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Paradise saved? GTA growth plans aim to rein in sprawl

Checking sprawl is the fundamental idea behind the province's Places to Grow plan. But planning decisions being made now in cities like Mississauga will determine whether the uprecedented project succeeds.

Phinjo Gombu
Urban Affairs Reporter
Fri Jan 14 2011

Smart growth — or outsmarted?

Ontario won international kudos four years ago for Places to Grow, a revolutionary scheme to curb urban sprawl. But it’s the nitty-gritty decisions made in places like Brampton and Markham, often reluctantly, that will show over the next 20 years whether the plan succeeded.

The two communities have taken very different paths toward meeting the goals set out in Places to Grow, a master strategy for managing population growth intelligently and preserving as much green space as possible.

Markham hired a high-profile visionary, California-based “new urbanist” Peter Calthorpe, to design communities with densities approaching that of downtown Toronto. It pioneered the idea of suburban intensification, redeveloping areas that have already been built on.

The town also engaged in audacious debates about whether it should urbanize thousands of hectares of prime agricultural land just because it could — and chose not to.

Brampton, meanwhile, is plowing ahead with plans that will make it the hot spot for horizontal growth — a.k.a. sprawl — in the Greater Golden Horseshoe. Its plans will end up paving over what remains of thousands of hectares of rural land within the city boundaries, just as neighbouring Mississauga did.

That’s just one of the contrasts revealed in a groundbreaking Star analysis of the growth plans the GTA’s six regions and 25 municipalities have unveiled over the past couple of years.

Municipal governments and developers often point out that traditional suburban development — spread-out detached-home neighbourhoods whose residents depend on their cars — remains popular, and lucrative. But attitudes are changing as people accept that sprawl also makes it tough to create environmentally and socially sustainable communities with features such as rapid transit instead of endless traffic congestion. “Smart growth” is the new buzzword across the GTA.

The Star’s analysis shows that maturing cities such as Brampton, Oshawa and Mississauga have plans to “intensify” — build more densely within their current built areas — much less than others in the region relative to their size.

Brampton, followed by Milton and Vaughan, will expand the most under current proposals, paving over proportionally far more land than Halton Hills, East Gwillimbury or Markham.

But there’s good news, too: Land-needs forecasts until 2031 show that there will still be thousands of hectares left of “white belt,” rural land that is neither part of the protected Greenbelt nor slated for development.

To analyze what’s happening, the Star began with the population targets the province allocated to each of the regions — the number of newcomers it expects each region (Halton, Peel, York, Durham, Toronto) to absorb between now and 2031. These phantom newcomers have been divided among local towns and cities, each of which must decide on a target number of housing units needed to house all those people, and a budget for the amount of land required for those homes and workplaces.

The big-picture plan is meant to draw a line in the sand, proscribing when and where development will be allowed to happen. A key requirement is that at least 40% of all new population growth has to be accommodated through “intensification” in areas that are already built up.

It’s the GTA’s last best chance to break the stranglehold of sprawling, ad hoc development, fuelled by land speculation, which — among other bad effects — has created traffic congestion that costs the regional economy $6 billion a year.

York University environmental studies professor Mark Winfield, who sits on a provincial smart-growth advisory panel and studies urban sustainability, said the Star’s analysis — the first of its kind — raises important questions about how the 2006 Places to Grow plan is playing out and the challenges it faces.

“On the surface, (the plan) may have given municipalities too much flexibility and enabled some of them to deviate less from the traditional path than the plan sought to and they needed to,” said Winfield.

“You’ve got some strong responses in places like Markham. Toronto itself has stepped up. But in other places the response is somewhat weaker,” said Winfield, when presented with theStar’s numbers. “Mississauga is quite striking.

“You clearly have leaders thinking in a more ambitious and creative way, and you have others who are basically wedded to the sprawl model and trying to respond to the province within that framework,” Winfield said.

Brampton, he points out, pre-empted the growth plan by designating the entire area within its city limits for urban expansion — including vast stretches that are currently farmland — so it would not have to justify to the province why it’s allowing new growth outside what’s termed the “urban boundary.”

Mississauga, with little room left to expand, plans to absorb just 107,000 more people, a 15 per cent population increase, between 2006 and 2031. By contrast, Toronto is taking on a 23 per cent increase, while Markham and Vaughan are taking on 55 per cent and 68 per cent increases respectively.

In raw terms, Mississauga is adding only slightly more housing units in its built-up areas than Vaughan, Markham or Brampton, although it has a much larger area than the others in which to direct such growth.

Ontario Infrastructure Minister Bob Chiarelli says he is aware the situation in Mississauga and Brampton “has to be watched very carefully.”

But it’s still early, he says, as municipalities bring their long-range plans into conformity with Places to Grow. He adds that the province won’t hesitate to intervene — as it did when it quashed Durham Region’s controversial expansion plans in Pickering — if local plans aren’t in keeping with provincial guidelines. (The final decision on Pickering will be made by the Ontario Municipal Board. So far, York Region’s plan is the only one that has provincial approval.)

More questions than answers are emerging as the local plans appear, the Star found.

For instance, Markham may be planning one of the densest suburban communities in North America, but that project is dependent on public transit, including an extension of the Yonge subway and light rail along Highway 407. It has yet to receive a commitment from the province to fund it.

Mississauga and Brampton are also figuring in financial help for rapid transit, in particular the provincial Big Move project to put light rail along the central spine of Hurontario St.

Questions remain about how and when fast-growing edge cities like Milton, which continue to take on fast growth, will pay for infrastructure such as hospitals and transit.

The Star’s analysis also found that some cities, notably Brampton and Vaughan — which is already getting a subway — are barely meeting the minimum requirements for population density that the province set for “growth centres.” And they’re falling below the standards set by Metrolinx for “mobility hubs” — dense housing-employment areas with a confluence of public transportation.

It’s all part of a high-stakes game involving huge potential profits for developers and a boost in tax base for cities.

Some 100,000 people come to the GTA every year. Where will they live?

The math is simple: If more homes are built in one area, fewer will be built elsewhere.

Winfield said the province still needs to do a deeper analysis that looks at what’s happening across the GTA, not just the densities being planned, but also the kind of communities being planned.

He says it’s time to assess the impact of the province’s massive interventions in regional planning, including creating the Greenbelt — which made a huge swath of the GTA a no-go zone for developers — and Places to Grow, which oversees what’s left.

Managing growth is a complex problem.

Critics say too much population is being directed to places not ready for it, while too little is being directed toward places that can and should take on more.

Take Mississauga for example: The city hopes to meet the goals by building more intensively in areas designated as urban growth centres and along so-called “nodes” and “corridors,” but avoid moves that would destabilize existing neighbourhoods and anger residents who don’t want denser, taller buildings in their backyards.

But some suggest the province’s density targets aren’t high enough, and that Brampton, Oshawa and Mississauga should be required to take on more growth than the plans call for. “We needed to be more ambitious,” Winfield said.

Planners in Brampton and Durham Region (who have worked with Oshawa) insist they’ve proposed reasonable plans, given how their cities are evolving and the infrastructure available.

“It’s not just simple math, it’s community building,” said Rogers Saunders, a senior planner with Durham Region, which has clashed with the province over its plans to develop northeast Pickering.

“We’re trying to plan for a reasonable way in which these communities will evolve into more dense urban communities.”

Two years ago, a senior planner in Mississauga said the city could easily accommodate double the 100,000 newcomers Peel Region has as a goal — or even triple that number, if market demand develops and the province revisits its forecasts.

But recently, John Calvert, a senior planner with Mississauga, was more circumspect, saying he didn’t know how many more people his city could take on.

“I don’t know; we haven’t done the studies because they (the region) are telling us you are not getting any more,” said Calvert. “So, why would we study it at this point, above what’s been allocated by the region?”

And therein lies the rub.

Peel, like the others, has to ensure that 40 per cent of future growth comes through adding infill housing inside its current built zone. It’s become a bit of a numbers game as to how the region’s three municipalities achieve that.

Some planners and politicians say that target is just too radical for suburban cities accustomed to sprawling out endlessly. Others, given how much sprawl has been allowed already, say the goal doesn’t go far enough.

The key point is that Peel’s three communities together can’t absorb more new population than the province allotted to the region. So if Mississauga builds more homes and takes in more people, fewer homes can be built in Brampton and Caledon, either within the current built-up areas or on the thousands of hectares of rural-agricultural land already zoned for development.

Meanwhile, Brampton, whose own studies show it can do more to build up its already paved-over areas, is competing against itself. The city — both to satisfy the industry and to rake in more development fees — also wants to put more housing out on rural land zoned for development that industry speculators have gobbled up.

Mostly-rural Caledon also wants a share of the growth to boost its municipal tax base.

In an attempt to keep all three municipalities happy, there’s a compromise scenario being put to the province: Caledon gets some growth. Brampton and Mississauga take on less intensification than they could — yet together they still manage to meet the province’s targets.

To fix the problem, Winfield says, the province should review its forecasts for how the population will grow on a wider basis, not just within the individual regions, but across the GTA.

Another wild card , sure to affect suburban growth plans, is Toronto itself. Not surprisingly, the city is taking on the lion’s share of population growth.

In the past decade, showing a huge appetite for intensification and redevelopment, Toronto has added 100,000 new housing units, more than the total housing stock in Pickering, Ajax and Whitby combined (94,075 units) — and all in apartment-style buildings.

Planners the Star spoke with said that if the market for apartment-style homes in Toronto and its neighbours grows, the “greenfield” areas slated for development in the edge cities could go unpaved much longer than expected, well beyond the 2031 horizon.

Against such a backdrop, the province faces more immediate challenges from developers and land speculators who discover the land they’ve invested millions in has been excluded from the plans.

Speculators in Halton Hills, Caledon and Pickering are unhappy that thousands of hectares of land they wanted to build on won’t be zoned for that until at least 2031.

On the other side are preservationists. For example, Sustainable Vaughan, a group that has the support of several newly elected councillors, is challenging expansion plans the city council approved just before the October municipal election, which the group considers a blueprint for sprawl.

Jeffrey Davies, a prominent lawyer who has acted for the development industry, compares the challenge of wrestling with all these forces to that of a “python about to try and swallow an elephant.”

“The python is the (planning system) and the elephant is the accumulation of all the appeals” that can be expected to pop up at the Ontario Municipal Board, Davies said.

But Chiarelli, a former Ottawa-area municipal politician, remains unperturbed.

The province, he says, isn’t worried about appeals launched by developers and even local governments, because the work of charting a sustainable future for the fastest growing mega-region in North America — the Greater Golden Horseshoe — is just too important.

“It’s not something overly scary,” says Chiarelli. “(The OMB) is something that has been part of the process for decades.”

The province has already been criticized for agreeing to plans for two massive industrial zones along Highway 400 in Bradford-West Gwillimbury and Innisfil. Pointing out that there’s still plenty of land available for such purposes within the GTA, critics suggest the province is caving to powerful interests in allowing development that “leapfrogs” over the protected Greenbelt.

But the province’s rejection of a 1,000-hectare expansion in Pickering and willingness to take on Durham Region at the OMB is proof “that it is serious about curbing sprawl,” says Chiarelli.

“I think there should be a very clear message to the regions that we mean business.”

Flashpoints

Here are some key zones across the GTA, where millions of dollars in profits or losses are at stake for developers, based on whether land they’ve speculated on is included in urbanization plans between now and 2031:

Pickering: The province is challenging plans by Durham Region for “leapfrogging” development in the area around the headwaters of Carruthers Creek in northeast Pickering. The region is going to battle the province at the Ontario Municipal Board.

Vaughan: A group called Sustainable Vaughan, which has the support of several new councillors, wants to overturn plans for expansion on to so-called “whitebelt” lands (undeveloped areas between a city’s urban boundary and the protected Greenbelt). Members say the first suburban city in the GTA to get a subway should intensify more than it’s doing.

Markham: Some major developers hoped to see Markham grow to the point where there would be no “whitebelt” left, but were thwarted when council voted to include only half of the potentially developable lands in their plans for growth.

Caledon: The municipality thwarted a developer’s plans to build housing for about 20,000 people just outside Bolton. He is challenging the region’s population allocations, which stand in the way.

Halton Hills: A group of developers who bought land north of Highway 401 along Trafalgar Rd., capable of supporting housing for tens of thousands of new residents, are set to challenge the region’s decision to exclude that area from the growth plan, while directing future growth toward Milton.

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