Greening Mississauga’s development standards-- Toronto provides inspiration
Oct. 18, 2023
Headlines across Ontario have drawn attention to the government’s disastrous management of land, as the province’s population continues to swell. But the more existential question of sustainability, after the consequences of irresponsible growth policies become harder to combat, is seldom addressed when the ongoing scandal engulfing Doug Ford and his PCs hits the news.
Ontario’s population is expected to grow almost 30 percent by 2041 -- a staggering figure in such a short period, for what is already, by far, the most populated province in the country. The PC scheme to accommodate this growth is wiping away two decades of smart, sustainable growth planning, ramming through another generation of sprawl instead.
For a planet already nearing the brink of its no return point, what Ford is doing amounts to driving the final nail into a coffin.
Countless studies have shown there is enough land within existing municipal urban boundaries to build more than the 1.5 million homes the PCs, as directed by the subdivision development industry, are forcing on cities and towns.
Municipalities, meanwhile, are trying to ensure the new homes mandated by Queen’s Park are as sustainable as possible.
By focussing on energy reductions in the race to net zero, and ensuring protection from the increasing variability of climate change, our cities represent a bulwark against the PCs’ reckless growth policies, which are stripping away the Places to Grow Act and its measures to ensure Ontario’s rapid population increase is managed with the planet in mind.
Much of these responsibilities are now falling on the province’s 444 municipalities.
In guiding the transition to net zero, municipalities have the authority and the responsibility to implement Green Development Standards (GDS) which are voluntary or mandatory measures, implemented by individual municipalities, that promote environmentally, economically and socially sustainable growth. They often relate to ways buildings can be built in order to reduce energy and water consumption and waste contributing to a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, addressing infrastructure costs, improving public health and supporting the local economy.
This idea is a fairly new concept. Traditionally, sustainability has been left to the end of the planning process -- an afterthought. GDSs bring sustainability to the forefront of applications by encouraging environmentally, socially and economically sustainable design of buildings and associated infrastructure. Before an application is submitted, the mandatory requirements will be part of the checklist.
“They’re absolutely important in municipalities identifying what are the sustainability metrics we want to drive uptake to, what are the metrics that are the most important to us and why are they the most important to us,” Gaby Kalapos, executive director of the Clean Air Partnership, said to Mississauga’s Environmental Action Committee last week after the City presented an update on the development of its new GDSs.
Currently the City of Mississauga is operating with GDSs applied to new buildings that were created in 2012. The City is now working to develop a stronger set of standards that will help achieve its goal of a 40 percent reduction in emissions below 1990 levels by 2030 and an 80 percent reduction by 2050.
In Mississauga, buildings make up the largest source of emissions, compared to across the province where they take a backseat to transportation. A series of environmental groups and advocacy organizations have made appeals to Mississauga council to update its decade-old standards, and come in line with other municipalities across southern Ontario.
“[Whitby, Ajax, Pickering and Toronto] all have mandatory energy tier approaches, which also require an energy modeling report, and they all use energy metrics to run a design. We are the second largest economy and third largest city in Ontario, so why [can’t] we do the same?” Kannera Uthayakumaran, a volunteer with the youth group Future Majority’s green development standards campaign, asked Mississauga councillors in March.
Following the delegation from youth earlier this year, City council passed a motion to update its GDS as delegated through its Climate Change Action Plan. The unanimous decision came in the wake of the release of the sixth edition of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report which alarmed a “code red” for humanity.
Edward Nicolucci, an urban designer working with the City to update its standards, noted that Mississauga’s original GDSs did see success but they did not address greenhouse gas emission or building resiliency. These are crucial aspects that are now being addressed with relative hope that the City will see the same level of success.
Mississauga also has the privilege of looking to other municipalities who have successfully implemented these targets, focussing not only on energy metrics, but GHG intensity metrics, a component that Kalapos said is crucial. But GDSs also encompass more than just energy and emissions reduction. They also encompass efforts like increasing the urban tree canopy, maintaining soil health, encouraging active transportation by balancing proximity to amenities, proximity to public transit, compact mix-use development and strong stormwater management. Overall, these efforts contribute to a healthier community economically, socially and environmentally.
Within the GTHA, Ajax, Brampton, Halton Hills, King, Markham, Pickering, Richmond Hill, Toronto, Vaughan and Whitby all have established GDSs while countless other municipalities -- urban and rural -- are in the process of developing their own. For Mississauga, the City is looking to Toronto whose GDSs stand as the gold standard for other municipalities.
The Toronto Green Standard (TGS) has been in place since 2006 and, as of 2022, is currently on its fourth version with the most up to date standards guiding the City towards net zero emissions by 2040, a target that was adopted in 2021.
“We realized we wanted to respond to what the pressures or the environmental concerns were for the City of Toronto,” Jane Welsh, project manager for Environmental Planning in the Strategic Initiatives, Policy and Analysis unit of Toronto City Planning, told The Pointer. “So it was starting to think and being forward thinking and proactive thinking about what we needed to do to ensure that new development was built in a more sustainable fashion.”
Toronto has been instrumental in creating a tiered approach that has the baseline standards being mandatory, with a series of optional standards that, over time, will become mandatory themselves.
The tiered approach allows for more stringent standards to come into play on a rolling basis to allow the development industry to have time to adapt to more sustainable technologies, designs and materials. The City of Toronto works on a four year cycle with higher standards becoming mandatory every four years “to be sure that we're being consistent and staying ahead of what's urgent and what needs to be addressed in the environment,” Welsh said.
“Get everybody on board with you as you go,” she cautioned. “And be aware of new trends and innovation. And be sure you're having a conversation. So there's no surprises, so people are well aware of what's coming and they're comfortable.”
In Mississauga, Mandatory Tier 1 metrics will come into play in 2024, with Tier 2 and Tier 3 metrics being voluntary. In 2027, Tier 2 will become mandatory and in 2030, Tier 3 will become mandatory guiding the municipality to near net zero.
Historical evidence has suggested that developers are unlikely to undertake standards that are not mandatory, often citing higher upfront costs and the complexity of dealing with space requirements (for standards like green roofs and solar panels).
“You have to navigate that tension or that line between what you would really want to achieve and what the industry is able and ready to deal with,” Welsh said. “You can move as quickly as you have innovative partners to move ahead.”
In order to encourage uptake of upper tier standards, the City of Toronto provides an incentive to developers through the Development Charge Refund Program. Since 2010, if developers are willing to go above and beyond the mandatory standards, they can apply for a development charge rebate. In 2022, the City approved an increase to this refund supplying a 25 percent increase to the refund for Tier 2 projects and a 50 percent increase to the refund for Tier 3 and Tier 4 projects.
While the rebate program is used as an incentive to adhere to higher standards, Welsh said the City does not want all builders opting for this, only the top builders who have the most innovative projects. To date, the City has seen 82 projects operate under this rebate program with another 200 underway.
“We're very happy with that number. We don't want it to be more, because we just want to get the ball rolling, to normalize the fact that you have to build to a higher standard and then be rewarded, or help the leaders who really want to try it but they can't quite get it through their performance to get that extra edge,” she said.
Kalapos suggested that Mississauga could use a similar development charge rebate program or use other tools such as community improvement plans, tax reductions, density or height increases, and expedited approval processes to incentivize developers to adhere to a higher tier.
Toronto represents the gold standard for GDSs in part because of the way it has been able to get the building community on board. Welsh credits this success with the years of consultation the City undertook before initially implementing the standards in 2006.
“Toronto for many years has been a hotspot, you know, developers want to build in Toronto,” she said. “We really didn't get pushback when I went through because we had everybody onside with what we were doing.”
Even with the potential for hiccups along the way, numbers show that GDSs are not only environmentally sustainable, but economically friendly. According to a variety of construction companies and economists in the United States, on average, building with sustainable standards costs anywhere between two percent and seven percent more than a traditional building; however, the potential for cost savings are astronomical. Firstly, studies have shown that green buildings tend to rent for 13.3 to 36.5 percent more than traditional buildings.
Building a green building for the outset is also more cost-effective than retrofitting an existing building. According to the Canadian Climate Institute, each retrofit on an existing building costs, on average, between $6,000 and $7,000, saving approximately $750 per year in energy costs. For an older building, it makes economic sense to add on retrofits that will pay for themselves in approximately 10 years. But for new buildings, it is far cheaper to build green from the beginning.
Implementing GDSs can also help with infrastructure adaptation to mitigate some of the most costly damages from storms that will become increasingly more common as the climate continues to warm. In 2013, a devastating flood washed through the GTA with serious implications for homes in Mississauga. Torrential downpours wiped out guard rails and turned basements into swimming pools, causing extensive damage to thousands of homes as 138 millimetres of rain fell within a 10 hour window. It was the costliest storm in the history of Mississauga totalling $932 million in damages. While GDSs may not be able to protect a structure from storms indefinitely, the collective mitigation and adaptation measures that they provide will provide some economic benefit. In this vein, Mississauga has developed a very detailed stormwater management plan that will play a role in adaptation and encourage more sustainable infrastructure.
Members of Mississauga’s Environmental Action Committee questioned Kalapos and Nicolucci about the province’s role in implementing these standards.
Under the Municipal Act and the Planning Act, individual municipalities have the authority to develop and implement GDSs as they see fit for their communities. A coordinated approach on the provincial level would require an amendment of the Building Code which is difficult because the province would have to consider a much larger geography where not all the needs are the same. For example, wildfires are a challenge in northern Ontario but southern Ontario is much more likely to experience a flood than a wildfire.
“I know that if I did have a magic wand I would definitely throw all of the energy and GHG emissions onto the Ontario Building Code,” Kalapos said. “Unfortunately none of us have that wand”
While it is unlikely that the province would make changes to the Ontario Building Code, given its connection to many major developers, it is not impossible for a province to take the lead on establishing green standards.
In 2008, the province of British Columbia first introduced energy efficiency as a BC Building Code objective. The Step Code, as the legislation is known, lays out two different paths builders can take in order to meet energy efficiency targets. The prescriptive approach, which most developers choose to adhere to, mandating specific requirements for insulation, windows, furnaces, water heaters, lighting and other equipment and systems. This approach focuses on individual elements rather than the whole system.
This is in contrast to the performance approach which established a specific outcome that developers can meet using whatever methods and building materials they choose. Both approaches consist of a tiered approach with mandatory and incentivized voluntary standards that work towards the goal of all new buildings being net zero by 2032.
Despite a lack of a standardized approach across the province, municipalities have the potential to have a huge impact on climate mitigation and adaptation due to their direct relationship with builders and the community.
In developing its draft standards, Mississauga held consultations with the Region of Peel, conservation authorities, The Atmospheric Fund, residential and commercial builders, Indigenous groups and youth.
In encouraging municipal responsibility, Kalapos said to committee: “Municipalities implementing the GDS authority really helps to implement the market, drive the market”.