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Cities in Ontario are deciding what the next three decades of population growth will look like. Ottawa chose sprawl. York Region, north of Toronto, chose sprawl. Last week, Hamilton chose something different.

Hamilton was embroiled in a months-long debate on how to handle growth that could shoot its population to 820,000 in 2051 from about 580,000 today. The question turned on how much new land – much of it currently irreplaceable farmland – should be paved over for suburban housing, versus how much new housing should involve adding density to already built-up areas of the city.

The provincial government has dictated the guidelines of these civic plans and the new road maps are due next July, a month after Ontario’s general election. Ottawa City Council in February decided that 60 per cent of growth should be added density while the rest would be more sprawl. Last month, York Region backed a plan for sprawl to accommodate half of new housing – swallowing up almost all of the region’s remaining land.

In Hamilton, city staff recommended something similar, with 60 per cent of new housing to be built in existing areas – the same as Ottawa – and the rest of the new construction to happen on 13 square kilometres of farmland. City council, however, voted 13-3 against that. Instead, they want 81 per cent of the city’s growth to happen within established areas.

These debates touch on housing costs – prices have surged 40 per cent in the Hamilton region since the start of the pandemic – and what sort of housing gets built where. Hamilton’s council took a stand against an approach that forever sprawls, city into suburbs into exurbs, miles upon miles of detached homes, all connected by expensive highways.

Such civic design does not come cheap. A recent report from Ottawa showed that it costs $465 per capita each year, over and above taxes and other fees, to pay for new subdivisions – think sewers and roads. Meanwhile, infill housing – think missing middle, like small apartment buildings – fully covers its infrastructure costs and adds $606 per capita to city finances. A similar tally of data from Halifax revealed that a suburban household costs the city $3,462 per year, while an urban household comes in at less than half that, $1,416.

Then think highways. Doug Ford’s Progressive Conservatives are pushing the construction of Highway 413, a sprawl accelerator. There’s no official price tag yet but it’s guaranteed to involve many billions of dollars. It won’t be a toll road; taxpayers will subsidize drivers.

The Ford government has suggested it could overturn Hamilton’s decision. It says housing affordability can be eased by effectively encouraging sprawl – but when it talks about costs, it doesn’t include the whole bill. Sprawl may benefit some home buyers but it is subsidized and expensive – fiscal conservatives should recognize that. Density pays off across the board, from sewers to transit.

If other cities follow Hamilton’s lead, they will quickly see how much growth can comfortably fit in by building up existing areas rather than always building out.

Calgary in 2018 decided to add 14 new subdivisions. That decision drove a citywide increase of more than 2 per cent in property taxes and fees. Last year, city council changed course and rejected 11 new subdivisions.

In the City of Toronto, which like all cities reserves most of its land for low-density, single-family homes, the population of many neighbourhoods has actually fallen over the past two decades, by a combined 220,000 people, even as the rest of the city – notably around downtown – was gaining population. Toronto is now looking at allowing an increase in density in these declining areas, to make more “efficient use of land, infrastructure and existing services.” Why, for instance, build a new school when new housing can be built near existing schools?

Toronto can handle a lot more growth within its borders, but the provincial government instead has put forward a three-decade forecast that sees the city’s suburbs continuing to grow much faster. That framework is leading York Region to plan for continued expansion of its urban footprint. It’s an ideology of sprawl, which since the Second World War has been the Canadian model. In Metro Vancouver, the suburbs have long absorbed far more growth than the core, and that’s predicted to continue – because the plan is for it to continue.

This is bad planning. Hamilton is a reminder there’s another way.

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