By Joe Vaccaro
“There is nothing permanent except change,” Greek philosopher Heraclitus once observed. So too is it with Ontario. Every 10 years, the planning world changes in this province. That’s an observation that a veteran development member once told me in my early days at OHBA, and I was reminded again during my short time at BILD. His point was that change is the great constant, and that with that change we end up building better communities, improving the quality of life for residents.
I’m not a planner, and I don’t play one in my role as CEO at OHBA, but it’s not without some irony to note that our association offices are located in Canada’s first planned community, Don Mills. And the history of Don Mills illustrates to the non-planners of the world how constantly changing planning practices can play out in real life.
Don Mills was originally settled by Europeans in the early 18th century, and it was the Don River that provided the best means of transportation for the farm community to get their products to the town of York. York eventually became Toronto, and the establishment of a major port of distribution for Upper Canada began drawing more and more industry to the city. The growth of the meat packing business created “Hogtown,” and with that industrial growth came increasing population growth—to the extent that Toronto began annexing outlying villages in the early 19th century.
Toronto’s growth was linked to the economic opportunities the St. Lawrence River provided. The accessibility to the city through this shipping and transportation corridor supported the economic enterprise of the day and gave the creative classes of the 19th century a safe passage from other burgeoning cities. As industry grew, it attracted people looking for work, and with that employment came the need to house those new workers, as well as the need for infrastructure, including water treatment systems, roads, schools and hospitals.
After both World Wars, Toronto benefited from an influx of immigrants. They all came to Toronto—and I mean Toronto in the big T sense—looking to make a better life for themselves and their families. Toronto, and Canada, offered them security, opportunity and the chance for prosperity. Those annexed villages swelled with new residents, and the need for infrastructure continued to increase. Toronto was dealing with both water shortages and unclean drinking water, leading public health advocates such as George Nasmith and Toronto’s Charles Hastings to campaign for a modern water purification system. The R.C. Harris Water Treatment Plant—a.k.a the Palace of Purification—started construction in 1932 and became operational in 1941. To this day it is still fully functional and provides over 30% of the water supply for Toronto and into York Region—almost 150 million litres of clean drinking water a year. If you include Union Station and the Prince Edward Viaduct that extends Bloor Street over the Don River, Toronto was, very early on, building modern infrastructure to protect the health, prosperity and growth of Torontonians.
And where does Don Mills fit into Toronto’s growth? In 1950, the Don Mills area consisted of about 20 farms, cut off from Toronto by ravines to the south, east and west, and was serviced only by York Mills Road and Don Mills Road. Industrialist E.P. Taylor announced that he would build the community of Yorktown in 1953, centred on the intersection of Don Mills Road and Lawrence Avenue East, based on five modern planning principles never before implemented in Canada:
The Neighbourhood The community was separated into four neigbourhoods, each with a school, church and park, and centred around the regional shopping centre at Don Mills and Lawrence.
Separation of Pedestrian and Vehicle Traffic
Through a series of pedestrian paths, residents were provided direct access to community amenities like parks and schools.
The strict application of archi-tectural design, colours and building materials on all homes, including requiring builders to use approved architects.
Creating a connected park system linked neigh-bourhoods through public open spaces while protecting ravines.
Integrating Industry Within the Community
Residents of Don Mills had an opportunity to work in the community where they lived thanks to the inclusion of industry and commercial space along with rental townhouses and rental apartment buildings, allowing for a mixed-income population to support the employment opportunities.
Again, I’m not a planner, but as you drive through the neighbourhood and are greeted by the historic signs that declare Don Mills as Canada’s first master-planned community, it does provide a real-life example you can see, touch and experience that illustrates how thoughtful planning can enhance and improve the quality of life for its residents.
The community, however, isn’t stuck in its original 1950s planning. Instead, it has seen new development and redevelopment through the years. The Don Mills Centre has become the Shops of Don Mills, changing to an outdoor mall format that matches today’s active outdoor shopping experience, including restaurants, retail and recreational space. The introduction of new high-rise condos around the Shops—two occupied, two under construction, with more to come—are consistent with the principles of mixed-use land uses.
The Don Valley Parkway created a new transportation line into the community, stimulating economic development and population growth. The Eglinton Crosstown, expected to be operational in 2021, will bring a new transit line into Don Mills and result in new mixed-use housing and employment opportunities along the corridor.
The changing population in the area, meanwhile, has resulted in new cultural centres, like the Aga Khan Museum, as new residents become part of the community, putting down roots but also celebrating and sharing their diversity with all of us.
This ongoing evolution is an example of how the constant force of change alters and enriches our communities to reflect the changing needs of its residents and businesses.
So what does the Don Mills community have to do with what is happening in Ontario in 2016? In 2006, the Places to Grow Act and the Greenbelt Act were implemented in Ontario, changing the way we plan for communities, roads, infrastructure and, most important, for the growing population coming to the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area (GTHA). The Greenbelt tells us where future urban development will not happen, while the Growth Plan tells us where people and jobs should happen.
What has happened in the 10 years since this legislation was introduced is remarkable and is changing the face of the GTHA and all of Ontario. The population of the region has grown by 100,000 every year, adding over a million people. Even with the increasing population, the unemployment rate today sits at 7%, statistically similar to the 2006 Stats Canada rate of 6.7%.
According to a May 2015 report by fDi Intelligence, a division of The Financial Times Ltd., Ontario, with a specific focus on the GTHA, is the North American leader in attracting foreign investment for the second straight year. In 2014, Ontario attracted $7.1 billion US in foreign capital investment and created 13,055 jobs through foreign direct investment; up 6,102 jobs from 2013.
Over the same time period the provincial government has invested in massive transit projects through the creation of Metrolinx and supporting “The Big Move” with an initial investment of $11.5 billion. Many of these projects are under construction and expected to be operational in 2021, and the “Next Wave” projects will require an additional $35 billion
According to CMHC, the region has added over 400,000 new housing units, and Toronto was named the high-rise capital of North America in 2015 by international building data provider Emporis, with more than 130 towers under construction—more than New York City and Montreal combined.
Like all things in the planning world, and 10 years after the Growth Plan and Greenbelt Act, the review of how we build communities and employment has come forward for review. In typical government fashion, the review included an Advisory Panel chaired by the Honourable David Crombie, with extensive public engagement that included 17 town hall meetings attended by more than 3,000 people. In total, the province received over 19,300 submissions, including 60 from municipalities.
In December 2015, the Advisory Panel presented its recommendations to the government in the report entitled, Planning for Health, Prosperity and Growth. With 87 recommendations, covering everything from urban growth, agriculture, the environment, human health, natural and cultural heritage features, infrastructure and transit, as well as a spotlight on mainstreaming climate change, the report is a very big-picture view of how to shape the growth of the Greater Golden Horseshoe over the next over 30 years.
Growth is the key to all of this. As the report reinforces, the GGH is forecast to grow from the current population of nine million people to about 13.5 million in 2041, with the number of jobs forecast to rise from 4.5 million to 6.3 million. Based on these forecasts, the population will increase by almost 50% and the number of jobs by 40%. That is comparable to a city the size of Montreal moving to the GGH in the next 30 years!
Just as we did in the first round of growth planning, we need to now refine and update the policies of the plans to prepare for the next round. The focus on building complete communities is critical to understanding the interconnectedness of the recommendations. Of course, the concept and principles that define what a complete community looks like in 2016 are much different today than they were in 1950s, and they will be different again in 2026. One of the frustrations over the consultation period was the approach by some to point to every community and decry the 1970s subdivision planning as a plague on everything wrong in Ontario.
Blaming those communities for everything from obesity to voter apathy, from climate change to the lack of social housing, from biodiversity loss to agricultural poverty, is really a rather simplistic approach to a very complex discussion about where will people live, how we’ll protect jobs and the environment, how we’ll preserve important natural heritage features, keep our water clean, move goods across the region and, ultimately, how we all live together.
While how and where we live certainly impacts aspects of those issues, it’s not the source of the problem. But it does need to be part of the solution moving forward.
Building a complete community is already a cornerstone of the 2016 planning process. New land-use planning decisions—for future residential, commercial or mixed-use—already require that the “new” be integrated with the “existing.” Whether it is a new condominium project in an existing community with improved transit, or a new community centre that will improve the present-day park and recreational system for the existing community or, in some cases, new infill housing in mid-density neighbourhoods that will add new housing options, all will be connected back into our current communities.
Don Mills is a shining example of that reality. Canada’s first master-planned community is still being presented to urban-planning students across Canada as a model of progressive community development. Over the past 60 years the community has changed with new residents, new housing options, new recreational opportunities, new employment centres and new cultural institutions.
Change is the constant and the driving force to continue to refine and build a complete community that meets the needs of its residents and businesses today and into the future. It’s about connecting those dots towards perfection. Don Mills, 60 years after its initial planning, isn’t done—it is continually working towards becoming a complete community. Building a community is an ever-evolving exercise that needs to be receptive to change, while striving to provide the best quality of life for its current residents and welcoming new residents.
As the work continues to make GGH and Ontario the best place to live, work and play for the almost 14 million who already call it home, we all need to work together to continue to make it a destination that future residents and employers will want to call home. Planning for our health, prosperity and growth doesn’t end with a plan; it starts with it.