US think tank suggests restrictive land use policies like the Greenbelt do more harm than good.

It is the time of year urban sprawl opponents hate—the annual release of the Demographia International Housing Affordability Survey.  The survey which compares housing costs to income flies in the face of conventional wisdom on the benefits of  restrictive growth policies like Ontario’s Greenbelt legislation saying the restrictions drive up the cost of housing, and do more harm than good. Essentially the survey compared the median cost of a house in a given city divided by the median family income. Anything under 3 times cost of housing to income is deemed affordable.  If the ratio is more than 3 to 1 the housing  is considered  “moderately unaffordable.”  The scale ranges upwards to  “severely unaffordable which is a price-to-income ratio of 5.1 or more. The Hamilton market sits at a 5.0 –or “seriously unaffordable.”

Demographia was founded by city planner Wendell Cox, who is vilified by urbanists as an enemy of public transit and a proponent of sprawl. But his resume includes three stints on the Los Angeles County Transportation Commission where he backed transit projects. He is a member of several think tanks, some conservative some less so. The preface to this year’s survey is written by Dr. Shlomo Angel of New York University, who runs an institute aimed at encouraging cities to plan for urban boundary expansion rather than to restrict growth. Previous contributors include Dr. Alain Bertaud, a former principal planner for the World Bank who in 2011 wrote this critique of smart growth schemes like Greenbelt:  “for some reasons these vague and benign sounding objectives usually become a proxy for imposing planning regulations that severely limit the supply of buildable land and the number of housing units built, resulting in ever higher housing prices”. He says the two key measurements of a city’s livability ought to be spatial mobility (the ability to get to and from work in an hour or less) and housing affordability. Robert Bruegmann Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Art History, Architecture and Urban Planning at the University of Illinois at Chicago, wrote, “a good many well-meaning policies involving housing may be pushing up prices to such an extent that  the negative side-effects are more harmful than the problems the policies were intended to correct”. Australian academic Tony Recsei took it a step further, writing ”unless we are vigilant, high-density zealots will do their best to reverse centuries of gain and drive us back to a Dickensian gloom.”

Dr. Schlomo takes as an example of good urban planning—the metropolis of New York City which in 1811 laid out a city grid plan that would allow the city to expand to many times its size over time.

Essentially the Demographia survey says the restrictive planning policies are creating a lower standard of living, especially for young people. “Younger households are among the most significantly victimized by the housing affordability losses. The lucky ones will inherit homes from their parents — which is a big step away from legendary urbanologist Sir Peter Hall’s “ideal of a property owning democracy.” No rational political faction would adopt a manifesto calling for a lower standard of living or greater poverty. Yet in adopting urban containment policies, governments have (perhaps unwittingly) placed a higher priority on secondary issues, such as urban design, urban sprawl and mode of transport. Urban policy should focus on the fundamentals — improving the standard of living and reducing poverty.”  The report takes issue with the concept that urban growth poses a threat to agricultural land, suggesting that modern farming methods have done more to reduce the use of arable land than growth. It also says restricting land use to curb GHG emissions is a highly expensive and inefficient way of achieving that goal.

The full report can be accessed here.

By: Carl Lafong

Providing a Fresh Perspective for Burlington and Hamilton.


  1. Selway

    March 21st, 2015

    Interesting tangle of nonsense. I’m always impressed by the assumption that I as a homeowner, should subsidize new buyers by surrendering some gain in the market value of my property. Of course, it’s not about me or the poor new entrants, but the profit accruing to builders. As they destroy the planet. one of those unintended consequences that we just have to accept and which has no costs.


Leave a Reply

  • (not be published)