Implementing the Growth Plan for the Greater Golden Horseshoe

The Province of Ontario's 25-year Growth Plan for the Greater Golden Horseshoe Seven years into the Province of Ontario's 2006 25-year Growth Plan for the Greater Golden Horseshoe, Neptis takes a look at its applied progress.

The Neptis Foundation is well known for its research reports on land use and transportation issues in the Toronto region. It is one of the few outfits currently publishing material at a regional scale of analysis in Canada. So when Neptis releases a new report, it’s a bit of an occasion for those of us who think a regional view is needed to address important urban problems such as sprawling development, transportation gridlock, disappearing foodlands and ecological decay.

The Neptis Foundation’s Implementing the Growth Plan for the Greater Golden Horseshoe: Has the strategic regional vision been compromised? is the first comprehensive independent examination of the province’s strategic policy to reign in sprawl in the mega-region around the western end of Lake Ontario. The region is home to about 9 million people and is expected to grow to 11.5 million by 2031. The provincial government’s 2006 Growth Plan encourages more compact, mixed-use development and the intensification of already urbanized areas, especially around transit hubs. The plan has been widely praised, winning a prestigious award from the American Planning Association in 2007.

The Growth Plan is a provincial policy document, but its implementation depends largely on the 110 municipalities that are subject to it. These municipalities have the authority to designate parcels of land as either urban or non-urban; control the densities at which land is developed; and encourage or discourage intensification through infrastructure investment and other means. To guide municipalities over its 25-year life span, the Growth Plan contained some critical quantitative targets. The most important are that municipalities should plan to accommodate 40 per cent of new residential growth by intensifying already built-up areas, and that new development outside these areas should achieve densities of at least 50 people plus jobs per hectare (a measure that combines the residential and working population on a given land area).

After reviewing the dozens of municipal plans that were prepared to reflect the Growth Plan’s vision, the Neptis study concludes that there is considerable slippage between the province’s stated goals and municipal policies. “Many municipalities,” the study claims, “are not intending to achieve 40 per cent intensification or to accommodate 50 people and jobs per hectare in new developments.”

Municipalities in the Greater Golden Horseshoe can be divided into two geographic categories. The ‘Inner Ring’ is the heavily urbanized area adjacent to Lake Ontario, including the cities of Toronto and Hamilton and the regions of Peel, York, Durham and Halton. Further inland and on the other side of the Greenbelt, the ‘Outer Ring’ is more diverse and includes cities like Peterborough, Kitchener, Waterloo, Guelph and Barrie, along with plenty of small towns and rural townships.

In the Inner Ring, which is expected to host about three-quarters of the population growth to 2031, things at least appear to be consistent with the provincial vision. Here, Toronto, Hamilton and the regional municipalities (called upper-tier municipalities because they group together several “lower-tier” municipalities) have adopted the Growth Plan’s intensification and density targets. Below the surface, however, things are not quite so rosy. The Neptis report points to a loophole in the Growth Plan, which allows upper-tier municipalities to average out the targets over their component lower-tier municipalities. In this way, upper-tier municipalities can set higher intensification and density rates for already urbanized centres and much lower rates for exurban areas, where developers own large tracts of land and have been pushing for single-family housing. The Neptis researchers looked at the lower-tier plans and found a patchwork of targets in the Inner Ring. While Mississauga, which is largely built out, will be required to accommodate new growth at 77 people plus jobs per hectare, rural Caledon will develop its new communities at only 42 people plus jobs per hectare.

The situation in the Outer Ring appears even direr. More than half the cities and upper-tier municipalities have adopted targets below the Growth Plan objectives. Some of these municipalities are rural areas that will see little growth, but others are expected to grow rapidly. Simcoe County, for example, is expected to increase its population by 64 per cent by 2031, adding 162,000 new residents. Neptis reports that the county has adopted an intensification rate of 32 per cent and a density target of 39 people plus jobs per hectare, both considerably below the Growth Plan targets. Drilling down, Neptis researchers found many lower-tier municipalities in Simcoe County with an intensification target of only 20 per cent (half the provincial target) and density targets of 32 people plus jobs per hectare (more than one-third below the Growth Plan ratio).

Victor Doyle, manager of the Planning Innovation Section at the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing, has been involved in regional growth management efforts in central Ontario for 25 years. He was directly involved in negotiating with the municipalities in order to implement the Growth Plan targets, and explains why the Neptis findings are so crucial. “Fifty people plus jobs per hectare is barely enough to get you 20 to 30 minute bus service,” says Doyle. “Anything below that and you’re talking about developments that can’t be served by transit.” In other words, these low numbers are coding for more car-dependent sprawl.

Officials at the Ontario Growth Secretariat, which is responsible for coordinating the implementation of the Growth Plan, disagree. Although they don’t question Neptis’ numbers, they say the conclusions drawn from them are open to interpretation. Maya Harris, manager of growth planning and analysis, says the lower i targets are based in municipalities that will account for only seven and eight per cent of expected growth, respectively. “The Growth Plan,” she says, “allows the province to approve lower targets where they are appropriate, such as in mostly rural communities.” Victor Doyle says this approach is like “letting air out of the balloon.” In his view, “by adopting these lower targets, more land will be absorbed for essentially low-density residential subdivisions.” Moreover, he argues, the targets are somewhat specious. For example, the province is counting things like completing a half-finished subdivision as intensification, making it much easier for municipalities to reach the already anemic targets. The province also makes it easier for municipalities to achieve density targets by allowing them to “net out” land for highways, cemeteries, golf courses and estate subdivisions.

The watered down targets and implementation loopholes might help explain one of the Neptis study’s most alarming findings. Dividing the total population and employment expected in the mega-region by the total land that will be occupied by 2031 shows that overall densities will hardly budge from what they were when the Growth Plan was introduced. In the Inner Ring, densities will rise by about 10 per cent (from 42 to 46 people plus jobs per hectare), while in the Outer Ring, densities will actually fall about 10 per cent (from 29 to 26 people plus jobs per hectare).

According to Harris, these numbers are a little misleading. The Neptis density calculations assume that all of the land municipalities have budgeted to absorb growth will be built on by 2031. “That’s not likely to happen. Some municipalities already had designated a lot of land for growth prior to the Growth Plan and this land may not be needed by 2031.”

Doyle thinks this is a fair point. “But,” he says, “even if some of the budgeted land is unbuilt by 2031, that won’t boost the densities that much.” He believes the region needs a major turnaround to become a more compact, walking- and transit-friendly place. “I’m a big supporter of the Growth Plan,” Doyle says, “but the targets should be higher. Even Calgary has adopted a 60 people plus job per hectare target.” He’s hoping that the province will adopt more ambitious targets and close some of the loopholes when the province reviews the Growth Plan in 2016, 10 years after its creation. As the Neptis authors conclude (in a rather understated way, given their blistering assessment): “there is still considerable work to be done to establish effective growth management in the region and avoid the negative consequences of dispersed, low-density development patterns.”

Implementing the Growth Plan for the Greater Golden Horseshoe: Has the strategic regional vision been compromised? Rian Allen and Philippa Campsie, Toronto: Neptis Foundation, 2013, 131 pages.

Reviewer Information

Ray Tomalty is principal of Smart Cities Research, a Montréal consulting firm that specializes in issues related to urban sustainability. He is also an adjunct professor at the School of Urban Planning at McGill University, an A\J editorial board member and a regular contributor to the magazine.

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