Executive Summary

This report argues that an improvement in our understanding of and ability to anticipate social change is fundamental to any smart growth strategies. The major component of social change in the Central Ontario Zone driving the agenda for smart growth has been the very high rate of population and economic growth. That growth is primarily attributable to external factors and population flows, notably immigration, which now accounts for 75% of total population growth. Adding to the challenge, this high rate has been accompanied by an increasingly uneven geography of growth and change across the Zone.

Within this context, four other dimensions of social change have transformed the character and social geography of the Central Zone, and will continue to do so in the future. All of these changes are generally well-known, but their effects are often underestimated.

  1. The demographic transition - the postwar baby boom and subsequent bust - has produced age cohorts of markedly uneven size, which continue to send ripples through the demand schedules for almost all public and private goods. In parallel, historically low fertility levels have meant a rapidly aging population, even with higher levels of immigration.
  2. The importance of natural increase to the growth of the Central Zone has declined, and net domestic migration remains very low.
  3. Immigration from non-traditional source countries has changed the character of the population and created unprecedented levels of social and ethno-cultural diversity.
  4. Changes in the way we construct families and households, which are the units of collective consumption, has resulted in an average household size that is 60% smaller than it used to be and a corresponding increase in housing demand.

These trends pose a number of challenges for policy-makers and service providers. Immigration will continue to determine the overall rate of population growth, while demographic change and changing living arrangements will shape the geography of that growth within the Central Ontario Zone. The overall rate of growth, however, is likely to decline as the population ages, a process that will accelerate after 2011. The key question then becomes: where will this greying population locate? At the same time, the proportion of the population under 29 years will decline. Through immigration, the population will also become even more diverse in ethno-cultural terms than at present, particularly in the new suburbs and subsequently in the regional periphery. These social transformations will present serious challenges to all municipalities, but especially those in suburban and exurban areas, which are generally ill-equipped to handle the diversity of demands on their service agencies. It would not be unreasonable for the Province to request a substantial increase in federal funding for the settlement of new immigrants, for both social and physical infrastructure.

As for the impacts of social change on the geographical distribution of growth in the Central Zone, the relationships are more uncertain. On balance, however, it seems likely that population (and thus jobs) will continue to decentralize as people search for lower-cost housing and environmental amenities. Much of that growth will occur on the margins of one of the nine urban nodes in the Central Zone. Little of that growth is expected to migrate to the slower-growing parts of the Zone. An aging population is more likely to move out of the urbanized core to smaller towns or retirement communities than to brownfield sites. That migration, in turn, will place more stress on social (and medical) services in the receiving centres, and on the regional transportation system. The increasing level of social diversity, often expressed in distinct ethno-cultural communities, will further challenge service providers and budgets and likely contribute to increasing inequalities in income across the Zone.

The challenge for policy-makers in developing a smart growth strategy will be to accommodate rapid growth, massive social change, and increasing diversity. We are not planning for the same populations that we were 20 years ago. Policy initiatives will require considerable flexibility to adapt to new social and employment realities, while not making other problems - such as concentrated poverty, housing affordability, or congestion - worse. If the Province decides to redirect growth to certain parts of the Central Ontario Zone, or encourage more compact development, it will have to provide incentives and regulate development where it is not wanted or required. It would help if the Province put in place, as part of a smart growth strategy, a system for monitoring the character and geography of social change in the Central Ontario Zone.