Ontario Premier Doug Ford was re-elected earlier this month on promises to build more housing and more highways to accommodate a rapidly growing population in the Greater Toronto Area and beyond.

In its first term, Ford’s Progressive Conservative government pushed municipalities to expand urban boundaries, encouraging the development of sprawling suburbs. It also began throwing its weight around by using minister’s zoning orders (MZOs) to override local governments and citizens who didn’t fall in line behind provincial plans.

Previously, those zoning orders were used about once annually.

The Ford government issued 44 in two years alone.

More recently, the government used “enhanced” MZOs to ram through plans for a sea of skyscrapers north of Toronto in York Region despite vociferous local opposition. If built, the neighbourhoods would be some of the densest on Earth, with 67 of the towers planned for the area rising 80 storeys — higher than any building in downtown Toronto except the CN Tower.

Ken Greenberg has worked in urban design for more than 40 years, including a decade as the director of urban design and architecture for the City of Toronto. Now a consultant, Greenberg’s work “sits at the intersection of urban design, architecture, landscape, mobility, social and economic development.” He’s the author of two books, a member of the Order of Canada and is involved with numerous non-profits working on community improvement.

Canada’s National Observer spoke to Greenberg about Ontario’s current “tall and sprawl” approach to housing development and what it takes to build affordable, climate-friendly, livable communities. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What is “tall and sprawl” and how did it come about?

Tall and sprawl is not a new idea. It describes the two predominant forms in which we have grown in the Greater Golden Horseshoe area.

Canada’s National Observer spoke to Ken Greenberg about Ontario’s current “tall and sprawl” approach to housing development and what it takes to build affordable, climate-friendly, livable communities.

If you go back to the ’60s, ’70s and the ’80s, we built about 2,000 of those big towers that you see on the skyline. They were typically 20, 25 storeys in height. They went up everywhere, mostly along highways because the assumption was that would be the predominant way that people would get around. A lot of them were rentals and were meant for young people until they assembled enough money to make a down payment on a mortgage and move into a suburb and raise kids.

The other form was the sprawling, low-density suburbs that started to occur everywhere, also completely oriented around the automobile.

Fast-forward to the present: what we have is a reductive, cruder version of that same thing happening.

You’ve written that “tall and sprawl” is a problematic approach and won’t solve Ontario’s housing crisis. What’s wrong with it?

We are living in the fastest [growing] city region in North America. So the big question arises, as it did in the 20th century: where are all those people going to live, and what will the form of our city region be to house all this additional population? I mean “house” not just in the sense of dwelling units, but what kind of communities will the people be living in? It's about a set of problems that are joined at the hip that we have to face together.

One of them is the existential threat of climate change. We have to shift to a way of life where we reduce our carbon footprints, where we're living more sustainably, where we are building in a way that is inherently getting us to meeting our climate targets.

A second challenge is affordability. What has happened with housing since those days is it's become a financial commodity. And the price of housing is no longer based on simple supply and demand, it's based on an equity proposition around housing, which has attracted a lot of large financial companies to get into the business of building an equity portfolio around housing. It's attracted a lot of foreign buyers who come and park their money in Canada.

All of that is making a lot of the housing unaffordable. So, we have to address all of those things together.

The good news is, we have learned in the interim an enormous amount of what it takes to make what we call complete communities: communities that house people of all ages, that are walkable, that are compact, where you can live, work, buy your groceries, have access to transit, ride a bike to do daily things, have kids walk and ride their bikes to school. They are inherently better in terms of reducing carbon footprint, but also better in terms of public health, physical health, mental health — they’re just better in so many ways. We've learned all those lessons.

If we simply say, incorrectly, it's a supply problem, that if we just let developers build more and more housing units, we will get to affordability … then the two easiest places to go are just let people build taller and taller, and to eat into the Greenbelt and allow sprawl to occur.

Planned developments in York Region would create a neighbourhood among the densest in the world after the provincial government used zoning orders to override municipalities. Rendering from Engagehightech.ca

You’ve been involved in urban design for a long time throughout many governments. What do you make of the increased use of provincial ministerial powers (MZOs and EMZOs) to override municipalities?

Part of this whole thing is saying, “Local government doesn't work, so we have to override it. All communities are NIMBYs and they have taken local governments as hostages, so you can't rely on them. So we have to take decisions away from local elected councils and we have to make them from on high." And then the developers — many of them, not all of them — look at that situation and they say, “Why should we even bother talking to the municipalities? We can just go straight to our friends at Queen's Park and request an MZO and we can circumvent the whole planning process.”

This is disastrous because we get this extremely crude and ultimately unsustainable form of development happening. There are problems with local governments and with bureaucracies, and things can be expedited and things can be improved. But to say basically that Doug Ford is the chief planner of every municipality in Ontario, which is what this amounts to, is crazy.

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Doug Ford, planner! ,! , As the article states, developers go to their friends , get MZO, voila, profits. As we citizens lose touch with our politicians and politics for that matter, we allow the lobbyists to take over. It's happened in the USA. And slowly bur surely plodding along in Canada. My fellow Westerners are so caught up about their role in Canada they fail to see where the ultra conservative neoliberal premiers of AB, SK, & MB are taking us. Throw in Ford and that's 2/3 Canada. What will this mean for democracy and more freedom? I suggest the opposite. Democracy controlled by Big Money, and the only freedom will likely be this consumer store or that. Training and educating as consumers, not citizens is well under way. So living in an 80 storey apt. owned by a foreign investment company and built by a friend (meaning donators) of Queens Park, will be your only option.

We need to break the current two party libs and cons and vote green or a coalition of green/ndp if they joined forces at least they are less controlled and owned by big money corporations. Just imagine the greens having control we would finally give green transition entrepreneurs the advantage and we would all be winners for a sustainable future rather than self destruction under the unethical greed of big money corporations who now control our democracy.

And yet, the mainstream political parties have refused proportional representation thus continuing these false "landslide" elections. Very often, in any event, the policies of these same parties are cut from the same cloth (i.e. same philosophical underpinnings) even while being perhaps of different colours and styles (e.g. a little more for workers while continuing to swallow ostensibly protected areas, let developers buy municipal governments, and facilitating increased inequality).


BC voted twice on proportional representation. The first time around was under neoconservative premier Gordon Campbell, leader of the 'Liberals' (they are in fact conservative but stole the name after a couple of liberals joined them). They designed a system governed by a Citizen's Assembly that was active for a year and consisted of people who applied and were selected through a random lottery. The CA toured the province and received many top drawer expert reports describing the various types of PR and other voting systems and thousands of submissions by ordinary citizens.

After a very detailed analysis and extensive debates they recommended the Single Transferable Vote, which was described at great length along with the process. Campbell added a referendum question to the ballots for the next provincial election. The question offered a choice between STV and the status quo. A majority of 58% voted for STV, but Campbell set the bar purposely high at 60%. He's a politician, what do you expect?

The second time around was under John Horgan who had his most partisan guard dog take control of the process. Yes there was consultation, no there wasn't a citizen-led process, and the whole thing was rushed. It was a weak and very sad process and result. In BC it doesn't matter if you are an Ayn Rand pseudo intellectual G&T rightist or a hard core burger and beer union lefty, the status quo serves them both.

It must be noted that the NDP-Green minority government was a temporary thing that worked quite well for a while, but between some internal strife among the Greens and an obvious distaste for proportionality and sharing power among the NDP and many of its supporters, PR is now dead in BC.

In essence, a party can continue today to win a majority government in most Canadian senior governments with less than 40% of the vote and go on and wreak havoc for years (rarely is it heaven). But co-operation between like-minded elected MLAs who represent the majority of voter's intentions (i.e. true democracy), often in the form of a coalition, is to be feared and requires a supermajority to change the system to multiple choice preferential ballots. The 50% plus one rule seems to be selective.

There are two urbanists I would trust to design entire cities for climate, social justice, efficacy and delight. One of them is Ken Greenberg. I highly recommend his 2011 book 'Walking Home'. I am happy to see him quoted in the article, and think his analysis of compact and comfortable cities and neighbourhoods is spot on.

The other is Jan Gehl who had a significant influence on the character and urban design of Copenhagen, and therein on other cities and urbanists all around the world. He started in the 1960s when the administration at Copenhagen city hall asked him to recommended policies and urban design concepts to make the city centre a better place. One of the key things they did was to eliminate 3% of all parking in central Copenhagen every year. The compact city centre was getting strangled by cars and the associated massive infrastructure. They stuck with it for 40 years, and at such an incremental level no one seemed to notice until they had 100,000 m2 (25 acres) of land in downtown liberated primarily for pedestrian space supported by a new metro.

Enter the Stroget, a six km long network of conjoined pedestrian streets. Of course, car owners were apoplectic over the loss of parking, and business owners went ballistic and argued that their livelihoods would die as the result. All of it was fear mongering hogwash. The Stroget became extremely popular with residents and visitors who support commercial enterprise there with far more walk-in, wallet-wielding foot traffic than before. Today, businesses nearly commit murder for a storefront on the car-free streetscapes filled with cafes, fountains and public art.

One unfortunate consequence was that leases and store prices rose from the inflationary pressure. Hopefully, more pedestrian streets will help supply some relief.

Gehl also went on to consult on Copenhagen's waterfront and helped open it up to walking human beings, and his books provide very inspiring case studies and vignettes for urbanists like me that are the result of his deep observation of cities that work well around the world.

Living in the Car - n - age