Metropolitan Planning

Existing water and sewer services, 1949, in the area that would later become Metropolitan Toronto, from the report prepared for the Toronto and York Planning Board by consulting engineers Gore & Storrie

The Metropolitan Toronto Planning Boarda

These regional planning initiatives were all superseded in 1954 by the Metropolitan Toronto Planning Board, the only true regional planning body the region has ever had. This Board’s creation was part of the much larger provincial action that created the federated municipality of Metropolitan Toronto that same year, a bold move taken by the provincial government, after several years of study and debate, to address pressing problems associated with growth in the metropolitan area. So the Board was a provincial, not a local, creation — a noteworthy point — whose mandate and powers were set out in the provincial Metropolitan Toronto Act.

In the custom of the times, and following the requirements of the 1946 Planning Act, the Board was appointed by the council to which it reported — in this case the new Metropolitan Toronto Council — and its members were all to be “citizens.” No elected representatives of any sort were permitted to have full membership on the Board, although some did serve ex officio. The guiding principle was that this prohibition would keep “politics” out of planning. The actual planning work, of course, was done by a professional and technical staff, of which there were maybe one or two dozen by the time work was fully under way in the late 1950s. Among the most influential were the German-born planner and author Hans Blumenfeld and the Detroit-raised and Harvard-trained American Eli Comay.

The Board was responsible for all aspects of physical planning — broad land use designations, transportation (highways and public transit), water and sewer infrastructure, parks and open spaces — throughout the entire “metropolitan planning area,” a legally defined area that included not just the 13 municipalities making up Metropolitan Toronto, but also the 13 villages and rural municipalities that ringed it.

The metropolitan planning system had, like Metropolitan Toronto itself, a “two-tier” structure. Local planning authorities still existed, as did the local municipalities they reported to. Their planning scope was limited by the broad planning principles of the metropolitan board, but local planning boards could, and most did, make official plans for their local planning areas. (Several had even drawn up official plans before the MTPB was created.) Two-tiered planning sometimes led to compromises that neither tier was entirely happy about, but the system survived and is considered, by most accounts, to have worked. Both tiers evidently felt their priorities were heeded often enough.10

The jurisdiction of the Metropolitan Toronto Planning Board, as defined in 1954. It included the ring of rural municipalities, towns, and villages beyond Metropolitan Toronto itself. From Official Plan of the Metropolitan Toronto Planning Area (1959).

Subdivision Control — The Board and the Province

The MTPB was not the final planning authority within its planning area. At first, some thought the Province had intended to make it so, particularly concerning the approval of new subdivisions, and the idea was discussed, but within a year it had been dropped. The provincial government, in the person of the Minister of Planning and Development, held this authority throughout Ontario and had no intention of giving it up in this area. MTPB staff would review proposals for the subdivision of land within its jurisdiction and make a recommendation to the Minister, but final approval was in the hands of the Minister and his provincial staff.

This meant that, under the two-tiered system, local councils or local planning boards that objected to an MTPB position on a matter within their jurisdiction could make a contrary argument to the provincial Minister. They did so, repeatedly, through the 1950s and 1960s, and in some cases they succeeded, or at least altered an outcome. But in most cases they did not succeed. The Board may not have had the last word, but it could be persuasive, and its recommendations to the Province, especially concerning major proposals, usually prevailed.

One of the few isolated satellite towns permitted in the region was Bramalea, the start of which is shown here in 1963, north of the CNR mainlain (diagonal in lower part of image) and west of Bramalea Road. The MTPB tried hard to delay its development, because it was outside the serviced area and thus considered “premature,” but as it lay beyond the boundaries of the Board’s planning area, and had received both local and provincial approvals, the Board could do nothing to stop it.

The Official Plan

One of the chief purposes of the MTPB was to draw up an official plan for its planning area. Setting out planning principles and regulations in advance of development, in a formally approved document, was at the heart of the “rational comprehensive” style of planning that became popular after the Second World War. In this task, however, the Board never succeeded.

This failure was not through lack of effort. In the first few years, the Board’s staff members spent much of their time preparing what they thought would be the official plan, carrying out extensive research, projecting various growth trends into the future, and compiling and assessing plans made by the local municipalities within the Board’s jurisdiction. Ultimately, in 1959, the Board produced a comprehensive draft Official Plan, consisting of about 300 pages of text and maps.11

Metro Toronto Council, however, which was formally in charge of the Board, balked at making the plan official. Its main objection was that the document itself was too complex and too laden with hypothetical projections to be formally approved. So the draft went back to the Board to be distilled and rethought — a process that took several more years — and not until 1965 did a complete new draft emerge, in the form of two slim volumes of principles that were thought to be more approvable.12

Still, Metro Council again chose not to make the plan official. Planning in the region had by this time become much more complex. Growth was under way in several new parts of the region and most local jurisdictions had their own planning staff or consultants. Metro Council — which consisted of representatives from the individual municipalities — knew that formalizing this overarching plan under the two-tiered planning system would further restrict local actions and lead to endless disputes. It opted instead, in December 1966, to leave it as a non-official “Metropolitan Plan.” 

This rather ambiguous status remained until the plan was superseded in the early 1970s. The two-tier planning system, which worked fairly well on a case-by-case basis, turned out to be not fully compatible with the legally binding official plan system.

General Regional Land Use Concept of the Metropolitan Toronto Planning Board’s 1959 plan, showing a mostly contiguous urban area and widely dispersed industrial employment zones. From “Metropolitan Plan for the Metropolitan Planning Area” (1966).

The MTPB’s Planning Principles

Interestingly enough, most of the principles in the Board’s 1959 plan were implemented anyway, for several reasons. First, a substantial consensus prevailed around the idea that the metropolitan area could and should expand; second, the Board deliberately opted to work with existing patterns and development trends rather than try to reshape the region; and third, the detailed, potentially more controversial, land use planning was done at the local planning level.

The cardinal planning principle of the MTPB was urban contiguity. The region would have a defined urban area — primarily Metropolitan Toronto itself, plus lakeshore areas to the east and west — where development would be welcomed, but outside that designated urban area, development would be tightly controlled. There would be no (in the parlance of the day) “leapfrog” development beyond the urban boundary. This principle also meant there would be no satellite “new towns” to accommodate the region’s growth. 

In taking this position, the plan ran contrary to a widely accepted convention of the postwar years — found in the influential 1944 Greater London plan, for example, as well as in plans for several other Canadian cities — that establishing satellite towns well away from the existing central urban area was the best way to accommodate new growth.13

This choice of urban form followed from another of the plan’s key principles: the entire urban area should be serviced by a centrally managed network of trunk water and sewer lines connected to large lakeshore processing plants. All local water and sewer services were to be phased out. This principle had been first proposed in 1949 in the Gore & Storrie report for the Toronto and York Planning Board, but Metropolitan Toronto and the MTPB had readily adopted it. 

The legal foundation for the principle was the 1946 Planning Act, which effectively prohibited urban development served by septic tanks,14 a prohibition the MTPB fully intended to uphold. But since the MTPB accepted that growth could and should occur, it had to provide alternative servicing throughout the defined metropolitan urban area. The lake-based system was deemed the safest and most efficient way to do this. The link between this key engineering principle and the chosen regional form was direct and explicitly stated: if the region was to be serviced by a centralized lake-based system, the most appropriate regional form was a large, single urbanized area. Piping water out to, and sewage back from, satellite towns far from the lake would be unnecessarily expensive. The Board’s overall “vision” of the region was thus as much a product of engineering as planning.

Other more specific planning principles were equally important. The region’s transportation system was to include both high-volume roadways — expressways and arterial roads — and public rapid transit. (The capital budget for transportation was to be divided 35% for rapid transit, 40% for expressways, and 25% for new arterial roads.)15 In keeping with the notion of a compact urban area, residential densities were to be raised throughout the metropolitan area; even the inner core, known to be emptying out in many North American cities, was to maintain its population. Density was to be increased primarily by the addition of rental apartments, not just downtown but in the inner suburbs as well. In an effort to control transportation demand, industrial employment was to be distributed throughout the metropolitan area. 

Another important strategy, which affected the overall management of the metropolis, was to freely employ deficit financing for the construction of public infrastructure. This technique permitted the required infrastructure to be built along with or even in advance of development.

It is also worth noting a final important principle or, perhaps more correctly, a premise, of the MTPB. The plan explicitly stated that current patterns of development would be accepted. Growth and suburbanization were under way, and the MTPB saw its job as shaping and servicing that growth, not resisting or fundamentally rearranging it.16

The Legacy of the MTPB

One need only spend a day travelling about present-day Toronto and its region to see that most of these ideas have been implemented. Lake-based piped infrastructure still serves almost the entire urbanized area, and the principle of urban contiguity has been maintained (although the limits of urban land use are now far beyond the 1960s boundaries of Metropolitan Toronto). Apartments and industrial employment areas are scattered throughout the metropolitan area. Residential densities are high enough to make public transit, although far from ideal, at least reasonably cost-effective in most parts of the city. The proposed expressway network was never fully implemented — the Board’s most celebrated failure — but the suburban arterial roads were, providing a large-scale grid on which a fairly dense urban fabric has been woven.

Of course the MTPB and its planners were not fully responsible for all of these outcomes. In many cases, such as high inner-city densities, the trends were already under way and the Board’s policies merely reinforced them. Other public agencies, such as the Toronto Transit Commission and the Metropolitan Toronto Conservations Authority, also had an influence. And it was governments and their officials, not the MTPB, that ultimately had the infrastructure built and approved new developments — the role of Metro Chairman Fred Gardiner in building Metropolitan Toronto, for example, is well recognized. So it might be more correct to view these principles as those of the Metropolitan Toronto government, rather than of the MTPB alone.

But the MTPB played a central part. Exactly how important it is hard to say, but surely if the Board and its planning staff had called for dispersed satellite towns, higher reliance on expressways, and patching up the old pipes rather than investing in new ones, the metropolitan area would not look as it does today.

The MTPB’s transportation plan called for a mix of roads and transit, with a heavy reliance on a grid of arterial roads in the suburban areas, both within Metropolitan Toronto and beyond. This 1965 version of the plan was not significantly different from the original 1959 version but, as the note on the map reveals, major infrastructure projects for the downtown were being questioned. Neither the Queen subway nor most of the downtown expressway loop were built.

Top-down Planning

As for why the MTPB was able to achieve what it did, the answer is basically that it had the authority to do so, in the sense that provincial laws gave it the formal authority to create and uphold a plan over a large area and that the public generally accepted — or at least felt it had no choice but to accept — that authority. Both types of authority are important. Both are also fundamentally at odds with present-day notions of how planning should work. But until the late 1960s few believed that local governments and local citizens’ groups had to be entirely satisfied with a plan before it could be approved or acted upon. Local groups might speak out, but they did not have much power.

Construction of the Humber Valley Sewage Treatment plant is a striking illustration of this attitude. Engineering studies in the early 1950s concluded that a sewage plant was needed on the low ground at the mouth of the Humber River, where a golf course stood at the time. Beside that golf course, however, to the north and west, sat several residential neighbourhoods whose residents strongly objected to the sewage plant being built on this site. They organized and protested, and in 1955 about 3,000 people signed petitions that went to the Ontario Municipal Board, but to no avail. The plant went ahead. It was under construction within a few months of the OMB decision.17

It was, in short, what we now call “top-down planning.” It worked, in that the Board’s planning ideas were put in place, but not everyone liked it. Residents of the built-up city areas objected when the Board built infrastructure that disrupted the existing urban fabric, and residents of the unbuilt outer areas objected when the Board did not permit growth that everyone in the affected area wanted. But the Board and its professional staff acted aggressively in what they perceived to be the regional interest and in doing so, for better or worse, stepped on countless local toes.

The End of the MTPB

By the early 1970s, however, nearly everything had changed. Most of Metro Toronto was built up, and the focus of development in the region had moved out well beyond its boundaries. The Province of Ontario had begun a regional planning program of its own. Extensive citizen participation had become part of the planning process — clearly evident by the late 1960s in the public opposition to urban renewal and the Spadina Expressway. Appointed boards were falling out of favour and local councils were increasingly being seen as the appropriate democratic authority for planning matters (formally, they had always been). Ideas within the planning profession about top-down planning were changing too.

The MTPB would continue to exist, officially, until 1975, but these changing circumstances were undermining its effectiveness. It simply had less and less of the authority that had made it work. In truth, the 1971 cancellation of the Spadina Expressway, which had been a key part of the Board’s metropolitan transportation plan and one of the most high-profile features of that plan, symbolized the end of the MTPB as an effective planning body.

The MTPB had operated for just 15 years. In that brief time it oversaw a remarkable 54% increase in the population of Metropolitan Toronto, and it had many notable successes.18 Some of the most distinctive and most effective aspects of the Toronto urban region, especially within the old Metropolitan Toronto (now the City of Toronto) are rooted in the planning principles of the MTPB.

Notes
10. A key source for Metro’s perspective on this is Eli Comay’s candid, “A Brief to the Royal Commission on Metropolitan Toronto,” 1966; although it is available only in typescript, copies have been preserved in several local collections.
11. Metropolitan Toronto Planning Board, “Official Plan of the Metropolitan Toronto Planning Area,” 1959.
12. “Metropolitan Plan for the Metropolitan Toronto Planning Area”; and “Metropolitan Plan for the Metropolitan Toronto Planning Area: Supplement,” Dec. 1966.
13. See Chapter II, “General Concept of the Plan,” in the 1959 version; Hans Blumenfeld’s fundamental opposition to satellite towns is clearly presented in his 1948 paper “Alternative Solutions for Metropolitan Development,” later published in The Modern Metropolis: Its Origins, Growth, Characteristics, and Planning, ed. Paul D. Spreiregen (Montreal, 1967).
14. An Act Respecting Planning and Development, 1946, S.O. c. 71, s. 25.
15. MTPB, “Report on the Metropolitan Toronto Transportation Plan,” December 1964, 81.
16. This principle is expressed in several ways in the introductory sections of the plan.
17. Events in the neighbourhood are drawn from newspaper accounts. The final word from the technical authorities is a thorough report by the respected civil engineer Norman Wilson, “Proposed Humber Valley Treatment Plant,” 1955; a copy of this 16-page typescript is in the Toronto Urban Affairs Library.
18. From 1956 to 1971, Metro Toronto’s population rose from 1.358 million to 2.086 million, a 53.6% increase – James Lemon, Toronto Since 1918: An Illustrated History (Toronto, 1985), 194, Table I. Population growth outside Metropolitan Toronto was just starting to become regionally significant by 1971 – Mississauga, the fastest-growing outer municipality, more than doubled from 74,875 to 165,512 people between 1961 and 1971 (Table II).