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What other cities can learn from development of Townsend, Ont. — a planned ‘utopia’ gone wrong

This article is part of a week-long CBC Hamilton series called, “How should cities grow? Hamilton’s boundary dilemma,” examining urban sprawl and boundary expansion.

Doug Ramsey spent Tuesday morning walking around a dream of a bustling city that was never fully realized.

Wide parkways run through it, arriving at stop signs surrounded by green space and hundreds of houses.

There’s an artificial lake, a sprawling retirement home, and the top of a large government building can be seen peeking over the tops of trees. Everything is connected by a network of trails.

It was noticeably quiet. A woman could be seen walking her dog near the water. The odd car or truck drove up, slowing slightly before rolling through, on to somewhere else.

Welcome to Townsend, Ont.

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Wide parkways run through the centre of Townsend, meeting at an all-way stop. (Dan Taekema/CBC)

Born in the 1970s, the community just under a hour’s drive southwest from Hamilton was pitched as an Ontario government-sponsored development that would transform a rural section of Haldimand and Norfolk counties into a “megalopolis” to house hundreds of thousands of people drawn to the area by industrial employers.

Now it’s home to fewer than 1,000, said Ramsey, citing data from the 2016 census.

It boasts plenty of parkland and amenities, but not a single store.

It exists as a sort of island of sprawl, a suburb without a city. Residents, experts and an artist who tracked Townsend’s legacy say it’s a community that offers lessons for Hamilton, as it wrestles with the question of whether its urban boundary should be expanded, and other cities that are looking to grow. 

For some, Townsend is a perfect place to call home, so long as you have access to a car. For others, it exists as a curious case and a cautionary tale of government planning gone wrong.

“On the drafting board, this is utopia,” said Ramsey, who is from nearby Simcoe and spent three years working in Townsend for the regional planning department.

He even wrote a thesis on it back in 1991 titled “Townsend, Ontario: The Case of Failed New Town Development.” 

Now, he’s a professor in the Department of Rural Development at Brandon University in Manitoba, where he still uses Townsend to teach students how having a vision doesn’t mean it will be properly implemented.

Ramsey returned to Townsend this month for a visit. 

“For this [community], it was just the timing was off, the dreams were off,” he said, gesturing around him during a tour with CBC Hamilton.

Before it was Townsend, it was farmland, much like the areas Hamilton is currently considering expanding into.

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Satellite images show the hundreds of houses surrounded by farmland that make up Townsend. (Supplied by GoogleMaps)

Ramsey said that in the 1960s and 1970s, the Ontario government was concerned about growth along Lake Erie, particularly around the “Big 3” industrial sites in Nanticoke — Stelco, the Esso refinery and Ontario Hydro’s coal-fire plant.

The idea was that they would act as “anchors” that would result in a massive expansion and a population spike in the otherwise rural area.

Townsend was the government’s solution, with as many as 100,000 residents projected to live there by 2001, according to Ramsey’s thesis.

Firms scooped up thousands of hectares of farmland, but the people never came.

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Doug Ramsey stands on a bridge where he often walked after lunch while working as a cartographer in Townsend. He wrote a thesis about the community in 1991 and is currently a professor in the department of rural development at Brandon University in Manitoba. (Dan Taekema/CBC)

Decades later, Stefan Rose was one of three artists who chronicled what was left behind in a project called Townsend Retraced, which details the impacts of urban expansion on rural residents.

One of his photos sums up both the scale of the vision for the community and its reality.

“Townsend, designed with you in mind…” declared a billboard. The picture is in black and white; the sign appears faded. 

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The faded ‘Designed With You In Mind’ sign is shown in a field at entry to Townsend in this 2004 photo taken by Stefan Rose for the Townsend Retracted project. (Submitted by Stefan A. Rose)

“It seemed like there was a big gulf between what was imagined and what the reality actually was,” said Rose. “It is like an island. Insular and isolated.”

Rose said he found that while a large amount of money and planning had gone into the community, a lot of people, particularly farmers, had their lives disrupted when they were pressured to sell land.

After numerous visits paid, photos taken and poems written, he said one thing became clear.

“Top-down development, for government to say, ‘Hey we’re going to sort of plunk something onto a site,’ doesn’t work very well.”

Ramsey also pointed to what happened to Townsend as an example of what can go wrong when bureaucrats and politicians make decisions without consultation.

“It is a big lesson learned,” said the professor. “You have to have buy-in.” 

Ramsey also said the project is proof a community needs more than just houses. He pointed to other reasons the city never took off: climbing mortgage rates, a planned four-lane highway that never materialized and the lack of basics such as a school.

It’s an interesting parallel as Hamilton grapples with a housing shortage and the question of how it should grow.

The decision about what to do with the urban boundary was delayed until Nov. 19, after hundreds of residents wrote in or spoke to council, leading to a meeting that stretched over 12 hours on Tuesday.

Ultimately, the choice may be taken out of council’s hands. The provincial government is requiring municipalities to meet density targets through options, including allowing construction on urban outskirts, saying it will enforce such a measure if municipalities don’t do it themselves by July 2022.

Not the middle of nowhere

Don Flicker also isn’t a fan of government-led initiatives.

“Keep governments out of things,” he said with a laugh. “They spend tons of money and usually the conclusions they reach are wrong.”

Still, when he looks around him he admits he feels like he “lucked out.”

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An artificial lake was created near the centre of Townsend, next to the town centre, which today houses mental health and addictions support services. (Dan Taekema/CBC)

The 65-year-old has lived in Townsend for 27 years.

He and his wife first drove through the community when it was built “out of curiosity, as everyone did,” he said.

Flicker is one of many proud residents who won’t stand for Townsend being maligned, including what he said is the most common criticism — that it’s in the middle of nowhere.

“It’s out in the country, but it has basically the city amenities,” he said, adding he’s a short distance from two hospitals, restaurants and major stores in Simcoe and Jarvis.

Flicker compared that drive to the time it takes to travel across a large city like Hamilton.

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The community is connected with trails and offers parks, ball diamonds and a skate park. (Dan Taekema/CBC)

“We’re really not in the middle of nowhere; we just don’t have all those subdivisions between us and where we want to go.”

He said Townsend is a “bit odd,” but it makes up for any peculiarities with its trails, parks, and peace and quiet.

A ‘mystique’ about surviving without amenities

Rev. Junior Spooner was also struck by the serene setting when he began serving as the pastor of the community’s only church just over two years ago.

He recalled his first view of Townsend, a few years before, as a place that “just kind of disappeared into bush and nothingness” as he drove out of it.

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Rev. Junior Spooner pastors Townsend Community Church, the only church in the community. (Dan Taekema/CBC)

But now he sees it as a unique place where a church can serve a congregation and as a community centre.

“There’s this mystique about it and how it’s here, and how it continues to survive without any of these modern amenities.”

Still, as he grows older, Flicker said he’s starting to wonder what he and his wife will do if they lose the ability to drive.

Without a store they could walk to for supplies, they’d have to rely on others, something he’s not sure he’d be comfortable with.

Ironically, the answer to his concerns might be more development.

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Construction is underway on a townhouse development in Townsend. (Dan Taekema/CBC)

Work is underway on a townhouse project that could bring more people to the community.

Flicker said he’s in favour of seeing the population rise slightly, enough to support a store or coffee shop, but like everyone else he’s worried about unchecked expansion.

“I think here we have mixed feelings about it,” he said.

“Do we want to see a lot of the parkland, the green space taken over by condominiums? At the same time it’s going to add a couple hundred … people to our population.”

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(Patrick Morrell/CBC)

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