Issues and Responses

The GGH has entered a new phase, with an economic landscape characterized by simultaneous growth, transition and loss; disruptive technologies and increased uncertainty; and a marked shift in spatial patterns. Land use planning needs to take this new geography and economic context into account.

Factoring the new economic geography of the GGH into planning

It is hoped that the analysis presented here - a conceptual framework for understanding a changing economic landscape, Archetype profiles and vulnerability mapping - is a useful input to Growth Plan implementation, including Municipal Comprehensive Reviews, Employment Strategies, and Land Needs Assessments. Municipal planners can draw on the analysis and outlooks for the Archetypes that are relevant within their own borders.

The analysis can be used to identify the kinds of economic activity to be planned for, in what locations, and the characteristics of urban environments that may be needed to support them. The analysis could also inform other aspects of Official Plan policy and Secondary Plans. As well, there are important implications for regional-scale planning, all described below.

At the regional level, the new geography of growth, transition, and loss shown on the maps has implications for the current allocation of 2041 employment growth to the upper- and single-tier municipalities in Schedule 3 of the Growth Plan. Our analysis suggests a much more concentrated pattern of employment growth than the current allocation represents. Updated employment forecasts and allocations that reflect the new dynamics and shifting employment geography are essential to effective planning. They also underpin regional economic competitiveness by ensuring that we are prepared for growth and do not under-designate the kinds of employment lands that are needed, while avoiding wasteful over-designation.

Addressing an increasingly dominant Toronto core

Employment in downtown Toronto topped 500,000 in 2016. About 25 million square feet of office development in or near downtown is in the planning approvals pipeline.[1] Even assuming a higher-than-typical floorspace per worker of 250 square feet, that figure represents an additional 100,000 jobs. The City of Toronto projects growth of 250,000 to 315,000 jobs by 2041 in the downtown and flanking areas in South of Eastern and Liberty Village, bringing the total number of jobs there to as many as 915,000.[2] This growth represents a significant share of major office growth projected for the entire GGH under the Growth Plan forecasts.

The sustained concentration of growing knowledge-intensive employment in Archetypes like Finance and High Order Business Services raises several important questions. Can this level of growth in downtown Toronto be sustained? Are the walking, cycling, and transit networks needed to support future growth being planned and implemented in a timely manner? If not, growth may be deflected to other areas of the region or even other competing city-regions. As pressure on Downtown Toronto intensifies, at some point the agglomeration dis-benefits described in Chapter 2 may begin to outweigh agglomeration benefits.

The hyper-concentration of employment growth in and around Downtown Toronto, the flagging of concentrated development elsewhere in the region (including the SKIDs that were, until recently, flag-bearers for concentrated employment growth outside Toronto), along with residential expansion at the edges of the urbanized area, raise questions about workers' access to jobs (especially for people living farther from Downtown Toronto or far from high-order transit), and employers' access to workers.

Given the increasing dominance of Downtown Toronto as an employment concentration, a strategic approach to support economic resilience would consider the need for a second major downtown for the region. Where could the Toronto region create its own version of La Defense (Paris) or Canary Wharf (London)? A critical criterion is access by high-order transit that captures the entire regional labour market and allows for shortened commutes. In addition, it should build upon an existing concentration of development and firms to support agglomeration economies, and offer the potential for a significant amount of dense, mixed-use development, including residential development. A second major downtown should be a strong focus for new development and investment, to counterbalance an increasingly dominant Downtown Toronto, and allow for some redundancy and therefore resilience in the region's structure.

Prioritizing nodes and corridors

If the GGH continues to shift toward the consolidation of a single dominant centre, questions arise about the ability of the Urban Growth Centres (UGCs) designated in the Growth Plan (excluding Downtown Toronto and perhaps North York City Centre) to attract significant amounts of office development. The same consideration applies to the viability of Major Transit Station Areas (MTSAs) and other Strategic Growth Areas designated in Official Plans.

The reality is that the plethora of places in the GGH where official plans anticipate new office development outweighs the likely demand for such space. This mismatch becomes an important issue if expectations about attracting future office development underpin the creation of a vibrant centre or form the rationale to support transit investments.

While it is unquestionably important to encourage intensification and densification in the right places, planning for UGCs, MTSAs, and other Strategic Growth Areas must be realistic about the amount of office growth that might be attracted to any given location. This understanding has implications for the Urban Structures of municipalities addressed in Municipal Comprehensive Reviews, as well as for the regional structure of UGCs identified in the Growth Plan. In both cases, a more strategic, focused approach to planning for centres, nodes, and corridors is wise. Municipal Official Plans and the Growth Plan could prioritize amongst these areas to focus new development, build on existing development and agglomeration economies, and ensure that growth is aligned with infrastructure investments.

Planning for growing Archetypes

A key planning issue is: where will the GGH accommodate growing Archetypes? Where will, for example, Soft Tech or Arts and Design, which currently inhabit the edges of downtown Toronto, expand in future? Most former industrial or warehouse space at the edges of the core has already been repurposed. Are we - should we be - planning for employment densification on the edges of the core? Where else would meet the locational, access, and urban environment requirements of these growing Archetypes - early postwar (1950s-1960s) industrial areas? Planning the expansion of these activities must be integrated with planning for residential densification, a closer mixing of uses, flexible and affordable spaces, transit accessibility, and a high-quality, walkable public realm.

This kind of forward thinking is needed for each of the growing Archetypes, not just for successful planning, but also to ensure that the GGH can accommodate and support strategic economic sectors. The analysis presented here can help in developing more robust, nuanced planning policy regarding the kinds of activities, locations, and urban environments needed for different kinds of employment uses, and could feed into Municipal Comprehensive Reviews.

Logistics operations in particular have been growing and the continued expansion of e-commerce suggests that this growth is likely to continue. Logistics facilities require very large sites and bring heavy truck traffic. They have significant impacts on urban and natural environments, surrounding areas, and Growth Plan objectives, such as the efficient use of land. A regional approach to this Archetype in particular is needed.

A regional Logistics strategy could track key industry drivers and project regional space needs, create an inventory of existing and planned sites, ensuring that longer-term supply meets demand and avoiding over- or under-designation of lands, which might result from a fragmented municipality-by-municipality strategy. In addition, a regional strategy could identify the most appropriate locations in the GGH for these facilities; avoid or minimize conflicts with other uses, developments, or natural areas; and ensure proactive planning in relation to existing and planned investments in facilities such as intermodal terminals and airports.

Attracting growth outside central Toronto

As knowledge-intensive activities hyper-concentrate in and around Downtown Toronto, the potential for other areas to attract significant amounts of compact, transit-supportive uses such as office development is called into question. This is true not only for the UGCs, MTSAs, and Strategic Growth Areas as noted above, but also for existing employment areas and office parks. Even well-located employment areas are having difficulty attracting new development. Analysis undertaken by the City of Toronto for the renewal of the Consumers Road office park suggests limited potential to attract new development,[3] even though development in this location would be significantly cheaper than in Downtown Toronto, the site is centrally located, and it has good transit service.

Can anything be done to attract growth to these areas? Some growing Archetypes may continue to be attracted to suburban settings, such as Science-based firms, Pharma, and Telecoms (included in the Special Archetype). Otherwise, similar to the factors attracting firms to downtown Toronto, the future of these areas will rely on excellent access to labour for firms, an environment attractive to workers, and supporting agglomeration economies.

Providing excellent transit service offers employers access to the widest possible pool of workers - a critical competitive asset. Attracting employees also means creating a high-quality urban environment - one that integrates transit, provides a walkable and cyclable public realm, and offers worker amenities and services, such as restaurants, cafes, shops, daycares, or recreational facilities.

Areas with an existing critical mass of firms, employees, and resources can build on this base to strengthen agglomeration economies and attract more firms. Many of these areas require updated planning frameworks and urban environments. Planning tools such as secondary plans and zoning can help by allowing a wider range of productive uses and building types as-of-right, identifying densification opportunities, improving the public realm, permitting land uses related to employee amenities, and anticipating future development - in short, creating flexible planning frameworks (see below).

Even with these measures, the new economic geography of the GGH suggests that attracting office-related employment in growing Archetypes to these areas in large numbers presents a challenge. This reality underscores the need for redevelopment and renewal efforts to be focused on key locations with high economic development potential and the highest levels of existing transit connectivity to the regional labour market, and for future transit investments to take into account the economic potential of employment areas.

Addressing areas of stagnation or decline

In the GGH, we are very good at planning for growth - quantifying the need for and designating new greenfields development areas. Planners use projected growth in major office employment or in "Employment Lands Employment" to develop land use plans. But an overall growth number can obscure the fact that some areas in the region or within a municipality are stagnating or experiencing a net loss of employment and economic activity.

The range of areas experiencing loss is wide: from older urban industrial areas to inner suburban office parks, megazones, and other industrial areas, suggesting that different, area-specific strategies will be required. Updated planning and urban design and more flexible planning frameworks may be helpful. In specific cases, these areas could also be considered for repurposing to address the growth of certain Archetypes: we've mentioned above the idea of redesigning 1950s- or 1960s-era industrial lands to accommodate growing Arts and Design, or Soft Tech, for example.

Planning for these areas would also benefit from integration with an economic development strategy. A place-based economic development strategy could identify measures such as particular investments - in shared space, incubators, training centres, municipal facilities, or start-up spaces, for example.

The development potential associated with these areas should also be factored in to Municipal Comprehensive Reviews and Land Needs Assessments.

Forward-looking planning

Close integration with global markets, production, and distribution networks exposes GGH firms and the regional economy as a whole to disruptions around the world. This vulnerability is heightened by the disruptive potential of ongoing, rapid technological change.

Built environments are long-lasting and relatively slow to change. Planning has historically been focused on creating certainty and predictable outcomes. These facts create a tension with the current environment of rapid change, disruption, and uncertainty, and a challenge to the region's economic resilience.

Planning can play a key role in regional preparedness for foreseen and unforeseen events and changes. Similar to planning for the natural environment, planners can identify the region's economic flood plains, that is, areas vulnerable to economic storms. Regardless of the specific geography of disruption, all municipalities can benefit from adopting strategies to improve economic resilience.

One of the ways in which we can improve the GGH's economic preparedness, resilience, and ability to deal with disruptions is for land use planning to adopt a more anticipatory outlook. Employment projections based on linear extrapolations of past growth patterns are inadequate in today's environment. While some may argue that it is risky to base land use planning on predictions for an uncertain future, there are risks attached to land use planning that looks in the rearview mirror. These risks include not having the right kinds of land supply, urban environments, and planning frameworks in place to accommodate growing businesses and address lagging areas. Land use planning that entrenches the past rather than looking forward to the future is too common in the GGH.

More robust analytical approaches are needed, based on an understanding of the underlying dynamics of economic change at the regional and local scales. This report, which identifies key drivers shaping the geography of growth and decline in the GGH, and uses Archetypes as an analytical tool, is one example of such an approach.

The intelligence gained from a dynamics-driven, regional-level spatial analysis can be used to create more anticipatory regional and local planning frameworks, better suited to face potential challenges, address future land needs, and create the right kinds of urban environments and planning regimes.

Flexible planning

Increasing flexibility in the use of land and buildings is probably the best way to deal with uncertainty and disruption and to support economic resilience. Greater flexibility allows businesses to respond to rapidly changing competitive pressures and new ways of working and producing, and would permit the diverse interactions that support innovation and production networks. This means greater flexibility in permitted uses in municipal Official Plans, secondary plans, and zoning.

There is growing demand for employment spaces and facilities that integrate different functions: innovation, research, institutions, worker training, start-ups, labs, office, co-working, and production space, for example. Businesses are collaborating with universities and community colleges, and these arrangements often require flexible land use permissions. Different uses could be integrated at the building level (as they are in MaRS, for example) or at the district level in the form of innovation parks or mixed-use areas. GGH municipalities, however, have been slow to adopt flexible land-use frameworks.

The lines between industries are becoming more and more blurred. Business functions are increasingly encompassing more than one type of activity.[4] For example, distribution often includes some production functions, such as packaging, as well as services to retail, such as on-site set-up and assembly. Bricks-and-mortar retailers fill online orders, or provide click-and-collect services. Manufacturing facilities may include retail outlets, as they do in breweries or bakeries.

The lines between services and manufacturing are also becoming blurred as more services are embedded in physical products, such as networked products like Nike smart runners or programmable lights and cars. Meanwhile, formerly physical products have been "dematerialized," such as music, video games, movies, books, magazines, and newspapers, so that production of these items no longer requires a manufacturing facility.

Land use policies and permissions that are based on restrictive, narrowly defined use categories are out of date relative to the ways in which many products are made, and how companies now operate.

Businesses need to adjust their processes and products over time, and to expand or contract their operations and facilities as those processes change. Planning frameworks, such as secondary plans, therefore need to build in flexibility and evolution. Secondary plans can anticipate building expansions, densification, broader uses, and the integration of transit, for example, so that such changes can proceed without lengthy planning reviews.

Restrictive planning frameworks that require rezoning or other reviews for land use changes are costly and time-consuming. Performance-based zoning, which addresses potential impacts and mitigation directly rather than through the proxy of land use lists, is one approach. Another is district-based plans that anticipate changes in use, building expansions, densification, and other adaptations to change, while ensuring a high-quality urban environment. These flexible planning approaches would better support businesses and local economies in the event of significant disruptions.

Supporting innovation

Urban environments can promote innovation by supporting linkages among diverse actors such as firms, research labs, or institutions, and by allowing for formal and informal knowledge exchange. This means denser urban environments with a range of activities, amenities, meeting spaces, industries, and resources, all closely mixed, with walking, cycling, and good transit access, and buildings with flexible design layouts to accommodate new ways of working.

This mixed-use environment leverages public investments - in laboratories, or higher education or training facilities, for example - by promoting synergies with firms or other organizations. The flexible planning frameworks described above would foster these kinds of urban environments, which today are found in older urban areas, such as the edges of Downtown Toronto, and in some older city centres.

In Chapter 2 we also mentioned innovation processes that are more intra-firm in nature. These would be served by providing places for larger, multi-national firms, such as the more corporate environment of suburban office parks, including SKIDs. Providing good transit service to these locations may be critical to their success, as firms need to attract skilled employees, and as highway congestion worsens. This calls for planning strategies to densify these areas in conjunction with transit investments that will support these types of firms.

Converting employment lands

One of the ongoing planning issues in the GGH is whether existing employment lands in some locations ought to be converted to other uses, particularly residential and retail. This is a complex and strategic issue, and the answers will depend on site characteristics, as well as region-wide and locality-specific considerations. However, the analysis presented above suggests some considerations relevant to the issue.

The demand for offices, flex uses, and employment spaces has been increasing in particular locations, spurred by growing Archetypes such as Soft Tech or Arts and Design. Accommodating growth for these and other Archetypes over the longer term may mean repurposing and renewing older, underused industrial areas.

Our analysis also suggests the need for urban industrial spaces in future. This includes space for medium-scale urban warehousing closer to consumer markets, light manufacturing closely linked to consumer markets (such as food and beverage production), and tech-related manufacturing, such as 3D printing.

Demand for suburban manufacturing and warehousing uses should also be considered in the context of the potential reshoring of manufacturing and the expansion of logistics and distribution facilities to support e-commerce. These changes suggest increasing demand for land and buildings in appropriate locations, with higher levels of automation and robotics, and fewer but higher-skilled employees.

More detailed future outlooks for all Archetypes could further inform the employment lands conversion question.

The conversion of employment lands issue would be best informed by a regional perspective. The economic landscape of the region can shift - as we have shown with the recent hyper-concentration of knowledge-intensive jobs in Downtown Toronto. Such a shift has implications both for the places that are attracting growth, and the places that are not. These shifts take place at the regional scale, across municipal boundaries.

The GGH is one integrated regional economy, one regional labour market. Making decisions about conversions on a municipal basis, without regard to the regional context, will result in suboptimal outcomes, such as under- or overestimating the need for certain types of employment lands in the long term. A certain type of site may be plentiful within a given municipality, for example, but relatively rare in a regional context.

Currently the GGH lacks a common regional perspective that could inform this issue. Some kind of regularly updated, long-term, dynamics-driven GGH economic outlook could provide a strategic, regional context for conversions. This could include more detailed future outlooks for each of the Archetypes. A complementary need is an inventory of the employment lands and permitted uses across the GGH, to understand the supply context.

These measures could help ensure that key sites, or those that may be needed in the long term for employment-related uses, are not lost, thereby ensuring good sites for the kinds of economic activities that drive the regional economy. A regional perspective could also identify locations of regional strategic economic importance. The current employment lands conversion process is missing this longer-term, strategic, regional economic context.

A regional economic development strategy

Unusually, for such an important regional economy, the GGH suffers from the lack of a regional economic development strategy. Aside from the economic advantages a regional strategy offers, it would also allow for the closer integration of economic and land use planning in the region and help identify the kinds of economic activities that are growing, stable, or declining in the GGH. Planning alone cannot resolve issues relating to the loss of employment in certain districts. Working in concert with economic initiatives that might be identified in a regional strategy, relating to skills development, incubators, or start-up space, for example, provides a more effective approach.

Transportation planning

The new geography of hyper-concentrated job growth, combined with slow growth or loss of employment in areas elsewhere in the GGH, has important implications for transportation planning.

On one hand, there is high growth pressure on Downtown Toronto and nearby areas, where transit access - especially by subway - is already under stress and must be addressed. On the other hand, areas outside Downtown Toronto and possibly North York City Centre, are faced with the prospect of limited transit-supportive, employment-related development, such as offices. Yet one of the few areas attracting relatively concentrated growth outside the downtown is the Meadowvale SKID. Despite its GO station, transit improvements to this area (which would also serve Mississauga Centre) are not prioritized in the current Regional Transportation Plan.

This omission suggests that regional transit planning does not pay sufficient attention to the economic role and potential of some areas. The economic role of particular areas - be they UGCs, MTSAs, other Strategic Growth Areas, SKIDs, or office parks - must figure into the planning and regional prioritization of transit projects.

Nor perhaps has there been adequate recognition of the central role that transit plays in a knowledge-intensive economy. Transit is increasingly essential in attracting knowledge-intensive activities to an area. It is not a coincidence that many of the Archetypes that are growing and drive the economy are located in areas with high levels of transit service. Transit makes it possible to match skilled workers with jobs that best use their talents, thereby increasing regional productivity. At a broader level, the growth of these knowledge-intensive activities provides an important opportunity to support a modal shift.

If employment continues to concentrate centrally, and residential development continues at the edges of the region, there is also the possibility of worsening the existing mismatch between jobs and housing, extending commuting distances, making the provision of cost-effective transit service even more difficult, and increasing auto-dependency and congestion.

Metrolinx's Regional Transportation Plan and other transit plans in the GGH must take into account the critical role of transit in a knowledge-based economy, and the changing employment geography of the region. Transportation plans could leverage the role of transit in a knowledge economy, by aligning investments with economically significant places, recognizing the new employment geography, focusing on building on existing concentrations of development (especially outside Downtown Toronto), and investing strategically to support the regeneration and renewal of specific areas.

A regional evidence base

Good planning policy requires good, ongoing data and analysis about the changing economic landscape of the GGH. At present, the sole source of GGH-wide data is the Census Place of Work data used in this report. Although it is a good source, more frequently updated data are needed. A regional initiative to expand, coordinate, and consolidate the annual employment surveys currently undertaken by different municipalities would be a good start.

In addition to the need for a regularly updated, regional economic outlook and an inventory of employment lands and permitted uses, research requirements include:

  • more detailed examinations of the characteristics and drivers of each of the key Archetypes;
  • an analysis of the potential effects of automation on the demand for industrial floorspace;
  • an inventory of land within UGCs, MTSAs, and other designated Strategic Growth areas and employment lands, including an assessment of the potential supply of and demand for office development.

Better planning for the many diverse areas that contain employment is critical to the future of the Greater Golden Horseshoe. Areas catering to business play a key role in achieving fundamental planning objectives related to the efficient use of infrastructure, sustainable transportation, and a livable region. Also, the successful land use planning of these areas is critical to the continued economic competitiveness and prosperity of the GGH. Successful planning relies on integrating an understanding of the economic dynamics and new realities that we face in the Next GGH.

[1] City of Toronto, "How does the City grow?" April 2017, revised July 2018.

[2] Staff report, "TOCore: Downtown Official Plan Amendment," April 17, 2018. Employment in the downtown was estimated at more than 500,000 jobs in 2016. Including those who work at home, those with no fixed place of work residing in the downtown, and employment in the two flanking areas brings the 2016 total to 600,000 jobs. The employment forecast used for the plan was for 850,000 to 915,000 by 2041.

[3] City of Toronto, "ConsumersNext," secondary plan, approved March 26, 2018.

[4] See, e.g. NAIOP 2016, NAIOP 2016, CBRE 2017, Ronderos, 2010.