This is the first in a series of Briefs that will examine the land supply for future urban development designated by municipalities across the Greater Golden Horseshoe to accommodate growth to 2031. This Brief examines the amount of land that has been built on in the GTHA since the establishment of the Growth Plan for the Greater Golden Horseshoe in 2006.
In 2013, Neptis researchers calculated that more than 107,000 hectares of land had been set aside by the municipalities of the Greater Golden Horseshoe to accommodate growth to 2031. About half of that land, 56,200 hectares, is located in the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area (GTHA). This supply of land is referred to as the designated greenfield area (DGA) in the Province's Growth Plan for the Greater Golden Horseshoe, which is land available for housing and employment outside the existing urbanized area of the region's cities and towns.
New analysis shows that since 2006 (the year the Growth Plan was established), only a small portion of the GTHA's land supply for greenfield development has been built on. Neptis researchers have estimated that only about 10,800 of the 56,200 hectares was developed between 2006 and 2016; less than 20% of the total supply. That leaves 80% of the designated land supply to accommodate another 15 years' worth of growth to 2031 and possibly beyond.
A closer look at where development has occurred across municipalities in the GTHA shows that the municipalities of Brampton, Vaughan, and Milton together account for nearly 45% of the hectares urbanized so far. Even so, these three municipalities still have plenty of land to build on - about 15,700 hectares, or 35% of the remaining DGA land supply in the GTHA.
Other municipalities, such as Oakville, Whitby, and East Gwillimbury, which have significant amounts of Designated Greenfield Area, used up relatively little of the land supply available to them between 2006 and 2016. And the municipality of Pickering has almost 3,000 hectares of land available for development in the Seaton area.
Area Urbanized between 2006 and 2016 within the DGA
(% of GTHA)
(% of GTHA)
(% in Municipality)
Table 1: Land consumption of upper-/single-tier municipalities in the GTHA, listed by amount of land urbanized since 2006.
In total, almost 46,000 hectares in the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area designated by municipalities for urbanization remain available to accommodate a variety of housing types planned by municipalities, including hundreds of thousands of ground-related homes.
Figure 1: The extent of urbanization of the DGA in the GTHA between 2006 and 2016.
During the public consultation into the 10-year review of the Growth Plan for the Greater Golden Horseshoe, some commentators have suggested that provincial land use policies have created a land supply shortage responsible for rising house prices in the Toronto region. Neptis research shows that, on the contrary, there is plenty of land to accommodate new communities at the urban edge until at least 2031 and possibly beyond. There is no "shortage" of land supply.
The question of how much land has been used up and how much remains available for development should inform decisions on whether more land should be brought into the DGA as municipalities prepare their land budgets to conform to Amendment 2 of the Growth Plan. This amendment extends the population and employment projections to 2041 and forecasts a population of 13.5 million people and 6.3 million jobs in the Greater Golden Horseshoe.
Although the accuracy of these new forecasts has been called into question, the process of designating even more land to accommodate the new projections has begun in some municipalities, while previously designated land for development remains available.
This Brief builds upon Neptis research that examined growth patterns in fast-growing Canadian city-regions over 20 years (1991-2011), and showed that while the populations of the Vancouver, Edmonton, Calgary, and Toronto city-regions continue to grow, the rate at which new land is being urbanized at the edge has decreased over time.
In the GTHA, the rate of urban expansion declined from 26% to 10%, even while population growth rates remained steady, indicating that land consumption at the edge of the GTHA began slowing down even before the Growth Plan was in effect.
Many factors have contributed to the trend: changing demographics, changing lifestyles, the changing economy. Land use regulations alone have not brought about the slower rate of development at the urban edge. However, land use regulations and long-term planning in our fast-growing region remain important to protect agriculturally important and environmentally sensitive areas, and to ensure that the design of communities supports investments in transit and other forms of infrastructure. Loosening these regulations will only hinder progress towards these goals.
Area urbanized between 2006 and 2016 within the DGA
(% of GTHA)
(% of GTHA)
(% in Municipality)
Table 2: Land consumption of the DGA in lower-/single-tier municipalities in the GTHA, listed by amount of land urbanized since 2006.
Note on the method for measuring development between 2006 and 2016 in the Designated Greenfield Area in the Greater Toronto Hamilton Area
The researchers used the designated greenfield area (DGA) data set as the geographic extent of the analysis, as well as the 2011 urbanized area data set created for the Neptis study, Growing Pains. These data sets were brought into Google Earth software, and researchers visually inspected high-resolution imagery against these reference data sets.
Delineating the 2016 urbanized area required a thorough visual inspection of imagery captured in spring 2016. In less urbanized areas, such as northern York and Durham Regions, the most recent high-resolution imagery in Google Earth was dated spring 2015. In such areas, the 2016 urbanized area was delineated using a combination of 2015 high-resolution imagery from Google Earth and Landsat 8 medium-resolution imagery captured in April 2016.
 The Neptis Foundation has updated the Designated Greenfield Area calculation for the GTHA (see Table 1 and 2).
 Plan to Achieve - A Review of the Land Needs Assessment Process and the Implementation of the Growth Plan, by Kevin Eby (Friends of the Greenbelt Foundation, 2016); Implementing the Growth Plan: Seeking Provincial and Municipal Alignment to Support a Prosperous Ontario, by Nicola Crawhall and Associates (Regional Public Works Commissioners, 2015).