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Canadian Urbanism Uncovered

Townsend: Ontario’s phantom town

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You have probably heard of ghost towns – once vibrant communities that slowly disappeared as local fortunes changed, or quickly abandoned due to disaster or other emergency. Ontario is full of ghost towns, some in the GTA, but few have had the same interesting history of Townsend, which is still populated, though only at a tiny fraction of the city that was intended.

In the 1960s, the provincial government was worried about Toronto’s rapid growth and suburbanization. It had introduced a Metropolitan government for Toronto to direct regional planning, but the suburbs were quickly growing beyond Metro’s borders into York, Durham and Peel Counties. As a result, by the mid 1970s, it had developed a  Toronto-Centric Plan directing new growth to established city and suburban centres, a greenbelt (sound familiar?) in which sprawl was to be contained, and created “mini-metro” governments in the areas surrounding Toronto and Hamilton, known as regional municipalities. It also bought thousands of acres of land in Haldimand County with the dreams of creating a new town of 100,000 people, who would be employed at the nearby Nanticoke Industrial Park, which included a state-of-the-art Stelco steel plant, an Imperial Oil refinery, and North America’s largest coal generating station.

Townsend was to be the seat of Ontario’s most rural Regional Municipality, Haldimand-Norfolk, and the regional headquarters was one of the first structures built there. The new city came complete with four-lane arterials, parks and a recreation centre, a seniors’ home, a  church, a watertower, and a network of pedestrian walkways. And about 1,200 people did settle into houses that wouldn’t look out of place in contemporary suburbs in Mississauga or Pickering. But nobody else showed up, and Townsend became as successful as that first Greenbelt (now just wide enough for a hydro corridor and a toll expressway).

While it originally had a few businesses, now not even a convenience store can be found here, and there are no schools, no fire station, no library, and no jobs, apart from the local Children’s Aid society that moved into the former Haldimand-Norfolk offices after the region was dissolved in 2000. The nearest school or variety store is in nearby Jarvis, the nearest full-sized grocery store is in Hagersville, the nearest large centre is Simcoe to the west.

At the south end of the small community is the grandly named “Town Centre Boulevard”, now not much more than a driveway. One can imagine the once-grand plans: probably a city built similar to Bramalea, that other “new town” that has since integrated into Toronto – a shopping mall and higher density surrounded by parks and single-family dwellings as some sort of suburban utopia.

An interesting link I found when doing some quick research into Townsend stated that the government created a situation very similar to that of the Pickering airport lands: it expropriated the farms expecting a major new project, and rented them back – causing the original community to decline. Later, the government sold the land back, but not always to the original owners.

One can only imagine what Townsend might have been; Ontario’s only true modern New Town.



  1. Thanks for venturing out so far to nab a story Sean. I have heard of this place before–the pictures tell thye whole story, eh?

    I would have thought 1970s-era planners would have known better.

    These latter day ruins are awesome.

  2. I remember seeing that Townsend sign driving along highway 6 as far back as 20 years ago. I can’t believe someone, or some natural forces, hasn’t put it out of its misery yet.

  3. Looks well-kept enough… the few who live there must be proud of their neighbourhood to keep it up like that.

  4. Bramalea-in-the-fields was exactly the model for Townsend. I was bussed to school in Bramalea in the 1970s. Townsend is like a little bit of vintage Bramalea, frozen in time, in the fields north of Lake Erie.

  5. Actually, better exemplars than Bramalea would be Erin Mills and Meadowvale in Mississauga, which with their E.P. Taylor origins were literally the “successors” to Don Mills in planning outlook (and Erin Mills even billed itself as “Erin Mills New Town” in the beginning). And it might be argued that Ottawa satellites such as Kanata and Blackburn Hamlet (or at least the original parts thereof) are “purer” still.

    Then again, Townsend might be unique in Ontario (and truer to the Ebenezer Howard dream) for being literally all by its lonesome, and not part of a GTA/Capital Region entity. (Well, *Southern* Ontario, at least–after all, there’s Northern resource towns such as Elliot Lake to consider as well.)

  6. quite the interesting but “tell nothing” town. almost asks who came first, the people, the town or the church. certainly is is in the middle of nowhere!
    up on concession 10 (old army road) is white oaks. nothing in computer and the various halimand offices didn’t know too much about it. finally was advised it was a former army base. there are a number of nice, neat houses on residential portion of the base. airfield closed off to assess and seems to be a construction company storage site.
    lots of interesting pockets of info in that area!

  7. Well, nice comments above – Just so you know the community of Townsend is alive and well, active Volunteer Policing Committee, Flourishing Day Care,
    Lions Club, thriving church of over 100 attenders every Sunday 10:30 am. A gas station and store would be nice but that will come in time.

  8. townsend may be dull but its far from a ghost town
    many people live here and our parks are in often use, the town may be small but it lives

  9. Josh: True, which is why I called it a “phantom” town, and not a ghost town. People do indeed live here, though there’s the infrastructure built for far more people than the 1200 or so residents clearly living here now. Every house appears to be occupied, but services are far away. An interesting history for sure, and hopefully it can add a few hundred more people, enough to support a corner store, a school, and some of the things it was originally planned for.

  10. “Latter day ruins”?! I have lived in Townsend for 21 years, I raised my children here. This is their hometown and they did not grow up in “ruins”. Property values are on par with larger centres. Townsend rarely has a home for sale because the people that live here call it HOME not ruins. When a house does go up for sale it’s on the market less than a month because many people want to live in this peaceful, beautiful community away from urban blight. Our Church is awesome, our Senior Complex is awesome and so is our parklands, ball diamonds, Lions Pavillion and Daycare Centre. You don’t need stores and gas stations to enjoy life! you need a close community of caring people and that is what Townsend is all about.

  11. Looks like a great little town, even if there isn’t anything to do but i wouldn’t turn down a free house 😉

  12. I would be very much interested in talking to a realator or someone from the local council as my wife and I are looking to relocate from Northwestern Ontario to the East to be nearer our grandchildren(Welland) but not on there doorstep.

  13. This is a prime example of “yellow journalism” – the kind seen in National Inquirer or the Globe.
    The shots posted on this site are never more than 200 feet from major development, but of course you did not want to show that as it would destroy your whole story and we wouldn’t want the truth to stand in the way of a good story!
    Here is what you chose to leave out. A church of over 100 members, a daycare serving 100 families with 16 employees, a seniors home with 220 seniors employing 130 staff, you mentioned the CAS building but not the 125 jobs there, you did not mention the REACH building with another 100 or so people employed there. You missed the active Lion’s club and an active Volunteeer Community Policing Committee.

    There are a great number of small towns in Ontario that have no post office or store why aren’t they on your site as “ghost towns”?

    The mail kiosk used in Townsend is one of thousands the Post Office uses across Canada in many rural and urban centres. I bet if you researched it (sorry I guess you don’t do research on your stories) you would find a few in your city.

    As a resident of Townsend I am 10 minutes from two hospitals and all the major stores, there are many people who live in cities where it would take more then ten minutes to get through the urban sprawl to these places.

    Ghost towns have derelict and boarded up houses, empty buildings, tumbleweeds rolling down streets. I note you neglected to include these in your piece, did you lose those pictures?

    If your article on Townsend is typical of all your articles, it is a mystery to me how you have received any awards. Then again, you SAY you have received these awards.

  14. Don: If you read the article, you would have seen the following:

    “some in the GTA, but few have had the same interesting history of Townsend, which is still populated, though only at a tiny fraction of the city that was intended.”

    “And about 1,200 people did settle into houses that wouldn’t look out of place in contemporary suburbs in Mississauga or Pickering.”

    The pictures show cars parked in front of houses that are all occupied.

    It’s a phantom of a large community that was never built. I never once called it a ghost town.

  15. Sounds like this Don Flicker doesn’t understand a blog – attack the writer for an intereswting and accurate post. I read this, checked the links, and saw the pictures (which link to larger shots), and there’s never impression that this place is abandoned.

    Maybe people like Don Flicker should start their own blog extolling all the virtures of this strange, isolated planned community that never went very far, rahter than fight every single story on this place he doesn’t like. Otherwise, shut up and stop attacking the writer.

  16. New town?? I searched this town when I located the name on a marriage certificate from 1881. Doesn’t sound new to me.

  17. Our town may not be what the government invisioned, but it certainly does not make us a PHANTOM TOWN.

    Why not write about Townsend in the present and we are sure your research will inform you that we are alive and well!

    Our community deserves that…everyone hounds on the past! Why? We the people living here are the present and are very proud of our community.

    Lets talk about what Townsend has rather then what it does not have.
    -hiking trails
    -fishing pond
    -children’s play park
    -ball diamonds
    -skateboard park
    -Townsend Lion’s Pavilion
    -seniors complex
    -Townsend Lion’s Club
    -Townsend Policing Committee
    -friends and neighbours we can rely on
    Along with all the above CAS, REACH, seniors complex, Townsend Lions, Townsend Policing Committee, church and daycare run various events through the year to help keep our community connected with one another as well as people outside of our town. If you check our local newspapers you may find some of our events we have hosted and will continue to have.

    As for Townsend having no schools, hospitals, stores,banks etc., thanks to our central location we can access everything most likely quicker then most that live in a city. All of the above and more is 5 to 20 minutes away without the huge problem of traffic. We have everything available a city has but thankfully not right in town and as we said only minutes away and still have the serenity of a small town.

    In conclusion,
    Although we are not the town we were supposed to be we are exactly the town we want us to be.

    We as long time residents of Townsend are proud to call this small community our home. We assure you we like to live in the present, not the PHANTOM past!

    Alive and Well,

    Gary and Lorie
    Larry and Carolyn

  18. What about housing costs? Who would I see for some prices?

  19. Hi Brian Schroeder:

    There are a few real estate agents that have signs up in Townsend – try Tim Gowling, Norm Mertz – they are a couple of realitors who would be helpful in giving you some prices.


  20. Wow, I never though that i would see an article made about Townsend. I’m not too fond of some of the comments on this page, especially because they speak negatively of my home.

  21. Its a shame some residents seem to see this as an attack on their town. Clearly, reading over the post it describes how the town came to be and doesn’t in any way speak negatively about its current condition or about its residents.

    Those residents wouldn’t know this but Spacing’s current issue is on the suburbs and suburban development which is why Sean wrote this post. Many of us have no idea of the suburban plans that the Province laid out 50 years ago. This is an interesting history lesson on planned communities. It wasn’t meant to be a profile of Townsend’s current state of affairs.

    I live in Parkdale, Toronto’s first suburb. It has gone from being grand to rather beat-up. But when any writer describes it’s past and it’s historical shift away from grand homes to rooming houses, I don’t get all up in arms. I recognize its history. A few commenters should take a breath.

  22. I am a former resident of Townsend, the ‘phantom town.’ Both of my parents and my youngest sibling still reside there. I go back to visit monthly, and enjoy the beautiful scenery. The housing is somewhat cheap and its a good place to raise your kids if you don’t want them to have any independence. I fucking love this town, even with all of the crap my fellow residents left out.

    We of Haldimand & Norfolk County are a small community that is built up of many small towns and the farmland in between. Townsend is like a small suburban community, located within farmland, along rural highways. As you can see, even the people from our small town have a narrow enough view of the world, that they become easily defensive, even when unnecessary.

    Thank you Matthew, you said it well…
    It is a shame. ALSO it is a shame that people feel the need to attack one another instead of giving positive critical feedback. There wasn’t a single offensive statement in this blog.

    For Don & Joe, blogs are often full of personal opinions, crudeness, errors, and attacks…
    This is not one of those blogs, think long and hard about something before you post.. and then ask your kids! They would save you the embarassment.. I hope.

    Most blogs are rarely accurate and this is due to their vagueness..
    you looked into the vagueness and manufactured an issue that was never there. I personally believe that this happens on a regular basis in Townsend.

    We have neighbours who butt in WAY too much. Those in the community who are part of the church, make it like a special club. You are thought of as good and you get all the understanding only when you attend the community church (with 100 of the 700 people in our town?). I wouldn’t say any church is thriving these days. It stays afoot because of the daycare within it.

    We actually do have a social class in Townsend. You wouldn’t think that three surveys of homes could muster up a way to divide itself financially, but we did! There are town-homes for renters, who I am glad were able to supply my pot smoking habit. There are the middle class homes (which I guess I am a part of) and the homes with pools and hot tubs, slightly separated from the rest of us, who are connected by underground walkways.

    You can generally move into a Townsend home at any time of the year. There are many homes for sale right now. They are probably half the price of a home the same size, located in Hamilton. Be careful though. My neighbours have little understanding, or acceptance. They rarely keep an open mind, or give the benefit of the doubt.

    We haven’t expanded since we started. The community will never cease, nor grow…

    I could keep complaining, but I love going home. I wouldn’t raise my family there, especially in this economy, but it will always be there with the beautiful trees, the pond, and the quiet.

    Also, our community itself was new. There were settlers in this area many years ago, just as any location has this possibility.

    Anyone who is actually defensive about this article, has their own issues about where they live. You only have to prove to yourself that you want to live there.. who cares if someone thinks we are thriving or not!

  23. i love townsend i think its a peaceful town and great place to raise a family. Me and my young family are not into the material things in life, we love a quiet and nice community and friendly people and i am glad we found a town that has that.

  24. Well, Well, Well…Our family was one of the first settlers to Townsend…actually the 11th familty to move in (July of 1981). No cable, no phone (for about a month), no public transit, no store (at that time), almost nothing. The only thing the stay at home Moms could do was to…rotate to each others homes & gossip & complain & even spanked each other’s kids on a daily basis. I am a woman, but rarely participated in their coffee clichess & I never spanked other children! Believe me when I say “Everyone knew YOUR BUSINESS” & even more ! ! !I have read the above comments and agree & disagree somewhat. The school system (North Walpole) was very rural and under the Ontario Standards. I have examples & proof, but I won’t get into it. You even had to show your child’s birth certificate to let them play organized ball…reason being…so many parents lied about their kids ages…winning was the most important thing. Actually you can’t really blame them as what else was there to do? I enjoyed a couple of close friends, but that was about it. When we escaped in February of 1985, it was the best thing that happened to our Family. Our daughter went to a proper school with so much more activities & stimulation. I was able to persue a career and so on. I didn’t realize how depressed I had become and finally came out of my shell. I know Townsend is OK and actually good for some & I respect and appreciate that fact. Obviously, it is not for me. I occasionally drive through (last time was January 2010) and not “every memory” is bad & the scenery is very pretty, but for the residents who now live there…please try and keep your homes/property in better repair and let’s get some curb appeal, people? We certainly kept our yard in tip top condition when we resided there. Now…who am I? I would love to hear from you. I will give you one hint and for those who lived there at the time, I think you will know?

  25. I had an opportunity today,April 7th,to drive through Townsend, a community that has always intrigued me. I am a resident of Brantford, and for years I have heard tale of the existence of a place called Townsend. Today I experienced it first hand, and it creeped me out! I have no idea how to begin, other than to say that it was like some weird scene out of the sci-fi novel,”The Stepford Wives”. It was like this piece of suburbia (could have been Brantford) mysteriously transported into the middle of nowhere, surrounded by nothing.Not a store,not a restaurant,not a gas station,not a pub,not anything. I saw one guy sitting on his front porch, staring at what appeared to be a cellphone. Maybe he was trying to contact an outside world that he had heard existed,although he had never been there, and knew of nobody who ever had.Some people claimed that Townsend was the center of the universe,and that if you traveled too far from Townsend that you would fall of the edge of the world. Strange.