Op-Ed: How Toronto can help fight sprawl in the 905

Torontonians might be forgiven for thinking there is little city council can do to stop destructive highways and car-dependent subdivisions in Pickering, Caledon, East Gwillimbury or Milton. 

But the battle to save what remains our region’s best farmland and natural heritage, as well as tackle the GTHA’s carbon emissions, hinges equally on the building of more compact housing in our own backyard.  

How does building a lot more homes in Toronto neighbourhoods help the environment of the GTHA?  

It’s only a slight oversimplification to say that for every additional semi-detached home, townhouse, laneway home, garden suite or other low-rise home that’s added to Toronto’s existing post-Second World War neighbourhoods, a slice of precious farmland, forest or wetland is preserved in the outer suburbs.  

The provincially mandated suburban population targets being used in Durham, York, Peel, Halton and Hamilton to let speculators replace hundreds of square kilometres of farms and wild places with low-rise housing are premised on the assumption that Toronto won’t accommodate those homes. 

But by legally committing to creating new homes in diverse forms within existing neighbourhoods and maintaining its current share of the Greater Golden Horseshoe population, city council would help force open the door to a corresponding reduction in planned suburban growth.

History shows that even when Toronto’s population exceeds the targets assigned to it, Toronto’s extra growth has given hundreds of square kilometres of green space that had been slated for destruction at least a temporary reprieve.

Recent public opinion polling conducted by Innovative Research Group hints at why this happens: the majority of people who wind up living in car-dependent suburbs would prefer to live in neighbourhoods where they don’t need to use a car to commute to work or school. When we add more homes in Toronto, the most walkable, bikeable, public transit-rich part of the GTHA, people choose them over the outer suburbs.

The great news for Torontonians is that the kinds of densification required to preserve rural farms, wetlands, forests and streams will also help to fix many of the present challenges facing existing neighbourhoods. 

Housing must be dense and diverse to be sustainable. The Expanding Housing Options in Neighbourhoods Initiative and other measures to unlock areas restricted to single detached homes represent Toronto’s last best chance to save local schools, replace deteriorating sewers and make our own post-Second World War sprawl fully walkable, bikeable, affordable and accessible by public transit.

A perverse and recurring feature of the housing debate in Toronto has been the use of disingenuous calls to “protect green space” and “prevent traffic congestion” to greenwash NIMBYism and defend the low population densities that drive sprawl and car dependency. 

As pressure mounts to bulldoze vast swathes of farmland and degrade our region’s best wildlife habitat, it is vital that genuine environmentalists show up to city hall to make the indisputable environmental, social and economic case in favour of more homes and neighbours on the land we’ve already taken.

Phil Pothen is the Ontario environment program manager for Environmental Defence.

@nowtoronto

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