Population, Growth Nodes and Intensification Targets

It’s hard to believe that some people are still getting agitated about whether or not Innisfil is designated as an “urban growth node” under the Places to Grow legislation (Town’s Population Target Reduced, Innisfil Scope, Nov 5). The argument is that we’re getting stuck with a minimum 40% intensification target but not being ‘rewarded’ with a higher population target. As it is, Innisfil’s population is still set to increase about 47% by 2031 to 56,000, reduced from a previous target of 65,000. (Innisfil’s current population is estimated to be 38,000). Rather than fret about these provincial edicts, can we just get on with planning – and implementing – what’s right for Innisfil?

If we want to preserve farmland, protect environmentally sensitive areas, create recreational spaces, improve lakeshore access and set aside land for industrial, commercial and institutional use, then how much land is left for residential development?

Places to Grow set a minimum target of 40% intensification:

“A key policy in the Growth Plan is the establishment of an intensification target which specifies that by 2015, and each year thereafter, a minimum 0f 40 percent of new residential development will occur within the built up areas of each upper- or single-tier municipality … the intensification target is a minimum target and municipalities are encouraged to plan for higher densities in built up areas … Built up areas are defined as the lands within the built boundary. They are those parts of a community’s settlement area that are already developed.” (emphasis added)

Built Boundary for the Growth Plan for the Greater Golden Horseshoe, 2006

Four out of ten new homes are supposed to be built as ‘infill’ within existing urban ‘settlement’ areas while the remaining 6 out of 10 are built on undeveloped ‘greenfield’ land. Does that sound unreasonable considering Innisfil’s goal to retain an overall rural atmosphere? Lately, the province has been back-pedalling again, setting a 20% intensification target for smaller communities in Simcoe County (except Innisfil) that are not designated as ‘urban growth nodes’. My guess is that we’ll have to plan on something significantly higher than a 20% intensification target to achieve sustainable development.

The minimum intensification target of 40% was public knowledge as far back as 2005, possibly earlier, when the Places to Grow legislation was being planned. So why all the angst five years or more later? Why are we hearing municipal officials say that they “don’t see how it will be possible”?  Is there a lack of forward planning? No contingency planning? Is there a perception at the provincial level that Innisfil “just doesn’t get it?”

The previous Council was focused on accelerating expansion plans for greenfield development in the proposed Alcona North and Alcona South planning areas. In August, the former Council approved hiring consultants to prepare Official Plan Amendment Studies. Local developers picked up the tab of $600,000 “to speed things up” contrary to the staff recommendation to wait until after the OMB appeal of Innisfil’s Official Plan. (Innisfil Scope – Alcona expansion and commercial studies approved, Aug 11, 2010)

Certainly it seems that knowledge of, or support for, the Places to Grow plan has been lacking at the municipal level as well as the general population. Education, awareness and support of Smart Growth was a priority recommended by the Central Ontario Smart Growth Panel in 2005:

“The panel recommends that the province … commit to initiate an education program on the benefits of compact development and smart growth. … the panel has stated that education must be initiated immediately…”

Urban Growth Centres

Do Innisfil residents have a reasonable knowledge – five years later – of the concepts and goals of the Places to Grow plan? A more recent document, The Growth Plan for the Greater Golden Horseshoe 2006, identifies “twenty-five existing or emerging downtown areas as urban growth centres and establishes policies and minimum density targets to encourage intensification and downtown revitalization.”  Under this policy, urban growth centres “will be planned as focal areas for investment in institutional and region-wide public services…” (emphasis added)

Illustration of density target 150 residents and jobs combined per hectare

Copyright Queen’s Printer for Ontario, photo source: Ontario Growth Secretariat, Ministry of Infrastructure

Barrie and Newmarket are designated as urban growth centres serving their regions. Barrie is assigned a minimum gross density target of 150 residents and jobs combined per hectare. (illustration above) Newmarket has a target of 200 residents and jobs combined per hectare (illustration below):


Illustration of density target 200 residents and jobs combined per hectare

Copyright Queen’s Printer for Ontario, photo source: Ontario Growth Secretariat, Ministry of Infrastructure

Urban Growth ‘Node’

Barrie is Simcoe County’s recognized regional centre and Newmarket is a regional centre for York Region. Recently the province issued a new planning document. Within Simcoe County, the province has recognized Alliston, Bradford, Collingwood, Midland and Penetang as urban growth nodes. How is it that Bradford, adjacent to Newmarket, is designated a “growth node” and Innisfil, adjacent to Barrie, is not? The distinguishing feature of a growth node appears to be the existence of a recognizable downtown core. Within Innisfil, only Cookstown has an existing (and historic) downtown core but lacks the infrastructure (water & roads) to support urban intensification.

Provincial policy, as it stands, is casting Innisfil as a primarily rural buffer between Barrie and other population centres. The lower population allotment and lack of a ‘node’ designation may be a blessing in disguise. It reduces the development pressure on greenfields, allows a higher priority for implementing employment strategies in Innisfil and offers more time to plan for intensification within existing communities. Done properly, Innisfil may very well become the most attractive lifestyle choice in the County with the most ideal mix of urban and rural, employment, agricultural, natural, and recreational features.  So, never mind the province’s assigned minimum level of intensification or the growth label.  Let’s choose the right level of intensification in our communities to improve the environment, features, choices and sustainable opportunities available for everyone in Innisfil.


6 thoughts on “Population, Growth Nodes and Intensification Targets

  1. Interesting paper, thanks for the reference. A Sustainability Council is a great idea. What would it look like? What do you think about an Environmental Advisory Committee?

    • First of all, welcome. This is a good question. I don’t have a definitive answer. Readers will find that I raise more questions than I answer. So, I took your question to Ms. Lloyd Swail, who is the Project Manager at the Green Economy Centre (see my links page), and the originator of the Sustainability Council idea.

      She has kindly provided the following additional comments:

      “Basically, a Sustainability Council would be made of interested local citizens, business people and municipal leaders. They would develop a terms of reference that includes: – a plan to influence leaders, – educate community and business members, – implement agreed upon actions, – communicate ideas of sustainability and – develop a broad based commitment to the principles of sustainability. The best place to start is generally with engaged leaders in your community and citizen groups.”

      I think I’m trying to help cover the last two items with this blog. Ms. Lloyd Swail also provided links to the following two resources:

      The Natural Step(http://www.thenaturalstep.org/en/canada/solutions-communities) “The Natural Step provides a clear, compelling, science-based definition of sustainability and a strategic planning framework to help communities make smart decisions that will move them step-by-step towards a successful and sustainable future… Our planning framework, tested and adapted in dozens of Canadian communities, is rooted in systems thinking, which helps our partners to understand how daily decisions impact the larger system in which we all live… The Natural Step offers a variety of approaches for communities. The primary objective is to help municipalities and their broader communities build capacity to understand and move strategically toward sustainability.”

      Integrated Community Sustainability Planning Tool, a paper prepared at Royal Roads University and available in PDF at http://www.crcresearch.org/files-crcresearch_v2/File/ICSP%20Planning%20Tool.pdf

      “A community sustainability plan is about integrating social and economic imperatives into the quality of place (the ecological imperative). The integration of people, place and economy into a single plan over a long-term perspective is a critical process for achieving sustainable community development. In many ways an integrated sustainable community plan is a process of reconciliation, with the three imperatives of sustainable development being bought together in an integrated policy planning and collaborative decision-making framework.”

      I think a Sustainability Council would be a a useful way to map out the ‘big-picture’ toward sustainable policies and practices in Innisfil. An Environmental Advisory Committee might perform much the same role. Or it may be more focused on specific projects/developments and provide advice on how well they meet sustainable objectives.

  2. Great article. I’m glad someone is talking about this. I wholeheartedly agree that the lower population allotment is a blessing in disguise, and I was surprised to read in the local paper that others had issue with it considering that maintaining the municipality’s rural charm seems to be an issue for many residents. I am quite concerned with the 47% population growth over 20 years. Innisfil is going to look and feel like an entirely different place. As residents, we absolutely need to discuss and choose the right level of intensification for our community before it’s decided for us. How and where can this conversation take place?

    • There are two issues – how much will Innisfil grow? Where will growth occur? Both have already been largely decided. ‘How much’ growth is subject to approval at the county and provincial level. Municipalities usually look at growth in terms of revenue from development charges and want as much as possible. But, my point is, if we are going to build a sustainable community we need to plan more carefully while we adopt new policies. With a smaller growth target there should be less urgency to push developments through.
      Provincial policy (Places to Grow) steers all new development toward established built-up areas and away from undeveloped ‘greenfields’. A target of 40% inside existing settlement areas is the minimum target. So, Innisfil, like all other communities, will be growing ‘up’ as well as ‘out’. A standard of 4 to 6 storey buildings is proposed, for example, for the Alcona commercial area. This would include a mix of retail, commercial and residential space. The Innisfil Official Plan is still under appeal at the OMB. When that’s settled, more specific site planning will take place.
      There are a few options for public discussion: town council and with councilors; this blog (open 24 hours a day!); and Susan Swail (York University) published a paper, Exploring Sustainable Planning Opportunities in South Simcoe, (available online) in which she suggested the creation of a Sustainability Council. I think it’s an excellent idea. I have suggested creating a community organization of some kind to raise awareness and develop a consensus around sustainable practices.

  3. I wonder if our exclusion from being a ‘node’ to Barrie had something to do with our previous municipal government. I am sure that there are still some ruffled feathers at Queen’s Park.
    My personal opinion about setting density figures for Innisfil should be based on demand/infrastructure and not on someone’s view on how Innisfil should look.
    As long as the development/growth can be supported by the environmental concerns then government, (and all beautification committees), should get out of the way… especially if their goal is to slow growth.

    • The policy to build at higher densities, i.e. urbanization vs. suburbanization, was decided for all of Ontario by the Places to Grow legislation in 2005. Higher densities provide for better use of land through mixed uses (commercial, retail, residential), supports more sustainable transportation options such as walking, transit and cycling, and allows more environmentally important areas to be protected.
      I inserted illustrations to show readers what 150 jobs/residences per hectare might mean in practical terms. But deciding the density figure for Innisfil is more complex than “someone’s view of how Innisfil should look”. When developers buy up all the surrounding greenfields for subdivisions aren’t they determining how Innisfil should look? How much growth is ‘slow’ or ‘fast’? Are you saying that 47% growth in the next 20 years is too slow? Or too fast? That’s the kind of question I’d like to put to readers of this blog.
      Beautification is the icing on the infrastructure cake. It doesn’t slow growth. It just redirects it. Innisfil’s Official Plan, which is still subject to approval, sought to have the province recognize multiple new areas as existing ‘settlements’. It is a recipe for more sprawl in all directions. The province isn’t buying it. The streetscape project in Alcona and the planned streetscape renovation for Cookstown set the stage for dramatic changes in how Innisfil will grow.

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