A bedroom community, by definition, is a suburban town whose residents are composed of many commuters among the home-owning population. The name refers to the fact that commuters perform most professional and personal activities in another location, maintaining their residence solely as a place to sleep.Although these communities typically provide the population with affordable housing and an escape from the big city, they also come with some major environmental impacts. In order to resolve these issues, we must first understand them, and then come up with viable solutions for current and future stakeholders.

The biggest contributor to the establishment of bedroom communities is affordable housing. The GTA was listed as the 5th most unaffordable city to live in 2017. Real estate values have increased exponentially since the early 2000’s while median income has remained almost stagnate. According to the 2016 Census information for Toronto the median household income was $65,000, yet the average home sold for $822,572. This information shows the imbalance between the income/housing market ratios in large cities, and its no wonder why people are settling down outside of the urban core in bedroom communities.

People who can’t afford to live in the city where they work, move outside of city limits to the suburbs, further contributing to urban sprawl and an increase in CO2 emissions from transportation. The GTA has one of the longest commutes averaging about an hour getting to and from work and according to Statistics Canada, approximately half of the population has a commute that exceeds 30 minutes (2018). And considering that motor vehicles emit 4.4 pounds of carbon dioxide (CO2) per litre of gas burned, it’s easy to see how transportation accounts for approximately one-third of all the greenhouse gasses produced in the country. Air pollution is greatly increased from excess emissions, creating poorer air quality and an increase in smog advisories.

Suburban development equals more roads, and more roads means more road salt in the winter to provide safe driving conditions for commuters.However, recent studies have been released that our rivers and lakes have been increasing in salinity. Development of bedroom communities increases impervious surfaces and contributes to increased water pollution from runoff. This will ultimately affect the species composition and we could see a decline in water quality and abundance of fish. Lake Simcoe, one of 257 lakes tested for an increase in chloride(salt), has increased to 50 micrograms per litre from only10 micrograms per litre in the 1970’s. A study by Michelle Palmer (et al.) in 2011 showed that increases in sodium and chloride were greater in all developed lakes that were close to winter-maintained roads.

Loss of significant habitat and agricultural capacity also comes with the development of bedroom communities. Within Southern Ontario, the Greater Golden Horseshoe Greenbelt is home to 78 of 200 provincially listed species at risk in Ontario. Current talks about developing the Greenbelt could come with an overall net loss. The greenbelt is described as “a multi-functional space for agriculture, nature and settlement negotiated at the local municipal level” (Amati and Taylor 2010, p. 147), and as with other green spaces in or near urban areas it also provides ecosystem services. Greenbelts as multi-functional green spaces for this reason can be understood as also having economic benefit. This is largely attributed to the fact that ecosystems are critical for sustainable economic growth and social goals, not just a way of supporting wildlife and the environment.

Unfortunately, development often takes precedent oversensitive ecosystems. Urban sprawl is contributing to approximately 2 acres lost per second in North America. Biodiversity offsetting, a mitigation method,is frequently used by developers to justify the build. This method, although having the best intentions, lacks evidence of offsets delivering no net loss of biodiversity and cannot guarantee a fully functioning ecosystem.

Lastly, the ideology of having a beautifully manicured lawn in a quiet suburb to escape the hustle and bustle of the big city, has nevertheless took root in the minds of many. Sprawl, not development itself, is the problem. ”We are consuming more land per person than at any time, in the most wasteful way,” said Ralph Grossi, president of the American Farmland Trust, a non-profit organization. “Higher density development and smart growth”is what we need to ensure a sustainable future environmentally, economically,and socially.

Take Copenhagen,Denmark for example. With a population density of approximately 6800 people per km² (compared to Halton Region, averaging 457 people per km²), they have been listed as one of the most sustainable cities to live in. The sustainability is within Copenhagen’s plans. In 2004, the Park Policy-The Green Copenhagen was published, protecting green areas while new developments arise. This policy remains true today, as 25% of Copenhagen is still covered in greenery among all of the new developments. The city has also redesigned their means of transportation – by investing less into road infrastructure and more into bicycle paths. Using a bicycle to get to work instead of a car, actually takes less time (due to the heavy traffic congestion) and promotes a healthier lifestyle, while cutting down on harmful emissions. Copenhagen also offers an extensive community garden movement, promoting permaculture design in the city and connecting residents. Perhaps we can take a few pointers from Copenhagen, Denmark.

Sometimes the solution to an environmental issue isn’t quite as easy as cleaning up the mess. Quite often the best solution is to tackle the problem at the source, and understanding that, just like in an ecosystem,everything is connected. Realizing that urban ecosystems, the cities we live in, function the same as the natural environment. When something is drastically changed, it will affect other things in the chain. Implementing holistic,interdisciplinary actions such as restoring “the commons” (a shared space among many), providing low-income housing, and limiting foreign investment in the housing market; Providing tax incentives for electric vehicles, promoting carpools, and making bicycle lanes more accessible; Limiting the development of ecologically sensitive areas and areas that provide us with ecosystem services.These are all ways to mitigate for bedroom communities

Nevertheless, the solution lays in our hands, and we must all work together to ensure the future of sustainable development and planning. We are all stakeholders, and we must act as stewards of the land to ensure generations to come will be able to enjoy the sanctity of nature.

Photo by Paul Sableman

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Last modified: March 5, 2019

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