This is how urban sprawl is eating Canada alive and what we can do about it

JANE BECKER June 2 1962


This is how urban sprawl is eating Canada alive and what we can do about it

JANE BECKER June 2 1962


This is how urban sprawl is eating Canada alive and what we can do about it


BY ALMOST EVERY MEASURE that nations use to calculate their growth and prosperity Canada has leaped ahead in the last halt century, has exploded since World War II. The flaw in this pretty picture (apart from unemployment and intermittent recession) is the continuing wastage of one resource that could offset all our gains to date: Canada is running out of living space at an alarming rate.

The earnest but frustrated land-use experts who keep trying to warn us of this danger arc obviously posing a paradox: how can an area of three and a half million square miles — the third largest country on earth — become uncomfortably crowded with nineteen million inhabitants? The explanation is that almost all Canadians have an overwhelming desire to live, farm and work in a strip barely fifty miles deep along the southern edge.

There is good reason for this preference, of course. The climate is more pleasant, the facilities more convenient for industry, the land

more productive for farming, in this relatively small area. There might he room for all uses, with intelligent over-all planning. There has been little such planning. Instead, fast-buck private enterprisers, tax-hungry municipalities and the inertia of higher governments have led southern Canada to the brink of becoming a cluttered, blighted, ugly and unhealthy front yard to a vast hinterland.

Statistically the picture is even more ominous. Less than eight percent of Canada’s area is potentially productive agricultural land, only four percent has been cultivated to the point where it can produce crops. With seven million more people than in 1941, Canada has a million acres less land in agricultural production. In eastern Canada more than nine thousand square miles, including nearly forty percent of the irreplaceable Niagara fruitlands, have gone out of production since 1921. The farms of eastern Canada are today back to their 1901 acreage.

Much of this lost land has been swallowed up in housing subdivisions which all large cities have spawned because spreading out seems cheaper and easier than trying to put new life into their decaying cores. About two million acres in the West has been put into community pasture or grassland, as farmers finally abandoned land that should never have been farmed in the first place.

But most of the prime farmland has gone for an insidious kind of growth researchers call urban sprawl.

Sprawl feeds on the myth that a house on an out-of-town lot is superior to cither a town house or a bona fide farm. It uses up more than half a square mile of land for every thousand people — three times as much as necessary. Because of distances involved, sprawl developments cost three or four times as much to service as city lots. Already, according to the census figures, land in a tiltymile radius of Toronto CONTINUED OVERLEAF

and Hamilton and, in like degrees, around most of our major cities, has been affected by sprawl. If the population grows as expected in the next eighteen years, we stand to lose another 6,000 square miles by 1980 — an amount greater than the total farmland of Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island.

Farmers on some of the lushest acres in Canada are rapidly being taxed off their land, at an average of two acres for every one actually built on, because no municipal or provincial authority has yet had the courage or foresight to draw up a tax structure which would exempt farmers from paying for services on nearby urbanized land. In Louth township, in the Niagara belt, farm taxes doubled between 1945 and 1955. In some outlying sections of Metropolitan Winnipeg taxes have jumped twenty-five percent in three years.

In Metropolitan Toronto, farmers who want to keep farming win case after case in court against being assessed like urban households,

only to get another urban-type assessment bill in the next mail, after which they go back to court and fight again.

“Every municipal council in the country knows a single house on a small acreage costs more than it brings in in taxes, but all of them think that somehow eighty or a hundred similar houses will pay their way,” says Prof. Ralph Krueger of Waterloo University College, who has studied the loss of Niagara fruitland in detail.


Over the last fifteen years many towns have bulged, built, borrowed, and sometimes gone bankrupt while others, suffering from the same kind of centralizing pressures, have faded into little more than the rutted prairie tracks they sprang from seventy-five years ago.

Nearly all major cities have mushroomed into mazes of parking lots, new offices, highrise apartments and throughways. This has

produced more traffic, more parking lots, and more throughways. Downtown residential blocks have bowed to neglect and rezoning so that practically nowhere is it possible to live within walking distance of work, and some cities like Vancouver, have been so concerned over preserving the beaches and parklands of their outer reaches and developing high-priced suburbs that somehow the centres got lost. Today, the corner of Granville and Georgia streets, the highest-assessed crossroad in British Columbia, is a parking lot.

“Behind a semblance of order lies the most disorganized, complex, congested society living history has recorded,” George S. Mooney, executive director of the Canadian Federation of Mayors and Municipalities, told a gathering of development experts at a conference in Ottawa this spring.

The cities are more crowded, and the air, water and soil around us more polluted than at any time in history, Mooney said. He pictured

blignt as spreading like a gray dust over city and countryside alike.

The experts nodded and applauded politely. It was perhaps typical of the way blight has been recognized, studied, and tackled over the last fifteen years that two days later, after several hundred thousand words of talk, the experts weren't even able to agree on what direction their research should take.

Whether or not anything will happen to rescue the country from the horror of its growing pains, or to preserve still-untouched regions from the immense waste of blight is an open question. But here is a run-down on what blight has already meant to a handful of highly sensitive areas:

In Ontario’s Niagara peninsula about 500 acres of prime fruitland are lost each year to urban sprawl. About twice as much is taken out of agricultural production through high taxes or sale for speculation. Prof. Krueger, who made a study of the area in 1955, and has

kept tab on it since, says that unless some controls are put into the Niagara region within the next three years, the fruit belt will cease to be an effective growing area. There will be virtually no Niagara peachland left by 1980.


Yet to date the Niagara municipalities have produced no plan to save the fruitland with such measures as low rural taxes, zoning, conditional provincial grants, or even a refusal to extend urban services onto agricultural land. The Ontario government’s sole contribution, after making a “socio-economic'’ survey of the region in 1958, has been a short, rather confusing report which claims that in fact about half a square mile of orchard has actually been gained as farmers have moved from urbanized to previously unused land. fProf. Krueger accuses the province of being “deliberately misleading'’ so it can continue its do-nothing policy in the area. The whole Niagara situation is

now almost too hot to handle, politically.)

The subdividing of agricultural land hasn't really brought prosperity to the people of Niagara as a whole. Reeve M. L. Swart of Thorold, in the centre of the fruit belt, tells of one township which has allowed its 5,000 residents to stretch along a great many miles of waterfront in sporadic, uncontrolled growth. The result is that the people are now paying five times as much as they should for water. “The cost of servicing these scattered developments has now become so high that we have a terrific job meeting essential costs, such as schools,” he says. “Yet the municipal councils don’t want to restrict land use because owners want to be free to sell at the highest price.”

The same kind of development blight has hit the hundred-mile crescent of Lake Ontario, curving from Oshawa to St. Catharines. Here it means not so much an economic loss as the disappearance of virtually all “free” beach and waterfront for the CONTINUED ON PAGE 56


THE CANNIBAL CITIES continued from pane 17

No city ever needed Metro government more than Montreal. Nowhere has It flopped more drastically

residents. Since 1945 the fifteen townships fronting on this crescent have happily raked in tax money from oil refineries, motels and apartments as industries and developers bought up pieces of highly desirable lakefront. In the competition for industrial tax money (the Ontario Municipal Board considers a forty-sixty industrialresidential assessment ratio a good indica-

tion of a municipality’s financial soundness) a factory or a subdivider has hardly ever been refused.

Town planner Anthony Adamson, a former Toronto Township reeve, recalls the day ten years ago when the last strip of beach in the township went up for sale, “It would have made an ideal park,” says Adamson. “But the township couldn’t af-

ford the $34,000 asking price. We couldn’t even sell our debentures at that stage. Besides, as some councilors pointed out, the park would have been overrun by people from Toronto, and who wanted that?” The land was bought by a subdivider who is now developing it for housing. The price has jumped to $500,000.

About three years ago one or two municipalities looked up from their bookkeeping to find nearly all the lakcfront space had disappeared. There is less than a mile of public beach along the nineteen-mile waterfront adjoining Metropolitan Toronto, and only about half a dozen miles in the thirty-mile strip in Metro itself. The whole region has less than half the accessible parkland planners say it should have for the number of people it holds.

'I he Metro Toronto council recently formed the Waterfront Technical Committee, designed, among other things, to preserve what is left of the lakefront for the public. One of their first jobs is to map it in detail—something no one has apparently done recently. By the time they finish, there may still be a little open land for parks or there may not.

METROPOLITAN GOVERNMENT, where the central city and its outlying areas are represented on a metropolitan council to handle area-wide problems, leaving local matters to local councils, is seen by most experts as the logical answer to the expensive outward growth of large cities. Metro government takes much of the financial burden off local councils without swallowing them up in one giant city. Yet in the four North American communities in which the system has been tried, Metro has so far prospered in only one—Toronto.

Probably no city ever needed Metro more than Montreal, where the city and thirtyone other municipalities are crowded onto an island of 201 square miles. For practical purposes the island is one economic and geographic unit. Yet it has no comprehensive public transport (some communities have no public transport), no area-wide police or fire protection, no uniform system of roads, sewers, or water services, no inte-

grated zoning and no development plan.

Communities have grown — or not grown—with little regard for their own or their neighbors’ future. In the lakeshore community of Baie-d’Urfé, which has 4,000 residents but no water system, wells and septic tanks have now reached their capacity. Baie-d’Urfé has a large industrial acreage which could bring in much-needed tax dollars to improve services, but industry won’t come until the land is serviced, and Baie-d’Urfé can’t afford to service. The community's growth is stymied.

Pointe-Claire, on the other hand, brought in a professional planner to guide its development. Among other things, it zoned its factory workers out of its industrial area. This means greater traveling distance for workers — and Pointe-Claire has no public transportation.

Montreal itself, which reportedly broke or twisted most of its building bylaws to allow three skyscrapers within a few blocks of each other on crowded, mid-town Dorchester street, now faces the huge problem of transporting the 22,000 additional workers the buildings will funnel onto the street when they open this summer. “The city will now probably have to tear down most of what is known as Old Montreal to provide transportation and housing for the workers,” architect Peter Dobush of Montreal says gloomily.

With seventy-five percent of the island’s population, and twenty times the tax revenues of its richest suburb, Montreal would dearly love to make the island into one great city. But many of the suburbs are established communities with distinctive characteristics. (Wcstmount’s being a state of mind is more than a glib metaphor.) They will fight to the death to preserve their individuality, their low taxes, and their local councils which they feel—not without reason — have been a good deal more efficient than Montreal’s.

Besides, the suburbs arc growing about six times as fast as Montreal. In the next ten years they may well outdistance it in population—another reason why they arc loath to give up any autonomy now. When the province created the Montreal Metro-

politan Corporation three years ago the suburbs fought the bill until all effective teeth were removed. Metro, as set up, has . been mainly a borrowing agency and a stud> group. It has made studies of the island taxi situation and a metro subway, has estimated costs of a metro road system. and considered a master zoning plan. All the reports are neatly stacked on the shelves of Metro’s offices, for future reading if anyone is interested.

“For what I do. I'm sure I'm the highestpaid man in Canada.” said a Metro official sadl) not long ago.

The fourteen suburbs in Metro have at last realized that Metro is their best bulw^^Liagafnst total absorption by Montreal. Tmt ihc province, tired of the infighting recently moved to take over some of the powers Metro might have had if it could ever have agreed how to use them.

In Winnipeg, Metro government, just eighteen months old, is off the ground but flying low. Winnipeg's expansion over the last decade grew critical in three spheres: water, sewage and traffic. There was an almost chronic shortage of water and widely varying water rates: down-stream municipalities had to live with the river waters into which upstream municipalities dumped raw sewage, with no legal way of recovering costs from their neighbors. Although fifteen new bridges to handle Greater Winnipeg's traffic were recommended several years ago. municipalities haggled so much over who would benefit most, and therefore who should pay. that except for two bridges in Winnipeg itself there hadn't been a new one in the area since 1911. Some of the traffic bottlenecks have been monumental.

’ I he area had reached a point where it simply couldn't finance any more expansion. ' says Stuart Anderson, a former deputy provincial treasurer, now Metro's finance director. “Unless Metro, or some other means of meeting and equalizing costs had been developed, the growth of Winnipeg would have been virtually stopped."

So far Metro Winnipeg has acted boldly—some critics say too boldly. It has taken over all the building codes, regulations. zoning bylaws and planning of Winnipeg and eighteen other municipalities. It has built sixteen miles of watermains and laid out 156 miles of arterial streets, equalized water rates and made a start on a bridge across the Assiniboine.

One of the first noticeable results has been that everyone's taxes have gone up —by as much as eleven mills in the outlying suburb of Assiniboia. seven mills in Winnipeg. The increase isn't all due to Metro—school costs have risen and most municipalities upped their own levies as well—but a good many taxpayers blame Metro anyway. A Committee for the Abolition of Metro has been formed, and is circulating a petition demanding a referendum on Metro, “since the people weren’t consulted.” Winnipeg is fuming over its increased water rates, the $2.()()().()()() in business taxes it has had to hand over to Metro, and the fact that Metro has assumed control of Greater Winnipeg parks and major streets. Smaller municipalities are annoyed by the minor but frustrating vetoes of many of their regulations by Metro’s zoning committee, and by the fact that Metro councilors arc not drawn from municipal councils but arc elected from ten arbitrary districts which cross municipal boundaries with scant attention to delicate municipal feelings.

“If there, were a referendum tomorrow. Metro would be overwhelmingly defeated.” a Metro official admitted not long ago.

IN NI W \vt STMiNsn R. B.C., the Lower Mainland Regional Planning Board has been working for eleven years to try to

bring some measure of control into the helter-skelter urbanization of the small, picturesque, fertile lower Fraser Valley, which lies in a narrow strip from the Strait of Georgia to Chilliwack, seventy miles inland. Working in cramped quarters in a turn-of-the-century building on a busy New Westminster street, on a budget of less than $60,000 a year, the board’s five-man staff, in the best Parkinson’s Law tradition, has turned out a series of well-researched, detailed, far-seeing reports on just about every aspect of the valley. Until recently, this LOOO-square-milc delta produced nearly seventy percent of all the milk and poultry in B. C., much of Vancouver’s vegetables, and nearly half the province’s total agricultural output.

When the board was set up in 1951 there were about 630.000 people living in the valley. The population had jumped by half in the ten years previous, while farm acreage had dropped about eight percent from the 1941 peak. Farmland was being gobbled up for industrial plants, scattered housing, and piecemeal building at a rate of more than 2.000 acres annually and no one was making any move to stop it. In 1952 the board reported that only half the valley’s land was suitable for farming. It was absolutely essential to keep the 125 square miles of then-unused agricultural land for farming, as well as to preserve existing farms, if the valley was to continue as an economic producer of food.

Here’s what happened:

In the next ten years the population jumped by another 250,000. Farmland continued. and still continues, to be lost at a rate of about 2,000 acres a year. (“On a good day we lose five acres to subdivision, on a bad day ten,” shrugs the board’s research planner, A. D. Crerar.) The total occupied farmland is now less than it was in 1921. and the valley grows only half its own food, compared to sixty percent in 1957. About 3,800 acres of prime soil in the districts of Richmond and Delta have been built on, and Vancouver’s food prices are the highest of any Canadian city.

At this rate, says the board, the valley will be lost for growing within forty years, and every scrap of food except some milk will have to be imported—to the region that was once the garden of the country.

What happened in Surrey, a once-lovely tract of bush, meadow and evergreen just east of metropolitan Vancouver, is a taste of what could happen throughout the valley, warns the board. After World War II hundreds of veterans moved onto 1.6-acre holdings in Surrey, dreaming of a quiet life raising chickens. Other young families bought places in Surrey because land was cheap. Taxes were low. and no one worried about water pressure or sewers or sidewalks or adequate schools. By 1954, people in the sprawl part of Surrey (living in an average density of between one and three per acre) were costing the municipality nearly three times as much for water services as those in the urban area of Richview. In one part of North Surrey, more than nine miles of road had been built to serve 250 occupied lots, and in adjoining North Delta, the planning board worked out that the costs of paving, sewers and water for "sprawl” households would have been $1,600 each, instead of the $400 an urban development would have cost. The board suggested Surrey restrict its urban growth to a ten-square-mile area around the village of Whalley. The remaining land would be kept for agriculture by zoning it for five-acre-minimum subdivisions. Surrey instead zoned forty-four square miles for urban use. Over the next three years 25.000 people moved to Surrey, using up a sixth of all its farmland.

In 1959 Surrey’s troubles came to a head. Overworked water mains began running dry and, for the first time in history,

water was rationed. The local health unit pronounced Surrey’s septic tank system a health menace (the effluent ran, and still runs, in open roadside ditches). Crowded schools split their classes in shifts, as Surrey forked out $250,000 a year to transport children to schools built in the wrong places. Services were the worst on the mainland, and taxes were going up. The taxpayers almost came to open revolt. The province held an enquiry, called for elections, and increased the size of the council to give representatives of urbanized Surrey a voice in council business.

The hullabaloo subsided, but a good many people don’t want to live in Surrey anymore. The area has a notably high turnover, with twenty to thirty Surrey houses advertised each week end for sale or lease by CMHC—an attempt, say the cynics, to recover some of the NHA-backed mortgage money lost through defaulting home owners.

Surrey is now considering a bold new proposal by its district planner. He wants to rezone about three square miles of now-urban land to five-acre-minimum subdivision. “A good many of our people have gone into mink farming,” a township official explained. “Their land has no speculative value now, so they’ve asked to be zoned agricultural to get relief from taxes.”

The Regional Planning Board thinks the bold new proposal has come about ten years too late to save Surrey.

“Tin: TROUBLE WITH FLANNING,” lamented a town planner, “is that it has no snazz.” To the politician, planning threatens precious local (i.e. voters’) autonomy; to a layman it is a vague, complex science, probably not to be trusted. Planners are seen at best as insufferable slowpokes and idealists, at worst as boy scouts with power complexes.

Yet. by having the forethought to make plans, the fairness to heed them, and the courage to put them into effect, it is possible to shape order from chaos, some kind of beauty from ugliness; to keep the countryside productive and the cities convenient—in short, to give everyone a better sort of life. It isn’t expensive—in the end, it’s a great deal cheaper than doing nothing—and it doesn't take Solomonic wisdom.

It could be the most exciting thing doing over the next twenty years, iy