The fundamental problem with urban growth boundaries … is that they ration land. This, of course, raises land prices and housing prices. A well-governed metropolitan area will have policies that seek to minimize the cost of living, maximize discretionary incomes, minimize traffic congestion and thereby improve economic growth.
– Wendell Cox
You have to admit that whether you agree with him or not, Wendell Cox offers a fresh perspective. It's long been de rigueur for professional urban planners and left-of-centre middle-class lay-people alike to opine on the benefits of "high density" areas: These concentrations of large groups of people are supposed to be better for the environment, better for the economy and better for society. Residents are said to use cars less, walk more and consume fewer resources. Some even claim they'll breathe fresher air. But in a commentary released Thursday by the Macdonald-Laurier institute, Mr. Cox – an urban policy authority himself – dares to suggest just the opposite. What "radical densification" has done, he says, is drive down the quality of life for Canadians living in the country's major cities.
I thought a great deal about Mr. Cox's commentary as I drove in to work in Toronto Thursday morning, and marvelled at how much faster my commute is on the rare occasions that I take the family minivan instead of public transit (15 minutes vs. 50 minutes). It's an annoyance I usually keep to myself because I've been told so many times how much better transit is for everyone, and how lucky I am to live in a "dense" neighbourhood with a subway station in easy walking distance. I've figured the time discrepancy is probably just an anomaly resulting from my particular home and work addresses. Only, Mr. Cox says it isn't.
Mr. Cox has studied six populous Canadian metro areas (including Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver and Calgary) and found that trips to work taken on public transit in these places last more than 50% longer than the same trips taken in cars.
The gist of Mr. Cox's point is that planners' obsession with reducing roadway capacity in favour of spending on transit is at odds with the reality that cars still are – and always will be – king in all but a very small core part of high density communities. These planners are therefore causing municipalities to throw good money after bad in an attempt to attain the unattainable: a transit system that is preferable to a car for any trip but one to downtown.
The density-obsessed planners are also, according to Mr. Cox, largely responsible for the lack of affordable housing in Canadian centres. It's basic economics that when you restrict the supply of a good, its price will increase. So no wonder that housing prices are getting ridiculous in Vancouver, Toronto and even Calgary (which you'd think would have ample land to spare). The governments in all three metro areas have made use of strict urban growth boundaries – forbidding or severely limiting development beyond an imaginary geographic line.
While environmental concerns tend to be at the forefront of arguments in favour of population density, Mr. Cox makes the point that sustainability ain't going to happen unless Canadian cities actually maintain positive economic growth – and that's not going to happen if a blind insistence on density makes living in these cities infeasible and unpalatable (heavy traffic, overpriced homes, etc.). That may seem an obvious point, but it's amazing how often it gets left out of discussions about urban planning.
One of the most satisfying parts of reading Mr. Cox's commentary is the reminder it serves of the deleterious effects – and unintended consequences – of relying on central (in this case urban) planning over individual free will. For illustrative purposes, Mr. Cox compares Toronto with Dallas-Fort Worth. The two have similar population levels, but the Texas metropolis ends up besting Toronto in commute times, incomes and housing prices. Why? Could be because it also has no urban growth boundary (which has resulted in more voluntary sprawl) and it has not neglected its roads and freeway systems in favour of trying force to residents onto public transit.
If Mr. Cox succeeds in convincing any highly populated Canadian metro area to rethink its slavish adherence to the trendy notions of "smart growth" or "high density," I will be very surprised: His arguments are a refreshing balm for anyone already skeptical of these movements, but hardly revolutionary enough to convert the "livability" zealots.
But what a relief that someone has finally tried!