Places to grow, the Ontario Minister of Infrastructure's just-released discussion paper on sprawl, is smart thinking dumbed down by some glaring omissions. The report, which recognizes that the Infrastructure Ministry is a lead player in saving the greater Toronto area's greenbelt, the area girdled by Peterborough, Barrie, Niagara and Kitchener, is smart as in "smart growth," the hip concept among North American regional planners over the last decade.
Until now, housing developers have gotten away with a policy of "build it - no matter how sprawling and economically draining - and government will follow," picking up the tab for all those water and sewage pipes, hydro wires, roads, hospitals and fire departments that weren't needed when the area was farmland or wilderness.
And all that public subsidization, needless to say, supports the monster housing habit of higher-income groups who vote in politicians opposed to wasting government money on downtown welfare recipients who made the mistake of needing public money because they are poor instead of rich.
Now the government plans to use infrastructure as the lever - one might say choker - to rein in development, rather than chasing real-estate hustlers to catch up after the fact. Under the former dumb welfare-for-the-affluent regime, tax evaders spread over the countryside, leaving established and compact cities such as Toronto and Hamilton lucky to hold their own. There'll be no more money for urban utilities or services in the areas slated for greenbelt protection.
There's another economic problem, smart growth experts say, flowing from the way uncontrolled expansion reduces the quality of life for all, by increasing traffic jams and paving over areas that once supplied cities with cleaner air and water.
The greater Toronto area is now North America's third-largest economic region, and it can't compete for the best new jobs when it's dragging that kind of dead economic and environmental weight, say smart growth advocates. That's where the government's Places To Grow is coming from. In future, development will only be encouraged in compact cities where basic infrastructure is already in place, and where public transit and other services can be efficient. That's smart.
Unfortunately, the discussion paper is also too clever by half on one crucial issue. In common with most planning documents over the past half-century - Toronto's prize-winning Official Plan is a notable exception - the document shows little knowledge and less awareness of food, something mere mortals and even bears of very little brain might think is worth planning for.
There are two or three brief mentions of the Niagara fruit belt and wine plantations and the Holland Marsh, but that's it. I found no reference here, or in any related provincial greenbelt report, to the food security needs of residents or the vulnerability we face when we're entirely dependent on imports for almost all our daily food needs.
Isn't it part of planners' and governments' due diligence to be prepared in case the supply of food from California and other faraway sources literally dries up, as some global warming scenarios predict?
And isn't it smart investing to put money into protecting GTA farmland - some of the best in Canada and the world in terms of fertility, heat units, access to water and to nearby mass markets - in the relatively likely event that resources for food production will soon be among the scarcest, most expensive and important in the whole fished-out, eroded and drought-stricken world? One could even classify that land as infrastructure for tomorrow's farm economy.
Because Ontario's smarty-pants planners aren't aware of food, admittedly a very old-fashioned need, they come up short on a number of points.
They don't identify crucial growing areas east of Peterborough-Oshawa or north and west of Waterloo-Guelph as needing greenbelt protection. They plan to continue expansion of the 407 expressway, a monument to dumb infrastructure, right through the agricultural heartland.
And they don't identify one infrastructure project needed by farmers, as if only urban functions need support. Thus, there are no references to the need for farmers' markets or a Food Terminal policy favouring local foods. Ontario is one of the few places left on the continent to have a terminal, but it's not used to promote local food, as it was originally designed to do. There's no reference to training, incentives or start-up programs for farmers eager to cash in on local markets, and not a word about compensating farmers for lost chances to sell for development with buy-outs of "conservation leases" that could sustain underpaid farmers on the land.
This shortfall alone guarantees, as smart political planners should surely know, that farmers will oppose farmland and greenbelt protection and work with their local municipal governments and the development lobby to subvert it, dashing the prospects of an otherwise positive, shrewd and far-sighted plan. Next time, the planners should try out some brainfood, just as a reminder to themselves of their own bodily infrastructure needs, before they produce a greenbelt strategy.