Skip to Main Content

February 03, 2020

Why Urban Sprawl is Ontario’s Oil Sands

As the third (and, alas, last) Environmental Commissioner of Ontario, it was my job, by law, to provide all Ontarians with a reliable, independent, non-partisan assessment of the provincial government’s energy, climate and environmental policies.

I delivered my last report on March 27, 2019, days before the Ford government eliminated my office. Chapter 4 of A Healthy, Happy, Prosperous Ontario: Why We Need Energy Conservation, focussed on the largest source of Ontario’s energy use and greenhouse gas emissions (climate pollution): urban sprawl. In October 2019, I presented what we learned at OPPI's 2019 Conference. In a nutshell:


Urban sprawl drives our emissions

2020022-(1).pngContrary to popular belief, more of Ontario's climate pollution (greenhouse gases) comes from individuals than from heavy industry. And the largest single source of that pollution is petroleum fuels used for transportation, like gasoline and diesel. These fuels are Ontario's largest energy sources and the primary sources of its climate and air pollution.

Ontarians drive so much, creating congestion and air and climate pollution, because urban sprawl has spread out the places we need to go. Most Ontarians live inconveniently far from jobs, grocery stores, libraries, and schools, because government decisions about land use and transportation have given them no real alternative. That locks people into huge carbon footprints, including car-based commutes that are ever longer and more congested. On top of that, Canadians drive the most climate-polluting vehicles of any country in the world, because we drive so many trucks and SUVs.


2020025.pngThe GTA already has the worst commutes in North America – worse than New York, worse than Los Angeles - and continuing sprawl is going to make these commutes worse.

Today, Ontario is doing little to reduce either sprawl or petroleum fuel consumption. Instead, the policies of the provincial government, and of many municipalities, are actively increasing sprawl, directing hundreds of thousands of people to new distant suburbs with high fossil fuel use, high servicing costs, few employment opportunities, and densities too low to support public transit. Urban sprawl also destroys urgently needed farmland, forests and wetlands; without them, we can expect more floods and droughts.

The Growth Plan for the Greater Golden Horseshoe was supposedly designed to prevent urban sprawl, and to accommodate the growing population in compact complete communities with a high quality of life. Unfortunately, as our report documented, the plan had serious flaws and was poorly executed.

In 2019, contrary to good planning and to best practices, the Ford government weakened the Growth Plan even further. The weaker density targets, easier boundary expansion and “pay to kill” endangered species will allow even more sprawl, spreading new suburbs over yet more farmland, forests and wetlands. This will lengthen commutes, increase congestion, and drive up fossil fuel use (and therefore climate and air pollution). Ample evidence shows it will not be possible to solve this congestion by building more roads.2020026.png

Despite developers’ economic and political power and the inertia of 50 years of sprawl, Ontario can and should accommodate its growing population without creating further urban sprawl and gridlock. Municipalities have room to add the housing that people need in compact, complete communities while revitalizing the inner suburbs and other built-up areas that today are stagnant or losing population. One key step is to replace urban boundary expansions with transit-supportive densities around transit stations and corridors. Removing regulatory obstacles to medium-density housing (neither tall nor sprawl) in urban areas with existing transit and jobs can shorten commutes, reduce fossil fuel use, help address high living costs, and protect natural areas and farmland.  

This is also an essential part of taking responsibility for our own climate pollution. Canadians are some of the world’s worst climate polluters, both per capita and as a country. To make things better, the first step is to stop 2020027.pngmaking them worse. That means it is too late to buy, build or permit anything else that uses fossil fuels, or supports or encourages their use.
Every responsible government should now be putting a climate lens on every one of its decisions, especially every planning decision, asking:
  • Will this reduce our total community GHGs?
  • Will this make the transition to a low carbon economy easier?
If not, it is causing real harm to people alive today. How will you explain this to your children?


The views expressed in this blog post are those of the author(s), and may not reflect the position of the Ontario Professional Planners Institute.

Post by Dianne Saxe

Recent Posts