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Growing without growing

In Ontario, since the advent of the Places to Grow legislation, there has been a lot of talk about absorbing the 30-50% population growth in the province anticipated over the next quarter century. The legislation requires at least 40% of new growth to be in currently built up areas, with "only" 60% of the growth taking place through sprawl. I have a simple regulatory proposal for all municipalities in Ontario affected by the Places to Grow legislation, and anyone else who wants to prevent Canada's built up area from stretching from sea to sea to sea as we pursue the myth of sustainable growth.

My idea is simple: require any developer or builder who wishes to build any kind of building in the limits of the municipality to first tear down an existing building within that municipality.

There should be no restrictions on the size of either the torn down or new building, with the necessary caveats to avoid the destruction of historically significant buildings. That last bit can also be used to tell a developer that if they adopt and preserve such a historic building, that would then count toward their one-to-one building replacement quota.

The immediate effect is that the economics of building small, detached homes as massive developments flies out the window. One would be required to purchase and tear down one detached home for each detached home they planned to build. Purchasing one small, detached home to build a 100-unit apartment building, on the other hand, makes the small, detached home a rounding error in the math. This type of approach should work toward intensification, and the demolition of buildings to make way for new buildings should also help to slow the rate of sprawl. The 60% sprawl factor in the legislation is a target we should not be aiming to meet.

Can we grow sustainably? According to Gord Miller, Ontario's Environment Commissioner, who I met at the OPIRG conference in Guelph yesterday, there is such thing as "sustainable growth", but not when it comes to population. Some parts of Europe, he points out, are growing their economies without growing their population in a sustainable way, by increasing productivity rather than population.

Sustainable growth when it comes to population, on the other hand, is a complete oxymoron. With population, we can either sustain, or we can grow. Doing both is a technical impossibility. With a sustained population that is not growing, it is possible for every family to live in a single family detached dwelling without contributing to urban sprawl. With an ever-growing population, it is possible for every citizen to live in a string of 20 storey high-rise apartments that stretches from Lake Erie to James Bay, with more under construction. Intensification therefore only slows down sprawl, it does nothing to stop it.

But slowing sprawl down is the only option available to us for the moment. Places to Grow won't bring people to Ontario -- they are coming anyway. What it does is try and limit how much of an impact that growth has, and where that growth goes. Cities like Guelph that are in the cross-hairs of this legislation must act quickly and decisively to handle this incoming population. Places to Grow gives us targets for growth and an approximate structure for how to grow, with the 60% sprawl factor and the 40% intensification factor, but I see no reason for us not to try to exceed them.

Forcing developers to tear down one building to build a new one should serve to meet or exceed our intensification quota nicely. While I do not, and most of my friends do not, have any particular desire to live in an apartment building, with growth numbers like we have, single detached dwellings will have to go the way of the dodo sooner or later, or there simply won't be any farms left to feed the cities we end up with.

Even as the population growth in the rest of the world slows and perhaps even stops as we reach the carrying capacity of our planet, I have little doubt that Canada will continue to be the recipient of millions of immigrants from other parts of the world for several generations to come.

Posted at 06:39 on March 31, 2008

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How I came to believe in better public transit | environment essays | Making Ontario a leader


Annie. (google.ca) writes at Mon Mar 31 10:03:20 EDT 2008...

New york city has it correct, build it up. The beautiful park they have..large, hardly fulled with a very large population.

I agree, too much farmland is taken up. We need to go "Up", also.

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