Living It Up: The Wide Range of Support for Smart Growth in Canada Promises More Livable Towns and Cities

By Curran, Deborah; Tomalty, Ray | Alternatives Journal, Summer 2003 | Go to article overview
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Living It Up: The Wide Range of Support for Smart Growth in Canada Promises More Livable Towns and Cities


Curran, Deborah, Tomalty, Ray, Alternatives Journal


IN CANADA, we have always prided ourselves on the fact that our cities are more livable than their US counterparts. Canadian planners like to say that urban densities are higher here, car ownership is lower, transit use better and our downtowns, although sometimes troubled, never became the burnt-out, no-go areas they often did in the US. (1)

But the 1990s saw a gradual shift of this picture. While senior governments in Canada were slashing their budgets for affordable housing and their support for transit services, US federal, state and municipal governments were investing massively in transit, housing, urban infrastructure and the revitalization of central cities. They have even bought up hundreds of thousands of hectares of conservation lands outside major cities to stop sprawl.

Now, for the first time in decades, many US cities have seen their populations grow. The decline in transit use has been stemmed and downtowns are booming. US cities are showing more of that elusive quality that always characterized Canadian communities: livability.

As David Crombie, former mayor of Toronto and current president and CEO of the Canadian Urban Institute, puts it:

   We in Canada used to pride ourselves on our livable cities and
   city regions, and pity the Americans their dying downtowns.
   Now many American cities are coming back to life and
   economic health, like heart attack victims who survive to
   become fitness fanatics. Canadian cities may no longer have the
   advantage. (2)

The Americans called the new movement "smart growth", a phrase that captured the middle ground between the "any growth is good growth" mentality that was presiding over the creation of sprawling cities, and the "no growth is good growth" reflex of residents' associations and environmental groups trying to stop the growth bulldozer.

The idea behind smart growth is that with the right land-use, development and public finance strategies, we can enhance the quality of life in communities, preserve ecological integrity, and save infrastructure and other costs over the long term.

Many long-time planning professionals and environmental activists question how smart growth differs from good land-use planning. The differences are twofold. First, smart growth is anchored in a coalition of interests working to create more livable communities. For the first time, transportation, affordable housing, environmental preservation, fiscal accountability, economic development and healthy communities advocates are all speaking of a package of livability that has many common themes.

Second, while land use is a large part of smart growth, it is also about addressing regional equity--about who pays for new roads and infrastructure, about the affordability of housing, the property value benefits of healthy ecosystems, and the true costs and benefits of economic development.

Thus while some of this coalition is motivated by high planning ideals, much of it is held together by the more mundane glue of self-interest. Financial institutions, for instance, want to preserve their prior investments in city centres by preventing further flight to the suburbs. Labour unions see that sprawl is dispersing employers into low-wage and non-unionized shops on the edges of cities. Developers want to save money by forcing municipalities to let them build housing on smaller lots with narrower streets.

Residents' associations are tired of subsidizing new growth in sprawling areas through their property taxes; they want to see mechanisms put in place to ensure that the cost of growth is borne by those who benefit from it.

Canada catching on

Inspired by the movement in the US, smart growth is catching on in Canada. The first smart growth organization in Canada emerged in 1999 in British Columbia. Called Smart Growth BC, the non-profit group was set up by the West Coast Environmental Law Association and the Eco-Research Chair of Environmental Law and Policy at the University of Victoria.

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