Caledon, Canada: A Case Study in the Seeming Futility of Controlling Growth

ORM Oak Ridges Moraine
I live in Caledon, the largest municipality (physically) in the Greater Toronto Area, and the one with (for now) the smallest population (70,000, of which 25,000 is in the Town of Bolton, the pink area in the SE corner of the municipality on the map above). The NE third of Caledon is part of the Oak Ridges Moraine, the source of most of the GTA’s fresh water and oxygen (much of the Moraine area is tree-covered, unlike the rest of the GTA). The Oak Ridges Moraine is partially protected from further development, for now. Roughly the Western third of Caledon is protected as part of the Niagara Escarpment, a rare and fragile ecosystem designated a United Nations world biosphere reserve. The two municipalities South of Caledon (Brampton and Mississauga) are pro-growth communities (among the fastest-growing in Canada), and by 2021 every acre of these communities will have been developed (i.e. on the map above, colour them solid pink).

The GTA is one of the world’s fastest-growing urban agglomerations. It accepts over half of all new Canadian immigrants, and hence accounts for 80% of Ontario’s and 40% of all of Canada’s net population growth. The GTA has a current population of 6 million (half of Ontario’s 12 million total). By 2031, Ontario’s population is projected to grow to 18 million (almost entirely due to new immigration). By 2100, if immigration continues unabated, Ontario’s population will be nearly 50 million. The provincial government, apparently for political reasons, is assuming that the GTA’s share of this growth will suddenly and inexplicably drop from 80% to 60%, even though new immigrants have shown no interest in living elsewhere in Ontario (like all immigrants, they tend to choose to live with their fellow expatriates, at least until they get established). So population forecasts for the GTA are deliberately under-estimated and are far below projections. If 80% of new immigrants continue to come to the GTA, its population will balloon to nearly 11 million (almost double its current size) by 2031, and, by 2100, to 36 million (six times its current size). And since suburban population densities are much lower than urban densities, the GTA’s physical built-up area will at least triple by 2031 and increase by a factor of ten by 2100. No city planning envisions, or is prepared to cope with, this astronomical growth. Just imagine triple the pink (built up) area in the map above by 2031 and ten times the pink area by 2100 (the entire area covered by the map, and half as much again).

That’s the future world, and the current state of denial, in the GTA. We in Caledon are already facing enormous pressure to accept far more people than the official plan permits, even though two thirds of the municipality is governed by Moraine and Escarpment regulations and is not supposed to be developed at all. In fact, of the one third that is available for development, one third is designated Greenbelt and the other two thirds is designated Whitebelt (prime agricultural land, where development is officially discouraged). So ‘officially’, no more of Caledon is supposed to be developed. In spite of this, the Official Plan for Caledon envisions its population growing from 70,000 to 110,000 by 2031. In other words, of the nearly five million new GTA residents expected by 2031, Caledon, the largest GTA community, is expected to accommodate only 40,000, or 1% of them. And even that 1% will have to be put on prime agricultural land or greenbelt that is officially not supposed to be developed. Are you getting a picture of a pressure cooker here?

The hapless municipal government of Caledon, rank amateurs every one, are trying to walk a fine line to please all the voters and the different government authorities with their utterly conflicting demands. It’s a recipe for disaster. I can’t help feeling that the same recipe is brewing all over the world.

I’ve always been active in politics, and I believe fervently that, especially on environmental matters, local politics is the future. Despite that, I’ve washed my hands of our local political situation — I’ve given up, as there is no sensible answer to the problems that are boiling up and now reaching a tipping point. Here’s why, despite the Moraine, Escarpment, Greenbelt and Whitebelt regulations and restrictions, and the wish of many of our residents for a zero-growth strategy, Caledon is inevitably going to be paved over entirely, and long before the end of the century:

  • Developers rule, and own the politicians: Most of the undeveloped land in Caledon, including that on the Moraine and Escarpment, is in the hands of rich and powerful developers. They make their money (obscene amounts of it) by bribing, funding and lobbying municipal and provincial politicians to approve rezonings for development. Opponents of development, by comparison, are weak and poor.
  • Lawyers intimidate those who would restrict growth: Idealistic politicians and activist citizens who advocate zero growth strategies are attacked by well-paid lawyers who threaten legal action for unreasonable restraint of trade against any opponents of unrestricted development and growth, on behalf of their clients, including developers, real estate speculators and rapacious business organizations.
  • Real estate agents want growth: Real estate is one of the largest employers in Caledon and other metropolitan ‘fringe’ areas. Agents get paid a percentage of market value for each house listed or sold, and hence rely on growth and price appreciation for their living. They lobby politicians actively, and dominate many local business organizations. They were able to get a large part of NE Caledon exempted from Moraine restrictions as an ‘estate property development’ area: as if large estates of land clearcut and planted with lawns soaked in herbicides and pesticides are somehow better for the Moraine’s protection than more intensive subdivisions. No one has investigated who paid whom for this outrageous exemption that undermines everything the Moraine regulations stand for.
  • Farmers are greedy: As I reported in a previous article, most Caledon farms are subsistence — their owners grow grains and other extensive crops rather than vegetables, fruits and other intensive crops. Many of them have turned down very profitable offers from developers and real estate speculators, in the hope that as population pressures increase, even more lucrative offers will be forthcoming, as they have in every fringe area of Toronto in past. When the provincial government introduced the Greenbelt and Whitebelt strategy, these farmers were foaming at the mouth, and marched on the provincial legislature in protest. Most Caledon farmers, seduced by the promise of windfall profits on their land, have become merely real estate speculators themselves.
  • Business owners want growth: The near-doubling of Caledon’s population by 2031 is insufficient for the Caledon Chamber of Commerce, which issued an expensive mailing to every Caledon resident urging citizens and politicians to raise its target population to at least 130,000 people by that year, arguing that established and prospective Caledon businesses need such growth to be viable.
  • The construction industry wants materials: The Niagara Escarpment is a favoured haunt for sand and gravel operators supplying the voracious needs of the construction industry, and these operators are also major employers in Caledon. They have argued furiously against restrictions that prevent them from continually expanding operations, and threatened legal action against municipalities that try to introduce such restrictions.
  • The property tax base requires more taxpayers: Communities fund road maintenance and other essential municipal services through property taxes. Communities like Caledon with few taxpayers per square mile and per mile of roads and utilities have to charge higher rates or neglect infrastructure. Worse, as low-income new housing spills over into Caledon from adjacent municipalities, new subdivisions have sprouted up that pay little tax (property taxes are based on market value, and these new subdivisions have some of the cheapest houses in the GTA) yet demand the same services as every other residential development. And these new subdivisions are mainly residential — there is little employment created in these communities, so there are few businesses to balance the property tax load, and residents have to commute to other areas for work, placing further burdens on the road system.
  • The city and region want more people accommodated: Understandably, Toronto and other GTA communities cannot possibly accommodate the exploding demand for new housing in the GTA, and want Caledon to accept more than the 1% that it is currently committed to absorb.
  • The provincial zoning authority is dominated by pro-development forces: While municipalities make their own plans, these plans can be overruled by appeal to the provincial zoning authority called the Ontario Municipal Board. This Board is heavily pro-development and almost always overrules any rezoning denials and restrictions imposed by municipalities unless the development proposal is really outrageous. This allows municipalities to pander to anti-development forces and acquiesce to pro-development forces at the same time: They introduce restrictions and refuse rezoning knowing full well that these rulings will be reversed by the OMB. They can tell citizens that “they tried” and developers “don’t worry, the OMB will approve your rezoning quickly”.
  • Many new residents want to make a quick profit and move out: As one of the cheapest areas in the GTA to buy entry-level homes, Caledon is becoming home to a transient group of residents and voters who have no commitment to the community and who are indifferent to its future. What they want is for their first homes to appreciate quickly so they can sell and move up to larger homes on larger lots in areas closer to the workplaces they commute to. So they, too, are pro-development.

Caledon is home to a substantial number of believers in sustainable communities and opposed to untrammeled development. The Green Party does better here than almost anywhere in Ontario (though it still gets a very small proportion of total votes). Caledon has a substantial proportion of executives living here (because of its physical beauty, proximity to the city, and availability of large estate lots and properties), and they too want to keep Caledon from being bulldozed to become the same as the other depressing suburbs of the GTA. But the enlightened or self-interested opponents of development are totally outnumbered and outgunned by the developers, politicians, lawyers, real estate agents and speculators, farmers, local business owners, construction interests, tax-increase opponents, pro-growth advocates, new transient residents and others who have a vested interest in seeing Caledon paved over.

The environmental movement cannot hope to win when it is always fighting a rear-guard, defensive and altruistic battle against the rich, the powerful, and those who have a financial interest in ever-more development. Caledon’s story, its astonishing beauty and its dubious future is a case in point.

The only way to stop development and create communities that are truly sustainable is to do simultaneously two things:

  1. Build grassroots local communities that are committed to sustainability and educated about the means to attain them. These communities will embrace intentionality, natural enterprises, zero population growth, zero net new development, buying local, permaculture, respect for natural ecosystems, and other principles critical to sustainability and anathema to the development industries. 
  2. Get governments to support sustainability by introducing, enforcing, and sticking with regulations and restrictions on growth and development. Ontario’s government, to its credit, did introduce such regulations and restrictions, but the heavy lobbying of the many pro-development forces has weakened their resolve. As a result, they are now pressing GTA fringe communities like Caledon to accept more residents and development, and allowing their OMB to undermine municipal laws designed to reinforce their regulations and restrictions. Worse, they seem to be prepared to abandon their commitment to protection of environmentally sensitive areas entirely as a political liability with an election against the fiercely pro-development Conservatives just a year away.

These two steps need to be undertaken simultaneously — neither works without the other. There are few communities, to my knowledge, that have the enlightened population to undertake the former and the enlightened political leadership to undertake the latter. For awhile, Caledon looked like it might be the exception, and a potential model for the province and the rest of the world. But this now looks more and more doubtful. Other countries like Sweden are miles ahead, and their model sustainable communities are worthy models for the rest of us to study and emulate. But for many of us, Sweden is too far away, and we urgently need local models of successful sustainability to follow in our own countries.

So we will have to start with step 1 above, building grassroots local communities, and continue to fight the good fight against the forces of unsustainability and against all odds (losing most of our battles) until, at last, we get the enlightened and courageous political leadership we need to reinforced these community-based initiatives. The people I have met in STORM (Save the Oak Ridges Moraine coalition), the local Green party, Friends of the Greenbelt Foundation, Citizens’ Environment Watch, the provincial Conservation Authorities, the Oak Ridges Moraine Foundation and other champions of local sustainability all exemplify that spirit of perseverance and patience, and I admire them enormously. I wish I had their courage. Quixotic, perhaps, but it seems to be the onlyoption open to us. We do what we must.

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5 Responses to Caledon, Canada: A Case Study in the Seeming Futility of Controlling Growth

  1. ziphius says:

    Zero population growth requires a drastic reduction in immigration numbers. Canada is not ready politically to even discuss the issue.

  2. Jordan Mechano says:

    I’m from Whitby. I moved there in 1989, when the population was about 50,000. In just seventeen years the number of people have more than doubled to 116,000. On the Town of Whibty website they proudly proclaim that “Whitby is the fastest growing municipality in Durham [region]”. With a view of this, I really don’t see how any government can ignore the pressure to keep piling on subdivisions and strip malls to cater to their voters. And where are we supposed to create these new sustainable communities? Do we act like them, and develop new land, or do we reclaim already developed land, and hope those angry lawyers don’t get angrier. It just seems so tragically unlikely.

  3. Randall says:

    Dave, I agree that suburbs are definitely not the answer. However, until the sustainable model you are advocating begins to take root (both in mindshare and action), Toronto needs to grow up and embrace (or at least accept) density like any other large city.The days of every man woman and child owning land the size of a hobby farm or small golf course 100 miles from an urban core are over, that is at least until populations drop due to <insert favourite population reduction method here>.

  4. Jennifer says:

    Hi Dave,Be patient — it takes time to build a successful coalition. But it can happen. My neighborhood group helped to halt a proposed gas station expansion that would have torn down some of the existing housing stock. The company is none too happy, and is trying to obfuscate the issue with their customers. I wish you good luck!I never understood why people want to live in the suburbs. Having grown up in a rural area, and currently living in an urban one, I think that suburban living combines the worst of each — far enough away from everything that you have to drive everywhere *and* bad traffic, pollution, and close-together houses.

  5. Karen says:

    No commentary, but I’m an rss lurker who’s been reading your site for about 2 months now, and I just wanted to say, great post. I moved to the GTA from Vancouver at the beginning of the year for a 16-month stint, and I’m also taking my first course in Sustainable Community Development. That’s some great insight you’ve got going that post – I’ve been terribly curious about things like “cottage country” and highways and cars, which for various reasons just seem so different from what I experienced back in Vancouver–people there are so accustomed to thinking that we’re environmentally friendly as a natural consequence of the surroundings, which I’ve come to learn is not only utterly false, but also inadequate for the challenges of real sustainability.

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