Skip to main content
Open this photo in gallery:

Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing Steve Clark speaks in the Ontario Legislature in Toronto on May 18.Chris Young/The Canadian Press

For decades, urbanists, transit advocates and politicians of all different levels and stripes lamented that the Greater Toronto Area was an unco-ordinated patchwork of municipalities. So did anyone who needed to regularly ride public transit across those invisible local boundaries and was forced to pay two, or even three, fares.

Recently, Ontario’s Progressive Conservative government finally vowed to fix that “fare integration” problem. But at the same time, it is working on potentially dismantling the regional governments that stretch over the various municipalities that surround Toronto.

Municipal Affairs Minister Steve Clark has not committed to ending all of them. However, Peel Region to the west, at the behest of Mississauga, which is tired of seeing its tax dollars used for infrastructure in Brampton and Caledon, has already been promised the axe.

This regional divorce, some experts say, is a stark reversal after a century of efforts to design the boundary-straddling umbrella institutions needed to oversee the growth of the country’s largest metropolitan area and govern it more effectively as a “city-region.”

Ontario has already pledged to remove all urban planning authority at the regional level, while allowing lower-density development on thousands of hectares of farmland, including some protected Greenbelt areas. Critics say the moves are part of a campaign to return to the sprawling, car-dependent development of the 1980s.

Anne Golden, a former head of the United Way and Conference Board of Canada and co-founder of Toronto Metropolitan University’s City Building Institute, says the retreat from regionalism fits into a pattern: “It’s a decision to sprawl.”

A quarter-century ago, Ms. Golden was behind the most ambitious, but failed, attempt to put the Toronto area’s expanding city-region under one roof, as chair of the Greater Toronto Area Task Force appointed by the NDP government of Bob Rae. She says the current government is taking the region backward.

“What you are seeing is an incredible, fast, thoughtless overturning of all the lessons of regional planning that urbanists have come to understand over the past five decades,” Ms. Golden said in an interview.

Her 1996 report called for a new “Greater Toronto Council,” a larger upper-tier regional government that would have replaced both what was then Metro Toronto and parts of the surrounding regions and overseen co-ordination among 30 Toronto-area municipalities – with an eye to reining in sprawl while building transit and new infrastructure.

However, the newly elected PC government of Mike Harris, which amalgamated hundreds of small municipalities, chose instead in 1998 to abolish Metro and create Toronto’s one-tier “megacity.” It left the boundaries of the suburban regions, home to its electoral base in the then-newly created 905 telephone area code, untouched.

Toronto had been moving toward some sort of regional government for about 100 years.

In 1924, after the City of Toronto tired of the expense of annexing rural neighbours (including what is still called the Annex), a provincial Conservative cabinet minister (George Henry, who later became premier) proposed the creation of a regional “metropolitan district.”

As retired York University urban studies professor Frances Frisken writes in her 2003 book The Public Metropolis, his caucus rejected the idea, and further discussion was soon derailed by the more pressing concerns of the Great Depression and the Second World War. So it was not until 1954 that another PC government created Metro Toronto, a federation of municipal governments in what is now the amalgamated city’s boundaries.

Metro’s size was necessary to finance the infrastructure needed for rapidly developing Scarborough, North York and Etobicoke, build the Gardiner Expressway and Don Valley Parkway, and spread the Toronto Transit Commission across the central city’s suburbs. While not without flaws, Metro’s “two-tier” model was widely praised throughout North America as Toronto avoided the postwar decay experienced in many American cities.

By the 1960s, it was clear that massive growth was pushing past Metro’s boundaries into the rural counties that lay beyond. In 1974, the PC government of Bill Davis tried to replicate the success of Metro with the creation of what were nicknamed “mini-Metros.”

These new regional governments were meant to unite small, rural communities to create the critical mass of taxpayers needed to finance the infrastructure required for the rapid baby boomer-driven expansion in Peel, Halton, York and Durham Regions, as well as Waterloo.

Nearly 50 years later, Brampton and Mississauga are large enough to stand on their own. But smaller and rural Caledon, which expects its population to go from 80,000 to 300,000 over the next two decades, is not in a position to cover its own costs, said Kevin Eby, the former director of community planning for the Region of Waterloo.

And he doubts the province is going to want to pick up the tab for new infrastructure in Caledon either.

Mr. Eby says the removal of planning authority from the regions is one of several changes that appear meant to resolve “outstanding grievances” from the development industry, which bristles at having to deal with two layers of planning. But he doubts the unwinding of Peel or other regions will speed up housing approvals, as the government argues.

For starters, provincial planners will now have to approve scores more local official plans from newly empowered lower-tier municipalities, which will also have the power, under recent proposed changes, to set their own growth targets free of any regional co-ordination.

“All that’s going to happen is they are going to create chaos for the next four to five years as they try to unwind all this,” Mr. Eby said. “And if there’s anything the housing industry doesn’t like, it’s chaos.”

Out of that chaos, something similar to the current Region of Peel may have to emerge. Its water and wastewater infrastructure will likely have to be shared. So might policing, and public housing or ambulances. Boards would need to be set up for new utility-like entities, or new cost-sharing agreements will need to be negotiated. And with the potential breakup of other regions, all of which are made up of many more lower-tier municipalities than Peel’s three members, the complexities will multiply.

“This is not going to be the creation of three new independent municipalities,” Myer Siemiatycki, professor emeritus of politics at Toronto Metropolitan University, said of the Peel breakup. “At best it will be some form of sovereignty-association.”

He also warns that the new, special-purpose institutions that replace the common functions of Peel and the other regions could end with appointed boards instead of ones made up of elected representatives, which he said would be a “step back for local democracy.”

Zack Taylor, an associate professor of political science at Western University in London, Ont., says the idea that Toronto’s constantly expanding urban region could be contained in one institution was never realistic.

Even if the decades-old report from Ms. Golden had been implemented, he said, the region by now would have already outgrown it, with its commuters and economic links to places as far away as Guelph, Kitchener and Barrie. And no provincial government wants to create a municipal monster full of potential critics and opponents that would rival Queen’s Park in size, as such a region would.

Ontario’s provincial governments since the early 2000s, Dr. Taylor says, have instead increasingly stuck their own fingers into the region’s local planning.

Previous PC governments protected the Oak Ridges Moraine north of Toronto and pushed municipalities to adopt “smart growth” policies. The Liberals, under Dalton McGuinty, established the protected Greenbelt and a growth plan meant to curb sprawl – both since weakened by the current PCs – as well as the regional transit agency Metrolinx.

“It’s kind of an impossible situation, because it’s so big and so complicated that the only government or institution that’s big enough to encompass it is the provincial government,” Dr. Taylor said.

Enid Slack, the director of the Institute on Municipal Finance and Governance at the School of Cities at the University of Toronto, says she still believes a larger, regional approach is needed, whatever happens to Peel and the other regions.

“When we look at transportation, when we look at land-use planning, when we look at immigration, whatever we are looking at, these things need to be co-ordinated on a much broader level than individual municipalities,” she said.

The urban federation model is still alive in other jurisdictions, including in London, England, which is made up of 32 boroughs that handle local matters and a Greater London Council responsible for citywide services.

Metro Vancouver is a federation of 21 municipalities. And its model, former manager of policy and planning Ken Cameron explains, is more of a voluntary association, with members free to choose not to delegate a particular municipal service to the Metro level. In Ontario, he says, where earlier in his career he was among the bureaucrats who helped create the regions in 1974, things have always been more top-down.

“The thing about the political culture here, I would say, having lived and worked in both British Columbia and Ontario, is that British Columbia believes local government is the source of democracy,” Mr. Cameron said. “Ontario’s view was that the government system was in its entirety the provincial government’s responsibility, so the province could design at will, if it wanted to make changes.

“And that’s what you are seeing now.”

Editor’s note: An earlier edition of this article incorrectly stated the Institute on Municipal Finance and Governance is affiliated with the Munk Centre for International Studies. It is, in fact, affiliated with the University of Toronto’s School of Cities.

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe