How Urban Sprawl is Killing Our Food Supply
The phenomenon of low-density, car-dependent development that spreads out from a city's core is known as urban sprawl. It is a disaster for the environment and the economy because it destroys wildlife habitats, reduces biodiversity, increases greenhouse gas emissions, degrades water quality, consumes more resources, produces more waste, and reduces productivity. This article will examine how urban sprawl affects the food supply in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA), one of Canada's fastest-growing regions.
The Problem: Losing Farmland to Development
According to the 2021 Census of Agriculture, Ontario is losing 319 acres of farmland daily, equal to the loss of one average family farm. That’s a sharp increase from the last census in 2016, when the rate of lost farmland in the province was 175 acres per day. Only 5% of Ontario’s land mass comprises usable farmland. And where is the majority of the population based in the province? within five percent of the land mass, of course. This conflict is easily explained. Ontario was initially an agrarian society. The settlement was most successful in good agricultural areas. The successful agricultural communities attracted service industries, and the area grew. When development occurred, level farmland with good soils provided the best sites for development. Ultimately, it is consuming the very resource that attracted settlement.
Urban sprawl is the main cause of farmland loss. New housing developments and infrastructure projects are encroaching on agricultural land, especially in the GTA. With a current population of over six million, the GTA is expected to grow by another 4 million by 2041. The demand for housing and transportation puts pressure on provincial and municipal governments to expedite development, sometimes sacrificing long-term strategic land-use planning.
The GTA has experienced a significant loss of farmland in recent years, with a decrease of approximately 20 percent since 2000. Unfortunately, experts predict that in 2036, this number could reach 50 percent. This trend is concerning because the GTA is home to some of Canada's most fertile and productive agricultural lands, which are now being converted into urban areas. For instance, constructing the proposed Highway 413 would involve cutting through prime farmland in the Peel and York regions, negatively impacting over 2,000 farms and 7,000 hectares of farmland.
The Consequences: Reduced Food Security and Sustainability
Losing farmland to urban sprawl has serious implications for the food supply and sustainability of the GTA. Here are some of the potential consequences:
- The decline in farmland production and diversity can negatively impact food availability, quality, and affordability for residents in the GTA. Farmland provides food and important ecosystem services such as biodiversity, soil health, water quality, and carbon sequestration. Losing farmland can result in a reduced capacity to produce various crops and livestock, which could affect the GTA's access to food. For example, Ontario produces 80% of Canada's greenhouse vegetables, including tomatoes, cucumbers, and peppers. However, urban sprawl in areas like Leamington and Niagara is putting these crops at risk.
- The GTA is becoming more dependent on imported food due to decreased local food production. This may lead to increased food system vulnerability to global supply chain disruptions (cough, COVID-19). Additionally, importing food can hurt the environment through increased transportation and storage emissions. For instance, importing one kilogram of tomatoes from Mexico can emit up to 2.5 kilograms of CO2, while producing the same amount locally only emits 0.11 kilograms.
- The effects of climate change, including extreme weather events, pests and diseases, water scarcity, and soil erosion, create major obstacles to food production. However, farmland can act as a natural buffer and carbon sink and provide adaptation options. If farmland is lost, the food system's resilience to climate change decreases, and the likelihood of food insecurity increases.
- Urban sprawl hurts biodiversity and ecosystem services, which are essential for human well-being beyond just food production. It destroys wildlife habitats, reduces the number of species, and affects their population size. Moreover, it contributes to greenhouse gas emissions from transportation and buildings, leading to global warming and air pollution. The increase in runoff, erosion, and contamination also leads to water quality degradation. All these impacts adversely affect human health, recreation, and tourism.
- The expansion of urban areas has led to a rise in car infrastructure and traffic congestion. More roads, highways, bridges, and parking lots are being built to accommodate low density, which consumes land and resources. This increase in car infrastructure also promotes driving as the preferred mode of transportation, discouraging people from walking, cycling, or using public transit. As a result, traffic congestion has become a major issue, causing commuters to waste valuable time and money. Furthermore, traffic congestion increases fuel consumption and emissions, contributing to poor air quality and climate change.
- Urban sprawl hurts the social aspects of life in the GTA. It leads to reduced social cohesion and equity. Public spaces like parks, community centers, bars, etc., which are crucial for promoting social interaction and community building, are lacking due to sprawl. In addition, sprawl causes different income groups and ethnicities to tend to live in separate neighborhoods, leading to social segregation. As a result, residents may feel isolated and disconnected from the rest of society.
Showcasing urban sprawl in the GTA
In 2001, 4,882,654 people lived in the metropolitan area of Toronto. The urban area then extended over 1,283 square km. Twenty years later, 6,202,225 people live in the area—an additional 1,319,571. And the urban area grew by 340 square km. You can see the growth on the maps above or on the interactive CBC map.
We’re a suburban nation, Urban sprawl contributes enormously to greenhouse gas emissions. It has an economic, environmental and social cost. — Sasha Tsenkova, a professor of architecture, planning and landscape at the University of Calgary
The Solutions: Protecting Farmland and Promoting Smart Growth
To prevent further loss of farmland and ensure different stakeholders can implement a sustainable food supply for the GTA, some possible solutions include:
- One solution is to reform the property tax system to reflect the actual use and value of farmland rather than the current system of potential use and value of the land for development. By doing this, it would stop local urban growth from driving farmers out of their land due to rising tax bills. The Ontario Federation of Agriculture (OFA), which has also called for more accountability and transparency in the assessment and taxation processes, has endorsed this solution.
- Another solution is to provide tax relief or incentives for farmers who preserve their farmland and practice sustainable agriculture. This would encourage farmers to keep their land in production and protect the environment rather than sell it to developers for a higher profit. Some municipalities have implemented this solution, such as Ottawa, which provides eligible farmland owners with a 75% tax rebate in exchange for a 10-year commitment to keep their land in agricultural use.
- A third solution is to expand and strengthen the Greenbelt Plan, which protects over two million acres of natural and agricultural lands from urban sprawl in the GTA. The Greenbelt Plan reduces the pressure on farmland by limiting urban expansion and promoting smart growth. It also provides benefits for the environment, economy, and society. Numerous environmental and community organizations, such as the Greenbelt Foundation, which also offers grants and programs for farmers in the Greenbelt region, have supported this solution.
- The last solution, but not the least, would be to promote smart growth and increase density by creating more mixed-use developments that combine residential, commercial, and recreational uses in a compact and walkable design. This would reduce the need for car travel, increase land use efficiency, and create more vibrant and diverse communities. Mixed-use developments can also support a range of housing options, such as apartments, townhouses, and live-work units, that cater to different income levels and lifestyles. Some examples of mixed-use developments in the GTA are Liberty Village, CityPlace, and the Distillery District.
Recent news has made the problem worse + A Rant
On August 9th, the Auditor General of Ontario released a report of their investigations into the Ford government’s proposed housing developments in the Greenbelt and the “preferential treatment” given to a group of developers. The proposal aims to build at least 50,000 new homes on more than a dozen tracts of land now in the Greenbelt while adding roughly 2,000 acres of protected land elsewhere. This move has drawn criticism from opposition politicians and affordable housing advocates after a Ford government pledge last year not to cut the Greenbelt or do a land swap. Environmental Defense and other groups in Ontario have rallied against Bill 23 and the Greenbelt removals. Over 15 “Hands Off The Greenbelt” and “Stop Bill 23” rallies have occurred across the province. Bill 23 is also called the “More Homes Built Faster Act.”
AHHHHHH! WHY IS OUR GOVERMENT LIKE THIS? At this rate, we will be in the LA Metro area, where people commute two hours into the city (that is not a joke; it's a reality for some people). Before I get a brain hemorrhage reading more, let's go to Twitter for an educated response:
Throughout this article, we have discussed the need to strengthen the green belt plan to prevent suburban sprawl. However, Doug Ford has given his billionaire developer friends greenbelt lands, which will only encourage more sprawl. While some argue that this is to create more affordable housing, many ways exist to counter that argument. For one, I have not seen any housing projects near the edge of the green belt that cost less than one million dollars — and I can make this assumption because I live on the edge of the Greenbelt!
In the image, most of the newest developments were constructed after 2010. The cheapest property, which is not a condo, is $969,000, followed by properties over a million!
The problem is not that we don't have enough land for more Housing Development; the problem is that we use it f****** terribly!
Now, let’s move on to the conclusion before this rant goes off-topic from the article’s premise, and I lose more brain cells. If you want to explore this topic, here are some resources: Sidewalk Talk, Urban Minds on Single residential housing, and Urban Minds on Bill 23.
Urban sprawl is a serious threat to our food supply in the GTA. It is eroding our farmland base and compromising our food security and sustainability. It also negatively impacts biodiversity, car infrastructure, social cohesion and equity, and the Greenbelt. We must act now to protect our farmland and promote smart growth that balances development with environmental stewardship. Doing so can ensure a healthy, resilient, and prosperous future for ourselves and future generations.