Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of November 17, 2003
And they put up a parking lot
Surburban sprawl spews polutants
By SUZANNE ELSTON
I live on the edge. To the north and west, new subdivisions, monuments to urban sprawl; to the south, some of the finest farmland in Canada, most of it still under cultivation; and to the east, the remnants of a United Empire Loyalist community, fragmented and fading. Not quite urbanite, certainly not farmer, with roots in the land and living branches of children that seek the luxuries of a 21st century lifestyle, I live on the edge and wait.
I wait because our two-acre property sits in no-man's land. For now, my husband's family homestead remains in a greenbelt - not quite agricultural, reserved for some use to be determined by local planners and council. And while I wait for local politicians to decide the fate of the fields that surround our small oasis, I watch with interest as the modern drama of urban sprawl unfolds.
Stomping footprintI am not alone. Across Canada, sprawl is changing the landscape at an alarming rate. According to a new study by the David Suzuki Foundation, "Winnipeg's urban footprint almost quadrupled between 1971 and 1991, yet its population only doubled. Calgary already takes up as much land as New York City with only a tenth of its population." The study, Understanding Sprawl, A Citizen's Guide, examines the impact of urban sprawl on our natural environment and agricultural resources.
It's important to understand that sprawl isn't about increasing populations. It's about the difference between population growth and the amount of land that is occupied. According to the Suzuki study, in high growth areas such as southern Ontario's Golden Horseshoe, the rate at which land is occupied is often double the population growth rate. The result is sprawling communities, almost completely dependent on the private automobile.
Again, according to the report, "Suburban sprawl is not sustainable. It never conserves resources, nor creates efficient infrastructure, nor protects nature. It relies on transportation that consumes fossil fuel at wasteful rates, diminishes scarce agricultural land and assaults natural habitats on a massive scale. Unchecked suburban encroachment on the land will leave an unsustainable environment to future generations."
Whew. That's a mouthful. But if urban sprawl is so evil, then why is it allowed to continue? The Suzuki report says it's about bad decisions made 70 years ago that continue to haunt us today. Essentially, in the 1930s a network of electric streetcars, interurbans and railroads provided the backbone of urban and intercity transportation throughout North America.
In order to increase sales, automobile manufacturers in the U.S. purchased streetcar lines and replaced them with buses to accommodate the use of the private automobile. In Canada, where mass transit systems were publicly owned, municipalities bowed to corporate pressure to tear up tracks to make room for cars.
Road rodeo"As a result, transportation planning became mostly a matter of providing additional road capacity," the report says. "Canada's transportation system became, in large measure, an automotive system, rather than a balanced system that integrates the use of cars, buses, streetcars, and railroads, with allowance for safe walking and bicycle riding."
To steal a line from W.P. Kinsella, "If you built it, they will come." Roads gave access, access gave birth to subdivisions. Lower density housing meant fewer riders on longer transit lines, thereby making public transit services more expensive, hence less frequent, hence less desirable. Voilů: the death of public transportation and birth of a car dependent society.
Here's the downside. Our dependence on the private automobile has created urban smog (and up to 16,000 premature deaths a year and billions of dollars in additional health care costs), a dramatic increase in carbon dioxide emissions (25 per cent above the Kyoto target) and $60 billion currently needed for urban infrastructure.
On a personal level, sprawl means increased taxes, greater risk of dying in an automobile accident, more time behind the wheel chauffeuring kids, shopping, etc., higher rates of obesity (from all that sitting in a car) and less of a sense of community (it's hard to get to know your neighbour when you're always sitting behind the steering wheel.)
The good news is that in conjunction with Understanding Sprawl, the Suzuki Foundation has produced a citizen's toolkit, Driven to Action. Both are on the Suzuki Foundation website; both are well worth the read.
Recommended websites:The Suzuki Foundation website is at www.davidsuzuki.org.
The Suzuki Foundation also recommends the websites of a number of other organizations in Canada and US, working on urban development issues. Go to: www.smartgrowthcanada.com; www.smartgrowth.bc.ca; www.kyotoandsprawl.ca; www.ontarionature.org/enviroandcons/issues/sprawl.html; www.sustainable.org.
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