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:
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:
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.
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“.