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How Ontario’s Bill 51 Launched a Quiet Revolution in Planning

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When Ontario brought in its first planning act some 60 years ago, the goal was to instill some order into post-war growth. This groundbreaking legislation not only set out basic ground rules and responsibilities for directing changes in land use, but was instrumental in launching planning as a professional discipline in the province. As the volume and pace of development increased, however, it wasn’t long before planners who relied on a well-thumbed copy of the Planning Act and a passing acquaintance with the Municipal Act found themselves overwhelmed with a plethora of new statutes designed to regulate natural resources, the environment and a host of other emerging issues. Complexity spawned specialization, which in turn encouraged a silo mentality among the institutions engaged in planning and development. Not the best way to tackle the challenges of sustainability.

The introduction of Bill 51 (the Planning and Conservation Land Statute Law Amendment Act, 2006), which became law a year ago on January 1, 2007, promises to break down those silos, offering planners, developers and municipal officials alike the opportunity to work across disciplines and see their work more holistically.

The first hint that Bill 51 has been designed to deal differently with the planning agenda is the bold declaration in Section Two of the provincial interest in “development that is designed to be sustainable.” Beyond that, it identifies “sustainable design” as a defined term, throwing out a challenge to the planning profession while positioning itself to keep pace with the rapid transformation of the marketplace to accommodate greener development. In effect, the province is saying, “What does sustainable design mean? Well, we haven’t worked that out yet, but if what you are doing doesn’t work for us, we reserve the right to intervene.” While it is still too early for this provision to have been tested, as public pressure builds to put some teeth into the concept of sustainability, this wording gives the government the option of weighing in on controversial plans that fail to measure up.

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