Preventing urban sprawl: The state of the art

The title of this post — “Preventing urban sprawl” — is likely to provoke, in some readers, one of two reactions, the first driven by good old Winnipeg complacency and the second by antagonism:

  1. What are you talking about? That’s impossible.
  2. You can’t tell people where to live.

The second reaction is easily refuted: Yes, the government can tell people where to live. In fact, everybody takes the power of government to tell people where to pursue all their activities for granted.

We all know that you couldn’t erect a shack at Portage and Main, open up a Seven-Eleven in the middle of Linden Woods, or buy up a kids’ pick-up ballfield somewhere and build an asphalt plant.

Although we know those things, for some reason we think they don’t apply to urban sprawl. In fact, we think that with such intensity that, for the most part, North American governments don’t have the nerve to contradict us. Despite what we think, government can tell people where to live, and controlling sprawl — known in academic literature as growth management — is not only possible, it’s routinely done in many jurisdictions.

I’ve been working on a study to compare how growth management works in jurisdictions that are relatively good at it. The ones I’ve chosen are Portland, Oregon; Hamburg, Germany, and Metropolitan Toronto, which Torontonians modestly refer to as the Greater Golden Horseshoe (GGH). In each of these three jurisdictions, I’m picking an area at the fringe, that’s in the process of developing, and looking at the rules by which that growth is being managed.

The area I’ve chosen for study in the Toronto region is the suburban city of Markham, located at the edge of metropolitan Toronto. Very briefly, the regulations governing growth management in Toronto’s suburbs consist of three elements:

  • Provincial legislation reserving a massive greenbelt for agriculture, recreation and small towns. (That’s the green area on the map above. Purple indicates areas already urbanized.)
  • A requirement, imposed by the provincial government, that at least 40 per cent of residential growth occur within already urbanized areas.
  • A requirement to plan, by 2031, to locate 200 residents and jobs combined per hectare in its built-up area.

It falls to local planning authorities to figure out how those requirements will be met and to prepare a plan, which is subject to review, and possible rejection, by provincial authorities. My study explains how these regulations work and assesses their implementation so far. It concludes that the system of growth management is workable, but only if the implementation is driven, decade after decade, by tenacious political will.

There are a lot of good reasons for growth management. To get a taste of them click here and here. Or download the Markham study and get the whole story.

One response to “Preventing urban sprawl: The state of the art


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