Behind Every Great Plan is a (Sometimes) Great Policy

Every planning office will have stacks of by-law binders that look like these. While the information can be found online these days, there’s something magical in flipping through these guys.

Every project that I work on is influenced by (or influences) a number of policies. However, I don’t recall ever taking a course in University (Policy 101?) that said, “These are the key policy documents; this is where you can find them; this is what they do and how you use them; this is how they relate to each other, etc.”

With that said, here is a (very) quick overview of the polices I regularly deal with as a Planner and Urban Designer:

Provincial Policies – The Provincial Policy Statement (PPS) is the mother of all policy documents. It provides high level directions related to land use, sustainability, heritage protection (natural and built), transit and active transportation, etc. This is a very technical document, so don’t expect many pretty pictures (I’m talking Microsoft Word, lists, and multiple levels of sub-bullets). While the PPS doesn’t provide site specific directions, it sets the stage for the more specific documents and policies below.

Regional Policies – Examples include the Growth Plan for the Greater Golden Horseshoe, The Big Move, and the Greenbelt Plan. Where mapping is provided, cities still generally appear as dots (if at all) – so we’re still pretty high-level here. These policies build on the directions of the PPS, providing specific objectives for municipalities as part of a regional network.

Municipal Policies – This is where we get into the nitty gritty. Municipal policies, such as Official Plans, Secondary Plans, and Zoning Bylaws, provide detailed, site specific directions to achieve the objectives of the Provincial and Regional policies. Broadly, Official Plans provide direction on City systems, including land use, urban boundaries, transportation systems, natural heritage, etc. Where special areas (i.e. large redevelopment sites, annexed areas, unique locations) require additional consideration, a Secondary Plan may be prepared as a subsection to the Official Plan (with more detailed mapping and direction is provided). On the other hand, Zoning Bylaws provide the most specific direction, determining building height, location, density, etc. on a property by property basis.

Other Studies – In addition to the above, most Municipalities have a plethora of other studies, including Urban Design Guidelines, Mobility Hub Studies, Master Plans, Employment Studies, Street Manuals, etc. The importance and applicability of these studies can vary significantly depending on age, standing, etc.

While the above policies are meant to guide all new development, they are not necessarily considered gospel. Where policies are out of date, or inconsistent with best practices, most can be amended (through a formal application process) if it can be demonstrated that the amendment represents good planning.

That is a very very simplified overview of the policies that I encounter on a regular basis. This is obviously Toronto-centric, but if you’re reading from elsewhere, there should be a similar framework in place. It’s hard to describe these documents, so I highly encourage you to explore some of them at your leisure to see the level of detail they provide, and how they relate to each other. It will look great at your first job interview if you are already familiar with your local policies.

Here are a few to get you started:

Provincial Policy Statement –

Growth Plan for the Greater Golden Horseshoe –

The Big Move –

Metrolinx Mobility Hub Guidelines –

Toronto Official Plan (and Secondary Plans) –

Toronto Mid-Rise Building Guidelines –

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