Ontario’s top down approach to urban growth is reversing progress on many levels
April 21, 2022
The Ontario government now seems bent on sabotaging its own planning for growth in the Greater Golden Horseshoe, imposing three highly controversial projects under the pretext of addressing a housing need.
They are all top-down quick fixes pushing for “tall and sprawl.” These schemes squeeze the toothpaste out of the tube in what may seem to be the easiest places, but each potentially will cause enormous collateral damage to our way of life in southern Ontario.
Ontario’s Provincial Growth Plan forecasts that by 2051, the Greater Golden Horseshoe will have 14.9 million people. One in every three new immigrants to Canada settles here. In an overheated housing market, a growing portion of the population is already finding it impossible to find suitable housing to meet their needs, either rental or home ownership.
This is not just a supply problem; we need policies that explicitly produce more affordable housing. And the elephant in room, climate change, is the existential threat to our collective future. Like it or not, these three challenges -- unprecedented growth, housing affordability and climate change -- are joined at the hip.
The irony is there has been real progress in growing the Golden Horseshoe in ways that do this. Various provincial governments stepped up with interlocking provincial policy initiatives:
The Greenbelt Act, which is designed to protect more than 800,000 hectares with one of the largest conservation plans of its kind.
The Growth Plan for the Greater Golden Horseshoe, directing growth to where it can be supported by transit.
This leads to the Regional Transit Plan, which allocates more than $62 billion dollars by 2025 to alter the way we get around by investing in subway expansion, all-day electrified commuter rail, light rail and dedicated busways.
There are also moves underway at all levels to bring back a focus on affordable housing.
These interlocking policies were helping the Golden Horseshoe grow in a healthy way without being addicted to cars.
Virtually every municipality in the area supports these urban design principles and much of the private sector does too. That’s because the policies work -- or at least they were working, until the province began to undermine them with backward ideas for highways and tall and sprawl.
Highway 413 is the worst of these bad ideas. It’s a $10-billion, highway that would run for 59 kilometres from Vaughan to the Mississauga/Brampton border, cutting through the Greenbelt. There is broad opposition to this highway, from the municipalities it bisects, communities, environmentalists and public health experts. It doesn’t solve transportation and induces sprawl, degrades the environment and removes valuable agricultural land.
Cities are trying to do better than this. Hamilton endorsed a responsible growth option within its designated urban boundary that calls for intensified and contained transit-oriented community growth -- inherently more sustainable. But the province stepped in, threatening to reverse that decision by mandating sprawl beyond the city’s urban boundary.
Then, just before Easter weekend, the province suddenly issued two special EMZO’s (Enhanced Ministerial Zoning Orders) to fast-track developments along the Yonge North Subway extension in Markham and Richmond Hill. These orders from above would overturn plans developed by both municipalities.
The province’s plan envisions giant towers -- a dense cluster of 67 giant highrise buildings, some up to 80 storeys. This would double the population, creating one of the densest areas in the country and cut in half the number of jobs in that part of Ontario. There is no requirement for affordable rental or ownership and insufficient plans for the parks, schools, civic uses and community centres essential to make these communities viable.
So, who wins and who loses? Some developers are only too willing to oblige, in particular a group of prominent developers with strong political connections to the current government.
The big loser is the public. This top-down imposition of tall and sprawl needs to be rejected. We need to grow the Greater Golden Horseshoe in a healthy and sustainable way through collaboration, not irresponsible diktats.