The Ford government should support Hamilton’s anti-sprawl decision — not thwart it

OPINION: Last week, councillors voted against expanding the city’s urban-growth boundary. Ontario has the power to overturn that decision, and it’s hinting it might use it
By John Michael McGrath - Published on Nov 26, 2021
If the government were to compel Hamilton to adopt its next-most-ambitious density targets, at least 1,300 hectares of farmland would be at stake. (hstiver/iStock)

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How much new sprawl do we want in Ontario, and who decides how much we’ll get? That’s the issue that now confronts the provincial government after Hamilton opted last week to do something rare in large Ontario cities that aren’t Toronto: councillors there voted 13-3 not to expand the city’s urban-growth boundary — the lines on the map that determine where new homes and businesses will be allowed to expand into greenfield land. Effectively, it’s a decision to try to halt sprawl in one of the largest cities in the Greater Golden Horseshoe.

Ah, but not so fast. Hamilton’s decision is part of a provincially mandated process that all Ontario cities are going through right now as they update their own long-term plans to conform to updated growth projections from the province. There are a bunch of different things to know about this process — including the fact that, historically, Ontario’s growth projections have had only a loose relationship with the growth that actually occurred — but for today it’s enough to say that Hamilton council’s decision isn’t final and is subject to review by the provincial government.

A man filming in The Agenda studio

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And wouldn’t you know it, Municipal Affairs and Housing Minister Steve Clark sounds an awful lot like a man who’s going to subject this decision to a very thorough review indeed.

“All options are on the table,” Clark told the Empire Club of Canada on Thursday. “The city’s own documents show that an urban-boundary expansion has to take place to accommodate population growth.”

Clark said his concerns about the decision in Hamilton are related to the ongoing housing shortage both in the GTA and across the province: “I speak to the people in Hamilton that want to realize the dream of home ownership, and those people need a boundary expansion.” Clark nevertheless insisted that his mind isn’t made up.

Advocates for Hamilton’s decision say the minister is setting up a straw man to justify a pro-sprawl decision.

“The key element here is that council’s decision was backstopped by their commitment to brownfield development, intensification around transit, and purposeful zoning reform designed to add many thousands of new homes to existing low-rise residential neighbourhoods,” says Phil Pothen of Environmental Defence. “There’s a huge untapped capacity within Hamilton to create many more ground-related homes.”

In effect, Hamilton council is opting to do what many environmentalists say it should and what is philosophically in line with the entire thrust of a generation of provincial planning policy: grow inward and upward instead of outward. Whether that can survive the scrutiny of the current provincial government is another question.

If the government were to compel Hamilton to adopt its next-most-ambitious density targets instead of the zero-sprawl option, at least 1,300 hectares of farmland would be at stake. In theory, thousands of hectares more could be up for grabs if the provincial government were to opts for an even-sprawlier decision.

As with any municipal decision of this kind, there’s ample documentation of the controversy, some of which is spelled out in reports to council. The government’s concerns include a fear that, if Hamilton doesn’t accommodate forecasted growth, sprawl could be pushed into other communities that are less able to accommodate it. In effect, the government’s objection is that, if Hamilton doesn’t expand its growth boundary, that sprawl won’t disappear: it’ll just show up in smaller municipalities.

But whether Hamilton can accommodate the growth it’s claiming it can without expanding its urban boundary isn’t something that’s out of Queen’s Park’s control, either. If, for example, the province doesn’t believe that Hamilton council will live up to its pledge to reform zoning laws and intensify inside the existing urban footprint, the province could force it to. If that level of intensification can’t be accomplished without greater infrastructure spending — infrastructure spending that’s likely required in the form of roads and sewers in more sprawl-y scenarios anyway — the province could make money available.

Agenda segment, October 13, 2021: Should Hamilton expand its boundaries?

The stakes aren’t just a few thousand hectares of farmland, though. Fundamentally, Ontario’s planning policies since the passage of the Greenbelt Act and the Places to Grow Act have been based on the assumption that it’s possible to contain sprawl and preserve farmland while still delivering affordable homes to the province’s growing population. Nearly 20 years later, we’re finally seeing cities like Hamilton (and, in a different context, Toronto) take the possibilities of intensification seriously. The province’s position amounts to saying that affordability simply isn’t possible without at least some new sprawl.

The dark thought that should keep urbanists like me up at night is that, someday, the Tories might be right about that. But right now, the better choice is for the province to take Hamilton council at its word and find a way both to preserve as much land as possible and to make more affordable homes available.

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