Reversing the Trend Towards Urban Sprawl

Sustainable Prosperity, a national research and policy network based at the University of Ottawa, has released a report, Suburban Sprawl: Exposing Hidden Costs, Identifying Innovations.

The report takes the position that suburban sprawl in Canada is driven by housing prices and development costs that are artificially lower for suburban development than for development in compact urban centres.  It defines suburban sprawl as development that is characterized by lower population densities, separated land uses, leap-frog development and automobile dependence.  It identifies business, homeowners and governments as the entities that pay the hidden costs associated with suburban sprawl including:

  • Increased transportation costs related to congested roads and delays in freight delivery;
  • Increased costs associated with vehicle ownership and fuel costs;
  • Increased health-related costs associated with physical inactivity, vehicle-related injuries, and air pollution; and
  • Increased capital and operational costs associated with roads, pipes and other infrastructure needs for sprawled communities

The report provides some examples of the costs associated with suburban sprawl.  For example, it reports that:

  • The City of Edmonton estimated that, for 17 of the 40 new developments underway or planned in Edmonton, the net costs for the City will exceed revenues by nearly $4 billion over a 60 year period;
  • The Regional Municipality of Halifax estimated that, if it could increase growth within urban areas from 16% to 25%, it could save $66 million by 2031;
  • The City of Calgary found that a more dense urban form, would use 25% less land, cost 33% less to build, and save the City more than $11 billion in capital costs alone; and
  • The City of London found that, over a 50 year period, sprawling growth would cost the City $2.7 billion more in capital costs and $1.7 billion more in operating costs than a compact growth scenario.
Waterloo, K. Perrotta, December 2011

It also identifies some of the ways in which governments inadvertently encourage suburban sprawl.  For example, the report suggests that federal, provincial and local governments in Canada have encouraged suburban sprawl by heavily subsidizing roads. It notes that the three levels of government spent $28.96 billion on roads in 2010/11 — more than it spent on all other modes of transportation combined — while collecting a little more than half of those costs from road users in the form of fuel taxes, permits and licenses. The other $13 billion was funded by other revenue sources such as income taxes and property taxes.  This subsidy does not include the hidden costs associated with air pollution, traffic congestion delays, vehicle collisions, and greenhouse gas emissions, which have been valued at as much as $27 billion a year.

Sustainable Prosperity identifies a number of market-based tools that have been utilized by different levels of governments to reverse the trend towards suburban sprawl. For example, it notes that:

  • The City of Kitchener has set lower development charges for central neighbourhoods; charging 74% more for suburban neighbourhoods;
  • The City of Hamilton provides a 90% exemption from development charges for development in the downtown area;
  • The Cities of Terrace and Winnipeg charge developers per foot of water mains to create a financial incentive for denser development;
  • Ontario has adopted a reduced tax rate for farm properties — 25% of the normal property tax rate — to encourage farmers to stay on the land.

The report concludes, however, that there is much that could and should be done by provincial and federal governments to encourage compact urban development and more sustainable modes of transportation.


Sustainable Prosperity, Suburban Sprawl: Exposing Hidden Cost, Identifying Innovations, Prepared by David Thompson. October 2013. 44 pages.

Prepared by Kim Perrotta, Executive Director (Volunteer), Creating Health and Sustainable Environments (CHASE) Kim Perrotta/LinkedIn