Places to Grow and The Big Move: The view from the Netherlands

This guest blog post by Florian Langstraat, a graduate student in Urban Studies at the University of Amsterdam, the Netherlands, provides an international perspective on planning in Ontario. It is based on the results of a cross-national research project comparing the impact of regional-level, long-term planning visions in Greater Toronto, Canada, and the Randstad, the Netherlands. Florian's research was not commissioned or sponsored by the Neptis Foundation and is solely the work of the author.

By Florian Langstraat

The publication of the Province's Growth Plan for the Greater Golden Horseshoe in 2006 and Metrolinx's transportation plan, The Big Move, in 2008 marked the return of long-range, region-wide planning in Ontario. Expectations were high when the Growth Plan and The Big Move came out, but recently, questions have been asked about how effective these two plans have been (see, for example, the evaluations of the Growth Plan and The Big Move published by the Neptis Foundation in 2013).

Figure 1: The Greater Golden Horseshoe in context (Source: Neptis Foundation)

My recently completed research project comparing the Growth Plan and The Big Move to two similar plans in the Netherlands provides some insight into the plan's origins and implementation. The report is based on in-depth interviews with planners and other stakeholders in the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area (GTHA) and in the Netherlands. This blog summarizes the main lessons for the Greater Toronto region.

Overall, my report concludes that the Growth Plan contained some strategic weaknesses at the time of its release, and does still, so its impact was not as great as it might have been. Nevertheless, the Plan is generally viewed positively, and overall it has had a beneficial impact on planners and on planning in the region.

The story for The Big Move is slightly different. High hopes were placed on Metrolinx's strategy initially, but problems in the follow-up phase after 2008 have limited the impact it has had on the region. If these problems are not resolved, The Big Move may end up largely ineffective.

Places to Grow: three lessons learned

A first important observation for the Growth Plan is that there were major champions who helped create momentum for the plan. Respondents named champions at the political level, such as the Mississauga mayor Hazel McCallion and then-minister David Caplan. Their leadership proved to be an important factor. As one interviewee put it:

"They were really strong and kind of pushing it." (Interview 1)

There was also praise for the staff leading the Places to Grow creation process:

"They were four extremely dynamic people, and they were the ones who were piloting all that, coming up with the ideas, bringing all the ideas together, being there at the public meetings. They were everywhere over that period." (Interview 1)

The second important lesson concerns the Growth Plan's implementation framework. The requirement that municipalities plan for a certain number of people and jobs per hectare combined is considered problematic, given the vagaries of the office market and of other forms of commercial real estate. This element of the Plan frustrates planners and leads to unintended consequences.

"[Municipal planners] have had to jack up the residential densities to a stage where it's a numbers game, and you're actually not getting the kind of development that you really wanted." (Interview 14)

This comment serves as a reminder that the numbers are supposed to be only a means to an end. The important question is not just whether the numerical targets in the Growth Plan are too high or too low, but whether they provide enough guidance to distinguish between effective and ineffective growth management. In the words of one respondent:

"Fifty people and jobs per hectare, what does that look like on the ground? Is that just 50 people or just 50 jobs, or 49 people and 1 job, or is that 200 jobs in one place and 1 job somewhere else? So I think absolutely, [it's] great that they have this number, but how does that play out in terms of changing these development patterns? Have we just instituted this number for the sake of instituting a number?" (Interview 3)

Third, and perhaps most important, the targets represent a one-size-fits-all approach, treating all municipalities equally irrespective of their size. Some observers feel that the plan could have been more strategic, and perhaps should have encompassed a smaller region. For some municipalities in the Outer Ring, the targets are very difficult to achieve, while for most in the Inner Ring, they are hardly a departure from business-as-usual. Respondents in some municipalities indicated they were already ahead of the Province in their growth management efforts, while others continue to struggle:

"Brampton is going to have 410,000 people move there in the next 20 years, but we're treating them like Brant County or Haldimand County (...). It's just a broad strokes plan. It could've been so much more strategic in focusing efforts towards where it makes the biggest difference." (Interview 3)

The Big Move: three lessons learned

A first observation related to The Big Move is that is a brokered plan made up of previous transportation plans from various municipalities. This approach sped up the planning process and made it easier for Metrolinx to get buy-in, but the resulting plan has been criticized as lacking imagination and being insufficiently evidence-based:

"It was give and take, (...) it wasn't perfect at all. But it was a consensus document that for once we had a regional transportation plan that everybody could buy into." (Interview 12)

"Basically it was a gathering up of every idea that anybody had ever had, and putting it in one pile, and saying, 'That's our plan.' It didn't have a lot of assessment, or judgement related to cost-effectiveness." (Interview 6)

Figure 2: The 15-Year Plan from The Big Move by Metrolinx (Source: Metrolinx)

Second, Metrolinx was established as an agency at arm's length from politics, but it has failed to be sufficiently independent due to a lack of strong leadership. This weakness has undermined the initial enthusiasm among stakeholders for Metrolinx and The Big Move. Many respondents feel there are no clear champions for the plan:

"I think that's one very important lesson. You have to have independence in the organization, it has to have leadership which is politically independent and has to be ready to be fired." (Interview 24)

Finally, an important question surrounding The Big Move is the question of funding. Although the province announced funding for certain projects (five years after the plan was established), there are still questions about the source of the money and about some elements of the plan, which has led to frustration among planners in the municipalities in the GTHA, who have to plan in a context of ongoing uncertainty. As one of them put it:

"We are struggling to put the appropriate plan in place for the area encompassing the Mobility Hub in our downtown Urban Growth Centre. As part of our budget process we are trying to allocate some money for a mobility hub study. The challenge for our Planning Department is justifying the expenditure to our financial treasurer, because there is no commitment from Metrolinx [that] the GO Transit line will be extended [to our downtown]. The property hasn't even been purchased by Metrolinx for the mobility hub. How can our municipality spend money and resources on an extensive planning study if we don't know for sure if it will be implemented? It is very challenging to operate in this environment of uncertainty." (Interview 22)

It seems that because of this uncertainty, the shared momentum across the region The Big Move had in 2008 has been damaged.

"They kept talking about it for five years after the plan was adopted. Here you have five full years go by, after you have unanimous approval for a plan for the region, and you've lost the momentum." (Interview 12)

Now that provincial funding for The Big Move has been announced, some of the biggest concerns about the future of the plan may have been alleviated. However, given the questions over the provincial deficit and the implementation of some of the projects, it is not yet clear if the momentum from 2008 can be fully regained.

Turning the oil tanker

The research makes it clear that the impacts of the Growth Plan and The Big Move on the region so far are not as great as they might have been. Particularly in the case of The Big Move, there is a chance that large parts of the vision will not be realized if nothing changes. Both the Growth Plan and The Big Move are both up for legislative review in 2016, which provides an excellent opportunity to address some of the issues that have constrained their impact in the region so far.

Yet this is not to say that the two plans have been a complete disappointment. The Growth Plan and The Big Move have provided overall goals that the region can work towards, and have fostered a timely dialogue about the future of growth, congestion, and transit in a very diverse region. Both documents are perhaps best seen as the first instruments for a region-wide transition to a different path. Achieving that transition will take effort, and above all, time. Or, in the words of one respondent:

"What we're doing here is like turning an oil tanker. It just moves slowly ahead, and to turn it takes forever." (Interview 18)

About the study

This guest blog post is based on the results of a cross-national research project comparing the impact of regional-level, long-term planning visions in Ontario, Canada, and the Randstad, the Netherlands. The four cases for the study are Places to Grow and The Big Move in the Greater Toronto region, and Metropoolregio Amsterdam Duurzaam Bereikbaar and Masterplan Rotterdam Vooruit in the Randstad region. The study compares the creation of these Canadian and Dutch visions and their subsequent impact on planning in the regions in question. The data on which the report is based comes from two sources: semi-structured interviews with stakeholders in the region and secondary documents. This blog post focuses on the main lessons coming out of the analysis for both Places to Grow and The Big Move.

About the author

Florian Langstraat is a graduate student in Urban Studies at the University of Amsterdam, the Netherlands. He has previously studied at the University of Toronto; University College, London, U.K.; and Utrecht University, the Netherlands.

The Canadian part of this research project took place from September 2013 to January 2014, and was sponsored by the Association for Canada Studies in the Netherlands (

For more information on the report please contact Florian Langstraat at florianlangstraat [at] gmail [dot] com, or +31 6418 336 08.