Planning with Intention? It’s time for new dialogue…

Planning with Intention? It’s time for new dialogue…

Anyone that lives in a large urban area no doubt appreciates the challenges that comes with city living – traffic congestion, lengthy commutes and the sad state of transit infrastructure that would actually allow you to experience all that city living has to offer. Living in the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area (GTAH), I see firsthand the impact of steady growth and expansion of the region both in terms of population and employment. There’s a reason we say we have two seasons – winter and construction!!

While the growth of this region provides significant economic benefits, I would hazard a guess that most of the people that live in the region don’t give a second thought to the impact of this growth – the need to fund new infrastructure and the ongoing obligation to renew and replace aging infrastructure. They are also not thinking of the impact of that this growth and underinvestment on many of the near urban and rural communities across the GTAH.

So where am I going with this? I recently read an excerpt from a presentation made by Ms. Jennifer Keesmat, Chief Planner for the City of Toronto to the University of Alberta’s City-Region Studies Centre. The talk entitled “Place-Making and the Politics of Planning” spoke to the need to plan with intention to “create spaces that are useful, aesthetically pleasing and adaptable to our changing needs and demographics”. Seems reasonable you say, and I would agree. However, she also suggested that Ontario’s greenbelt, described by Keesmat as a “large swathe of green that surrounds the GTAH”, was recognition that the region’s waterways and greenfields were part of the region’s and Province’s place-making efforts and need to be protected. The result, she concluded was that urban form in the cities was transformed overnight. What struck me about these comments was the blatant lack of appreciation of the urban-rural municipalities that comprise the greenbelt – their economies or their growth challenges, beyond providing the region’s larger urban areas with greenspace and a quaint countryside experience on the weekend for city-dwellers.

Many of these near urban and rural municipalities are at a critical tipping point. Constrained in their abilities to generate revenues through development charges, user fees, and non-residential tax assessment, there is an increasing number of communities may face desperate financial circumstances over the next several years as population and employment reaches the Province’s projected levels across the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area.  Existing economic and land use policy – including the Province’s GreenBelt Plan has limited the potential to generate revenues and support economic development that will offer the municipalities more sustainable sources of funding to accommodate growth and infrastructure investment, generate local employment, maintain existing levels of service and quality of life, and achieve longer-term fiscal sustainability.

Don’t get me wrong, left to our own devices we would probably continue with a pattern of development that at its best could be called urban sprawl. It seems to me though, that a new dialogue is needed between our cities, our rural communities and the Province around how we really plan with intention in this region – a dialogue that balances the need for sustainable development across the whole region and the circumstances that are now emerging in the communities that make up the GTAH countryside.