It’s About My Perverse City Book

Re: Ray Tomalty’s review of Perverse Cities: Hidden Subsidies, Wonky Policy and Urban Sprawl, Alternatives, 37:6.

RAY TOMALTY CLAIMS that I’m too negative on planning. First, I don’t claim that planning is a failure, rather that the results with respect to curtailing sprawl have not been in proportion with the inputs. My point is that under the current situation, financial misincentives conflict with planning objectives. They encourage sprawl, and disincentivise the more sustainable forms of development sought through planning policy.

Tomalty adds that early evidence suggests that planning efforts in the Toronto region are reining in sprawl (e.g., Places to Grow and the Greenbelt plans). In fact, only a smattering of evidence has begun to emerge (and this after my book was released). Nevertheless, if we examine this evidence, we see that it is premature to say that these planning approaches are working.

My point is not that we shouldn’t have the Places to Grow Plan or a greenbelt, rather that these planning policies would be a lot more effective if we had price signals supporting them.

Tomalty also claims that I am cavalier with my evidence. A single misguided example is provided, regarding the role of the greenbelt in promoting leapfrog development in the Toronto region. He questions that I cited a 2004 report as evidence of leapfrogging a year before the greenbelt was created. However, a sizeable part of what became the greenbelt (namely, the Oak Ridges Moraine) was initially protected by law in 2001. The report I cited specifically identifies the perception of a limited supply of land south of the moraine as a major factor driving significant development north of the moraine.

The review claims that my approach is politically naïve. True, homeowners have invested in their location. But one of the main areas to be addressed – development charges – applies only to new unbuilt development.

Tomalty does not explain the reason he is so opposed to having a market solution be part of the broader solution to urban sprawl. Could the market not play an important and necessary role in arresting the massive misallocation of resources known as urban sprawl?

– Pamela Blais
Author of Perverse Cities

Ray Tomalty responds

I am in complete agreement with Pamela Blais that the planning system and fiscal instruments should be working in unison. Moreover, I agree that some local planning regulations aggravate sprawl (e.g., large lot zoning, overly generous parking requirements and oversized streets). These regulations should be changed to produce more compact urban landscapes.

Where we differ is on the effectiveness of large-scale planning, of which Blais appears to be deeply suspicious. Her dismissal of Toronto’s greenbelt as an effective regional planning tool reflects this attitude.

Blais claims: “In an urban area with a lot of growth pressure, development can simply leapfrog the protected area. … This has been the case in the Toronto area, for example, which is now encircled by a greenbelt.…” Although she used the word “greenbelt” in her book, she now says she was referring to the Oak Ridges Moraine protection area.

The report she cites in support of her claim was written by strong proponents of moraine protection and large-scale planning, who were dismissing developer claims that sprawling development in Simcoe County was needed due to land supply restrictions in the moraine, nearer Toronto. Before concluding that the Toronto greenbelt in particular and large-scale planning in general has not worked, I would like to see more substantive evidence, which Blais admits in her letter was not available when she wrote her book.

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