Urban Growth in the GGH: A Big Change or More of the Same?

June 21, 2016

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Big changes are coming for Ontario planners. Changes to growth planning strategies, proposals for inclusionary zoning, the reform of the Ontario Municipal Board and all the action related to the implementation of Bill 73 are creating a crescendo of new planning activity. Put together, they represent major change in the content and process of Ontario planning. Urban Strategies will be keeping you up-to-date on all these initiatives in a series of blog articles we hope are both informative and speak to the issues involved. This is the second post in the series. Click here to read the first post: Planning in Ontario, The Quiet Revolution.

Last month the Province of Ontario announced proposed updates to Places to Grow: Growth Plan for the Greater Golden Horseshoe (GGH) and other provincial plans with the goal of reducing the amount of land needed to accommodate growth in the region. When the Growth Plan together with the Greenbelt Plan were launched in 2006, they were considered landmark initiatives to transform planning and managing growth in the region. Through the proposed amendments, the Province is not introducing radical changes to the growth planning framework, but rather increases to the targets and refinements to policies.

The proposed changes introduce higher growth targets – increasing the intensification target from 40% to 60% of new residential development to be located within municipalities’ existing built-up areas, and increasing greenfield density targets from 50 to at least 80 people and jobs per hectare. The proposed Plan also places a greater emphasis on transit-supportive density. It introduces minimum density targets for major transit stations with varying densities for subways, light rail/bus rail and express rail service new requirements to plan for density targets around major transit stations and new policies to support prioritizing planning and zoning for “priority transit corridors”. There are no proposed modifications to the urban growth centre targets and no additions or deletions to the identified 25 urban growth centres.

The modest increase in greenfield density and more aggressive intensification targets, together with new policy directions to determine and assess settlement boundary expansion areas aim to reduce the amount of land consumption and support more compact growth patterns. But it remains unclear how the proposed amendments will actually impact development trends and reshape growth patterns across the GGH region.

Since the Growth Plan was adopted in 2006, we’ve seen the unevenness of intensification and development trends across the region. Toronto has experienced significant growth – in downtown, along the waterfront and along the Yonge subway line with predominately residential growth at Yonge-Eglinton and North York Centre. Significant intensification outside of Toronto has been mostly limited to the inner-ring municipalities and the predominately built-up communities on the inner edges of York and Peel, such as Mississauga and Markham. These inner ring communities that will see transit investment in the next 10 to 20 years and should be the focus for the next wave of intensification. But unless there are big shifts in development trends and significant transit investments across the GGH, other municipalities may struggle to meet the proposed intensification rate of 60% and will fall short of meeting the targets for urban growth centres – places where both residential and employment growth is envisioned.

Outside of Toronto and some communities in the inner ring of the GGH, intensification has been more limited. Growth has continued to be in the form of relatively low-density residential development – much of which was already in the pipeline before 2006. The proposed changes will continue to allow municipalities in the outer ring without urban growth centres to adopt alternative minimum targets and lower greenfield density targets. As reported by the Neptis Foundation, this loophole is a way to circumvent the Growth Plan’s policies and helps facilitate outward growth and expansion – leapfrogging past the Greenbelt.

In terms of implementation, the proposed updated targets and policies will need to be implemented through municipal comprehensive reviews – in other words official plan updates/amendments. The proposed timeframe for municipalities to come into conformity with the Growth Plan includes an extension of three years to five years. This provides more time for coordination and policy alignment with the revised Greenbelt Plan and revised Oak Ridges Moraine Conservation Plan. The last round of growth planning conformity took a huge amount of time and resources, with some conformity exercises still unresolved with the Ontario Municipal Board. Streamlining implementation through coordination with municipalities and the Province will be essential to addressing some of the gaps of the current framework. Through the current published draft, the Province remains pretty silent on how it will make this happen.