Misalignment of growth and infrastructure means Growing Pains for the GTHA

In August 2014, newspaper headlines trumpeted the "Manhattanization" of Toronto. City Council, in the span of two days, approved 18 new high-rise apartment and office buildings in downtown Toronto, on top of 70,000 residential units already approved for construction. But what happens in downtown Toronto is only a small part of a much larger story of growth across the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area (GTHA).

A new Neptis report titled Growing Pains: Understanding the New Reality of Population and Dwelling Patterns in the Toronto and Vancouver Regions by Marcy Burchfield and Anna Kramer provides the missing regional context and identifies some worrying trends:

  • The GTHA is growing mostly through greenfield development, not intensification: Using data from the census and geographical analysis of remote sensing data, the authors found that of the 1 million people added to the GTHA between 2001 and 2011 only 14% were accommodated through intensification. In other words, despite downtown Toronto's condo boom, 86% of the net new population was housed in new suburban subdivisions built on the edges of the GTHA. Most growth takes the form of single detached homes in areas without roads, transit, water and sewer, and other services, all of which must be constructed to support growth.
  • Growth in the GTHA is going mainly to areas without transit, and outside Urban Growth Centres: Only 18% of net new residents were located in areas within easy walking distance of frequent transit (corridors with transit service every 15 minutes or less), while the areas around GO stations accommodated 10% of the region's net new population. Urban Growth Centres identified in the Growth Plan for the Greater Golden Horseshoe, which are supposed to accommodate significantly higher amounts of intensification, accounted for only 13% of net new residents across the region.
  • Many established urban areas are losing population: Areas with good access to transit, where infrastructure and services are already in place, lost population between 2001 and 2011. These include central Toronto, Oshawa, and Hamilton, as well as suburban municipalities such as Oakville and Brampton, where an overall net loss in population in established urban areas was accompanied by substantial gain in population in greenfield areas.
  • Population loss in established urban area is not occurring in Metro Vancouver: The Vancouver region's ability to maintain its urban population can be partly attributed to the composition of its housing stock. Over the last 20 years, the region has achieved a greater balance between single detached dwellings, attached dwellings (townhouses, semi-detached houses, and duplexes), and mid- and high-rise apartments and condos.

The following map shows population loss and gain throughout the GTHA between 2001 and 2011.


The changes have occurred against the backdrop of a national trend of declining household sizes, which means that dwellings are being built at a faster rate than the growth in population. Between 2001 and 2011, in the GTHA, the number of dwellings grew by 23%, while net population increased by only 18%. This trend is particularly noticeable in established urban areas, where the net increase in dwellings was 46%, but the net increase in population was only 14%. We call this trend "running hard to stand still," because maintaining a steady population means building new housing at a rapid rate.

The following chart shows where these gains and losses have occurred at the municipal level.


The trend signals changing demographics that should be considered in the policy reviews of the Growth Plan for the Greater Golden Horseshoe and The Big Move transportation plan currently under way. Fiscal and sustainability challenges will mount if built-up areas with infrastructure already in place lose more population, and growth continues to go to greenfield sites where expensive new infrastructure must be added.

The authors offer insights for those reviews by comparing the growth management patterns, practices, and policies in the GTHA with those of Metro Vancouver, which has a longer history of managing regional growth. The authors found key differences:

  • Metro Vancouver has introduced a strategic approach to growth through intensification that directs more new residents to areas with frequent transit service. By contrast, the Growth Plan for the Greater Golden Horseshoe has generalized intensification targets that do not direct intensification to locations in which it would have the greatest benefit. There are currently 107,100 hectares of land designated for development across the Greater Golden Horseshoe until 2031. If municipalities act more strategically by directing growth to areas where infrastructure already exists or is being expanded, those 107,100 hectares could last well beyond 2031.
  • In Metro Vancouver, a defined Urban Containment Boundary acts as a brake on outward development. No such boundary exists in the Growth Plan.
  • In Metro Vancouver, transportation and land use planning are carried out in tandem. In the Toronto region, the Growth Plan is not closely integrated with the regional transportation plan, The Big Move, partly because the transportation plan was prepared after the Growth Plan was introduced. Neither plan attempts to direct a certain percentage of growth to specific transit-accessible locations across the region.
  • Metro Vancouver is a regional body that coordinates services across municipalities in the Vancouver region. This body acts as a convener of local stakeholders and municipalities who have to buy into the regional plan so that local interests do not trump the regional perspective. In Ontario, the Province established the Growth Plan, but left its implementation to municipalities, without ensuring region-wide coordination of their decisions.

If Ontario is serious about promoting smart growth, it needs to do more with what it already has. This includes changing the housing mix in greenfield developments, directing more growth to transit corridors, and paying attention to crucial growth trends far beyond the "Manhattanization" of downtown Toronto.

Correction: This article was updated on 27 May 2015. The original chart comparing the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area and Metro Vancouver contained an error inserted during the design process. That chart has now been replaced with the correct figures.