Bill Hulet Editor

Here's the thing. A lot of important local issues are really complex. And to understand them we need more than "sound bites" and knee-jerk ideology. The Guelph Back-Grounder is a place where people can read the background information that explains why things are the way they are, and, the complex issues that people have to negotiate if they want to make Guelph a better city. No anger, just the facts.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

The Places to Grow Act and Guelph

Executive Summary:

Guelph faces extreme pressure because of forces outside of its control. Chief amongst these are the Toronto Green Belt and the Places to Grow Act. These two forces have pushed the city to develop in a way that citizens need to understand if we are going to adapt to the future.

The Places to Grow Act and Guelph

Guelph citizens sometimes complain bitterly about about how the city keeps getting bigger and bigger, and, how there seems to be so much emphasis on getting more people to live downtown. Why can't the city just stay the way it was in the past? Unfortunately, Guelph doesn't exist in a bubble. It is under the ultimate authority of the Province of Ontario, which means that provincial planning guidelines supersede local ones. And two of the most important ones are the Greenbelt Plan and the Places to Grow Act.

The primary driver of both of these plans is population growth. As you can see by the graph below, Ontario is estimated to grow by somewhere between six and two million more people over the next twenty-five years. (You can click on the graph to see it more clearly.)

Because Canada has a very low birth rate---it's currently 1.61 per woman---all of that population increase will be coming from immigration. And for a variety of reasons immigrants tend to move to the larger Canadian cities, like Toronto. This means that there will be a natural tendency for those six to two million new people to move to the Greater Toronto Area. Just as Guelph is under the control of Ontario planning decisions, so Ontario is under the control of Federal immigration policy. So whether it likes it or not, Queen's Park has to figure out how to accommodate those people.

In the past the province would just unleash the developers and let them create housing for them. Unfortunately, this just is no longer a solution because the province is hitting the physical limits of how many people we can cram into it using the old ways of doing things. Suburban sprawl has already gotten to the point where it is threatening our water and food supplies.


One of the areas where development and water supply clash is the Oak Ridges Moraine.

Norman Einstein, May 27, 2005

As should be obvious from the map, this area of land is situated perfectly for developers to create new housing. All they would have to do is strong-arm the province into building some new roads, maybe a few GO lines, build a few million little houses made of ticky-tacky, and Toronto's immigration woes are over! Unfortunately, the moraine is not only a great place to build suburbs, it's also the place where the ground water is recharged for most of the municipalities around it. Which means that if the moraine were developed, there is a good chance that many places around it would find that their wells would dry up. Equally important, many rivers and streams also originate in the Moraine, so development there would dramatically lower the water quality for a huge swathe of Ontario.

People get upset when they contemplate their wells and streams drying up, so a significant amount of citizen opposition mobilized against development. This culminated in the Mike Harris government declaring a moratorium on development on the moraine, followed by the Oak Ridges Moraine Conservation Act. A lot of hemming and hawing took place as politicians began to realize that they had to preserve the moraine or else voters would punish them severely. Effectively, the moraine is now "off the table" as a dumping ground for population growth in the Greater Toronto Area.


People are not only attached to the idea of drinking water, they also like to eat food. Unfortunately, seeing as most of Canada was covered by enormous ice sheets until very recently, there are precious few places in the country that have good agricultural land. Southern Ontario has a large proportion of it. Two of the best areas are close to the Greater Toronto Area and would be great places for developers to build houses. These are the fruit growing areas that are close around lake Ontario (the "Niagara Tender Fruit and Grape Area"),

Map c/o Friends of the Greenbelt Foundation

and, the Holland Marsh (aka "the Salad Bowl of Ontario".)

Map c/o Friends of the Greenbelt Foundation

Farmers often complain about how hard it is to export their crops to Europe and Japan. What they fail to understand is that within living memory both of these areas suffered starvation. They were dependent on imported food to sustain their populations and during World War II they had that lifeline severed. As a result, they have collectively decided that "never again" would they become so dependent on outsiders for their food supply. This is a lesson that Canadians should also follow. We won't starve without the Holland Marsh and the Niagara Peninsula, but we would find our diet a lot more monotonous without fresh vegetables, peaches, and, grapes.

Even if our society never suffers from absolute deprivation, any item that we need that comes from a foreign source is a drain on our balance of payments. Last winter there were headlines about cauliflower costing as much as eight dollars a head in supermarkets. The reason why was a combination of a low Canadian dollar relative to American, plus a drought in California that reduced supplies. If people absolutely had to have this particular vegetable, that means that their money left the province and went to the USA instead of staying and helping the local economy. Preserving a local fruit and vegetable industry offers a valuable economic "buffer" that ensures that Ontario will be able to keep a balanced, sustainable economy. This will help avoid the economic roller-coaster of "boom and bust" that happens in areas that pin all their hopes on one industry alone. (Ever heard of Alberta?)

Add the Oak Ridges Moraine to the Holland Marsh, the Niagara Tender Fruit Area, and a few other things, and you get the Toronto Green Belt. 

Map c/o Friends of the Greenbelt Foundation


Beyond food and water, there are other parts of the Greater Toronto Area that are problematic. As I was told by a consultant at a stakeholder meeting on this subject "the infrastructure is maxed-out and simply cannot be upgraded anymore". One example of this is the 401 highway. 

Most people I talk to are surprised to hear that the busiest roadway in North America isn't in the USA, it's actually the 401. Anyone who drives it on a regular basis usually gets over the initial surprise and then says "yeah, now that I think of it, that makes sense". 

Kenny Louie at Flickr
The problem with highways is that once they get maxed out, it gets REALLY expensive to add more capacity to them. This is because businesses and home start getting built up around them, which means that to make the road wider you have to compensate the folks who will have to have their building's demolished. Not only that, if you build the road that feeds cars into Toronto bigger, then you have to start thinking about expanding the volume on the city streets they feed into. And then you have to start thinking about where all these folks are going to end up parking---.

The provincial government understands these issues, which is why they are investing heavily in the Government of Ontario (GO) transit system. As you can see below, the government expects big things from GO over the next few years. (You can click on the graph to see it more clearly.) 

Natural RX from Wikipedia
Once again, though, it is important to realize that the GO system also plugs into another transit system once it gets to Union Station. And anyone who has seen the rush hour at Union Station's subway terminal will understand that it too seems to be "maxed-out". Unfortunately, the politicians in Toronto City Hall have dithered for decades instead of improving public transit.

Beyond transportation, there are other infrastructure issues such as sewers, water, etc. Anyone who has seen the huge numbers of condo towers being built downtown has to wonder "how can the city deal with so many people in a small area?"  Planners have raised the same questions, which is why the government has actually mandated that municipalities like Guelph have to take the "over-flow" instead of trying cram more people into the GTA.


If everything was left up to developers, the Greenbelt would simply result in suburban sprawl "leap-frogging" the Greenbelt and eating up the land just beyond it. As you can see from the following map, the Greenbelt ends just outside of Guelph, Cambridge, and, Brantford.

Map c/o Friends of the Greenbelt Foundation
Guelph and Kitchener/Waterloo already have GO service, with promises of all-day and fast electric trains in the near future. Cambridge is also lobbying hard for integration into the Metrolinx system. With housing a lot cheaper in these towns than Toronto (although it's hard to believe in Guelph), a lot of developers would love to put up single-detached homes in these communities if there is a way that people can easily commute to jobs in Toronto.

With this reality in mind, the Places to Grow Act mandates that city plans follow new guidelines aimed at minimizing sprawl. First of all, it sets minimum guidelines for density of the downtown "core" of the cities around the Greenbelt. In Guelph's case, it says that it must have at least 150 people living and working per hectare (a hectare is an area of 100 metres by 100 metres) in that area. In addition, Places to Grow also defined the geographical boundaries of the each cities downtown core---so municipalities couldn't "define away" the  Act's influence on their community. Here's what it says about Guelph.

Of course, the province doesn't have any sort of mechanism for forcing people to live in Guelph rather than Toronto. But through planning it can control what and where new housing is being built. And if there is no new housing being built, the competition for existing housing stock will rise to the point where more and more people are priced out of the market. This means that they will move to areas where it is cheaper---which means Guelph instead of Toronto. And, if no new single-family houses are being built on the edges of the city (ie, "Greenfield" development), then prices will push the lower edges of the income towards higher density rental and condominium housing. The same sort of market mechanisms come into play with regard to commercial, service, and, industrial development---businesses get pushed away from expensive land towards cheaper areas.

The above point is tremendously important. You won't hear any politician say this, but high housing costs are not a bug, they are a feature. They are a mechanism for forcing society to change the way it does things. The hope is that people and developers will eventually stop pining for the single-family, totally detached home in the suburbs and instead live in higher density housing.


Wait a minute!!!! Isn't this that awful "social engineering" that proponents of the free market accuse Greens and Socialists of doing? Shouldn't people be "free" to live any way they want to? Why should the government be telling me that I can't buy and live in a single family, fully detached home if I want to?

This is a totally bogus argument simply because that sort of freedom has never existed.

People have always been constrained by physical reality. You might want to jump to the moon or swim to Europe, but you can't because your muscles just aren't strong enough. And in the same way cities might want to build suburbs forever, but the fact is that in doing so they'd bankrupt themselves. Low-density suburbs are a lot more expensive to service than higher density urban areas. This is simply a function of mathematics. A quick Google search found a site that suggests for a representative sample of Canadian cities the suburbs are have only 31% of the population density as the core. If this is true, then this means that there are roughly three times as many tax payers per unit of road, sewer, public transit, water, etc, in the urban areas than suburban.

The above reality has been masked by several facts.

Up to a certain point suburbs are relatively inexpensive luxuries that cities can afford to support. If you have a healthy, prosperous urban core, then a thin "rind" of suburbs around them can be easily afforded. Secondly, you can pay for a large fraction of infrastructure by charging developers fees for building new homes. Also, when a society is going through a period of extended prosperity it can seem that the added price of maintaining these suburbs can seem to be an acceptable cost.

Unfortunately, however, as suburbs get bigger and bigger the infrastructure ceases to be just a minor "add on" to existing higher density systems. And after a few decades sewers, roads, water pipes, etc, need to be replaced and at that point all the costs come from tax payers. And as time goes on the economy changes and cities find new things that they want to spend their money on. "Locking in" extra-expensive services for low-density suburbs ties the hands of future city Councils. Unfortunately, people become attached to a certain lifestyle and resent any attempt to suggest that it is a luxury that society can no longer afford. In the same way, businesses become attached to the way they have always operated and fight against any idea that they need to change.

Aren't the suburbs in Markham pretty? I'm so glad they didn't build those ugly towers---.
IDuke from Wiki Commons

Ordinary voters do not have the specialized expertise that is needed to see the long-term costs associated with living in their own house in the "burbs", so they tend to complain that it is just because of "perfidious socialists" that they cannot afford a house. And, unfortunately, a lot of politicians and business people don't understand these issues either. Or, if they do, they are quite happy to lie to voters in order to get enough support to be able to gain power. These folks are quite happy to "kick the can down the road" for future generations to deal with.


Guelph is at a bit of a cross-roads. Our current city plan limits expansion of the city and suggests that all future growth needs to happen through intensification instead of new greenfield development. At the same time, there is tremendous grass-roots opposition to any attempt to build higher-intensity housing as infill---citizens complain bitterly any time some developer wants to build an apartment building in their "back yard". As a result, housing costs keep going up and up. A lot of people want to go back to the "good old days" when folks could all buy a bungalow in the suburbs, and they don't know or care about the reasons why this is a very bad idea for the city as-a-whole. (I suspect that this is why some businesses say that Guelph is a hard place to do business. The guys who want to just build suburban sprawl run up against the official plan. Others who want to build apartments and condominiums find opposition from the "Not In My Back Yard" folks.)

And there are going to be politicians who are willing to say that there is no reason why the city cannot change it's plan and expand the city boundaries. There is no Greenbelt protecting the areas around Guelph like there is in Toronto. Even worse, even though Guelph's latest city plan has been accepted by the government of Ontario, it is currently in front of the Ontario Municipal Board (OMB) where it is being appealed by a long list of developers, including:  Abode Varsity Living Inc, Loblaw Properties Ltd., Terra View Custom Homes Inc. & Lambden Farm Trust, Thomasfield Homes Limited, D Four Guelph Developments Limited, Fieldgate Commercial Developments Limited, Greenways Group Guelph, Living Rivers; and others.  (See the OMB website, the Guelph case number is PL140042 .) While it seems to be the case that the OMB tends to favour developers over city plans, the province is currently reviewing the OMB itself with an eye to "fixing" this problem. So it is hard to predict what the future will bring.


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  2. A good summary of what Guelph and the GTA confront. It is an article that could easily be followed by a part II and III.

    The result of population pressure, climate change, and a failure to adapt to climate change, plus energy supply problems will change the face of this place over the next decades.

  3. Great article, Bill! Thanks for this thorough research and analysis.

  4. Great article, Bill. Excellent summary of why we need to do things differently in the future, and tame sprawl.