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Hidden costs of sprawl will cripple cities, report says

In Simcoe County
Oct 28th, 2013

You can’t run a business without running the numbers, so why don’t cities count the long-term costs of suburbia, asks author of report on sprawl
By Tess Kalinowski Toronto Star Oct 28 2013
What if the real estate listing for a $400,000 suburban house advised potential buyers that the price doubles if they factor in the $10,000 annual cost of running a second car over the life of the mortgage?
Would the buyer reconsider spending more on a home that gets them closer to shops, services and transit?

Given that 79 per cent of Canadians say cost determines where they live and most people say they prefer walkable, transit-friendly neighbourhoods, Dave Thompson thinks they might.
He’s the author of a new report from Sustainable Prosperity , a University of Ottawa-based research network, that outlines the hidden costs of sprawl.
“The annual cost of owning an extra car for 35 years could buy more than $570,000 of RRSPs — more than the vast majority of Canadians in their 50s have saved for retirement,” says the report called, Suburban Sprawl: Exposing Hidden Costs, Identifying Innovations.
A little truth in advertising would go a long way in helping cities and taxpayers curb the sprawl that is robbing them of their time, health and clean air, said Thompson.
“This is about affordability. People are going to go where they can get (the real estate) they want at an affordable cost. What we need to do is take away the artificial subsidies and make sure growth is paying for growth.”
Planners and a growing number of politicians are now aware of the hidden costs of sprawl but the policies and the data they need to calculate the price of those developments hasn’t caught up, said Thompson.
His report recommends policies that don’t leave cities picking up the cost of roads, community centres, police and fire services that have to be operated and maintained long after the development charges against builders have been spent.
The way the system works now, people in existing neighbourhoods end up subsidizing developers who build new ones, said Thompson.
Cities such as Edmonton are starting to do the math and collect the data that shows where they will potentially lose money on development. Historically, they have been afraid to turn down developers for fear that the property taxes they bring will go to another municipality.
Now, they’re recognizing that turning down suburban development can actually save them generations of infrastructure costs, said Thompson.
His report points to Peel Region which doubled its development charges after recognizing they weren’t paying for the growth.
It quotes Mississauga Mayor Hazel McCallion, as saying, “The facts are on the books. We are going into debt in a big way in the Region of Peel.”
Thompson stressed that curbing sprawl doesn’t mean everyone must live or work in a skyscraper. His report advocates infill development and suburban retrofits. The latter phenomenon is more common in the U.S. where older malls, industrial and commercial properties are being redeveloped into suburban hubs.
The report suggests municipalities create incentives such as Hamilton and Kitchener have done in offering financial breaks to developers who build in central areas rather than suburbs.
It also prescribes many of the same remedies being considered to raise funds for transit expansion in the Toronto region — user fees such as road tolls, licensing charges and parking levies.
“We’ve known about the environmental effects for decades, we’ve known about the health impacts for 10, 20 years,” said Thompson. “Now we’re learning that the financial costs of sprawl are going to be staggering and we’re leaving a major deficit to our children and grandchildren.”


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