What is the Official Plan? (And Why You Should Care About It)

A warning up top: this is an article about zoning. It’s an article about bylaw processes and land use designations and infrastructure development. But it’s also an article about the Parkway and the casino, about reducing crime levels and cancer rates, and about how we build a healthier, happier, more integrated community for all of us.

This is an article about the Official Plan.

The Official Plan is the central guiding document for all City policies, determining everything from where new subdivisions go, to how to expand public transit, protect greenspaces and heritage sites, provide access to schools and social services, and plan for the next big flood. If the City wants to build a Parkway through Jackson Park or construct a casino far away from the downtown business core, the Official Plan determines whether that can be done.

The Official Plan also connects the city to the wider world. Every city and county in Ontario is required to have an Official Plan, and the Plan must be approved by the Province. It also must align with wider planning efforts, such as the Growth Plan for the Greater Golden Horseshoe, a comprehensive planning document that affects the area spanning from Brantford to Orillia to Peterborough.

And the Official Plan also carries significant legislative weight. All municipal planning decisions have to conform with what’s written in the Official Plan, and it must be followed any time the City spends public money or uses public works. If the City or someone else wants to do something that doesn’t fit within the Official Plan, they first have to go through an extensive process to get the Plan amended, including consulting with stakeholders, holding public meetings, and getting a vote by Council.

The Province requires a comprehensive review of Official Plans every ten years (recently updated from every five years), but Peterborough is currently operating under an Official Plan written 37 years ago, in 1981. Consider all that has changed in those years. We now have a much greater understanding of how infrastructure and planning can affect health (for example, the impact of having a grocery store selling fresh produce near a subdivision, or the impact of streets that are friendly to bikes and pedestrians as well as cars) and community wellbeing (are there places for people to gather and hold community events?).

It’s also been a time of massive change in the basic structure of the world. We have environmental policies written in an era before there was widespread understanding of climate change, growth policies written before the Greater Toronto Area was established, policies that affect job growth and industry written when Peterborough’s economy was still based in manufacturing, and community-building policies written before the internet and cell phones revolutionized how people communicate and come together.

In the last 37 years, Peterborough has only undertaken a piecemeal update process, including a series of secondary plans (2005’s Flood Reduction Master Plan, 2012’s Municipal Cultural Plan, etc) and nearly 200 amendments to the Plan. The result is an inconsistent and at times contradictory policy document that has left the city with a confused direction in its long-term planning, and has allowed developers significant wiggle room for interpretation of the policy.

Thankfully, Peterborough is now undergoing a major overhaul of its Official Plan. Begun in 2011, the process has included extensive reviews of current City policies and meetings with stakeholders. There have been multiple public surveys, workshops, and consultation meetings.

While the new Plan was originally set to be revealed in fall of this year, it has now been pushed into 2019, meaning it will be the responsibility of the new City Council that will be elected in October of this year. Over the next few months, the City will start releasing draft sections of the Official Plan, and will seek public input before they are finalized by the new Council.

Because of the four-year election cycle, much of municipal decision-making is done for the short term, reacting to the current wants and needs of the citizens, with little consideration of the long-term implications. The Official Plan is a rare opportunity to look at the city with a wider lens.

As the City of Peterborough states on its Official Plan review site, “By the year 2041, the City is expected to grow to a population of 115,000 people and 58,000 jobs—an increase of about 32,000 people and 14,000 jobs from 2016.” This will be a period of great change, with leaps and bounds in technology, the arrival of the 407 leading to extensive development and increased commuter traffic, and the impacts of climate change, as well as untold other changes yet to come.

Planning can be an exhausting and alienating process, full of technical minutia that’s hard to understand, and even harder to understand the impacts of. But the conversations we have in the next few months, the representatives we elect in the municipal election of October 22, and the decisions they make in the next year will play a key role in shaping the future of Peterborough. Now is the time to decide what kind of city we want Peterborough to be, and to lay the groundwork for how we get there.

Have your say in Peterborough’s planning process. The City is currently running an Official Plan Urban Design & Heritage Survey (deadline October 8), and there will be more opportunities to participate coming up. Head to the Official Plan Update site for details.

Photo by B. Mroz



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Gabe Pollock

Gabe Pollock

Gabe Pollock is Editor-in-Chief of Electric City Magazine. He is a Peterborough-born freelance writer and editor who has covered Peterborough music and culture since 2012, first on Electric City Live and now in its magaziney successor.