Growth can mean opportunity. Significant increases in population can lead to a stronger workforce, a more prosperous economy, and more vibrant communities. But growth, if not planned properly, can result in urban sprawl, gridlock, air pollution and increased infrastructure costs, exacting a toll on people, the environment and the economy.
In Ontario, the provincial government’s anticipation of rapid growth has resulted in a major planning initiative that has won international recognition.
The problem: the Greater Golden Horseshoe region of Ontario is a 32,000-square kilometer stretch that wraps around the western end of Lake Ontario. The region covers 110 municipal jurisdictions, is home to eight million people and supports four million jobs. It’s the fastest growing region in Canada and the third fastest in North America, with four million new people expected in the next 25 years.
It’s clear that any jurisdiction facing those kinds of growth pressures had better have a solid plan in place. The Ministry of Public Infrastructure Renewal (PIR) – the ministry responsible for modernizing public infrastructure and planning for growth – was charged with developing that plan. Provincial legislation passed in 2005, called the Places to Grow Act, allows the government to develop growth plans for any area in Ontario to address specific regional needs.
Building on the legislative foundation of the act, and after extensive research and consultation with residents, stakeholders, planners, representatives from all levels of government, and a host of other interested parties, PIR’s Ontario Growth Secretariat (OGS) developed the Growth Plan for the Greater Golden Horseshoe in 2006.
The plan is a comprehensive vision and set of policies for managing growth and building strong communities and economic prosperity through 2031, addressing such key areas as land-use planning, transportation, infrastructure, urban form, and natural heritage and resource protection.
With policies supporting intensification and revitalization of downtowns, the plan ensures that local municipalities within the Greater Golden Horseshoe take advantage of redevelopment opportunities in urban areas, and reduces development pressures on important agricultural lands and natural areas on the urban fringe.
The plan introduces policies and tools that set the foundation for new planning and design standards, establish clear growth forecasts for municipalities, set clear density targets to ensure better suburbs and more vibrant city centres, and implement a new, uniform approach to measuring intensification rates that is unique in the world and that allows for consistent tracking.
In dollars-and-cents terms, the provincial government is already committing more than $8 billion in infrastructure investments to 2010, as a tool to steer development into areas that already have public transit and other infrastructure in place. As well, the government has invested $17.5 billion in rapid transit in the Greater Toronto Area and Hamilton as part of the MoveOntario 2020 initiative.
The implementation of the plan is also strengthened by a strong focus on public and stakeholder engagement, as well as a recent focus on youth engagement.
Indeed, the model of consultation used to develop the growth plan resulted in unprecedented support. Hazel McCallion, the long-time mayor of Mississauga, Canada’s sixth-largest city, said that the growth plan “strikes the right balance by ensuring that decisions about growth are made in a coordinated, region-wide perspective, while still leaving municipalities with the power they need to develop local solutions to their unique local challenges.”
Brad Graham, assistant deputy minister of the OGS, added that the collaborative approach will contribute to the long-term success of the plan: “The government worked hard to get a consensus. But we knew we did not want just a watered-down version for easy agreement. The plan had to be meaningful and I’m proud of how we got a highest-principle consensus. It took two years and hundreds of meetings, but the various sectors bought into the goal and helped us find the best way to get there. They see themselves in the plan, and they also understand why different choices were made.”
In April 2007, the American Planning Association presented it with the prestigious Daniel Burnham Award for a Comprehensive Plan, making Ontario the only jurisdiction outside the United States ever to win the award.
In bestowing this award, the APA called it a “landmark comprehensive plan that is both visionary and pragmatic,” adding that the Growth Plan “provides a strategic, innovative and coordinated approach to sustainable growth and development.”
Other international observers also praised the plan. One of them, Parris N. Glendening, now the president of the US-based Smart Growth Leadership Institute, and from 1995 to 2003 the governor of Maryland, called the plan a “groundbreaking document” and a “model for all of North America,” adding that “without a tough-minded, forward-looking plan the region risks becoming choked with gridlock, with no affordable housing close to jobs and shopping, no open spaces to enjoy, and hours spent in the car each day just to meet daily needs.”
In Canada, recognition for the Growth Plan quickly followed, as the plan captured both the newly created Leonard Gertler Award of Distinction from the Ontario Professional Planners Institute and an award for planning excellence from the Canadian Institute of Planners.
The plan gathers much of its strength from the Places to Grow legislation that supports it, but international observers have also been impressed by its position within an ambitious package of related government initiatives. This package includes the creation of a 700,000 hectare (1.8 million acre) greenbelt in the heart of the Greater Golden Horseshoe, legislation to create a regional transportation authority to coordinate transportation planning with the policies of the plan, legislative reforms to give municipalities more control over urban form and changes to urban boundaries, and new fiscal tools such as Tax Increment Financing to support redevelopment.
“It’s gratifying that other jurisdictions are looking to our team here in Ontario for inspiration on how to plan for growth effectively,” says Graham, who notes that the OGS has been approached recently about the possibility of sharing the Growth Plan’s success with planners in such areas as Maryland, Washington, Portland, New York, Sweden and Finland.
“Our plan is certainly unique in setting policy direction across a broad range of disciplines, including economic development, transportation planning and natural resource protection,” Graham adds. “At a time when so many jurisdictions face challenges of land use and population growth, it’s a very positive sign that people are looking to Ontario for solutions on how to build communities the right way.”
Paul Challen is editorial services coordinator in the communications branch of the Ontario Ministry of Public Infrastructure Renewal (Paul.Challen2@ontario.ca).