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Canadian Urbanism Uncovered

Exploring the Pickering Airport Lands

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Back in the early 1970s, the federal government had the idea that air traffic was going to grow exponentially, and that Malton Airport (now known as Pearson) wouldn’t be able to handle the crowds. Fresh from starting construction on a grand new international airport north of Montreal, the federal decided that Toronto needed a new mega-airport to handle the 96.4 million passengers that would pass through Toronto by 2000. (In 2006, Pearson handled a respectable 31.0 million, less than one-third projected for seven years ago.)

In 1972, the federal government announced Pickering as the site for Toronto’s second international airport. The site was politically motivated: the terrain was not terribly suitable for an airport, and the location close to Pearson’s airspace (there were five earlier planned sites), but the Ontario government wanted to spur development to the east of Toronto, as part of its Toronto-Centred Plan, and would build a new community, called Cherrywood or Seaton, nearby.

The federal government froze and expropriated 18,600 hectares (7,530 acres) of property in Pickering north of Highway 7 and west of Brock Road — a large section of Markham and a sliver of Uxbridge. A thriving farming community was destroyed, the lands then rented either back to their previous owners, or to cash-crop farmers. As buildings vacated, they were boarded up or demolished. The airport was postponed in 1976 after protests, government fiscal restraint, and the failure of Mirabel, but the damage was done.

In 2005, the Greater Toronto Airports Authority released a draft plan for the construction of a new airport, which would have two runways by 2012, serving first general avation, but later a third runway, and full passenger and cargo services, by 2032. (The full draft plan can be found here – 12 MB PDF report, page 64 of 120 shows the planned airport layout).

According to the recent GTAA plan, the new passenger terminal would be located here, at Sideline 24 and the 7th Concession.

All around, houses and community buildings have been boarded up, though some farmsteads linger on. The country roads are quiet, even for rural sideroads. Many of the properties have forbiding “No Trespassing” signs as ordered by Transport Canada. Along Brock Road, there are hand-painted signs protesting the airport plans, but along the country roads, an eerie silence.

Some of the houses look otherwise well-kept; they appear to be recent vacancies.

Other houses are neglected and boarded-up, including an otherwise well-preserved schoolhouse.

Towards the north end of the site is the village of Altona, which almost has the feel of a ghost town. North of Durham Road 5, the expropriated lands are designated as greenspace connecting Rouge Park with the Oak Ridges Moraine, but remains in the hands of the federal government. Over half the buildings in the village are boarded up.

In Altona, there is an old Mennonite church and cemetery. The church’s windows are covered, but by Plexiglas instead of plywood, and the headstones date back at least to the 1850s. One of the most visible memorials is to a boy who died at the age of 1 year, 11 months and 8 days in 1850. According to the plaque next to the church, the last service was held in 1974, just as the government was in the middle of expropriations. The cemetery is maintained by a congregation out of Kitchener.

Driving through the Pickering Airport lands was fascinating and surreal. It was hard to remember that this will eventually be the site of an international airport (the largest airports in the area were two model airplane clubs). The semi-abandoned nature of such good farmland, so close to Toronto, seemed unnatural (which it is, really).

But many questions linger in my mind. With so much of the aircraft traffic in the Toronto-Ottawa-Montreal corridor, wouldn’t high-speed rail be the better answer? With Pearson still undergoing a massive expansion and renovation, adding two new runways and a new, beautiful terminal, could we not continue to use that airport? What about Hamilton’s airport — could that not be expanded as well?



  1. Rail is the best answer for short-haul trips like in the corridor. For long-haul, ie Vancouver or Halifax, rail sadly loses out. If we could build up the rail corridor to cut down the short-haul flights, congestion at Pearson might be relieved a bit. It’s worked on the Paris-Brussels corridor, and will certainly be a contender in the London-Paris/Brussels corridor from November.

    Failing that, we could upgrade Hamilton (as you mentioned), Buttonville, or even the Region of Waterloo Airport. And then, of course, there’s the perennial issue of the Island Airport–to upgrade or not to upgrade.

  2. High speed rail would indeed be a better answer. Eurostar now has 70% of the London-Paris market. Unfortunately VIA is criminally underfunded.

    A non-stop service using proven 300km/h+ ICE, TGV or Shinkansen trains (no McGuinty Magic Hydrogen Trains required) on a segregated line to Ottawa would take about 90-120 minutes from Union on a direct route which would demolish internal traffic and set back the need for Pickering by years, especially if accompanied by better transit links to Hamilton, which is attracting European flights from lowcost carriers. It would be essential that the service would run at least hourly, since journey time is as affected by wait times as travel times.

    The existing VIA services could continue to operate on the lakeshore to pick up passengers between Toronto and Kingston for Ottawa.

    Unfortunately we will at best end up with no TGVs and slight upgrades to VIA on the lakeshore route instead to 200km/h but with no priority over freights because CN/CP rule all. Even Alberta is getting the message – the province has purchased land for high speed rail stations in Edmonton and Calgary.

    If they can do it then Ontario should be looking to do the same between Toronto and Ottawa and to combine with Quebec on a link to Montreal.

  3. No question, high-speed rail is the better solution.

    However, unfortunately there doesn’t seem to be a political constituency for it at the moment.

    The last time it was seriously proposed, as a French-Style TGV line was in the mid to late 80’s under Brian Mulroney with Quebec (Robert Bourassa) and Ontario (David Peterson) having to pay a sizable share along with the Fed’s for the new line.

    It feel victim to budget cuts before the Environmental Assessment even got off the ground.

    The projected cost at the time, for Windsor – Quebec City was $15,000,000,000 (15 billion).

    Given inflation, and significantly more commuter rail traffic in the corridor now than then, I would imagine the cost to be almost double by now, but I’m not sure.

    I still think it would be a worthwhile investment, but we have to get the politicians to think so too!

    With the cost ammortized over 20 years and split by 3 levels of government it would affordable and good for the environment and commuters.

  4. Down in Windsor during the Mulroney era the Quebec City-Windsor high speed train was routinely trotted out , getting the kids excited, then disappearing.

    A couple more elections and another gas crisis or two, maybe there will be political traction. Unless everybody stands up and says something now…..

    90-120 minutes to ottawa or montreal would obliterate Porter Air, an airline that, from the looks of it, even the official haters are beginning to sort of dig.

  5. That comparison of 2000 passenger projections and 2006 actual passengers is astonishing. I know that those sorts of 25- or 30-year projections can be an educated guess at best, but it is astounding that Pickering is still being considered to be absolutely essential to avoid total gridlock at Pearson, when we haven’t even reached 33% of the passenger projections that the Pickering decision was based upon.

    There is a silver lining, though. If Pickering lands hadn’t been taken over by the feds in anticipation of an airport, the good farmland wouldn’t be semi-abandoned — it would be fully abandoned for houses, industrial malls or big boxes.

  6. and full passenger and cargo services, by 2032.

    Ok, somebody from Transport Canada really needs to talk to, well somebody else in Transport Canada who knows a little something about Peak Oil. Because in 2032, the only planes flying will be paper airplanes…

  7. I fear that if this goes through northern Durham region (which ironically has been preserved because of the planned airport) will be ruined as York Region is already ruined. The proposed airport is very close to the Oak Ridges Morraine and the beautiful forested areas like the Durham Forest, Glen Major and Walker property Metro Conservation areas. How about a National Park in the former aiport lands using existing Conservation areas as a starting point? Urban Ontario really has no such parks and the federal government already has conveniently assembled the land.

  8. The photos paint a very lovely picture of the area and it is very pretty. As stated above though it surrounded by development or future development and the chances that it would return to farmland (and not all of it was true productive farmland in the 1970’s) would be zero. Rail yes.

  9. This is another example of how “transportation” infrastructure has very little to do with actual needs and a lot to do with empire building both in political and bureaucratic circles.

    Trains are not sexy (except possibly a TGV) because they don’t represent an opportunity for large-scale spending and a chicken in every pot of the friends of whatever government is in power today.

    It’s always amazing that the options are presented as a super high-speed TGV or nothing — reminds me of the subways or nothing approach to transit planning in Toronto — leaving us without improvements to existing passenger services that can be accomplished using existing infrastructure.

  10. Scott – probably true. The feds owning it but not building an airport and leasing the land to farmers will probably be the best option for preserving the Pickering lands. With the GO train going into north Pickering development pressure is likely to increase further.

    A lot of people concentrate on Ottawa and Montreal but it’s a scandal that London (ON, obviously) and Kingston have multiple daily flights from Pearson. Instead there should be a VIA stop at the airport as there is at Dorval, and the line to London through Kitchener significantly upgraded. Essentially the airlines should be driven out of business in a 300-500km radius around Toronto.

    The longer term aim should be two high speed lines, one through Peterborough and one through Kingston so that if a situation like the Deseronto blockade occurred or the line closure due to the scrap yard fire trains could be rerouted to the other line and if necessary to the proposed Summerhill GO station if the breakdown was in Union itself.

    The cost of high speed lines is high, but building airports and their associated highways ain’t cheap either, and the federal government should be forced to do a cost-benefit comparison in restricting Pearson using rail rather than pushing ahead with Pickering, at least on the GTAA’s schedule.

    The key however is not to get suckered by Bombardier into building their fossil powered JetTrain or more cranky Acelas but instead joint venture with a partner as they do already with TGV or, shock horror, let another Canadian company step forward with a partner and break the Bombardier/SNC-Lavalin stranglehold on our public infrastructure.

  11. Steve Munro and Mark Dowling bring up excellent points – a TGV-style super-high speed rail corridor is not necessarily the only alternative. The CN corridor to Windsor and Montreal/Ottawa could be upgraded, and new equipment purchased that would allow for 200 km/h speeds (some sections of track are rated for 160 km/h speeds already). The north corridor through Kitchener needs more work, but can still easily be done.

    Better signalling, track improvements, additional road-rail grade separations in urban areas and more frequent service would certainly go a long way – and also serve intermediate markets like London and Kingston. Local service would also have to remain to serve smaller communities along the way like Brantford, Belleville and Cornwall, and to connect areas off the main corridor.

    The costs of even these moderate improvements would be a fraction of that of building a new international airport, all its needed utility, road and transit infrastructure and their operating costs. Then, if the market warrants, should we could think about TGV, with its 270-300+ km/h speeds in dedicated ROWs.

  12. It really should be easier to handle rail-air connections. The London-Kitchener-Toronto VIA line passes close enough to Pearson (and to Waerloo Region airport, for that matter) that building a station for shuttle buses to use would be quite practical.

    Of course, Pearson could also benefit from a light rail connection; I understand the new interterminal people mover has a station built at a useful location for easy connections.

  13. I part company with Steve Munro on one point – there is a place for a few flagship lines because we’re not talking about optimising transit, we’re talking about comprehensively hammering the airlines. No TGV to Sarnia – at least not yet – but certainly to Ottawa and Montreal.

    A single TGV Duplex can carry 545 passengers – enough to carry the total passengers of an Air Canada A320, a WestJet 737 and a Porter Q400 combined with room to spare, and that’s not including the people who already travel VIA from Union to Ottawa or Montreal. A standard TGV Reseau can carry 377 – still enough to cope with the Air Canada and the WestJet. Eurostar is claiming one tenth the GHG emissions of the equivalent air trip.

    You’re not going to persuade a suit out of an Air Canada cabin with a service stopping more than twice and preferably once. We’ve had quite enough of half measures on inter-urban rail, buying castoffs from the UK which aren’t disabled accessible and the like – but that’s what happens when VIA is not a proper, legislated, allowed to borrow Crown Corp.

    The four hour trip to Ottawa has to become at most two – three is not enough because that’s six on a round trip and two more waiting for the damn train because there isn’t enough frequency, meanwhile Air Canada takes off every hour.

    200km/h will do for starters between Toronto and Windsor and Montreal and Quebec, but to hobble Pearson and the Island we need at least one totally or mostly segregated line in public ownership to serve Ottawa and Montreal, not stuck behind a CN freight because they own the track.

    As for air/rail connections – if you book an Air France flight from Toronto to Lyons, your connection at Charles de Gaulle may be “AF7285” which is a train, codeshared with the operator SNCF.

  14. It’s too bad, there is nothing appealing about air travel; it is all security checks, lost baggage, delays, and cramped seats. I can’t comprehend why we would want to encourage more of it.

    Improved rail service is the way to go. And Via Rail could go a long way with simpler improvements including new modern interiors for its cars, assigned seating on all trains, better food on trains, and more frequent service. Maybe at some point we’ll get a high-speed rail corridor too.

  15. Brian> It’s true — when I was a kid airplanes were magic, and I charished every moment I was on one, or in an airport. Now it is one indignity after another, aside from the environmental stuff. Rail travel is a return to civilization.

  16. Brian – they can’t do anything with money they don’t have. VIA is not a popular subject with Tories and support in the Liberal Party pre-Dion seemed to depend whether you were a Chretienite (for) or Martinite (against). As it is, they do have some reservable service, in seat wifi and self-service ticketing, all of which I have used.

    But when they are forced to buy second hand equipment, can’t afford to make them disabled accessible but then have the Supremes tell them do it anyway, progress elsewhere is going to be slow.

  17. What is the actual need to build a new airport? Or it just GTAA wants the land…..

    Is the Govt. protecting taxpayers, protecting our environment & us.

    Prime Minister talks about how to improvement our environment….. Well, does he ever think about what is the damages for building an airport in such a nice place, getting all the parks, trails under the jet path. Letting us hearing noise from jet while we’re enjoying our nice leisure time in the parks.

    If there is really a need to relieve the capacity for Pearson airport, I totally agree rail and or expanding Hamiton Airport(Hamilton officials and Hamilton International Airport representatives have urged the federal government to quash the Pickering airport development and put more resources into the Hamilton Airport as the most viable secondary airport in Southern Ontario) could be options too.

    Hope…. Stop Pickering Airport will be one of the topic if Federal Election Comes up. The Govt. might hear us at that time!!

  18. one more info. Please send your opinion to the Govt., your MPP…

    There links to their email at

    Please help make more voice to the Govt.

  19. It’s great to read so many comments against the proposed airport. Definitely a federal election issue. Meanwhile, please keep making lots of noise to keep this on the public radar. It’s amazing how many people living in the area don’t know/don’t care/think it’s a done deal/thought it was stopped. Meanwhile all these lovely homes are standing empty, and recently the septic tanks were filled in. Transport Canada refuses to re-tenant perfectly good homes. They pay for a 24/7 security service yet if you call to report suspicious vehicles at an empty house you are told to call the police. If there were people living in these houses there would be more traffic to keep an eye on vandalism.

  20. It is time to forget the lunacy of an airport in Pickering. I was turfed out of my home there with my family back in 1975. It destroyed my family and many other families as well. Sell the land back to those who were originally hurt by the expropriation. To cover perfectly good farmland with concrete is insane.

  21. I live in one of the houses on the airport lands (in Altona). Oddly enough, they have been kicking people out of Brougham and other areas recently yet they are paying to have many things in our house fixed. Looking at the maps of the proposed airport, our house is almost directly in the middle of the “airport”. I wonder why they are willing to fix our home in the middle of the airport yet they are kicking people out of their homes on the out-skirts of the proposed airport.

    Secondly, many of the surrounding area is Oak Ridges Moraine and Conserved Land, I wonder how it is possible for the government to plop and airport down in this area. Also, I believe this is an issue that people need to keep in the fore front of their minds. I attend the University of Toronto in Scarborough and many of the other students I talk to about this are shocked to hear that there are still people living in these houses. This is very disappointing to me, people in the area seem to think that the airport is a sealed deal. PLEASE let as many people as you possibly can know about this. It will be completely devastating to me and my family when we are eventually kicked out of our house, it has been in the family for 4 generations and we would like to keep it in the family. Furthermore, if the government does eventually kick everyone out of these houses they are destroying a community and many families. Something needs to be done against this and awareness needs to be heightened in the surrounding towns, such as, Whitby, Ajax, Pickering, Stouffville, Markham, and Scarborough.

  22. Trudeau thought the airport was a good idea, just as he thought running deficit budgets was a good idea. It’s time for all the baby boomers to use their influence ( monetary,political or otherwise) to sort out this mess that they all bear some responsibility for.

    Todd, Markham

  23. It’s quite true that many people believe that the airport is a done deal. I myself was convinced of this by various neighbours in my own community in Stouffville. However, nothing has been published on this website since Feb 22/08 and it’s now May/08. Am I misinformed once again. Anyone with an update ?

  24. My sympathy goes to all the folks who were expropriated from the proposed Pickering airport land and a mystery why most homes are boarded up but one tenant being given help to fix things up. It’s quite true that many people believe that the airport is a done deal. I myself was convinced of this by various neighbours in my own community in Stouffville. However, nothing has been published on this website since Feb 22/08 and it’s now May/08. Am I misinformed once again. Anyone with an update ?

  25. Really? With the economy dying I must ask why are so many people against this?
    The airport will replace many of the jobs that have been lost in the automotive sector. It would provide the much needed financial boost for this region. The only people who seem to be avidly against this are the people whos homes are directly in the way of this huge step forward for our region.
    Let the area move on and stop whinning about your houses, you can rebuild but where else can we build an airport?
    By 2030 durham region will have a population of almost 1 million. The pollution of all those people having to drive for an hour each way to the Toronto airport is much worse then losing some of the farm land in a region that is mostly comprised of nothing else.
    We currently employ less then half of our population in this region.
    This is a way to correct that.

  26. Amy: you’ll get even more jobs if you build the high-speed line.

  27. Really Amy I’m sorry about “whining” about our homes. I just hope the government never comes to your home which may have been in your family for generations or was built by your late father in my case and tell you it is no longer yours. Try to be a little compassionate and love more than the almighty dollar.

  28. Amy are you insane? There’s one thing we do not grow more of-land. One does not destroy fertile farm land for concrete airports.It’s more important to avoid a global food shortage than an airport one.

  29. Just found this site while on Google. Am wondering if the airport is still a-go and on the GTAA’s radar. There wasn’t any mention of it in the federal budget that announcement millions of dollars in infrastructure spending.

    Anyone know what the next steps are?

  30. Ah what the hell – let them go for it. Besides, in the not too distant future, our planet is going to be so over-populated and developed that eventually the colapse of the eco system will cast doom and dispare on everyone in it’s existance. The human population is multiplying at such a drastic rate that denying the airport will only delay the inevitalbe. Unfortunatley, the demise of our existance will largely be in part to our selfish, democtratic society. Our desire for material items, lavish vehicles, houses, bigger and better cities, giant airports….it’s all going to eventually come back to bite one of these up-coming generations in the ass. We pro-create to meet our own selfish desires with no regard as to the impact those human lives have on future generations. Why the hell does Octo-mom think that she is that special and worthy to essentialy reproduce herself 14 freaking times?!? People need to start thinking of the impacts their decisions will have on the future of our planet.

  31. I will never be flying over your skies. This will never happen. Not in my lifetime, not in yours and certainly not in our children’s. The numbers/demand speak for themselves. Remember, Oshawa Municipal, Toronto Island, Buttonville, Hamilton Int. Be thankful the gov has bought (at a fair price) the land. It would be the city of North Pickering had they not done so. This is like the argument over the Gardiner Expressway…

  32. Has anyone considered Pickering Nuclear???? Is it acceptable to build an airport with flight paths over a nuclear power station? Is there a danger for example terrorism, accidents, vibrations,etc. People of Pickering and its surrounding area need to put a top to this crazy idea from the 70’s. Why did residents allow some foolish idea expropriate their lives!!! What happens to the graves in the Cememtery?? Protest people!!!!! Come on before you have airplanes roaring over your heads and good luck trying to sell that house!