The Great Provincial Planning Endeavour

Through the mid-1960s, while the MTPB staff was still doing effective work shaping the region’s growth, the Ontario government entered the Toronto regional planning scene with a program that would culminate, in 1970, in the grand regional vision called the Toronto-Centred Region concept. This ambitious scheme — the word “plan” was never used officially, though it often occurs in common usage — raised regional planning to new heights.

In the end, though, its impact was negligible. Some of its elements did survive, but it never became the guiding vision that its advocates had hoped it would be. By no means has it been forgotten, however. The “TCR,” as it is affectionately known, remains legendary in the local planning world.

Provincial Transportation Planning

The planning program that eventually produced the TCR actually began in the Ontario Department of Highways, late in 1962. This Department had the responsibility of building and maintaining the province’s highways, and with automobile use steadily rising, this was a demanding job. Problems were especially pressing in and around Toronto, where growth was strong and where private railways were on the verge of abandoning commuter rail services.

The Metropolitan Toronto Planning Board already had a solid, multi-modal transportation plan, but the region it covered was not large enough for the provincial department, which had an eye toward future growth and commuting needs much further out from Toronto. So the Department of Highways established a special Metropolitan Toronto and Region Transportation Study (MTARTS) to assess future transportation needs over a larger area.

Before the study was much more than a year old, in mid-1964, the MTARTS directors recognized that focusing on transportation alone made little sense. Together with the Community Planning Branch of the Department of Municipal Affairs, the Department formed a Regional Development Sub-Committee of notable planning consultants to work up a more general plan that would consider socio-economic trends and goals for the larger region.

In late 1966 the sub-committee completed and released its concluding report, “Choices For a Growing Region,” a work so thorough that it is often mistakenly thought to be the MTARTS final report.19 The lead author of this report was Len Gertler, a fairly young planner who would go on to play a major role in Ontario regional planning by, among many other things, serving as the first head of the planning school at University of Waterloo.

The extensive study area of the Metropolitan Toronto and Region Transportation Study, established 1962. From “Choices for a Growing Region” (1967), Map 4.

Choices for a Growing Region

The report begins with a forecast of population and employment growth to the year 2000, then goes on to explore how the urbanized part of the region could accommodate that growth. The urbanized area could extend in the fairly unconstrained manner that current trends (and local municipal plans) were allowing, or it could expand in a different way — in an area largely confined to the lakeshore, in satellite towns far from the lake, or in some combination of the two.

These different forms had their advantages and disadvantages, and the report offers no single recommendation. It does, however, take the position (consistent with the MTPB’s earlier principles) that confining urban development mostly to a broad band along the lakeshore — as opposed to permitting dispersed growth or satellite towns — appeared to offer the greatest benefits, though what specific form the urban area should take was not yet clear. The analysis suggested that a two-tiered urban structure, with a range of “new towns” just north of, but directly adjoining, the existing urban area, would be best. But more research was needed.

The report also introduced, for the first time, the intriguing notion of a regional “Parkway Belt” — a narrow corridor of protected land running through the urban area that would provide the route for a future parkway-style expressway. It would also separate the two tiers of urbanization, and possibly offer space for recreational activities. This element was the brainchild of Humphrey Carver, an English-trained architect with a fondness for rural landscapes who was a member of the regional development sub-committee.

The actual MTARTS final report, from the study’s Technical Committee, is a much less striking piece of work, being nothing more than a few pages of principles and recommendations, and perhaps for this reason it has generally been overlooked.20 It is important, however. It explicitly recommends that the Province enhance and encourage public transit, establish and integrate a permanent commuter rail service (trials conducted during the study had been successful) into the existing transit system, and concentrate development at certain centres, or nodes, and along the future transportation corridors of the region.

The regional form considered most desirable by the MTARTS regional development sub-committee. Urbanization was to be kept primarily to the lakeshore, and the urban area was to be bisected by a long “Parkway Belt” in which would be built a parkway-style highway. From “Choices for a Growing Region” (1967), Map 11.

Detailed map of the MTARTS Parkway Belt to the west (above) and east of Metropolitan Toronto. The Belt was to act as an urban separator between two tiers of cities. Both tiers would include areas with high- and moderate-density residential development. From “Choices for a Growing Region” (1967), Map 12.

From Choices to a Plan

Both MTARTS reports were unveiled in Toronto on 13 June 1968 at a theatre on the Canadian National Exhibition grounds. More than a thousand invited guests were treated to upbeat speeches by the Ontario Premier John Robarts and his Ministers. It was the regional growth options in “Choices for a Growing Region” that attracted all the attention, not the transportation principles. The work of the regional development sub-committee, in fact, had evolved into the heart of the study, something the provincial government seems to have been happy to go along with.

But the report offered only “choices” for the region, not an actual regional plan, so the next step was to study and assess these choices in order to devise a true regional plan. Premier Robarts immediately assigned the task to his new Minister of Municipal Affairs, Darcy McKeough, who, among other things, began soliciting and receiving dozens of written responses to the MTARTS reports from development industry lobbyists, professional associations, municipal councils, local business associations, and others. The work of refining the MTARTS options into a government-sanctioned regional plan was well under way by 1969.

Regional Development and Regional Planning

Into this process, however, came a new force that transformed the plan-making process — the Ontario government’s regional development program. 

It is important to recognize that regional development and regional planning are not the same thing. Regional development refers to government programs, usually in the form of subsidies or financial incentives, that assist economically disadvantaged or declining regions. Regional planning — which is generally done in growing regions — refers to government controls or regulations that shape a region’s growth into the most efficient and socially beneficial arrangement.

Although regional development and regional planning share certain goals, and both require government intervention in economic activity, they can exist without each other. Regional development programs can be implemented without being part of a regional plan, while regional plans need not include government subsidies or growth promotion programs. The metropolitan plan of the MTPB is an example of the latter, for although it proposed intervening to shape the new growth in the region, it made no effort to promote growth where it was not happening. The growth options in “Choices for a Growing Region” were similar.

Regional development, however, became de rigueur among governments across the country in the 1960s. The federal government began promoting economic growth in rural areas, especially in Atlantic Canada, early in the decade, and the Ontario government offered aid to disadvantaged parts of eastern and northern Ontario. In 1966 the Robarts government took a bold step into regional development with a program it called “Design for Development,” and created a new Regional Development Branch in the provincial bureaucracy, staffed with well-educated social scientists, to devise and expand regional development programs.21

This forms part of the regional planning story because Premier Robarts, a few months after putting Municipal Affairs Minister Darcy McKeough in charge of refining the MTARTS recommendations, shifted responsibility for the whole regional planning file from the Community Planning Branch of McKeough’s Department to the much newer Regional Development Branch of the Department of Treasury and Economics. 

The Toronto-Centred Region Concept

So it was that the Toronto-Centred region concept, or, to use its proper name, Design for Development: The Toronto-Centred Region, was born in May 1970.22 Within a year of the work being moved from one Department to another, the MTARTS recommendations had been assessed, the most desirable regional form had been determined (a blend of two MTARTS concepts), and a new conceptual plan for the region had been drawn up. The regional planning initiative had clearly become part of a regional development program – the new name of the scheme being the first and most obvious indication of what had occurred.

The key planning principle in the TCR concept is the division of the region into three zones: an inner urban Zone 1; an intermediate Zone 2, which was to remain largely rural and in which urban development would be strictly controlled; and an outer Zone 3, far enough out that commuting to the central urban zone would be impractical, where economic development was to be promoted.

The first two zones followed the concepts in the MTARTS report fairly closely. The third zone was a complete novelty, and it is here that one finds the clearest expression of regional development goals, for the MTARTS report had explicitly opposed the notion of promoting peripheral development. What had happened, in fact, is that the Regional Development Branch had grafted its program of fostering growth in the northern and eastern parts of central Ontario into the regional plan. Promoting development in the southern Georgian Bay region had been a favourite project of the Branch’s director, Dick Thoman, even before he entered government.23

TCR and the City

Within the urban zone, the new TCR concept also followed the principles in MTARTS. It affirmed that the urban area should be confined mostly to the lakeshore, with some development north along Yonge Street, and that it should be in the form of two distinct urban tiers separated by a Parkway Belt. But the TCR concept now included the idea of promoting development east of Metro Toronto. Too much economic growth had been occurring to the west, in what is now Mississauga, and the TCR sought to rectify this imbalance.

A central point about the TCR concept that is not well understood today, perhaps because of the plan’s name, is that it was a decentralizing plan. Overall population of the region was expected to rise from 3.6 million to 8.0 million by the year 2000, and a substantial proportion of this growth was to go into Zone 3, whose population was expected to rise from just over 1 million to 2 million, and from just under 20% to 25% of the regional population. Growth was to be encouraged in Midland, Barrie, and Port Hope−Cobourg to transform these towns into substantial peripheral urban centres. The Toronto-Centred Region concept did not call for a very Toronto-centred region.

Also, even within Zone 1, population growth was to be accommodated mostly through suburban expansion, not intensification of the existing urban area. Zone 1 included most of Markham and Vaughan Townships, within which there was plenty of agricultural land beyond the urban edge for this purpose. For the planners who shaped the TCR concept, the existing urban area was already suffering from what they called urban “congestion” — traffic delays, parking shortages, crowds and line-ups, insufficient fresh air and open space — so squeezing more people into the city was not seen as a desirable option.24

The complete TCR Concept, showing the three zones, the growth centres, and the large areas of protected recreation lands, as depicted in a 1974 report. From the “Report of the COLUC Task Force” (1974), Figure 3.

The urban zone of the TCR Concept, showing the Parkway Belt adapted from MTARTS. From the “Report of the COLUC Task Force” (1974).
TCR and Open Space

The concept also called for the protection of substantial land for conservation and recreation purposes — the entire Lake Simcoe shoreline, portions of the Georgian Bay shore, a broad swath in the northeast that included the Kawartha Lakes, and the Niagara Escarpment to the west. It also played up (somewhat misleadingly) the “park” function of the Parkway Belt.25 This aspect of the TCR was an important addition to MTARTS and it reflects a growing concern for the protection of natural open space in these early years of the environmental movement. But it never became a central element of the plan.

Assessing the TCR’s Legacy

The TCR concept was never actually implemented. Planners and researchers with the Province did begin refining the concept, but within a few months public opinion had turned against it and the government started to lose its resolve. Before long, implementation quietly wound down. The concept was not actually rescinded, and occasionally a public statement relating to it would appear. In 1974 the government made a major attempt to refine plans for the urban zone, by that time referred to as the Central Ontario Lakeshore Urban Complex, or COLUC, and as late as 1976 it issued a statement on the concept’s overall status.26 But in fact, within a year of its release, the TCR concept was no longer being used as a basis for planning decisions.

Assessing the influence of the scheme is a little more complex than its non-implementation would suggest, however, for some aspects, particularly those pertaining to the inner zones, appear to have been put into place. Zone 2 remains largely rural, as it was supposed to, and the current population distribution by zone is not far from what the concept projected. As well, large sections of the Parkway Belt were established by the late 1970s. Admittedly, this is a complex matter, but a close look suggests that the key goals of the plan were never realized.

First, the lack of population growth in Zone 2 — perhaps the most striking “success” of the plan — should not really be attributed to the TCR. It is due mostly to policies in effect before the TCR concept was devised, notably the longstanding provincial policy requiring adequate piped services for any urban development and the related MTPB principle of prohibiting leapfrog development, which was adopted and retained by the municipalities within that zone through the 1980s and 1990s (see below). The Province had also had its own UDIRA (Urban Development in Rural Areas) guidelines, in place since the 1960s, to control what we now call exurban development.

Second, the similarity between the proposed and actual population distribution is not as significant as it might first appear. The difference between the two Zone 3 figures — 19% and 25% — may look small, but when one recalls that decentralization to the outer zone was a central tenet of the plan, a difference of this size can not be easily dismissed. Even more pertinent, however, is the distribution of growth within the zones, for the concept called for an eastward shift in population for both Zone 1 and 3. The TCR did not make population projections at the municipal level, but for Zone 1 it called for 13% of the population (some 750,000) to be living east of Metro Toronto by the year 2000. In the 2001 census that figure was about 9% (about 460,000 people). In Zone 3, where the goal was to promote growth in the north and east (although no target figures were given), much of the growth, with the exception of Barrie, has occurred to the west, in the Grand River corridor.

Zone in TCR 

TCR Projections for 2000 (in millions)27

2001 Census (in millions)28

One

5.7 (71%)

5.21 (75%)

 

Metro Toronto
& northern fringea .1 (39%)

Metro Toronto
& northern fringeb .0 43%)

Two

0.3 (4%)

0.39 (6%)

Three

2.0 (25%)

1.31 (19%)

Total

8.0 

6.91

a. Given in TCR Plan29  b. Current City of Toronto plus Vaughan, Richmond Hill, and Markham

North Oakville, 1994. Urbanization had still not reached the Parkway Belt lands north of Dundas Street.

As for the Parkway Belt, although the western half was established, much of it by government purchase of the lands, without the overall plan of which it was to form a part, it can hardly be described as a successful implementation. That is not to say it has been debased by Highway 407 having been built through it. The Parkway Belt was never a greenbelt. It was always meant to be a corridor for a parkway-style expressway, so in that sense it is serving as planned. But its function as an urban separator has not been realized, for the simple reason that there are not two tiers of cities. In some places, urbanization has not yet reached the Parkway Belt lands, in which cases it has no separation function to perform, but even in places where development has extended north of the belt, such as Markham and Vaughan, urbanization is not occurring in separate “communities” as the Parkway Belt concept prescribed. Nor has its function as natural open space worked out very well; keeping roadside lands in a natural state, whether for recreational purposes or to provide bucolic vistas for drivers, has become a difficult principle to defend where the lands are surrounded by urban development.

Reasons for Failure

Perhaps the most fundamental reason the TCR fell short is that it simply tried to do too much. This is particularly true of its decentralization and regional development goals, which would have required a degree of intervention that few in Ontario could have accepted. Whether a more modest scheme of this sort would have worked, however, must remain an unanswered question. Government-sponsored regional development programs, particularly those that rely on growth points to act as stimuli for further growth, fell out of favour years ago. But it is conceivable that a less aggressive regional development scheme could have met with some success. (Whether decentralization of economic activity to peripheral areas serves the public interest is another matter.)

Equally important, though, is that the plan’s ambitious regional development goals swamped its regional planning goals. Then, in backing away from aggressive regional development, the Province backed away from everything, leaving more conventional planning matters like coordinating regional growth and transportation — the very things the regional planners were addressing before the project was taken over by the regional development advocates — in the hands of sub-regional bodies. It appears that blending together regional development and regional planning did not advance the work of either.

A related problem was the absence of an accompanying plan for regional transportation infrastructure. The original TCR scheme proposed transportation corridors, but they are highly conceptual, and it made no mention of public transit. The fact is that by the time the TCR was conceived, transportation planners were no longer involved. Perhaps the cultures of the regional development planners and the transportation engineers were incompatible, or perhaps the lack of a transportation plan was due to the haste with which the TCR concept had been put together. Whatever the reason, the absence of a regional transportation plan from the TCR scheme made its successful implementation unlikely.

Another important weakness was the lack of public consultation in the development of the TCR. If ever there was a top-down plan, this was it. The MTPB had practised top-down planning too, and had done so fairly successfully, but at least it was guided by a citizen board, and it paid some heed to local councils. The provincial Regional Development Branch seems to have done little of either. And by the time the TCR concept was being developed, about 1970, citizens had come to expect a substantial degree of participation in the planning process. No wonder the public found the TCR difficult to accept.

Conceptual transportation corridors in the TCR Concept. From “Design for Development: The Toronto-Centred Region” (1970).
Notes
19. Ontario, Community Planning Branch, “Choices for a Growing Region: A study of the emerging development pattern and its comparison with alternative concepts” 1967.
20. Ontario, Metropolitan Toronto and Region Transportation Study, “Transportation for the Regional City: Statement of principles and recommendations,” 1967.
21. Ontario, “Design for Development: Statement by the Prime Minister of the Province of Ontario on Regional Development Policy,” 5 April 1966.
22. Ontario, Department of Treasury and Economics, Regional Development Branch, “Design for Development: The Toronto-Centred Region,” 1970.
23. Evident in Richard S. Thoman and Maurice H. Yeates, Delimitation of Development Regions in Canada (Special Attention to Georgian Bay Vicinity), Area Development Agency, Department of Industry, Ottawa, October 1966.
24. “Design for Development: The Toronto-Centred Region,” 12-13.
25. “Design for Development: The Toronto-Centred Region,” 19, 21.
26. Ontario, “Report to the Advisory Committee on Urban and Regional Planning of the COLUC Task Force” (1974); Ontario, “Toronto-Centred Region: Program Statement by Darcy McKeough,” March 1976.
27. “Design for Development: The Toronto-Centred Region,” 3.
28. Statistics Canada, 2001 Census of Canada: Population and Dwelling Counts. Catalogue number 93F0051XIE.
29. “Design for Development: The Toronto-Centred Region,” 18.