Economic Development News & Insight


The Higher ED Blog: Understanding the world of planning

Heather Hall and Meg Ronson / October 23, 2017

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The Higher ED Blog: Understanding the world of planning

This week’s blog post is a companion to a recent seminar held in Waterloo, Ontario on October 20th by the Economic Development Program of the University of Waterloo called Planning 101 for Economic Developers. It served to demystify the planning process and policies relevant to economic development and help economic developers understand what drives planning decisions, the role of Official Plans and local planning tools, provincial policies like Places to Grow, and the importance of collaboration.

What is planning?

According to the Ontario Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing, land use planning “affects almost every aspect of life in Ontario.” It is the means by which we manage our land and resources. It helps decide where and how development should occur. It focuses on solving the challenges associated with growth and development from managing urban sprawl to maintaining employment lands and protecting the environment and other sensitive areas. And it helps community stakeholders set goals and aspirations about the future that balance social, economic and environmental concerns (see also Planning Canadian Communities by Hodge and Gordon).

A brief history of planning in Canada

It is important to recognize that land use planning is not a new concept or process in Canada. Prior to contact, Indigenous peoples designated and used land for specific uses. For example, the early Ojibway people living near Lake Superior had inland hunting grounds during the winter and gathering places near the lake during the summer for fishing, preparing and storing food, and ceremonies (see Fort William First Nation). Respecting the land, the interconnectedness of all things and thinking about future generations have been, and still are, central to the cultures and traditions of Indigenous peoples across Canada.

After contact, a range of planning styles were introduced from French radial plans like Jean Talon’s designed around a central square, to fortress towns and British colonial towns using gridiron plans. In the 1800s we start to see planning approaches aimed at dealing with and managing the spread of diseases, drinking water issues, fires, and substandard housing.

But it wasn’t until after WWII that we see the formal roots of contemporary planning really take hold. By that time most provinces had planning regulations in place and the widespread use of zoning and official plans emerged to help manage the intense growth and development that was occurring.

Today, the planning process and regulations that guide it are largely set by the provincial government and municipal plans need to be consistent with these provincial regulations.

Tensions between planning and economic development

Planners have to manage a number of competing interests on the ground in their communities. One useful tool to visualize these tensions is Scott Campbell’s planners triangle which illustrates the conflicts between equity and social justice, environmental protection, and economic development. Planners must also balance “the interests of individual property owners with the wider interests and objectives of the whole community,” according to the Ontario Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing. It can sometimes be tricky to align the work of planners with that of economic developers. While their mandates can intersect, the slight differences in their goals and processes can create challenges for one another.

How can planners and economic developers work together?

We need to take a broad view of economic development that emphasizes the importance of a collaborative process to improve economic progress, sustainability and quality of life in our communities. When we view economic development in this way, we can understand that while planning and economic development might use different tools and processes, the end goal is really the same: to build sustainable communities.

Beyond this, there are three things we can do as economic developers to improve the relationship between planning and economic development:

  • Build Knowledge: The more we understand the world of planning, especially provincial policies and our local planning context, the easier it will be to work together and understand the planning tools that can facilitate economic development (see Municipal Planning and Financial Tools for Economic Development).
  • Strengthen Relationships: Establish a standing relationship with planning staff that extends beyond individual projects. Some municipalities have formal processes or delivery models in place that ensure key contacts in both economic development and planning are working together.
  • Communication: Meet early to discuss initiatives that require planning approval to ensure that there are no surprise barriers down the road. Having healthy lines of communication between planning and economic development units will smooth out relationships and facilitate cooperation.


About the authors

Dr. Heather Hall is an Assistant Professor in the Economic Development and Innovation program within the School of Environment, Enterprise and Development at the University of Waterloo. Heather grew up in Northern Ontario and has a professional and personal interest in researching planning and economic development in northern regions. This includes: regional development planning, policy and practice; community readiness and community impacts related to natural resource development; planning in slow-growth and declining communities; and innovation and entrepreneurship in rural and northern contexts. She has a PhD. in Geography from Queen’s University (Kingston), an M.A. in Planning from the University of Waterloo, and a B.A. in Geography from Laurentian University (Sudbury).

Meg Ronson is the editor of Higher ED, Outreach Manager for the Economic Development Program and holds a Masters of Economic Development and Innovation from the University of Waterloo. She specializes in research, capacity-building, and education in the Canadian co-operative sector, small business succession, and co-operative conversions. She has worked in partnership with such institutions as the Ontario Co-operative Association and the Atkinson Foundation, and was a 2017 runner-up winner of the Velocity Start Problem Pitch Competition.

About the series

Higher ED: Insights for the Next Economy is a platform for students, guest speakers, staff and faculty of the University of Waterloo’s professional and graduate economic development programs to share knowledge with the field at large. The series takes works destined for an academic audience and reworks them into a fresh, easy-to-digest blog article.

Established in 1987, the Master of Economic Development and Innovation (MEDI) is one of the only graduate programs in Canada focused exclusively on economic development. Students learn economic development theory and practice, and are exposed to leading edge knowledge, tools, and approaches to address contemporary challenges in cities and communities across Canada and internationally.

The Economic Development Program is a nationally-accredited provider of professional training. It delivers certification programs and seminars that offer a deep understanding of the Canadian context in a convenient block format. Peer learning is combined with informative lectures and practical case studies to provide dynamic instruction that is beneficial for junior and senior-level practitioners.

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