Suburban sprawl is spreading across Canada as cities expand outwards to accommodate the growing demand for lower cost houses. But it’s time to look behind the low price tag, and examine the true costs of suburban sprawl. Suburban development imposes an economic and environmental burden on all Canadians regardless of where they live – and we need to recognize the hidden costs and look for alternatives. The full costs and trade-offs are not always obvious, but they are real.

Suburban Sprawl: Exposing Hidden Costs, Identifying Innovations finds that while many of the costs of suburban sprawl are hidden, they are nevertheless “real and substantial.” The report also identifies Canadian municipalities that are leading the way by examining existing development policies and identifying new ways to encourage efficient high-density neighbourhood development that will spread the cost of development more equitably.

The Issue:

Suburban sprawl comes at a price for the people who live in the suburbs including high transport costs, long commutes and increased air pollution. Some of the costs lead to increased property and income taxes and long-term government liabilities that citizens eventually pay for. Others are hidden in climate change and habitat loss that negatively impact public health and quality of life. The pace of suburban sprawl can be reduced through policy measures, but its causes must first be understood and addressed.

The Cause:

The main cause of sprawl is prices, which have a profound impact on the decisions of companies and individuals, including decisions about where to build new developments and established businesses and where to buy houses. Currently, price structures encourage sprawl and pull new development toward city fringes.

Municipal Alternatives and Innovations:

Some municipalities are starting to gather the data so that they can address this fiscal burden. Those that are not yet doing so could learn from the innovators across the country and work toward new policies that encourage more efficient high-density neighbourhood development.

Calgary recently increased its financial charges on new developments. Peel Region in Ontario completed an analysis that showed that new development was not paying for itself, and as a result doubled its development charges. Other municipalities are following suit.

Additionally, utilities can be priced to reflect the higher costs of delivering services to far-flung areas. And municipal and other governments can save billions per year across Canada by reducing road subsidies, which are far larger than the subsidies to all other transportation modes.

With another six million to 14 million Canadians needing to be housed in the next 24 years, there is a tremendous opportunity to achieve urban development goals that many Canadian municipalities have started to adopt, but have not yet been fully implemented.

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