The Growth Plan for the Greater Golden Horseshoe: A regional vision under pressure

Just how much land has been set aside to be urbanized in the Greater Toronto Region in the coming decades?

What is the status of the implementation of Ontario’s innovative, ambitious and award-winning Growth Plan that is designed to promote “smart growth and curb sprawl”?

What are the key challenges and issues that have become apparent as municipalities translate provincial population forecasts, density and intensification targets into land budgets to determine how much land will be urbanized to accommodate residents and jobs?

These are just a few of the questions addressed in a new report released by the Neptis Foundation, the first comprehensive review of the implementation of Ontario’s award-winning Growth Plan. The report finds that that this innovative plan is under pressure, behind schedule, and faced with serious challenges that undermine its stated goals.

The report, based on a detailed examination of municipal and provincial planning documents throughout the Greater Golden Horseshoe, provides the first complete calculation of how much new land in total will be urbanized to accommodate an additional 3.7 million residents in the region by 2031. The total is 107,100 hectares (1,071 sq km) , an area more than one and a half times the size of the City of Toronto. This is slightly more than the amount specified in the government’s own call to action in 2004, an amount that would be urbanized under “business-as-usual” development patterns. The Growth Plan was established in 2006 to change these patterns.

Two troubling findings indicate how it came about that more land is being slated for urbanization than might have been intended by the Plan:

  1. Nearly half of the land available for urbanization across the Greater Golden Horseshoe lies in the Outer Ring, outside the Greenbelt, even though the Outer Ring is expected to attract only one-third as many new residents and one-quarter as many jobs as the Inner Ring. What this means is that the Outer Ring municipalities (with the exception of Waterloo Region), many of which do not offer transportation alternatives to the private automobile and do not have well-developed water, sewer, and other infrastructure, will be permitted to replicate the kind of low-density, car-oriented development patterns that have led to problems in the Inner Ring.
  2. Within the Greater Toronto Area and Hamilton (Inner Ring), where the investment of billions of dollars in transit and other infrastructure is being contemplated, only one regional municipality (Peel) is planning to exceed the minimum targets set out by the Plan. The targets consist of a minimum intensification rate (40% of all new residential development is to be directed to already built-up areas), and a minimum greenfield development density (50 persons and jobs per hectare combined) for currently undeveloped lands. Yet Ontario Ministry of Transportation’s Transit-Supportive Guidelines, published in 2012, suggest that 50 people and jobs combined can support only “basic transit service,” let alone frequent or rapid transit service.

The report also notes that much work remains to be done to address major issues that have arisen during the implementation of the plan:

  • Given the lack of clear guidelines on how municipalities must proceed and battles over the language of the Plan at the Ontario Municipal Board, the adoption of the Growth Plan has produced a patchwork of differing approaches to growth management throughout the Greater Golden Horseshoe, rather than a coordinated regional approach.
  • Variations in the way municipalities calculate how much land is to be set aside for urbanization have led to inconsistencies in the way the Growth Plan is being implemented.
  • The Growth Plan has allowed some fast-growing municipalities to adopt lower intensification and density targets than certain smaller, slower-growing municipalities.

The report concludes that despite claims that the Growth Plan has constrained the land supply in the region, sufficient land has been set aside to accommodate population and employment at average densities similar to those that are typical today. If those densities were to increase, the current land supply would last even longer.

The findings in the report are intended to inform the 10-year-review of the Growth Plan by the Ministry of Infrastructure in 2016.

The full report can be found here.

For more information and media enquiries about the report please contact Marcy L. Burchfield, Director of Research Programming & Communications with the Neptis Foundation at mburchfield@neptis.org or 416-972-9199 x 2.

About the Neptis Foundation

The Neptis Foundation is an independent, privately capitalized charitable foundation located in Toronto, Ontario, Canada which conducts and disseminates nonpartisan research, analysis and mapping related to the design and function of Canadian urban regions. We aim to inform and to improve policy and decision-making around regional urban growth and management.