Monday, June 26, 2006

The impact of population growth on local neighbourhoods

A couple of weeks ago, I blogged about the McGuinty government's announcement of a new strategy to combat urban sprawl in southern Ontario. An important aspect of the Places to Grow plan is higher residential densities. The theory is that if people live closer together they won't be as dependant on the car as they are now. However, there is at least one potential problem with the government's new strategy. Achieving higher densities means bringing unwanted real estate development into established neighbourhoods. Proposals for tall buildings often come up against local resistance. If the opposition is strong enough, municipal councils will stop the development, but developers can still appeal to the Ontario Municipal Board, which has the power to overrule city councils.

Ian Urquhart, who writes about provincial affairs for the Toronto Star, has a column in which he points out that along with the proposal to curb urban sprawl, Queen's Park is making changes to the legislation governing the OMB. Urquhart argues that weakening the OMB will make it harder to implement the government's plan to control sprawl. He writes (Weakening OMB could create more sprawl, June 26):

But implementing Places to Grow could nevertheless prove to be politically problematic down the road.

That's because, while most people support "intensification" in theory, in practice, ratepayer groups are bound to oppose it.

Or, as Burlington Mayor Rob MacIsaac has put it, "The only thing the public hates more than sprawl is intensification."

Take, for example, two recent development proposals, one in Toronto, the other in Oakville.

In Toronto, just south of the Sherway Gardens shopping mall at Highway 427 and the QEW, a developer proposed to build four high-rise condo towers. City planning staff supported the proposal, but the local ratepayers vociferously opposed it, and Toronto city council rejected it.

And on the fringe of downtown Oakville, on the site of Sharkey's Dockside Café, town council rejected a proposal for a 14-storey condo tower after vehement protests from local ratepayers.

In both cases, the Ontario Municipal Board (OMB) — the court of last resort for development issues — sided with the developers and overturned the council decisions.

It seems paradoxical, then, that, simultaneously with its Places to Grow initiative, the provincial government is pressing forward with Bill 51, which would appear to limit the powers of the OMB. (The bill flows from a Liberal election promise to reform the OMB to "prevent developers from forcing unwanted municipal expansion." On the next page of their 2003 platform, the Liberals promised to curb urban sprawl.)

The thing I find frustrating is this. Urban sprawl is a consequence of population growth. Population growth, in turn, is a consequence of immigration. Canada has a low birth rate that will eventually fall below replacement level. Toronto and other southern Ontario cities are growing because half of the 250,000 or so immigrants who come to Canada each year settle in this province. We wouldn't have to choose between urban sprawl and skyscrapers in residential neighbourhoods if Ottawa would just reduce immigration levels. Of course, this would make real estate developers unhappy.

Do the people fighting local development see the connection between immigration and the real estate projects they oppose? Do they understand that as long as immigration stays at its present level, developers will be able to claim their projects are necessary? As a Star reporter smugly put it:

But whether residents — living in neighbourhoods that are perfect just the way they are, thank you very much — want it or not, growth is coming.

But of course, growth is only coming because politicians like Stephen Harper allow it. Harper has the power to reduce immigration. Canadians have the right to say no to unnecessary population growth. There is nothing inevitable about our country's ridiculous immigration policies. Immigration is not an unstoppable force of nature. It's a political decision.