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Thanks to the amazing team at Oxford University Press: Caroline Starr who insisted I could actually develop a planning textbook, Jodi Lewchuk who took me through structuring the sections and managing the authors, Peter Chambers who organized all the image permissions and maps, Steven Hall who finalized the layout and design, and eagle-eye copy editor Dorothy Turnbull.
If you’re an instructor in urban planning, geography, urban studies, or another program where you teach students about planning in Canada, or you would like to review the book, you can order your copy today through OUP. The book is also available for sale on Amazon.ca.
The municipalities of Niagara Falls, St. Catharines and Welland moved a step closer to a regional transit system this week when St. Catherines City Council voted to endorse a plan to combine services in the three cities.
Since 2011 Niagara Region, the upper-tier government which includes the three lower-tier municipal governments, has granted funds to Niagara Falls Transit, St. Catharines Transit and Welland Transit in a pilot project to allow the three bus systems to work together. In September 2014, Niagara Region voted to extend the pilot until spring 2017.
A memorandum of understanding and business model would be the next steps if the other two cities endorse the plan. A regional system could possibly serve other smaller centres like Grimsby, Niagara-on-the-Lake and Port Colborne, if a cost-sharing model could be developed–for example, towns could designate a percentage of their transportation budgets towards regional transit if they don’t already have their own services. Transit providers in the three systems say they already have a good working relationship, meeting on a regular basis and discussing future changes with a joint committee. The larger municipalities already have arrangements to provide services to the smaller centres of Port Colborne, Thorold and Fort Erie.
The pilot project has been successful, with many residents voicing their support of intermunicipal bus service to local councillors. Niagara Region’s motion to extend the pilot by 20 months passed by a vote of 26-1. The Region’s role in a future intermunicipal transit service is still unclear, because it must have the support of a triple majority–a majority of those on council, a majority of local councils (seven of 12) that represent a majority of eligible voters, which seems unlikely. Advocates of a regional system include the Niagara Poverty Reduction Network, who say that a single-fare system across municipalities is critical for low-income communities. The long-term goal of system and fare integration seems to be the extension of LRT service to Niagara Region.
Other regions in Canada are also moving towards regional transit services–Edmonton and St. Albert are considering joining their services in order to speed up a proposed LRT extension to St. Albert. There are currently eight transit systems operating independently in Alberta’s Capital Region. Toronto is slowly moving towards a regional system with the introduction of Presto cards across the region allowing fare integration between the eight existing systems, the provincial priority of 15-minute all-day service on the region’s GO train system, and service improvements leading to a 10-minute frequent transit network in Toronto.
Real estate speculation happens across the country, but is particularly popular in our largest cities. Some say foreign ownership and speculation is driving housing prices up for local residents: wealthy investors living in far-off countries buy housing with no intention of living in it. But should the government step in and regulate the practice of flipping houses?
Just a month ago, the Simon Fraser University Urban Studies program held a symposium on housing affordability. Their data-packed brochure indicated that Vancouver has been second to last in housing affordability for the past six years, and 40% of residents consider the high cost of housing to be the most important issue in the city. The city’s annual homeless count has identified an increasing number of homeless people in the city–some 2,700 people in 2014 compared to about 1,100 in 2002. While 35% of homes in Vancouver are rented, only 17% of new construction was purpose built rental housing. Urban Futures has done a number of studies on foreign ownership: in one, they found that the 2011 Census (National Household Survey) showed that Vancouver didn’t have an excessive level of foreign occupancy–that is, about 1.4% of the apartment units in the city were occupied by foreign or temporary residents, but there are no Census data that specify their citizenship, length of stay, or that support a thesis on foreign investment. In another, they found that only 0.4% of purchases in the region in 2010 were made by people living outside of Canada. But an article in the New Yorker last year quoted a report from Sotheby’s International Realty Canada: in the first half of 2013, foreign buyers accounted for nearly half of luxury home sales in Vancouver.
Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson announced on Friday that he has proposed that the BC government develop a speculation tax who “buy a home just to make a quick buck” by selling it 6 months later. He’s asking Vision voters to support the call for a new tax on investors, and other tools like an increased property tax on the most expensive residential properties with proceeds invested in new affordable housing.
“Together, we can send a message that housing shouldn’t just be an investment commodity – it should be for living in.” –Mayor Gregor Robertson
Less than two days after Robertson’s announcement, a petition started circulating in Toronto calling on Brad Duguid, Minister of Economic Development, Employment, and Infrastructure, to restrict foreign investment in residential real estate in the Toronto region. As of 5 pm today Shaan Brach’s petition had 10,491 supporters.
I’m sure that the Liberal governments of both Ontario and BC will shy away from regulating real estate speculation and taxing the rich, but nevertheless the petition and call for a new tax do raise several troubling questions: who should be allowed to buy housing in Canada? Should the government (either provincial or federal) intervene when housing prices climb too high for the average person or household to afford? And if so, how should this be done?
Canadian governments have a history of intervening when market conditions create affordability issues for local residents or when housing conditions are poor. Forty years ago, Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation was busy supporting the development of co-operative and non-profit housing with the ample funding of the federal government. The federal government helped develop co-operative housing from 1973-1991, establishing long-term operating agreements coinciding with the length of the mortgage. They also had programs to help first time homebuyers, supplement rents, and rehabilitate housing in historic and central neighbourhoods. But over the years, their balanced approach to housing affordability changed. The two ends of the spectrum (households with very low incomes and homeowners with enough equity to buy) continued to benefit, but programs that helped renters and low- to middle-income households were gradually dropped.
Municipalities and developers have also introduced innovative solutions to housing affordability:
The issue of foreign investors driving up housing prices is critical in cities like Toronto and Vancouver, but there’s no quick fix for the affordability problems that took decades to create. In cities like Calgary, Fort McMurray, and Kelowna, affordability is still a major issue even without high levels of foreign investment. In Edmonton, 33.5% of all condominium units are rented. Researchers and policymakers across the country have been trying to find and implement the solutions for at least two decades. A speculation tax would only be part of the solution, but combined with better rent controls and a higher high-end property tax whose revenues would be used to build and maintain housing of different types for different income levels, it could be a good start. We definitely need an increased role for the provincial and federal governments in affordable housing, but that’s not news.
You’ve spent several few hours of your time attending public meetings hosted by your municipality on the development of a new plan. You had to rearrange your child care and leave work early to attend. Wouldn’t you love to know how your comments on the proposed plan were used?
You may have heard about the City of Vancouver’s Greenest City 2020 Action Plan. Launched in 2010, the Action Plan planning process included a public engagement campaign that allowed residents to crowdsource ideas in an online forum. The Plan has ten goal areas, each with a specific 2020 target. The question asked in the forum was “How can we achieve reach our 2020 targets?” Guided by City staff, who moderated the forum, answered questions, and clarified levels of responsibility in implementation, participants suggested ways in which to meet the targets. Ideas were then reviewed and consolidated by staff, and participants were then able to vote on the ideas. As the status of an idea changed (under consideration, planned, started, completed, or declined), every person who voted on, commented on, or submitted the idea was notified by email. Since 2011, the City has published its progress on meeting the targets. The Greenest City 2020 Action Plan won the 2012 Sustainable communities Award from the Federation of Canadian Municipalities.
Five years after participating in the online forum, I still receive Greenest City Newsletters. They contain information about events in the city (e.g. Bike to Work Week, the BC Commuter Challenge, the proposed Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain Pipeline) and ways that residents can help meet the goals, such as using a rain barrel for collecting water to be used for lawns and plans. At the bottom of each section, they site the relevant Greenest City goal: Green Transportation, Climate Leadership, Clean Water. And each newsletter has dozens of links to City initiatives and programs.
Just last week I received an update that the City was already meeting its Greenest City 2020 goal for transportation mode share: 50% of all trips in the City are now made by walking, cycling, or public transit. This is a major increase from 40% in 2008. There are almost 100,000 bike trips per day in the City. Vancouver has done a lot to mainstream cycling, including designated cycling routes with signals at bike height and installing protected bike lanes on the Burrard Bridge, Hornby Street, and Union. Many of these changes have been introduced through pilot projects, which were carefully evaluated before becoming permanent.
In the past few years I have visited many universities in Canada, the US and Europe, and I often get to speak to local planners and scholars in urban planning. Every one of them has been amazed at the Greenest City newsletters. Not only was the planning process itself innovative, but the way in which the City has kept in touch with participants on how the plan is being implemented is very unusual. Many municipal planning websites are difficult to navigate–it can take some sleuthing to find the official plan, by-law, or meeting information that you need. All of the information for the Greenest City is in one place, so it’s easy to see the progress that’s been made, like the establishment of the Greenest City Fund to implement the ideas in the Plan, strategies on climate change, a new program on recycling food scraps, and improvements to walking and cycling routes. The newsletters make it easy to understand all of the policies, programs, and initiatives that directly relate to the plan, and they’re written in non-specialist language and designed with compelling graphics.
Obviously, Vancouver is a large city and its planning department has more resources than a small or mid-sized planning department might have. However, partnerships with universities and colleges might make it easier to reach out to residents and keep them up to date on planning initiatives, particularly on the social media front. City councillors might also be willing partners in communicating progress on implementation, since many of them send regular newsletters to their constituents. Most cities haven’t caught up to online participation methods, and don’t have well-organized websites or regular email updates for their residents. Practicing planners regularly check out plans, policies, and programs in other municipalities to inspire their own work, so providing clear online information and regular updates might inspire policy transfer and innovation in other places.
If Quebec Transport Minister Robert Poëti and Montreal Mayor Denis Coderre have their way, Montreal’s fragmented public transit system is in for a major overhaul. Their proposal is similar to governance models seen in other metropolitan regions, but will it work in Greater Montreal?
Like many regions in the world, Montreal has a fragmented governance system made up of a regional authority and municipal governments. Municipal transit agencies or transportation departments run their own systems and oversee their own funding while the Agence métropolitaine de transport (AMT) is responsible for parking lots, commuter trains, reserved lanes and metropolitan terminuses. The AMT is under the governance of the Québec government, and the region’s municipalities provide 40% of AMT’s budget. Every region outside Montreal, Laval, and Longeuil currently has its own Conseil intermunicipal de transport (CIT), the new plan calls for them to be merged into one authority along with the AMT. Montreal, Laval, and Longueil will retain their Sociétés de transport.
Responding to demands from elected officials in the Montreal region, the Quebec government’s new governance proposal is based on a new provincial-municipal partnership involving the member municipalities of Communauté métropolitaine de Montréal. The plan is to assign public transit planning to a regional transport authority (ART) with six members appointed by the CMM and seven by the Québec government, including an independent chair. A metropolitan transit system (RTM), headed by a board of elected officials designated by the CMM will run the commuter trains, suburban buses, reserved lanes, parking lots and terminuses.
With the adoption of the metropolitan land use and development plan (PMAD), CMM officials have decided that public transit and land use are now part and parcel of the same package. –Denis Coderre, Montreal Mayor and president of the Communauté métropolitaine de Montréal
Coderre maintains that with the adoption of the PMAD, which the CMM laboured over for more than a decade and approved in 2012, the governance partnership will “facilitate the creation of a unified vision of Greater Montreal.” A regional approach to transportation and land use planning is rare, not just in Canada but around the world, as I learned in my meta-analysis of 11 international city-regions.
However, some mayors are concerned that an AMT with greater planning discretion will reduce their autonomy and lengthen the process of approval for critical transportation decisions. Some of the municipalities use private companies to deliver public transit, so service changes can happen within days or weeks. In Montreal, this type of decision must be studied and ratified by board members, so changes can take months. Raphaël Fischler, Director of the McGill School of Urban Planning, goes even further in his criticism of the plan, saying that local mayors “have a poor track record of decision making on urban and regional transportation planning in the region.” He cites a critical reason that those in the planning profession have heard before: elected officials tend to prioritize long-term local concerns over long-term regional concerns.
These are not new concerns: it’s well known that Vancouver has also struggled with regional transportation governance and is currently going through a referendum on the issue. Until 2007, TransLink’s board was made up of elected officials from the Metro Vancouver municipalities, with a few provincial representatives. The board held public meetings and its decision-making was generally considered to be transparent, if not harmonious. Transport Minister Kevin Falcon ordered a change, retaining a Mayors’ Council (with all 21 mayors in the region, the Chief of the Tsawwassen First Nation, and a representative from Electoral Area A) but weakening the ability of the Council to make regional decisions. A governance review in 2013 revealed major issues with accountability. In response, the Province of BC introduced governance changes last year returning regional decision-making to local mayors: the Mayors’ Council shares responsibility with the board of directors (with nine members appointed by the Mayors’ Council and two by the province). The 2014 governance changes eliminated the Regional Commissioner of Transportation and the ability of the provincial government to set the regional transportation vision. Metro Vancouver provides input on long-term strategies and planning, and the province on long-term economic, environmental, and transportation objectives. The referendum that Metro Vancouver residents are currently voting on concerns the long-term transportation strategy prepared by the Mayors’ Council.
If Vancouver’s experience is an illustrative example, it’s likely that the Montreal region will stumble a little if this new governance model is introduced. Planning operates in a fragmented governance framework that has always made longer term, regional initiatives difficult to develop and implement. Governance expert Andrew Sancton has written that regional governance initiatives are often seen as eroding the power of local councils. It will take municipal planning departments and elected officials a while to adjust to thinking in these terms, to thinking as one as they develop a regional vision that will guide their decisions. And as Sancton noted, restructuring is only part of the answer to successful governance within a region: partnerships with the private and non-profit sectors are critical to improving quality of life. Montreal’s struggle with regional transportation governance is one shared by most metropolitan regions in the world.
With the Eglington Crosstown LRT scheduled for completion by 2020, developers are eyeing sites along its 19km length. Eglington is designated as one of the City of Toronto’s Avenues, major streets with the potential for higher densities, redevelopment, and transit services, and is and slated for mid-rise development of six to eight stories. But developers want to capitalize on the established high-rise trend at Yonge and Eglington.
The City isn’t so sure. So far, as Toronto Star’s Maria Vanta reported, six requests for rezoning lots to mixed-use development near Don Mills Road have been denied because they don’t line up with the City’s planning objectives (“Crosstown LRT brings new development, and controversy, to Eglinton“, Friday Jan 9, 2015). A total of 40 similar rezoning requests have been made since construction of the LRT was announced–about half are in appeals at the Ontario Municipal Board. Although the height of many of these proposals may have been an issue, another argument against the rezonings is that protecting office space and other employment land uses will ensure the LRT’s success. The City’s Official Plan protects existing office space; Lorna Day, manager of the Eglington Connects Planning Study at the City, says that jobs make better use of transit than residences. The City doesn’t want to make the mistake of losing office space, something that is speculated to happen at high-demand areas such as Yonge and Eglington, because when employment is located far from transit, most people opt to drive. Yet Day expects new workplaces to eventually come along with the residential developments–just not quite yet.
The Avenues and Mid-Rise Guidelines, which were approved by the City of Toronto in 2010 and are now used to guide the development application process, represent an attempt to achieve higher densities while keeping to the scale and character of development that many residents want. Many don’t want to live in a high-rise condo, but would not mind a third storey apartment. Since 2010, the City has been monitoring the Performance Standards for Mid-Rise Buildings as the first step toward setting the Performance Standards in guidelines, policies, and as-of-right zoning. This may be the real reason that all those applications have been denied–the existing zoning does not yet reflect the City’s mid-rise ambitions, including mixed-use zoning on the Avenues. But it will soon–the City’s monitoring period was over at the end of 2014. The City’s Project Manager on the Mid-Rise Buildings Study was none other than Lorna Day.
An argument could be made for high density nodes within a 500m radius of the major road intersections offering transit service, with mid-rise in-between. This is the TTC’s established pattern for subway lines. The LRT will link to 54 bus routes, 3 subway stations and a number of regional GO Transit lines, so there are many opportunities for high-density nodes. Zoning mixed use development along the corridor would also seem critical to a future jobs-housing mix. Recent changes to the Ontario Building Code, in effect January 1st, 2015, permit wood-frame construction for buildings up to six feet in height, which has finally made mid-rise profitable for many developers. This may result in developers scaling back on height as they no longer need it to obtain profits–witness mid-rise construction in British Columbia since 2009. Perhaps a more livable, community-oriented density is more desirable than another canyon of high-rises.