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.