Planning Policy: A balancing of interests

I was recently invited to a forum in Quebec City to share Neptis research and my knowledge of the Ontario land use planning system with more than 100 civil society representatives advocating for a provincial policy for land use and urban planning to address societal challenges in Quebec.  

The Forum was organized by the Ariane Alliance, a coalition of organizations that seeks a more robust provincial role in Quebec's planning legislation and policy directions. The Alliance has composed a declaration to describe this vision.

The Forum was a response to a planning policy review by the Quebec government, which is considering increasing autonomy in local decision-making as part of its planning reforms, a move praised by local politicians.[1] Many Forum participants expressed concern that going too far down this path would lead to ad hoc planning, in which competing local interests could usurp broader provincial priorities, such as environmental sustainability, human health, and economic prosperity linked to a greener economy.

Marcy Burchfield, Executive Director, Neptis Foundation speaks at Ariane Alliance forum 

The Forum's two co-chairs, Sylvie Bernier and Yves-Thomas Dorval, set the stage for the day by emphasizing the importance of a provincial vision.

Ms. Bernier, a former Olympic diving champion and an advocate for healthy lifestyles, made a connection between health and the built environment. She argued for the need to deliberately create a built environment that would make it easy to live a heathy lifestyle. She noted that land use planning is not on the public's radar, yet policies influencing the built environment often have a greater impact on health outcomes than many public health programs.

Mr. Dorval, President and CEO of the Council of Quebec Employers, argued for a common vision that would promote the economic, social, and environmental vitality of  Quebec. It would also support initiatives like Alliance Switch, which works to accelerate a shift toward a greener economy.   

Forum attendees sought to identify points of convergence on what a provincial vision of land use and urban planning could look like. The discussion focused on how a provincial vision would play out in a large and diverse territory containing two metropolitan regions and many rural municipalities. Central to this discussion was the need to respect local autonomy and knowledge without losing sight of a broader provincial vision for Quebec.

This concern about finding the right balance of planning policy between what is often described as "the heavy hand of the province" versus the need for local municipal autonomy is not unique to Quebec. I was invited to speak on this issue in the Ontario context.

In Ontario, provincial interest in land use planning policy has waxed and waned over the last 25 years. A Conservative government under Premier Mike Harris loosened provincial oversight of planning in the mid-1990s with the revision of the Provincial Policy Statement. Yet by the early 2000s, the same government indicated a provincial interest in land use planning in the Toronto region by establishing the Oak Ridges Moraine Conservation Plan, embracing "smart growth," and promoting regionally coordinated planning.

In 2005, the Liberal government built on these initiatives with the Greenbelt Plan and the introduction of the Places to Grow Act, which allowed the Province to initiate regional plans anywhere in Ontario. In 2015 the pendulum swung in favour of municipal decision-making with the introduction of the Smart Growth Communities Act, followed later by reforms to the Ontario Municipal Board that limited the kinds of appeals that can be made to a municipal official plan. However, provincial interest is maintained by requiring that municipal official plans be "consistent with" provincial plans and policies.

Finding the balance between the provincial and municipal roles in planning will always be a challenge, given Canada's governance system. Residents and business experience the effects of land use planning at the local level. However, complex issues - such as congestion, climate change, economic prosperity, and housing affordability - must be tackled at a larger scale. Without a regional government in a metropolitan area such as the wider Toronto region, it is up to the Province to define a larger and coordinated vison for land use planning.

The Ontario experience resonated with Forum attendees. The need for a stronger provincial role was echoed by a range of representatives, from a CN Rail executive to the director of the David Suzuki Foundation in Quebec, both of whom understood the value of provincial leadership and a clear and coherent vision. There was agreement that the complexity of today's issues requires provincial leadership to ensure that all communities benefit from a higher quality of life.

However, an imbalance is sure to ensue if the Province imposes provincial initiatives without supporting municipalities through the implementation of plans and policies. Guidance on interpretation, education, and consultation with the public are necessary to get planning policy right. The Provincial role does not end with release of a policy or plan.

Excerpt from "Tirer des lecons de l'exemple ontarien," Le Devoir, February 28, 2018

Marcy Burchfield is Executive Director of the Neptis Foundation. Special thanks to Samuel Page-Plouffe from Ariane Alliance and Vivre en Ville for the invitation to speak and to Catherine Craig-St-Louis for her skillful translations all day.

[1] "Quebec revisiting land use planning regulations," Renew Magazine, September 15, 2017. Accessed on March 2, 2018