08/27/2011 10:02 EDT | Updated 10/27/2011 05:12 EDT

Ontario's Growth Plan Is Working, But Not Well Enough

The Ontario government's five-year implementation update on its Growth Plan for the Greater Golden Horseshoe shows that it is having the intended effect. The absence of this Growth Plan, they say, would result in worse gridlock, sprawl, a significant loss of greenspace, lower economic productivity and poorer quality of life.

The Update's Growth Plan vs. no Growth Plan modeling tells us that, by 2031:

- with the Growth Plan, 800 square km of farm land will be saved from sprawl;

- there will be a 14 per cent increase in new urbanized land under the Growth Plan, vs. 39 per cent without the Growth Plan;

- combined with "the Big Move" transportation plan, under the Growth Plan greenhouse gas emissions will rise by 13 per cent, vs. 29 per cent without the Growth Plan and the Big Move.

In the lead-up to this fall's provincial election, where the future of Southern Ontario's Greenbelt and the Growth Plan are debated, the Update's message necessarily focuses on the benefits of the Greenbelt and the Growth Plan. Few would argue that the positive metrics listed make our lives better, whether through shorter commutes, access to green space, or cleaner air. Yet the fact that the "good news" is that greenhouse gas emissions will rise by 13 per cent points to some serious problems with the way we are growing. It is worth examining why we are so hell-bent on building lonely, car-dependent, sprawling communities.

The lack of affordable housing in Toronto drives demand for suburban housing, and this threatens the implementation of the Growth Plan. To prevent social and environmental collapse, we need to link sprawl-related environmental issues with affordability. Toronto faces a massive affordable housing shortfall, with no governments coming to the rescue. Greater Toronto Area average home prices are in the $460,000 range, putting them far out of reach of lower and middle income citizens. So the options are: rent, buy an overpriced condo, or buy in the suburbs where you can look forward to lying down at dusk, exhausted, on your 650 square foot lawn after at least an 80 minute commute. The gentrification of downtown Toronto, which pushes people to buy cheap homes in the suburbs (far too often north of the Greenbelt), is an unintended consequence of the Growth Plan.

The development community contends that suburban housing is "affordable." Spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on a house in a car-dependent suburb with densities so low it is unlikely to ever be serviced by public transit, sounds more indentured than affordable.

If this province's next government is serious about protecting agricultural lands, and limiting the environmental impacts of development and driving, they must continue to implement the award-winning Growth Plan, address social equity issues like housing affordability in the city, and get serious about public transportation in the outer suburbs.

The failure to address social equity issues in our cities, Richard Florida suggested in Saturday's Globe and Mail, could look a lot like the London Riots. My vote is for environmental health and social equity, not burnt-out police cars.