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