Bill 108: New Ontario government rules are bad for parks and bad for cities

Last week, the Provincial government introduced Bill 108, which proposed changes to key tools that fund infrastructure and services in Ontario cities, including parks. It will dramatically curtail the ability of cities to provide parks for future generations.

Toronto Star reporter Jennifer Pagliaro wrote an article detailing these changes and how they impact the ability of cities to pay for new and redeveloped parks.

With so many cities in Ontario rapidly growing and densifying, putting aside land for parks doesn’t just happen–it requires strong regulatory & financial tools. Bill 108 removes or alters many of them.

Park People is alarmed at these changes, the lack of details, the rushed process, and limited ability for municipal and public feedback. We urge the government to slow down and consult with municipalities and the public.

Toronto’s Chief Planner Gregg Lintern provided a good overview of the changes and their impacts to city council. We’ve included some of the images from that presentation in this blog, but you can see the whole thing here.

What happens currently?

Under the current rules in the Planning Act’s Section 42, Ontario cities are allowed to require developers to provide onsite parkland or, if that isn’t feasible or desirable, to provide cities with the cash value of that land. The idea is that cities could then go out and purchase a piece of land somewhere else (nearby, hopefully) to create a park.

The basic premise is that growth pays for growth. New buildings mean new residents mean more demand for parks. Therefore, new buildings should also help provide for that new demand through either land or cash for parks.

This growth pays for growth premise is a critical part of our planning process. It’s also expressed in tools like Section 37 and Development Charges, which can be used for parks. Both tools compel developers to pay for a portion of things like water and sewer infrastructure, transit, daycares, public art, etc. All things that are important for quality places to live.

What’s been proposed?

The bill combines parkland dedication (Section 42) and density bonusing (Section 37) into one tool called a Community Benefit Charge. It severely curtails the ability of cities to require developers to provide parkland onsite. It also removes the ability of cities to use Development Charges, another growth-funding tool, to collect money for parks.

The new rules compel cities to spend the majority of the money they collect each year. This will make it harder for cities to save up for larger park projects and land purchases.

Cities can choose to keep a limited version of the parkland dedication by-law, but one that strips them of the ability to collect land or cash based on number of units built. It would only allow cities to require 5% of the land area of new developments be dedicated to parks. This may seem technical, but it matters. Hugely.

In the high-density developments that we’re seeing in the GTA, basing parkland dedication on land area alone limits the amount of parkland a city can get. Requiring 5% of land area works in lower density subdivisions. But when you have a small site for a high-rise tower, setting aside 5% of the land doesn’t give you much usable park space.

This is why, for decades, the Province has allowed cities to require parkland based on number of units being built–a direct relationship to how many people will be living in a new development.

Under the new provincial rules, even if cities wanted to keep this dramatically limited parkland dedication by-law, it would mean forgoing the ability to institute a Community Benefit Charge. Cities will have to choose.

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How will this affect parks?

The bill will hinder the ability of cities across Ontario to provide parkland for the future, full stop. This is something we’re already struggling with as land becomes more scarce and expensive. It also throws years of recent planning into disarray.

Many GTA cities, including Toronto, have done a lot of parks planning in the last five years to get a handle on growth. These plans were developed with the ability to fund them through Section 42 in mind.

For example, the billions of dollars needed to fund Toronto’s new recreation facilities master plan, or to build out Richmond Hill’s 2013 Parks Plan. At the very least, scrapping this tool will require revisiting these plans and their financial underpinnings.

In fact, Richmond Hill just went through a prolonged court battle against developers to uphold their Section 42-provided parkland dedication rights to pay for the new parks the city needs for the future. Now that too is thrown into disarray.

Toronto city staff came up with some stark examples of how allowing cities only to require 5% of the site area be dedicated to parks (as opposed to basing it on number of units) would affect recent developments. Spoiler: there would be less park space.


Why should you care?

If you’re reading this, you probably already do care. We don’t have to tell you about the power of parks to promote positive mental health, contribute to biodiversity, create more connected communities, and reduce social isolation. We could keep going, too.

Ultimately this comes down to a sense of responsibility, of a duty to create a livable city for future generations. This is especially urgent because parks are a key piece of infrastructure to help cities adapt to more extreme weather caused by climate change. Canada is warming at twice the rate of other places in the world. Parks aren’t optional. They’re fundamental.

Just think: when you visit a park now, you are the beneficiary of planning that often happened many decades ago.

When we require land from developers to create a new park, we’re not only doing so for current residents, or even the new residents moving in—we’re creating a legacy that will be enjoyed for years to come. This proactive city building is our responsibility.

Has this got you worked up? Go outside to your local park and take a deep breath. Feel more relaxed? Good. That’s one of the many benefits of parks. Now go back inside and write your MPP a strongly worded email.

In fact, here’s a template for you:

I am writing to express concern over Bill 108 and specifically the changes to how cities provide and fund parks through development. This bill removes and alters important tools available to cities that fund critical infrastructure, like parks.

Currently, Bill 108 requires cities to choose between parkland dedication and instituting a community benefit charge. Both are necessary to create livable communities. 

Allowing cities to require onsite parkland dedication is a key tool for growing cities, especially as land prices rise. This makes acquiring land through purchase much more difficult.

Parks are not simply places to relax and play, but critical pieces of infrastructure that help clean air, water, regular temperature, and mitigate the effects of extreme weather.

Please put the brakes on this bill and provide more time to consult with cities and their residents on a responsible way to provide the parks our growing cities need.

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