Sign reading "We Can't Afford Urban Sprawl" from Stop Sprawl Hamilton Ontario.
Sign reading "We Can't Afford Urban Sprawl" from Stop Sprawl Hamilton Ontario. Credit: Stop Sprawl Hamilton Ontario/Facebook

On November 9, Hamilton city council will vote on whether to stop urban sprawl or expand city boundaries into prime farmland. Hamilton is ground zero for the Ford government’s sprawl agenda. If Canada loses its best farmland in Ontario, all Canadians suffer.

Less than five per cent of Canada’s land is arable. Astonishingly, only 0.5 per cent of that land is prime farmland, resilient to climate change. Southern Ontario, and the Hamilton region in particular, is chock-full of this black gold.

The Whitebelt is the prime farmland sandwiched between the urban boundary of Hamilton and the Greenbelt. But unlike the Greenbelt, these 3,300 acres of first-class farmland are not protected and if Doug Ford has his way, they will be re-zoned for development and lost forever.

Planning and zoning changes used to be carried out using a climate lens. Then, in August 2020, Ford’s government ditched the lens, focusing instead on prioritizing the building of large, single-family homes. This created a pseudo-demand for land and calls from developers to expand Hamilton’s urban boundary onto essential farmland.  

Make no mistake, this urban boundary expansion is not being undertaken to appease Hamiltonians. It has nothing to do with keeping tall towers out of the city because those decisions were made long ago. It has nothing to do with building affordable, LEED-certified energy-efficient housing. And, it certainly has nothing to do with retrofitting old warehouses or schools to create more housing with a lower carbon footprint.

Instead, this is the intentional destruction of prime farmland, enabling developers to sell McMansions constructed on large lots. Building these subdivisions has nothing to do with meeting existing affordable housing needs and everything to do with profit maximization because developers set the prices that bring in the largest profits for the lowest outlay.

These mansions will need new infrastructure, including an entire series of new roads, sewers, and big box outlets with massive parking lots to service their new owners. All of this will lead to increased traffic; heat islands, noise, air and water pollution; increased flooding; and eventually more sprawl that will add exponentially to the carbon footprint of the area.

Instead, city council should concentrate its efforts on intensification, building a mix of housing across Hamilton. That could look like four-story duplexes, known as the “missing middle” homes, on sites once used to house big box stores and their massive parking lots; laneway and garden secondary dwelling units; additional builds on top of existing shopping or strip malls; and converting closed warehouses and schools into affordable housing units.

In March, Ward 9 Councillor Brad Clark successfully endorsed a call for city staff to conduct a survey asking Hamiltonians to choose between the staff-recommended urban boundary expansion or absolutely no expansion of the current urban boundary, supported by Stop Sprawl HamOnt (SSHO).

The response was overwhelmingly “no,” with 90.5 per cent of respondents choosing to maintain existing city boundaries. Unhappy with the outcome, nine developers created Facebook ads under the moniker “Hamilton Needs Housing.” They intended to “astroturf” the public into believing that they had widespread, grassroots support for their McMansion expansion ahead of the November 9 Hamilton General Issues Meeting.

Hamilton Needs Housing is a coordinated effort funded by the following development companies: Cardi Construction Limited, Artstone Holdings Limited, Corpveil Holdings Limited, Marz Homes, Melrose Investments Inc., Multi-Area Developments Inc., New Horizon Development Group, Paletta International Corporation, and DeSozio Homes.

They also delivered brochures to homes, claiming that Hamilton needed to expand the urban boundary in order to save farmland, and encouraging Hamiltonians to tell city council to support the urban expansion.

In response, the public started their own campaign: #SharpieShenanigans. Citizens in Hamilton used sharpies to write the truth on the brochures before returning them by mail to the developers. That ended the developers’ crusade of fake news.

On November 9, Hamilton city council will vote to support either expanding the urban boundary or preventing expansion beyond the current urban boundary and protecting prime farmland.

This vote should be a call to action for all Canadians because the loss of this farmland will not only impact Hamilton but also Ontario. Ontario is losing farmland at the rate of 175 acres per day. That means over 50,000 acres are at stake in southern Ontario this year.

Increased food prices due to the effects of extreme weather in Florida and California combined with the high cost of transportation should incentivize all levels of government to encourage increased production in the southern Ontario farm belt. Food security and food sovereignty should take precedence over developer profits.

Ontario has not reached its full farming potential and it is not currently producing enough food to be self-sustaining. However, a recent study co-authored by McMaster University Economics Professor Atif Kubursi looks at how the province could strengthen its food system. Ontario could ramp up farm profitability as well as improve health outcomes for consumers, all while reducing the carbon footprint of local produce and creating 3,400 new jobs across the province. Achieving full farming potential would ensure sustainable food security and food sovereignty. But we need to keep the farmland we have in order to make this work.

Kubursi’s report found that agriculture in Ontario currently generates $11.5 billion annually and that farmers, along with their suppliers, spend $29.3 billion per year, netting $4.4 billion in tax revenues for municipal, provincial and federal governments combined. Improving Ontario’s food self-sufficiency would only grow these impressive numbers, but that won’t happen if Ford paves over farmland.

As Michelle Tom, co-founder of Stop Sprawl HamOnt, sees it:

“Hamilton could be the breadbasket for Ontario and the country. We need Canadians to tell Hamilton council to stop this land grab and to recognize that food security is national security. Local, grassroots people can mobilize against developers, but we need all Canadians on board.”

To add your voice to the list of Canadians calling for Hamilton city council to freeze the urban boundary click here. Your letter will be sent to Hamilton city council, Premier Doug Ford, Councillor Clark, MPP Donna Skelly (representing Flamborough—Glanbrook), and NDP Environment Critic, MPP Sandy Shaw.