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.
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.
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.
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.
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.