Learning from other North American Regional Growth Plans

June 5, 2014

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– Part 4 of our series on The Big Review –

With 21 upper-tier and single-tier municipalities, and 89-lower tier municipalities in the Greater Golden Horseshoe covering a land area of almost 32,000 square kilometres, the Greater Golden Horseshoe is one of the largest regional growth planning areas in North America. The Greater Golden Horseshoe emerged in the mid-2000s as both a designated region and a defined term with the Province’s introduction of the watershed Places to Grow Act, and subsequent Growth Plan for the Greater Golden Horseshoe. As a Provincial Plan, the Growth Plan, together with the Greenbelt Plan and the Big Move, created a new regional role for the Province in municipal planning, and introduced a new regional growth management regime.

Urban Strategies is currently evaluating the Edmonton Capital Region’s Growth Plan, as part of the Capital Region Board’s official Growth Plan Update. For this evaluation, we have examined different approaches to regional growth management in North America. Through this work, it is apparent that the Growth Plan for the Greater Golden Horseshoe stands out as unique given its’ sheer size, and the fact that it is a regional plan created by the Province, without a framework for regional governance and in the absence of a regional authority to coordinate local decision-making and oversee implementation across the region.

The Growth Plan in Comparison: Learning from other North American Regional Growth Plans 

Metropolitan regions in North America, including Portland, Denver and Vancouver have long histories of regional growth plans and regional governance. Metro Portland’s 2040 Growth Concept is one of the oldest and considered most successful regional plans in North America. Metro Portland’s regional growth planning efforts date back to the 1970s when the State of Oregon mandated every city and county to have a long-range plan to address future growth. In the late 1970s, Metro Portland became the first directly elected regional government in the US, with responsibility for region-wide planning and coordination to manage growth, infrastructure and development.

In Canada, Metro Vancouver also has a long history of regional planning that dates back to the 1960s. The Regional Growth Strategy – Metro Vancouver 2040 is Metro Vancouver’s most recent regional growth plan, and defines a fixed Urban Containment Boundary for Metro Vancouver. Vancouver’s plan responds to the Province of British Columbia’s Local Government Act, which outlines the minimum content requirements for regional growth strategies. One of the benefits of Metro Vancouver’s Strategy is the fact that Metro Vancouver has authority for regional planning and regional service delivery, and will not extend services to any area beyond the identified Urban Containment Boundary.

Other regional plans are collaborative and holistic in nature, and cover emerging interconnected regional issues. Many regional planning authorities in the US – including Chicago’s recent GO TO 2040 Plan, the San Francisco Bay Area’s  Plan Bay Area, and the Washington’s Region Forward Coalition, – have recently prepared regional plans with a broader focus on a range of interconnected regional issues, including economic development, infrastructure investment, climate change, and social equity.  These are not plans in the traditional sense of describing land uses and urban growth boundaries, but instead provide comprehensive regional strategies to assist with local land use and development decisions, and define key regional priorities and implementable actions. For example, the Plan Bay Area responds to the State of California’s landmark 2008 climate law requiring that metropolitan regions produce a Sustainable Communities Strategy to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. This controversial and highly debated regional plan provides a strategy to manage both population and employment growth, but has no authority over local plans. Its implementation tools instead focus on detailed investment strategy tied to projected revenues for everything from road maintenance and transit projects, to grants for local initiatives to support transit-oriented development.

A key difference between the US and Greater Golden Horseshoe and other Canadian examples is that the American regional growth plans are recognized as metropolitan planning organizations MPOs, which are federally mandated transportation policy-making organizations. MPOs receive federal funding for transportation projects and programs, and are able to provide funding for transportation and planning projects to local municipalities to implement the regional plan.  MPOs typically do not have authority over land use decisions and local planning, but use targeted investment and provide grant incentives for local municipalities to align with regional plans.

As the Province and municipalities prepare for the first 10-year review of the Growth Plan, what are the key lessons that Ontario can learn from other regional growth planning experiences?

In the past 10 years, there has been a great deal of energy and resources focused on Growth Plan conformity exercises, with less progress on coordinating infrastructure and growth across the region. The Province created Metrolinx as a special-purpose agency to plan the regional transportation network, but it remains a provincial agency without any regional representation or an approved investment strategy. Unlike other North American regional plans, in the Greater Golden Horseshoe, there is no formal mechanism for municipalities to come together in a forum to discuss, address issues facing the region, and also advocate to other orders of government on behalf of the entire region.

In Ontario’s prescriptive, top-down planning system, despite having the Growth Plan in place, there remains an absence of regional mechanisms to manage and coordinate infrastructure investment and growth at a regional scale. Enid Slack and Zachary Spicer recently published an article in Novae Res Urbis (reprinted with permission) detailing that one of the important legacies of amalgamation is a failure to address regional issues. In the midst of both municipal and provincial elections, and at the outset of the first review of the Growth Plan, it may be time to consider what regional mechanisms, governance and targeted funding structures are necessary to successfully manage growth and coordinate infrastructure and ultimately implement the Growth Plan.

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About The Big Review 

We are almost 10 years into the legacy set of provincial legislation and Plans that have changed the planning and development landscape in the Greater Golden Horseshoe in Ontario. The time has come for policy makers to reflect on the effectiveness of those cornerstone planning documents, and a major review period is now underway – priorities identified in the Big Move have recently been revisited, and the Growth Plan and Greenbelt Plan will soon be under provincial review.

Urban Strategies has a thorough understanding of these Plans and policies, because we have played a role in their development or implementation from all perspectives and at all levels – from provincial, regional and local municipalities to private and institutional development.

On this basis, we offer our insight on the Plans, their review processes, and how their evolutions can help us better manage community growth and sustainability.

Over the coming months, we will post to this Blog our thoughts on how the Plans are working, proposed revisions, and updates on review processes and outcomes.  We invite you to join us in this E-exchange of ideas, with on-the-ground experiences and your thoughts on moving forward