By Joe Vaccaro

The housing market is an easy conversation starter these days. Whether chatting with a neighbour in Etobicoke about the corner house that just sold for $200,000 over asking price, or discussing the flock of cranes altering the skyline of Toronto as new condo buildings take shape, or debating with family about the impact of new townhouse projects in Brampton, or visiting friends in Ottawa, Niagara and Windsor, everyone wants to know why the industry builds what it builds, and why it builds where it builds.

As with most complex questions, there is a complicated answer. The type and location of new housing supply and development revolves around the relationship between provincial legislation and regulatory policy, which, in turn, needs to be supported by transit investments and complemented through municipal local planning and decision making. And that all occurs while protecting and respecting environmentally significant features and priorities, often through the layering of additional approvals by government agencies. Then you need to consider the cost of infrastructure to support future housing supply and employment centres, while understanding that those costs cannot undermine the local market realities, which could make housing too expensive for many to afford or for employment centres to attract new jobs. That is all underpinned by the fact that the province continues to grow and attract new immigrants and investment, while supporting the existing population and the creation of new families.

So what to do? 

The simple answer would be to grow up and not out. The simpler answer would be to protect the Greenbelt by applying Growth Plan principles to every community in Ontario.

The simplest answer would be that if you build subways you get mixed-use condos, intensification and infill housing; if you build GO stations, you get compact subdivisions and townhouses; if you build highways you get business parks, industrial and commercial, big box retails and other employment centres.

But that is not one simple answer; it is three, because there is no way to prepare for the future growth of this province without looking at each piece as part of a cohesive unit and understanding that it is interconnected.

The real answer? It’s about connecting the dots between the Growth Plan and the Greenbelt and how our communities are being changed and created. Like a puzzle, each piece needs to fit together.

It is about understanding how the award-winning provincial Growth Plan and Greenbelt Act are connected and, through that connection, how we are creating new communities, how existing communities are changing, and how we—the universal ‘we’—can preserve agricultural land and environmental features while planning for the 4.5 million new people and almost 2 million new jobs coming to the Greater Golden Horseshoe (GGH) by 2041.

On February 27, the Ontario Home Builders’ Association joined the Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing Ted McMeekin to celebrate the 10-year anniversary of the Ontario Greenbelt Act. I stress the word celebrate, because OHBA is not here to fight the Greenbelt.

Recognized as the largest urban Greenbelt in the world, the Act serves to protect farmland, green space and clean water in the GGH.

The Minister used the occasion to launch the co-ordinated review of the Growth Plan for the GGH, the Greenbelt Plan, the Oak Ridges Moraine Conservation Plan and the Niagara Escarpment Plan. He made it clear that the government’s intention is to grow the Greenbelt, while continuing to protect Ontario’s environmental priorities. But the Minister was equally clear that the Growth Plan must align with the economic and infrastructure priorities of Ontario, as well as the need to attract jobs and to build the communities that will create the sort of live/work/play opportunities that the Plan promotes.

Phase 1 of the Co-ordinated Review has been an opportunity for the public, elected representatives, farmers, homeowners, small and large landowners, environmentalists, developers and anyone else interested in bad coffee and good public policy to attend over 20 public meetings.  OHBA representatives, staff and I attended almost all of them, from the first meeting in Kitchener to the last meeting in Vaughan.

The opportunity to hear a diverse group of voices express their experiences, thoughts, frustrations and aspirations helps everyone involved understand how truly interconnected the Growth Plan and the Greenbelt truly are.

At the first public review meeting in Kitchener, the discussion focused on the decision of the Waterloo Regional Government to approve an Official Plan (OP) that applied Growth Plan principles to help intensify future population and job growth along its new Light Rapid Transit corridor—the premise being that existing residents will leave their traditional homes for these new high-rise units.

In this sense Waterloo Region has applied the simple answer—growing up and not out—as the cornerstone of its future community character. With that, it approved a limited community expansion of less than 100 hectares, while creating a protected countryside area that prohibits future urban development until 2031.

There was also discussion surrounding the massive transit investments for intraregional transit with the ION LRT and the proposed two-way, all-day GO service connecting Toronto to Waterloo to support “Canada’s Innovation Corridor.” The proposal suggests that the GO will connect 13,000 companies, attract 3,000 startups and create 40,000 jobs. This is an impressive economic development strategy that promotes how “transit drives innovation and innovation drives economic growth.”  How that economic growth accommodates the people who actually work at those employment centres is part of this discussion. Clearly, the Waterloo Region OP speaks to a new level of intensification and mixed-use buildings that will change the character of Waterloo by growing up and not out.

Waterloo Region’s OP was challenged at the OMB by developers who question the limited community expansion. The OMB agreed, ruling that the Regional Plan did not permit appropriate community expansion and required over 1,000 hectares for the future community as laid out by provincial land-use policies. What does this mean? It means that it’s complicated even when you try to keep it simple, because everything is connected.

Kitchener participants all left with a greater understanding of how complex the discussion is. How do you grow up and not out while still providing existing and future residents with a range of housing options?  How do provincial polices get interpreted by the local governments to create approved OPs, only to have the independent provincial tribunal on planning matters reject it? How do you finance the massive transit infrastructure required while still making those transit-inspired communities affordable and attractive to people and employers?

Live, work, play

The Aurora public meeting provided a different perspective than Waterloo. Aurora was not originally on the public consultation list, but the local MPP and former Aurora councillor Chris Ballard requested a session attended by the mayors of Aurora, Newmarket as well as various York Regional and local councillors.

This is one area where all the dots connect. Aurora has areas protected by the Oak Ridges Moraine Act, an established environmentally sensitive area that deserves protection. There continues to be traditional agricultural and equestrian farms alongside a growing suburban population, connected by provincial GO service and York Region transit to create greater intermodal integration. The area benefits from a 400-series highway that supports and creates employment opportunities for the established commercial employment areas and aggregates industry. Roads have sidewalks and bike lanes to promote a pedestrian and cycling culture, and new recreational facilities provide destinations for family and community fun.   All in all, it aligns the features of live, work and play with the necessary provincial protection for significant environmental features.

Residents spoke of the close-knit nature of their neighbourhoods, the work they and elected officials have done to build Aurora and Newmarket and how important it is to protect and preserve the character of the community. They have concerns about growing traffic congestion, increased density and the newest threat to their community character: the conversion of private golf courses into future housing supply. Many questioned why the province is forcing Aurora to change what they are so proud to promote and expressed the point that they moved out of Toronto to get away from all those things.

The Ministry did an excellent job explaining the mechanics of the Growth Plan and justifying the necessary intensification. Ontario sets out the 2041 population and employment forecasts and, through legislation, designates a portion to York Region. The region, in turn, allocates them to the municipalities through the necessary public democratic process. Once allocated, those municipal councils have the responsibility to plan for that allocation and determine the necessary housing supply, employment areas, infrastructure, public institutions and transit to support the people and jobs forecasted for these municipalities.

In the case of Aurora, this means that the community’s population will welcome 20,000 people as it grows from 50,000 in 2006 to 70,000 in 2031. Complementing that is the allocation of almost 15,000 new jobs, as employment forecasts take it from 20,000 in 2006 to a projected 34,200 in 2031.

What does it mean? It means that Aurora is going to get bigger and will consequently need more housing for their new neighbours. Thirty percent of new residents will find housing in the existing community boundary, which will require more density and, with that, new high-rise buildings. It will need new and improved public transit, as well as additional roads to get around and support the expansion of employment centres. Aurora will also need more schools, community centres and parks to continue to be the complete, livable city it currently enjoys. As one longtime Aurora resident expressed openly, “Why can’t we just give the number back to the province?” To which another resident responded, “Because we all have to do our part to protect the environment.” Growing up instead of out means, inevitably, that change is coming to Aurora.

As with Kitchener-Waterloo, Aurora did extensive work through its public OP process to analyze, consider, plan and locally approve the new community urban structure. It also ensured its current residents were given the chance to voice their concerns and understand the rationale for the proposed changes, as well as learning how their community is connected to the entire GGH.

The dividing line

Most important to the conversation is how the Greenbelt is protecting significant agriculture and environmentally sensitive lands from future urban development. Once areas are granted this significant Greenbelt protection, it focuses the planning of population and employment growth into specific areas of the GGH.

Aurora finds itself south of the Greenbelt line, feeling the growth pressure from Toronto as employment remains strong and families consider moving from urban to suburban areas. Waterloo Region finds itself on the other side of the Greenbelt, where residents employed there can stay clear of the GTA, but those that find work in the GTA need to cross through the Greenbelt to earn a paycheque. Creating Canada’s Innovation Corridor is more important than ever, as two-way, all-day GO service can create an efficient transit avenue for people living on one side of the belt but working on the other.

Ontario has a long history of protecting provincially significant agricultural lands, wetlands, woodlots, aquifers, rivers, streams and shorelines that have been part of the planning and development process for over 70 years. Today, along with the Greenbelt Act, the Oak Ridges Moraine Act and the Niagara Escarpment Act, there is the overarching Planning Act and the Provincial Policy Statement that provide the framework for agricultural and environmental assessment.

Through various environmental reports, government agencies like the Ministries of Natural Resources and Forestry, Environment and Climate Change, Municipal Affairs and Housing, Agriculture, and Conservations Authorities provide a strong regulatory process when it comes to environmental policy. That level of oversight means that every application for new development needs to be assessed and its environmental value confirmed and protected.

The Greenbelt is a part of the environmental protection regime that directly impacts how the Growth Plan is applied to the neighbour community, and vice versa. Greater density in a community should result in less pressure against the Greenbelt border. In exchange, the Greenbelt could provide these urban areas with new recreational and tourism opportunities. It is one of the reasons why OHBA supported the creation of the Greenbelt Urban River designation—to reinforce the protection of those public lands beyond the existing Greenbelt.

At the public meeting in Milton, the Greenbelt and Growth Plan were considered as a single entity, with conservation and development complementing and supporting each other, ultimately making the region function as one.

In order to build Ontario up and prepare for the surge in population and employment we are forecasting, every piece of the puzzle must be examined. Each piece fits together, which ultimately provides us with the full picture. If you remove one piece, the puzzle doesn’t work. Such is the case with the Greenbelt and Growth Plan, which must be interconnected if we are to successfully plan for the future. As we assess the first 10 years of how these plans have been implemented, it is important to note how the region’s population has since grown by over 1 million people and 800,000 jobs. Today, over 9 million live in the GGH, and by 2041 an estimated 13.5 million will call this region home, along with almost 2 million more jobs. We must find a balance so that we can continue to welcome residents and businesses to this province, while protecting significant agricultural and environmental lands.

The Co-ordinated Review engaged people across the GGH, from Niagara to Cobourg, and through that informed conversation raised the level of thoughtful discussion on how and where we grow and protect.

Looking to 2041, this is the opportunity to connect the dots and refocus the province, municipalities, residents and stakeholders on future community and economic development as we continue to build safe, affordable, sustainable communities where we can all live, work and play.