New Directions for Planning in Ontario I

This article appeared in the November – December, 2007 (Volume 22 Issue 6) issue of the Ontario Planning Journal. Please also see Part II.

In December 2007, I released my latest annual report to the Ontario Legislature. The theme of this year’s report was about the need to reconcile our land use planning priorities. We are living in a time of significant environmental change and it is very important that we ensure that we are on the right path.

There have been many recent refinements to planning policies in Ontario. However, I am concerned that when our current approaches to planning are viewed as a whole, we are proverbially trying to have our cake and eat it too. Too often, we forget the big picture.

In practice, many of our specific planning priorities are partially or totally incompatible. When a conflict arises, as it is wont to do, it is usually the environmental priorities that are sacrificed in favour of a short-term economic advantage. This type of approach to land use planning is not sustainable.

My report highlighted two major analyses related to the promotion of sound land use planning and the protection of ecological values in Ontario. We reported on the breadth of new initiatives related to municipal planning in southern Ontario and how most of the pieces of the puzzle fit together. The report argued that planning efforts must be significantly re-focused in the next decade if we are to begin creating truly sustainable urban and rural communities in southern Ontario.

The second major analysis reviewed the implications of land use planning choices – or the lack thereof – for northern Ontario. Crown land covers 87% of the province, so in fact we’re actually talking about most of the province. Yet, there are few land use planning mechanisms of any weight for Crown land that attempt to deal with issues in a comprehensive fashion. Indeed, the law governing planning for Crown land has changed little since its introduction in 1913 and its few provisions for land use plans have never been put into force. These facts should be of concern to Ontario’s professional planners.

In this article, I highlight some of the major issues relating to how Crown land is planned. Northern Ontario is a region of continental ecological significance and we have a duty to ensure that planning is adequately undertaken. It also is largely composed of Crown land. My report makes the case that northern Ontario’s unique and varied ecology merits at least the same standard of planning that applies to the rest of the province.

The establishment of a comprehensive land use planning system for northern Ontario is critical. It should ensure that future decision-making is guided by sound principles, public scrutiny, and a precautionary approach to environmental protection. If action is not taken soon to embrace a new vision for the north, the consequences may be grave.

Without effective planning, irreparable harm may be inflicted on the fragile northern environment. There are strong pressures to further open up this region to commercial forestry and power generation projects, as well as growing number of mineral development projects. Moreover, harm to the natural environment may have significant negative impacts on the long-term social and economic sustainability of many northern communities.

The Ontario government should properly plan and manage Crown lands on behalf of all Ontario residents. Several provincial ministries have important roles and responsibilities related to developing a comprehensive planning process for the north. Unfortunately, the ability of the ministries to effectively plan is seriously hampered by the absence of the necessary regulatory tools, mandates, and resources to meet this challenge.

Public concern is growing about how the northern part of the province is being managed. Many stakeholders – ranging from First Nations to forestry companies to conservation organizations – have been united in their calls for a new framework to protect much of the northern Ontario and to ensure that land use planning is completed in advance of industrial development. However, it is troubling that the Ontario government is resisting this tide of concern.

In my report, I highlight an application that was made under the Environmental Bill of Rights that requested the creation of a comprehensive land use planning system for northern Ontario. A wide array of evidence suggests that a new approach is warranted, including the need for:

  • incorporating ecological values into decision-making;
  • properly engaging and consulting First Nations communities and the public at large;
  • conducting thorough environmental assessments of proposed development projects;
  • designating new protected areas before resource allocations are made; and,
  • addressing the cumulative impacts of proposed developments.

The Ontario government responded that it does not believe that such change is warranted, because it believes that the various approval processes currently in place are adequate. I respectfully disagree.

Part II of New Directions for Planning in Ontario

The ECO staff team on this report was Christopher Wilkinson, B.E.S., M.E.S., Ph.D., MCIP, RPP, and Michelle Kassel, B.Sc., M.E.S., L.L.B.

For more information on these planning issues, please visit www.eco.on.ca. The conclusion will appear in the next issue. Steven Rowe, MCIP, RPP, environmental planner, is contributing editor for Environment.

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