Summarizing the Observations
The first point that emerges from this narrative is that the region does indeed have regional planning in its history, at least from the late 1940s until the early 1970s. During these years, however, two quite distinct regional planning programs were attempted: one in the 1950s and 1960s that succeeded rather well — in the sense that most of its planning principles were put in place — and one of a quite different sort in the late 1960s and early 1970s that largely failed in that sense. Even within this period of active planning, then, there were limits to how acceptable and how effective a regional planning program could be.
The second is that in the first few years of the 1970s, regional planning essentially disappeared under a flood of local interests. Admittedly, the idea of regional planning did not entirely vanish, and from time to time planning advocates did attempt to reintroduce some degree of regional planning, but no region-wide plans ever took shape. That a local neighbourhood group or a local municipal council could be told what to do by some provincial or regional authority became something close to anathema in this region in the early 1970s, and so it remained for over a generation.
Third, the longstanding opposition to regional planning was finally broken, rather surprisingly, by the Conservative government of Premier Mike Harris. Following its populist principles, it brought local governments and so-called ordinary citizens into the regional planning process, and in doing so was able to initiate a new, seemingly less centralized program of provincial planning that the current Liberal government has been able to build on.
Finally, the ambitions of the new Growth Plan are historically unprecedented. None of the earlier plans attempted to do so much. The new Growth Plan proposes not just to plan the region, but to change it: to re-direct development from the urban edge into existing urban areas, to encourage new suburbs to be built as “complete” live/work communities (not just “bedroom” communities), and to establish a multiplicity of urban centres and corridors that do not yet exist. It also calls for a significant shift away from the private automobile to public transit and for greater protection of agricultural land, among other objectives.3 Admittedly, the Province’s planning program of 1969−70 had ambitious goals, but they were not as far-reaching or as fully developed as those in the Growth Plan. Nor, one might add, was that earlier planning program accompanied by numerous other supportive provincial policies, as in the case of the Growth Plan.
Learning From History?
Whether the Growth Plan can actually accomplish its goals remains to be seen, as its implementation is only just now getting under way. There are certainly reasons to be doubtful. For one thing, the sprawling urban form the plan seeks to curtail is generated and held in place by powerful socio-cultural trends and economic forces. Rising per capita incomes, smaller household sizes, increasing car ownership and use, the dispersal of employment and retailing, and declining farm profits all play a role. So too does the region’s private development industry, whose operations are fully integrated with the current pattern of urban expansion. These will not be easy forces to counter.
As the following pages will reveal, the region’s planning history also offers reasons for doubt. The only plan that came close to the current Growth Plan in its ambitions — the 1969−70 provincial scheme — largely failed in its main objectives. The one regional plan that did achieve its goals — the metropolitan plan of the 1950s and 1960s — did so by working quite differently from, and trying to do much less than, the Growth Plan. And events since the 1970s show that belief in municipal autonomy runs so deep in this region that regional planning has been a hard sell. None of this history offers much assurance to the promoters of the Growth Plan.
But history shows us only what has and has not worked, not what will work. And present-day circumstances are sufficiently different from those of the past that one cannot, or should not, draw straight historical parallels. The scale and scope of urban sprawl have reached unprecedented levels in the region, and so has public concern about the phenomenon. Awareness of the environmental problems caused by car dependence is growing. And the true size of the region’s massive “infrastructure deficit” — along with questions about how to remedy it and how to avoid its happening again –— is dawning on more and more people. These trends may have made the public more open to and more willing to accept regional planning, along with the constraints on growth that it will require. As well, the decentralized mode of planning called for in the Growth Plan differs enough from past methods that past planning failures might not be relevant.
So, although the region’s planning history reveals that nothing like the new Growth Plan has ever succeeded before, this finding should not be interpreted to mean that nothing like it can be made to succeed now. This point is being borne out as this paper is being written, for the plan’s implementation has already gone further than any previous provincially directed regional plan.