Seven years ago, the Ontario Liberal government trumpeted its new law to curb urban sprawl as bold and visionary.
“People want to see action,” David Caplan, the province’s then infrastructure minister, said after announcing the province’s fully fleshed-out Places to Grow Act in 2006.
Acting in tandem with the Liberal plan to create a green belt, Places to Grow was designed to protect farmland in southern Ontario’s so-called Golden Horseshoe.
Unless something drastic was done, an earlier government study had warned, rampant urban development would result in an additional 1,000 square kilometres of mainly agricultural land — an area twice as big as the entire City of Toronto — being paved over by the year 2031.
Caplan called the new law Ontario’s “last chance to build the future we want.”
The Liberals were lionized for the new scheme by both press and public. The government even won a prestigious U.S. planning award.
But seven years later, it is as if nothing had ever happened.
A new study by the Neptis Foundation, an urban think tank, calculates that the amount of prime farmland slated for urban development by 2031 has in fact increased since the government uttered its first, dire warning.
That new total now stands at 1,071 square kilometres.
What happened? As the Star’s Susan Pigg reported this week, Neptis found that the Liberal government simply never bothered to implement its bold new law.
That law, Neptis writes in its just-released report, “has been undermined before it even had a chance to make an impact.”
At the heart of the Places to Grow Act was a requirement that municipalities in a belt running from Peterborough to Niagara Falls authorize fewer sprawling subdivisions.
Instead, most municipalities were expected to locate at least 40 per cent of any new residential development in areas that were already built up.
In practical terms, it was a requirement to concentrate on higher-density accommodation — from highrise apartment buildings to row housing.
New subdivisions wouldn’t be banned. But under the law, they had to be dense enough to support public transit.
Because the area covered by the law was so diverse (it includes both cities and cottage country), municipalities were allowed to seek exemptions.
The theory, apparently, was that while the government would grant exemptions that made sense, it wouldn’t allow the act to be subverted.
However, the reality, as Neptis researchers found, was quite different.
In effect, the Liberal government allowed every municipality that wanted to be exempted from the new standards to be exempted.
“There was very little justification given as to why exemptions were permitted,” report co-author Rian Allen told me.
“Those who asked for exemptions appeared to get them.”
This was particularly true of municipalities in the so-called outer ring of the Golden Horseshoe, in places like Simcoe County (near Barrie) and Wellington County (near Guelph).
All in all, more than half the municipalities in the outer ring have received exemptions from the density minimums.
And because those minimums are so low, even municipalities that meet provincial targets will remain subject to sprawl.
Allen points out that York Region, for instance, is expected to have only half of Toronto’s population by 2031 even though it occupies more than twice the space.
The province had predicted it would save 800 square kilometres of farmland from development. That goal won’t be met says Neptis.
That the Liberals undermined their own plan should, perhaps, come as no surprise. Land development is big business in Ontario.
Municipal governments pay a great deal of attention to developers. So do provincial political parties seeking financial contributions.
More to the point, many voters want to live in the sprawling subdivisions that these developers build.
Still, even for a government that has specialized in big talk and minimal action (nursing homes; poverty reduction), this is an astonishing failure.
Thomas Walkom’s column appears Wednesday, Thursday and Saturday.