A new report from the David Suzuki Foundation says urban sprawl is "seriously affecting the health of Canadians", and offers a "citizen's toolkit" to help local communities stop the sprawl.

The foundation, headed by well-known scientist and broadcaster David Suzuki, says the toolkit encourages communities to put pressure on all levels of government to stop sprawl.

"Most Canadians do not personally build the houses, streets, schools, parks or water lines that make cities possible," says the report's author, former Toronto planning commissioner David Gurin. "But citizens can help set the rules for the immense amount of city building that is going on. These planning rules determine how people live and work in the city. They can produce an environment of parking lots and traffic, or a city that is green and sustainable."

Urban sprawl is a major contributor to climate change and air pollution, because suburbs require so much automobile transportation, says the report. "In addition to burning gasoline, sprawling communities have to pump water in and out over long distances, deliver natural gas and electricity over long distribution networks, and provide solid waste, recycling pick-up and other services over a much wider area," it says. "Each of these services uses more energy and therefore produces more greenhouse gases than providing similar services to denser communities."

It cites studies by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which found that people who live in sprawling suburbs weigh more than people who live in denser cities. The report also outlines how urban sprawl contributes to water pollution as well as loss of agricultural land and wildlife. And, although many people say they live in suburban areas because of the quality of life there, the report says that sprawl "tends to destroy urban and rural charm by replacing the unique qualities of places with the universal sameness characterized by roadside franchises ... In addition to the esthetic loss in suburban life is the social loss. In newer subdivisions, isolation often replaces the conviviality and chance sidewalk meetings of older urban neighbourhoods. Isolation is designed into the land-use pattern and the transportation arrangements."

In the Toronto area, if current trends continue at the same pace to 2031, an additional 1,070 square kilometers of land will be urbanized -- almost double the area of the current City of Toronto, says the report. It says despite investment in new and improved roads, average commuting time by car will increase by about 25 per cent, and emissions of greenhouse gases will increase by 42 per cent from 2000 to 2031.

"If there's no change in the way cities and suburbs are planned and the future is simply business as usual, the consequence will be an urban Canada that is out of touch with the natural environment, unhealthy for its inhabitants, and a serious contributor to the process of global climate change," says the report.

The Suzuki Foundation is calling on provincial governments across Canada to establish a legislated urban growth boundary to protect agricultural and rural areas; to increase funding for public transit; to intensify town centres by enhancing economic activity and promote mixed-use development; and to create more compact cities, with better bike paths and pedestrian-friendly walkways.

The "toolkit", available online at www.davidsuzuki.org, includes a Who's Who roster of the players involved in urban sprawl, and suggests ways that communities can get organized to campaign against specific planned projects.

The foundation issued its report just as an interesting development story is unfolding in Ontario, just north of Toronto. In 2002, the previous provincial government approved a controversial plan for 6,600 homes to be built on the Oak Ridges Moraine, an environmentally sensitive region. That government was defeated in an election earlier this month, and now premier-elect Dalton McGuinty has vowed to stop construction of the homes.

Meanwhile, work on the site has already begun and some sewer and water services have been installed. A sales office is reporting brisk business, and the home builders say they are sure the development will still go ahead, because all local and provincial development approvals have been obtained.

"City residents need access to the countryside," says Gurin. "Rather than pave it over with new subdivisions, highways and malls, we should make better use of the land and infrastructure we have within our cities. Let's use that before we expand outward. The result will be cleaner air, better health, reduced climate change and a better quality of life."

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