Our Last Best Chance to Control Our Future? IV

Where the Liberals May Take Us

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This series of articles is taking longer than expected to write, but given the slow pace of the Liberals’ plan, I don’t think I’m at risk of being scooped. There are good and bad things about this slow approach. Only time will tell if the pace is methodical, or dead.


Places to Grow, the Liberal blueprint (or, more accurately, position paper) on where they hope to take us over the next twenty years can be found here. It replaces an earlier Conservative position paper that had a lot of things wrong with it. The Liberal report can be broken up into the good, the bad and the ugly.

The Good

The Good is that the policy paper espouses a number of ideas which would be common sense to most planners who aren’t addicted to low density suburban growth. It simply presents the facts and attempts to deal with them in a rational manner: two million people are expected to migrate to the Greater Toronto Area over the next twenty years; to make sure they don’t all plow over the remaining farms and environmentally sensitive areas, we have to locate at least some of these people in areas that are already built up. To keep traffic congestion from grinding our urban area to a halt, various measures must be taken to encourage as many people as possible out of their cars, either through the construction of more efficient transit projects (the St. Clair LRT proposal is explicitly mentioned) or by focusing development on established areas and increasing densities and urban diversity so that more people can live, shop and work within walking distance.

A number of centres have already been identified as places where growth can be stacked. Again, these are common sense locations: Yonge and Eglinton and the North York City Centre, for instance, where most of the heavy work in setting up these urban centres is done. Some of the locations promise to establish urban cores in suburban municipalities, such as the Mississauga City Centre, the Bramalea City Centre and the Vaughan City Centre, while others seek to enhance the urbanity that already exists among the suburbs (see Downtown Oakville). By removing density restrictions, one can foresee turning these nodes into strong urban areas where lots of people live, work and shop.

Even better, the Liberals have acknowledged that the Conservatives’ attempts to deal with urban growth in the Greater Toronto Area by investing in highly inefficient roads was flawed. Highways such as the 410 and 427 extensions now seem to be off the table, for now, although the Liberals haven’t gone completely transit-happy, and are continuing with the eastward extension of the 407.

And while I know of some individuals who would go into a complete conniption fit to hear someone seriously suggest this, the Liberals are on the ball to propose that at least some urban growth may have to be trucked a hundred kilometres away to the communities of Waterloo and Peterborough. It makes far more sense in my mind to build up urban development in satellite cities beyond the urban fringe of Toronto rather than gradually fill in the gaps between Toronto and Waterloo with low density suburban sprawl.

The theme of this report is baby steps, setting achievable goals and meeting them, building on what’s gone on before rather than try to reinvent the wheel. While it may not be as revolutionary as some would like, it has the definite advantage of having the possibility of actually getting stuff done.

The Bad

The same timid approach that this policy paper takes in order to build realistic goals also allows a fair amount of bad development currently on the books to get built. As John Sewell points out, while Places to Grow may attempt to draw a net around the urban region of Toronto in order to save as much of the Oak Ridges Moraine and the Niagara Escarpment as possible, it still leaves a lot of room for old-style development to take place. Farmland in northern Oakville and even places on the Moraine itself remain open for development. The Liberals may have come to power on the promise to cancel the construction of 6000 homes on this piece of environmentally sensitive property, but much to my disappointment, they were scared off that promise by legal difficulties. It was the first major disappointment of the McGuinty government. This aspect of Places to Grow reflects that.

The Liberals also face a number of challenges selling the dream of denser development to Toronto’s suburbs. As Urban Archi-Texture notes in this post, even downtown Oakville, with its history and its density, is resisting the construction of a 14-storey condominium building.

Here in Kitchener-Waterloo, some are pooh-poohing the LRT development and the attempts to build up a denser urban spine for the region. Although they note that high-rise condominiums do sell well (a change; ten years ago, they were claiming that these wouldn’t sell), they’re sticking to their position that because single-family homes in the suburbs continue to sell well, this is the sort of development the majority of homebuyers want. The fact that it can just as easily be argued that single-family suburban development is the only type of development available to most homebuyers doesn’t enter their mind. There aren’t many measures in Places to Grow to combat this mindset, and few details on how to make a greater variety of urban development available for first-time homebuyers.

The Ugly

Unless the McGuinty government follows up on this plan with legislation and funding, Places to Grow will simply be filed next to all of the other government reports Queen’s Park has commissioned but not acted upon over the past fifty years to try and solve Toronto’s problems.

I realize that it is hard to commit to subway extensions and LRT projects and even a handful of road improvements when you’re dealing with a $5.6 billion deficit, but McGuinty needs to find the money somewhere. I may not be a foam-at-the-mouth capitalist, but I understand the principles of investment, and what happens when one fails to invest. If McGuinty thinks that the $5.6 billion deficit is unmanageable now, imagine what sort of deficit Queen’s Park could look at in 2020 once congestion, sprawl and pollution grinds down Toronto’s economy.

Even as the United States compromises some of its fiscal future with half-trillion dollar deficits, some hope remains because of the funds the federal government has kicked in to inner cities, for brownfield developments and minority homeownership. Because of this, Cleveland came back from the dead. And if Cleveland can come back from the dead, Toronto can certainly be saved from death. Indeed, the fact that Cleveland is back from the dead, the fact that Chicago’s downtown core expects to see an infusion of nearly one million residents, suggests that there is competition at Toronto’s heels. If Ontario succeeds in investing in Toronto’s future, Ontario will reap substantial tax and economic rewards in 2020.

My Verdict?

As with most things McGuinty does (or so it seems), I’m giving Places to Grow a reluctant thumbs up. This is not a bold, revolutionary document, but this early in McGuinty’s mandate, it does not need to be revolutionary in order to bring about real changes to Ontario, assuming that McGuinty sticks to his approach.

I’m also pleased that it appears that the Liberals are already starting to act on their own recommendations. News reports have appeared suggesting that such projects as the northward extensions of the 410 and 427 highways are off the table. This is not exactly a commitment to expand the subway network, but in terms of approach, it’s a welcome development. The Liberal government doesn’t seem willing to sabotage its own approach of urban intensification with quiet extensions of our sprawl-inducing freeways.

Government has been called the art of the possible. And now that McGuinty is moving ahead with what’s possible, change will come. Change will be slow in coming, and it probably won’t come as fast as most people like, but it is still better than the previous administration, which were going in entirely the wrong direction.

Power to Toronto

Another sign of McGuinty’s incremental approach to fixing the problems of the Greater Toronto Area arrived today in the Toronto Star with news that McGuinty was going to loosen Toronto’s fiscal and legislative straight-jacket

Premier Dalton McGuinty is prepared to give the city of Toronto the two planks of a new deal — power and money — by the end of next year.

A new City of Toronto Act, the provincial legislation that gives the city its powers, could be introduced at Queen’s Park by the end of 2005, McGuinty indicated last night.

“Toronto is the engine of economic growth in Ontario and much of Canada,” McGuinty said.

“It’s a bit of a miracle that this city has delivered prosperity for so long and to so many — despite living in a legislative and fiscal straitjacket that would baffle Houdini,” he said.

The Premier was speaking at the opening dinner of the Mayors’ Summit — a gathering of mayors and representatives of 10 of Canada’s largest cities — and received a standing ovation.

The article is long on joyous reaction and short on detail. It also notes that the new City of Toronto Act would only be introduced “by the end of 2005”, making me wonder why we have to wait so long. However, the reactions by other mayors was a good sign:

“I support it 100 per cent,” Mississauga Mayor Hazel McCallion said. “I really believe the city of Toronto is the heart of the greater Toronto area and if it isn’t strong we’re not strong.”

Ottawa mayor Bob Chiarelli called the announcement a major breakthrough that will advance the cause of other cities across the country.

By all means, McGuinty should apply his Toronto tactics to addressing the needs of Ottawa and the municipalities surrounding Toronto. Although the issue of growth in the Greater Toronto Area dominates my urban-political monitor, Toronto isn’t the only place that needs help. And if we can get Ottawa and Mississauga’s support for measures that McGuinty introduces, it increases the likelihood that something will happen.

If McGuinty plays his cards right, he has a decent chance of joining the list of such premiers as Leslie Frost and Bill Davis, who addressed the problems of Toronto and secured the prosperity of Ontario for another generation.

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