The Age of Non-Planning

From the mid-1970s to the introduction of Places to Grow in 2004, the Toronto metropolitan region had no regional planning body and no regional plan. Yet if one takes a close look at this period — and admittedly we do not yet have much historical perspective — one finds that regional planning, as an idea, did not entirely disappear and that the governments of the regional municipalities did observe some regional planning principles. Regional planning thus did survive, in a sense. It is a confusing period, marked by steps and counter-steps in different directions.30

Planning Transformed

What makes this period particularly difficult to understand is that local events were being played out amid changing international circumstances. The early 1970s were a time of transformation in the planning profession all over the industrialized world — a fascinating and complex phenomenon, the causes and consequences of which cannot be adequately explored here. Citizen participation in planning increased, environmentalism and anti-growth thinking took hold, and a politicized faction of the profession emerged that saw itself as advocates for the socially disadvantaged. Altogether, an entirely new professional world took shape for urban and regional planners in the 1970s.

Against this backdrop, several important changes in local circumstances marked the start of a new political era for Ontario. Premier Robarts resigned and was replaced as Conservative party leader and Premier by William Davis, a more circumspect politician. The Province endured an economic recession and a resulting decline in growth and government revenues, which altered the political landscape and made debt-financing of public infrastructure next to impossible. Suddenly the government had to curb its own expansion, something it had not had to do for more than a generation.

Perhaps the most important outcome of this complex transformation, both in Ontario and elsewhere, is that the planning profession lost much of its authority. Whether this loss was to the development industry, to elected politicians, or to the citizenry at large is hard to say — answers to this question are highly political — but there is little doubt that authority was lost. This was particularly true for regional planning, but urban planning was affected too. By the late 1970s any large-scale solution proposed by professional planners — from an inner-city slum clearance to a distant new town — would immediately be challenged and most likely dismissed.

As of 1974, the “Greater Toronto Area” had five major political jurisdictions, each of which had its own planning authority. The local, or “lower-tier,” municipalities continued to have jurisdiction over local planning matters. From “Space for All: Options for a Greater Toronto Greenlands Strategy” (1990).

Undoing Regional Planning

In this context, the Province’s TCR concept continued to disintegrate. Interestingly enough, the Province itself had a hard time upholding the scheme, even while it was still considered official policy.

Faced with the need to build the costly York-Durham Sewer System into the area north of Metropolitan Toronto, largely for public health reasons, the provincial government agreed to increase the population allotments beyond what the TCR had proposed for the area. Greater population meant lower user costs, or less subsidy, for the sewer, and this appealed to nearly everyone. Much of the area the sewer would service, however, fell within TCR Zone 2, where urban development and population growth were supposed to be strictly controlled. What was the Province to do? It was a conundrum that bedevils growth management to this day — if an area is to receive the benefits of expensive public infrastructure, does it not make sense to put as many people there as possible? Does this mean low-density areas should not be given public infrastructure? In the end, although the Province allowed a higher population for York Region, most of the additional growth occurred in the parts of York that fell into TCR Zone 1, so impact on the protected rural areas of York was minimal.

The Province also had to make room for some important municipal government reforms. For several years it had been considering how to improve its handling of financial transfers to municipalities, and in 1968, mostly to address this issue, it resolved to merge municipalities in certain areas into larger “regional governments.” This did not mean complete amalgamation. The municipalities affected survived as “lower-tier” governments in a two-tier, federated system, but a new “upper-tier” government was established with which the Province could do most of its business. York Region was the first such government in the Toronto region, created in 1971, followed by Halton, Durham, and Peel Regions in 1974.

The government also opted to make each of these new regional municipalities its own “planning area” — a decision that changed the region’s planning regime. The more southerly parts of these suburban areas had, since the 1950s, been included in the Metropolitan Toronto Planning Area of the MTPB, but as each new regional municipality was formed and defined as its own planning area, it was removed from the Metropolitan Planning Area. By 1974, the MTPB was left with planning jurisdiction over nothing except Metro Toronto itself. A large part of the Board’s original purpose had been lost, so it was abolished and its staff became the Planning Department of Metropolitan Toronto. This move also reflects the shift, prevalent in the 1970s, from quasi-independent appointed planning bodies to planning departments under the more direct authority of elected politicians, a step that was considered progressive and democratic at the time, but that undoubtedly contributed to putting the politics back into planning.

There was also some question about how the new regional governments would relate to the TCR which, when York Region was created, was still government policy. The minister in charge of both the TCR and the regional government program, Darcy McKeough, saw no difficulty. He believed that the regional governments would simply be the agents of provincial policies such as the TCR. It turned out not to be so simple. One of the first major actions by the new government in York Region, in 1972, was the push for higher population in the service area of the new trunk sewer. So as it turned out, the new regional governments — whether they intended to or not — did contribute to the TCR’s demise.

Localism

One important development that undermined regional planning in these years was the rise of what might be called “localism”: the belief that local people, or local interests, have the right to determine what is best for a given locality. This notion — which is obviously troublesome for regional planning — had always existed. Even during the heyday of the MTPB, local councils and citizens’ groups had objected to certain actions taken by the metropolitan board. Until the 1970s local objections of this sort could usually be successfully “managed” by the regional authorities. After the 1970s that was no longer the case.

Where this powerful new belief came from, and from what it drew its energy, is hard to say. It appears to have been related to a general decline in the authority of professions in society. It was also connected to the growing belief in citizen empowerment (on the political left) and the growing distaste for government intervention (on the political right). It may even have been a reaction to the aggressive actions of regional planners a few years earlier. But exactly what caused what is a subject that could benefit from more research.

Probably the clearest indication of how widespread this new idea had become — apart from the Province’s reluctance to press on with its regional planning program — is that the Liberal opposition in the Ontario legislature, which had generally supported the government’s regional planning program a few years earlier, had by 1975 explicitly turned against it. 32 The Liberals called instead for local councils to prevail in all planning matters, although admittedly their opposition to regional planning was often mixed up with opposition to regional government, the name given to the government’s program of creating new regional municipalities. This latter program had become highly political and extremely unpopular.

Planning Act Reform

Another manifestation of localism was the 1977 Report of the Planning Act Review Committee (PARC).33 The Province had started this review in 1975 in response to problems in the provincial planning system. Localism was not much evident in the reasons for establishing the review, but it is unmistakable in the Committee’s final report.

The report — which reflected views expressed in countless public consultations all across the province — called for a near-total withdrawal of the Province from municipal planning, on the grounds that, in principle, planning belongs at the lowest, most local level of government. The report acknowledged that the provincial government had an obligation to protect certain province-wide interests, such as the Province’s environment or financial security, but argued that these interests should be explicitly itemized, and that all other planning matters should be left to municipalities.

It took five years before the report’s recommendations found their way into legislation, by which time most of its radical ideas had been watered down, including its calls for local planning autonomy. The new provincial Planning Act of 198334 gave the Province the authority to delegate planning powers to municipalities if it wished, but it did not give municipalities the right to acquire those powers. Yet the episode reminds us that the notion of local autonomy is not far below the surface in Ontario’s political culture.

What the new 1983 Act did do is introduce the concept of “provincial interests” to the planning system. The Act specifies nine areas of interest that the provincial government was obliged to protect, and states that the Province could, at any time, issue “policy statements” to carry out this protection. The Act did not really need to introduce this notion. The spelling out of provincial interests had been recommended only to counter-balance a shift of planning responsibility to the municipalities, which as it turned out the Act did not do. The idea appeared nonetheless, and has been part of the provincial planning scene ever since.

By the late 1980s, urbanization had extended well beyond Metro Toronto into all the Regional Municipalities of the GTA, but planning authority was divided among the various political jurisdictions. From “Space for All: Options for a Greater Toronto Greenlands Strategy” (1990).

Regional Planning in the 1980s

Regional planning remained unpalatable. The TCR concept was dead. A minor recommendation in the PARC report to set up a regional planning body for the Toronto−Hamilton region had been unequivocally dismissed in the initial government review of the Report.35 The provincial interests itemized in the 1983 Planning Act included “co-ordination of planning” and “equitable distribution” of services among municipalities — both of which show hints of regional planning — but the Province never once acted to protect this interest. Regional planning for the Greater Toronto Area consisted of planning by five separate jurisdictions, and for many people that was just fine.

Still, the idea of broad regional planning had not entirely disappeared. The fact that the 1983 Planning Act included coordination among municipalities in its list of provincial interests reveals that someone, somewhere, thought regional planning important. And the Regional Municipalities created in the early 1970s were now carrying out something that might be called supra-municipal planning, even if only within their own planning areas; they were having little success developing Official Plans, but most managed to maintain their urban boundaries and minimize exurban development. Working planners and administrators, it would seem, still pursued their professional principles, even though elected politicians were reluctant to establish highly visible planning bodies.

In the late 1980s a new, fairly serious regional planning thrust appeared within the Liberal government of David Peterson. Why this should have occurred when it did is not immediately obvious. Peterson may have been responding to the growing public concern over the rate of suburban sprawl after several years of feverish housing growth. And one should not overlook the many planners and scientists in the civil service who for some years had been struggling to enhance provincial custodianship of the region’s lands and resources, exemplified in the program of designating provincial “ANSIs” (Areas of Natural and Scientific Interest) that began in the late 1970s. It may have been that their efforts were finally having an effect.

In 1988 Peterson’s government formed the Office of the Greater Toronto Area (OGTA), which in 1990 commissioned a major study by the Toronto consulting firm IBI Group on how the region’s future urban growth might be shaped. The final reports in this Urban Structure Study provided a comprehensive picture of the region and its future prospects, the likes of which had not been seen since MTARTS in the 1960s.36 Peterson’s government also produced an important report on the region’s “greenlands” and their lack of protection, which drew particular attention to the Oak Ridges Moraine.37 It appeared that a new round of regional planning was about to begin. But the fall of the Peterson government to the NDP in the 1990 election brought the whole endeavour to an end.

There was no single region-wide water supply system, but the principle of processing Lake Ontario water on a large scale and piping it up to the urban areas — introduced in the 1950s by Metro Works and the MTPB — remained in place. From “Greater Toronto Area Urban Structure Concepts Study: Summary Report” (1990). 

The NDP in Power

The NDP government of Bob Rae was simply not as interested in regional planning as the Liberals had been. One might have expected otherwise, given the party’s commitment to government intervention. But the Rae government had other pressing matters to deal with, and being relatively inexperienced, it could take on only so much.

The NDP did not actually oppose regional planning. The new government allowed the momentum of the OGTA initiatives to continue for a time. It set up working groups to consider how the findings of the 1990 Urban Structure Study might be implemented, and this led to some important follow-up reports, which in turn influenced some aspects of local planning.38 The NDP also followed up on the Peterson government’s Greenlands report, conducting some technical studies on the Oak Ridges Moraine and declaring the Moraine an area of provincial interest. But after about 1992, the provincial government’s file on regional planning in the Toronto metropolitan region was largely inactive. Later, in what turned out to be its final few months in office, the government set up a task force to study the GTA, stacked fairly heavily with regionalists, but the task force’s mandate was focused mostly on regional governance and taxation rather than planning.39 

What the NDP government did do, perhaps surprisingly, was reform the province’s municipal planning system. The existing Planning Act was barely a decade old, and one might wonder why the system needed yet another complete overhaul. But many in the planning profession, particularly those on the political left, had not been satisfied with the earlier reforms, and were anxious to do the job properly. The result was a year or two of hearings and consultations, an impressive report by Commissioner John Sewell, and a new Planning Act that became law in 1994.40 This new Act was more ambitious than its predecessor, and it came with an expanded set of provincial interests and a “comprehensive set of policy statements” (not to mention a thick binder of “implementation guidelines”) that empowered the Province to intervene in municipal planning for a host of reasons.

The principle of permitting urban development only within a strict urban boundary, in place since the 1950s, continued to be one of the defining features of the region, as this 1989 aerial view of Bathurst Street on the western boundary of Aurora, north of Metropolitan Toronto, clearly shows.

Re-Reform

It was a major shift in policy, no doubt, but it was extremely short-lived. In the election of July 1995, in one of the most abrupt political turnarounds in Ontario’s history, the NDP government was swept out of office and a new Conservative government led by Mike Harris took office. Harris’s right-wing populism stood for local self-determination, government deregulation, and free enterprise — all of which the NDP’s new Planning Act did not — and his new government wasted no time in re-reforming the planning system.

Within a year, the heavy hand of the Province had been lifted and the Ontario planning system had been returned largely to what it had been under the Liberals. The Planning Act was revised and a new, far less prescriptive set of provincial policies was put in place (although many of the NDP’s changes to the Act were left intact). The Harris government also finally implemented the now 20-year-old recommendation from the Planning Act Review Committee that the Province leave the approval of Official Plans (and Official Plan amendments) to Regional Municipalities, resulting in large reductions in provincial government staff.

The impact of all these changes on regional planning in the GTA, however, was minimal. One might think that the NDP’s increase in provincial powers would have permitted a regional interest to be more effectively asserted, and, correspondingly, that the Conservatives’ reforms to the Planning Act would have reduced the power of the Province to act in the regional interest. But that was not the case. These reforms may have altered the potential for provincial actions, but provincial powers were not really the issue. Regional planning has been absent in the GTA since the 1970s, not because the Province lacked the authority to impose it, but because municipalities were unwilling to accept it and the Province lacked the political will to challenge that municipal position. Nothing in these reforms changed that political reality.

The Conservative Government and Regional Planning

After a few years in office, in 1998, the Conservative government took what appeared to be a major step into regional planning by creating a region-wide board of elected municipal politicians called the Greater Toronto Services Board to “promote and facilitate coordinated decision-making” — so said the Act that established it — among the region’s municipalities, and to develop and manage regional public transit.41

This step had been recommended by the “Who Does What” panel (chaired by David Crombie) that the Minister of Municipal Affairs, Al Leach, had set up shortly after the Conservatives took office. The panel had recommended the creation of such a body — with representation based on population (meaning that Toronto would have substantial representation) — to plan and manage essentially all physical infrastructure in the region.42 It had also recommended the elimination of upper-tier regional governments, a radical proposal indeed, comparable to the 1953 recommendation to create Metropolitan Toronto. (As it turned out, the “Golden Commission,” set up by the Rae government in 1995, reported to the government at nearly the same time with nearly the same recommendation.43)

A new region-wide government for the GTA was out of the question to this provincial government. There was next to no support for it outside Toronto, and the Conservative government’s self-declared mission was to reduce government, not create new levels of government. But it did see the value of, and could live with, a coordinating body, so it followed the more modest recommendation of creating the GTSB — although it gave the Board less responsibility or authority than the Crombie panel had recommended. After two years, the GTSB produced a comprehensive GTA-wide transportation plan,44 but the plan was never formally adopted and in 2001, for reasons that remain obscure, the Province shut down the GTSB. On the one hand, the demise of the GTSB offered further evidence that regional planning was simply not going to happen, but at the same time the work it accomplished showed that many politicians and consultants had come to believe in the need for regional coordination. 

In its second term, the Conservative government took action on two important fronts, and in doing so made a lasting impact on regional planning. Though it is perhaps too early to say with certainty, it appears to have been actions by this government that established a regional planning process acceptable to local municipalities, and that initiated the process that led to Places to Grow.

The first was establishing protection for the Oak Ridges Moraine. This unusual landform north of the region’s main urbanized area had been of interest for many years, but as the edge of urbanization began approaching it from the south in the 1980s, the idea of protecting it — or at least of protecting many of its natural features — assumed new urgency. The Liberal government’s 1990 Greenlands report had drawn attention to the Moraine, as had the high profile 1992 report of the Crombie Commission on the Toronto Waterfront. Full protection, however, seemed most unlikely, as several interests strongly opposed such action. A large and influential aggregate industry needed access to the Moraine’s sand and gravel in order to stay in business, and a burgeoning development industry was eyeing the Moraine as a source of land for future housing.

The Conservative government had little choice but to take some action. Popular opinion both in Toronto and in the suburban areas around the Moraine — the Conservatives’ main constituency — was clearly in favour of some sort of protection. Yet the problem of how to resolve the competing interests remained. The government’s solution was to employ the traditional populist notion of letting the people work it out for themselves. It arranged for a committee of non-government “stakeholders” — naturalists, scientists, local property owners, aggregate and development industry representatives, and others — and gave them the task of crafting a future for the Moraine that they all found acceptable.

The committee was able to achieve this in a matter of months, and in 2002 the Oak Ridges Moraine Conservation Plan came into being, dividing up the Moraine into four categories of land, each with a different degree of protection. The plan was reminiscent of the “multi-use” resource management plans used in the American West.45 Since there is enough land for everyone — miners, environmentalists, farmers, naturalists, even speculators — rather than over-protect an area, governments should simply ensure that it is fairly divvied up among the various “interests” involved, some of whom wish to exploit its resources and some of whom wish to protect them.

The Oak Ridges Moraine Conservation Plan created four categories of land protection for the Moraine. Urban development would be permitted only on land in the “Settlement Areas” category, most of which was adjacent to existing urban areas. From Oak Ridges Moraine Conservation Plan (2002).

Smart Growth Ontario

The second Conservative initiative was adopting a program of Smart Growth for Ontario. Although this government was generally opposed to telling private businesses and municipalities how to conduct their affairs, popular concern about suburban sprawl and traffic congestion reached new heights in the late 1990s — sprawl made the cover of Time magazine in 199946 — and once again the government had to take action.

“Smart Growth” was a rather loosely defined notion that emerged in the United States in the 1990s. It calls for the use of fairly standard planning and growth management policies to advance the public interest — to encourage, for example, higher residential densities or greater use of public transit — but at the same time accepts that growth is both good and desirable, and that planning controls should not be applied in such a way that they seriously impede growth. It is an attempt to find a common ground between planning advocates and growth advocates, or, one might say, to put a positive spin on planning for a doubting public. Smart Growth became something of a movement in the United States in the late 1990s, whereupon it caught the attention of a number of municipal politicians and planners in central Ontario, and finally that of the Harris government.47

Smart Growth was an odd choice for Ontario. Even in this age of non-planning, many of the Smart Growth planning principles — such as transit-supportiveness, higher residential densities, and maintaining urban boundaries — were already in place, as policies if not as reality, in local plans across the Toronto metropolitan region. But to the Harris government, many members of which leaned towards libertarianism and were dubious of what they saw as traditional planning, the concept held considerable appeal. It quickly became the government’s way of addressing the region’s urban growth problems.

The government followed a strategy similar to the one it had used for the Oak Ridges Moraine, setting up panels of citizens (and some elected politicians) representing different interests and asking them to find solutions to, in this case, growth-related problems. The technique was not as successful as it had been with the Moraine. The problems these panels were addressing were much more difficult, and the competing interests not so easily reconciled. As well, the panels were not as independent of the government as the Oak Ridges Moraine panel had been. Not surprisingly, the final report from the Smart Growth Secretariat was long on visions and ideals, and short on realistic strategies for achieving them.48 But something had shifted. A new willingness to address the region’s growth problems was dawning.

By the time the Conservative government left office in 2003 — at which point it was led by Ernie Eves — it had substantially changed the climate of regional planning in the Greater Toronto Area. It had not yet produced a plan. In fact, it almost certainly could never have gone that far into the realm of government intervention. But by employing the populist notion of letting citizens find their own solutions to the problems of the day, the provincial government had returned to the task of both protecting the region’s natural lands and shaping the region’s urban growth. The ground was prepared for another government, one more inclined towards intervention, to develop a regional plan. It is a surprising legacy for such an anti-government government.

The GTSB’s long-term plan for regional public transit, one element of its comprehensive transportation plan. The plan was prepared by a number of respected consultants, and approved by the GTSB itself, but never formally adopted, and with the demise of the GTSB in 2001 it fell out of the public eye. From Removing Roadblocks: A Strategic Transportation Plan for the GTA and Hamilton (2000).
Notes
30. An excellent exploration of this phenomenon, which considers both the left and right of the political spectrum, mostly in England, is Jonathan R.T. Hughes and Simon Sadler, eds., Non-plan: Essays on Freedom Participation and Change in Modern Architecture and Urbanism (Oxford, U.K., and Boston, Massachusetts, 2000).
31. This matter is explored, and some of the key sources noted, in Richard White, Urban Infrastructure and Urban Growth in the Toronto Region 1950s to the 1990s (2003), 48-52.
32. This key point is made in Kenneth J. Rea, The Prosperous Years: The Economic History of Ontario, 1939–1975 (Toronto, 1985), 237, citing a speech by J.R. Breithaupt (Liberal member from Kitchener) on 14 April 1975; R.F. Nixon makes similar, even more explicit, points on 24 June 1974 and 4 Nov. 1975 — Ontario Legislative Debates.
33. Ontario, Planning Act Review Committee, Report of the Planning Act Review Committee. Toronto, April 1977.
34. An Act to Revise the Planning Act, 1983. S.O. 1983, c. 1.
35. The recommendation is in Act to Revise the Planning Act, 1983. S.O. 1983, Sections 7.17 and 7.19; the dismissal of it is in Ontario, Ministry of Housing, “White Paper on the Planning Act,” May 1979, pp. 45-46.
36. IBI Group, Greater Toronto Area Urban Structure Concepts Study: Summary Report. Toronto: June 1990.
37. Ron Kanter, Space for All: Options for a Greater Toronto Greenlands Strategy (1990).
38. The most significant are Ontario, Office for the Greater Toronto Area,Shaping Growth in the GTA (1992) [prepared by Berridge Lewinberg Greenberg Ltd.], and Ontario, Provincial-Municipal Urban Form Working Group, Urban Form, Bringing the Vision into Focus: Report of the Provincial-Municipal Urban Form Working Group (1993).
39. It reported after the government was out of office – Anne Golden, Commission Chair, Report of the GTA Task Force (1996).
40. Commission on Planning and Development Reform in Ontario, New Planning for Ontario, Final Report (1993); Planning and Municipal Statute Law Amendment Act (1994).
41. Greater Toronto Services Board Act, 1998, S.O. 1998, c. 23 s. 3(1).
42. Ontario, Who Does What Panel on Local Governance, “Recommendations” [in the form of a letter from David Crombie to the Hon. Al Leach, 6 December 1996].
43. Anne Golden, Commission Chair, Report of the GTA Task Force (1996), 160-66.
44. “Removing Roadblocks: A Strategic Transportation Plan for the GTA and Hamilton” (2000).
45. ee for example “Pike’s Peak Multi-Use Plan” done in 1999 for Colorado Springs Utilities in Colorado. This is also sometimes referred to as “multi-stakeholder” resource management, although this newer label has other political implications.
46. Time, 22 March 1999; cited in Robert Bruegmann, Sprawl: A Compact History (Chicago, 2005), 159.
47. The clearest expression of its arrival in the GTA is Bohdan S. Onyschuk,Smart Growth in North America (Toronto: 2001).
48. “Shape the Future: Central Ontario Smart Growth Panel, Final Report” April 2003.