Inching Toward Sustainability

Urban structure determines many of the things that affect the daily lives of those who live in cities, from the method of and amount of time spent commuting, to access to recreational opportunities outside the city, to property taxes and real estate prices.

Although those who study cities agree that urban structure does affect these things, there is no consensus on exactly how it does so. In particular, there is considerable debate on the effects of urban sprawl: some observers state that sprawl increases commuting times, and destroys farmland and environmentally sensitive areas; others argue that it reduces commuting times and allows for the creation of affordable housing. There is even disagreement on whether urban sprawl is, in fact, occurring in the Greater Toronto Area, or whether changes in development patterns in recent years have made sprawl a non-issue. It is not possible to settle these arguments with the currently available information, which makes it difficult to track changes in urban structure over time.

There is, however, widespread agreement on the need to ensure sustainable patterns of development. Sustainable development has been defined by the Brundtland Commission as development that meets the needs of today's population without compromising the needs of future generations. In Ontario, provincial policy and the official plans endorse the principle of sustainable planning, including support for alternatives to the automobile, the protection of farmland and environmentally significant lands, and the need to make efficient use of land and infrastructure.

In terms of urban form, these sustainable development goals mean:

  • making new development, particularly on the urban fringe, denser and more compact;
  • directing development to underused sites in already built-up areas ("reurbanization");
  • focusing more intense development on centres or "nodes" across the region.

These principles can be found, in various forms, in the 1996 Provincial Policy Statement, the Official Plan of the City of Toronto, and those of Halton, Peel, York and Durham regions.

This report describes the evolving urban structure of the Greater Toronto Area, using the information available, in an effort to determine whether development patterns are becoming more or less sustainable.