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Suburbs: Nowhere to Grow but Up

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Newmarket is one of the fastest growing cities in Ontario. Unfortunately, they've now run out of room to grow. After the provincial government passed the Places to Grow Act (PGA) in 2005, the government quickly created the Greenbelt that put much of the GTA's land out of reach for development. Newmarket, like many other cities, now has no choice but to grow upwards. The trouble is that some local residents are resisting high-density development. What they don't realize is that they don't have a choice in the matter. The provincial government and demographic forces will decide the issue.

The PGA is not only preventing development in the majority of undeveloped GTA land, but it also gives the provincial government the ability to overrule any zoning measure in any Ontario city. The province has already decided to mandate higher density development. Unfortunately, Newmarket residents are being told a different story. To the advantage of local politicians, details of the murky PGA haven't been the focus of much public debate in recent years. Some municipal politicians who vigorously support the current government that implemented the Act are also in favour of introducing a 15-storey height restriction, even though the restriction would contradict the aims of the provincial government. It would also run counter to the platform on which the mayor was recently elected. The motivation behind the proposal is to stop a planned 26-storey development at the city's main intersection. Yet the city recently approved two 17 storey developments elsewhere in the city. Even if the city does implement the restriction, they know it will be struck down by the Ontario Municipal Board. The taxpayers will be stuck with the legal bills for the show trial.

Political hypocrisy aside, there are two main challenges here. First, the community is being forced to comply with a broad mandate imposed by the province. Second, a vigorous Not-in-my-Backyard (NIMBY) campaign is attempting to use the city's community plan to prevent any development that will in any way have any impact whatsoever on their property. Even minor inconveniences such as increased traffic and shade will not be tolerated. These are mistakes.

The challenge with prescriptive land use planning such as the Places to Grow Act is that it assumes that development will proceed exactly as planned. Moreover, it does not contemplate unintended consequences. One such consequence visible in Newmarket has been an extraordinary increase in property values. While it has been a major windfall for long standing property owners, whose home values increased by 77% between 2001 and 2010, it is a significant challenge for young families who wish to move to the city. Not everyone can afford a $428,000 house.

Another unintended consequence of the PGA is that cities and towns around the GTA, such as Newmarket, have become home to what is known as leap-frog development. The goal of the Greenbelt was to reduce urban sprawl and traffic congestion. But people who want to buy single dwelling houses are increasingly forced to buy well outside of Toronto and commute further on a daily basis than if they could have purchased homes in the Greenbelt area.

The irony of the NIMBY movement in Newmarket is that the people fighting against development are the very people who have seen massive property value increases because of the city's growth. They argue that the proposed 26 story development will cast shade on their properties and increase traffic congestion. One would think that the compensation they've received in higher property values would be sufficient to make up for minor inconveniences that don't directly affect the use of their property. But it isn't. It is never enough with NIMBYs, who thrive on fear of change. If anything, the proposed development, which includes a new medical centre, ought to increase their home values. The rental and condo units would be aimed at a different market share than the single dwelling homes with three car garages typical of Newmarket. They might even make it possible for young former Newmarket residents to return to the city, and for young professionals currently living in their parents' basements to gain independence. Attempting to use zoning laws to maintain the property value of existing owners is a misguided goal in comparison to allowing the development of more affordable housing alternatives.

Newmarket is not alone. It is just one of many municipalities in the GTA that has encountered explosive growth. The GTA added 477,000 residents since the 2006 census. Of these, 76.2% settled outside of Toronto. Newcomers will need to live somewhere. As existing municipalities fill out, the only option will to be building upwards. The battle between NIMBYs and the provincial government has just begun. But they are both in the wrong. Each group seeks to build communities in its own image. One wants to mandate high-density development, the other to maintain their "small town feel." Both make the fatal conceit that we can and ought to centrally plan growth. Leapfrog development and rapidly increasing property values in the GTA are logical consequences of prescriptive land use planning. Unless Ontario repeals the Places to Grow Act, planners and NIMBYs will continue to punish prospective home buyers.