Our Last Best Chance to Control Our Future? III

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Where Are We Now?


In 2004, the Greater Toronto Area is an urban region stretching around the horn of Lake Ontario from Stoney Creek in the south and west to Newcastle in the east. Commuter traffic originates as far north as Barrie. Development threatens two significant natural features: the Niagara Escarpment and the Oak Ridges Moraine. The area holds roughly five million individuals and expects to add two million more between now and the year 2020.

Governing this widespread, socially and economically diverse and environmentally sensitive area are two megacities, four regional municipalities and twenty-two lower-tier municipalities. This does not include the satellite communities of Waterloo Region, Guelph, Peterborough and the Regional Municipality of Niagara. At last count there were twelve separate transit agencies, multiple committees and organizations where the member municipalities coordinate on specific issues, dozens of official plans, a couple of provincial offices and a multitude of business improvement associations.

Except for the provincial government, there is no single governing authority within the Greater Toronto Area that can provide basic leadership toward policies which effectively manage the growth that’s expected for the region, and while we wait, our roads get more congested, our commute times lengthen, and the cost of doing business in the Greater Toronto Area increases. Development threatens the headwaters of our water supply. Social problems are proving challenging to resolve, and risk giving the region a black eye, deterring international investment.

The City of Toronto is trying to help, by planning to increase its population to three million by 2020 and service that growth through high-efficiency infrastructure (transit improvements instead of new expressways), but that barely covers half of the expected growth, and Toronto’s own plans aren’t going forward unopposed.

The province is understandably leery of tackling this issue, because it’s so big, and this is not the era of bold moves and massive government intervention. Acting as the regional government of the Greater Toronto Area could be so time consuming for Queen’s Park that the regions of southwestern and eastern (not to mention northern) Ontario may feel themselves ignored by their own government. But as the best solution is constitutionally impossible (break off the Greater Toronto Area into its own province), and as the next best solution would require the province building itself an equal partner and formidable rival, it has little choice. The matter becomes even more pressing as more and more voters find themselves caught in traffic, and more and more development threatens the Oak Ridges Moraine and the Niagara Escarpment.

The solutions are not easy to come by, and they rarely last. When the province moved to create Metropolitan Toronto in 1954, the solution was established with the stroke of a pen. The measure served to maintain and improve the quality of life in the City of Toronto for four decades. When the problems of 1954 repeated themselves to a greater degree in 1967, the province was able to intervene by creating mini-Metros that could spend large and pay for the massive investment required to service the growth that was expected. That took us to today.

Metropolitan Toronto started coming apart at the seams in the early 1990s. Through the eighties and the nineties, there has been a near freeze in public transit infrastructure and a steamroll of development to our unserviceable fringes. There have been calls for a new regional approach to the Greater Toronto Area since the late 1980s. Unfortunately, the Toronto region is far bigger than it was in the fifties, when the solution was obvious, and in the sixties, when lots of government money was at hand. The problems that we are facing now should have been addressed ten years ago and are that much more unmanageable today.

It is for this reason that the Liberals have stuck their necks out and put forward this (rather timid) growth blueprint early in their mandate. That is why this is our last best chance to control our future, though it probably won’t be the last time we face this question. For the third time we’ve been called upon to revamp how the region is to be developed, but for the first time we’re running the risk of doing nothing. And that’s one of the worst things we can do.

Next Article: So, Where are the Liberals Taking Us?

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