Our Last Best Chance to Control Our Future?


Recently, the Liberal party put forward a policy document on the urban growth of southern Ontario over the next thirty years (Toronto Star article is here, the official discussion paper is here). As my university education has been almost exclusively about urban and regional planning and as I have spoken before about the perils of unrestricted growth in southern Ontario, I should have more opinions about this. It is perhaps telling that I don’t (further reaction in the blogosphere here). Despite this, the nature of this announcement and the history of governmental response to urban growth in Ontario leave me cautiously optimistic.

I am optimistic for a number of reasons. The fact that the Liberals’ document was not a major plank on their election platform fills me with some hope. The moves they are making here, early in their mandate, do not strike me as overly political, but rather common sense responses to real and pressing problems. The Liberal document is hardly idealistic; it addresses issues we’ve discussed at length before and it proposes solutions which appear more realistic than ambitious. We have to address urban sprawl now, lest the province of Ontario becomes socially, economically and environmentally unsustainable in thirty years time. As such this is a policy document that I’d expect to see issue forth from an NDP or a moderate Conservative government.

My caution arises from the fact that the document is long on policy, short on funding formulas and teeth. Unless the McGuinty government builds on this document with strong leadership, nothing will come of it. I say this with the experience of history: the last time the Ontario government enacted a policy that effectively managed growth in southern Ontario was 1954. Since then, all subsequent reviews unleashed policies that were either ineffective, or were sabotaged before they could bear fruit.

Here and in subsequent articles is a brief history of Ontario’s urban interventions over the past fifty years:

Ontario’s Best Shot: Metropolitan Toronto (1954-1997)


Fifty years is a long time, but it’s a testament to the effectiveness of Metropolitan Toronto and the vision of the Conservative government of the day that the economic health and social viability of the Greater Toronto Area can be traced to this one decision. Back in 1954, the province was called upon to solve an urban dilemma that threatened to overwhelm the ability of the local governments to handle it.

The City of Toronto entered the 1950s with urban infrastructure that was in need of repair, pent-up growth that had been suppressed by twenty years of depression and war, and the bitter fruits of a twenty-year-old decision not to annex territory along its fringes. The sudden availability of the automobile helped produce a rash of housing construction that threatened to swamp the independent villages and townships surrounding Toronto. So, while Toronto city proper needed investment to restore and expand its municipal infrastructure, and while it could not count on development on its fringes to pay for such reinvestment, the municipalities on the fringe found themselves too small to properly fund the municipal services required to serve the rapidly developing new subdivisions. Both the downtown and its fringe faced bankruptcy and chaos.

In 1953, Toronto reversed its no-annexation policy and sought to swallow its neighbours (taking on borders which mirror today’s Megacity) so that it could pool the resources of its downtown and surrounding suburbs into a borrowing machine that could renew the core and grow the fringe. The outlying areas feared the loss of their independence and demanded either a loose federation, or to stick with the status quo (villages such as Leaside and New Toronto, with over 50% of their territory comprised of highly-taxable industrial property saw no reason to change, while North York and Scarborough — comprised mostly of farmland — started to choke). The matter of Toronto’s annexation bid versus Mimico’s proposal for a loose services-sharing federation went to the Ontario Municipal Board. Shockingly, the OMB chose a third way. The Ontario government backed the OMB’s decision and, with one bill, created the Municipality of Metropolitan Toronto, effective January 1, 1954.

The Municipality of Metropolitan Toronto was a two-tier urban county. The lower-tier municipalities could maintain their independence and their councils could focus on issues that were unique to them. Why should people and politicians in outer Scarborough care about on-street parking matters in Long Branch? At the same time, these councils would sit together on the metropolitan upper-tier and decide together on issues of regional interest, including the TTC, policing, the shape of the city to come and, after a bout with Hurricane Hazel, ensuring that no more development took place in the city’s floodplains.

Under this arrangement, Metropolitan Toronto could borrow against its downtown core to fund proper municipal services to handle the growth of the suburbs, and could use the economic activity arising from rapid suburban growth to pay for the renewal and expansion of downtown infrastructure. Although this decision was frought with controversy (the Liberal opposition, unsurprisingly, promised to revoke it if elected. They never were), and although Metro council meetings were often heated, the Municipality of Metropolitan Toronto became the most successful metropolitan federation in the history of North America (New York’s metropolitan federation collapsed after eight years). Through the fifties and the sixties, Metro council built up Toronto’s subway network, grew the city into the surrounding regions and generated a huge economic activity that allowed the city to become the biggest in Canada and a strong player in the Great Lakes. By the late 1970s, Metropolitan Toronto was “the city that worked”, an envy of American cities suffering through “white flight” and urban collapse.

But sadly, it was not to last.

Next article: The Decline and Fall of Metropolitan Toronto

Further Reading

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