New Directions for Planning in Ontario II

This article appeared in the January – February, 2008 (Volume 23 Issue 1) issue of the Ontario Planning Journal. Please also see Part I.

The theme of my recent report to the Ontario legislature was about the need to reconcile our land use planning priorities. My report highlighted two major analyses of land use planning, one focusing on Crown lands and northern Ontario, while the other examined southern Ontario. In both cases, my report concludes that many of our specific planning priorities are partially or totally incompatible.

First and foremost, I would argue that the primary purpose of planning laws and policies should be to ensure the sustainability of our province, our communities, and the environment. However, I am concerned that when our current approaches to planning are viewed as a whole, we are essentially trying to have our cake and eat it too. Too often, conflicts arise that force concerns for sustainability to take a back-seat to the pressures for development. That is not the intent of any robust understanding of sustainable development.

In my previous article in the Ontario Planning Journal, I provided an overview of some of the issues facing northern Ontario. Among the recommendations following from that analysis are that the Ontario government should take steps to reform the Public Lands Act and the Mining Act. In this article, I will outline some of the issues facing southern Ontario.

The Planning Puzzle
Comprehensively examining all the pieces of the planning puzzle is important to assess what path we have charted for the province. By taking this step back and scrutinizing major planning policies, I find serious conflicts are inherent in the province’s plans to balance growth and development against the need to ensure the sustainability of the natural environment.

Making sustainability the goal of planning efforts requires the consideration of both where it is feasible for development and expansion to occur, and how much additional growth a given community’s local environment is able to realistically support. Recent provincial planning efforts do not employ this perspective of sustainability.

The Growth Plan for the Greater Golden Horseshoe proposes further urban growth and intensification in watersheds where communities are already struggling with water supply and wastewater treatment issues. These communities will eventually require major upgrades to their water and wastewater infrastructure to accommodate the projected population growth.

Large-scale infrastructure and associated technologies have allowed communities, at least temporarily, to overcome the natural limits to growth that characterize any given ecological system. But in stretching an ecosystem’s capacity beyond its natural limits, these communities are living on borrowed carrying capacity and make themselves vulnerable to major problems in the future.

It is unclear whether the Growth Plan will allow for radical reductions in growth allocations if major shortcomings in water and wastewater servicing emerge in communities targeted for growth. The Growth Plan for the Greater Golden Horseshoe does allow for population allocations to be revisited after five years, but it does not indicate what factors were used to determine the existing allocations, or what factors might result in changing those allocations. It appears that accommodating economic growth and expanding populations – rather than respecting ecological limits – has been the primary driving force in the allocation process.

The Growth Plan does contain some laudable objectives, but many of the priorities conflict – such as the need to preserve green space versus the need to expand Ontario’s road network. As a consequence, proposed highway routes seem to exhibit a pattern of connecting and running through the “green dots” on the landscape – our wetlands, woodlands and farmlands.

Car-centricity the problem
If urban growth and road network expansion continues under a business-as-usual scenario – that is, one vehicle for every two residents – then another million automobiles will appear on the province’s roads by 2020 and more highways will be needed, particularly in Southern Ontario, to accommodate them. One of the many apparent costs will likely be our natural heritage. A root problem is our car-centric culture. I believe that the intensity targets for new growth must be re-visited if some of these planning pressures are to be relieved. There also must be a genuine, strong push for an integrated public transportation network.

With respect to the protection of natural heritage, my report examined provincially significant wetlands and the planning policies that affect them. About 70% of the wetlands present prior to European settlement have already been destroyed in southern Ontario. The major threats to remaining wetlands include drainage for agriculture, development and road construction.

Significant wetlands are defined in the 2005 PPS as areas “identified as provincially significant” by MNR. However, fewer than 1% of the wetlands in central Ontario have been evaluated, and the vast majority of wetlands in the province – particularly, north and east of Peterborough – are unevaluated. Even in southern regions, where the ministry has conducted about 2,000 wetland evaluations (primarily in the 1980s), there are many wetlands that should be evaluated or re-evaluated for their significance.

The Ministry of Natural Resources does not have sufficient capacity to complete wetland evaluations. Consequently, there have been several notable cases where citizens and groups have had to pay out of their own funds for a wetland evaluation by a third party, then asked the ministry to designate a wetland as significant, in order to protect it from proposed development.

Compounding the problem, some municipalities have been reluctant to designate provincially significant wetlands in their official plans or zoning by-laws, leaving the lands zoned for development. Further, even if provincially significant wetlands are designated in official plans, the PPS still allows infrastructure – sewage and water systems, waste management systems, electric power generation and transmission, pipelines, transit and roads – to be built within the boundaries of these wetlands.

Another threat to natural heritage features lies with the approvals process for aggregate extraction. Conflicts with other land uses and community interests are heightened because the PPS prescribes that aggregates should be extracted as close to market as possible. The inherent conflicts between aggregate production and the protection of natural areas arise because many of the highest quality aggregate deposits in Southern Ontario are found in areas of great ecological and social significance.

The current planning system allows pits and quarries almost everywhere in Ontario, subject to certain conditions. Very little land is off-limits, even within the areas covered by the Niagara Escarpment Plan, Oak Ridges Moraine Conservation Plan and Greenbelt Plan.

I question the assertion that pits and quarries are an “interim land use.” The term “interim” suggests “short-term,” but the impact of aggregate operations on the environment and communities is rarely that. Adding the years needed to complete the necessary rehabilitation, land used for a quarry could be unavailable for any other use for many decades.

Furthermore, aggregate sites are rarely returned to their original condition. More likely, pits are converted to housing or golf courses, and if a quarry has gone below the water table, the site will be permanently flooded, resulting in a human-made lake. Some quarries will require manipulation of water levels in perpetuity.

To address some of these shortcomings, my report concludes that the province should develop a comprehensive aggregate resources strategy. I also argue that municipalities should have a greater role in the siting of pits and quarries. Above all, the approvals process should be revised to enable the planning system to quickly screen out inappropriate proposals that should not proceed, particularly those proposals that conflict with natural heritage or source water protection values.

These issues are a few of the concerns that I have raised in my recent annual report to the Ontario legislature. Our current planning system states that preserving wetlands, significant woodlands and agricultural lands are priorities, but it also asserts that the construction of highways, the removal of aggregates, and the building of pipelines for water supplies are priorities. We cannot do all of them at once.

Choices often have to be made between these different land uses. I argue that our decision-making process must be informed by a sustainable approach to planning. Our current planning system seems weighted in favour of extractive and destructive uses of the land over those that conserve natural or agricultural values. The full costs of that choice may not necessarily be evident now, but future generations will look back and wonder exactly what we were thinking in setting up such a system.

Most of Ontario’s laws and policies related to planning are premised on a case-by-case review and approval for new projects, such as aggregate pits, municipal roads, sewers and highways. These approval processes are dangerously short-sighted, because they do not include an a priori discussion of the need for the undertaking under consideration. Nor do they permit a similar public debate about the conflicting consumptive uses versus the protection of natural heritage.

A prevalent assumption is that monitoring, mitigation measures and other environmental planning techniques can address the long-term problems associated with these development pressures. While it is certainly true that mitigation can serve to reduce many impacts, it cannot undo the long-term destruction of natural heritage features, greenspaces and agricultural land in southern Ontario. A more enlightened approach is urgently needed, for our sakes and that of the natural environment.

This article was submitted by Christopher Wilkinson, BES, MES, PhD, MCIP, RPP; the ECO staff team on this project was Greg Jenish, BES, Lynda Lukasik, BSc., MES, PhD, Lisa Shultz, BES, MA, and David McRobert, BSc, MES, LLB.

For more information on these planning issues, please visit www.eco.on.ca. Steve Rowe, MCIP, RPP, is the principal of Steven Rowe, Environmental Planner. He is also contributing editor for the Ontario Planning Journal on Environment.

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