Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Toronto Sprawls: A History

Opposition to urban sprawl has traditionally been associated with the political left, and is often ridiculed by conservatives. There are several mundane demographic reasons for this. First of all, conservativism is much more prominent in rural areas. Second, conservatives tend to be older, and have more children than liberals. These people often move to the suburbs because they view them as good places to raise their families. Additionally, there are certainly some conservatives who prefer to occupy a more 'traditional' North American milieu, and therefore do not hold cities in high esteem.

Despite the fact that most of the opposition to urban sprawl is from the left, there have been a number of authors in the last half of the decade who have made fiscally conservative arguments against urban sprawl. Lawrence Solomon, founder of the Energy Probe Research Foundation, is one such critic. In his recent book Toronto Sprawls, Solomon argued that the primary cause of urban sprawl in Toronto has not been laissez-faire urban planning, but that sprawl has actively been encouraged by government programs. A prime example of this was the Veterans Land Act, which was consciously designed to ensure that troops returning from the war would settle outside of major cities. This helped fuel a massive expansion of Suburban Toronto, which grew by 94% between 1945-1953. During the same period, the city of Toronto shrank by 2%. This resettling effort lead to massive budgetary shortfalls in suburban municipalities. At the time, the city of Toronto was providing services efficiently, while the private Toronto Transit Commission was a profitable enterprise. The Yonge subway line from Union to Eglington was a model of efficiency. By 1954, the lousy quality of suburban services, and their financial unsustainability lead to the creation of Metropolitan Toronto. This was, in effect a partial amalgamation. The city of Toronto has been a financial basketcase ever since.

In addition to the fact that the suburbs are perceived as an attractive place to raise children, Soloman argues that the driving force behind suburbanization has been a more general moralistic crusade. Moral reformers in the post-war era were concerned that urbanization would lead to moral chaos. They noted that the largest demographic moving into cities were single women, who would no doubt fall prey to promiscuity and shirk their traditional gender roles. Additionally, they were concerned that urbanization would bolster the communist movement, since cities facilitate large gatherings.

While conscious efforts to prevent urban sprawl are typically inadvisable, fiscal conservatives need to weigh the costs and benefits of encouraging urban sprawl. Sprawl comes with large infrastructure costs, and renders mass transportation and other municipal services horribly inefficient. Unless suburbanites are willing to pay the full cost of sprawl, say through tolls and increased utility fees, Toronto will continue to be a fiscal train wreck.


  1. I reject the argument that conservatives are for urban sprawl. I am a senior citizen. I and many others conservatives have continually decried the destruction of prime farmland in and around Toronto. Cities ought to be built on poorly productive lands. My Dad, fresh from WW2 bought into the very first subdivision built in the "suburbs". That was near Keele and Eglinton. Keele in my memory was a dirt road north of Eglinton. The vast farmland of what is now Downsview was very productive. Now Downsview is one of the very worst slums of Toronto. It stopped being called suburbia countless years ago except by idiots in the media that do not venture far from the Riverdale Zoo or the Don Jail. Toronto leadership has always been a basket case.

  2. Not all conservatives are for urban sprawl, but a large number of them are. This is why I wanted to call attention to the fact that there are conservative reasons to oppose government sponsored sprawl.

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  4. Thanks for this post, quite an insight.

  5. Andrew Coyne has written on this issue extensively, noting that the free-rider problem on highways and suburban roads had led to the subsidization of urban sprawl.

    People should be free to live where they want to live - but they should have to bear the real cost of doing so. Right now, people are being blinded to the real cost of living in suburbia because. That needs to change.

  6. I have no problem with people living in the suburbs as long as they bear the full cost.