_CKL9570.jpgHALTON 20220616

Southern Ontario’s challenge: increase housing without losing farmland

Golden Horseshoe municipalities have until July 1 to produce a growth plan that looks to 2051. Doug Ford's government prefers single-family housing, but some cities and regions are resisting urban sprawl

All through the spring election, Doug Ford’s incumbent government promised to build 1.5 million more homes across Ontario in the next 10 years. Having won a second term, it now has to deliver. 

No one is debating that Ontario needs housing, both for the people who live here now and to serve a rapidly growing population. According to the latest numbers from the Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation, Ontario needs to act even quicker than Ford’s pledge to restore affordability: 1.85 million new homes in the next nine years.

What’s controversial is how this housing gets built. At the core of that discussion is the province’s land-use Growth Plan, which outlines what areas of southern Ontario can and can’t be developed for housing and infrastructure.

Big cities and regional municipalities — which group neighbouring small cities and towns together — jump off the provincial Growth Plan to submit their own. The process is deeply important to Ontarians’ daily lives.

Growth plans are intertwined with federal and provincial immigration and transportation policy. They also determine how much funding municipalities receive for several years: money from provincial gas taxes, infrastructure dollars, investments in transit, hospitals, schools and more. That funding is especially needed in rural communities with low populations that can’t generate enough property tax revenue to provide basic services independently. 

Writing a growth plan is complex and technical — and has become a political football.

Since coming to power, Ford has made development his policy foundation, promising new highways, single-family homes and big condo complexes, often in the face of environmental backlash. His government has also dramatically changed the growth-planning process to make it easier to build new homes anywhere in the province — even in the Greenbelt and on scarce farmland. 

A June 2022 map of how southern Ontario municipalities have responded to the province's Growth Plan demands to increase housing. Map: Jeannie Phan / The Narwhal
This region of southern Ontario is known as the Greater Golden Horseshoe because of how it rings around Lake Ontario. As of late June 2022, this is how municipalities had responded to the provincial government’s directive to build single-family housing even if it requires eating up farmland or greenspace. Map: Jeannie Phan / The Narwhal

Ontario municipalities must review their growth plans every five years. They last did so in 2018, just before Ford took office, laying out their plans until 2041. But in 2020 — at the start of the pandemic — the province ordered municipalities to plan to 2051 instead, saying the push was to address the housing crisis. The draft deadline was also moved to 2022, not 2023. 

Overnight, cities had to double their work and shorten their deadlines. 

Meanwhile, Ford began rewriting Ontario’s Growth Plan through a series of omnibus bills that were criticized for a general lack of public consultation and an overuse of Minister’s Zoning Orders, which allow the province to rezone land and fast-track development that bypasses municipal consent and environmental studies. 

There were also many criticisms of the neglect for environmental considerations in land-use planning.  

“The Ontario government is just opening the floodgates for sprawl,” said Phil Pothen, Ontario program manager at Environmental Defence. “But every inch and acre of land that we can save by approving new homes in our existing neighbourhoods will be a huge win for food security and ecological sustainability.”

As a “stop sprawl” movement grows across Ontario, a string of frustrated cities, regions and towns have until July 1 to finalize their plans to handle population growth until 2051. No matter what they decide, the provincial government has final say: Ford’s minister of municipal affairs could veto any city’s plan or impose their own on municipalities that miss or choose to ignore the deadline. 

Here’s everything you need to know. 

I don’t live in Ontario — why should I care about how it grows?

Urban sprawl — the uncontrolled expansion of city development — runs counter to climate goals in many ways. Building housing far from employment centres entrenches dependency on cars, and transportation is already one Canda’s highest sources of carbon pollution. Transit projects take a long time to complete and won’t get everyone off the road, so a key solution is to create sustainable communities that get people walking around more easily. 

Figuring out how to house and service a rapidly growing population without creating more urban sprawl is a challenge municipalities face across Canada, especially the large, urbanized ones.

Sprawl also means the loss of precious greenspaces, and not just those used for recreation. It also threatens endangered species habitat and the headwaters of the creeks and rivers that flow into Lake Simcoe and Lake Ontario, which provide drinking water for hundreds of thousands of people. It diminishes local food security by eating up farmland. Once these lands are paved over, they’re paved over for good. 

When cities choose densification, they choose to protect agricultural land and greenspace and to control emissions. And with housing prices at record highs, there’s pressure to increase supply not just of housing, but housing most Ontarians can actually afford, another argument for density. 

Unprecedented growth, housing affordability and the climate emergency are tightly interconnected. How Canada’s most populous province approaches the intersection of these three will be a case study of how the good, the bad and the ugly of land-use planning determine the course of the climate emergency. 

What is Ontario’s Growth Plan, anyway? 

The Growth Plan for the Greater Golden Horseshoe is the foundation of provincial planning policy for the massive urban region in southwestern Ontario stretching from Collingwood to Niagara and from Waterloo to Peterborough. It became law in 2006 under Dalton McGuinty’s Liberals and has been updated regularly by successive governments.

In the process, the highly technical, incredibly consequential process of urban and rural growth planning has become a point of tension between municipalities and the province. 

The goal of the original Growth Plan was to set out a sustainable way to encourage and accommodate provincial population growth. The 2006 plan forecasted growth to 2021. Ford’s plan looks ahead to 2051, when the population of the Greater Golden Horseshoe is projected to nearly double to 14.9 million residents, as one in three new immigrants to Canada settles in the region. 

The original Growth Plan was designed to direct municipalities to plan for denser, more affordable, more transit-friendly development in ways that prioritize greenspaces and farmland but also taxpayer revenue. In practical terms, it directed how the new construction of homes could also fund water and sewer infrastructure and result in sustainable and walkable communities. 

This first Growth Plan was a game-changer in city building. It even won an award

Doug Ford.
As Doug Ford’s government rewrote Ontario’s Growth Plan, it was criticized for a lack of public consultation and an overuse of Minister’s Zoning Orders, which allow the province to bypass municipal consent and environmental studies to fast-track development. Illustration: Kagan McLeod / The Narwhal

How did Doug Ford change the Growth Plan?

Besides drastically altering the timeline, the Ford government significantly scaled back density targets. 

Under the original plan, 60 per cent of new development was supposed to occur in “built up areas,” with existing infrastructure, making intensification easier and preventing sprawl. The goal was to create “complete communities.” But the definitions of “built” and “complete” were left to each municipality’s interpretation, which caused problems almost from day one. Ford kept the vague goals but reduced the density target to 40 per cent. 

Ford also allowed municipalities to make proposals to expand their urban boundaries — which define where developable land ends and greenspace or farmland begins — whenever they wanted, not just during the planning process.

Ford’s version also gave the green light to development even if it wasn’t serviced by municipal water or wastewater services, a requirement of the original plan. This opened the door to more rural construction and the possibility of new Ontario neighbourhoods without basic services.  

All of these changes happened during a public health emergency, as municipalities were transitioning to work-from-home systems. COVID-19 also severely hampered the ability of city planners to hold traditional public consultations.

Has Ontario’s Growth Plan helped the province grow sustainably? 

We don’t know.

Last December, Ontario Auditor General Bonnie Lysyk found there has been little accountability or follow-through on whether the Growth Plan has achieved its goals. The provincial government has only analyzed the plan’s results once in the 16 years since it was first tabled. 

“Without up-to-date information on the outcomes and results, neither the ministry nor the public can determine whether the Growth Plan policies have been effective in achieving its vision to create communities that allow people to comfortably live, work and play while protecting the region’s natural heritage,” Lysyk wrote in her report

In the same report, Lysyk criticized the Ford government’s approach to growth, saying that its “numerous changes to land-use planning policies, insufficient collaboration between the ministry and other entities responsible for infrastructure planning, and the province’s intervention in municipalities … have undermined the goals of the Growth Plan.”

Cows and horses in Milton, Ont.
A farm in Milton, Ont. The province is losing 319 acres of farmland every day, and the push for more single-family housing raises the potential of losing even more, along with greenspace and endangered species habitat. Photo: Christopher Katsarov Luna / The Narwhal

What’s at stake as Ontario municipalities face the Growth Plan deadline?

There’s the potential for a massive increase in land opened to development across the region, which could lead to loss of farmland, greenspace and endangered species habitat. 

Ontario is losing 319 acres of farmland every day, mostly to development, according to the latest federal census of agriculture

“If we want to think about long-term strategy as we look at building new, sustainable cities and ensure there’s enough housing, we also have to look at how we are to serve the people that live in these growing communities, and that includes protecting farmland,” Peggy Brekveld, president of the Ontario Federation of Agriculture, told The Narwhal. 

There’s also the potential for sprawling communities of single-family homes whose occupants work far from where they live without good access to transit. Building Highway 413 — a $10 billion, 59-kilometre roadway running from Vaughan to the Peel Region — has been a central tenet of the Ford government’s approach to growth. 

According to exclusive reporting by The Narwhal, the highway would cut through three properties set aside for conservation — not one, as was previously reported — positioning it to cause irreversible environmental damage. 

What do big Ontario cities and regions want? 

Municipalities across southern Ontario are signalling that they’d like time and independence to decide how to build their communities. 

In late 2021, the regions of Durham and Halton each asked for a year-long extension to comprehensively complete studies, technical analyses and public consultation. The province denied these extensions and emphasized the powers available to the minister of municipal affairs to intervene if a plan wasn’t submitted. 

“The fact that municipalities have to rush means that opportunities for using land efficiently and avoiding environmental harm are being missed in this headlong rush to get five years of work done all from scratch in just two years,” Pothen said. 

Some municipalities are pushing back, including Halton Region, which voted in February against expanding its urban boundaries. The City of Hamilton also voted for a plan that urged “no urban boundary expansion,” choosing instead to intensify already available lands within city borders. Steve Clark, who is continuing on as minister of municipal affairs, threatened to reverse that decision by mandating sprawl beyond Hamilton’s urban boundary anyway. 

Housing in Hamilton, Ont.
The City of Hamilton voted to build more housing through density instead of expanding its urban boundaries. Minister of Municipal Affairs Steve Clark threatened to reverse that decision and mandate sprawl. Photo: Christopher Katsarov Luna / The Narwhal

Durham Region, for its part, endorsed a developer-led proposal in May to open 9,000 acres of farmland to development. The decision was made despite opposition from local planning staff who said the expansion is more than what the region needs to achieve its housing goals. 

Durham’s decision came a month after Peel Region approved a growth plan that would open about 11,000 acres of some of the best farmland in the country to development. The farmland is mostly in Caledon, but the region also includes the cities of Mississauga and Brampton and has one of the fastest growing populations in the province, housed largely in pricey single-family homes and reliant on congested highways to get around. 

North of Toronto, York Region voted last fall to allow development on 1,400 acres of protected Greenbelt farmland and greatly increase intensification in the Oak Ridges Moraine. It made that decision despite a lack of infrastructure, including for sewage

Other municipalities say the province’s directions are incomplete. In an April report, city planners in the Halton Region town of Oakville said they hadn’t been told how the provincial government would support the city’s growth plans with funding for schools, hospitals and transit. They also worried the province would approve development without consideration for local housing regulations or strategies. 

What do rural municipalities want from the Growth Plan? 

The 2006 Growth Plan didn’t recognize that 400 small towns and villages in the Greater Golden Horseshoe don’t have designated built-up areas. Ford’s version still doesn’t address small or rural centres.

“I think rural Ontario really needs its own lens and its own framework,” said Matthew Graham, deputy mayor of the Township of Cavan Monaghan, just west of Peterborough. He said the province treats all municipalities the same, disregarding individual growth and funding challenges, as well access to core infrastructure like water and sewage. 

Remote and rural municipalities are also growing quickly and the only development option many have is agricultural lands. This makes planning growth that harms the least amount of farmland essential. Yet they aren’t being allowed to define their own boundaries or make decisions about expanding or innovating their water and sewage services. They also aren’t able to take the lead in considering factors such as historical preservation or floodplain mapping.

Graham would like to see a growth-planning process that allows municipalities to create their own boundaries with some provincial monitoring, instead of the top-down, document-heavy, complex policy-laden approach that exists now. 

“At the end of the day, the amount of autonomy we have is really nil,” Graham said. “And the overarching planning decisions being made are completely counter to our needs.”

He says the provincial government is “condescending … as if municipal governments weren’t as educated or informed about what’s happening.” For years, his town has asked to be excluded from the purview of the provincial Growth Plan because of its rural nature, but has yet to get a single reply from the province.

“When you’re trying to solve riddles for populations of less than 10,000 and you’re bound by the same planning and growth rules for populations of a million-plus, there are inevitable inconsistencies or conflicts,” Graham said. “At the end of the day, where conflicts are created, there’s very little appetite for reconsideration or acknowledgement or resolution.”  

An aerial photo of Carruthers Creek as it passes by homes and drains in Lake Ontario.
Carruthers Creek winds through Ajax to drain into Lake Ontario. It’s a major watershed in the Greenbelt, but its headwaters remain unprotected. Photo: Toronto and Region Conservation Authority

The Town of Ajax, with a population of over 100,000, is subject to decisions made by the council for all of Durham Region, so Mayor Shaun Collier agrees. “This cookie-cutter approach and long-term crystal ball look is a useless exercise,” Collier said. 

The mayor of four years has vocally opposed development that would make his town more prone to flooding, or could damage ecologically sensitive areas like Carruthers Creek, a major Greenbelt watershed that remains unprotected. “The province should be looking more at our policies and listening to us. We know our municipalities best.”

To Collier, this heavy-handed approach actually slows the building of needed housing. The growth-planning process is deeply onerous and bureaucratic. Drafting a municipal growth plan takes years. It takes another a year or so for the province to approve or alter it. Then, the plan goes back to regions and municipalities for final approval and, hopefully, implementation. At minimum, it’s a five-year-long process. 

“If they’re really serious about housing, why don’t they accept the policies already in place? Give us a process or policy that would allow us to act quickly,” Collier said. “There are huge bottlenecks in my city right now. It’s the provincial red tape that’s a lot of the hold up.”

Phil Pothen.
Phil Pothen, Ontario program director for Environmental Defence, said the provincial government’s shortened timeline prevents municipalities from planning growth in a way that minimizes environmental damage. Photo: Ramona Leitao / The Narwhal

Why are some Ontarians angry about the Growth Plan? 

In Hamilton last fall, a group called Stop Sprawl Ham Ont helped persuade councillors to reject any expansion of the city’s urban boundaries, and focus on building denser housing on land already slated for development instead. In March, Stop Sprawl Halton helped convince Halton Region to vote against opening up farmland for new housing, and consider growing within the city boundaries instead. Similar movements in Peel, York, Durham, Simcoe County and Orillia haven’t been as successful but are burgeoning and persistent. 

While housing affordability remains top of mind for residents across Ontario, leaders of the stop sprawl movement question whose interests are being served with the current growth-planning process. 

“I think the answer tends to be landowner and developer interests,” said Claire Malcolmson, executive director of Rescue Lake Simcoe Coalition and Stop Sprawl York Region member. “If they want to do this right for average people and address what is clearly, I think, the biggest crisis, period, in Ontario right now, which is housing affordability, they’re going to have to engage properly with us and municipalities.” 

What happens next? 

Amendments to the provincial planning act made just before the June election allow Clark, who remains minister of municipal affairs, to extend the government’s time to make a decision on the plans, or to refer the plans to the Ontario Land Tribunal, which could bog them down in consultations for years. 

“After rushing municipalities to squeeze this in within two years, there’s no certainty that the province will finalize approval, particularly with a better plan with no sprawl, in a timely fashion,” Environmental Defence’s Pothen said. 

With municipal elections are coming up across Ontario in October, the pressure is on for local leaders to show their vision for sustainable, affordable growth while facing provincial pressures. This fall’s voters could define what municipalities look like for the next few decades.

Ultimately the final decision of what happens with development, housing, infrastructure and the protection of greenspace and farmland protection in Ontario rests in Clark’s hands. 

“With one swipe of the pen, the minister of municipal affairs can change the course of our cities,” Collier said. 

We hear it time and time again:
“These are the stories that need to be told and you are some of the only ones telling them,” John, a new member of The Narwhal, wrote in to say.

Investigating stories others aren’t. Diving deep to find solutions to the climate crisis. Sending journalists to report from remote locations for days and sometimes weeks on end. These are the core tenets of what we do here at The Narwhal. It’s also the kind of work that takes time and resources to pull off.

That might sound obvious, but it’s far from reality in many shrinking and cash-strapped Canadian newsrooms. So what’s The Narwhal’s secret sauce? Thousands of members like John who support our non-profit, ad-free journalism by giving whatever they can afford each month (or year).

But here’s the thing: just two per cent of The Narwhal’s readers step up to keep our stories free for all to read. Will you join the two per cent and become a member of The Narwhal today?
We hear it time and time again:
“These are the stories that need to be told and you are some of the only ones telling them,” John, a new member of The Narwhal, wrote in to say.

Investigating stories others aren’t. Diving deep to find solutions to the climate crisis. Sending journalists to report from remote locations for days and sometimes weeks on end. These are the core tenets of what we do here at The Narwhal. It’s also the kind of work that takes time and resources to pull off.

That might sound obvious, but it’s far from reality in many shrinking and cash-strapped Canadian newsrooms. So what’s The Narwhal’s secret sauce? Thousands of members like John who support our non-profit, ad-free journalism by giving whatever they can afford each month (or year).

But here’s the thing: just two per cent of The Narwhal’s readers step up to keep our stories free for all to read. Will you join the two per cent and become a member of The Narwhal today?

Wet’suwet’en Hereditary Chiefs hosted a Peace and Unity gathering. RCMP made arrests

This week Wet’suwet’en Hereditary Chiefs welcomed a delegation from across the country and beyond to the yintah (territory) for a Peace and Unity Summit. Through...

Continue reading

Recent Posts

Support investigative journalism you won't find anywhere else
Support investigative journalism you won't find anywhere else
We’re breaking news in Ontario
The Narwhal’s Ontario bureau is telling environment stories you won’t find anywhere else. Keep up with the latest scoops by signing up for a weekly dose of our independent journalism.
We’re breaking news in Ontario
The Narwhal’s Ontario bureau is telling environment stories you won’t find anywhere else. Keep up with the latest scoops by signing up for a weekly dose of our independent journalism.
Overlay Image