City needs to grow, wisely

October 3, 2009

Guelph Mercury, 10/02/09Greenbelt

Rural land needs to be protected. Even city folk understand that.

And why wouldn’t we. No one wants to live in a province where the cities go on for ever. No one wants our farms and forests to constantly give way to more subdivisions and strip malls. (Brampton or Mississauga, anyone?)

But controlling how our cities grow is about more than just throwing up a “developers go home” sign at the edge of town. We have to accept that neighbourhoods inside our cities are going to change, too. For some of us, that might be the biggest challenge of all.

This week, the Region of Waterloo announced plans to place huge swaths of land outside Kitchener, Waterloo and Cambridge off-limits to developers. The municipality says the countryside restrictions will protect groundwater, preserve farmland and restrain urban sprawl. It also means new growth is going to be focused eastward, which should matter to people who live in Guelph.

Why does Waterloo Region need a greenbelt? Because its municipal leaders have allowed urban sprawl to go on unfettered for decades. And they’re not alone. Saying no to that kind of easy growth has long been a tough dilemma for many municipalities. More home owners within city limits means more tax revenue to do the big public projects that every community wants to do.

Guelph, meanwhile, has its own problems with sprawl and its own ideas about protecting the rural land around it. It’s even asked the province about expanding Ontario’s Greenbelt here.

But not everyone loves greenbelts. No doubt some rural landowners, particularly farmers, would balk at the suggestion they could never sell their land to a developer planning to build subdivision. And no wonder: for many of them, selling property that rings a growing city is their retirement fund.

If a developer knows they can never convert farmland into an urban use, guess what happens to that property’s value. Those living within Ontario’s 1.8 million-acre Greenbelt around the Greater Golden Horseshoe can tell you. That’s why some argue, quite convincingly, that greenbelt farmers should be compensated for bearing the brunt of these environmental restrictions.

And greenbelts alone will never solve our growth problems, anyway.

There are other ways to guide Guelph’s development upward, not outward. City councils have the power to approve development that fits with our denser, more compact future. They have the ability to offer tax breaks for developers who build intensification projects within or close to the core, and grants to those who turn brownfields and old factories into new uses like housing or commercial space.

They can approve projects that require some creativity and style from developers. They can approve more neighbourhoods without two-car garages, detached homes and yards.

The problem with this kind of progressive urban planning is that it also takes the support of an informed public. And Guelph’s anti-development crowd has shown some among them can be anything but sometimes.

When a developer tries to build townhomes upon unused former industrial space near downtown, they cry “gentrification” and “go home yuppies” and talk about elitism. They wail as if all development is bad, as if an urban infill project is no different than a shopping mall on the city’s edge.

Blinders-on thinking like that might be popular in the closed circles of activists, but it’s in the real world it’s short-sighted and out of touch.

That’s too bad. Because the people will not stop coming. The city will not stop growing. All we can do is try to guide how it grows.

Greg Mercer is a Guelph-based freelance writer. His column appears Wednesdays. He can be reached at, and past columns can be read at

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