Regional Coordination is Critical to the Prosperity of the GTHA in the 21st Century

by Marcy Burchfield

The Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area (GTHA), on the surface, is beginning to act like a region, best exhibited by the recent bid for Amazon’s second headquarters by the newly formed regional agency, Toronto Global. Charged with attracting foreign direct investment to the Toronto region, Toronto Global was able to accomplish the difficult task of satisfying local municipal interests while emphasizing the assets of the region as a whole. Infused throughout the bid was the idea that in the 21st century, the city-region is the geography that matters most in competition on the global stage.

Another building block that contributes to a nascent regionalism is a planning framework developed over two decades that has been embraced by provincial governments of different political stripes. Commitment to this framework speaks to the need for regional coordination on many fronts, from economic development to land use, infrastructure, and transit planning.

But a closer look at our regional transportation and land use plans and their implementation reveals the precarious nature of our regional ambitions, steeped as they are in a constitutionally enshrined parent-child relationship between the Province and municipalities.

This relationship is often characterized as a balance between the heavy hand of the Province and greater local autonomy for municipalities. In practice, this relationship has involved a waxing and waning of provincial interest in regional planning beginning with the creation of the Metropolitan Toronto Planning Board in 1954, considered the only regional planning body the region has had, and provincial planning initiatives that culminated in the Toronto-Centred Region concept plan from 1970.

The pendulum swung towards deferring to local decision-making in planning matters in the 1970s with the establishment of the regional municipalities of York, Halton, Durham, and Peel. Not until the 1990s, with the Task Force on the Future of the Greater Toronto Area under Anne Golden and the short-lived Greater Toronto Services Board that followed, did regional coordination and planning again come into focus.

Provincial interest in regional planning gained currency again under Premier Mike Harris when his government established the Central Ontario Smart Growth Panel, chaired by former Mississauga Mayor Hazel McCallion. The Panel was charged with defining a new model of growth for the GTHA, with a focus on compact development, optimizing existing infrastructure, and making transit the first priority in transportation planning. Released in 2003, the Panel’s report, Shape the Future, called for provincial coordination of regional growth to tackle cross-jurisdictional problems such as traffic congestion, land use, transit, and waste disposal, laying the groundwork for the 2006 Growth Plan for the Greater Golden Horseshoe and the 2008 regional transportation plan, The Big Move.

With a new provincial government elected this past June and municipal elections due in October, the question is: which way will the pendulum swing now? Will there be a continuation of provincially led regional coordination of growth management or a return to localism? Or is it time for municipal leaders across the region to forge a new model of collaboration and coordination that recognizes the region as the relevant geography of the 21st century?

Key lessons from the first 10 years of the implementation of the regional plans show that when the Province took a hands-off approach, the regional vision was lost. Many upper-tier municipalities did not strategically allocate growth to lower-tier municipalities in a way that made the best use of existing infrastructure. As Pamela Blais and I recently wrote, current municipal land use plans do not strategically guide urban growth to support a significant shift from the car to transit. Indeed, the share of transit ridership as a total of all trips is expected to increase by a mere 0.5 percent by 2041. Much of the region’s growth is still slated to take place at the urban edge or beyond, in areas that are difficult to serve cost-effectively with transit.

The absence of a regional economic development strategy also continues to be a serious impediment to a competitive economy. In particular, the GTHA needs to plan proactively for regionally significant employment zones that cross municipal boundaries and identify where freight, warehousing, and office jobs can best be located to gain access to regional labour market and supporting regional infrastructure. As our regional economy continues to be transformed through the impact of globalization and rapid changes in technology, the status quo approach to planning for employment at the local level only is no longer adequate.

These examples illustrate the need for municipal leadership across the GTHA to reclaim the original strategic directions of the Central Ontario Smart Growth Panel, which called for more regional collaboration, including a regional coordinating body. A first step would be to establish a more formal mechanism for collaboration among municipal leaders; one that supports continued regional consensus-building and fosters planning approaches that integrate land use, transit, and economic development.

Models of regional coordination and cooperation range from the Metropolitan Planning Office (MPO) model in the United States to the Mayor’s Council in Metro Vancouver. Municipal leaders in the GTHA and the Province must decide what model would work best here.

Without formalized regional leadership, there is always a risk that municipalities in the GTHA will default to parochialism if the Province loses interest in being the de facto regional planner. We are now at an inflection point. Will we become a true 21st-century city-region, or will the Toronto region miss its opportunity to remain competitive?

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Marcy Burchfield is the Vice President of the Economic Blueprint Institute at the Toronto Region Board of Trade. Marcy has worked at the forefront of regional planning for almost two decades and helped influence provincial policy including the Growth Plan for the Greater Golden Horseshoe, the Greenbelt Plan, and the regional transportation plan, The Big Move. Marcy has authored several publications on understanding change in urban regions as well as peer-reviewed articles for the Quarterly Journal of Economics and the University of Calgary, School of Public Policy Research Paper Series. She is frequently invited to speak and provide opinion and analysis on provincial planning matters at professional forums and in media.

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