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.