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Ontario’s back to the future approach to planning

February 25, 2021

Twenty-five years ago, Mike Harris’ ‘common sense revolution’ heralded a shredding the province’s planning rules, and proposals for a network of highway expansions in every direction outwards across the Greater Toronto Area.

The government’s plans prompted a vociferous backlash. Harris’ approach was widely seen as a strategy for sprawling urban development that threatened the Oak Ridges Moraine and other prime agricultural and natural heritage lands, and would embed growing traffic congestion and smog for decades to come.

The Harris government eventually beat a partial retreat on its approach to planning – most evident in the development and adoption of the Oak Ridges Moraine Conservation Act and Plan - and a death-bed embrace of the concept of ‘smart growth.’ But its highway plans continued, including a GTA West Corridor, a Bradford Bypass linking Highways 400 and 404, northwards extensions of Highways 427 and 404, and a Mid-Peninsula Highway through the Niagara region across the top of the Niagara Escarpment.

Following its 2003 election victory, propelled in part by the public rejection of the previous government’s plans, the incoming Liberal government established the GTA Greenbelt, revised the province’s planning rules, and adopted a “Growth Plan” for the region. The reforms emphasized the protection of prime agricultural lands, natural heritage and hydrologic systems, and the establishment of transit friendly, mixed use, ‘complete communities.’

As part of the 2006 Growth Plan many of the highway projects, including the Bradford Bypass and Highway 427 extensions were dropped on the grounds that they would do nothing but facilitate automobile dependent urban sprawl across the region. The GTA West and Mid-Peninsula projects where also eventually abandoned as uneconomic and environmentally destructive throwbacks to a different age.

Now fast forward to 2021. Mike Harris is no longer Premier, but Doug Ford is, and his government’s developer-friendly approach to planning matters seems to be going far beyond even the Harris government’s imagination.

The province’s planning rules have been re-written, not only at the provincial level, but down the level of site-specific plans within individual municipalities, almost universally in favour of development interests. Ministerial Zoning Orders (MZOs), and other ministerial overrides are no longer the aberrations they once were, but now seem the new norm for planning in Ontario. That point was highlighted provisions of the government's recently adopted Bill 229, requiring, among other things, that Conservation Authorities sign-off on ministerially designated developments regardless of their risks of flooding or other hazards.

The underlying message to developers and municipalities seems to be that when it comes to planning matters, there are no rules. That point is underlined further by the contents of the government’s latest omnibus legislation, Bill 245. The almost satirically titled Accelerating Access to Justice Act, if adopted, would make it virtually impossible for citizens and community groups to participate in Land-Use Planning Appeal Tribunal (LPAT – the successor to the Ontario Municipal Board) appeals and hearings on planning issues.

The second defining feature of the Ford government’s ‘Back to the Future’ approach to urban development has been the revival of major parts of GTA highway network expansion program abandoned more than a decade ago. The Vaughan to Milton GTA West Corridor, and the 404 to 400 Bradford Bypass/Holland Marsh Highway have been at the forefront of the government’s plans. Both projects would run through the agricultural and natural heritage lands of GTA Greenbelt, and are widely seen as likely to enable sprawling automobile dependent development patterns far into the future. In light of the province’s dismantling of its own environmental assessment process, the proposals have prompted growing public and municipal calls for comprehensive federal environmental reviews.

The management of the burgeoning economic and population growth and resulting urban development in the Greater Toronto Area has been one of the defining features of the province’s politics for decades. The region holds Canada’s largest concentration of prime agricultural lands, as well as major natural heritage features like the Oak Ridges Moraine and Niagara Escarpment. Uncontrolled urban growth threatens these resources, and is widely seen to embed unsustainable infrastructure maintenance costs, deepen traffic congestion problems, increase transportation related emissions of greenhouse gases and smog precursors, and reinforce social divisions.

Moreover, COVID-19’s long-term impacts on development, employment, transit, and other aspects of urban life remain unknowns. Emerging concepts like ‘smart’ cities, and the imperatives of decarbonization and social justice offer new challenges and opportunities.

Yet, as in so many other things, the Ford government offers no vision for a path forward other than to respond to the immediate wishes of the development industry and its shrinking group municipal allies. As the Harris government learned, such an approach is neither practically or politically viable in the longer term.

Planning and infrastructure decisions affect the shape of communities for decades, even centuries to come. Ontarians deserve a transparent and accountable planning processes, based on clear and consistent rules designed to advance the environmental, social and economic sustainability of their communities, not the self-interested pleadings of developers and speculators.