. The EA for the project, on its own, does not capture the impacts the wastewater treatment facility will have on the region.

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.

The controversial highway planned through wetlands and the Greenbelt.

The Bradford By-Pass

1997 – Route Planning and Environmental Assessment Study

2002 – Environmental Assessment 

2008 – Simcoe County includes link in its Master Transportation Plan.

2008 – Highway is not included in the Growth Plan.

2020 – Province announces the Bradford Bypass will proceed.

2021 – EcoJustice requests the federal government conduct an analysis of the project under the Impact Assessment Act.

2021 – York Region Council votes to send letter to the federal government stating its support of construction of the highway.

2021 (March) – Bradford ByPass is mentioned in the provincial budget in section outlining money to be spent on highway construction and maintenance.

2021 (October) – Bypass is exempted from the requirements of the Environmental Assessment Act.  The government says this will help “ensure appropriate environmental protection.”

2021 (October) – The Toronto Star and the National Observer publish an investigation on ties between developers and the provincial government and how developers stand to gain from building the Bypass. The piece also notes that, through information obtained by SCGC via a FOI request, the government was intending on making the highway a toll route.

2022 (January) – Petition of more than 10,000 signatures released opposing construction of the Bypass. 

2022 (February) – The Impact Assessment Agency of Canada decides not to designate the project.

2022 (March) – Lawsuit brought against the federal government by seven ENGOs challenging its refusal to designate the Bypass for a federal impact assessment.

2022 (April) – Contract awarded by provincial government for the Yonge Street bridge. This is part of the ‘early works’, which are to be started prior to all the studies being completed.

What's Happening?

The provincial government is moving forward with building a highway connecting highways 404 and 400. The route passes along the northern edge of Bradford, and through portions of the Holland Marsh.

The highway is controversial due to the route running through portions of the Greenbelt and the Holland Marsh, which is a significant wetland and agricultural area, as well as the fact that it is based, largely, on an environmental assessment that was done more than 20 years ago. (More recently the provincial government decided to exempt most of the project from environmental assessment requirements.) 

Opponents also argue that highways should not be prioritized in a climate crisis.

Finally, the government argues the highway is needed to ease congestion. Highways DO NOT accomplish this, though. This is well known, as outlined by the video we share below, yet they continue to push the project. If congestion is indeed the primary concern, it is clear that the government is mismanaging public money, throwing good after bad, with the project.

Quick Facts

Outdated Environmental Assessment

Increases Car Use in Climate Crisis

Runs through the Greenbelt

Why is it a concern?

There are a number of major concerns with respect to this project:

Early Works

The province would allow so-called “early works”, which include bridges, so proceed before key studies on the impacts they might have on wildlife are completed. This is putting the cart before the horse, to use a well worn analogy, and in effect is saying that the project will proceed regardless of the outcome of studies. This is the opposite of evidence-based planning.

Outdated Environmental Assessment

The Environmental Assessment the project is using was done 23 years ago, before the two major land-use plans in the area, the Lake Simcoe Protection Plan and the Greenbelt Plan, had been created.

These plans exist for a reason. The Lake Simcoe Protection Plan is intended to enhance and protect the health of Lake Simcoe, and the Greenbelt Plan delimits lands to be protected from urban growth, which is most often in the form of sprawl.

Basing a project on an EA that pre-dates these plans, such that the concerns these plans address aren’t taken into account, effectively nullifies them.

Further, the EA was contingent on the completion of further studies, including archaeological assessments, stormwater management, hydrological systems, noise, and compliance monitoring. The province is proposing that the highway be exempted from these additional studies.

Issues of concern that are have received support from necessary levels of government and are currently being implemented.

Issues that have the support of the municipality but are waiting on approval from the province or another entity.

Issues that have been proposed but have not yet received the support of the municipality.

Issues of concern, such as MZOs, that have been denied by the province but that are still progressing at the local level.

Issues that have been successfully resolved.

Subject Lands Outline

Greenbelt

 GO Train Line and Stops

Road/Highway Construction

 500 m High Risk Air Pollution

Evaluated Wetlands

Unevaluated Wetlands

Negative Impacts

The proposed route is anticipated to negatively impact high quality woodlands, the Holland Marsh, Provincially Significant Wetlands, and significant wildlife habitat. These are the direct impacts.

There are additional, and perhaps far more significant, impacts that will result from building infrastructure that enables an increase in single vehicle car use. 

At a time when we are facing a climate emergency, when it is becoming increasingly clear that our inability to address it is leading us towards a worst case scenario, continuing to base our communities around a reliance on cars as the primary mode of transportation is extremely irresponsible.

All major infrastructure projects – all publicly funded projects – should require a full climate change assessment. It could not be more clear that the public interest is directly tied to addressing the impacts of climate change, and accordingly no public money should be spent that exacerbates the crisis. This project profoundly misses that mark.

This is a rendering of what a four-lane highway bridge could look like crossing over the East Holland River looking to the north and Lake Simcoe. 

The bridge crossing of the East Holland River is likely to disturb one of the most significant archeological sites in southern Ontario, where artifacts have been found dating back nearly two-thousand years.

Image: Simcoe County Greenbelt Coalition

There are also costs that communities built around cars have that aren’t evident or easy to see.

Negative health impacts, such as obesity, can be correlated with communities built for cars as people drive to get basic amenities, such as groceries, rather than walk or bike. There are more direct consequences, though perhaps less acknowledged, as well, such as the fact that cars are a leading cause of death in the United States for children.

It is also likely that there will be economic impacts to the town, with development being drawn toward the highway and associated traffic, and away from the downtown. This form of development is most suited to larger commercial operators, and the jobs offered often pay less than what a smaller, locally based business provides.

This development pattern has been repeated just about every time a highway has been built near a town, and it can seriously impact the ability of local businesses to remain viable.

One of the main argument proponents are making in favour of this project is that it will reduce commute times. It is highly unlikely this will be the case in the long term. Evidence shows, repeatedly, that building and increasing car infrastructure does not ease congestion, rather the opposite happens. This is known as “induced demand.”

Basically, induced demand is when the increased capacity of a road leads to increased development along the road and increased use of that road. Think of what happens with Waze and the alternate routes it shows drivers to help them get around heavy traffic – before long those alternate routes become clogged themselves.

For a more detailed explanation watch the video below.

With induced demand what we will end up with is over a billion dollars spent (which could otherwise be spent on enhancing transit options such as the GO line), increased sprawl, and increased congestion. In other words, after all has been said and done it is highly likely that we will find ourselves confronted with the same dilemma, though with a greatly degraded environment.

Finally, the costs associated with car dependant communities1Report – The Unbearable Costs of Sprawl (Congress for New Urbanism)2Report – Suburban Sprawl: Exposing Hidden Costs, Identifying Innovations (Smart Prosperity Institute)3Report – The High Costs of Sprawl (Environmental Defence) – the key characteristic of sprawl – are higher than those associated with complete, walkable communities. This cost is passed on to taxpayers.

Infographic on the high cost of sprawl. Credit: Smart Prosperity Institute.
Infographic on the high cost of sprawl. Credit: Smart Prosperity Institute. (Click image for larger version.)

How Can You Get Involved?

  1. Follow and support those fighting this project on social media. See #stopthebradfordbypass’s linktr.ee for links.
  2. Learn more by watching our webinar, done on March 16th, adding the issue. (Find it above as well.)
  3. Sign up to our newsletter to stay informed on how you can help grow the Greenbelt and stop wasteful sprawl.
  4. Oh, and you can listen to our podcast episode with Laura Bowman of EcoJustice where we talk about exactly this issue! 👇👇

Additional Resources

Related Content

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Gather For The Greenbelt

Corporate sponsorship opportunities for the “Gather for the Greenbelt” event in Barrie, Ontario, featuring in-person storytelling from Margaret Atwood, special guests Sarah Harmer, Jeff Monague, and poetry from Barrie’s Poet Laureate, Tyneisha Thomas.

Art installation by Rochelle Rubinstein will be featured, as well.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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