Why Ontario's Growth Plan Misses the Mark
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Why Ontario’s Growth Plan Misses the Mark

New report says the plan relies on "fatally flawed” approach to determining how much land is needed to meet growth targets.

Suburban Markham. Photo by Antoine Belaieff from the Torontoist Flickr pool.

Suburban Markham. Photo by Antoine Belaieff from the Torontoist Flickr pool.

The latest report from Friends of the Greenbelt Foundation is claiming that loopholes in the Ontario Growth Plan have introduced ways for developers to pave over farmland while prioritizing the construction of low-density housing.

Released last Wednesday, the report found that municipalities within the 7,200-square-kilometre greenbelt around Toronto have relied on a “fatally flawed” methodology in determining how much land is needed to meet their growth targets. The result, despite an emphasis in the growth plan on building high-density housing and walkable public transit-accessible cities, is more sprawl.

Kevin Eby, former director of community planning for the Region of Waterloo and author of the report, found that much of the trouble stems from deciding how much new land is earmarked for housing construction to meet forecasted population and job demand.

Manipulating the Land Needs Assessment

Here’s how it works. The Land Needs Assessment is a demand-versus-supply analysis that, in theory, balances anticipated growth with the land available to accommodate that growth.

Before the province updated its growth plan this year, municipalities were required to direct 40 per cent of new growth to already built-up areas; now, that target is 60 per cent.

Additionally, intensification targets for designated greenfield areas for commercial development had to ensure 50 people and jobs per hectare; now, that goal is 80 jobs.

The primary objective of all this, Eby notes, is reducing sprawl. “The Growth Plan requires a Land Needs Assessment process that is focused on implementing specific intensification and [greenfield] density targets,” he notes. The goal was never about meeting demand for specific types of housing preferred by developers.

The problem, as Eby interprets it, is that land economists and urban planners have ignored the strict land use criteria laid out by Queen’s Park as they updated municipal growth plans.

Rather than base growth projections for jobs, population, and housing on the growth plan’s high-density and intensification targets as required, many municipalities have largely based their land assessment on an outdated process.

Relying on a “housing-by-type” methodology from 1995 has allowed municipal growth plans to base future projections on historic housing trends with no consideration of new directives to increase density.

The result of relying on historic housing patterns, unsurprisingly, is a growth projection for the kind of single- or semi-detached houses that anti-sprawl advocates in and out of government have rallied against.

Basing your land needs assessment on an antiquated “housing-by-type” approach, Eby warns, “delivers only a slight variation on business-as-usual” with how we plan for future housing. Simply put, it “facilitat[es] the very type of sprawl the Growth Plan seeks to control.”

‘Plan to Achieve’

Another grey area that Eby recommends the province clean up is the interpretation of when growth targets will be met. As it currently reads, a section of the growth plan pertaining to timelines holds municipalities accountable to their intensification targets “within the life of this Plan”—in this case, by 2031.

Are municipalities required to achieve their density targets by 2031? Or do they merely need to have plans for reaching those targets in place by 2031 with a future completion date to be determined?

North York skyline. Photo by gbarill from the Torontoist Flickr pool.

North York skyline. Photo by gbarill from the Torontoist Flickr pool.

It’s a minor distinction, Eby writes in the report, but has important implications for how land needs assessments will be crafted. And the province’s effort to address this confusion in their updated growth plan from May 2016 isn’t good enough.

“Municipalities, the development industry and the Ontario Municipal Board need clear, unequivocal direction from the Province on this matter,” the report states, while maintaining the overall objective of reducing sprawl.

Friends of the Greenbelt CEO Burkhard Mausberg likened the ‘plan to achieve’ confusion to a university student spending four years figuring out how to achieve a degree, rather than actually obtaining it.

“It should be the same in planning for growth,” he said, adding, “the idea is you achieve the targets by the planning horizon so people can move into those homes.”

What It All Means

What’s at stake is nothing less than prime farmland, providing appropriate housing for Ontario’s ageing population (and young professionals alike) while creating the kind of walkable, mixed-use communities where personal vehicles aren’t the only viable way of getting around—not to mention the importance of building sustainable communities to reduce the province’s greenhouse gas emissions.

The Eby report is recommending that, in addition to closing these loopholes in the growth plan, Queen’s Park freeze all urban boundary expansions until the 2016 census data is released.

The hope is that growth forecasts, relying on the latest data and adhering to the growth plan’s density and intensification targets, will help Ontario build the kind of cities it needs to thrive.

The organization Environmental Defence agrees.

“The requirements of Ontario’s Growth Plan are being gamed,” wrote Erin Shapero, greenbelt and smart growth program manager at Environmental Defence.

“This manipulation of the system must stop,” she said in a release.

“If Ontario is serious about stopping costly sprawl…the revised Growth Plan must close this loophole and freeze municipal urban boundary expansions for the next 10 years, until the next review of the Growth Plan.”