Our View of THE BIG REVIEW

May 6, 2014

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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.

Visit this blog regularly to stay up-to-date, get the inside scoop on our regional planning and growth system, and to share your views.

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 exchange of ideas, with on-the-ground experiences and your thoughts on moving forward. Comment below!

Christie’s-map-of-other-regional-growth-plan-efforts

What’s Under Review

The Growth Plan, the Greenbelt Plan, and the Big Move: Introduced in 2005, 2006 and 2008, this trifecta of new Plans was created to curb sprawling growth patterns, better utilize infrastructure and introduce a protected landscape at the city-regional scale now known as the Greater Golden Horseshoe. Each of these documents focusses on distinct, but equally critical aspects of our planning system: The Growth Plan is intended to define where and how to grow; the Greenbelt Plan defines where to conserve and protect land, and curtail rural settlements outside of existing settlements; and the Big Move provides a vision for how to get people and goods about. The priorities and funding tools of the Big Move were recently revisited, and formal review processes for the Greenbelt Plan and the Growth Plan are legislated for 2015 and 2016, respectively.

The Provincial Policy Statement (PPS): The 2014 PPS prevails over all of these, and with the most recent amendments, effective as of April 30,  seeks to provide clearer direction in terms of agricultural, rural and employment policies.

Oak Ridges Moraine Conservation Plan and Niagara Escarpment Plan: Formal review processes for these Plans are legislated for 2015.

Almost ten years old. How is it all working? Some initial thoughts:

A huge step in the right direction.  Implementing the family of provincial growth management plans was a bold, challenging and critical effort for the long term viability, competitiveness and liveability of this city-region. (The ambition of this effort is noteworthy: the growth management strategy for the GGH is one of the largest in terms of geographic area.) Other regions and communities around the world have been living with and improving upon regional growth management strategies for decades.  For over 30 years, communities such as Maryland and Portland have been implementing growth boundaries and density targets.  Greenbelts in Melbourne, London and Ottawa have provided a limit to growth and promoted conservation of rural landscapes.  Innovations in regional mobility planning have been critical in the Bay Area, New York and London.  In the Greater Golden Horseshoe, we have all three of these layers in place.  We are less than a decade into implementing our growth management strategies, yet the positive impact on the form and culture of development is noticeable.  Still, this is a time to critically assess what is working well and where we need to review, refine and in some cases, potentially retool these plans to ensure they are effective for the next 5-10 years of smart community building. 

We need to go beyond accounting and chasing the numbers. The Growth Plan introduced important targets and a comprehensive process for consideration of any new urban land.  However, a huge amount of municipal and private resource has been expended to debate the approaches, methods and assumptions that can go into the land budgeting process.  Greater clarity on appropriate or defined methods would shift the emphasis from this time- and resource-consumptive debate to a greater focus on achieving transit supportive, compact communities with a diversity of offerings in terms of housing form, mobility and land uses. The fact that we only have a handful of approved conformity plans, almost 10 years later, is a testament to this challenge and is beginning to result in a backlog of municipal policy and infrastructure planning.

Better coordination and integration is needed.  While integrated approaches to infrastructure, development and investment can been found, there are still too many examples where there is a lack of integration in planning decisions and capital expenditure – at the provincial and municipal level or in between the two. This affects our ability to manage growth and threatens the integrity of the Plans.  Healthcare, transit, parking garages, community facilities and services, and schools are all critical to managing growth and creating complete communities. Yet examples abound of hospitals being built on the periphery (St Catharines), long standing plans for road expansions (410 to Mayfield West), building parking garages next to GO stations, and inconsistent interpretations of policies on natural heritage assets and natural resources, and all of these point to a lack of integrated decision making at many levels of government.  Further, many rural communities are struggling with the viability of agriculture uses and their supporting settlements in the context of fiscal tools that promote traditional patterns of growth. Integrated thinking and a coordinated set of strategies that bring together agriculture, natural heritage, ecomomic development and infrastructure considerations are essential to overcoming this challenge.

Measuring and potentially advancing our progress. The Growth Plan draft Indicators are finally out and provide a good start to measuring progress. Yet even in this era of geo-spacial mapping capabilities, we are still sorely behind the times (see cool mapping of real estate along London’s tube lines here).

A commitment of resources and regular reporting will help to ensure the Plans are moving the GGH in the right direction, or at least reveal areas to refine or refocus to ensure this happens. Numbers focus attention. Most indicator systems produce regular and highly accessible data to encourage the discourse of how well we are affecting change and whether we can, or need to, up the ante. An effective monitoring system would help us answer some critical questions about or city-region. For instance: most municipal plans are meeting the 40% intensification rate, but do the building permits confirm this is what is being built? If so, then let’s consider how to advance the marker in the next 5-10 years to ensure we are achieving transit-supportive development along newly constructed and planned transit corridors. If not, we need to find other means, including fiscal mechanisms, to deliver the planned directions.

A coordinated and concurrent review – not one at a time.  All of these Plans are related.  They are each a part of a very complex layering of policies that can be overwhelming to professionals and the broader public. A key question being asked is: should their reviews be integrated? As we have facilitated many discussions on the Greenbelt Plan across the GGH, it has become clear that each of these Plans is complex, brings forward passionate debate, and merits its own discussion.  A coordinated and concurrent review would be appropriate, although in my mind, certainly not one big review.

Lessons learned from other North American experience

In the review process, let’s benefit from innovation in other communities.  We have been keeping a close eye on other growth management strategies and will expand on these in upcoming blog posts.  We think there is potential in considering the following approaches:

  • British Columbia recently introduced the Local Food Act 2014 to support local food security and agricultural viability;
  • Metro Portland’s 2040 Regional Growth Strategy relies on 10 different defined Urban Design Types with tailored density, people and job, targets;
  • The Greater Washington Coalition’s Region Forward measures progress towards targets, identifies challenges to meeting them, and establishes mechanisms to respond and adjust the regional toolkit;
  • The Go to 2040 Chicago process brought in the business sector to link economic prosperity and growth planning, identify regional specialization clusters and incent municipalities with grants to help them conform to the Plan; and
  • San Francisco’s One Bay Area plan focuses on targeted investment approaches and requires that there is a synchronization of infrastructure and growth planning.

Where from here?

We cannot predict what the Big Review process(es) will hold or how it will be conducted, but we are keeping a critical and close eye on the material and process and will be reporting regularly to assist our clients, colleagues  and communities.

What others are saying

Other related resources and commentary can be found here:

The Neptis Foundation on the Growth Plan

The Pembina Institute on the Big Move

CUI presentations from the +Place Makers event, Growth Plan: Too much room to grow?

Ontario Planning Journal – recent issue on Growth Plan review (subscribers only)