Tuesday, December 22, 2015

A Vision for the GTA's Future?

A vision for our future seems impressively lacking from our political class. This week I was wondering what Ontario, and more specifically, the Greater Toronto-Hamilton Area will look like by the close of the century. Presently the GTA is estimated to grow from its current 6 million residents to 9.4 million by 2041, according to the Ontario Ministry of Finance. I find it difficult to imagine what the GTHA will look like by that time. While the province has introduced policies such as the Green Belt to encourage intensification it has utterly failed to halt suburban sprawl.

In the case of Brampton the current goal is to grow all the way out to our boundaries and completely fill the city with low-density housing when increasing evidence suggests that it is a fiscally and environmentally unsustainable form of development. Ontario and its cities are beggaring themselves in pursuit of an old and tired idea of urban development.

Municipalities still seek exemptions and encourage more suburban tract housing despite the province's (weak) intentions to curb them. If the province is serious about improving the urban form of the GTHA and preparing for the future then it should create more stringent rules about zoning and planning for cities to follow. These rules need not be draconian. Incentives should be examined to encourage apartment construction and the removal of barriers for intensification. Even in urban Toronto planning rules are impeding the development of mid-level buildings (4-10 storeys).

There is a catch-22 though. Increased density and urbanization would aid in transit development, but transit development would also aid in increasing densities and urbanization. Large sums are spent to support transit in suburban locales whose urban form makes it more expensive than it need be. Intensification would dramatically increase transit use and its overall viability.

This leaves aside the massive technological and social changes we are likely to see. Many of them, of course, are impossible to predict, but it should be obvious that soon we will be living in a world of self-driving cars. However, it also seems evident that automation and smarter machines/computers are posed to devastate the current labour economy

Our political system is designed to deal with problems as they come and meet us and not particularly well-suited to create grandioise visions for the future. I am not suggesting our leaders need to present a grand vision. Instead they need to put some policies in place that will actually ensure a better future and not simply impose the past on us over and over again until it becomes untenable. It is an intriguing intellectual exercise to imagine what one's home might be like a century into the future. It brings into sharp focus the trends one may want to stop and the progress one might want to see continue. 

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