An area of prime farmland nearly twice the size of the city of Toronto will be gobbled up by development within 30 years unless officials get serious about controlling sprawl, a study released yesterday warns.
Gridlock, stifling pollution levels and sharply higher living costs will be the inevitable result of allowing development to continue in its current pattern in the Toronto area and the Golden Horseshoe, the Urban Futures study concludes.
"We have been talking about controlling sprawl. We've just not been doing it," said Neil Irwin, whose IBI Group did the projections for the privately funded, non-partisan Neptis Foundation.
While municipalities have developed official plans designed to limit farm loss and promote tightly knit communities that can support transit alternatives, the research found that development has dispersed across farmland at a remarkably consistent rate since 1971, Mr. Irwin said.
If the trend continues, within 30 years another 1,069 square kilometres of agricultural land will be converted to urban land, the study says. Of that, 732 square kilometres is in the most prime crop-growing category.
This comes into starker perspective by comparing it with the 630-square-kilometre area of the megacity of Toronto.
The problem has been that the rules are written to be easy to bend, Mr. Irwin said. "If a developer comes up with a plan, the municipal government sees it as an opportunity" and often the limits are amended to accommodate it.
If a building plan is turned down, the province has given developers the right to an immediate appeal to the Ontario Municipal Board, which can overrule municipal decisions.
"Without political will and the money to back up the policies, all the official plans in the world won't change the pattern," Mr. Irwin said.
Last fall, the provincial Tories made a commitment to support "smart growth" that limits sprawl. It also imposed strict controls on development across the Oak Ridges Moraine north of Toronto.
Last week's Ontario Throne Speech established five panels to look at development issues across the province and emphasized the importance of protecting the agricultural way of life.
Both urban and rural communities have made it clear they want more limits on the spread of suburbia. Yesterday, residents of Pickering protested at City Hall over a growth study that includes redefining farmland considered part of a protected "agricultural preserve" as development area.
The IBI study says that development pressure will remain high, with the population of the "greater Golden Horseshoe" centred in Toronto expected to rise to 10.5 million by 2031 from 7.36 million today.
The Greater Toronto Area and Hamilton will see their combined population increase to more than eight million from 5.6 million today, with the most extensive growth occurring in York Region, the study projects.
Toronto's population will rise by about 500,000, the study estimates, although the city in a new official plan to be released at the end of the month has set a goal to increase the population by one million to reduce the pressure on suburban areas.
The year-long effort to compile all the numbers from public and private sources was designed to help politicians develop a more consistent growth policy, said Martha Shuttleworth, president and founder of Neptis, a trust that was expanded in 1998 with a large contribution from the former Richard and Jean Ivey Fund.