Small Town Sprawl

We’re working through the Strategic Planning process, and we just had a series of public engagement opportunities where residents could talk about their vision and hopes for Brighton’s future, their recommendations for new initiatives or improvements, and even their concerns and frustrations. Excellent exercises, and we had over 60 of our neighbours participate. Going through their input, it’s mostly quite hopeful, positive, and constructive. I have found (through past consultations) that the same is largely true of survey respondents. People who take the time to offer their input through any official process tend to be interested in the future, in what we might accomplish together.

The other main way that we hear from residents is through comments on Facebook. In my experience, those comments rarely come from the same folks who show up to public consultations or take surveys, and the feedback is decidedly different: typically negative, and mostly focused on improving road maintenance and lowering taxes (often in the same comment!). It might just be my perception, and I’m certainly not here to call anyone out in particular – there are many, many such comments – but I’d love to see a study to determine the difference between a sour Facebook commenter and a constructive consultation participant. Ironically, the sour comments are often under a post that links to the survey! Either people who comment negatively aren’t filling out the survey they comment under, or else they change their tone significantly when they do. I’d love to know which!

The third issue that comes up in the comment section (after road maintenance and taxes) is that they want to keep the town small. This is almost a point of overlap with the participants in the public consultations; in that setting, they talk about maintaining our “small town character” or “feel”. On Facebook, it often comes in as “stop growth, don’t let people move here.” Let’s set aside the fact that we can’t actually just stop people from moving to our town, and focus on that point of convergence: what makes a “small town” appealing?

The shops and apartments along the south side of Main Street.
This picture is on our municipal website, and Wikipedia’s article on Brighton. It’s our definitive image, apparently!

What Makes a “Small Town”?

We spend a lot of time talking about small towns being great, but I’ve yet to see a definitive feature of a small town that actually applies here. A lengthy post recently tried to do just that, and emphasized how people moved here for the sake of the “peace and quiet.” I don’t know about you all, but I live a block from the train tracks, so I hear a whistle a hundred times a day, loud enough that I have to stop a conversation (otherwise I don’t even notice it anymore though); and in any month in which it’s warm enough to actually go outside, at any given moment there seem to be at least three people mowing their lawns. Even in the rural areas, most homes are near enough to county roads that they can hear almost constant road traffic. Out on Presqu’ile Point, maybe the most remote residential area of Brighton, the noise of gun hunting is a perennial political issue. If you want actual peace and quiet, you won’t find that much of it in Brighton.

Other positive notions of a small town have to do with being surrounded by nature. We’re spoiled in Brighton: our best and biggest parks are paid for by the province (Presqu’ile Provincial Park) and the Conservation Authority (Proctor Park and Goodrich Loomis Conservation Area). But as our Parks and Rec Master Plan (almost finished!) points out, we have much less parkland per capita than is recommended. And Brighton doesn’t actually own a lot of shoreline; despite being a lakeside town, we have no real developed waterfront – most of it is privately owned, and where it’s publicly owned there’s a public road all along it (e.g., Harbour St, and in Gosport); we have no beach, outside the provincial park.

And the concept of a small town being the mixture of rural and small urban life only sort-of applies in Brighton. Yes, we have farmed land very close to our urban boundary, and many of our small shops sell local produce. We have a lovely farmer’s market. But the part of Brighton that we might still consider to be a “farming community” is separated from the urban area by Highway 401, and it takes continuous effort to maintain a sense of unity between our urban and rural areas. Folks from rural areas ask, every election year, for a ward system so that they can elect a councillor specifically for those rural areas; and folks from urban areas keep asking for a farmer’s market downtown, seemingly without recognizing how that would alienate their neighbours from Codrington. So yes, we do have both rural and small-urban coming together in the Municipality of Brighton, but it’s less of a natural fusion and more of a continuous effort to mitigate the tension.

So if peace and quiet, natural areas, and rural/urban cohesion are what make a small town, Brighton isn’t really a small town.

What a Small Town Isn’t

It is sometimes much easier to get a sense of what people want by hearing what they don’t want, and that’s just as true of defining the ideal small town. Complaints about Brighton’s growth regularly include:

  • Traffic. Far and away, the most complaints we get are related to traffic: too much traffic, too fast, not enough traffic control. This is followed closely by…
  • Road maintenance. People don’t want to see potholes – fair enough! Too much traffic causes wear and tear on the roads, and road maintenance causes traffic congestion (see previous item). And in winter the complaint shifts from potholes to snow removal – also fair enough! Impediments to being able to drive safely, in general.
  • Too many people. I hear this one a LOT, but it’s never really quantified, other than to say that we need to keep the town SMALL. I don’t think that people are concerned about the sheer existence of other human beings; when we complain about too many people, we aren’t talking about those people quietly living their lives in their homes. It’s another way of talking about congestion, whether in traffic (see above) or in services (long lines at the checkout, etc).

    But we can’t write this complaint off as just being another form of complaint about traffic. One of the things that I personally associate with small towns is the fact that, when I’m out and about, I know people. I don’t know everyone, but I can rarely go anywhere in Brighton without someone waving at me or calling me by name. (I don’t always recognize people right away, so if you say hi to me in town and I don’t seem to recognize you, please don’t be offended! I’m happy to see you even if I don’t know right away who you are!) I would say that this is one of the best features of a small town: to know others, and to be known.
  • Too much development. Brighton is one of the fastest growing communities around, and at any given time in Brighton these days there are three or four active construction sites. Construction is noisy, dusty, and just plain busy – everything the seekers of “peace and quiet” want to avoid. I get that. I do wonder, though, if we get the impression of there being too much development because of the sheer volume – the amount of space that is being developed at any given time. Which brings me to the last and most telling complaint…
  • It’s becoming too much like the GTA. “We moved here to get away from all that.” Fair enough – nobody moved to Brighton thinking it would be the GTA. But what is it about the GTA that’s so objectionable, that we’re seeing in Brighton? The short answer is: sprawl.
This is sprawl. What’s not to love?

Small Sprawl

The best definition of a small town, judging by the things I hear on doorsteps at election time or on Facebook at any time, is that it isn’t Oshawa, Ajax, or Pickering. Those are the places where many of our newer residents moved here from, hoping for a different pace of life. Those are also places that longtime locals here associate with the long and hectic drive to the big city. It’s telling, though, that people say that they don’t want Brighton to feel like the GTA, and not that they don’t want this to become downtown Toronto. Is that because they don’t feel like we’ll ever grow so much that we could be comparable to Toronto?

I think that might be the case, but more likely it’s because in many ways we’re already like the “big cities” of the GTA. While people tend to associate the problems of those cities with sheer size, and therefore say “stop growing!”, the reality is that it has very little to do with how many people there are, and almost everything to do with how much space those people take up. Because the GTA is known for sprawl.

Sprawl is what happens when you plan land use with a small town in mind, and when your view of small town is oriented around every household having a lot of personal space. Sprawling communities are full of low-density housing, with either big yards or big houses or both (and as land becomes more scarce, lots tend to get smaller and houses tend to get bigger, so you end up with huge houses and almost no green space). Spreading out that much takes up a ton of land, and most people live too far from shops and services to walk there, so everyone has to drive for everything. That means a ton of pavement, parking, and pipes to keep everything connected. It means the downtown has big parking lots instead of lots of shops, and main street is always busy with vehicle traffic. It means that going for a drive means driving past neighbourhood after neighbourhood of detached homes, rather than driving through natural forests or farmed fields. It means that going for a walk means walking on a sidewalk (where available) alongside busy roadways, or just circling your own block a few times rather than walking to somewhere with a purpose; and going for a bike ride probably means putting your bike into or on top of your car, driving somewhere that isn’t so busy (like a nearby provincial park, perhaps?), and riding there. It also means rising tax rates to pay for all of that infrastructure and the constant cost of fixing it.

Does this sound familiar? Everything in that last paragraph exists already in Brighton, just not at the same scale as in the GTA. I’m sure that this is why people are so sensitive to Brighton “becoming just like the GTA” – because land use planning in both places has followed the North American norm for generations. Check out this YouTube playlist for an explanation of how planning since WWII has been car-dependent, and has made life so much more expensive and less enjoyable in North America. The short version is that planning models in North America have assumed that growth starts with sprawl, and that density comes later; that’s why only big cities have a dense, walkable, transit-friendly, service/shop-heavy downtown, and everywhere else has sprawl. It’s not sustainable, much less pleasant.

This one talks about American cities, but this YouTuber is Canadian – everything here applies to us too! The Strong Towns series here is a systematic look at planning practices that produce sprawl, and the results. But the rest of the channel is fascinating and funny, if a little snarky at times.

The Density Fix

The trouble is, people still associate big cities with density. The GTA is full of big cities that Brightonians don’t want to replicate – but those cities are not dense, and most of the problems that people associate with them (expensive to live in, too much traffic, potholes, crowded grocery stores, lack of green space, lots of noise) aren’t about population density. They’re about cars, and how much we need cars to do anything when we live in a sprawling community. If you had that many people in a smaller space, you wouldn’t concentrate those problems – you’d solve them. Allow me to explain.

Better planning standards today include a push for higher population density, which means more semi-detached and townhomes (medium density) and apartments (high density), as well as having mixed-use zoning (i.e., housing and commercial in the same space). When I talk about these things on Facebook, I get a lot of pushback from residents who don’t want to see Brighton become like the GTA; adding density, and mixed-use zoning, is considered big city stuff. But historically, it’s small-town stuff; it’s Brighton stuff.

Historic Brighton's downtown, with men shoveling snow by hand onto horse-pulled sleighs.

A while back I blogged about snow removal, and posted some historic pictures from the Brighton Digital Archives. Here’s one of them. It shows the old town hall, the post office, and what is now a shoe store, an insurance sales office, and a pottery shop. It’s the north side of Main Street, about a hundred years ago.

Historic Brighton, men shoveling snow by hand.

This one shows the east side of Prince Edward Street, where it meets Main. The apartments you can see here, as well as the ones along the south side of Main Street pictured at the top of this post, are well over a hundred years old, and have always had commercial on the ground floor. Our downtown core area remains one of the highest density spots in Brighton, and one of the only places in town with mixed-use zoning.

So for the folks who say “I’ve lived here for 25 years, and this town is getting too big”, who also oppose land use planning that includes higher density and mixed use, I want to gently nudge you to examine some of the assumptions packed into that feeling. How is it that the oldest neighbourhood in our small town, from an era when our town was truly small, is the densest and most commercialized, when we associate density and commercial space with big cities? What would Brighton look like if it had continued to develop in this style, rather than the post-war trend toward sprawl that we eventually adopted?

I submit that Brighton would still be a small town, and we wouldn’t be worried about being like the GTA. We would still know people when we go out to the shops – but we’d have more shops to go to, and we wouldn’t always need to drive to get there. In that sense we’d see our neighbours more, because we’d pass them on the street instead of just in our cars. What is now parking lots would instead be shops with homes above them, or parks. The air would be cooler without all of that open blacktop, and we’d have more forests and farmland left. We might not have pavement right up to the water – maybe there would be a boardwalk for public enjoyment, instead of more space for cars. Our taxes would be lower, because we wouldn’t be paying so much for the constant task of replacing pavement – and the pothole problems would be fewer and further between. We would also be that much further toward our climate goals, because the lifestyle of a community with a more dense population is much more sustainable, using less energy across the board.

All of that to say that, contrary to popular belief, the way to ensure that we keep our “small town” feel in Brighton is to increase density, not avoid it.

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