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2006 12 21
Ontario Awarded For Anti-Sprawl Planning
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The American Planning Association awarded Ontario for its commitment to reduce urban sprawl. Why were we awarded this honour? Here is some history:
Scaling Back OMB Powers a Good Start
The beginning of Toronto's long-needed urban design and architectural renaissance is at hand, if announced changes to the Ontario Municipal Board have the desired effect. Do not expect changes to happen soon, though -- unless city council proves itself up to its new powers.

The OMB is a government body often loathed by municipalities and loved by developers. “People don’t always agree on how their communities should grow. When people can’t resolve their differences . . . the OMB provides a public forum for resolving disputes.” says the OMB web site

With a dispute resolution mechanism skewed towards developer’s interests, many found the workings of the OMB to be overly complex. Neighbourhood groups complained that OMB members from Sudbury and London would overturn Toronto decisions in spite of having no first hand knowledge of the city’s communities. “The OMB is a planning casino where only developers win.” said provincial M.P.P. Mike Collie.

For years, the OMB made city councilors apoplectic when it overturned local decisions. In time, developers learned where the real power lay. For example, after having his Sapphire Tower plan turned down by council a few weeks ago, Harry Stinson’s reaction was to go to the OMB because it would be, “more objective.”

Affronts to city council aside, what precipitated the much-needed changes to the OMB’s powers announced by Minister Gerretsen? After all, changes to the OMB affect all municipalities in Ontario, not just Toronto.

When development on Ontario’s environmentally critical Oak Ridge Moraine seemed out of control a few years ago, the Ontario Municipal Board made a decision that precipitated today’s announced erosion of its powers: it approved more moraine development in the face of well-informed opposition from almost every side of the social spectrum.

With the support of nearly 90% of the public, the Liberals campaigned with a pledge to stop development on the moraine. In the end, the newly elected Premier halted construction for about a week before having to acknowledge there were limits to his powers. To the embarrassment of the new government, 6,000 additional houses went up on the moraine.

This signaled to all Ontarians that Toronto’s sprawling suburbs threatened to permanently destroy environmentally crucial lands. The government answered with the sprawl stopping Green Belt Act. Reforms to the planning act and to the OMB have followed.

Monday’s announced changes to the OMB return responsibility for municipal development to the hands of elected officials who know their communities. Are they ready to use this power or will myopic local interests rule our development choices?

Don Schmidt of Diamond and Schmidt, a local architecture firm, says that council will have to take urban design and planning issues much more seriously than they have in the past when their decisions could be overturned.

Paul Bedford, former chief planner of the city agrees saying returning development approval power to the city is long overdue and allows Toronto to have a much greater hand in its own future. “Councilors will have new freedom but they’ll have to know how to use it,” Bedford offers. “They’ll be limited by their creativity and their will.”

Is our City Council ready for the task? Bedford thinks there is hope now that the mayor is making changes to the city’s governance structure.

The Governing Toronto Advisory Panel recommended 11 changes that will provide mayor Miller with the tools he needs to lead while also strengthening community representation. The panel’s chair, Anne Buller, said that keeping Toronto’s governance status quo, “is not an option.”

Mayor Miller argues that the announcement will empower council to work closely with neighbourhood groups while achieving the overall vision for city anticipated by the new Toronto Planning Act. That is theoretically true. Without an effective city council – one that can act in a unified way to take advantage of the city’s design opportunities – these new powers will be just another layer of bureaucracy planners and builders will have to overcome.

Why should we care? Toronto’s employment base is shrinking. Knowledge economy workers are modern nomads who can and will live in cities they like. Toronto has to compete not only with Canadian cities but also with the world’s best urban centres. Council’s actions in the next year will indicate if we are up to the challenge.

This first published by R. Ouellette in the National Post, December, 2005
[email this story] Posted by R Ouellette on 12/21 at 12:48 PM

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