Smart Growth and Places to Grow

Development trends in the late 1990s and early 21st century

The OGTA planning reports had little impact on the overall development pattern of the GTA. Despite the enthusiasm of suburban local and regional municipalities for nodes, most of the nodes designated in official plans remained concepts on paper only (see Regional Planning Commissioners of Ontario, 2003: 2). Even the established nodes (with the exception of North York Centre) stalled in terms of employment growth from the early 1990s onwards. In the first years of the decade, they were victims of a deep recession that caused office vacancies to skyrocket across the GTA. But when the economy recovered, most office development bypassed nodes, and downtown Toronto itself, opting for suburban locales with ample free surface parking.

By the beginning of the 21st century, nodes had reached a stage in their development where little additional space was available for free surface parking (Berridge, 2002: 6). Moreover, although nodes provided excellent access to expressways, so did many other suburban employment locations. Taxes that far exceeded those of outer-suburban jurisdictions represented another impediment to development for nodes in Toronto relative to sites outside the city limits (Canadian Urban Institute, 2005). The trend in the GTA was for employment to locate in scattered suburban locations with excellent highway access, as it did elsewhere in North America (Lang, 2003). These circumstances account for slow development in nodes over the 1990s, until massive condominium development boosted development.

The recent wave of condo development mostly benefited areas within the urbanized perimeter, largely Toronto's core and three mature nodes: North York Centre, Mississauga City Centre, and Scarborough Town Centre (e.g., Toronto Star, 30 August 2003). Yet the flurry of residential development, coinciding with an absence of employment growth in these centres, may signal a redistribution of residential and employment areas across the metropolitan region. The traditional pattern, whereby people tend to live in lower-density areas and work in higher-density districts, may be in the process of reversing, with adverse consequences for GTA metropolitan-scale planning goals. Such a shift would further separate land uses, resulting in longer journeys to work. Moreover, a high proportion of work trips are done by car, given the dispersed nature of suburban employment, which represents a major impediment to the operation of public transit.

The gap between GTA development patterns and the OGTA vision ran deeper than the failure of nodes to attract employment. But it was perhaps in the retail sector that the distance between the planning vision and development trends was greatest.

With the arrival of big-box stores in the early 1990s, retailing became even more suburbanized and a more important generator of automobile trips than in the past. Almost all big-box stores were located in suburban locations with easy access to expressways and arterial roads and abundant space for parking. Big-box developments, either as self-standing structures or grouped into "power centres," represent the opposite of the mixed-use developments promoted in most official plans. Not only do they devote large areas to a single function -- retailing -- but each store generally specializes in only one type of merchandise (Hernandez, Biasiotto and Jones, 2003; Simmons and Hernandez, 2004a; 2004b). The impact on transportation can be substantial. While malls lend themselves to comparison-shopping and allow the purchase of a wide variety of goods under one roof, shoppers often have to drive from one big-box store to another to compare prices and find different categories of goods (Boykin and Lord, 1997).

These land use trends, allied with lifestyle changes, increased people's reliance on the car, especially for non-work trips. As the 1990s came to an end, traffic congestion and its damaging effect on quality of life and economic development were growing objects of preoccupation in the GTA, particularly in light of the forecast of 2 million additional residents over the next 20 years (see McLeod, 1999; Miller and Shalaby, 2003). There was a generalized sense in the media and among business people and politicians that increasing traffic congestion could jeopardize the economic growth in the region.

Such problems were not confined to Toronto. A number of U.S. local administrations either adopted or considered no-growth policies in the 1980s and 1990s in response to pressures from residents voicing their resentment towards the environmental, traffic, and financial problems caused by contemporary urban development (see Downs, 1992).

Smart growth

In large part, "smart growth" emerged as an alternative to no-growth policies, by proposing modifications to prevailing development to reduce its environmental impacts, alleviate congestion, and control infrastructure and service costs (APA, 2002; Benfield, Terris and Vorsager, 2001; Bolbier, 1998; Pim and Ornoy, 2002). The main targets of smart growth were urban sprawl and automobile reliance. Smart growth consisted of various measures to address urban form and transportation issues: limiting outward development; intensifying urbanized areas; developing public transit systems; making it more difficult and costly to use a car; and adopting land use patterns that encouraged transit use and walking. Smart growth advocates also promoted social equity, housing affordability, recreational uses that respect nature, and the preservation of heritage and natural features.

Notwithstanding variations in the breadth of the issues it encompassed and the reach of its proposals, the smart growth message was adopted in the United States, its country of origin, by a wide variety of state and municipal administrations, both Democrat and Republican. The combination of environmental, quality of life, and economic concerns facilitated the crossing of ideological boundaries. Among the most forceful proponents were the state governments of California, Maryland, New Jersey, and Oregon.

In 2002, the Mike Harris Conservative government in Ontario set up five regional panels to examine smart growth options for the province. One of these, the Central Zone Panel, was responsible for a territory that stretched from south of Algonquin Park to Fort Erie and from Waterloo Region to east of Peterborough. The zone, home to more than 7.5 million people, was expected to grow by 3 million people over the next 25 years. Finding ways to accommodate this growth in a fashion that respected the environment, was affordable, and maintained equity and quality of life was the mandate of the panel, which included local and regional politicians, business people, and representatives from public-sector agencies and environmental groups.

The business-as-usual scenario was rejected out of hand because of multiple adverse impacts projected for 30 years into the future: commuting trips that would take 45 per cent longer, mostly due to congestion; a marked deterioration in air quality; worsening delays in the movement of goods; and possibly higher taxes (IBI, 2002). The term "gridlock" was used to characterize the existing situation and future transportation conditions in the absence of corrective measures. A sub-panel of the Central Zone Panel was even named "Gridlock."

The Central Zone Panel produced a concept map illustrating its vision of the region in 2035. The map provided more detail than the OGTA sketch had done 10 years earlier. It delineated protected natural zones (the Niagara Escarpment and the Oak Ridges Moraine) and designated future urban areas as well as agricultural land under stress from growth pressures. The concept map also presented projected transportation networks for 2035, with a strong emphasis on public transit: TTC rail, GO rail, bus rapid transit, and inter-city and inter-regional rapid transit. With an ambiguity that was probably intended, the expressways were referred to as existing or proposed "economic corridors" (Ontario, 2003: 8).

As in the OGTA plan, nodes were an important feature of the vision. They were defined as "Discrete areas within urban centres that have compact, mixed-use (i.e., residential, commercial and industrial) development and that are linked by transit" (Ontario, 2003: 12). The map identified 26 nodes. These included traditional downtown areas of self-contained municipalities (Peterborough, Oshawa, Barrie, Guelph, Waterloo, Kitchener, Brantford, Hamilton, St. Catharines, Niagara Falls, and Fort Erie), traditional downtowns of communities within or near the edges of the contiguous built-up envelope around Toronto (Burlington, Oakville, Milton, and Newmarket), as well as existing or planned mixed-use centres (Yonge-Eglinton, North York Centre, Scarborough Centre, Etobicoke Centre, Pickering Town Centre, Markham Centre, Richmond Hill Langstaff Gateway, Vaughan Corporate Centre, Brampton City Centre, and Mississauga City Centre). The map portrayed the strategic location of nodes at the meeting of, or on, major transportation routes (Ontario, 2003: 8). By the very nature of the nodes it designated, the vision implied the existence of different categories of nodes.

The Central Zone Panel also borrowed the concept of urban corridors from the OGTA documents, which it described as follows:

Transportation corridors within urban centres or within the metropolis that link nodes to each other. They have compact development along their length. Yonge Street in Toronto is an example of an urban corridor (Ontario, 2003: 12).

The Smart Growth planning initiative was truncated by the October 2003 election, in which the Conservatives were replaced by a Liberal government. In consequence, while the Central Zone Panel did produce a plan, its structuring concepts offered few technical specifications. What is more, the plan lacked an implementation strategy.

Places to Grow

Upon taking power, the Liberal government launched a similar metropolitan region planning initiative called "Places to Grow." To a large extent, this initiative took up where the previous one had ended. Indeed, most of the components of Places to Grow were borrowed from the Central Zone Panel plan. Similarities between the concepts that emanated from the two planning exercises are illustrated by a comparison of the maps they produced. Notwithstanding a minor time horizon difference (the Central Zone Panel presents a growth concept for 2035; Places to Grow presents one for 2031), there is a great deal of similarity between the two maps. (See Map 3 on page 27.) The nodes have been relabelled "urban growth centres" (UGCs) in Places to Grow, but are nearly all the same as those in the previous report, as are the major transportation links. Two differences between the concepts, however, are the much larger amount of protected green space in Places to Grow and its clearer definition of urban growth areas.

The Liberal government planning initiative was also distinguished by the relative rapidity with which legislation meant to strengthen the province's growth control capacity in the Greater Golden Horseshoe (GGH) was adopted.4 In February 2005, the Greenbelt Act, which gave the provincial government the power to delineate the Greenbelt and control land uses within it, was given royal assent (Ontario, 2005a). The Greenbelt covers 1.8 million acres (728,430 hectares) of land, including 800,000 acres (323,750 hectares) under the jurisdiction of the Niagara Escarpment Plan and the Oak Ridges Moraine Conservation Plan.

In June 2005, the Places to Grow Act received royal assent (Ontario, 2005b). In essence, the act gives the provincial government the ability to establish "growth plans" specifying policies for urban growth and land use in defined areas. The act requires regional and municipal official plans to comply with policies contained in provincial plans. The Growth Plan for the Greater Golden Horseshoe is the first such growth plan.5

The Growth Plan for the Greater Golden Horseshoe shares the concerns that drove the previous Smart Growth process:

* delays in the movement of goods due to traffic congestion, causing an economic loss of $5 billion a year (Ontario, 2006a: 7);

* high infrastructure expenses, which could be reduced by 20 per cent with higher density and more concentrated development (Ontario, 2006a: 22);

* degradation of the natural environment (Ontario, 2006a: 30);

* a relation between land use and transportation that is inimical to public transit and favourable to the car and thus likely to increase traffic congestion (Ontario, 2006a: 8).

Map 3: Urban Growth Centres designated in Places to Grow

Places to Grow policies rest on an updated version of the employment and demographic projections used in the Smart Growth planning exercise. Between 2001 and 2031, the population within the GGH is forecast to grow from 7.8 to 11.5 million, and the number of jobs from 3.8 to 5.6 million (Hemson Consulting, 2005).

Unlike the previous administration, the Liberal government appears willing to rely on strict regulations to achieve its development control objectives. Some of the most prominent, and possibly difficult to reach, among these objectives are the mixing of residential and employment uses, the raising of density to a transit-supportive level, and the requirement that all upper- and single-tier municipalities direct 40 per cent of residential development to their existing built-up area by 2015 (Ontario, 2006a: 4).

Urban Growth Centres (UGCs) are a crucial part of the GGH settlement strategy because they can accommodate some of the growth within the perimeter of existing built-up areas and help create an urban environment conducive to transit use, cycling, and walking. Merely requiring a substantial share of forecast development to occur within the urbanized perimeter would be insufficient on its own to reach density and modal share objectives and to bring vitality to suburban environments. The Growth Plan gives a primary role to UGCs among intensification areas. Such areas also include "major transit station areas" and "intensification corridors."

UGCs are defined as:

typically core metropolitan areas and significant economic hubs that serve as destinations with a regional focus. They currently have or are planned to have high- and medium-density residential areas, mixed-use areas, office areas, retail areas, and regeneration areas. They perform a regional services function, and as such have good inter-regional transportation connections (transit and/or automobile) (Ontario, 2005c: 1).

The UGCs were selected on the basis of their potential to accommodate growth in a mixed-use and compact environment.6 (The removal of two nodes -- downtown Niagara Falls and downtown Fort Erie -- from the Central Zone Panel's list was motivated by the anticipation of slow growth in that area, which would make it difficult for these nodes to attract substantial development.) The proximity of major transportation routes, public transit or expressways, integration with the local transit system, as well as infrastructure capacity also accounts for the selection of UGCs.

Differences between categories of UGCs were recognized in a background paper, which described two broad types. "Priority" centres are "recognized as already-functioning urban centres providing regional services, containing existing infrastructure and with established transportation linkages" (Ontario, 2005c: 3). "Emerging" centres are identified in municipal planning documents or possess some characteristics of regional centres. Emerging centres have the potential to evolve into full-fledged regional centres by accommodating substantial growth (Ontario, 2005c: 3). However, these distinctions were not incorporated in the final plan.

Places to Grow further acknowledges that UGCs can be broken down into other categories, including traditional downtown areas,7 planned mixed-use centres that have attained various levels of development, and proposed centres that have yet to materialize. UGCs can also be differentiated on the basis of their size. As specified in the 2005 discussion paper on UGCs, their areas range from 3 km2 (Yonge-Eglinton) to 26 km2 (Richmond Hill/Langstaff Gateway). Another source of difference among UGCs is their density. The highest residential and employment density is found in downtown Toronto (233 people and jobs per hectare) and the lowest in the Vaughan Corporate Centre (25 people and jobs per hectare). (See Ontario, 2005c.)

The Draft Growth Plan expressed an awareness of the need for different approaches to deal with these contrasting circumstances, but did not elaborate on this point (Ontario, 2005d: 18). The recognition of the necessity for approaches tailored to the variety of conditions found across the GGH was also mirrored in the proposal for sub-area growth strategies (Ontario, 2005d: 42-44). These strategies are to "address variable contexts, interests, issues, and challenges to implementing the Plan's vision and policies"(Ontario, 2005d: 42). In the Growth Plan as enacted, the approximate size and location of UGCs is to be established by the Minister of Public Infrastructure Renewal, in consultation with "other Ministers of the Crown, municipalities and other stakeholders" (Ontario, 2006a: 35).

The Growth Plan also mentions "intensification corridors," which are defined as resulting from increased residential and employment densities along existing or planned transit services (Ontario, 2005d: 43). The plan does not identify different categories of intensification corridors. In addition, the distinction between UGCs and intensification corridors is not always clear, especially in UGCs that cover a very large area.

4. The Greater Golden Horseshoe comprises the GTA (the City of Toronto and the Regional Municipalities of Halton, Peel, York, and Durham), the Cities of Hamilton and Kawartha Lakes, the Regional Municipalities of Niagara and Waterloo, and Haldimand, Brant, Wellington, Dufferin, Simcoe, Peterborough, and Northumberland Counties.
5. It should be noted that the provincial government has long maintained the right to establish provincial land use plans to which municipal plans must conform. Plans in effect include the Parkway Belt West Plan (1978), the Niagara Escarpment Plan (1985), the Oak Ridge Moraine Conservation Plan (2001), the Greenbelt Plan (2005), the Growth Plan for the Greater Golden Horseshoe (2006), and the Central Pickering Development Plan (2006).
6. Given the near-perfect overlap between the nodes of the Central Zone Panel and Places to Grow's Urban Growth Centres, the latter exercise can be perceived as essentially adding criteria to justify a selection that had already taken place.
7. Most mid-size city downtowns have been the object of successive redevelopment and revitalization initiatives. It is, however, with the recent Smart Growth and Places to Grow exercises that downtowns have been given a regional structuring role.