Confronting Regional Planning History

Regional planning and urban planning are not the same thing. They operate at different scales, have different historical roots, address different problems, and are usually carried out by different agents. Yet both are planning, and both work from the principle that planners can, and in fact should, restrict the actions of private property owners in order to serve the public good. As such, the Neptis Foundation’s recent commentary on shortcomings in the provincial Growth Plan for the Toronto region elicits some thoughts from a planning historian.

The Neptis Foundation, as many Toronto urbanists know, is a privately-funded, Toronto-based organization that has been analysing and commenting on the physical aspects of urban growth in the region for more than a decade; it leans ‘anti-sprawl’, but its work is always strictly empirical and its conclusions and recommendations consistently fair-minded. When the Province of Ontario issued a Growth Plan for the Toronto region in 2005 Neptis publicly challenged that plan, not because it would interfere with municipal autonomy or property rights – the customary reasons for opposing regional planning – but because it did not interfere enough. Neptis researchers had concluded that the plan was nothing more than a recipe for business as usual – for more suburban sprawl, car dependence, and uncoordinated development – and the foundation set about publishing a series of critiques that said so. This new commentary keeps up the fight. While acknowledging that sprawl is lessening, by one definition at least, it observes, through an analysis of recent development, that growth is not going where the plan calls for it to go, into existing urban areas or designated growth centres, and it thus concludes that the plan is still falling short of its objectives.

The study has plenty of merit, and I have no reason to question its factual observations, but like so much work done by Toronto urban analysts it lacks historical perspective. Toronto’s history is not unknown, and more is being written all the time – Neptis has itself commissioned historical studies, perhaps the only urban research body to have done so – but it always seems to end up in the ‘history’ box, to be brought out and viewed only for antiquarian purposes. Historical analysis rarely informs present-day discourse. But it could, and it should.

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