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Land Use Planning Initiatives

John Sewell’s first foray into the mysteries of land use planning began in 1966 in the Trefann Court Urban Renewal Area in downtown Toronto, where he worked with local residents and businessmen to oppose a city-sponsored scheme to clear the area and replace it with new public housing and an industrial park. He helped develop the radical idea that neighbourhoods should be preserved and that the best renewal for a neighbourhood was addressing its problems rather than wiping it out and starting over again.

Two ideas emerged from the work in Trefann Court that later proved popular throughout the city: neighbourhoods should be protected and preserved; and planning should be done in conjunction with local residents. The way these ideas developed is described in Sewell’s book Up Against City Hall (1972), particularly Chapter 2, and in Graham Fraser’s book on the Trefann Court experience, Fighting Back (1974).

Once elected to Toronto City Council in 1969, John broadened his ideas on land-use planning. He became active in the nascent attempts to protect historic buildings in the city and published the booklet “A Sense of Time and Place” with a foreword by Robert Fulford. The booklet described in words and photographs two dozen structures that were threatened with demolition, including the South St. Lawrence Market (to be demolished for a parking garage) which was ultimately saved after a vigorous citizen-led campaign. He introduced various measures to control the height and size of structures in the downtown and these played a role in the creation of the Central Area Plan for Toronto in 1974.

The Central Area Plan included a number of new planning principles for Toronto including the ideas that: the downtown should be a mix of housing and commercial uses; affordable housing should be built in the downtown; new development should strengthen streetscapes rather than weaken them; historic buildings should be preserved; and new roadways into the downtown should not be built but instead growth in the downtown should be related directly to the capacity of the transit system. The CAP is described in more detail in Sewell’s book The Shape of the City (1993), particularly in chapter 5.

As an alderman John fought almost single-handedly against the proposals to create the large shopping complex knows as Eaton Centre, and that opposition led to many changes that ultimately improved that proposal, although never enough to satisfy his objections.
John was involved in the formative discussions to create a new neighbourhood downtown, the St. Lawrence Neighbourhood, and was heavily involved in voicing the basic planning principles underlying this development including: mixed uses; a grid street pattern; building forms that reflected the existing city; and so forth. This is described in more detail in Chapter 6 of The Shape of the City.
He was leader in opposing the expansion of high-rise development into neighbourhoods, particularly the struggle in the area south of St. Jamestown, the beginning of which is described in Chapter 8 of Up Against City Hall, and the latter stages in Chapters 3 and 4 of The Shape of the City.

In 1986 John was appointed Chair of the Metro Toronto Housing Authority and he led three different initiatives to show how public housing sites could be redeveloped. MTHA owned some of the most notorious housing projects in Toronto, including those in Jane-Finch and Regent Park. The redevelopment proposals indicated how public streets could be introduced into those areas, and a mixture of affordable and market housing created, as well as non-residential uses. These proposals are described in The Shape of the City, chapter 8.

In 1991 John was appointed by the provincial government as Chair of the Commission on Planning and Development Reform in Ontario. The Commission used an innovative consultative process to create proposals for public discussion. That process is described in the introductory chapter of the Commission’s report New Planning for Ontario, published by the Government of Ontario in 1993. The meat of the commission’s report was the recommendation that the provincial government should adopt strong land-use planning policies that would govern all those in the province making land-use decisions – municipalities, provincial ministries, the Ontario Municipal Board, and so forth.

The policies proposed by the Commission included: the protection and enhancement of significant natural features; prohibiting sprawling development; the introduction of affordable housing into all new development; the protection of quality agricultural areas; and the pursuit of energy and water conservation. The report also proposed a number of changes to the structures in which planning decisions were made to make them more open, accessible and accountable. The Commission’s report was released in 1993, and in the following two years the provincial government enacted most of the Commission’s recommendations, including a great many of the planning policy proposals. But in late 1995 the newly elected Conservative government of Mike Harris dismantled most of the changes and returned planning to a laissez-faire regime that became a playground for developers advocating sprawling subdivisions.

During the 1990s John worked with a number of consultants including John Van Nostrand Associates and Baird/Sampson Architects to produce “A Plan for Seaton”. This document described how a new city of 90,000 could be built on about 4,000 acres of land in an environmentally and economically self-sustaining manner. The report was prepared pursuant to a provincial government competition which the team managed to win, but the government took no action to develop these lands, located east of Toronto in North Pickering. John’s specific focus in this report was in respect to the creation of employment strategies to ensure that the new community would not be a bedroom community but would create enough jobs for those living there so that commuting would not be necessary.

In the mid-1990s John began working with Regent Park residents to create a viable plan to redevelop a corner of this large public housing project. Governments showed extraordinary reluctance to improve this community, although in 2002 the Toronto Community Housing Company produced a plan redeveloping all 69 acres of Regent Park North and South by introducing public streets, replacing the affordable units, and building a considerable number of market units. John has been a critic of this plan since it does not increase the amount of affordable housing; and it does not offer low income people ownership options. This is further described in the section of the web site entitled `Current political initiatives.’

In 1999 John wrote a booklet “Redeveloping Public Housing Projects”, published by the Caledon Institute of Social Policy. Much of this booklet is based on the experience in Regent Park.

In 2002 John began working with tenants in the Don Mount Court public housing project, to help them create a plan for redevelopment. He has been a strong critic of  the Toronto Community Housing Company, its plan for redevelopment and its delay in proceeding. This is further described in `Current Political initiatives.’

John has continued his interest in finding ways to reduce sprawl, which continues apace around Canadian cities. In September 2003 he addressed the International Joint Commission on the Great Lakes, arguing that land use planning strategies have failed to control sprawl, and it is time to pass general legislation prohibiting any further low-density single-use developments. See `Recent speeches and articles of note.’ As well, he participated with David Suzuki in the launch of the report on sprawl prepared by David Gurin for the David Suzuki Foundation, `Driven to Action.’ The report can be found at