Townsend Retraced
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The Project

Townsend Retraced is an ongoing project consisting of photographs, audio installations, historical artifacts, poems, maps, plans, and other text. Through multiple media, Laura Cunningham, Hilary Martin and Stefan A. Rose explore the effects of urban planning on rural residents living near Lake Erie industrial lands in Southwestern Ontario.


The Townsend area near the shore of Lake Erie was targeted in the mid-1970s to be the site of a "New Town" development in response to the intense industrial development in nearby Nanticoke. A new urban population of over 100,000 people was expected to move to this primarily rural area by 2001. The Ontario Provincial Government spent an estimated $23.6 million in order to build the city of Townsend on agricultural land. Phase 1 was completed, including a municipal building, three clusters of housing, four sewage lagoons and a water tower.

By the mid-1980s, it became clear that the urban population would not materialize. The government began to sell off the "surplus" land that had been rented in the interim to the farmers who had originally been pressured to sell to the government, or to farmers who rented the land to grow cash crops. Without direct ownership and without any guarantee from one year to the next that those renting the land would be able to continue farming, the land and buildings had deteriorated. The local church was closed and torn down. The original farming community had dispersed. In many cases, people could not purchase back their family farms.

Almost thirty years later, Townsend is a bedroom community of about 1,500 residents without retail or corner stores, post office or restaurants. It played host to a series of political experiments in the amalgamation of Haldimand and Norfolk counties into Haldimand-Norfolk. In 2001, the counties split into two again, with the resulting county line running down the middle of the current community. Still, the village of Townsend has developed a strong spirit, perhaps built on defending its existence in the area. Shared almost equally between new families with young children and older retirees seeking peace and quiet, Townsend boasts a first-class daycare facility, a multi-phase retirement home, and a provincially recognized community policing organization. It is also home to a modern church built to house community events from basketball to baptisms.

Ironically, Townsend as a car-friendly subdivision built in the middle of farmland with services located elsewhere is the current trend in development along the 401 corridor. Originally however, it was planned to be a green city with integrated pedestrian paths through urban parks, innovative transit, mixed use downtown zoning, many of the features that planners strive to achieve in revitalizing urban areas today. From the renderings in the planning documents, svelte bell-bottomed moms push baby strollers through the riverside park. The airflow from the Nanticoke industrial complex is held back at the city limits by an orange band marked "limit of pollution". Farms are retained at the edge of the city to create a green belt, or converted to golf courses. The realities of urban factory shift worker life do not appear in the pages of the plan. On paper, Townsend looks like a California suburb.

Townsend Retraced explores the way this powerful, utopic vision of an urban centre planned for an absent, imagined population affected a real, working, agricultural community.

What if someone planned to build a city and no one came?

© 2005

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