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Published on Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Subtraction by subdivision is sprawl

What is the real cost of growth?
In Halton Region, it seems, more than we can afford.


By Christopher Hume, Urban Issues, Toronto Star

What is the real cost of growth? In Halton Region, it seems, more than we can afford.

Earlier this week, Halton Region Chair Gary Carr threatened to withdraw municipal approval for 40,000 housing units unless the province and development industry figure out who's paying how much and for what.

"Growth," Carr noted succinctly, "doesn't pay for itself."

In so saying, Carr got to the very heart of the matter: It takes more to build a community than shopping malls and subdivisions. You also need schools, hospitals, libraries and concert halls. The problem is that someone – or some level of government – has to pay for them.

In an age when taxes and lower taxes drive every political debate, we tend to forget that you get what you pay for. Taxes are the usual method of payment, but we prefer to hand over as little as possible. As a result, there's never enough to go around.

In Halton, that means that the region can't cover its share of the cost of building and/or expanding four hospitals. That figure stands at $300 million, but will likely end up going higher.

"I don't know how the community share will be funded," Carr told the Toronto Star's Phinjo Gombu.

Builders point out that they pay development fees of between $41,000 and $44,000 per house. From the industry's point of view, that's already too much. Besides, their job is to build housing, not cities. They sell a product, measured by the square foot.

Clearly, that's not enough.

At the same time, municipalities have historically been only too happy to approve every proposal that comes their way. Mississauga's mayor-for-life, Hazel McCallion, presided over the suburbanization of vast tracts before switching to a more urban tune a decade ago.

"Multiplication by subdivision," as the late Metro Chair Fred Gardiner put it, has turned out to be subtraction by subdivision.

That's why Carr's words should be taken seriously. When you think about it, what he said was extraordinary. Though provincial infrastructure minister George Smitherman has already labelled it "grandstanding," he's dead wrong.

Carr's larger point can only be that growth in Ontario is based on a lie.

While planners busy themselves with the niceties of placement and built form, the big decisions are made by the development industry.

What we dismissively call "infrastructure," as if it were nothing more than sewers, roads, bridges and cables, is actually the stuff of civilized life. It comprises the full spectrum of our institutional, educational, recreational, cultural needs. Housing is one element of a community, perhaps even the most important, but there are many others.

The inescapable conclusion of Carr's argument is that a whole new approach to planning is needed; let's call it full-cost planning. Like full-cost accounting, the new planning would determine, in advance, the real needs – and, therefore, cost – of a proposed community, not just a part of the whole.

There was a small but telling planning failure some years ago at the foot of Bathurst St. on the Toronto waterfront. In the 1980s and 1990s the city approved a large number of townhouses and residential high-rises in the area, but without a thought to where the grocery store would be, the banks, restaurants, or where kids would go to school.

After years of lobbying, Harbourfront School/Recreation Centre was built, and has been busy ever since.

Naturally, developers would rather not pay for roads, schools, playgrounds, parks, whatever. But these are what make a place inhabitable and give property value.

What's happened now, however, is that the province has withdrawn from infrastructure. Smitherman would remind us that the province spends more then ever on infrastructure, but given the extent of the deficit, it's too little too late.

Ultimately, the problem isn't planning so much as the province, and, of course, the federal government, which comes from a different planet.

There's even a word for what they have done: downloading.

Despite what people say, the arguments for downloading are good ones. What doesn't make sense is that municipalities weren't given power equal to their new responsibilities.

If cities have to pay extra costs, they need extra revenues, a greater portion of the gas tax, say, a share of personal income tax, or a cent of the GST.

One way or another, the ultimate goal of public administration is to create community. Therefore, communities must be empowered. Instead, we have turned them into dumping grounds.

As recently as Thursday, federal finance minister Jim Flaherty was predicting Ottawa would end the fiscal year with a "modest surplus."

Carr has drawn a line in the asphalt, and whether he knows it or not, it extends right across Ontario, and Canada. Cities here are damned if they grow, damned if they don't.

Halton today, Canada tomorrow; the moment of reckoning has arrived. And if we can't afford the bill now, just wait till we see the total.
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Author: Mayor Rob Burton

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