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Name-calling and simplistic narratives on development won’t make Toronto the ‘city that works’

Published in the Toronto Star, October 24, 2022


Discussions around growth and development in the Toronto region have taken some deeply simplistic and disappointing turns as we head towards this month’s municipal elections. Questions around how to manage growth while ensuring the liveability, affordability and sustainability of urban spaces are inherently complex. Yet in the GTA, and especially the City of Toronto, the conversation seems to have degenerated into a narrative of 'all density is good' and that anyone who questions development in any way must an evil, self-interested NIMBY. A recent article in the Star declared such critics ‘wolves in green clothing.’   

The situation around planning and development in the Toronto region is a lot more complicated than those narratives suggest. The GTA is subject to ongoing growth and development pressures, reinforced by an extended period of extremely low interest rates, record high immigration levels, and the Ford government’s deeply pro-development planning rules. These forces have combined to produce a highly inflated housing market, and a development boom defined by hyper-intensive high-rise development in some urban areas and low-density development at the urban periphery. The resulting model of ‘tall and sprawl” development has done little to actually improve housing affordability, particularly for those at the lower end of the income scale.     

Even then, contrary to what the development industry and its supporters suggest, there are many examples throughout the city of successful infill, redevelopment and intensification projects. With appropriate design and scale for their sites, and competent developers, these have been executed under the existing rules, with little or no community opposition. The construction industry is reported to be already working at capacity in the region.   

At the same time, the region is seeing very aggressive proposals from developers, looking to cash in on the current provincial government's already highly development friendly policies. Some of these projects are inappropriate for their locations in terms of scale, available infrastructures, mix of uses and other factors. Opposition to such proposals by the affected communities – be they high, low or mixed in income and form, is unsurprising. It is also a legitimate and essential element of the process of democratic local governance.      

The incentives of maximizing profit and return on investment mean that private developers are unlikely to pay attention to issues of affordability unless compelled to do so.  In some cases, including midtown Toronto, there have been significant losses of existing affordable rental housing to investor-owned condominium development – textbook examples of gentrification. The City's efforts, with strong support from the community, to require affordable housing in new developments were overridden by the province under development industry pressures.   

While there are capacity issues within municipalities around development approvals, it is also true that not all development applications perfect. Applications are often incomplete, or raise significant planning, infrastructure and even engineering issues that require considerable back and forth to resolve. In some cases, developers are filing the bare minimum required to trigger the 90-day timeline established by the Ford government to by-pass the municipality and go directly to the Ontario Land Tribunal (OLT). There, developers have, as reported in the Toronto Star, a 97% success rate.  

The OLT process itself has been significantly altered over the past few years to make effective participation by community-based organizations or individual members of the public almost impossible.   

The work of urbanists like Jane Jacobs taught us the importance of things like the details of scale, design and mixing of uses, in creating livable urban environments. Decades of experience tell us that leaving urban design and housing affordability to private developers in the naïve hope that something good will emerge, is an invitation to failure. Producing cities that are livable, affordable and sustainable, particularly in the context of very strong growth pressures, requires careful planning.  An environment where the development industry can do whatever it wants won’t deliver those kinds of outcomes.     

Toronto used to be known as the ‘city that works.’ If we don’t find a way to elevate our conversations about planning and development issues beyond name-calling, we may find ourselves known as the city and region that was once great, but then lost its way.   

Mark Winfield is a Professor of Urban and Environmental Change at York University. He was involved in the development of the original Greenbelt and Growth Plans for the Greater Golden Horseshoe region, and served on the ministerial advisory committee on the implementation of the growth plan.