More than perhaps any other document, Toronto's Official Plan shapes the city. We explain its principles, how it works, and what that means.
As an unprecedented wave of high-rise development continues to transform Toronto’s streetscapes and skylines, the city’s explosive growth sometimes seems chaotic, impulsive, and unplanned.
While the ongoing construction boom is visibly changing the city’s face, a comparatively inconspicuous yet thorough planning framework of regulations and policies has governed land use policy—and, more broadly, the evolution of the urban realm—over most of the last decade. Though relatively little-known, the City of Toronto’s Official Plan outlines a comprehensive vision for growth and development through to 2031.
Now in the midst of a five-year review, the Official Plan’s re-assessment by City Staff and Council provides a good opportunity to understand some of the central tenets of Toronto’s most important planning document.
Origins and Aims
Like its predecessors, the current Official Plan sets out density and zoning regulations for new development. It also broadly outlines planning policy goals relating to housing, infrastructure, economic development, and environmental stewardship. That means that when a new condo is proposed in your neighbourhood, the Official Plan provides the land use principles and guidelines for what is appropriate, and what constraints should be placed on the site. With these guidelines in place, an industrial plant or busy restaurant can’t become your neighbour on a quiet residential street, but there may be opportunities to build mid-rises or high rises on the corners of transit corridors like Yonge, Bloor, or along streetcar lines.
Though first adopted by City Council in November 2002 [PDF], the current Official Plan was not approved by the Ontario Municipal Board (OMB) until June 2006 [PDF], officially becoming the City’s first post-amalgamation Plan some eight years after the fact.
As the first Official Plan for the amalgamated city, the goals were expansive and ambitious in scope, and sought to reduce city-wide reliance on cars by fostering a denser, environmentally sustainable, and more transit-oriented urban realm. The over-arching goal that underpins these priorities is re-urbanization, and a reversal of the decades-long trends that saw expanding suburban sprawl throughout much of the 20th century.
The Plan identified specific areas where new commercial and residential growth should be encouraged, stipulating that new development should facilitate transit use and pedestrian activity. Furthermore, the Plan directly mandated new protections for architectural heritage and the environment, and Ontario’s Greenbelt policy (which is also up for renewal) was developed with Toronto’s official plan in mind.
Taken together, the Official’s Plans goals provide a detailed road-map for Toronto’s future, negotiating the uneasy transition between decades of car-oriented sprawl and urban renewal. Here are some of the highlights of the plan’s policies and principles.
High-Density Zones (Condos and High-Rises)
The most conspicuous—and, arguably, most consequential—element of the Plan was the focused creation of high-rise development areas, with five areas of the city zoned for big increases in density. In particular, increased density throughout downtown Toronto is strongly encouraged, with developers facing fewer legal and bureaucratic roadblocks to high-rise development in the urban core. Together with a robust real estate market, a cultural shift towards urban living, low interest rates, and decreased development charges, the Plan helped facilitate Toronto’s ongoing downtown construction surge.
In addition to downtown, however, four other zones were identified for sharp increases in residential and commercial density. The Yonge and Eglinton and North York Centre areas were zoned for skyscraper development, and have since seen a large number of new condos built over the last decade, broadening Toronto’s property tax base and providing a boost in development fees collected.
Farther afield, Scarborough Centre and Etobicoke Centre—the “downtowns” of Toronto’s east and west former municipalities—were also zoned for high-rise development, and are experiencing some new density.
While the Plan’s zoning regulations do not directly determine where development takes place—the zones reflect the areas that were already most attractive and suitable to development—it helps explain why some of Toronto’s high-rise development boundaries are so stark.
Travelling north along Yonge Street, for example, the Plan’s boundaries for ‘Centres’ explain why the seemingly endless expanse of towering construction cranes abruptly disappears north of Davenport, only to abruptly resume around Eglinton, and then again around Sheppard. Though it’s possible that these areas would see the highest concentrations of development regardless of planning policy, the Plan’s boundaries are in large part responsible for the shape of Toronto’s construction landscape.
The Official Plan also includes zoning designations for ‘Employment Lands,’ which are designated as areas of the city where manufacturing, offices, distribution centres, and warehouses—as well as a limited number of public institutions and houses of worship—can be located. Largely remnants of 20th century industrial areas, the Employment Lands still provide critical resources for the City, as they can be drivers for economic growth.
While Toronto’s industrial peak is in its past, the city’s increasing population—and residential development boom—make it difficult for commercial development to keep pace. Since condo development profits now tend to be significantly higher than profits in commercial and office development (in part because over 90 per cent of condo units are often sold before construction begins), Employment Lands zoning helps ensure that some of the city’s land serves commercial development, more easily allowing job growth and a diverse economy to keep pace with increases in population.
In addition to the largely peripheral Employment Lands, significant parts of the Downtown Core are also zoned for commercial development, including much of the Financial District. Notably, the Port Lands—which are ear-marked for massive development—are also zoned as an Employment Area.
As an area that would otherwise be attractive to residential development, the Port Lands’ zoning allows for future commercial development to take precedent, creating critical new jobs in an area surrounded by soaring populations. However, as mixed-use (“live-work-play”) neighbourhoods become increasingly popular, the starkly defined zoning regulations have sometimes been criticized as regressive, with the separation of residential and employment zones preventing more balanced neighbourhoods from becoming realized.
In addition to the high-rise ‘Centres’ identified in the Plan, a more modest densification agenda was created for Toronto’s avenues. These avenues are arterial corridors that are mostly in post-war neighbourhoods, and the planning is meant to introduce more jobs and residents while respecting the existing character of the neighbourhood. The construction of mid-rise buildings (defined as four to 11 storeys) has been encouraged along these avenues, many of which are now seeing five to six storey buildings under construction.
Since the construction of mid-rise buildings is typically not as profitable as high-rise condominium development, Toronto has yet to see a comparable surge of mid-rise construction. Nonetheless, a significant number of projects are underway, while new legislation allowing taller wood-frame buildings may make mid-rise projects more profitable, bringing a measured dose of new density to Toronto’s main arteries. (See a map of Toronto’s designated avenues here.)
Before an area of the city is designated as an avenue, it goes through an avenue planning study. Some of these avenues are in areas with plans for increased transit, like the LRT line planned along Eglinton. The idea is to align the planning framework with neighbourhood needs and city growth patterns.
Together with the skyscrapers zoned for Toronto’s ‘centres,’ mid-rise housing reflects the Plan’s goal to create a more transit-oriented and pedestrian-friendly city. Seeking to end decades of unsustainable and environmentally destructive suburban sprawl by encouraging urban living, the Plan advocates for the creation of walkable avenues (often called ‘complete streets’), which encourages safety and accessibility for pedestrians, cyclists, and motorists.
An efficient and comprehensive transit system is a crucial component for any livable city. As such, the Official Plan calls for reducing car dependence by fostering transit-oriented growth, and building new transit lines and increased density in tandem.
Downtown, the revitalization of Union Station is intended to update the ageing rail terminal into the vital transit hub the area needs, with the goal of serving more commuters, and fostering economic growth. Throughout the ‘centres,’ new mobility hubs are also planned, while Yonge-Eglinton will become a key interchange station for the upcoming LRT.
Toronto’s avenues were also identified as sites for increased transit connections, with a focus on greater accessibility to a more efficient TTC.
In tandem with Metrolinx’s ‘Big Move,’ which lays out a regional transit plan for the GTHA, the Official Plan aims to create a more transit-oriented city. While Transit City fell in line with the Plan’s principles—particularly in the goals to bring development and transit access to Toronto’s avenues—the proposal’s funding clawback from the provincial government, followed by Rob Ford’s “cancellation”, means the plan has seen limited progress.
While the Official Plan sets out a limited number of specifically focused policies regarding land use for transportation (including subtle changes to laws governing 400 highway series), the document also outlines the general priority of creating a more transit-focused city, necessitating partnerships with various municipal transit commissions (such as TTC, GO, MiWay, Viva) and government organizations.
Another important element of the Official Plan is an increased emphasis on protecting architectural heritage, and ensuring that new development fits into the urban context around it, including maintaining the visibility of heritage buildings.
For most of the 20th century, heritage architecture was destroyed without much regard to its socio-cultural value, and parking lots, big box stores, and office buildings replaced much of the city’s most picturesque built form. Before the Official Plan was enacted, municipalities had little power to prevent the demolition of older buildings, with little more than delays and outrage to stand in the way of bulldozers.
By expanding and legally formalizing the Municipal Register, and adding new provisions to protect the urban context around these buildings, the Plan (and its more recent amendments) provides legal criteria for the designation and maintenance of heritage properties. These policies have made the outright destruction of heritage properties much more difficult.
Housing and Communities
The Official Plan also includes strategies for the continued construction and maintenance of community housing, including the large-scale redevelopments of Regent Park, and—more recently—Lawrence Heights. Furthermore, the Plan includes a number of regulations aimed at improving the quality of life in Toronto’s ageing high-rise housing stock, while looking to ensure that new developments throughout the city bring community benefits to existing residents.
For older buildings, the City’s Tower Renewal Plan provides funding for older slab towers to be retrofitted with new windows, doors, and mechanical installations (including updated electric wiring and HVAC systems). Meanwhile, recently proposed changes—coming as part of the five-year review—could see zoning changes allow ground-level retail and community gardens to improve living conditions in Toronto’s mid-century, Le Corbusier-inspired “tower in the park” communities.
Some of these communities currently face economic and commercial isolation, and the relaxation of zoning laws could spur greater economic activity. The community gardens could also alleviate shortages of fresh food in the communities, some of which qualify as food deserts.
The Plan also encourages the City’s use of Section 37 of the provincial Planning Act, which allows high-rise proposals to exceed height restrictions in exchange for community benefits. Though somewhat controversial, Section 37 gives the City a tool to compromise with developers on height restrictions, and the funds can be used to build youth centres, libraries, affordable housing units, or local playground equipment.
In addition to Section 37, there’s also the “Public Art Percent” that mandates that 1 per cent of a development’s total budget be used to commission public artwork, while a parks provision in the Planning Act also mandates the creation of new public parks as part of some developments.
Another direct policy impact of the Official Plan has been the creation of new Environmentally Significant Areas (ESA). According to the City, ESAs designated within the Official Plan are “critical areas within the city’s natural heritage,” which are granted protection in order to preserve the rare species, habitats, and landforms contained within.
An ESA designation restricts potentially harmful activities from occurring in the protected zones, which currently make up approximately 4 per cent of Toronto’s total land area, the equivalent surface area of 17 High Parks. The criterion for designating ESA status is the existence of “unique environmental qualities,” which can include rare and endangered habitats, exceptionally high bio-diversity, rare landforms, and important ecological functions—such as providing stopovers for migratory animals.
As with the housing policies, the Plan’s environmental land use provisions have come under review relatively recently—the five-year review is split into stages—and a total of 68 new ESAs have been proposed, alongside the expansion of 14 currently protected areas.
Although the Official Plan seems arcane, it forms a crucial part of the City’s legislation. It shapes where—and how—growth happens, and (in principle, at least) ensures that Toronto develops in tandem with social and sustainable principles.