Planning Our Landscape

(III.) PLANNING OUR LANDSCAPE (2004-2005 Report Of The Environmental Commissioner of Ontario):

(The following message from the Environmental Commissioner of Ontario is especially significant because it asks whether continued population growth in southern Ontario is necessary and sustainable. The answer is “No”. The largest factor in population growth is immigration, so the question is: Is continued high immigration necessary and sustainable. The answer is “No.” This message appears as an introduction to the Environmental Commissioner’s 2004-2005 report.)

Much of this year’s report deals with the major changes to the land use planning system in Ontario that have taken place in the past fiscal year. Our use of the land in Ontario is a major issue that spawns a myriad of environmental concerns related to sprawl, highway construction, aggregate extraction, endangered species protection, forest fragmentation and water quality.

The essential point is that despite its apparent vast size, there is a fixed amount of land in Ontario, and each year there are more of us placing more demands on that land—resulting in changes and stresses to the landscape. How we manage those changes will determine what the landscape will look like in the future, how it will function ecologically, and how it contributes to our economy and our well-being.

The concept of planning and the creation of land use plans are inherently oriented toward the future. Plans are a statement of intent. They cultivate an image in people’s minds of what the future might look like. In doing so, they create expectations. In the past months, there have been many broad statements of planning intent and thus many new expectations created, especially with respect to the land bordering Lake Ontario, now falling under the new Greenbelt Plan. The Greenbelt Plan rolls up the previously created Niagara Escarpment Plan and Oak Ridges Moraine Conservation Plan with a large new area called the Protected Countryside to create a system of planning processes that are intended to control sprawl and protect our natural heritage. Such improvements to the planning system are certainly welcome and to a great extent overdue. But will these new planning processes create a landscape, say 25 years from now,that meets our expectations?

One of the troubling aspects of the improved planning system is that it is still based on the assumption of continuous, rapid population growth. Government forecasts project that over the next 25 years, Ontario’s population will increase from just over 12 million to 16.4 million or perhaps as high as 18 million. Three-quarters of these people are expected to settle in the urban area around Toronto and in the Greenbelt Lands. Even with higher development densities, this is a vast number of people settling in an already-stressed landscape. Will the resulting demands for water, sewer systems, roads, utility corridors, aggregates and urban expansion leave our protected countryside and natural heritage systems intact? Will there be enough natural lands to support biodiversity?

Why must the population grow at this rate in parts of southern Ontario? There are those that argue that such expansion is essential to support our consumptive economy. It is necessary to create jobs and a future for our young people. Growth is needed to protect our tax base and the infrastructure it supports. But is this true? There are prosperous European economies that thrive without a burgeoning population base.

And if it is true that population expansion is necessary, where does that leave northern Ontario? Those same government population projections that figure so largely in the planning of the Greenbelt predict that northern Ontario will decline in population by 8.5% over the next 25 years. By the same logic, does that mean we are abandoning the north to a collapsing economy, a crumbling infrastrusture and no future for our youth? Does that prognosis call for urgent action?

The reality is that a planning regime based on the continuous expansion of population and the growth in consumption of resources in the south-central part of the province is ultimately not sustainable. And a planning system dependent on growth also means that the communities of the north cannot be sustained through a period of depopulation and de-industrialization.

All of this is further complicated by geopolitical, biophysical and economic developments that are changing the rules of how the world works. How will climate change, peak oil, the price of electricity, and the technological revolution in communications change the way we live, work and interact with our landscape? Are we planning for the real future—or are we simply building toward the past? The planning models we use may just be too simple to cope with the complexities of the times.

At some point, and it should be soon, we will have to turn our minds collectively to what we want Ontario’s landscape to look like 25 years from now and beyond. We will have to cast that vision—and then begin to create a planning model that will cultivate and support ecologically, socially and economically sustainable lifestyles and communities for the north, the urban south and the rural countryside.

Gord Miller
Environmental Commissioner of Ontario