Urban Sprawl vs Smart Growth
Sprawl is a term used to describe spread out, poorly designed urban and suburban development. Sprawl is characterized by a number of key factors, including:
• Low-density: a small number of people and/or jobs per hectare of development. Examples include subdivisions with large lots for single-family homes, strip malls, and big box stores (Wal-Mart, Costco, Home Depot, etc.).
• Single-use zoning: this is the practice of separating different land uses; that is, zoning for residential areas, commercial areas, parks/greenspace, and employment lands to all occupy separate areas.
• Poor public transportation: low-density areas characterized by single use zoning do not support vibrant transportation systems. The places people need to go are too spread out to connect in a meaningful way, and there are not enough transit riders to economically support frequent service or a network of transit routes.
• Dependence on the automobile: because sprawling areas do not support public transportation as development is low-density and land uses are separated, people must rely on the car for transportation. It should be noted that sprawling infrastructure is centred on the use of the car for transportation, and does not typically accommodate other modes of transportation; roads do not leave adequate space for public transportation vehicles, or for cyclists or pedestrians.
With the exception of some neighbourhoods and urban downtown cores, most development in Ontario is urban or suburban sprawl. The places people live, work, recreate, shop, etc. are separated, spread out, and are typically low-density. As such, Ontario is supported by a vast network of roads, and Ontarians typically drive long distances to the places they frequent on a day-to-day basis.
There was a time when greenspace was plentiful, petroleum products were inexpensive, and the consequences of developing in a sprawling manner were not entirely clear. Today, it is becoming increasingly clear that the shape we are allowing our communities to take as they grow and develop is leading to unprecedented levels of environmental destruction. Sprawl is a driving force behind the most pressing modern environmental issues.
Its associated traffic and congestion are the largest drivers of green house gas emissions in Ontario. In Southern Ontario, we are experiencing ongoing issues surrounding the loss of greenspace to sprawl, including the paving over of key wildlife habitat, prime agricultural land, and integral wetlands and groundwater resources. As such, sprawl is largely responsible for a loss of biodiversity, and the endangerment of a number of species. Similarly, as the land necessary to support local food systems is replaced by development, we lose the opportunity to grow food locally and are forced to import it from around the globe. And at a time when water contamination and scarcity are arguably the most pressing global issues, we are paving over integral wetlands, groundwater recharge areas, and allowing contaminated runoff to pollute the watersheds we depend on.
Concerns about sprawl have peaked in Southern Ontario, with the realization that population size will roughly double over the next 25 years. It has become clear that the local environment cannot sustain expected levels of growth if we continue to develop as we have been. Similarly, due to sky-rocketing gas prices, peak oil, and concerns about climate change, it is becoming increasingly clear that it is no longer economically prudent to rely on the automobile as our primary mode of transportation.
For all of these reasons, Ontario’s provincial government has developed a new growth plan to shape future development in Southern Ontario in more sustainable ways. The ‘Places to Grow’ growth plan for the Greater Golden Horseshoe is founded on the principals of ‘Smart-Growth.’
Smart Growth is a new group of ideas aimed at shaping our communities in more sustainable, healthy, and environmentally friendly ways, providing planners a new framework to move away from sprawling development. Like sprawl, Smart Growth has a number of key characteristics:
• Higher-density: accommodating more people and jobs per hectare to conserve greenspace, and build communities that can support public transportation.
• Mixed-use zoning/complete communities: unlike sprawl, which separates land uses, Smart Growth calls for mixed use zoning in order to form complete communities, where everything a person requires on a day to day basis can be found within their individual communities. This involves combining residential areas, commercial areas, employment lands, and recreation areas into a unified, complete whole.
• Vibrant public transportation: by increasing density, and fitting different land uses together, Smart Growth aims to connect the places people need to be with meaningful transit routes. By increasing density, Smart Growth also aims to ensure that transit systems will have adequate riders to support frequent service. The idea is for every person within a community to be within a 5 to10 minute walk of a public transit stop, which would then connect them to anything they need.
• Active transportation: just as increasing public transit use helps to move away from a dependence on the automobile, Smart Growth attempts to encourage active transportation by creating adequate space for pedestrians and cyclists so that they can safely use roads that were previously dominated by cars. This involves the creation of bike lanes and other bike infrastructure, and measures like separating pedestrians from cars with a line of trees.
• Protecting Greenspace: another important part of Smart Growth involves identifying integral environmental resources, and sensitive ecological and hydrological features that should be spared from development. By providing protection for these areas, planners can ensure the conservation of the environmental resources that sustain their communities. This protection can also help to shape where and how development happens, placing boundaries on sprawl.
Another concept that is frequently discussed with Smart Growth is the idea of intensification. Intensification describes the process of focussing new developments in already developed areas, pushing development in existing areas upwards, instead of spreading new developments outwards on to new greenspace. While it may be more profitable for developers to create cookie-cutter style developments on greenspace, when environmental costs and the costs to governments and taxpayers are factored in, intensification becomes the clear economical choice.
New developments on greenspace require the creation of a vast new network of infrastructure, including roads, sewer, electricity, water, fire stations, police stations, schools, and the list goes on. The creation of this new infrastructure is extremely expensive and as a result the burden of essentially subsidizing new sprawl falls on governments and the taxpayers that support them.
In comparison, intensification makes use of existing infrastructure saving resources and costs. It helps to focus public spending in existing communities, allowing for the revitalization and improvement of areas that have already been developed to ensure that they remain vibrant, safe, attractive places to live. A good example of intensification can be seen in the pictures to the right, showing smart growth inspired intensification along ‘Seminary’ street.