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June 09, 2022

Radial development strategy: The only answer to the future realities of South-Central Ontario Growth

Radial development strategy: The only answer to the future realities of South-Central Ontario Growth
This Planning Exchange Blog post is the continuation of an article that appeared in the Spring/Summer 2022 issue of OPPI’s Y Magazine. Read the full magazine online.

NOTE: A data error has been pointed out in the original article regarding data used for historical growth rate comparisons between Toronto and the largest American mega regions. The historical comparisons have been removed and the paragraph has been replaced.

South-Central Ontario, also known as the Greater Golden Horseshoe, faces two realities: huge future growth and already seriously threatened natural environment and local agriculture. This means we face two urban planning policy imperatives: fast growth adaptation and equal environmental defence.
Unlike some, I don’t think South-Central Ontario (SCO) can or even should try to head off huge future growth. Toronto’s greater urban region is now growing at the fastest rate of any of the largest North American urban regions. Our area is an extraordinary urban attractor, offering three huge current advantages. Economically, it is strong and diversified, featuring a relatively flat and, thereby, inexpensive land area to service and develop. Our governance and development/building industry are relatively consolidated, thus, enabling (though not ensuring) effective large-scale planning. And socially, we are one of the most diverse and welcoming places to live in the world, and the federal government continues, as it should, to allow for rapid, diversified immigration. That makes us a magnet for persistent growth. That is not going to stop.
Population growth
GGH/SCO has been growing persistently for a few decades now at about 125,000 per year. The indications are that the region could reach 20 million by the end of the century. Not only that, but the growth rate itself could also accelerate.
Let us pause a moment here. The key to a successful diversity in Canada has been and will continue to be diversified immigration — that is, no one group is so large as to change the already diverse social complexion of the country or its basic values. The SCO is — and should be — a leading global and continental growth attractor. Indeed, we will likely have additional growth pressure because of global climate change: people not only from beyond the sea, but also people from our own severely climate-threatened North American shores seeking less environmentally challenged country inland.

The environment
If there is little doubt that the Toronto region’s population is going to double or more before the end of this century, there is a simultaneous huge environmental issue. During the next few decades, the constraints we must impose to manage urban development threats to the natural environment and local agriculture will also be unprecedented.  
Let there be no doubt that the natural environment and food-growing land in outer rural areas and the remaining nature in the inner urban areas provide us with significant human advantages. Healthy nature and thriving agriculture maintain themselves and nourish humans both physically and mentally at a bargain cost. That natural and rural infrastructure is worth hundreds of billions of dollars in services rendered to the human population, but we annually invest in it a tiny percentage of what we (under)invest in maintaining built infrastructure — and we rip it up without regard to real replacement cost.
Some, perhaps many, now take a position that we stop the development pace. Not only do I think this is not going to happen, but I also think Toronto must welcome it and is in a better position than most places to welcome millions seeking a better life. Even so, I share the strong environmentalist and local agriculture position. It is an equal imperative for the whole of SCO in the 21st century. Such that, all new development should meet two requirements: (1) an overall planned capacity of at least 20 million people in SCO by the end of the 21st century, and (2) preservation of at least the current functioning of the natural environment and local agriculture, within a constraint that all new building must at some point in the period meet net-zero environmental and climate impact.
This throws up immediate issues.

The issues and radial development
Let’s look at the supposed sooner-than-later need for an outer west-east expressway corridor for goods and people movement — the proposed 413-Bradford Bypass from 401 to 404— to meet our future growth realities. That would lead to huge new wedge of outer GTA sprawl.
A better option meeting the above two objectives would be to maintain the current south to north “Radial Development” pattern into the outer areas of SCO (along with the east to west corridors along the lake shore and out to southwestern Ontario). This would least disrupt our region’s essential major natural features, which drain north-south into Toronto and Mississauga central areas.
Impossible, you may say. Well, the City of Toronto (and Ontario) did just that when the proposed crosstown expressway was cancelled in the 1970s to preserve the nature of (and the nature still in) inner neighbourhoods. Somehow, Toronto has lived well enough with the result without that extra inner-area east-west expressway. Similarly, cancelling 413-Bradford Bypass would preserve much natural environment and local agriculture that would be lost from such a huge by-pass scheme. (The solution to that is to strengthen the radial north-south pattern and as needed, expand existing west-east roads for the cross-urban movement.)
Further, since some allowance must be made for increased east-west traffic flow along existing right of ways — alas, all major east-west routes in SCO north of 407 are already near capacity — any increased traffic capacity must only be done according to the highest environmental standards. Such standards would require that, along widened existing corridors, super-long bridge spans would be required in some cases to ensure natural drainage and wetlands are not disrupted. For example, that issue has recently been faced in south Florida along the Tamiami Trail with super-length bridges that will re-establish natural flows in the Everglades through the Shark River Sloughs.
Managing future growth will also require large development schemes along the radials that can provide the scale needed for municipalities and developers to ensure environmental and local agriculture protection can be treated as equal to accommodating new urban development. For example, the Orbit proposal in Innisville in the south Barrie area may provide that scale. The overall natural and local agricultural impact of that uniquely large development warrants close attention. Hopefully it can show a balanced way to the new urban-rural future. Hopefully it will build creatively on all our public and private sector strengths.
The radial path forward as an environmentally acceptable response to several more decades of fast SCO growth will require coordination on a multi-regional scale. The Canadian real estate community led by the Urban Land Institute and the Future of Infrastructure Group funded a recent report and discussion process on Getting to Transit-Oriented Communities: Experience in Canada. It concluded, “We found that municipal governments, provincial agencies, provincial governments, and regional authorities need to really come together and develop a shared vision, and that shared vision can actually lead to efficiency and delivery [and] that while one party could be very well-resourced, other parties were unable to keep up in the conversation, which leads to timing issues.”1  
To move forward successfully in SCO, we need to establish a shared vision of a radial response to growth and keep up the conversation.

1 Steve Mclean, Real Estate News Exchange, January 28, 2022.


The views expressed in this blog post are those of the author(s), and may not reflect the position of the Ontario Professional Planners Institute.

Post by Dale Taylor

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