Doug Ford’s developer-driven sprawl plan will have mental health impacts on future generations
Feature Image Alexis Wright/The Pointer

Doug Ford’s developer-driven sprawl plan will have mental health impacts on future generations

Trinity Bellwoods in Toronto includes a mix of housing styles, including 43 percent that are semi-detached, townhomes which make up another 43 percent and eight percent detached houses. Trinity Bellwoods Park, a 36-acre oasis in the middle of a dense urban neighbourhood, welcomes residents to the centre of the area. Ravines flow from the buried Garrison Creek, along commercial strips serviced by transit options that connect locals to the entire city.  

The Task Force for Housing and Climate released a report Tuesday detailing what social equity groups have been advocating for years: zoning that discourages urban density in a complete community model has to be torn up and replaced by policies that promote housing affordability, sustainability and human health. The group was formed last year with the aim of helping shape policy to create 5.8 million new homes across Canada by 2030, using planning and sustainability principles that centre overall wellness above all else, including stewardship of the spaces we have to protect. 

Trinity Bellwoods is an apt example of the type of lifestyle good urban planning can help create.

Building dense neighbourhoods under Green Development Standards that focus on energy efficiency and promote active transportation will help to reduce carbon emissions while also providing the type of housing that is attainable and sustainable for the vast majority of Canadians.

The report features over 100 recommendations and policy proposals for all three levels of government with the goal of sustainably building almost six million homes across the country over the next six years, in line with what the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation estimates is needed to make prices affordable.

The recommendations from the task force are not new, they reiterate calls from global organizations like the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) to disincentivize single-family homes as a way to promote more sustainable land use and reduce carbon emissions. Even the PC government’s own Housing Task Force found there is more than enough land within existing urban boundaries across the province to achieve the goal of building 1.5 million homes by 2031. 


The large, single-family homes built since the ‘80s are no longer desirable or affordable for many young buyers.

(Joel Wittnebel/The Pointer Files)


Instead the PCs have pushed developer-driven legislation aimed at opening up more land for development to build sprawling single family homes, without prioritizing servicing or complete communities. Most recently, through Bill 162, the Get it Done Act, the PCs made the final decisions on boundary expansions for 13 major municipalities across southern Ontario. All but two — the province agreed to leave Hamilton and Ottawa alone — involved modifications to previously agreed upon boundaries, dramatically increasing land available for sprawl.

The PC government began handing out funding last year to municipalities that pushed housing starts in line with the targets set under Bill 23. The PCs define a housing start as when the foundation of the building is fully complete, a process that takes months or years for highrise buildings, again incentivizing single-home development over density. 

Organizations have advocated for sustainable, complete communities instead, which will create financial, social and environmental benefits.

A new study from the University of Waterloo adds to the arguments. Leia Minaker, a professor in the university’s school of planning and director of the Future Cities Initiative, told The Pointer that spending the money now to build sustainable cities that feature greenspaces and promote active transportation, will save large sums of public investment required to treat a range of mental health issues.

“Telling any parent in this province to get your kid out into greenspace to help their mental health, every parent is probably going to be like, ‘Yeah, I already know that’,” she said. “I think what this research shows for the first time is we quantify just how much it's going to help your kids.”

There is no denying there is a growing mental health crisis for young people across Canada. Anxiety around climate change, the cost of living, international conflicts, technological upheaval, an unpredictable job market, intense competition… the list goes on — on top of the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, has left many Canadian youth experiencing mental health issues at unprecedented rates.

A Government of Canada study from 2020 found that in the early days of the pandemic, just 40 percent of Canadians aged 15 to 24 reported having excellent or very good mental health, a drop from 62 percent who reported the same in 2018. A more recent study found the proportion of Canadians 15 and older with a generalized anxiety disorder doubled from 2.6 percent to 5.2 percent between 2012 and 2022.

Further studies suggest that the waning of pandemic measures has yet to ease mental stressors. A survey from the New Brunswick Health Council, which was completed by over 57,000 students from grades 6 and 12 between November and December 2022, found that the proportion of youth reporting depression or anxiety in the 12 months prior shot up from 39.5 percent to 55.8 percent. While mental health issues in youth are rising, the ability to adapt is waning. 


Statistics on mental health in Toronto.

(City of Toronto)


But New Brunswick is not alone. In late 2023, Toronto Public Health presented data from Toronto's Population Health Profile (2023), the Ontario Student Drug Use and Health Survey (2022) and the 2022 ParticipACTION Report Card on Physical Activity for Children and Youth. It concluded that 59 percent of Ontario students reported that the pandemic left them depressed about their future, 39 percent reported it made their mental health worse, and Toronto emergency room visits related to self-harm among children and youth increased by 30 per cent in the first year following the start of the pandemic. These two examples are representative of a phenomenon happening all across the country.

“Kids are struggling with mental health, and also mental health care is expensive and unavailable to a lot of kids,” Minaker said, emphasizing the severity of the crisis as the first reason for the importance of the study.

The second reason is that while our cities and urban design structures have a profound impact on youth, adolescents are most often excluded from any kind of decision making about their cities. In March 2023, when the City of Mississauga reconfirmed its commitment to the climate crisis, city staff promised to include youth in consultations of environmental policy and green development standards. But the commitment by Mississauga is an outlier, not a trend. In general, those below 18 are left out of decision making and left to bear the brunt of the environments that older generations provide for them.

The study, while building on well-known research on the intrinsic link between spending time outside and mental health — hearing terms like “forest bathing” or “nature prescribing” in psychology spaces noting that going outdoors improves mental clarity and thinking, as well as promotes physical activity which improves mood — is novel in quantifying the degree to which different urban environments impact the mental well-being of adolescents. It collected real time, on site survey data from a group of 70 adolescents in Waterloo Region about their emotional responses to various urban environments.

Minaker told The Pointer that the study looked at a suite of overall features classified as pedestrian and transit oriented design (PTOD). 

“In other words, we're trying to get away from auto oriented or car oriented landscapes and make urban centers or urban places that are more actually pedestrian,” she said.

PTOD include image stability, or the predictability of the landscape; enclosure, or the feeling of being in a room; human scale, or things that can be appreciated at walking speed; transparency, or how much one sees beyond the street; and complexity, or the diversity of the architecture.  


The 1.64 kilometre route used with areas where the survey was taken marked.

(Leia Minaker & Adrian Buttazzoni)


The survey was repeated along a 1.65 kilometre walking path in Kitchener, traversing six distinct settings including a multimodal transit path, a residential street, an urban bluespace (i.e. local lake), an urban greenspace (i.e. local park), a public transit hub, and a built-up downtown street. 

After looking at an urban lake for just two to three minutes, scores on a validated anxiousness scale decreased by nine percent, contrasted with an anxiousness score that increased 13 percent when standing in a busy downtown street for the same amount of time. 

While Minaker noted that the larger the size of the natural feature, the greater benefits it may provide, even small pockets of greenspaces in the form of city parks or lakes can have important implications.

“One of the things we found has been the idea of a natural enclosure. So this idea that you can almost feel lost in nature, because nature is surrounding you,” she said. There's something it seems like that's especially important for kids to feel like they're surrounded by greenery, that they can’t see the street or see the cars or hear the cars. And it doesn't have to be a huge place. It just needs to be a place where they can have that feeling.”

In achieving some of these crucial benefits, Minaker said the solutions are not complicated ones, but the hardest part will be finding the entity willing to pay for it.

Cities are continuing to densify. Using Waterloo as an example, Minaker said the proportion of residents living in high rise buildings has increased by 30 percent between the 2016 and 2021 Census. Often in dense urban centres where these highrises are being built, there is little to no greenspace, and provincial housing policy allows developers to pay cash-in-lieu instead of creating parkspace. While this money is earmarked for other greenspace across the city, Minaker said it is often used to construct parks and other natural features on the fringes of the city, not near the downtown core.

“I think creating policies or strategies to incentivize developers to maintain as much green space as possible for cities to recognize the importance of green spaces,” she said. “There's lots of different ways of doing it, I think it's going to be a matter of now figuring out who's going to pay.”

She continued by stating that every stakeholder has a part to play. 


Parks provide a necessary escape from urban stress.

(Alexis Wright/The Pointer)


“There are developers who want to create places where families and kids can grow up in healthy neighborhoods. And there are cities who have a vested interest in creating healthy and livable communities for kids and families,” she said.

But she recognized a caveat within the way power is structured across Ontario. The province imposes policy and legislation, but then as long as municipalities meet that minimum, they have the ability to go beyond. While this is beneficial for those individual cities, it creates a patchwork approach across the province. 

“It's going to require collaboration between, you know, public and private industry, government and developers and other kinds of civil society organizations who are interested in preserving parks and expanding parks and cities and those kinds of things,” she said.

Despite significant changes to parkland dedication and cash-in-lieu policies under Bill 23, a spokesperson for the City of Mississauga told The Pointer in an email statement that the City has seen relative success in acquiring new parkland.

In 2022, Mississauga published its Parks Plan which seeks to advance parkland acquisition in neighbourhoods equally to solve a growing deficit. The City, which has a minimum parkland target of 1.2 hectares per 1,000 residents, has a current parkland supply of 2.23 hectares per 1,000 people when looking at the municipality overall. 

But this is a skewed representation of parkland in the City.

“This metric alone has not provided the ‘full picture’ of parkland needed across the City of Mississauga and does not address uneven geographic distribution of parkland,” a City spokesperson previously told The Pointer in an email.

Under the plan, the provision will remain, 1.2 hectares per 1,000 residents in community nodes and neighbourhood districts. 

But in the Urban Growth Centre (UGC) and other major growth nodes (there are seven) the City is using an alternative approach. In these areas the minimum parkland provision is set for 12 percent of the total area, comparable to other dense urban areas identified in the Downtown Growth Area Parks Provisions Strategy such as Lower Manhattan (11.6 percent), Downtown Ottawa (10.4 percent) and Downtown Portland (10.3 percent).

When viewed on a local scale, Mississauga is less green than it should be. At the time of publication of the Pars Plan, 10 of the 33 community nodes and neighbourhoods in Mississauga do not meet the 1.2 hectares per 1,000 resident provision and five of the seven UGC and major nodes do not meet the 12 percent provision. 

The City spokesperson told The Pointer that while significant progress has been made, including acquiring new parkland in areas with the most serious deficits — the three neighbourhoods that have the lowest level of parkland at the time of the publication of the plan are Streetsville (0.7 hectares per 1,000 residents), Clarkson Village (0.6 hectares per 1,000 residents) and Sheridan (0 hectares per 1,000 residents) — more needs to be done to meet the City’s targets. 

“Although progress has been made, neighbourhoods identified in the Parks Plan as being parkland deficient still require more parkland,” they wrote. “We continue to work strategically towards securing future parkland in those key neighbourhoods. Active negotiations are underway in order to secure future parkland through direct purchase and through the development application process.”



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