It has been nearly 20 years since smart growth was added to the lexicon of the North American planning profession (Glendening 1997; State of Maryland 1997). In the new millennium, the tenets of smart growth—increased density, transit-oriented and mixed-use development, and reurbanization—have become conventional wisdom for many planners and the goals of many municipal and regional plans. Among other things, smart growth is designed to favour alternative modes of transportation to the automobile, such as walking, cycling, and transit, in order to reduce traffic congestion (International City-County Management Association–Smart Growth Network, 1998).

At first, the ideas of smart growth were more popular with planners than with land developers. However, in the years following the 2008 recession, researchers have documented a shift in the U.S. housing market whereby in fast-growing city-regions, development is occurring in core areas and not just the suburbs (Frey 2014). Some have postulated that this new shift is part of a larger restructuring of American cities (Ehrenhalt 2012; Nelson 2013), while others see it as generational trend representing the preferences of millennials (Flint 2014).

The city-regions of Toronto and Vancouver have regional plans with similar goals, but differ in the timing of their plans and their approach to implementation.

The growth patterns of Canadian cities differ from those of American cities, exhibiting fewer characteristics of leapfrog development and less ultra low-density sprawl (Bourne et al. 2011; Newman and Kenworthy 1999; Sorensen and Hess 2007). This difference is mainly attributed to local and regional planning policies that shape growth patterns. Although planning policies have led to different outcomes among Canadian cities (some cities have emphasized efficiently serviced outward expansion, while others have focused on the intensification of existing urbanized areas), a general acceptance of regulatory land use policies has historically influenced the shape of Canadian cities (Bourne et al. 2011; Taylor and Burchfield 2010).

In recent years, like their American counterparts, planners in Canada’s fastest-growing cities have promoted smart growth principles, as evidenced in the most recent plans (Filion and Kramer 2012). Politicians have begun to support plans that call for redirecting growth to existing urban areas, given the high cost of building infrastructure to service new urban areas (Taylor, Burchfield, and Kramer 2014).

Two city-regions in particular, those of Vancouver and Toronto, have established regional plans intended to direct growth to existing urbanized areas to achieve a more compact form and focus transit-oriented development around officially designated regional centres. The two jurisdictions have similar planning goals and have used similar policy mechanisms to achieve them. The city-regions differ, however, in the timing of their plans and their approach to implementation. Together, therefore, they make an interesting case for comparison.

In 2006 the Province of Ontario introduced the Growth Plan for the Greater Golden Horseshoe, a regional growth plan for a large area in South-Central Ontario that includes the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area (GTHA) and the surrounding 15 upper- and single-tier municipalities.[1] In the same year that the Growth Plan was released, the province created a regional transportation authority, later named Metrolinx, which introduced a regional transportation plan for the GTHA, The Big Move, in 2008.[2]

In 1996, the Livable Region Strategic Plan (LRSP) was adopted by the board of the Greater Vancouver Regional District (later renamed Metro Vancouver).[3] The plan was comprehensively revised in 2011. A long-range transportation plan has been in effect in Metro Vancouver since 1993. In 2008, this transportation plan was updated by TransLink, an agency established in 1998 and responsible for the regional transportation network in Metro Vancouver[4]   

Figure 1: Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area and Metro Vancouver, 2011 urbanized area and 2009 Frequent Transit Network

At the time of writing (2015), planning agencies in both city-regions are reviewing their respective land use and transportation plans. Our analysis provides an opportunity to juxtapose rates and patterns of residential development against the objectives of the plans.

In this study, we compare the rates at which the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area and Metro Vancouver have grown and the regional patterns of residential growth for the 20-year period, 1991–2011 (see Figure 1 for a comparison of the scale of the two city-regions and Figures 2 and 3 for detailed maps). We further examine subregional patterns of residential growth between 2001 and 2011 to better understand how the patterns compare to location-specific planning policies contained in the plan for each jurisdiction.

In both regions, we consider the most recent growth management plans (2006 in the Toronto region and 2011 in Metro Vancouver) as well as long-standing planning policies to examine the questions: (1) What is the influence of planning policy versus the market in shaping development patterns in a fast-growing city-region? (2) How can planning policy evolve to address emerging trends and meet the overall goals of a plan?

In Metro Vancouver, where the 2011 plan refined policies brought in 15 years earlier, our results shed light on what is working and where policy challenges still exist. In the GTHA, where the regional plan was introduced at the midpoint of our analysis, the findings shed light on how the market has anticipated planning policy in shaping the region, and what challenges remain. 

A long-range transportation plan has been in effect in Metro Vancouver since 1993. The regional transportation plan for the GTHA was introduced in 2008.

Figure 2: The Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area

Figure 3: Metro Vancouver

[1] In the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area, municipal governance is made up of two-tier or single-tier municipalities. The Regional Municipalities of Halton, Peel, York, and Durham are upper-tier or regional municipalities containing several lower-tier municipalities; Toronto and Hamilton are single-tier municipalities (see fuller discussion on the governance structure of the GTHA in Taylor and Burchfield 2010).

[2] The Growth Plan covers a larger geography than the regional transportation plan. The Big Move covers the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area, known as the Inner Ring of the Greater Golden Horseshoe in the Growth Plan.

[3] Regional district authorities were set up by the Province of British Columbia in 1965 to facilitate the coordination and delivery of services across a region. The board of each regional authority is made up of municipal council representatives in proportion to a municipality’s population (Taylor and Burchfield 2010).

[4] Transport 2021 was released in 1993 and Transport 2040 in 2008.