How do you house 700,000 people? As Peel Region looks to expand out, others push for up
The suburban area west of Toronto is caught between preserving green space and readying for growth
Watching slow-moving traffic on the busy Highway 403, which runs alongside his neighbourhood in Mississauga, Ont., Rahul Mehta tries to conjure up a better vision for what could be: More trees. More transit and bike lanes. More quiet.
"It's incredibly congested. It's incredibly loud. And we know it is not something most people desire," said Mehta, who is part of Stop Sprawl Peel, a group advocating for the region, located west of Toronto, to stop expanding its urban boundaries and instead build communities less dependent on cars.
Home to 1.5 million people, the Regional Municipality of Peel includes the cities of Mississauga and Brampton, known for their sprawling neighbourhoods of single-family homes that are increasingly unaffordable and massive highways that are some of the busiest in North America. It also includes the town of Caledon to the north, which contains large swaths of Ontario's Greenbelt and some of the best farmland in Canada.
It's this farmland and other green spaces that could be threatened by development in the coming decades.
Late last month, Peel approved a new official plan that will guide growth and development in the region all the way up to 2051. The plan envisions accommodating an estimated 700,000 new residents by increasing density in some more established neighbourhoods, while also opening up about 4,450 hectares of land to new development along the region's northern edges.
"There are some great ambitions to create a more climate-resilient, dense city through specific neighbourhoods," Mehta said. "But for the most part, like we see on the [official plan], it will continue to be majority low-rise homes — whether people want it or not — that are catered to and designed for the car."
Municipalities scramble to plan for growth
The Ontario government ordered municipalities like Peel to submit their plans for accommodating growth by July 1. The province has final say over the proposals and could impose plans on municipalities that do not submit by the deadline.
Peel's leaders have used the situation to explain why this plan was passed, saying they would have preferred more time. Other municipalities like Halton, just west of Peel, and Hamilton have decided to push back by rejecting further boundary expansion.
"Better to be the masters of your own destiny than have it foisted upon you. And so at least we were in the room, we had the consultation, we made the tough decisions," said Nando Iannicca, regional chair of the Peel Region.
"To my colleagues in other jurisdictions that have taken another approach: Are you going to be at the table now when these decisions are made? Because now the province is going to swoop in and they're going to tell you where your growth is going to go."
Before being appointed regional chair, Iannicca served as a councillor for Mississauga for nearly three decades. He says he understands the need to limit sprawl and increase density in parts of the region, but that some expansion was necessary to accommodate the large number of new residents coming to the area.
"We had to make some tough decisions and they come at a price. And I think all of council sort of has a bit of a heavy heart in that regard. No question," he said.
"The number of people for whom the dream still is, 'I get to go into my smallish backyard and enjoy a barbecue with my family.' A lot of people still want that dream. A lot of people still want the single detached home. We've got to try and move away from it to a degree, but it's still a demand in the marketplace."
Farms and green spaces in the lurch
A large part of the debate over expansion is focused on the town of Caledon, which forms the northern part of Peel. Currently home to about 80,000 people, Caledon is projected to grow to 300,000 by 2051, according to the official plan.
Caledon is currently mostly covered by the Greenbelt and prime farmland. EcoCaledon, a local residents' group advocating for environmental protection in the area, has spoken out about the need to preserve those green spaces.
"It's just so infuriating, when you consider it — just the very fact this primary agricultural land could be paved under," said Debbe Crandall, a longtime Caledon resident and member of the sustainable development committee at ecoCaledon.
"There are young farmers today who have come from generational farming families who are excited about regenerative agriculture, doing smaller scale agriculture. And you need land to do that," she said.
"And so this land presents opportunities that our councillors don't see.… They see this land as being necessary to grow."
Dean Orr, a young farmer who grows corn, soybeans, wheat and organic beans on his family farm north of Toronto, submitted a letter to Peel Region's council, warning against developing prime farmland. He says his family has seen farming plots they previously rented turned into houses and is dismayed at Ontario's approach to land-use planning.
"Now is not the time to reduce farmland. It's the worst possible time I can think of," he said.
"To do that while you have climate change at the forefront, just to keep building as we've been building, when we know that there are better building practices — more density, less car dependency, more walkable and bikeable neighbourhoods — it's negligence."
Food insecurity worsening
The latest assessment report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warns that millions of people are already suffering from acute food insecurity due to extreme weather, and that this problem will only get worse as the planet warms. At the same time, the agriculture sector also contributes to climate change by clearing forests and emitting greenhouse gases while operating farm equipment and transporting produce.
This puts a renewed focus on preserving existing farmland that is close to the people who will eat that food.
"Every acre of farmland we pave over is an acre we lose to feeding our growing population, which creates a greater risk for food insecurity in the face of climate change," said Cherise Burda, executive director of the City Building initiative at Toronto Metropolitan University (TMU).
"Paving over our own farmland is really foolhardy, especially when there are other ways to build more housing and build more sustainable communities. We should be preserving more farmland for our food production, for food security. Not development."
In 2018, researchers at TMU released a report that showed how Mississauga could accommodate 435,000 new residents by 2041 within the city's existing boundaries, by pursuing the "missing middle" of housing and gently densifying its neighbourhoods. That means more low-rise apartment buildings, with access to schools and community centres — as opposed to the two extremes of single-family detached homes and massive condo buildings.
"It makes no sense that we're allowing a 1950s or a 1970s approach to urban sprawl and greenhouse gas emission-producing planning to go forward in places, just because they have access to greenfield land, to agricultural land," Burda said.
Iannicca says this is the type of density Canadians see and appreciate when they visit cities in Europe, for example, and it's time for them to accept it in their own communities.
"We haven't led people to believe that you can be rewarded for density," he said. "When they walk in Paris, they feel [it] intuitively. They don't understand the jargon of planning; they just walk and they go, 'Isn't this absolutely lovely?'
"Those are the rewards of density."
Election campaign looms
Stop Sprawl Peel and ecoCaledon, along with other environmental groups fighting urban expansion, say they are now looking to the Ontario election campaign — and the June 2 vote — to make their arguments heard, as they expect both housing affordability and climate change to be on voters' minds.
At the same time, other Toronto-area municipalities — including York Region, to the north, and Durham Region, to the east — are also deciding on their growth plans, which could further expand into the area's green spaces.
"What will it look like, or what will it take for us to continue to be a place where people want to, as we say in Ontario, be a place to grow? What will it take for that to actually be true and continue to be true?" Mehta said.
"It's a challenging question. And it will demand an ambitious response from whichever level of government, municipal or provincial, that's up to the task."