This comparison between the two city-regions of Toronto and Vancouver offers insights not only into housing trends and development patterns, but also into growth management efforts in the two jurisdictions.
Metro Vancouver, of course, had a head start on regional growth management relative to the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area. Starting in the 1970s, the Vancouver region put in place strong protections for agricultural land and environmentally sensitive areas. With the creation of the Green Zone in 1996, it reinforced that protection, but also moved to consolidate growth in already urbanized areas and to minimize urban expansion outwards through generalized intensification policies.
The Vancouver city-region has seen positive results from its early growth management efforts, but it is not resting on its laurels. Metro Vancouver has kept its plans up to date, revising them in response to emerging trends and pressures. In 2011, at the end of the study period analysed in this paper, Metro Vancouver once again refined its plans into the regional growth strategy.
This document and its policies are appropriately named, since they are strategic, rather than generalized. The Urban Containment Boundary acts as a brake on outward development, but within that boundary, growth is targeted to urban centres, which are organized into a hierarchy according to regional and local roles, and to areas served by frequent transit networks.
In contrast, the Province of Ontario introduced its Growth Plan for the Greater Golden Horseshoe in 2006, and even today (spring 2015), the required elements of the plan are not fully in place everywhere in the region, as many municipal implementation efforts have been subject to Ontario Municipal Board appeals. The Growth Plan is very different from Metro Vancouver’s regional growth strategy, but it resembles some of B.C.’s earlier efforts at growth management, with generalized intensification and greenfield development targets, applied broadly across the region.
The Growth Plan was a response to the type of development that prevailed in the 1990s, which clearly fit the classic definition of sprawl, as this research shows. In the 1990s, the rate at which land was urbanized outpaced the rate at which the region was adding population, at least in the GTHA (or Inner Ring). The following decade reversed this pattern, and the region is no longer sprawling in the classic definition, but new issues have emerged as some old ones remain. The Growth Plan in its current form remains focused on the problems of the 20th century, not those of the 21st.
For example, the Growth Plan is premised on the assumption that intensification—no matter where it is located inside the boundary of the urbanized area—will result in smarter growth, with the attendant benefits of reduced congestion, the efficient use of infrastructure, and more sustainable communities. This research shows, however, that generalized intensification alone may not achieve these goals, especially in the context of declining household sizes.
Instead, the changing geographies of growth and demographics in the GTHA are resulting in higher densities in new developments at the urban edge while many older, more central urban areas are losing population. Although downtown Toronto has experienced significant population growth, that growth represents only 5% of the GTHA’s population growth between 2001 and 2011. As a few urban centres added more population and dwellings, many neighbourhoods in existing urban area experienced population loss. By comparison, the built-up parts of Metro Vancouver have not seen anything like the population loss apparent in the GTHA, from Hamilton to Brampton to central Toronto to Oshawa.
Moreover, relatively little growth is occurring in the GTHA in areas with rapid, frequent, all-day transit service. This finding indicates a need to better integrate The Big Move and the Growth Plan to ensure more transportation options than the automobile for the region’s growing population.
Of course, the results here show only residential development, and do not indicate where jobs have been added or lost. Work on employment patterns is urgently needed to complete the picture. Still, it is clear that the Growth Plan’s residential intensification policies are not on track to achieve their intended outcomes, as much of the development in the growing suburban municipalities around the City of Toronto continues to be focussed on greenfield development. The hard work lies ahead.
Given the “reality check” provided by this research, is it possible for the Province of Ontario to take a more strategic approach to growth management in the GTHA? The question will be answered during 2015 and 2016 as the Province conducts its 10-year review of the Growth Plan and The Big Move.
Unfortunately, the Growth Plan as it is currently formulated “locks in” both population and employment projections, as well as the land budgets through which municipalities turn these projections into estimates of the amount of land needed for new development. Land once designated for growth cannot, it seems, be undesignated. Emulating Vancouver’s more strategic policies of focusing on the location of the growth more than simply the amount of growth would require a change in provincial policy.
The GTHA also lacks the supportive structure of Metro Vancouver. This body regularly convenes elected representatives from municipalities throughout the Vancouver city-region to deal with matters such as extensions to urban boundaries and discrepancies between regional and local perspectives. The GTHA has no formal convening body that requires elected representatives of the upper- and single-tier municipalities to think and act as a region; municipalities tend to act in isolation from one another rather than working cooperatively to shape the future of the GTHA.
The GTHA could learn from Metro Vancouver’s experience in linking transportation planning and land use planning. TransLink certainly plays a more direct role in planning the Vancouver region than its corresponding regional agency in the GTHA, Metrolinx. The Province of Ontario is preparing to spend billions of dollars on regional express rail, but these plans are not yet strongly or clearly linked to plans for targeted intensification. More strategic planning of growth will be necessary if the GTHA is to evolve into a polycentric region with concentrated employment and residential nodes across the region that facilitate more efficient use of the region’s transit network.
The review of Metrolinx’s regional transportation plan, The Big Move, is occurring at the same time but on a separate track from the review of the Growth Plan. It is unclear how the outcome of one review will inform the other. In the Vancouver region, the roles and responsibilities of Metro Vancouver, municipalities, and TransLink are clearly articulated in the regional growth strategy. To date, Ontario’s Growth Plan leaves many aspects of its implementation ambiguous, which has led to appeals and related delays in its implementation. It will be necessary to address this gap in the review of both plans.
Although the Toronto and Vancouver regions face growth planning challenges, both regions are successfully attracting new residents and employment. They frequently appear on lists of the most livable cities in the world. But with success come challenges that policy has been slow to address.
At the 2015 conference of the American Planning Association, housing affordability in successful and growing city-regions was a key issue discussed by attendees. Housing affordability is an ongoing problem in Metro Vancouver and a growing issue in the GTHA, particularly for single-family housing stock in desirable areas of each region (Flint 2015).
Issues related to housing affordability are not easily solved, and are exacerbated by the globalization of real estate investment, 15 years of low-interest borrowing, and shifting demographic trends. Nevertheless, policy makers can respond to rising prices by allowing the supply of housing to increase, and by creating incentives for the creation of a variety of housing types and tenures in areas that have capacity for growth.
The Growth Plan for the Greater Golden Horseshoe in its current form remains focused on the problems of the 20th century, not those of the 21st.
Vancouver has diversified its portfolio of housing types by allowing secondary suites, laneway housing, and low- to mid-rise intensification in urban neighbourhoods. The GTHA, on the other hand, has not altered the overall balance of housing types: most construction takes the form of either detached houses or high-rise condos. Many municipalities have policies that protect “stable” neighbourhoods from any kind of intensification, which supports those who do not want to see their communities change. However, many of these neighbourhoods are far from stable, since they are experiencing population loss. Should municipalities consider policies for context-sensitive intensification in existing urban neighbourhoods? The City of Toronto has focused on mid-rise development on Avenues (arterial streets) to encourage more context sensitive intensification, but should the city’s policy go beyond Avenues?
Although Vancouver has managed to avoid widespread population loss in urban neighbourhoods, it has not escaped increases in housing prices. Both the Vancouver and Toronto city-regions could benefit from incentives that create or retain affordable housing forms near transit routes, starting with publicly owned parcels.
It is hoped that this research, analysis, and commentary will provide evidence of new population and housing patterns, particularly in the GTHA. As part of its 10-year review, the Province of Ontario should consider these patterns as they rethink current policies in the Growth Plan. It is no longer necessary to solve the problems of the 1990s, some of which have solved themselves. We are no longer “sprawling” according to the traditional definition of this term. However, the problems associated with “sprawl” remain, since the majority of the new population is being accommodated in automobile-dependent neighbourhoods.
Meanwhile, new problems have emerged: smaller households, older households, emptying neighbourhoods, unused infrastructure in some places and overused infrastructure in others. It is time for planning policy to evolve to address the growing pains of fast-growing city-regions. As an often-quoted saying has it: The future is not what it used to be.