Greater Golden Horseshoe Greenbelt and Auditor General’s Report

Greenbelt Plan Map, 2022 (

When the Ontario Auditor General’s Special Report on Changes to the Greenbelt was released on August 9th, 2023, the impact was felt across the Toronto region. I study greenbelts (I have written several articles and a book chapter, and was on the Ontario Greenbelt Council for 10 years) but never had I witnessed so many people discussing the Greenbelt and what it means to them. On one hand, the Greenbelt Foundation consistently finds that nine out of ten people in Ontario support the Greenbelt, so I shouldn’t have been surprised that neighbours and friends were interested in talking to me about the fate of the Greenbelt. The call in show on CBC Ontario Today (August 10, 2023) was jam-packed with callers interested in discussing the politics of conservation and planning with The Narwhal reporter Fatima Syed, who is covering the issue.

The Auditor General’s report is absolutely damning to the current government, finding the actions of the Premier highly objectionable, bordering perhaps on racketeering. The pressure did not let up as the media through editorials and follow-up articles continued to ask questions of the government.

The Greenbelt lands in the end were not removed by the Premier and the Greenbelt Plan is today perhaps stronger than ever (Bill 136 passed December 6, 2023). Phew!

My remaining concern is that urban planning, although represented well in the Auditor General’s report (she includes a solid history of the Greenbelt and description of the planning process), was not really visible in the discussions that people have come forward with. The changes to the Greenbelt were a deliberate attack on the planning process, which was (and still is in many ways) overridden.

Planning is not very visible to most people, even though the process to plan, approve, and build just about anything takes a lot of time and effort. As a planner, I offer the following thoughts arising from the Greenbelt debacle from a planning perspective.

Planning is a black box to most people. Understandably (as with many types of professions), most people don’t realize extensive processes is going on behind the scenes until they see the impact of those processes. In the case of planning, the impact of planning processes that people see is land being cleared and building construction starting. So many considerations go into deciding where and when lands should be developed, to make sure that we still have natural processes to support life in and around cities (clean water, stormwater management, clean air, wildlife in some sort of balance), and to make sure that when people move in to their houses or apartments the infrastructure to support their lives is largely in place. The “red tape” of the planning process is to ensure that there will be roads, sidewalks, parks, clean water flowing from taps, electricity hooked up so the lights go on, and to make sure the sewers are working, waste will be picked up, and more.

North Oakville shown as the Town of Oakville’s new urban area. Note the green Greenbelt lands in the northwest corner (

In many new communities, the process takes years. In Oakville, the new urban area of North Oakville from the start of planning to new construction took 20 years, I studied the plans as they emerged for this new urban area north of Dundas Street in Oakville (and a bit in Burlington). The regional study that identified North Oakville as the next growth area began in the early 1990s (maybe even earlier? I worked on the Halton Urban Structure Plan completed in 1994). The land use plans were approved in the late 2000s. The first time I saw homes being built was in 2011. Is the process too long? Maybe. Certainly as planners we should be working in a timely manner to make sure that we are focusing on doing the studies, coordinating work, and negotiating plans.

In southern Ontario, if you own a property and you wish to use it for something else, you go through a process that is set out. If approved, you get in a queue according to the phasing of infrastructure as this must precede building. Planning for water and wastewater infrastructure is an enormous task; building that infrastructure is also huge in terms of money and labour. My understanding is that there are many homes in the queue in southern Ontario already, just waiting for infrastructure, as detailed in the Regional Planning Commissioners report by Hemson. The process may be imperfect, but generally fair, as all property owners and developers generally go through the same steps.

Ford in the Greenbelt fiasco attempted to upend the process. He knowingly and deliberately tried to help a handful of developers to jump the queue. We have a process (a putatively first-come, first-served line for approvals) where it’s deliberately difficult to go to your local politician and make a deal. Ford actions are the kind of racketeering that the entire process is meant to suppress. His actions—in addition to the Greenbelt land removal attempt—include: his Minister’s Zoning Orders (MZOs), his clawing back the environmental oversight of the Conservation Authorities, his decision to get rid of regional municipalities (going against all best planning principles about the need for municipalities to cooperate about service provision beyond their own boundaries; and noting that the Regional Planning Commissioners were the ones that the Auditor General went to for info on the 1.5 million homes!), and getting rid of the Growth Plan (the plan that set very high intensification targets and created a more measured urban boundary expansion process to prevent sprawl).

I’m especially concerned about the Non-Disclosure Agreements (NDAs) for those working in the Ministry of Municipal Affairs (p. 33 of the report).  Is there anything that screams “not ethical” more than an NDA (NDAs are meant, I think, to cover up the effects of entitled people behaving badly). Regarding the NDAs, I have great discomfort because I am concerned about the difficulties that must have been faced by the province’s planners (especially if any are Registered Professional Planners), who have an ethical responsibility to act in the public interest.

Ford almost wept in the news conference on August 9th about the housing needs of new Canadians, but what about access to nature? local food? climate change impacts? People want to come to Ontario because of the quality of life. Without conserving the lands that support our health, everyone’s quality of life will be diminished (see Syed’s article on the same). How can we ask people to live in high-rise buildings if we do not offer them public spaces and natural areas to visit? Nothing tells the tale more about the need to have more areas for natural heritage conservation and recreation than the overloaded Greenbelt trails and conservation areas in the summer and fall, where many public areas now require reservations.

Ford has succeeded in doing the opposite of the actions needed to build new housing and communities as he has set the planning process topsy-turvy. He instead could invest directly in infrastructure needed to fast-track water servicing for approved areas (as the Regional Planning Commissioners concluded).

He could fixe the planning process by creative means. He could work with planners to create better local negotiation processes for development approvals (less combative, more collaborative, more mediation). Today, city councillors (and interest groups) can delay smaller infill and intensification developments, which discourages smaller “missing middle” housing. No wonder we only have a few big developers (a colleague of mine called them an “oligopoly”) as it’s so difficult to be so financially leveraged over so many years waiting to get anything built.

Planning cities and the regions around them is not easy. Waving a magic wand and changing the designation of lands from “protected” to “next in line for development” through nepotism is surely a planning crime. Balancing diverse opinions about what should be built in a place and how is not easy. There’s no doubt room for improvement, even so. The havoc created over the past few years has made the process worse, not better.

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Top 10 Books for New Planning Students

Students often ask me what planning books they should be reading, especially when they are beginning their graduate studies in planning at York (and curiously, when they are about to finish).

Incoming students are typically interested in issues related to the natural environment and planning, social justice and planning (especially affordable housing), and sustainable alternatives to suburban planning and design (retrofitting, “smart growth”, new urbanism, transit-oriented development (TOD) and more).

Many students often ask for my suggestions during the summer months, which makes me think that there is more room for books that are less “textbooks” and—okay maybe not quite a “beach read”—but at least a pleasure to read. So the list is below to get you started.

I’ve not included favourite articles from scholarly journals, as these are typically not easily available without having access to the library system.

As a Canadian planner and geography scholar, I dearly would like to only suggest Canadian books to incoming students. But so much of the writing on planning theory comes from either the United States or Britain, as you’ll see from the list. If you’ve travelled, you’ll know southern Ontario seems similar in many ways to the US and UK, especially in terms of shared popular culture and similar road and settlement layouts.

But the US persists in having so much of governance at the local level, without strong regional government the way we are used to in Ontario (where the province has the responsibility for land-use planning, which is downloaded to municipalities). So what? Much of the US writing is about trying to cope with wicked problems, like watersheds and mobility, which ignore political boundaries, where much of the “integrated” work is more possible in Ontario because of the province’s involvement. The UK has even more centralised oversight over planning policy but seemingly a lot of latitude locally over development approvals within that). The UK also deals more with the European context of urban vs rural tensions in planning (still pre-Brexit).

For students interested in environment and planning, I would suggest reading Michael Hough’s Cities and Natural Process (1995) I keep assigning it in class even though it is becoming quite dated because students seem to get a lot from it. He captures the sense of working with the landscape that has so influenced my interest in landscape and planning (he was one of my FES major paper supervisors).

Anne Whiston Spirn’s The Granite Garden (1984) is a readable introduction to thinking about the choices we make when shaping the natural landscape in cities. She is a prolific writer and has an interesting website, which is worth the visit:

I thoroughly enjoy reading Witold Rybczynski’s A Clearing in the Distance (2000) about the life and work of Frederick Law Olmsted, one of the first landscape architects. The book is a good read, especially the bit about the making of Central Park in Manhattan.

On social justice, I would suggest starting with a couple of geography books: City of Quartz (1998) by Mike Davis and Social Justice and the City by David Harvey (Revised 2009). Davis’s book is about Los Angeles and the chasm between the lived environments of rich and poor people and the role planners (and many others) have played in inscribing inequity in the region’s landscape. Harvey’s book, especially, I think, Chapter 3 on territorial distributive justice, can be eye-opening in thinking through the stark divisions between income and race in US cities.

I also very much like the introduction to Incomplete Streets (2014) edited by Stephen Zevestoski and Julian Agyeman. I suggest it to students interested in transportation planning and those who are interested in the concept of “complete streets” as a way to try to balance accommodating the cars in our cities with the needs of, well, everything else. This book provides a critique of complete streets, only because design can’t fix everything that’s wrong with urban life—the problem is more complex, of course.

And the suburbs: every new student loves to hate the suburbs. So, for the suburban critique and its alternatives:

Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities: published in 1961, it is still referred to often in just about everything. I like the book. She had good ideas. Jacobs became a Canadian (left the States with her sons during the Vietnam war). She is famous for her ideas about “eyes on the street” and reusing old buildings. And she was a harsh critic of the Modern architecture and the Modern flat-earth planning approach of the time. Yes, many of her ideas are worthy of thinking about today but surely, more than 50 years later, we can suggest people read something else? But yes, you should probably read it (and I mean really read it; I suspect many who use Jacobs so glowingly in their tweets have not).

Kevin Lynch is scholar from the same era as Jacob’s writing and I find his ideas to be very compelling. He is known for his book, Image of the City (1960) where he explored the idea of using mental maps to understand how people think about and navigate their city. His book Good City Form (1984) is an easy-to-read journey through ideas around urban settlement forms and planning history. My favourite because of my interest in the way we shape our landscapes and then how they shape our own lives is What Time is this Place? (1972). Of course, these books seem out-of-date today in the sense that he was an east coast white male professor working at MIT and writing before we had the discussions about profound inequality of race, gender and income in accessing and belonging to city spaces. Nonetheless, today I find his ideas and approaches to be potentially emancipatory if taken up and used by planners to think empathetically about how others use space, and then to make the city more legible and accessible.

Dolores Hayden, Building Suburbia (2009) is a great introduction to the making of North American suburbs. I especially like Hayden’s focus on landscape and settlement patterns created by the myriad of choices people make about their everyday lives.

Peter Hall’s Cities of Tomorrow (originally published in 1988 but now in its Fourth Edition, 2014; Sir Peter Hall has since passed away, so this will be the last one edited by him): still a classic and still represents the narrative planners learn about the eras of city building and change and the issues around them. The book isn’t without its problems: the focus is very much about British and American male perspectives of history and change but the sense of the eras that cities have gone through is worth the (mostly) engaging read.

And, because I can’t help but suggest a couple of textbooks:

I recommend Planning Canadian Communities by Gerald Hodge & David Gordon (6th edition; 2013). The only text that describes how Canadian planning is carried out, and some historical context of how we got where we are.

Canadian Cities in Transition is a series of textbooks produced by faculty at the University of Waterloo. A great introduction to contemporary topics having to do with Canadian cities. Each edition is different, however, so it’s worthwhile to look through the tables of contents for chapters related to your areas and places of interest. The 6th edition was published in 2015.

Above all, read the landscape around you and think about what your city (suburb, exurb, countryside) means to you! What do you want to know more about?

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Greenbelt Plan Review

With a focus on the Greenbelt, here are my thoughts on the Crombie Advisory Panel Report

Planning for Health, Prosperity and Growth in the Greater Golden Horseshoe: 2015-2041: Recommendations of the Advisory Panel on the Coordinated Review of the Growth Plan, the Greenbelt Plan, the Oak Ridges Moraine Conservation Plan and the Niagara Escarpment Plan

Advisory Panel Report, Dec. 2015

Advisory Panel Report, December 2015

The Greenbelt is here to stay. Ten years ago, when the Greater Golden Horseshoe Greenbelt Plan was first put into place, I was doubtful as to whether the plan would survive a provincial election, the day-to-day challenges of policy implementation, or local politics generally.

Today, ten years later, an Advisory Panel has released a very positive report on its findings of a public consultation process to hear what the public had to say on the state of planning in the Greater Golden Horseshoe (the large urban region centred on Toronto, or GGH for short). The Panel was appointed by the province to review the GGH plans, including the Greenbelt Plan. The report is surprisingly large: it is 177 pages in total, with 87 recommendations. The recommendations are intended to guide provincial staff in proposing plan amendments in the short term—the review of the plans’ policies was the impetus for the entire process—but the recommendations are also directed towards longer-term goals to generally improve growth management in the region. As David Crombie, the Chair of the Advisory Panel, writes, “many of the challenges facing the region cannot be addressed solely through land use planning”, and so also considered are coordination between provincial ministries, supporting municipalities, and how to find the money to pay for the actions recommended.

The report supports the province’s approach to planning in the GGH. This should be no surprise for a couple or three reasons.

First, the formal audience for the report is the Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing and the Minister of Natural Resources and Forestry, both of whom are part of a majority Liberal government elected in 2014. The existence of the Greenbelt was not an election issue and it continues to have widespread support (93% of people in Ontario support it). Therefore, the Panel could wish big and focus on ways to improve planning in the GGH, without having to justify it.

Second, the Panel was provided with a discussion document, prepared by provincial staff, which included a set of questions that ended up structuring discussion at the town hall meetings held by the Advisory Panel. The themes in the Panel’s report are very similar to the themes put forward in the discussion document. The themes are: building complete communities, support agriculture, protecting natural and cultural heritage, providing infrastructure, mainstreaming climate change, and implementation. You might argue that these are perennial issue for contemporary land use planning anywhere so what divergent themes could they have had? You might be right.

Third, planning in the GGH has been shaped by the findings of the report Regeneration: Toronto’s waterfront and the sustainable city, published back in 1995, which was the culmination of a tonne of work by the Royal Commission on the Future of the Toronto Waterfront, also led by David Crombie. This report was the foundation for the ecosystem approach to planning, which came to be reflected in the Provincial Policy Statement and thus in the policy framework of almost every municipal official plan. Truly, we live in David Crombie’s Toronto (respect for the state; belief in the public interest; big picture perspective in environment and time), and I’m thankful for it!

The Panel was also supportive because of what it did not do: it didn’t recommend that the three greenbelt plans be consolidated. The Greenbelt is actually a bundle of three plans: the Niagara Escarpment Plan, the Oak Ridges Moraine Conservation Plan, and the Greenbelt Plan, which is essentially a Protected Countryside designation. (Together with the Growth Plan, the Greenbelt was designed to rein in urban sprawl in order to prevent the loss of farmland and green space, and to improve air and water quality in the region.) I wondered if there would be support for collapsing the three plans into one but the Panel did not recommend consolidation; this would have been partly for optics (the policy framework for the Greenbelt is confusing for someone unfamiliar with the vagaries of Ontario planning), and to improve implementation (landowners looking to change the use of their lands, and municipal planners have to navigate between the different plans, policies, and processes for considering approvals).

Even though the plans will not be consolidated, the report lists policies that need to be harmonized. These include, for example, agricultural terminology (Rec 33), natural heritage policies (Rec 44), green infrastructure and low impact development (Rec 56); and climate change mitigation and adaptation (Rec 67).

What do we need to watch out for next? In terms of the recommendations, there are three areas that I think proposed plan amendments or other changes will address in the near future:

Climate Change

The Panel clearly heard that there is an increased awareness of climate change. Planning has an important role in creating a region where emissions are reduced and where vulnerabilities to extreme weather are expected, e.g., flooding and drought, overheating and freezing. As a result, the Panel recommends (Recs 54, 55) upper and lower-tier municipalities prepare climate change plans, if they haven’t already (or integrate climate change policy into their official plans) and undertake climate change vulnerability assessments (i.e., what areas have a perfect storm…no pun intended…of highest flood risk, aging infrastructure, poor accessibility, and vulnerable residents) and prepare stormwater management plans (Rec 54, 55).

Tougher protection for the environment and agricultural across the GGH region

The Panel discusses the idea of “the Greenbelt approach”, by which they mean the systems approach to conservation used in the Protected Countryside. The Panel recommends creating an integrated agricultural system (Rec 28) and extending natural heritage system policies (Rec 44) and water resource policies (Rec 40) to non-Greenbelt lands within the Growth Plan area. This may mean that the province will use the Greenbelt designation to protect greenlands beyond the existing Greenbelt but that remains to be seen. While natural heritage systems have been used for many years to organize environmental conservation in some municipalities, the idea of an agricultural system is profound. Greater protection of farmland has been coming for years, most recently with “prime agricultural areas” figuring more strongly in the PPS. How it plays out will be interesting.

Boundary challenges

The Panel did not address boundary changes to plan areas proposed by either individual landowners or municipalities. Rather, they recommend (73) boundary changes be considered only in the context of municipal planning processes that consider settlement area expansions and/or review official plan policies. The Niagara Escarpment Commission is also supporting boundary changes to its plan area (expansions, I think, I haven’t looked into those). Depending on what area of the GGH you’re interested in, some changes may be seen in the future.

The Greater Golden Horseshoe (p. 20)

The Greater Golden Horseshoe (p. 20)

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Jane’s Walk: Cool enough for school!

If you’ve been a tourist in a city other than your hometown, you may have taken an outdoor tour of an interesting place. But have you ever thought of doing your own? How about a Jane’s Walk? Or, even better, how about the kids in your neighbourhood leading Jane’s Walk? If you teach (or your kids take) geography, civics, drama or if you just like to get out of the classroom, consider the fun of a Jane’s Walk.

Here‘s everything you need to get started.

Jane who? Jane Jacobs!

Jane Jacobs was an urbanist and she was a writer. An urbanist is someone who is intensely interested in cities and how they work. The Globe and Mail called her “one of the most influential urban-planning theorists of our time” (May 4/07, G14). In 1961, she wrote about her observations of planning and change in New York City as she watched Parks Commissioner Robert Moses raze neighbourhoods to make way for highways. She wrote a scathing criticism about post-WWII planning in The Death and Life of Great American Cities. You can read a great bio here. She was a great inspiration for me as she was incredibly pragmatic and understood the idea of landscape and how people and their environments can co-create each other. I went to hear her talk whenever I could.

A few years ago, Jane Farrow gave rise to a revolution in everyday urbanism by spearheading “Jane’s Walks” with the Centre for City Ecology in Toronto. She wanted people in Toronto to tell their own stories of their city–of the places they cherish, of the spaces they inhabit and find meaning in. She was super-keen on getting children in on the action and I helped (along with Tim Groves) to pilot the Jane’s Walk School Edition.

It is still going strong and this year they’re looking for new animators to bring Jane’s Walks into the classrooms. If you are interested check it out!

Jane’s Walks are held every first weekend in May, Jane’s birthday was May 4th  (she passed away in November 2006) but you can hold your walk anytime.

Students from Notre Dame Secondary School in Brampton animate their Jane's Walk

Students from Notre Dame Secondary School in Brampton animate their Jane’s Walk

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Paper Towns

PaperTowns2009_6A-198x300Paper towns” in John Green’s 2008 novel of the same name are places that exist on paper but not in real life. The story takes Quentin, at the moment of his high school graduation, to many paper towns in the Orlando area and finally to a fake town on a map in New York State in search of Margo, his next door neighbour and unrequited love. The paper towns in Florida are failed suburban subdivisions that live as plans on paper and are even shown on local maps.

I have a slide entitled “Paper City” in one of my powerpoint presentations that I use to teach planning students. The idea is that to fully understand city landscapes, one has to be aware of the paper city, which is contained in planning studies, policies of local councils, and approved development applications. In Ontario, every municipality (city, township, county) has a comprehensive plan with a map showing the area of that municipality in terms of its land use (residential, retail, employment, open space and parks) and that map is a combination of the “real” lived material landscape of buildings, roads, and trees we see and experience every day along with an imagined future for that same landscape–the paper city. The imagined paper city in a comprehensive plan is aspirational, a better place. Property owners who wish to make changes to the use of their land have to look at that map and see how their plans fit with the planned future city. As planners, the paper city sometimes seems as real as the real city.

A friend of mine was looking out over the rooftops of Toronto with me. It was a long view all the way across the leafy neighbourhoods, condos and office buildings. He commented on how random the placement of tall buildings was and how weirdly dispersed everything seemed to him. I realized that my same view included my mental map of the paper city from reading dozens of reports and looking at dozens of maps over the years. The paper city in my head overlaid the material city in my view and the result was not random at all.

I enjoyed reading Paper Towns because Green gets the connection between the places the characters inhabit and their identities. Margo’s character is a paper girl because she sees her better self in terms of her aspirational self, the plans for whom she writes in her moleskin journal. But, in the story, she runs away from the real world to a fictitious place invented by a cartographer because she understands that “The people are the place is the people” (291). For her to comfortably inhabit her real world, the suburbs of Orlando, her parents and her high school clique would have to change. Instead she inhabits an aspirational world, where she spends her time plotting out a better world, where, like an urban planner, if you can change the place, you can change the people.

Beware planning students:

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Still working on my article about the landscapes of Toronto’s apartment towers but in the meantime…

Spacing’s Shawn Micallef believes a Brutalist-architecture renaissance is upon us, according to his article in the Toronto Star.

Is it possible that Toronto’s apartment towers will be cool? Gentrified? Much focus of late on the towers as spaces of “vertical poverty” surrounded by vacant fenced land paints a picture of Le Corbusier’s failed dream to reinvent the crowded city. But today’s crowded city (with clean water; sewage treatment; waste collection; distant heat and light sources; etc.) does not crave sunlight and air in the same way. But perhaps it yearns to reinvent itself, too.

For example, check out the recent article in Satellite Magazine by tower-renewal evangelist Graeme Stewart (with Josh Thorpe and ERA boss Michael McClelland) for a reflection on Toronto’s love/hate relationship with tall buildings, past and present.

1960s High Modernism: Uno Prii’s Jane Exbury towers

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Nature in the city is a fascinating view into Toronto’s future. The effect of seeing the collection of (all?) development proposals underway in the city and region is at once thrilling and terrifying. Toronto is transforming before our eyes. We are in the throes of the potential total recreation of the downtown.

From blog post

From blog post

Will this transformation be integrated within the natural processes of the Toronto bioregion? Will the city feel like it’s a part of nature?

Nature in the city? Will this new Toronto be a city that works within natural processes (sunlight, wind, water, heat, habitat) or not?

As Michael Hough wrote in his book Cities and Natural Process (2004), new buildings and spaces should be designed as a part of nature, to work with nature, to celebrate it.

I did find one development proposal in Burlington, where the blog author suggested: “The incorporation of nature into architecture is often sought after in people-centered development”. Crazy, really, that he admits that most development proposals aren’t really people-centred. What’s mostly crazy is that “nature” is being used to market this proposed development because it has windows on the lake but there is nothing in the design to suggest that it is designed with nature. Another lost opportunity.

Image from blog post

Image from blog post

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Tom Slater’s Top 10 Books

It’s never easy to make a top 10 list of influential books but here is a terrific list for urban studies folks.

What are yours?

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NASA’s view of sprawl

Town of Old Saybrook, Connecticut from satellite and part of larger project for better use of satellite data to track urban-rural change.











Amazing sight/site for students of sprawl!

Views of urbanization and its impacts from space.


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Toronto Chief Planner’s Roundtable on “Next Generation” Suburbs

What are we going to do with the suburbs?”

What is it about the suburbs that makes planning for them seem so difficult?

Why do we need a roundtable on what to do with the suburbs?



Toronto’s new Chief Planner, Jennifer Keesmaat, on April 2, 2013, hosted the third in a series of public roundtables on the City of Toronto’s suburbs, which are largely classic post-war, automobile-oriented, master-planned communities in the former cities of North York, Scarborough and Etobicoke.

What is it about suburban planning that is so difficult? Planned and built based on an idea of family lifestyles and neighbourhood life, post-war suburbs were consciously designed to offer internal pedestrian and cycling comfort, yet to be connected to the rest of the world by highways. Today they offer: peace; some measure of homeowner control; interaction with a wilder form of nature (not just plants grown in pots); recognizable neighbours; and (in the Toronto area) a real estate asset. Increased densities in the past 20 years have produced newer suburbs in the cities beyond the boundaries of the City of Toronto and while these homes are more tightly packed (smaller lots but bigger houses), perhaps they share these same basic attributes.

Whenever I come to planning meetings in the centre of the City, in this case to a boardroom at Toronto City Hall, I am surprised how it feels like the command centre of a large starship: people are in control of what they know, but they really don’t understand what’s going on in the remote outposts.

Thanks to the work of the Global Suburbanisms project, the suburbs are on the map. As David Gordon, Planning Program Director at Queen’s so adamantly stated at a recent OPPI session: stop saying that Canada is 80% urban because so much of it is actually suburban [or exurban].

But the problem of “what to do with Toronto’s suburbs” is not so easily addressed and the complexity of the issues at stake was evident at the roundtable discussion.

I was interested in the use of the idea and concept of “city-building” among the speakers at the roundtable.

But what about the emphasis on experts as those on the panel, privileged to speak? To my mind, these were not the only people involved in “day-to-day” city-building. Conceptually, city-building is looking to use talent to make the world a better place. John Lorinc discussed the concept of city-building at a recent CITY talk at York. He said that Toronto’s city-builders are “architects, planners, developers, local politicians, citizens”. All these folks were at the panellists’ table, except the citizens, although many were present.

I very much like the idea of the roundtables. Rather than Keesmaat only being briefed individually, it’s done in public so that everyone can see what each organization or agency is bringing forward as their current “ask” or current concerns.

Why then does it remind me of an audience of royalty where the chief advisors provide advice in public and people are permitted to come and discuss what they are doing? Perhaps because there’s not enough critical engagement of the presentations. I would encourage more of a townhall approach in the future where people in the peanut gallery are able to voice their own questions of the panel (not just pass notes to Keesmaat). I was also surprised that even by this third roundtable, Keesmaat was not yet testing her ideas about how to deal with issues by posing pointed questions to the panellists that might test her preferred paths forward. Instead, she relied on She questions from the audience (but of course these would have reflected her own mind set at that moment).

The issue of tall buildings and stable suburbs was raised. The Etobicoke councillor said, “I don’t want to be in one big Toronto that will all be 50 stories tall”. Following the meeting, I met an evangelist from Code Blue West Toronto, a group fighting the condoification of Mimico in south Etobicoke. While I had spent much time with the Motel Strip Secondary Plan some years ago, I had not been closely following the Mimico story. The Secondary Plan went to community council on April 9th and they decided to defer approval because of the community outcry. One building in the adjacent Motel Strip is proposed at 64 stories, what the heck? Along similar lines, the Bloor West Village Association is concerned with the condo heights of proposed developments along Bloor West, a cherished shopping street. While a couple of new buildings have gone in at appropriate 8ish storey heights, new buildings are being proposed to be much higher. The Humbertown Plaza on Royal York just north of Dundas also have a proposal for buildings with heights of up to 35? stories.

Tall buildings do not good neighbourhoods make. They are terrific in some places, great architectural icons, and attractive places for investment. As neighbours, they can be awful: while I’m not sure if anyone knows for sure, many of Toronto’s new condos downtown are rentals (what of the condo corporation if everyone’s an absentee landowner?), many places are not continuously occupied, the ground floor of new monolithic buildings replaces the Toronto street typology of retail with upper floor office and flats (which in older buildings have learned over time how to be good spaces) with blank walls and with flat glass retail space (without the semi-public entryways of older buildings), often with spaces owned by fewer, larger tenants. I’m uneasy that intensification means high rises and may do more (local) harm than (regional) good.

At the roundtable, Roger Keil discussed the invisibility of the suburbs to most of the downtown crowd. The suburbs are a different place, he said. Clearly, his comments resonated with the audience as he was the only member of the panel to be enthusiastically applauded. Following his remarks, there was a shift in the mood of the room as it became quite evident that the expert panelists were discussing what was for them an “unknowable place” (which he playfully referred to as Modor from The Lord of the Rings). He said the suburbs are a place apart from their “wealthy, creative neighbours” (which I think he was alluding to the downtown stereotype of the “hipster cyclist” Torontonian). As he has said elsewhere, investment in the suburbs has opened up room for reinvestment but at the hands of the landowners who disinvested in the first place.

Where were the suburban community city-builders? What does a suburban city-builder look like? They are a citizen leader, a resident of their neighbourhood, often very articulate, often brown, surviving project-by-project in a changemaking role on grants and donations. For many immigrants in the suburbs, Toronto represents a society of false promises, a city that does not comprehend how the built environment shortchanges people when it could empower them. Instead of being supported by the state to make change, changemakers are faced with a state that judges the quality of their proposals for city-building and decides–from one year to the next–whether to fund their good deeds. As Paul Hess, Professor and Director of the Planning Program at the University of Toronto said, “the human capital [in the suburbs] is inspiring and people are not finding a way to plug into the system, allowing them to express their own capacity, many of whom do want to stay in those neighbourhoods…where the physical environment is depressing… and [in spite of everything] are very engaged”.

The “next generation” of the postwar suburbs is certainly at hand but with Toronto’s unique development history (with a very high proportion of high rises; with contiguous suburbs, many of them rigidly master-planned), it is going to play out very differently here than in the US (where suburban retrofitting is the subject of much interest in urban planning, such as Tachieva’s Sprawl Repair Manual or Dunham-Jones’ Retrofitting Suburbia). Brian Tuckey of BILD discussed how he thought the next big thing would be “recycling existing houses” through redevelopment and intensification.

Is the City set up to fight so many house-by-house battles? What are we going to do with the suburbs? Who will make the difference? How do planners–beginning with the Chief Planner–fit in?

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