As if cities can do It all by themselves

Farm & Countryside Commentary by Elbert van Donkersgoed

Editor's NOTE

Elbert van Donkersgoed is the Strategic Policy Advisor of the Christian Farmers Federation of Ontario, Canada. CFFO is supported by 4,500 family farmers across the province of Ontario.

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October 1, 2004: The Greater Golden Horseshoe is the economic engine of Ontario and of Canada. That is one of the underlying premises of all those discussion papers issued by our provincial government over the past six months: Places to Grow, Growing Strong Rural Communities, Toward a Golden Horseshoe Greenbelt, Planning Act Reform, Ontario Municipal Board Reform – the list goes on.

I don’t object to thinking about the Greater Golden Horseshoe in terms of one powerful economic engine. Most years it acts like one big vacuum cleaner sucking in much of the economic potential of the rest of Ontario and a lot from across Canada. But the writers of these discussion documents assume that urban regions, with their concentration of public and private resources, drive economic development all by themselves. Their concept of sustainable growth is simplistic: draw people with talent, money and ideas into urban centers and all will be well.

In reality, our urban centers enjoy symbiotic relationships with our countryside, towns and small cities that wrap around them. For example, for generations youth from towns, villages and farms have moved to the bright lights of our urban centers. Enough went back to our countryside with new talents, new money and new ideas to sustain a thriving countryside economy. But the latest wisdom, delivered by the authors of the current set of discussion papers, proposes putting all our eggs in a few baskets. The cities that are already booming, have been designated priority urban centers and worthy of the new approach to growth in Ontario. They will reap first dibs on infrastructure money and new incentive programs.

The province’s new growth strategy lacks a key insight. Describing urban centers as economic engines is OK. Just don’t forget that engines consume. The lesson from mining towns is clear: deplete your resource and your community’s vitality suffers dramatically. Is it coincidence that almost one-third of Canadians have made the Greater Golden Horseshoe their home? Check out where about half of Canada’ best farmland is located. Again and again, farmland--with the guidance of farmers--takes nutrients, rain and free energy from the sun and turns it into a stream of new wealth. That guaranteed flow of new wealth enabled the emergence of dynamic urban centers. To this day that new wealth is a foundation of the Greater Golden Horseshoe.

A new strategy for Ontario urban centers cannot afford to treat small cities, towns and the countryside like a hinterland to be cannibalized of people, money and resources. In their own long-term interests a two-way relationship is essential. Urban centers have to give back – and just sending urban waste and sewage sludge doesn’t cut it.


The discussion paper, “Places to Grow: Better Choices. Brighter Future,” can be accessed at www.placestogrow.pir.gov.on.ca/userfiles/HTML/nts_2_20438_1.html. Note maps 4, 5 and 6.



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