Why Simcoe matters

On November 4, 2002, former Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing Chris Hodgson gave a speech to the Ontario branch of the Urban Development Institute. South-Central Ontario will accept 2.5 million people in the next 15 years, he said, and one million of them will go north of the Oak Ridges Moraine.1 Given its proximity to the Greater Toronto Area (GTA), Simcoe County stands to attract a large proportion of this growth. Hodgson also painted for his audience a picture of a new transportation and economic corridor along the north edge of the Moraine. This corridor, which he referred to as the "next 407," would run through the southern part of Simcoe County.

Many observers were shocked by the one million person figure. Together, York and Peel Regions have increased by only 1.1 million over 25 years. Simcoe County's present population is approximately 376,000, including Barrie and Orillia. The population projections on which its Official Plan is based posit an increase to 487,800 in 2016.2 The Neptis Foundation's Toronto-Related Region Futures Study assumes growth to 476,970 in 2011 and 681,300 in 2031 -- a less than doubling in 30 years.3 For one million people to settle north of the Oak Ridges Moraine, even in the medium term, would be both a radical increase over consensus projections and unprecedented in light of historical growth in the area.

Simcoe County is already growing rapidly. The population of Simcoe County south of Barrie grew by 42.9% between 1991 and 2001 -- faster than the rest of the GTA as a whole. At 44.4%, only York Region's growth rate was higher. Almost a quarter of all dwelling units in Simcoe were built in the 1991-2001 period, an amount comparable to Peel Region, and considerably higher than the GTA as a whole, at 15.9%. Again, only York Region was higher, at 33%. By comparison, only 6.1% of Toronto's dwelling unit stock was constructed in the same period.

Hodgson's speech appears to have sent a signal to developers that the Province was willing to permit massive development in Simcoe County. In early 2003, rumours and media accounts began circulating of proposals for very large developments outside designated settlement areas in Simcoe County. These have now reached the stage where official plan amendment applications have been prepared and are being reviewed.

The future urban structure of the Toronto region is being defined now. Simcoe County's rapidly evolving development pattern is the product of policy-driven, market-driven, and demographic factors. Each factor operates according to its own logic and at its own scale. Their cumulative effect, however, is to profoundly reshape the urban form of the county.

As the Toronto region's emerging development hot spot, Simcoe County is an important test case for the region and the province as a whole. Rather than being determined by policy, the structure of the Toronto region is the sum of countless interactions between developers, landowners, and local authorities.

If the smart growth policies promoted by the Province -- cost-effective, mixed-use, higher-density and transit-supportive development -- fail to be implemented here, it will signal that the existing planning regime is unable to meet the challenges posed by rapid growth.

This study was commissioned by the Neptis Foundation to determine the current status of large-scale development applications in Simcoe County and to explore the factors that are driving growth north of the Oak Ridges Moraine into Simcoe County.

1. "Hodgson to developers: Move growth north of Moraine," Novae Res Urbis. November 6, 2002 (5:44) 1,3.
2. County of Simcoe Official Plan. 2000. 11.
3. Neptis Foundation. Toronto-Related Region Futures Study Interim Report: Implications of Business-As-Usual Development. 2002. Appendix B.1.