The big picture about land use and why it matters

Ontario's Growth Plan for the Greater Golden Horseshoe aims to curb sprawl with a set of targets and policies that encourage more compact and mixed use communities and direct growth to areas where water, sewer, transit, roads and other such infrastructure already exist.

But how the Growth Plan is being implemented has been difficult to evaluate because there is no sense of just how much new land is being considered for urbanization across the region.

The Province has released little cumulative information on the progress of 21 single- and upper-tier municipalities and 89 lower-tier municipalities as they adopt and implement the Plan's requirements.

Location of Land Designated for Growth in the Greater Golden Horseshoe

The result is that there's no big picture, no sense of how municipalities compare with one other, and how the various municipal plans all add up. Without hard numbers, it can be easy to make claims about the effects of the Growth Plan without providing evidence to back up those claims.

One such claim is that the Growth Plan has constrained the land supply which a new Neptis report has found is not the case.

It focuses on the three key elements of the plan: the allocation of population forecasts by the province to municipalities, minimum intensification targets in built up areas, and minimum density targets on undeveloped land.

The report provides the first comprehensive answer to the big question: just how much land is going to be urbanized across the region in the coming decades?

The report found an additional 107,100 hectares or 1,071 square kilometres, an area more than one and a half times the size of the City of Toronto, has been set aside during the life of the Plan to accommodate the 3.7 million people who are expected to move into the Greater Golden Horseshoe. That is an area 32 per cent larger than the 329,800 hectares1 that were already built up when the Plan was established in 2006.

Knowing how much new land is being urbanized is important, because it allows us to know how much land is being consumed, where growth will occur, and at what rate. It also provides a benchmark to assess what progress has been made in managing growth with the adoption of the Growth Plan.

Two years before the Growth Plan for the Greater Golden Horseshoe was established, a government discussion paper highlighted concerns about sprawl and shone light on the thinking behind the plan:

If we continue to consume land for urban development at the rate we have been for the past three decades, we will jeopardize the financial, social and environmental factors that make the region so attractive to new residents and new economic growth. Business-as-usual development will consume 1,000 sq km [sic] of primarily agricultural land by 2031, an area twice the size of Toronto.

That figure of 1,000 sq. km was the conclusion of a 2002 Neptis report on the rate of land consumption under "business-as-usual" planning and development conditions. That study upon which the provincial estimate was based differs in some ways from the research conducted in the Neptis report which focused on a slightly smaller land area and used employment and population forecasts that were lower than those used in the Growth Plan.

The striking fact remains that even after these differences are accounted for, the Neptis calculation shows that roughly the same amount land will be urbanized as a result of the Growth Plan as the amount forecast under "business-as-usual" conditions.

The finding raises questions about whether the Province's strategic regional vision to curb sprawl, relieve congestion, and improve livability has been compromised.

The Neptis report states:

It is also interesting to compare these findings with claims by the development industry that the Growth Plan is restricting the supply of land and thereby driving up the price of housing.2 On the contrary, the Growth Plan is not restricting the amount of land available for development. Through the process of bringing municipal planning documents into conformity with the Growth Plan, municipalities have designated almost the same amount of land under the Growth Plan as they might have without the Growth Plan.

It is only through a comprehensive review and update that we can truly track progress towards the goals of the plan. The Province is required to undertake such a review of the Growth Plan in 2016, the tenth anniversary of the Plan's establishment. This analysis is intended to inform that review.

More information on the section of the report that deals with The Big Picture can be found here.

The full report can be found here.

A summary of the paper can be found here.

1. Ontario Ministry of Infrastructure, Built Boundary for the Growth Plan for the Greater Golden Horseshoe, 2006 (2008).
2. See, for example, Gary Gregoris and Andrew Sjogren, "Constrained land supply: A community builder's perspective," Ontario Planning Journal, vol. 26, no. 6, November/December 2012, p. 3. The authors state: "Some of the unintended consequences [of the Growth Plan] include increased land costs, shortage of building lots and blocks which has led to rising home prices, putting home ownership beyond the means of many young Ontarians. It has also limited or prevented investment, job creation and economic growth and development."