The Central Ontario Zone, as defined by the Smart Growth panel, is itself a challenge as a unit for both analysis and planning. It is, for example, much larger than alternative regional delimitations focused on the urbanized core of Toronto. The most obvious and widely used delimitations are the census metropolitan area (CMA) and the Greater Toronto Area (GTA). Neither is the Central Ontario Zone a natural or ecological region or a unit of governance. The building blocks used to define the region - the old counties - are in many instances no longer useful as geographical containers. Nor is it a "functional region" in the sense that it is based on integration or linkage criteria, such as the daily journey to work (used to delimit the CMAs) or weekly recreational travel (often called the urban field). Nor does it represent the service hinterland of Toronto or of the other urban nodes. It also incorporates distinctively different physical and socio-economic landscapes.
As an additional reservation, only limited data sources and almost no analytical studies cover the Central Ontario Zone. Thus, there is no accumulated history of empirical research or policy studies. Finally, the timing of this project is difficult with respect to the release of detailed social information from the 2001 census.2 Consequently, this paper will rely primarily on interpretations from a scattered base of academic research and government reports.3 It offers no new empirical analyses.
How is the Central Ontario Zone organized? What is its basic social and economic geography? Despite its immense physical size, the Zone's population and economy are overwhelmingly urban and highly nucleated. The Central Ontario Zone is essentially organized around nine major urban nodes, consisting of five census metropolitan areas (CMAs) and four census agglomerations (CAs), and a set of smaller urban centres.4 The five CMAs, Toronto, Hamilton, Oshawa, Kitchener-Waterloo and St. Catharines-Niagara, and four large CAs - Peterborough, Guelph, Barrie, and Brantford - constitute the major urbanized nodes (urbanized cores) within and through which the entire Central Ontario Zone is organized as a spatial system. Combined, they represent over 90% of the Zone's population, employment, and productive capacity.
In terms of geographical space, we might think of the Central Ontario Zone as consisting of at least four subzones. These subzones are both ecological and hierarchical, in the sense that they display marked differences in their social attributes, development patterns, local economies, the service functions performed by the individual municipalities, and the size of their respective trade areas. The first subzone, the urbanized core of the entire Central Ontario Zone, includes the densely populated portions of the Toronto-Oshawa-Hamilton CMAs.5 This core is surrounded by a subzone of newer and smaller suburban and exurban communities and by a third subzone of metropolitan areas and smaller urban centres, including Kitchener-Waterloo, St. Catharines-Niagara, Guelph, Barrie, and Peterborough.6 All have their own urbanized core, their own local (but regionally nested) labour market, and their own more-or-less distinct area of influence. The fourth subzone is the hinterland, that part of the Central Ontario Zone that is not heavily urbanized and indeed may not be tightly integrated with any of the urbanized cores in the Zone.