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Elmira project the latest example of the perils of growth

Utopian thinking about how we live met with reality yet again this week, as residents of an Elmira neighbourhood turned up at council to voice their many concerns about a proposed new subdivision.

Much of the problem stems from ever-increasing density requirements forced on municipalities by a Toronto-centric provincial government. Policies that decrease lot sizes and demand higher density housing then exacerbate traffic and parking issues that are already getting worse, even in a small town like Elmira.

In grouping the homes more closely, planners achieve a number of goals: using less land, reducing the infrastructure (particularly water and sewer pipes) needed to service the homes and, ideally, reducing the need for cars.

But the densities don’t mesh well with existing neighbourhoods, a problem for which the province cares not one whit, leaving municipalities to deal with the fallout.

The suburbs of old have come under fire for the sprawl and isolation they represent. New thinking, endorsed and enforce by the province, calls for more integrated neighbourhoods where people can live, shop and work in close proximity, perhaps even doing so on foot or bicycle rather than depending on the personal automobile.

That remains something of an allusive dream in this area. And price more than anything has dictated smaller lot sizes. Most of us, it seems, still want a big lot and big house away from what we see as the downside of higher density urban living. But skyrocketing land prices and soaring taxes and charges on development have driven up costs such that 80- and 100-foot frontages are beyond the means of many as house prices outstrip inflation and incomes.

As with public transit, higher densities and mixed communities are fine for the other guy.

In the ideal situation, the mixed developments proposed by developers offer many benefits. The pattern of sprawl we’ve seen in cities since the Second World War has come with many downsides.

Increasing numbers of automobiles are travelling over longer distances resulting in clogged transportation corridors, including those that provide access to border crossings. Traffic congestion and the delay in movement of goods costs Ontario billions of dollars in lost productivity.

Useful and efficient public transit is difficult to introduce into sprawling communities, and this limits the ability to respond effectively to growing traffic congestion issues.

Employment lands are being converted from their intended uses, thereby limiting future economic opportunities.

So-called green field development requires new infrastructure to be built to service lower-density areas, while existing infrastructure in the older parts of the cities remain underutilized – this is the impetus of the brownfield developments preferred in the Waterloo Region’s growth strategy.

Urban sprawl contributes to the degradation of our natural environment, air quality and water resources, as well as the consumption of agricultural lands and other natural resources so critical to the future economy.

Implementing those changes will be difficult, and it will take years to see results even if such plans are implemented here. We’ve seen some density shifts due to economics, but the remainder of the goals remain as yet unmet in this area.

As this week’s meeting showed, the fit isn’t always good, and will not be embraced easily. What remains to see is if resistance is futile.

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