Planning policy mechanisms

The Toronto and Vancouver metropolitan regions are attempting to manage rapid growth by slowing down the rate of urban expansion onto undeveloped lands (greenfield development) and redirecting growth to existing urban areas (intensification). Both regions have used similar policy mechanisms to achieve the outcome of a more compact region, but the implementation and overall approach to these policy mechanisms have led to different results in each region. In this section, we summarize the policy approaches used in each region. For an extended discussion on the historical development of regional planning policy in each city-region, see Taylor and Burchfield (2010).

Urban containment

Urban containment, that is, the limiting of the outward growth of cities, can take the form of policies or of natural barriers to growth or both (Taylor and Burchfield 2010). In the Toronto region, Lake Ontario creates a natural barrier to growth; in the Vancouver region, the mountains, Pacific Ocean, and United States border do the same. In addition to these natural barriers, each region has chosen to designate large swaths of land for the protection of agriculture, wildlife, water resources, and ecologically sensitive areas. These are areas where policies prevent or limit urban development (see Figures 2 and 3).

The Province of Ontario established the Greenbelt Plan for the Toronto region in 2005. The Greenbelt protects and limits development on rural and ecologically sensitive lands, including the large landforms known as the Niagara Escarpment and the Oak Ridges Moraine.

In addition to the Greenbelt, the Growth Plan specifies that major development, whether greenfield or intensification, must be directed to an Urban Settlement Area, which includes areas for future urban expansion. The urban settlement areas are not, however, delineated in the Growth Plan itself, but are laid out in municipal official plans. Municipalities determine the extent of their own designated urban settlement areas through a process known as “land budgeting,” which determines how much land will be needed for greenfield development, taking into account population and employment projections, past trends of development, and the density and intensification targets in the Growth Plan.

British Columbia introduced the Agricultural Land Reserve (ALR) in 1973, which includes a large area within the Vancouver region. As part of the 1996 Livable Region Strategic Plan (LRSP), ecologically sensitive lands such as floodplains were added to the ALR to create a Green Zone, which has since functioned as a limit on urban expansion. Further urban containment was introduced in 1996 through the identification of a Growth Concentration Area, which is made up of the core areas of the largest municipalities and is where 70% of the region’s growth is to be directed by 2021.

Metro Vancouver comprehensively reviewed the policies in the LRSP and adopted a revised plan in 2011 called Metro 2040: Shaping Our Future. In our report, we refer to this plan as the 2011 regional growth strategy. This plan introduced the Urban Containment Boundary, which is essentially the area that is not part of the Green Zone or the ALR; the Urban Containment Boundary includes both urban and non-urban land. The plan proposes that the region’s growth to 2041 will occur within the Urban Containment Boundary through greenfield development and intensification (Metro Vancouver 2011).

The 2011 plan for Metro Vancouver established an Urban Containment Boundary within which growth will take place. The Growth Plan in the Toronto region does not delineate urban settlement areas.


There is no fixed definition of the term “intensification.” In this study we use the word to describe development that is directed to an existing urban (or built-up) area and thus the opposite of greenfield development. A number of policy mechanisms can achieve the goal of intensification and contribute to the wider planning goal of developing a more compact city-region.

In the Toronto region, residential intensification has long been generally, if vaguely, encouraged in documents such as the Provincial Policy Statement of 1996.[1] The 2006 Growth Plan introduced a more specific goal through a general intensification target: 40% of residential development for all upper- and single-tier municipalities must be directed to the existing built-up urban area (an area delimited by a boundary reflecting the extent of the built-up area as of 2006).

In the Toronto region, there is a lack of integration between the Growth Plan and the regional transportation plan.

Although the Growth Plan does not specify where intensification should occur within the existing urban area, it does suggest Urban Growth Centres (UGCs), major transit station areas, and intensification corridors as focal points for intensification. Building on earlier municipal plans, the Growth Plan identifies 25 UGCs, of which 17 are in the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area. These UGCs include urban nodes within the City of Toronto, downtown areas in smaller suburban cities, and as-yet-undeveloped suburban centres (Filion 2007). The Plan calls for minimum gross densities of between 150 to 400 people plus jobs per hectare by 2031 in these UGCs. There are no other location-specific targets. Municipalities are responsible for creating intensification strategies and policies in their official plans to achieve the intensification target every year after 2015 and the UGC density targets by 2031.

In the Vancouver region, intensification is implemented through complementary policy mechanisms. The Urban Containment Boundary includes both intensification and greenfield development areas and sets a target of accommodating 99% of all growth inside the Boundary between now and 2041.

Regional Town Centres have a long history in Vancouver’s regional and local plans, dating back to the 1970s (Taylor and Burchfield 2010). In 2011, a hierarchy of urban centres was introduced in the regional plan, which gave greater prominence to the Metropolitan Core in the City of Vancouver and the Surrey Metro Centre, while the other seven Regional Town Centres have been renamed Regional City Centres. The plan introduced an additional 17 Municipal Town Centres that represent “hubs of activity” (Metro Vancouver 2011). All urban centres are expected to accommodate 40% of dwelling growth and 50% of employment growth to 2041: these targets are meant to act as guidance for future regional and local planning. Metro Vancouver has also developed guidelines for the land use and transportation characteristics of the centres. The guidelines differentiate between centres that play a regional role versus those that play a more local role.

New to the 2011 regional growth strategy is the addition of Frequent Transit Development Areas. Frequent transit is defined as all-day bus, tram, or train service that runs at least every 15 minutes (TransLink, n.d.).[2] The Frequent Transit Development Areas along these routes are meant to accommodate 28% of new dwellings and 27% of employment growth by 2041. Like the urban centres, these targets are meant to guide future regional and local planning. Between the urban centres and Frequent Transit Development Areas, 77% of employment and 68% of residential growth will be directed to areas that are well served by transit.

Integration of land use and transportation

Both regions have adopted the concept of transit-oriented nodes and corridors in their plans as a focus for growth and have set targets in these policy areas.

The goal of nodal development policies is to gradually transform a region from a monocentric structure (in which people commute from the residential suburbs to a single downtown employment district) to a polycentric one (in which both jobs and housing are clustered in multiple centres). A polycentric structure can allow for more efficient and balanced use of a regional transit network because commuters are not all travelling in the same direction at peak hours. However, polycentric regions require transit networks that make it possible to commute to and from different centres. Most public transit in North American cities does not facilitate suburb-to-suburb or contra-flow peak travel.

Although both plans have transit-oriented development policies, only Metro Vancouver’s regional growth strategy directly integrates with its long-range regional transportation plan. An example of direct integration is the adoption of the Frequent Transit Development Area policy in the 2011 plan, a policy that directs growth along transit corridors defined by TransLink. The 2011 plan also sets out the roles and responsibilities for a range of stakeholders, including Metro Vancouver, local municipalities, TransLink, and provincial and federal governments, that suggest actions to be taken to support the Plan’s five main goals. The inclusion of explicit roles and responsibilities provide clear direction on how policies in the plan are to be implemented.

TransLink, established in 1998, is responsible for both planning and overseeing the operations of transit service in the region. TransLink also shares responsibility for the Major Roads Network and for cycling with the municipalities. Prior to its establishment, the Greater Vancouver Regional District (now Metro Vancouver) and the Province of British Columbia together had produced Transport 2021: Long-range Plan for Greater Vancouver (Transport Action BC n.d.). The Transport 2021 Plan was intended to reduce residents’ reliance on the private automobile and expand the range of alternative modes throughout the region. The Plan included the urban form goals found in the LRSP of 1996.

In 2008, TransLink produced an updated plan, Transport 2040: A Transportation Strategy for Metro Vancouver Now and in the Future (TransLink 2008). The Plan introduced the concept of the frequent transit network, which identifies existing and future transit routes on which vehicles run with frequent headways across the region. The Plan’s third strategic goal relates directly to land use, indicating that the majority of the region’s growth in employment and housing will occur along the frequent transit network (TransLink n.d.).

In the Toronto region, there is a lack of integration between the Growth Plan and the regional transportation plan. This is partly a matter of timing, since the creation of a regional transportation agency and long-range transportation plan came after the introduction of the Growth Plan.

The regional transit agency, Metrolinx (formerly called the Greater Toronto Transportation Authority), was established in 2006 by the Province of Ontario to improve the coordination and integration of transportation planning in the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area (GTHA). In 2009 it merged with GO Transit (the regional commuter rail and bus network), making it a transit operator, not just a transportation planning body. Moreover, many other municipal transit operators operate within the GTHA, of which the largest by far is the Toronto Transit Commission (TTC), making coordination difficult.[3]

In 2008, Metrolinx developed a regional transportation plan for the GTHA, called The Big Move (Metrolinx 2008). Metrolinx is in the process of executing a number of local and regional large-scale rapid transit projects as part of the “first wave” of projects identified in the 2008 plan. However, the transit priorities for Metrolinx have changed over the years. The agency’s current priority emphasizes the transformation of GO commuter rail through electrification of the most heavily used lines and increased frequency and span of service as well as adding two-way service on those lines, in effect creating a regional express rail network along existing GO rights of way.

The Growth Plan contains policies that relate to transportation planning in the region. Although The Big Move constitutes a regional transportation plan, the task of linking land use decisions with transportation planning has been delegated to municipalities.

The main reference in The Big Move that relates to land use planning is Strategy #7: Build communities that are pedestrian, cycling and transit-supportive. As part of this strategy, Metrolinx identified a network of 51 mobility hubs, 17 of which correspond to the Growth Plan’s 17 Urban Growth Centres in the GTHA. Municipalities in consultation with transit agencies are responsible for preparing detailed master plans for the mobility hubs in their jurisdiction. Strategy # 7of The Big Move also suggests the assessment of transportation corridors as high-density intensification corridors and recommends that policies be created to conform with the Growth Plan policies for intensification corridors.

Although both plans mention the land use-transportation connection, neither plan requires a certain percentage of growth to be directed to transit-accessible locations across the region, as the regional growth strategy for Metro Vancouver does. Furthermore, since municipalities in the GTHA began their land budgeting and growth allocation and planning exercises in 2006, over two years before the release of The Big Move, they could not have focused growth around mobility hubs (which had not yet been identified) and would simply have planned for the overall 40% intensification target. In fact, research shows that most municipalities in the GTHA prioritized greenfield development and the expansion of the urban settlement area as part of their conformity to the Growth Plan (Allen and Campsie, 2013).

The legislated review of The Big Move and the Growth Plan is scheduled for 2016, and consultation on the review of the Growth Plan is already under way. At the time of the writing of this report (April 2015), the reviews of the Growth Plan and The Big Move have different timelines and are being managed by different ministries, so the level of future integration of the two plans is unclear. This review is an opportunity for a much clearer and more direct integration of the two plans.

Implementation and monitoring of plans

Metro Vancouver will review its regional growth plan in 2016, and TransLink will soon review its transportation plan. In addition, the region is holding a referendum in May 2015 on whether to dedicate a portion of new sales tax to pay for identified transportation priorities.

Metro Vancouver’s plans build on a long history of regional growth management efforts, and there is evidence that a consistent approach has already been effective in achieving the goal of a compact region (Taylor and Burchfield 2010). The 2011 regional growth strategy has been supported by years of research conducted by Metro Vancouver staff and ongoing discussions and collaboration with municipal planning staff and municipal council representatives in the region. As part of the evaluation framework by which the current plan will be assessed, Metro Vancouver released Progress Toward Shaping our Future: Baseline Annual Report in late 2014 (Metro Vancouver 2014).

The report describes the first three years of the 2011 plan’s implementation, including the status of the Regional Context Statements that municipalities are required to complete to show how their local plans align with regional objectives. The report lists some minor amendments to the plan as well as mechanisms used to achieve consensus and resolve differences between local and regional perspectives. It is a full assessment of how the regional strategy has been implemented.

The report also identifies no fewer than 55 tracking and performance measures that provide measurable indications of whether the plan is on track to meet its five stated goals. In the report, Metro Vancouver also introduced 2011 baseline data that can be used measure growth outcomes and to assess whether the region is on track to meet the goals and objectives of the plan. It also analyzed 2013 data for most of the 55 measures.

A polycentric regional structure can allow for more efficient and balanced use of a regional transit network because commuters are not all travelling in the same direction at peak hours.

In the Toronto region, a historical legacy of consistent regional planning is absent; in fact, the Growth Plan for the Greater Golden Horseshoe has not yet been fully implemented by all municipalities (Allen and Campsie 2013). Two major amendments to the plan were released in 2012 and 2013 (Ontario Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing, n.d. a and b). Amendment 1 amends the policies of the Growth Plan to respond to a specific growth pressure in one local area, Simcoe County. Amendment 2 affects the entire regional geography by extending the life of the plan by 10 years to 2041.

The Growth Plan has been led and managed by the Ontario Growth Secretariat (OGS), a unit that previously resided in the Ontario Ministry of Infrastructure and moved to the Ontario Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing in 2014. The OGS released a brief update in 2012 that reported on municipal implementation of the plan and provided some high-level modelling work that compared future growth in the Toronto region with and without the plan’s intervention.

In 2014, the OGS released Towards Performance Indicators for the Growth Plan for the Greater Golden Horseshoe as a document for public consultation (Ontario 2014). The document proposed four themes that correspond to the overarching goals of the plan and 12 measurable indicators to track how growth is occurring in the region. Four of the 12 indicators were developed specifically to measure progress towards the plan’s policy targets. After the consultation concluded, the OGS released a final list of 14 performance indicators (Ontario 2014).

The Growth Plan’s performance indicators report contains less data and is less robust than Metro Vancouver’s performance indicators report. It has little land-based data and contains mostly aggregated statistics. There is no information on the amount of land that has been urbanized or designated for urbanization since the time the plan came into effect, a basic metric that would indicate whether the plan is succeeding in its primary goal to reduce expansion at the urban edge. In contrast, Metro Vancouver’s performance indicators report tracks several land-based metrics including detailed information on the total amount of land being added to or taken out of industrial use or mixed employment areas, a measure related to the region's overall strategy for protecting the industrial land base.

In order to assess whether planning policies are achieving their goals or not, a measurement framework and baseline data for monitoring change over time are needed. The framework requires foresight in the identification and collection of data that will serve as proxies for tracking progress towards planning goals. In Metro Vancouver, a performance indicators framework was developed early in the life of the plan with extensive data sets from federal, provincial, and local government sources and a robust set of metrics. The performance indicators for the Growth Plan were developed seven years into the life of the plan using available data and few metrics tailored specifically for the Plan, so it may not provide enough detail to monitor and track the Plan’s progress and emerging trends in growth patterns.

Metro Vancouver established a baseline for measuring the progress towards the plan's five goals within three years of its implementation.

Table 1 compares the policy mechanisms and strategies used to achieve the goals of the growth plans in the Toronto and Vancouver regions.

Table 1: Comparison of Toronto and Vancouver regions’ planning policies and institutions

Planning Goal

Policy Mechanism



Metro Vancouver

Urban Containment

Greenbelt Plan (2005)


Growth Plan for the Greater Golden Horseshoe (2006):

  • Municipalities determine designated urban settlement area to 2031.

Agricultural Land Reserve (1973)


Livable Region Strategic Plan (1996):

  • By 2021, 70% of the city-region’s population to be located in the Growth Concentration Area.
  • Introduction of Green Zone.


Metro 2040: Shaping Our Future, regional growth strategy (2011):

  • By 2041, 99% of new growth to be in the Urban Containment Boundary


Provincial Policy Statement (1996)


Growth Plan for the Greater Golden Horseshoe (2006):

  • Target: 40% of residential development to be in built-up areas of upper- and single-tier municipalities by 2015
  • Urban Growth Centres: minimum density of 150–400 people plus jobs per hectare by 2031
  • Growth encouraged in Intensification Corridors and Major Transit Station Areas

Livable Region Strategic Plan (1996):


  • By 2021, 70% of the city-region’s population are located in the Growth Concentration Area
  • Regional Town Centres (1996)


Metro 2040: Shaping Our Future, regional growth strategy (2011):

  • By 2041, 99% of new growth to be in the Urban Containment Boundary
  • Urban Centres hierarchy (2011)
    • 40% of dwellings by 2041
    • 50% employment by 2041
  • Frequent Transit Development Areas (2011)
    • 28% of new dwellings by 2041
    • 27% employment by 2041

Integration of Regional Land Use & Transportation Planning

Ontario Growth Secretariat (2005[1]): provincial unit originally within Ministry of Infrastructure, now part of Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing; responsible for coordinating implementation of the Growth Plan; reports to the Minister.


Metrolinx (2006):

  • Provincial agency with limited responsibility for transit planning (i.e., transit expansion in the GTHA) and for operations in transit networks in the region (GO Transit only)
  • Role includes regional coordination with multiple local transit agencies, including fare and service integration

The Big Move (2008): regional transportation plan

Greater Vancouver Regional District (1967)/Metro Vancouver (2007)[2]:

  • Manages water, wastewater, and solid waste.
  • Manages regional land use plans, air quality, regional park system, and affordable housing.
  • Governed by board made up of elected representatives from all municipalities in the region

Transport 2021: Long-range Transportation Plan for Greater Vancouver (1993):

  • Joint District-Provincial plan to shift modal split away from private automobile


TransLink (1998):

  • Provincial agency responsible for planning and managing operations of entire regional transit network
  • Transport 2040: A Transportation Strategy for Metro Vancouver Now and in the Future (2008)

Implementation and evaluation process

Growth Plan for the Greater Golden Horseshoe:


  • 9 years into implementation
  • Planning forecasts extended to 2041 (Amendment 2, 2013)
  • Monitoring: Towards Performance Indicators for the Growth Plan for the Greater Golden Horseshoe (2014)
  • Due for review in 2016

Livable Region Strategic Plan/Metro 2040: Shaping Our Future, a regional growth strategy


  • 15 years into implementation of 1996 Plan
  • Regional Growth Strategy (2011): revision of Livable Region Strategic Plan with time horizon of 2041.
  • Monitoring: Progress Toward Shaping our Future: Baseline Annual Report (2014)
  • Plan due for review in 2016

[1] The Ontario Growth Secretariat was given responsibility under the Places to Grow Act of 2005, but the unit has been in existence since the early 2000s and was created as part of Smart Growth for Ontario Program. It was originally named the Smart Growth Secretariat (White 2007).

[2] Metro Vancouver was renamed in 2007. It was originally formed by the Province of British Columbia as the Greater Vancouver Regional District in 1967 (Taylor and Burchfield 2010). 

[1] Policy 1.1.2: “Land requirements and land use patterns will be based on…(d) providing opportunities for redevelopment, intensification and revitalization in areas that have sufficient existing or planned infrastructure.”

[3] One reason for creating Metrolinx was to integrate fares, schedules, and operations of the many transit services in the region, and some progress has been made in implementing a smart fare card called Presto in some parts of the region, but as of 2015, the goal of full integration has not been realized.

[4] The Ontario Growth Secretariat was given responsibility under the Places To Grow Act of 2005, but the unit has been in existence since the early 2000s and was created as part of Smart Growth for Ontario Program. It was originally named the Smart Growth Secretariat (White 2007).

[5] Metro Vancouver was renamed in 2007. It was originally formed by the Province of British Columbia as the Greater Vancouver Regional District in 1967 (Taylor and Burchfield 2010).