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Planning for Health
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Planning for Health

Neighbourhood design and food systems

The way we design our neighbourhoods can impact physical activity levels by either supporting or reducing the viability of healthy transportation options. In a compact, mixed use neighbourhood, destinations for work, school, shopping, services and entertainment are walkable or bikeable, and people can easily incorporate physical activity into their daily lives. Low density neighbourhoods where residential uses have been separated from other land uses, such as grocery stores and food markets, encourage car dependence and add sedentary time to people’s lives. From a planning perspective, these two issues of neighbourhood design and food system can be addressed using similar mechanisms, and so we discuss them together in this section.
Municipal planning decisions must conform with a set of provincial planning policies that make up the first stage of the municipal planning process. Six key documents currently guide local land use planning; the Provincial Policy Statement is province-wide, while the other five provincial plans apply to specific geographic areas within the province. All six documents fall under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing.

Overall, these policies and plans take a Smart Growth approach by directing growth to urban centres, setting urban growth boundaries, and encouraging complete communities. They address many characteristics of healthy communities, such as access to transit, mixed land use, compact neighbourhoods, density, and urban sprawl.

Revisions and updates to these documents offer a powerful opportunity to influence land use planning across the province. Public health units can participate in consultation processes led by the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing to provide input on provincial policies when they are being updated.

Official Plans

The second stage of the planning process consists of municipal plans and guidelines divided into two categories: those required by the Province, and those that are elective. In the required category, the official plan is a municipality’s most important land use planning tool. It is enabled through the Planning Act (1990) and overseen by the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing. Through policies and maps, it sets the parameters for development, establishing where growth will occur within a municipality and where different land uses will be located. The official plan is implemented through a municipality’s zoning by-law, which gives detailed instructions on a parcel-by-parcel basis regarding what can and cannot be built (type of use, size of building, setback from the roadway, etc.). Official plans are closely tied to provincial policies, and must demonstrate consistency with the Provincial Policy Statement and conformity to all applicable provincial plans.

Official plans have an enormous impact on neighbourhood design and the food system. Because they set out how land uses will be distributed throughout the municipality, they determine neighbourhood walkability, including access to local amenities, grocery stores and healthy food sources, and greenspace. An official plan will also direct growth to certain areas of a city, and the zoning by-law will further clarify how dense a neighbourhood will be. Compact neighbourhoods with sufficient population density to support mixed land uses and transit are significant elements of healthy neighbourhood design.

In northern Ontario, large areas exist which are not organized into municipalities and where much of the land belongs to the Crown. In these areas, land use planning is shared between planning boards, the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing, and the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry. Planning boards are made up of representatives from any municipalities that exist within their planning area, as well as representatives from areas without municipal organization, who are appointed by the Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing. The planning board can adopt official plans and pass zoning by-laws for their planning area and may have additional powers delegated to them (i.e. administer a Minister’s zoning order, approve plans of subdivision).

Two opportunities exist for health input into official plans. A municipality must either update its official plan through an amendment every five years or create a new official plan every ten years, and extensive consultations are part of this process. As part of the provincial review process, ministries outside of the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing have the opportunity to provide comments on the plans (the ‘One Window Approach’). The Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care has recently become part of this review process.


Elective Plans & Guidelines

Municipalities also create many plans and guidelines that are not required by the Province, but which provide more specific direction than the official plan on a wide variety of topics. A few of these plans, such as secondary plans and community improvement plans, are enabled through the Planning Act and bear the same weight as the official plan. They allow the municipality to undertake more detailed planning work in areas undergoing significant change or to unlock specific funding mechanisms to revitalize a neighbourhood.

Other documents, such as urban design guidelines and tall building guidelines, act more as visioning documents, laying out best practices on a specific topic. These documents are used in negotiations with developers during the development proposal process. As these documents become increasingly focused in terms of topic and geographic scale, the opportunity exists for them to include very specific direction on healthy neighbourhood design elements, including accessibility, age-friendly infrastructure, street connectivity and streetscaping. The creation and adoption of these plans typically involves extensive consultation, where public health units can play a significant role.
The final stage of the municipal planning process is the development proposal and review. At this stage, the geographic scope has narrowed to a single parcel of land, although the scale may vary from a single dwelling to an entire subdivision. Depending on the scale of the proposed project, and whether it conforms to existing municipal policies and regulations, the proponent may need to submit a request for amendments to the official plan or zoning bylaws. A site plan which provides a detailed overview of the proposal, including building height and size, design features, setbacks, entrances and exits, parking, and landscaping, may be required, depending on the municipality’s provisions. If a parcel of land is to be divided up into multiple smaller properties, a form of land division such as a plan of subdivision, plan of condominium, part lot control exemption or consent to sever will be required.

A municipality may also request additional information from the proponent, such as review of urban design guidelines, a transportation impact study, a noise impact study, a sun/shade study, or a community services and facilities study. The proposal is reviewed by the municipality’s planning department, who may also choose to circulate it to other city divisions, such as engineering and construction, transportation, parks, urban design, waste services, fire, utilities, and public health. At this stage, there is also a requirement for public consultation and a duty to consult affected indigenous groups. Once the review phase is complete, the proposal is voted on by council. In some municipalities, decision-making authority for certain types of applications has been delegated to staff, unless a councillor requests a council vote.

As there are many ways to design a building and many ways to interpret policy, the process is a negotiation between the municipality, who is looking to achieve a variety of public interest goals, and the proponent, who must always consider the financial viability of the project. While some aspects of a project will be more clearly determined, many decisions will still need to be made, guided by a municipality’s policies and guidelines. Input from public health can give added weight in these negotiations to feedback related to achieving a healthy built environment.

Since all municipal planning decisions must be consistent with the Provincial Policy Statement and conform to applicable provincial plans, the content and interpretation of these documents becomes critical at this stage. Strong, clear directives from the Province and in Official Plans in support of healthy neighbourhood design will make these outcomes more assured project to project.
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