Getting To Know Us: The benefits of smarter planning

This is a part one of three posts outlining our “two sides of the coin” approach to advocacy, or our focus on achieving what is known as “co-benefits”.

In this post, we focus on the first side of the coin, which is planning our communities in a way that is more efficient and that enhances the quality of life for residents.

Introduction

Defining "Environment" in a Comprehensive Sense

Spend just a little while with us, and you’ll quickly understand that when we say “environment”, we mean it in the classical sense, which is, “the area in which something exists or lives”. In other words, it includes the areas of our homes, our neighbourhoods, and our cities, as well as those areas more commonly associated with “the environment”, such as the wilderness or the global commons.

Maximizing Co-Benefits for Communities

In this post, the first of three that are planned in this series, we cover why planning our communities in a way that maximizes what are known as co-benefits makes a lot of sense, including by reducing the burden on the taxpayer and increasing quality of life and enjoyment.

Part two, which focuses on environmental benefits, and part three, which ties parts one and two together, as well as provides more specific information on our efforts, are in the pipeline, so keep an eye out!

The Greenbelt and Municipal Planning

Understanding the Greenbelt's Role in Ontario's Planning Regime

As an organization that focuses primarily on issues surrounding the Greenbelt, you might be a bit surprised by our focus on municipal planning and urban areas. The Greenbelt is a crown jewel on Ontario’s planning regime, and it helps to both direct development toward areas where it’s most beneficial, by, in large part, restricting sprawl, this, in turn, helps protect the valuable natural assets, such as farmland, fresh water, and clean air, that enable our high quality of life.

We think it is important to view the Greenbelt in this context, as a policy that serves as the foundation stone of Ontario’s prosperous and sustainable future. The Greenbelt, in other words, is a valuable tool that our Province has to shape land-use in a way that improves our cities, towns, agricultural areas, and natural habitat.

It’s crucial to underline, accordingly, the fact that, as a tool, the Greenbelt can be further implemented – enhanced and expanded – for the benefit of all Ontarians.

Impact on Municipal Budgets

Land-use and climate action! What could be more exciting than that!?

But seriously, land-use is a pretty dry topic on the surface – zoning, development applications, approval processes and appeals… (although the right of citizens to appeal has been severely curtailed in Ontario of later by the Ford government).

For evidence of how dry this stuff is, one need look no further than council meetings, where the vast majority of attendees are suits, representatives of developers. The reason they are there is pretty obvious – they stand to make money if they are able to get a decision going their way.

The Approvals Process, and Citizen Engagement

For citizens, on the other hand, attending these meetings is taking time from family or other social obligations – and it’s time they aren’t paid for, or, for the most part, time that would result in financial benefit to them.

Thus, the decks tend to be stacked at these meetings.

Councils, elected by the public, generally do their best to ensure decisions aren’t outrageously at odds with the public’s interest. But, councillors are often overworked and under-resourced, and need to rely on information given to them by city staff (also often overworked and under-resourced). In this scenario, it isn’t difficult to see the opportunity for developers to step into the gap and provide information and resources that buttress their claims.

For us at SCGC, a lot of our focus is on these processes because they determine where houses get built, and conversely where houses don’t get built (which happens to be where farmland and natural habitat is preserved!).

To be clear, building houses in not the issue – it’s where they are built that is typically the problem.

Below we briefly sketch out the first of these components.

Challenges and Solutions

Infrastructure Problems, a Growing Threat

Our suburban style of living, while there are a lot of nice things about it, is putting a huge hole in municipal budgets.

The roads that we use to get to and from work, to drop our kids off at school, to purchase groceries and to visit the mall, all cost a lot to maintain.

In 2021 the Financial Accountability Office of Ontario (FAO) released a report that puts the municipal infrastructure deficit at more than $50 billion. This is how much it would cost to bring roads, bridges, and other municipal infrastructure to a state of good repair.

Spread out infrastructure is less efficient and more expensive to maintain. The cost is likely to only increase as climate change results in more extreme weather, placing additional stress on it. (The FAO did a report on this, too.)

Why Sprawl Is So Attractive

One of the biggest bang-for-buck transformations that a municipality can do is convert farmland into urban development. This goes for developers, too, which is why many of them love to build sprawl.

The purchase price of farmland is low, relative to a similar size of land with existing infrastructure and development. When this land is brought into the urban envelope, its value increases dramatically.

(Witness the recent Greenbelt scandal, where plots of land value at $240 million prior to being given permission to build skyrocketed to a value of $8.523 billion once lands were removed from protections.)

This, of course, is extremely profitable for developers, and municipalities can, for a period of time, also feel like they have come out ahead. The newly added tax base contributes much needed revenue, which can be used to address those infrastructure needs outlined above.

The Economic Drag that Sprawl Creates Over Time

But, over the course of several years, that spread-out infrastructure in the newly developed area, along with pre-existing spread-out infrastructure, starts to act as a drag on municipal coffers, and ultimately creates a net-negative revenue flow – more goes out to maintain it than comes in from the tax base it services. (By some estimates, municipalities receive just 10 – 20% of revenue vs liability over the lifetime of these developments. Any business run this way would have been bankrupted long ago, and yet that’s what we demand of our elected leaders.)

Factoring in the costs of pollution associated with needing a car to access amenities, like groceries, not to mention the contribution to climate change those cars make, and those costs only grow.

This is why experts in the area have taken to calling sprawl a “Ponzi scheme” and “Ontario’s tar sands“.

A recent study by the City of Ottawa found that, every year, it cost $465 per capita to service residents in low density areas, while it took in $606 more per capita than it spent from those living in high density areas.

Sprawl is an expensive, and inherently inequitable form of development. Those living in suburban sprawl areas don’t pay the full cost for the infrastructure servicing them, with those living in more dense parts of the jurisdiction, which often tend to be those who are also less well off, subsidizing their cost.

Click the image for a larger version.

Sustaining Sprawl at the Cost of Other Services

When our local governments are constantly needing to increase revenue simply to maintain what we’ve already got, it puts a huge amount of pressure on other services, including many that we place high value on.

These services include cultural activities, funding for public transportation, for affordable housing and mental health, parks, libraries, schools and emergency services all have to compete for a slice of the funding pie, and many are limited due to the pressure on budgets that municipalities face, in no small part thanks to unsustainable patterns of urban development.

Even more pressure is added to the mix when costs associated with a rapidly changing climate are factored in.

As severe and unpredictable weather events ramp up, investments need to be made to ensure infrastructure, such as storm water systems, are able to cope. What were considered “100-year storms” just a decade ago are now likely to happen on an almost yearly basis, and the rare events – those 100-year storms – will be even wilder.

Moving Forward

Promoting Walkability and Mixed-Use Development

Over the past few decades, there has been a growth in the number of planners interested in how the way that we build our communities can improve quality of life for residents, enhance economic vitality, as well as promote a healthy environment. Much of the impetus behind this emergent practice is in response to the negative impacts that car centred planning, such as sprawl, has had on the livability of the places we call home.

Practices like promoting walkability in neighbourhoods, ensuring there is a range of housing choices and a mix of building types, with proximity between residential and commercial areas, accessible schools and other services, such as transit, as well as green-spaces such as parks and playgrounds, are some of what advocates of this form of planning promote.

Well-known planners in this area include Brent Toderian, former Chief Planner for the City of Vancouver, Jennifer Keesmaat, former Chief Planner for the City of Toronto, as well as Charles Marohn, of Strong Towns, to name a few.

And, while more conventional approaches to urban planning remain dominant, these ideas have filtered through. Concepts like complete streets, transit oriented design, along with a growing awareness of the risks of and vulnerabilities to climate change impacts, are increasingly present in high-level policy and planning documents.

(Until it was effectively scrapped by the Ford government, the Growth Plan placed a premium on complete communities, reflecting many of the principles outlined above.)

Photo of John St., Toronto, showing a street with many people walking on it, as well as people sitting on chairs at tables on the street. The widewalk has been extended to enhance walkability. Credit City of Toronto.

This image, taken from the City of Toronto’s website outlining their efforts to create more complete streets, illustrates how many municipalities are trying to reinvigorate streetscapes and enhance the experiences of the residents who live around them.

Credit: City of Toronto

Conclusion

We can build our communities in a way that improves our quality of life, that supports a thriving economy, and that promotes a healthy environment. Cities like Toronto, Calgary, Vancouver, and Montreal are implementing projects in-line with many of the goals outlined above.

By enhancing the livability of our urban areas, including with increased public transit and active transportation like walking, we mitigate negative impacts like carbon emissions and health risks associated with sedentary lifestyles. These are some of the co-benefits of better planning.

In our next post in this series, we look more closely at how poor planning impacts the environment.

-/-

This work by Simcoe County Greenbelt Coalition is licensed under CC BY-NC 4.0

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Growth Plan Submission

Low density development on greenfields or elsewhere is a net cost to society and should be curtailed accordingly. Strategies should be developed and implemented to account for and to factor into decision making the actual cost of sprawl, reflecting its negative impact on the environment, on the social fabric of our communities and neighbourhoods, on our physical health, and on our political economy.

Cordelia Clarke Julien
Assistant Deputy Minister
Ontario Growth Secretariat (OGS)
Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing
777 Bay Street, Suite 2304, 23rd Floor
Toronto, ON M5G 2E5
growthplanning@ontario.ca

Re: Proposed Amendment to the Growth Plan, ERO 013-4504

Dear Ms. Clarke Julien,

First, as members of the Ontario Greenbelt Alliance (OGA), we support their submission on this consultation and have included their recommendations at the end of this document. In addition, we feel there are unique concerns that our constituency has with the proposed changes, which demand a Simcoe-specific response.

With our 35 member groups from both urban, rural and semi-urban communities, we aim to promote community development that is financially, environmentally and socially sustainable, such that provides a net benefit to residents. A major part of this is to recognize the value that natural heritage, agriculture and water gives to our communities, including the numerous benefits and co-benefits of ecosystem services. Ensuring the people of Simcoe County, and Ontario broadly, continue to receive these benefits requires an approach to land use planning that is evidence based, transparent and accountable to the public, and with full consideration of the long-term impacts that communities will either have to deal with or benefit from.

Density and Intensification Targets

Low density development on greenfields or elsewhere is a net cost to society and should be curtailed accordingly. Strategies should be developed and implemented to account for and to factor into decision making the actual cost of sprawl, reflecting its negative impact on the environment, on the social fabric of our communities and neighbourhoods, on our physical health, and on our political economy.

For Simcoe County, including Barrie and Orillia, the proposed density and intensification targets effectively continue the status quo approach to long term growth planning. Simcoe County would be allowed to keep the intensification and density targets that were established under alternative targets given for its 2008 Official Plan. These changes beg the question – what is the vision that the province has for the communities of Simcoe County? Is it a political vision, changing according to the whims of the government of the day, or is it evidence-based planning, utilizing established best-practices done with the best interests of the public in mind?

Currently, low density sprawl dominates Simcoe County. Densities around the county range from the 50 ppl/hectare to well below that in some of the more rural communities. We know that greater densities are needed to support transit and move communities away from car dependency – a development pattern that is costly, inequitable, unhealthy and results in high carbon emissions. The Ministry of Transportation’s own guidelines for building a transit supportive community suggests that to provide basic bus service, a minimum of 50 people per hectare is needed, otherwise the transit service is inefficient and difficult to sustain economically. Even a bus service supported by 50 people per hectare, such as in Barrie, isn’t the kind of transit that is widely available to all residents or allows enough reliability and flexibility to shift transportation patterns away from single vehicle use toward more efficient modes of mass transit.

The proposed “status quo” targets literally cement a development pattern that increases pollution, inequity and municipal debt for the long term. Simcoe County’s population could increase 96% by 2041 from 2011 level. As Hemson Consulting outlined, this could mean that our region could see as many as 900,000 residents by 2041 with Barrie alone growing to 253,000 people. So how we encourage growth in Simcoe County cannot be predicated on how we’ve grown in the past, but rather needs to be based on how we should build communities of the future. We would prefer that the province recognize the growth that Simcoe County will be facing and help support and usher in policies that ensure this growth is not a burden on our future economy.

If the province allows the proposed targets to stand, and allows Simcoe County communities to build mostly as they have for the past few decades, a pattern of growth will proceed that values development of spread out lots with single-detached homes with larger lawns over the preservation of farmland, more expensive road and water infrastructure over ecosystem services, longer commutes and higher fossil fuel emissions over active transportation, increased inequality and poorer health outcomes over a healthy economy. This will negatively impact our economy by reducing our ability to rely on the many benefits provided by clean water, farmland, and green spaces. This effect could be seen clearly over one decade ago as outlined in the Intergovernmental Action Plan (2006):

“Unique growth and development challenges exist in Simcoe County and the Cities of Barrie and Orillia (study area). South Simcoe and Barrie, in particular, are experiencing increased development pressure, and are expected to continue to have rapid growth. A number of the municipalities in the study area rely on inland water systems which have been demonstrated to be under strain (for example the Lake Simcoe watershed has known issues as a result of phosphorous loadings). Without intervening action, the available potable water and aquaculture of these watersheds are threatened.”

This quote has aged well and could easily have been written today instead of over one decade ago. The effects of ill-managed growth continues to wreak havoc on our water systems.

The impacts are also seen in our loss of farmland and greenspace. According to Statistics Canada, Barrie’s footprint grew 550% over the past 40 years mostly gobbling up farmland and semi natural space for a total loss of roughly 150 km2. Neptis Foundation determined that from 2006-2012, Simcoe County zoned 13,000 hectares of green space (mostly farmland) to designated greenfield areas – the most in the Greater Golden Horseshoe. This despite the fact that they were experiencing a fraction of growth compared to York, Waterloo and Peel and with an existing oversupply of land for development. Under the current proposals to the Growth Plan, this pattern of low density development will continue. Unbelievably, it is proposed to continue while we know that the province loses hundreds of acres of farmland per day to development; while Lake Simcoe struggles to assimilate urbanization to the detriment of its ecology and dependent industries; while we know that the assimilative capacity of the Nottawasaga River has already been maxed and while Simcoe County already sits on an excess amount of land zoned for development and employment.

Where is the balance in this approach? Where are the limits that ensure that communities are growing sustainably? Where are the aspirational policies that support the economies and communities of the future?

Density and Intensification Recommendations

  • Density targets from the 2017 Growth Plan should be upheld without alternative targets for DGAs.
  • Intensification targets should be considered based on current population and future growth potential. For example, Orillia (pop. 31,166) will be held to a higher minimum intensification target than two larger and faster growing communities of Bradford (pop 35, 325) or Innisfil (pop. 33,079). Why?
  • Communities that are rural and with low growth projections should also be encouraged to infill their development to provide a range of housing and to best utilize minimal tax revenues. Intensification should not be seen simply as a panacea for city centres. It is important to smaller communities too.
  • Remove the opportunity for lower alternative targets. Allow municipalities to exceed targets if they so choose.
  • Unless the province wants to ensure car dependency in most of Simcoe County’s larger city centres for the near term, there must be more support and information about the benefits of intensification and density. At the current rate, very few communities in Simcoe County will have the density to feasibly support transit. Provincial planners should be working with communities, both urban and rural, to help them communicate and calculate the benefits of intensification vs. sprawl. This would go a long way to change our damaging development patterns.

Rounding Out and Settlement Area Expansions

Allowing “rounding out” of rural settlement areas and allowing for settlement boundary expansions up to 40 hectares outside of an MCR – even if a municipality has an excess of lands – does not promote efficient use of land, nor does it prioritize intensification, which is a more efficient and equitable way to grow.

We would like to know the policy rationale for these suggestions. What is the cumulative impact on our communities, many of which are already financially unsustainable, in almost inescapable infrastructure deficit, low growing or experiencing population loss? How is loosening the proper growth management policies and resulting investments in new infrastructure going to help already struggling communities?

“Rounding Out” Recommendations

  • Rounding out should only be considered if infill development within the built boundary and does not require new infrastructure;
  • Rounding out should provide a full life cycle cost accounting to ensure that the expansion is financially feasible for the community;
  • Rounding out should not exceed the population allocations for the municipality for 2041 forecasts.

Settlement Area Boundary Expansions

Settlement Area Boundary expansions should not be undertaken lightly. As the footprint of the community grows, the density lowers. As we’ve mentioned earlier, this means that servicing the community becomes more expensive, including transit and infrastructure maintenance and repairs. Moving away from evidence-based planning is not necessary and hurts the long term success of communities.

Settlement Area Boundary Expansion Recommendations

  • Expansions should only be considered within an MCR process;
  • Expansions should not be considered if there is an excess of lands. The municipality should de-designate the excess lands before asking for an expansion;
  • The addition of 40 ha to a settlement boundary is reckless and should not be a considered policy. It does not promote evidence based planning. The target seems arbitrary and we question the problem this policy is trying to solve;
  • Rural settlement areas should not be considered for settlement boundary expansions as they should not be receiving significant (if any) growth. This includes hamlets and villages in the Greenbelt.

Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit. Ut elit tellus, luctus nec ullamcorper mattis, pulvinar dapibus leo.aWe recognize that there is more than metrics and numbers when building strong communities that meet the needs of citizens. Our goal is not to be anti-development, rather we seek to encourage community development that meets the needs of the community. This should be the primary objective of all levels of government when they look at planning and development.

Other Ideas to Increase Housing Supply and to Create Stronger Communities

Remove parking minimums for developments. Parking minimums should also not be a mandatory component for infrastructure projects such as hospitals or schools. Parking minimums force more space to be used than necessary and add to the cost of housing.They also severely limit the ability of businesses to expand, and for new business to emerge in urban downtown areas. For infrastructure projects, it requires a large footprint that is generally not found within city centres thereby forcing new hospitals or schools to move to the fringes of a community. This only encourages sprawl and moves services away from people who need it.
Consider hard urban boundaries for all towns and cities within the Greater Golden Horseshoe. Use existing municipal mapping to determine the boundary.

Expand the Greenbelt over areas of hydrological and ecological significance. This would ensure that those areas are protected while putting boundaries delineating where growth can and cannot go. This helps achieve balance between the places we can use to grow and the places we need for our current and future health and prosperity.

Increase data gathering to understand the effectiveness of the Growth Plan. This will allow for implementation and future policy development that is data and evidence driven, ensuring costly mistakes aren’t made and taxpayers realize maximal return. Include data to determine vacancy rates of existing housing, demographics to best prepare for the boomer generation’s exit from the housing market and available land supply that is approved and serviced.

Consider policies that encourage rental development, co-ops and “missing middle” housing. This could be providing DC deferrals so purpose built housing is incentivized.

Link new infrastructure funding to where job growth is projected and give priority to those projects that will support transit, prioritizing infrastructure for active transportation to realize the many co-benefits it provides.

Research the link between different types of development patterns with climate impacts. Consider including carbon emission calculations in development proposals so that the full impact of a development pattern on a community’s long term health can be properly understood.

Stop building new highways on greenfield within the GGH and reconsider highway expansions. Redirect funds earmarked for inefficient car infrastructure toward transit, active transit, and more efficient commercial transportation infrastructure projects that help keep people and goods moving. New highways or wider highways have been shown to only induce demand, and eventually gridlock returns to previous levels. Reducing car traffic to ensure goods can be quickly moved on our existing highway network is a more prudent approach, particularly in light of the fact that transportation accounts for the largest share of Ontario’s greenhouse gas emissions, and the necessity of reducing these emissions in the most cost effective manner. Shifting from built infrastructure that prioritizes the use of cars and trucks toward communities that prioritize people and the ecosystems we rely on for our health, well being, and economic prosperity, which is in no way conflicting with economic sustainability, is the only way to create a future for Ontario that we can all equally rely on.

We thank you for your time and consideration of this submission. Please feel free to contact us if you have any questions or comments. Please find attached below, the recommendations by the Ontario Greenbelt Alliance which we fully support.


Sincerely,

Margaret Prophet
On behalf of the Simcoe County Greenbelt Coalition

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