Observing the slow-moving traffic on the busy Highway 403, which skirts his neighborhood in Mississauga, Ontario, Rahul Mehta tries to conjure up a better vision of what could be: more trees. More public transport and bike paths. Calmer.
“It’s incredibly crowded. It’s incredibly noisy. And we know that’s not something most people want,” said Mehta, who is part of Stop Spreading Peela group advocating for the region, located west of Toronto, to stop expanding its urban boundaries and instead build communities that are less car-dependent.
Home to 1.5 million people, the Regional Municipality of Peel includes the cities of Mississauga and Brampton, known for their sprawling neighborhoods of increasingly unaffordable single-family homes and massive highways that are among the busiest in North America. It also includes the town of Caledon to the north, which contains large swaths of Ontario Greenbelt and some of the best farmland in Canada.
It is these agricultural lands and other green spaces that could be threatened by development in the decades to come.
Late last month, Peel approved a new official map which will guide the area’s growth and development through 2051. The plan envisions accommodating approximately 700,000 new residents by increasing density in some more established neighborhoods, while opening up approximately 4,450 hectares of land to new development along along the north of the region. edges.
“There are big ambitions to create a more climate-resilient and denser city through specific neighborhoods,” Mehta said. “But for the most part, as seen on the [official plan]there will continue to be predominantly low-rise homes – whether people like it or not – that are adapted and designed for the car.”
Municipalities scramble to plan for growth
The Ontario government has ordered municipalities like Peel to submit their plans to accommodate growth by July 1. The province has the final say on proposals and could impose plans on municipalities that do not submit them by the deadline.
Peel leaders used the situation to explain why this plan was passed, saying they would have preferred more time. Other municipalities like Halton, just west of Peel, and Hamilton have decided to push back, rejecting any further boundary expansion.
“Better to be in control of your destiny than to have it imposed on you. And so at least we were in the room, we had the consultation, we made the difficult decisions,” said Nando Iannicca, regional president of the region of Peel.
“To my colleagues in other jurisdictions who have taken another approach: are you going to be at the table now when these decisions are made? Because now the province is going to step in and they’re going to tell you where your growth is going. to go.”
Prior to being named regional chair, Iannicca served as a councilor for Mississauga for nearly three decades. He says he understands the need to limit sprawl and increase density in parts of the area, but some expansion was needed to accommodate the large number of new residents arriving in the area.
“We had to make some tough decisions and they come at a price. And I think the whole board kind of has a heavy heart about that. No doubt about it,” he said.
“The number of people for whom the dream is always, ‘I can go to my little garden and enjoy a barbecue with my family.’ A lot of people still want that dream. A lot of people still want the detached house. We have to try to move away from that to some degree, but it’s still a demand in the market.
Farms and green spaces in the harbor
Much of the expansion debate centers on the town of Caledon, which forms the northern part of Peel. Currently home to around 80,000 people, Caledon is expected to reach 300,000 by 2051, according to the official plan.
Caledon is currently mostly covered by Greenbelt and prime farmland. EcoCaledona group of local residents who campaign for the protection of the environment in the region, spoke out on the need to preserve these green spaces.
“It’s so infuriating, when you think about it – the mere fact that this primary farmland could be paved over,” said Debbe Crandall, longtime Caledon resident and member of ecoCaledon’s sustainability committee.
“There are young farmers today from generational farming families who are excited about regenerative agriculture, doing farming on a smaller scale. And you need land to do that,” he said. she declared.
“And so this land presents opportunities that our advisers don’t see. … They see this land as being necessary to grow.”
Dean Orr, a young farmer who grows organic corn, soybeans, wheat and beans on his family farm north of Toronto, has submitted a letter to Peel Region council, warning against the development of farmland of choice. He says his family has seen farm plots they previously rented turned into homes and he is appalled by Ontario’s approach to land use planning.
“Now is not the time to reduce farmland. This is the worst time I can think of,” he said.
“To do this when you have climate change front and center, just to keep building like we’ve been doing, when we know there are better building practices – more density, less car dependency , more walkable and bikeable neighborhoods – that’s neglect.”
Worsening food insecurity
the latest appraisal report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warns that millions of people are already suffering from acute food insecurity due to extreme weather, and that this problem will only get worse as the planet warms. At the same time, the agricultural sector also contributes to climate change by clearing forests and emitting greenhouse gases while operating farm equipment and transporting produce.
This puts a renewed emphasis on preserving existing farmland that is close to the people who will eat this food.
“Every acre of farmland we pave is an acre we lose to feed our growing population, which creates a greater risk of food insecurity in the face of climate change,” said Cherise Burda, executive director of the City Building initiative at Metropolitan University of Toronto (TMU).
“Paving our own farmland is really unwise, especially when there are other ways to build more housing and build more sustainable communities. We should be saving more farmland for our food production, for food security. Not For the development.”
In 2018, TMU researchers released a report that showed how Mississauga could accommodate 435,000 new residents by 2041 within existing city limits, pursuing the “missing middle” of housing and slowly densifying its neighborhoods. This means more low-rise apartment buildings, with access to schools and community centers – as opposed to the two extremes of single-family homes and massive condominiums.
“It makes no sense that we allow some places a 1950s or 1970s approach to urban sprawl and greenhouse gas emissions planning, just because they have access to pristine land, to agricultural land,” Burda said.
Iannicca says that’s the kind of density that Canadians see and appreciate when they visit cities in Europe, for example, and it’s time for them to embrace it in their own communities.
“We didn’t get people to believe that you can be rewarded for density,” he said. “When they walk around Paris, they feel [it] intuitively. They don’t understand planning jargon; they just walk in and they say, ‘Isn’t that absolutely lovely?’
“These are the rewards of density.”
Election campaign looms
Stop Sprawl Peel and ecoCaledon, along with other environmental groups fighting urban sprawl, say they are now looking to the Ontario election campaign — and the June 2 vote — to make their case heard, as they s expect housing affordability and climate change to be on the minds of voters.
At the same time, other Toronto-area municipalities, including York Region to the north and Durham Region to the east, are also deciding on their growth plans, which could extend further to green spaces in the region.
“What will it look like or what will it take for us to continue to be a place where people want, as we say in Ontario, to be a place to grow up? What will it take for this to actually be true and continue to be sincere?” Mehta said.
“It’s a tough question. And it will require an ambitious response from any level of government, municipal or provincial, that is up to the task.”