In a recent report to Council, Hamilton city staff recommended that a zone-based approach be considered as part of their upcoming development charges review. The staff report explains:
As a result of previous feedback and direction from Council regarding the 2014 DC
review, staff will be looking at methods to encourage intensification, including
investigating the feasibility of implementing area rated Development Charges, similar to
other municipalities such as the City of Ottawa, City of Markham, and Halton Region.
Here is a link to a video of a presentation I made to the Green Economy Summit in October about the linkages between misincentives, inefficient urban form and municipal finances.
Here’s a link to an article from Hamilton, Ontario that nicely summarizes some of the arguments put forward in Perverse Cities.
A recent review of Perverse Cities by Ray Tomalty (Alternatives Journal 37.6) takes issue with several arguments presented. I’ll address these in a separate post. But the review claims that early results show that the Places to Grow (PtG) and greenbelt plans in the Greater Golden Horseshoe (i.e. Toronto mega-region) are helping rein in sprawl here. This discussion does put the spotlight on the PtG and greenbelt plans five or so years after their adoption. Of course these early results are only now beginning to emerge, some time after Perverse Cities went to press. Nevertheless, whether these major planning initiatives have been succeeding in shifting the pattern of urban development in the GGH is something that I’ve been considering recently and is worthwhile exploring.
The first point to make is that the early results are very sparse. The Ministry of Infrastructure’s PtG website recently offered a progress report, with some preliminary evidence. It’s useful to look at the data provided and what it may or may not tell us about how we’re doing in meeting the growth plan objectives – which include achieving residential intensification targets of 40% of all new units to be accommodated on already urbanised land, directing growth to identified centres, and meeting minimum density targets – all with the aim of creating denser, more mixed use urban areas. Let’s look at the evidence so far.
Expansions of the urbanised area
PtG was to limit urban area expansions and the dedication of more greenfields land to urban development. Five years in, proposals are outstanding to add 8-10,000 hectares of land to designated greenfield to region’s urban envelope, within the so-called whitebelt (the area between the currently designated urban boundary and the greenbelt). This is about 17% of the total whitebelt area, equal to about one-third of the land area of the City of Mississauga.
No empirical evidence is provided yet on density trends. The Ministry claims that their own early analysis shows increasing densities in new suburban developments post-PtG in the Outer Ring municipalities. In the Inner Ring, they say that densities were already increasing before PtG. We’ll have a better understanding of this once we see the actual data.
A shift to apartments
The Ministry notes significant increases in higher density housing forms – in places like Burlington, Mississauga, Waterloo, Kitchener and Markham, as well as more townhouses and semis in places like Oshawa, Newmarket and Guelph.
It’s true that on a percentage basis, there’s been a shift to a larger share of apartments in the Inner Ring CMAs (Toronto, Hamilton and Oshawa). Singles fell from 47% of units in 2001-2005 to 38% in 2006-2010. However, we need to dig a little deeper and look at absolute numbers. When we do we see that the number of apartments built hasn’t really increased that much. Rather, the absolute number of singles, semis and towns has decreased, by about 55,000 units – that’s what’s mostly accounting for the increase in apartments’ share of the housing mix. And almost 3/4 of those apartments were built in the City of Toronto.
Housing Starts, Toronto, Oshawa and Hamilton CMAs
Source: CMHC Housing Market Indicators
Evidence of intensification provided by the Ministry suggests that of the 63,000 units added to the GGH between June of 2009 and June of 2010, 70% of units were built the in existing urbanised area. They note that half of these units were located in City of Toronto. Hopefully, some more fulsome data is forthcoming.
Tomalty suggests that intensification rates range from 16% to 50% (based on information derived from interviews with municipal planning staff). The 50% is for Peel Region, which of course includes Mississauga, where most of the intensification is taking place, as that municipality has essentially exhausted its supply of greenfields.
He also quotes research on intensification conducted by the Neptis Foundation, as per the table below, showing support for increasing rates of intensification.
Residential Intensification Rates
|City of Hamilton||24%||44%|
|Region of Halton||23%||58%|
|Region of Peel||30%||65%|
|Region of York||32%||64%|
|Region of Durham||31%||22%|
|Inner ring excluding Toronto||29%||59%|
But this data assumes two different urbanised areas for the two periods. The urbanised area is expanded for the 2001-2006 period, allowing for more development to be included as intensification than if the boundary were held constant over the two periods.
In fact, Neptis includes two calculations for the 2001-2006 period. The second one provides data keeping the urbanised area constant between the two time periods. This yields dramatically different results:
Residential Intensification Rates (Constant Urbanised Area)
|City of Hamilton||24%||14%|
|Region of Halton||23%||10%|
|Region of Peel||30%||14%|
|Region of York||32%||14%|
|Region of Durham||31%||9%|
|Inner ring excluding Toronto||29%||13%|
In my view the data in the second table are more accurate and reflective of actual intensification. The Neptis methodology tended to have a generous interpretation of the urban boundary, which led to a significant portion of units being counted as intensification when in fact they were within 500 metres of the urban boundary. That is, they were most likely slightly lagging greenfields development rather than intensification per se, a fact acknowledged by Neptis in their report. In other words, intensification in the 1991-2001 period is likely overestimated, and that shown for 2001-2006 in the second table likely more reflective of actual intensification rates.
I’d love to be proved skeptical – but I think we need much better data before we can draw meaningful conclusions about how we’re doing on Places to Grow.
 Ray Tomalty and Bartek Komorowski. Inside Out: Sustaining Ontario’s Greenbelt. Friends of the Greenbelt Foundation Occasional Papers, June 2011.
 Neptis Foundation, Implementing Residential Intensification Targets: Lessons From Research on Intensification Rates in Ontario, February, 2010, http://www.neptis.org.
Here’s a link to an interesting article about perverse parking subsidies in Baltimore:
I am still asked, from time to time, for The Economics of Urban Form. This report was prepared as background to the GTA (or “Golden”, after its Chair, Anne Golden) Task Force report Greater Toronto, back in 1996. It looks at three scenarios for growth in the Greater Toronto Area, and assesses the relative costs of each. Moving from the status quo toward a more compact development pattern would save between 18% and 29% on infrastructure and other costs.
I believe the report is hard to find these days, so I’m making a pdf of it available for download by clicking here.
A recent report from the Canadian Urban Institute on office sprawl – The New Geography of Office Location and the Consequences of Business as Usual in the GTA - makes crystal clear a few key points:
1. Office sprawl continues in the Toronto area. While often neglected, non-residential sprawl is as or more important than residential sprawl. The report notes that 66 million square feet of office space – more than that found in Calgary and Edmonton combined – accommodating 325,000 workers, has been built over the last 20 years in car-dependent suburban locations.
2. At present, within the Toronto region as a whole, 108 million sq.ft. of office space is located beyond the reach of high order transit. Even after current transit plans for the region are built, approximately 98 million sq.ft. of space will remain unserviced by high order transit.
3. At the same time, there is no shortage of development opportunities within already built-up areas, and especially within walking distance of existing subway stations.
4. Mispricing drives office sprawl. CUI’s analysis shows clearly how office development patterns shifted after property tax differentials emerged between Toronto and the surrounding municipalities in the late 1970s. Higher non-residential tax rates in Toronto deflected development just beyond the city’s boundary to suburban, car dependent locations. Another factor is the time and cost involved in gaining planning approvals for redevelopment in Toronto.
What are the implications of CUI’s analysis? Existing transit infrastructure is being underutilised, especially the potential for offices outside the core, that would generate work trips against the peak flow. New transit investments are not addressing the single biggest source of traffic congestion: car dependent office districts. We are not getting the most out of these expensive and region-shaping investments. Comprehensive district plans need to be developed to retrofit the car-dependent office areas, plans that delineate a strategy for moving them toward more mixed-use, balanced and amenity-rich places that can be accessed by means other than just the car. This includes removing existing planning and mispricing obstacles.
To access CUI’s report, click here.
Perverse subsidies are often hidden, unintentional, unnoticed. Yet they play a critical role in promoting sprawl. By definition perverse subsidies have negative effects on the economy, environment or society. We could also talk about perverse policy, which has the same negative effects.
There are many, many, many instances of perverse subsidies and wonky policies. In the book I give a lot of examples, and explain exactly how they promote sprawl. They can be found in taxes, development charges (“impact fees” in the US), rates for water, electricity and other utilities, homeownership programs, and many more. Municipal, provincial or state, and federal level policies and pricing can all have adverse effects on urban growth patterns.
These perverse subsidies and policies fly under the radar, and their role in creating sprawl is not recognized. Until that changes, and perverse policies are fixed, progress on curbing sprawl will be limited and come at high cost. Smart growth policies and plans, New Urbanism and other initiatives aimed at curbing sprawl and creating a better, more efficient, sustainable, livable urban environment will continue to be undermined and challenged by these perverse subsidies.
I hope we can have further discussion and debate about issues around pricing, policy and sprawl. Feel free to post a comment, or tell us about a perverse subsidy or policy in your city. For an introduction to the topic, you can download the first chapter of the book by clicking here.