Proposed new instructions for land use planning in Ontario would downgrade the required scrutiny of accessibility. Where municipal Official Plans have been expected to give directions for “identifying, preventing and removing land use barriers” that could keep people with disabilities and seniors from fully participating in society, the modified policy would call for the less specific step of “addressing land use barriers”.
“The value of including language such as ‘identifying’ and ‘preventing’ and ‘removing’ is that each word is a trigger for a specific action within the development process,” observes Glenn Miller, a planner, senior associate with the Canadian Urban Institute and an advocate of community design that supports an aging population. “Changing the active word to ‘addressing’ is vague to say the least.”
The revision is one of dozens the Ontario government has put forward in an updated version of the Provincial Policy Statement (PPS), which sets out underpinning principles and outcomes to be pursued in planning, development and the interface of the built, social and natural environments. Proposed changes are meant to complement the recently adopted More Homes, More Choice Act, and were posted on the Ontario government’s website earlier this week to launch a public consultation period lasting to October 21.
“We are proposing changes to provincial policies that would spur and speed up the construction of more and different types of housing that can meet the needs of people in different stages of life,” says Steve Clark, Ontario’s Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing.
The government’s accompanying backgrounder outlines five overarching intentions of the proposed changes. These are to: increase the housing supply and mix; protect the environment and public safety; support certainty and economic growth; reduce barriers and costs; and support rural, northern and Indigenous communities. In this context, the targeted barriers are those that development proponents face.
“Currently, it can take years of paperwork before a shovel ever breaks ground on a new housing or business project,” the backgrounder states. “Red tape and delays make it hard to get housing to market quickly and to build the right mix of housing in the right locations.”
Conrad Spezowka, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing, says the underlying principle of improving accessibility for persons with disabilities and older persons — as they are referred to in the text of the PPS — will be maintained. He connects the PPS revisions to the government’s commitment to cut red tape that is slowing down the production of new housing.
“The slight wording change from the 2014 PPS is intended to simplify the language and improve readability to ensure the overall document is easy to understand,” Spezowka advises. “Further, the PPS is intended to be read in its entirety, and there are a number of other improvements that are intended to recognize the changing demographic needs of Ontarians.”
Policy language signals expectations for action
Jacqueline Wilson, counsel with the Canadian Environmental Law Association, points to section 6.6 of the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA), which stipulates that accessibility standards shall set out criteria for the “identification and removal of barriers” and “prevention of the erection of such barriers”. This then takes form in the Integrated Accessibility Standards — regulations under the Act containing the compliance details for the built environment, employment, transportation, and information and communications.
“The current language of the PPS appears to mirror the language in the Integrated Accessibility Standards to identify and remove barriers, and prevent the erection of barriers in the first place,” Wilson says.
The proposed revision would strip that out. Municipalities could still undertake rigorous oversight of accessibility since the definition of “addressing land use barriers” would be open to their interpretation, but that would also provide leeway to pull back on efforts. Miller suggests the looser language erases policy signals and shifts the onus of prioritizing planning tasks to local officials and private practitioners who typically must balance many competing pressures.
“Municipal planners and the consulting planners who advise their clients have scarce resources in terms of time and scope for taking specific actions,” he notes. “The argument that many other policies cover some of the same ground is valid, but insufficient.”
In contrast, language to support “age-friendly” development remained enshrined in the Growth Plan for the Greater Golden Horseshoe when the provincial government amended it earlier this year. Since those references were first added in 2017, municipalities where the growth plan applies are prompted to consider how to fulfil the mandate for “an age-friendly approach to community design that will meet the needs of people of all ages” during their cyclical Official Plan review processes. For example, the City of Toronto, is completing that exercise currently.
“Specific language in the introduction to the Growth Plan and the principles section in effect gives permission to expend the time and effort to specifically tackle the challenges of age-friendly development and design,” Miller explains. “Most of the large Ontario municipalities have signed on to becoming age-friendly. It is therefore important that this language be reflected in Official Plans.”
AODA progress reports find much room for improvement
The most recent AODA progress report is the third consecutive one to conclude Ontario is falling short of its envisioned commitment. The government’s appointed investigator, David Onley, who served as Lieutenant Governor of Ontario from 2007 to 2014, released his findings in January 2019, which particularly called out failings in the built environment.
“The consultations for the Review have sent a powerful message that the top issue for Ontarians with disabilities is the accessibility of buildings. It is also apparent that the current barrier-free design requirements are inadequate,” he submitted.
The review process, which is mandated in the Act, has now been completed three times since the AODA was adopted in 2005. Tellingly, Onley quoted from the previous 2014 review to highlight an issue of concern that remains unchanged.
“Unlike the Building Code, the DoPS (Design of Public Spaces) standards have no provision for pre-construction approval of projects. Hence, non-compliance will probably only come to light when people start using the public space. By then, it will be very difficult, if not impossible to correct the error,” lead reviewer Mayo Moran, provost and vice chancellor of University of Toronto’s Trinity College, asserted five years ago.
However, the Ontario government is encouraging building owners and managers to be proactive. The 2019 provincial budget earmarked $1.3 million over two years to underwrite Rick Hansen Foundation Accessibility Certification (RHFAC) in 250 facilities — a similar, albeit smaller, gesture to the $9 million that British Columbia made available in 2017-19 to sponsor 1,100 RHFAC assessments and offer accessibility improvement grants of up to $20,000.
“Removing barriers in buildings will help to make communities and businesses more accessible and open for jobs,” Raymond Cho, Ontario Minister for Seniors and Accessibility, announced at the official launch of the program in late May. “We are working to ensure people with disabilities have the support and resources they need to participate more fully in their communities.”
Onley’s report urges all ministries to set those priorities. “The key is to inject accessibility into the mandate of every ministry and to direct all of them to foster accessibility both within their internal operations and across the sectors they oversee. Accessibility is not just the responsibility of the Ministry for Seniors and Accessibility,” he reiterated.
Barbara Carss is editor-in-chief of Canadian Property Management.