Building Smarter Housing For Ontario Communities

Written by Dean Orr

We’ve all seen it; a field we used to farm, or maybe a farm just down the road from where you grew up; being turned into houses, or big box stores, or warehouses. As soon as we see it, we’ve all said it; “Such a shame”. Cash cropping in the GTA, my family has seen it far too much, and it has gotten me intensely interested in farmland preservation through better urban planning and housing policy. Ontario has been losing much of its prized farmland over the last century; what is predominantly to blame? Let’s dig into it.

Dean advocating for sustainable development and farmland preservation.

Farmland loss is a big problem in Ontario, and it is worsening. According to Stats Canada, Ontario is seeing an average decrease of 319 acres per day of farmland. Not all of it is lost to development, as farmers may be reporting less acreage with improved GPS technologies, and some may be lost to conservation (an important thing in its own right). Too much, however is lost to poorly planned housing. Fixing our housing issues is low-hanging fruit that can help confront farmland and habitat loss in Ontario. 

Housing has been a contentious issue lately, with the Provincial government’s goal of building an astounding 1.5 million homes over the next 10 years. There is no doubt that housing is less available and less affordable than in the past. Unfortunately, the Provincial government’s approach to the housing issues facing us appears to kowtow to the development industry more than it applies effective, expert backed housing reform. Their Bills 23 and 39 don’t do much to encourage efficient use of land. Instead they accelerate more of the same old suburban sprawl that has come to dominate Southern Ontario’s landscape. Bill 23 and sprawl are not good planning. The government has even gone so far as to remove Ontario’s only explicit agriculture preserve (The Duffins Rouge Agricultural Preserve) from protection, despite the Region of Durham’s insistence that it is not needed for their growth. Suspiciously, the preserve land had been bought up by the largest of Ontario’s developers. There is much to talk about there, but let’s today focus on positive change we can make on how we think about building our communities. 

Our urban areas have become bloated with one dominant style of housing: low density, single family homes. When looked at on a per-person-housed basis, they take up a lot of space, while housing relatively few people, and with their size and furnishings can be expensive and slow to build. There is nothing inherently wrong with a single family home (What are most of our farm houses after all?). When it becomes the predominant style of building however, their problems start to become more apparent. They have not been, and are not the answer to the housing affordability or availability crisis, and they certainly do not minimize housings’ impact on farmland or the environment. 

We have the know-how, and the ability, to create housing that would consume far less farmland and forests than we are now, while still creating excellent, thriving communities to live in. Here’s the interesting part though: the solutions aren’t crazy new experimental designs. In fact, the best solutions were the standard of building for years all across Ontario in our historic towns. The urban areas of a century ago, no matter where you lived,  shared many common traits. In general, they had fairly concentrated urban areas. Some towns were a little bigger; regional hubs such as Picton, Hanover, or Chatham are examples. Some were smaller; like Hastings, Smiths Falls or King City.  They had a wide range of housing options; you would find a rich mix of multi-storey apartments, above-shop housing and detached houses (often considered multi-unit, with additional tenants, boarders or farmhands). 

These range of housing options, which provided a wide range of housing prices, are sorely missing in today’s landscape. These types of development are often now referred to as ‘gentle density’ or the ‘missing middle’ (as in, they are missing- they aren’t being built much anymore!). These urban areas made better use of land, because it was an expensive proposition (in dollars and resources) to expand away from the city core, and because planners and developers intended to have the ability to get around on foot. Mixed in amongst the housing, you would find amenities: grocers, butchers, hardware stores, general stores and cafes. A lot of these historic towns were built at a scale fit for humans. Today, we might call these 15- minute cities, or walkable communities. In reality, they are not new ideas but were the dominant form of building for nearly all of our modern history.

It begs the question: why don’t we build like that anymore?

A recently built mixed development with 2 stories of housing space above shops, Port Credit/ Mississauga. These types of development are now uncommon, reminiscent of our old towns, but are an incredibly efficient use of land, and provide wider housing options.

Over the past century, we have been building more detached housing, likely closely related to the increasing belief in the expendability of resources. In other words, people had enough money, resources were cheap, and we thought we had a limitless supply of land. An increasingly car-dominated lifestyle meant you didn’t have to be within walking distance from your daily amenities anymore either, and developments grew wider and further from the urban core. This style of housing slowly became baked into our zoning laws, and bylaws. In most residential neighbourhoods, it is actually illegal now to build anything else without a zoning or bylaw amendment, something that is onerous and expensive for developers to get. Not to mention they usually also have to battle the neighbours at the council meeting, who, God forbid, don’t want a 3 storey apartment on the edge of their neighborhood of crummy 1970-build homes. If we are to save our farmland, we have to rethink how we build our urban areas.  We must now accept that our land resources are more limited than we had thought and start building again like we used to.

A dense town is not a bad town. I cannot overstate this. If you take the same number of housing units, say, 100, and compare between single family homes, taking up 25+ acres to build, and a 4 storey condo building, taking up just 2 acres to build: they will house the same number of people, while the condo unit takes up less space. If that higher density condo unit is closer to the urban core, its residents will be closer to amenities, making it easier to walk (not drive!) to get a loaf of bread or a bag of milk. Just look at any of those older towns previously mentioned for fantastic examples of once- (often still)thriving urban areas that are beautiful, easy places to live, work, and play, and you would hardly feel the density. If it is busyness you are worried about, that busyness likely comes from car traffic-not people traffic. There is something to be said about how much space roads, road setbacks and parking lots take up as well, but that is a conversation for another day.

The beautiful downtown core of Belleville, Ontario. It is dense, without losing its sense of community or beauty, and allows residents with a greater range of housing options, while conserving land use.
Photo Credit: Ryan Willams. 

As a quick example, there is a stark difference in average population densities between say Vaughan (1,119 people/ km²) and the early 1900’s era Toronto neighborhood of Riverdale (7,149 people/ km²). Riverdale is another example of what was referred to earlier as ‘gentle density’. Apartments above shops, tightly knit detached homes, shorter multi-storey condos, and an interesting note: has almost no skyscraper high-rises (I counted one 24 story apartment). It is an extremely desirable place to live in Toronto for its sense of community and walkability, and does not feel busy, as car traffic is minimized because of the neighbourhood’s high walkability, its closeness to shops and public transit. Developments like Riverdale requires almost 7x less space than the more ‘modern’ developments of Vaughan. Another way to look at it, is Vaughan has steamrolled 7x more farmland than they would have, had they planned better. We are all poorer because of it. 

So what can we do to start to build smarter?

One of the best things you can do to help preserve farmland is to support developments that function like our older towns. Support gentle density developments with mixed use stores and shops. Support in-fill development in your existing town boundary; where no new land is being developed. Support building desperately needed rental units of all kinds. It is all needed. It might feel strange to support a development, but it is better to support what you want to see, than fighting what you don’t want, while offering no alternative. Remember, every region has a population growth target; the higher density a development offers- the faster that target will be reached while preserving more farmland. 

What else can you do? Follow Strong Towns, a non-profit American organization dedicated to breathing life back into rural towns, and making stronger communities through better planning decisions. Take time to read an article of theirs, watch a few YouTube videos on ‘Missing Middle’ developments and land use planning. ‘Not just Bikes’ is probably my favourite YouTube channel on the subject. Write and call your local politicians; your local council, your regional council, your MPP, and your MP. Let them know your concerns. 

Join a local group that shares your concerns on farmland loss, planning, or the environment. There are lots on social media. Attend their sessions and webinars to learn more and network. Talk to your neighbours, talk to your friends. The OFA, CFFO and NFU-O are all big proponents of smarter land use planning and hard urban boundaries. They have been very active in solution- based discussions of farmland preservation and housing planning, and deserve praise for their hard work. Support them if you can!

Wishing housing wouldn’t happen is not going to work, the world population and the population in Ontario is increasing. Some areas of the world are managing to house their growing population, while protecting their precious natural resources, while we in Ontario are accelerating paving over ours. It is embarrassing, but it is not too late to correct our poor land-use planning. By advocating for better community planning we can secure a better and more sustainable future for our farms and our communities.

A tractor at an anti urban-sprawl rally in December. Ontario’s self-reported farmed acreage is shrinking at a rate of 319 acres per day, while poor land-use planning accelerates and is not held to account.