The Windsor Research Project – Sprawling

The Trouble Defining Sprawl 

A fundamental issue with the debate around urban sprawl in our community  is that it emerges from the nebulous term of sprawl itself. When academics speak/write on the subject of urban sprawl are publishing definitions: “Sprawl means different things to different people” and accepting such vague terms as a basis for a position it causes significant challenges in having a rational debate. Beyond the vagaries of the particular definitions as the topic of urban sprawl intersects and is analyzed through numerous different lens: urban planning, social psychology, economics, public policy, finance to name a few; the quantification challenges are multiplied by different schools of thought applying their own lenses and language to the issue (Hayden, 2004). The results are that most generally accepted definitions of sprawl contain elements such as: uncontrolled greenfield development that results in lower density, car centric development at a greater geographic distance from a city centre that results in poorer health and environment and at a higher cost to society.

On the urban side, similar definitional challenges face defining “good urban” areas.  Walkable neighbourhoods, complete streets, a healthy environment, density of design although measurable using various quantifiable tools they tend to only provide a snapshot of a portion of what makes a community complete. Although there are many strong urban standards that can be pointed to that contribute to a “complete” or “walkable” community to find the exact point at which a community is complete is often found in the eyes of a beholder with individual preference and necessity trumping any quantifiable measure. Although there is research available that has attempted to quantify good urban areas (Knapp, Song, Nedovic-Budic) and general tools like “Walkscore” provide snapshots these efforts have been limited and face challenges.

The inability to define, measure and pinpoint tipping points in a manner that allows effectively communication in a transparent manner allows for nebulous grey areas that enables individual lens or ideologies to drive debates. Any number of debates ranging from “the war on the car”, density related NYIMBism, school closure to name a few are in many ways driven by a lack of understanding and measurement of where, why and how people live in a community.

This lack of understanding then amplifies the rhetoric with both sides seeing a particular decision through an increasingly polarized point of view. Much like the “willful ignorance” that suburbanites are so often accused of living, or the “moral superiority” projected by those choosing to live an urban lifestyle creates an ideological gulf in communities, as residents cannot understand why other who choose to live the way they do. What is a dense community of row houses to some, is an impractical place to live for a family with four children. What is historic and stately home in an established neighbourhood for a middle aged empty-nesters, is too burdensome for retirees. Or a comfortable neighbourhood of newly built ranch, perfect for aging Torontoian transplants is little better than blight to an urbanite due to its location at the fringe of a small city. So much of what determines where people live are those intangible items that cannot be easily measured.

Where someone chooses to settle is an inherently individual experience and the culmination of dozens of inputs, perceptions and compromises. It is this human element that unfortunately leads to polarization of debates around sprawl and urbanism. Each new project and decision regardless of impact (actual or perceived) are lensed through the personal point of view of individuals, forcing the dialogue within the community to greater and greater extremes. It is this tribalism, inherit between the different groups and ingrained in choice that then skews the use of data on this subjects (and so many others). If a clear and wide accepted definition of sprawl existed and this definition enabled a line to be drawn universally across all communities showing where sprawl begins and ends this discussion would be moot but as it doesn’t, if Windsor is to have any hope, compromise is required.

Windsor’s History of Sprawl 

Windsor (as with many cities) was born out of a history of sprawl. From the 1930s the “City of Windsor” amalgamated with surrounding towns and townships, steadily growing outwards as its population and importance within the region grew. Efforts by these surrounding communities to resist this outward expansion of Windsor proper were largely rebuffed with Walkerville taking its case to Great Britain’s highest Court in an effort to maintain its autonomy and resist a forced amalgamation by the Province (Stanton). This pattern of forced amalgamation has played out numerous times across the province as municipal governments exist largely at the whim of the province and if it weren’t for the practical necessity and conventions, they might not exist at all.

Beyond the original founding streets/neighbourhoods in each original community (Old Sandwich, Victoria Ave in Windsor, Old Walkerville, Old Riverside in East Windsor) the entire City of Windsor is the result of sprawl. The war-housing neighbourhoods that fill segments of south Walkerville ringing the Chrysler Assembly Plant, bordering Erie and street, the Marbourough, St James and Bridgeview neighbourhoods (where I live) in West Windsor, Ford City sandwiched between industrial complexes. It was in the 1960s in many cases when these neighbourhoods emerged as Windsor experienced a population boom like no other:

Year Windsor Population Percentage Change
1961 114,367
1971 209,300 83.00%
1981 192,083 −8.2%
1991 191,435 −0.3%
1996 197,694 3.30%
2001 208,402 5.40%
2006 216,473 3.90%
2011 210,891 −2.6%
2016 217,188 3.00%

NOTE: It was pointed out to me by Doug Schmidt that additional municipal amalgamations occurred between 1961 and 1971 that I missed. After digging I was unable to find a separate growth rate for the City of Windsor for that period (if someone finds one let me know). Overall amalgamation rather than a crazy growth rate makes more sense. I don’t feel that this amalgamation given when they occurred significantly changes my perspective. Thanks for the clarification Doug! 

From 1961-1971 censuses the population of the City of Windsor grew at a rate greater than 6% per year or by 83% over the decade! This decade was the tale end of the baby boom and influx newcomers with national population growing by 18% on top of the 30% growth that occurred from 1951-61. So it is no surprise that the regions’ housing stock looks like this:

Updating Housing Stock

For many Windsor’s growth and evolution was a relatively steady one when in fact it was driven by a surge of outward growth in the 1960s that distorted development patterns and closed the core off to broad-based redevelopment. This was followed up by the construction of social housing projects in the 1970s and 1980s which certainly added density but it also created pockets of socially isolated and marginalized peoples. This surging development pattern wrapped itself around industrial and commercial areas that in other times and cities would have remained isolated and properly transitioned.

It is from this core that the  were the first rings of “sprawl” emerged, filling gaps between the various neighbourhoods and beginning the outwards creep towards the county. Not only has housing crept outwards but the diversity of our community is helping perpetuate it.


The maps above show percentage of self identified immigrant populations in our region. Although it true that Windsor core has remained home to significant newcomer populations between 2001 and 2011 there has been a significant shift in where first generation Canadians live in our region. There has been a growing outward migration, to significant parts of South/Central Windsor, LaSalle, Tecumseh and Lakeshore have become homes to first generation Canadians. These areas are not low cost areas of our community nor are they home to significant urban density.  This shift has likely been driven by a few factors. The children of immigrants who came to Canada in the 1960-1990s and grew up in Windsor’s core are now at the stage where they can live the Canadian dream. Aspiration is a vitally important element that needs to be considered when looking at housing choice. With a home ownership rates that are nearing 70% buying a house remains a cornerstone of life in this county. Although that is becoming more and more difficult in some communities, in Windsor it remains a viable and attractive option.

These trends of aspiration hold true when compared to the US where African American populations are growing dramatically in the suburbs and other research has shown that immigrant suburban movement is actually breaking the cloistering effects that traditionally have been associated with suburban life. In a great paper on the “Canadian Dream” Jill Grant and Daniel Scott outline the steps in the home ownership ladder which you climb up and then down again in your lifetime. It firmly places a single detached home as a part of a life cycle of housing that a significant portion of the population still strives towards and lives through based on their aspirations and needs.

housing ladder.png

Unlike large urban centres where young families are priced out of the top rungs of the housing ladder that issue is a much smaller factor in Windsor-Essex,. The fact that there has been little new condo or apartment development in the City has been driven by and is a consequence of this low cost of living. Once a rent in a apartment hits a certain threshold it no longer makes financial sense to rent. As a result, young families move up the housing ladder and out to the suburbs.

What is “Sprawl” in Windsor?

This brings us back to the question of what is “sprawl” in Windsor? Compared to large urban centres, with 1 hour + commutes to call Windsor a sprawling city is laughable, particularly through the lens of just the City of Windsor. When a broader region is taken into account there is little question of outward growth. Although it can be argued it is urban sprawl as their is no regional measure for this growth or any inter-municipal cooperation, each municipality expansion can be seen and arguably is viewed by its own narrow evolutionary lens.

The question that needs to be tackled is when/if will sprawl in aggregate alter behaviour in our region? To a transplant from Toronto, a 20 minute jaunt to a store, doctors office or dinner is a cakewalk compared to battling the GTA traffic. To the nuclear family in LaSalle that commutes into the City on a daily basis there is little incentive to move back into the core given the housing stock, size of homes and property values (a topic of another blog post). To young people couple, assuming they stay in the community, why buy a fixer upper when you can buy new and still be downtown in about 20 minutes?

On the flip side is our downtown or core “urban”? Although dense compared to the rest of the region, Windsor downtown and core not only fail to meet a density standard of many truly urban cities and town but they lack services and amenities that bring many people to a thriving downtown. Go a few blocks off of these are thoroughfares you will find semi-suburban cloisters featuring two cars in a driveway. To some the sprawl debate is little more than an argument undertaken by those who are already affluent and have met their needs. There are many in Windsor’s core who would love the opportunity to own a home or car, send their kids to university or college, live the Canadian dream

There will always be people on both sides on this debate, the question that must be answered is where is the “centre” of the population. I would put forward that they arguably they don’t care as they experience only marginal negative impacts directly on their lives. The benefits that they would reap from a more urban community and lifestyle not resonating with the majority of the population.  Municipally, the competition between them is further encouraging this outward expansion. One of the best, lesser stated arguments for the development of the Sandwich South lands is that it is needed in order to keep Windsor competitive compared to the surrounding municipalities in the home construction market and attract retirees transplants from Toronto with high assessment valued new homes.

The biggest issue for opponents of sprawl in our region is that there is no easily implementable, politically viable solution to this issue. What took 50+ years to build cannot be undone without bulldozing of city blocks, reconstruction of neighbourhoods and redesigning the regions traffic network. The small wins of bike lanes here or basement secondary suites their are a drop in the bucket in comparison to the larger overall challenges. All of which leads back to an infamous quote from a City Councillor “Sprawl is the future“.



21 thoughts on “The Windsor Research Project – Sprawling

  1. Thanks for this Frazier. Very informative and still leaves a lot of unanswered questions. Is blight directly related to sprawl?. How much does blight cost? What of our gem the Detroit River? If growth truly pays for growth then why are our roads such a mess, how come we don’t have enough community centres, etc. Who pays for maintenance?
    I believe if we lose the new proposed development to our neighbouring municipalities this would be fine as we could spend more on the maintenance of what we already have. The core will once again be attractive with a vibrant downtown, Little Italy, China town, Old Sandwich Towne, etc. and we will attract those from the county back to the city. Growth is a cycle.

    • Hi Caroline,

      To tackle your questions: Is blight directly related to sprawl?

      The short answer in my opinion is that it is complicated. Blight is a result of people and capital leaving a community, whether that is to a new suburban development or a new community entirely is irrelevant. Generally people flee communities for a number reasons not just blight down the street, blight is symptom of broader socio-economic problems in a community. The only way to fix blight is to put people and capital back into those “blighted areas”. Unfortunately this carries significant additional costs that make new “sprawl” developments, financially cheaper and more flexible to develop. As a result there is less incentive to tackle specific blight issues on a dollar for dollar value measurement.

      How much does blight cost?

      Blight does carry significant costs, there are number of studies that looked at the cost of blight and abandon building and their impact of property values/assessments, crime, fire protection etc. This is why items like the vacant building enforcement are important to mitigate those costs.

      What of our gem the Detroit River?

      Two thing you have to remember. First, every municipality in Essex County has their own waterfront access as well. True not with a Detroit skyline but they have their own parks,marina beaches and trails along or near their waterfront. In some cases due to their community sizes, these waterfronts are more accessible and walkable with greater amenities than Windsor’s.

      Second its not hard to reach, Windsor’s Waterfront has lots of parking, accessible by bike, and there are things to do nearby. You can park in Sandwich, walk the trail, then go grab dinner; same for Walkerville or downtown. The question is how does accessing this amenity compare to other amenities, services and value generated in other parts of the community? If this was Toronto and it took an hour or more to get downtown, then people would live closer to the waterfront, but when 20 minutes or 30 minutes you can get from most of the county to the waterfront, why do you need to live closer?

      Who pays for Growth?

      The answer to this question is that we do, the problem is that as the surrounding communities have grown (this is discussed in another post) they come into the city on a daily basis using the roads and other services without paying for them.

      • I’ve noticed that there is a price war on development fees, and Windsor is largely had stayed out of it. Doesn’t this show that we do have the political will to not have a race to the bottom with sprawl?

        Also, how can we make it easier (and cheaper) to build more densely around the city? The only think I can think of is to remove barriers to build, like requiring large yards, or requiring parking.

        But I’ve noticed as a transit enthusiast that where Windsor’s sprawl is built is really good for transit, because it funnels most of the traffic along a few roads (Wyandotte and Tecumseh for east/west, Ouelette, Howard, Walker, Dominion for North/South). Of course, our low density, car oriented development, and lack of amenities are factors that prevents increased transit use.

  2. Interesting choice of words where you wrote:

    “it is needed in order to keep Windsor competitive compared to the surrounding municipalities in the home construction market and attract retirees transplants from Toronto with high assessment valued new homes.”

    Kingsville discovered a little while ago that attracting retirees from elsewhere gives a nice initial infusion of cash, but after 10 or 15 years when they become more elderly, there are consequences to the strategy.

    We’re living it first hand at our house because my husband is treating so many seniors from the countyfor various skin cancers.They are having to drive back to Windsor for dressing changes, because unbelievably, the hospital in Leamington and the CCAC aren’t able to provide wound care services to people who aren’t bedridden. It’s understandably frustrating for the patients, but it also adds to the traffic congestion on Highway 3, as well as to our hospital capacity issues.

    Gradually the Kingsville-Leamington area learned that a retire-here strategy might be more of a be careful what you wish for kind of a strategy. What I wrote is just one personal experience of where the senior strategy hasn’t been thought through as well as it could.

    Surely a strategy with a longer acting positive pay-off is to start filling in the many gaps in our existing neighbourhoods, making the city really attractive to live in. It might take a little longer, but if we can encourage more of our children to stay in Windsor (both of ours are outta here after high school) or at least to return after their university education and perhaps the first couple of years of work, it will lead to better work opportunities and better chances of getting our birthrate going again.

    • Hi Phillipa,

      i think that there are differences between Kingsville/Leamington and what is being proposed in Sandwich South assuming it becomes a retirement community.

      I would also point out that Kingsville and Leamington (as municipal units) probably didn’t learn anything because they bare only a marginal responsibility to health care services. it is the individual (who choose to live their) and the health provider (and in turn the province) who bare that impact the most. Ideally they should be serviced at the hospital closer to home but if that isn’t possible that’s on the Province for not providing the service and/or the individual for choosing to reside in a community without services they might need. People are bad in general foreseeing their needs, you could probably argue that the retirees you speak for the most part were/are happy with their lives in the county, yes they have to travel for health care but that is a fact in any rural community. The fact that they have the opportunity and means to travel lead to me have little sympathy for them.

      I don’t disagree that long term revitalization will both save money and create opportunity the question is who bares the cost of that revitalization now? Some would argue that portions of the city are attractive now, other would argue that “making attractive” is just code for gentrification and disburse low-income residents from the core.

      As for the birth rate that is a demographic national issue… by the mid 2030s the birth/death rate will likely begin to 0 out meaning that only immigration will lead to population growth in Canada.

      • Is the idea to move seniors to Sandwich South? I’m not sure. The mix (p.188) for the 3,280 homes is 70% low density, 20% medium and 10% high density, though with no high density options evident on the plans. Affordable housing is apparently part of the offering, though I don’t know how.

        The plan suggests health care workers will be living in Sandwich South – that’s how the active transportation part of the plan is justified. So I don’t see the strategy.

        If I were planning to attract seniors from away, I’m not sure I’d sell them on these homes around a hospital with planes flying overhead. Not even a lovely trail could compensate for the negatives.

        I do think the plan offers Tecumseh an excellent opportunity for finally getting their population growth going again with lower cost housing (their DC’s are a third of Windsor’s), with the promise of Windsor’s amenities – a poor at the arena, a hospital – what else could you want on your doorstep?

      • Hi Phillipa

        I said assuming it becomes a retirement community. I would point out a lot of new subdivisions in LaSalle that have gone up are now filled with 55+ empty nesters who wanted a 1 floor ranch to retire into. Lots of low density that will be seniors retirement homes. You don’t need to be high density to be senior friendly although that is ideal.

        As for planes I don’t know if you have reviewed the flight paths but SS lands aren’t actually in a large part of the landing pattern, the orientation of the runway doesn’t allow for it and you are assuming that you know other people’s preferences. Ask people in parts of Ward 8 – 10 if planes landing are a deal breaker for their neighbourhoods? You make it sound like a major airport, when there are 10-15 flights per day. Finding a home is complex, if seniors wouldn’t want to live there why would a family, yet they are pretty confident that they can build and sell homes.

      • Most seniors I know what to move to Tecumseh rather than Windsor South / Sandwich. Some have moved to LaSalle but taxes are an issue). Those who are not concerned with location I have talked to are worried about the quality of care compared to what there is currently with patients waiting on beds in hallways because there isn’t enough staff. They are wondering how many staff will be at the new Mega Hospital compared to what we currently have combined. Does anyone know? There is also a 98 year old lady I know who is fragile and her family is looking into nursing homes but because many have had incidences of abuse they are holding off. If she ends up in hospital though they might have to choose sooner. Just like in hospitals, there are lack of staff which equates to frustrated staff who cut corners in care.

      • I live in Ward 8 and I would not want to live that close to the airport. I am in the Fontainebleau area by Jefferson and Tecumseh Rd E.

      • Hi Katie

        Thanks for the replies, this discussion isn’t about the hospital per say but rather about context for Windsor’s growth patterns. The issue is complex and complicated

    • Hi Phillipa,

      As for encouraging people to stay for university, I’ve noticed that the recent influx of international students into St Clair and University of Windsor, is getting more people to move closer to the core. Perhaps expanding on it could be the key to keep the core afloat.

  3. Great post! Thanks for writing this series. It’s very informative. I have an interesting piece of information related to this quote;

    “every municipality in Essex County has their own waterfront access as well. True not with a Detroit skyline but they have their own parks,marina beaches and trails along or near their waterfront. In some cases due to their community sizes, these waterfronts are more accessible and walkable with greater amenities than Windsor’s.”

    I was told by an friend, who was an Essex councillor at the time of the 1999 amalgamations, that the then town of Essex proposed to the province a drastically different boundary that didn’t border Lake Erie. But the province forced the current boundaries because they wanted each town to have waterfront.

    I also often wonder how different my family is because we want to move out of south Walkerville to downtown because it’s not urban enough lol. I like to think “sprawl is the future” is too near cited.

  4. Hi Nate,

    Glad you liked it. Ya if i remember correctly the original “Essex” proposed to be more of a true essex centre with Essex and places like the former South Woodslee to McGregor leaving Harrow/Colchester to to go Kingsville or on their own.

  5. Interesting thoughts but where is the discussion on agriculture? In my opinion Essex County has the best climate in Canada for food production and we are covering this land over. In LaSalle for example we can grow everything from watermelon, peppers, tomatoes, strawberries, Raspberries, Kale, squash, the list goes on and on but we are losing our best land to housing! Think 200 years from now, where will your food come from? I am 4th generation family farm and wonder if this topic is discussed at our planning sessions our municipalities have?

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  7. I feel the only rational way to address this land use imbalance is through economics. Many groups have tried to shame their way in achieving change, and we’re surrounded by their lack of success. Debating the merits of one lifestyle choice over the other is a fool’s game.

    Only when we get down to charging the true costs to each lifestyle will we be able to see movement. How that can happen would need to be the topic of many blogs, but until we admit that servicing 1 square meter of Walkerville real estate costs X, while servicing 1 square meter of Southwood Lakes costs XXX, yet we charge property taxes based upon another factor all together, we will be constantly wringing our hands about our growing infrastructure deficit and clogged roadways.

    I look forward to the day City Math becomes a part of our decision making process.

    • I agree that proper costing of decisions can help but the issue isn’t just the costing but its how those costs are perceived and potentially paid. If your assumption is one of rational behaviour or equal perceived weighting of costs, it doesn’t happen in my experience.

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