A Planner’s Values
In his 35 years of municipal planning, Gregg Lintern has held various roles and responsibilities in several different community planning districts across the City of Toronto, and has led projects including a plan for the downtown known as “TOcore”, the Port Lands Planning Framework, Mirvish + Gehry, Mirvish Village, Yonge-Dundas Revitalization, Billy Bishop Airport and Regent Park.
As Toronto’s Chief Planner, his stated priorities include transit network expansion, housing affordability, proactive planning and improvements to the Development Review Process, and he discussed several of these at the Toronto Region Board of Trade in his first address since accepting the position.
A leader thinks about the values that ground them. Toronto is a leader and has been a leader for a long time, and we think about the success of the city over a long period of time and how its actions have actually aligned with its values. And you think about today and the challenges that we are confronted with in Toronto, challenges of success really, and you think about what values are going to sustain us in making the choices, and undertaking the actions that we need to take to face those challenges. So really that in a way is a true test of leadership, and how you transfer those values into action.
Transit is becoming the number one thing that we got to do as a city. Transit and mobility, for me, is the great equalizer. It can overcome the challenges that we’ve got in the city around income, separation, spatial segregation and the access to opportunity. It’s really why transit is a public good that needs to be supported by all levels of government.
Really, why that matters is because access brings more opportunities. The equation is a very basic equation, but it’s been borne out in our experience of building the transit system — I would argue a very undersized transit system — that we have and creating a network will improve access and ultimately improve opportunity for more and more Torontonians. But there are at least two Torontos that we have when we look at the tiers of transit service. There are many people who have challenges from an equity point of view, and in their lived experience on transit describe Toronto as a place of transit deserts. And when you correlate that with income in the City of Toronto, you see the historic pattern that has emerged where economically challenged populations also have the lowest transit scores.
Going forward, that’s an unacceptable way to continue to build the city. We’ve got to apply ourselves to addressing one of the greatest legacies of 20th century post-war planning and decision-making, which was a lack of transit investment. One of the most important things we can do, from an equity perspective, is deliver transit to neighbourhoods and areas that were never really conceived as places that would have transit. But this isn’t just about one mode: it’s about bus, GO Trains, SmartTrack stations, LRTs, subways. Ultimately, it’s about biking, walking and all those other modes, too, because they give you a choice, and hopefully a desire, to not use a private automobile, but actually move around the city in another way.
One example that is under construction — it’s great to say those two words in the same sentence, transit “under construction” — is the Eglinton Line which traverses the entire city and several portions are under construction. The Eglinton East Line is a piece coming to council soon. The Eglinton West line, we’re doing some further work with the community there. So this is really the main street for the city and you can see its strategic location across the city.
We are doing a planning study on the Golden Mile out in Scarborough that shows you how this strip can be transformed over time with the insertion of a surface LRT. It is really an improved public realm, with access to different modes and ultimately a much better sense of place, a place where people can prosper, a place where development can take place over a period of time, where we can build complete communities. It really shows you how transformative transit can be. It’s important when you think about the linkage between transit and job growth, why that linkage is so important across the entire city. A lot of jobs happening, not just in the downtown, but across the geography of the 416.
Housing is the other part that we’ve got to get consensus on, and where we have to go focus our efforts. We have this great debate about supply: do we have enough? Will we ever have enough? I was part of a discussion yesterday that talked about latent supply, and that we’ve got a serious amount of built housing in the city that isn’t being occupied by people. But what are we doing about creating housing? We’re approving, in the last five years now, 21,000 units a year in the 416. And the industry — and they can take a bow for this — is building on an average 17,000 units a year. 350 mid-rise projects in either the approved or planned process in the last five years, represents 32,000 units. But we’ve still got issues of availability, of affordability and we need, really, I think, a suite of tools, an ecosystem of solutions.
This is about zoning for development. I’ve been talking about this and it’s obviously a move that I’m going to be encouraging council to consider more. We have pre-zoned areas in the city and have had success with that. King Street, St. Clair Avenue, other parts of the city have been earmarked for development, and development can proceed a lot more quickly and easily with less process, provided there’s a good, strong consensus in that local community about what that outcome is going to be about. While pre-zoning is an old idea, I think it’s a very worthy idea, certainly in my experience. We have to preserve what we have. Obviously maintaining our stock of rental housing is a significant goal of the city.
Forty per cent of the growth in the city is happening downtown, but importantly 60 per cent is projected to occur in what I call the “416 settlers.” The capacity of the suburbs, the avenues, the places in between the centres, is enormous. It’s untapped, and with that transit network that I laid out earlier, is a great big answer to helping with housing availability citywide.
Alternately, making sure we build choice. People need choice throughout their life cycle. They need family housing, seniors’ housing, and housing when they’re single, they need housing when they’ve got a partner, you can think of all the different life choices and life experiences we go through. We should not think about housing in the abstract without thinking about all the other things that we need to support housing. And a lot of that is around infrastructure: we have to keep it connected; it’s meaningless if it’s not going to be connected.
All of that manifests itself in planning permits, area planning, things that we put together. And this happens at different scales. Many of you who work in the planning and development sector, you know we spend a lot of our time thinking about the layers, all the things that inform the planning outcomes. And all the different tools, and they kind of line up and they inform each other.
We work in a policy-led environment in the Province of Ontario and we’ve got to conform in a line with the direction that comes from the Province. And that’s about growth and intensification. So, what we spend a lot of time with the city is just figuring out how it’s going to land on the ground. And these are the tools that help us do that. The new direction, the new planning legislation that’s just coming online now, it’s going to be a new way of doing business, which makes this even more important.
There are always new opportunities in the city. They come up through our own actions, but they come up through the actions of others. It’s a big, complicated place, and really, it’s why those values that I talked about in the beginning are so important. How is transit, for example, going to be used to leverage opportunity? I love this word — opportunity — because it represents the challenge of thinking differently and innovating, working with partners, which we do all the time, and our ability to lead, really, and achieve the potential of these values. We have to remember who we are, what our voice is, and understand where we came from. And we really have to continue to build a collective understanding of where we want to go.
The preceding was an address given on May 9 at the Toronto Region Board of Trade Downtown Centre, edited for clarity.