Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Smart Urban Planning?

Have you ever felt out of step with the majority at a gathering?  Last night I was a town council meeting where I felt like the guy wearing shorts and a tee shirt at a black tie affair.
My town is finally coming to grips with an issue that has been brewing for years. The Province of Ontario has mandated my town as a growth centre - part of the Greater Toronto Area. The town still has a large component of zoned farmland that could be developed to accommodate this new growth. Let's put aside for the moment the issue that the Province can dictate where people should live and how towns should develop, I think that's wrong.
The town's councillors felt compelled to act on the provincial edict. A variety of special interest groups ranging from the David Suzuki Foundation, to all manner of ratepayers, farmers, and developers groups fought (in a civilized way) to convince the town councillors how to plan this future growth. There were public meetings, council meeting, special meetings and on an on for years. The essence of the debate focussed on rezoning the farmland. The developers and the farmers wanted the land rezoned for future development in accord with the provincial edict, the other groups, lets call them the environmental lobby, wanted to preserve 100% of the farmland (some of the best land in the Canada) for future food production (as a Food-belt) and concentrate any future growth within the existing urban developed land. That concentration is euphemistically called "intensification" or I prefer "densification". Councillors were prepared to apportion up to 60% of the future growth within the existing urbanized land and the rest on the rezoned farmland.
So yesterday was decision day and the environmental lobby had there guns out (metaphorically speaking). The mayor, who doesn't know the meaning of brevity, rambled on about the "process" and thanked all present (and those in the past) for the civil conduct displayed. A lot of "back-patting" followed, it is after all an election year.  Then came two hours of deputations beginning with a representative from the Suzuki Foundation who played this video which featured the guru himself. One after another people spoke, mostly on behalf of the environmental lobby, followed by raucous applause. Each repeated how the farmland was essential, even though our growing season is short and farmers are having difficulty competing with farm produce from offshore. Many of the farmers are nearing retirement age with no one willing to purchase their land and keep the farms going. For them selling to a developer may be a profitable out.
The environmental lobby would prevent this, farmers would be forced to continue or sell to anyone but a developer and take far less than the fair market value of the property. One eloquent speaker, the daughter of a farmer, spoke about how her father would like to do nothing else but continue his farm, but his age will make that difficult sooner than later.
Many from the environmental lobby spoke about "smart growth" in towns like Portland Oregon and wanted my town to be a model for smart growth in Canada. The problem is that smart growth has its share of criticisms now, after being around in the States for years. Portland and other cities have many of the problems, that were supposed to be avoided with smart growth. Smart growth is also supposed to be more conducive to beating climate change (if you think that's a problem), but studies have shown the opposite is true. Here is an interesting debate if you have an hour to kill.
All of this debate was going on during our Great Recession, which I fear is still in the early stages. The smart growth approach depends heavily on major governmental transit expenditures. These would need to be financed with increased debt, which could be a problem given the possibility of sovereign defaults in Europe. A default could cause money to stop flowing like those days in the fall of 2008.
Today in the Globe, our friend Neil Reynolds lays out one of the chief problems with Western society. All of this is related to how governments take on responsibilities they should not - smart growth, stupid idea.          
 

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