The London Plan: A Message From the Future of Planning in Canada

Input From 15,000 Citizens
A new official plan, written from the ground up, is a once in a generation opportunity in any city. London, Ontario has made the most of it, with unprecedented public engagement and a draft plan that is full of fresh vision and "written in human".

The London Plan: A Message From the Future of Planning in Canada

A new benchmark for citizen engagement in the future of a city

If you want a window into the future of planning in Canada, look to London, Ontario.

Over the last two years the city has involved more than 15,000 people in the largest public engagement on an official planning process in Canadian history: ReThink London.

The draft plan released a few weeks ago — The London Plan — rewrites the playbook for what a plan can be. 

It aims to be “written in human.” It eliminates all traditional land use designations, and replaces them with a new focus on how people move around the city, and different types of places and their intended character.

It’s a vision document, not a land use document.

And it appears to have been successfully communicated to the community as a way to avoid the massive costs and quality of life consequences of sprawl.

How did this happen?

Sean Galloway, co-lead of the project and London’s manager of urban design, has a story he likes to tell that helps put The London Plan in context.

The city’s last official plan was approved in 1989. Four years later London almost tripled in size when it annexed 26,000 hectares of the surrounding county. Overnight it became one of the five largest municipalities in Canada by geographical area. The provincially driven amalgamation, mostly farmland, changed the shape and character of the city forever.

A major plan review called Vision ’96 took place. Caring and capable people were involved, and the usual public planning meetings were held. On the day city council met to present its long-term vision for the annexed land, planners were pleased to see the council chambers were packed. 

Just ahead of Vision ’96 on the agenda was a minor issue involving tree removal. The minor local issue was resolved — and the room cleared, leaving three citizens behind. 

The public had almost no interest in being part of the discussion of a twenty year plan for growth in an area larger than London had ever been in its history. They had turned out in force about the cutting of a single tree on a piece of private property. 

This is what public engagement with local planning has traditionally looked like in many Canadian cities.

Five-year reviews of the plan ever since have engaged perhaps 180-200 people.

This time, London’s planners decided that was just not good enough. Faced with what they saw as a once-in-a-generation opportunity for Londoners to shape their City, they were determined to make public engagement matter, and to start from the ground up and rethink virtually everything.

This article is the first in a series on ReThink London and The London Plan. Coming next:

2: Public engagement that works
3: An official plan written in human
4: The London Plan: first of a new generation?

It is also part of a larger series on "Local Government 3.0", examining current changes in municipal government in Canada.

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A version of this article was originally written for the Urban Systems news service. To learn more about generative newsroom options for your organization or community, please contact peter(at)axiomnews.com.

Writer Bio

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Ben Wolfe

Ben Wolfe brings Axiom News 25 years of experience in writing, editing, design and publishing in the service of community-building and social change.

Ben is a winner of national, regional and local awards as owner of his own design and communications business, focused on environment, the arts, health and community development. He has been a daily newspaper reporter/photographer, columnist, and the writer, editor and designer of a wide range of print and online publications.

Ben is a past director of communications of both local and national NGOs, most recently the Canadian Unitarian Council. He is a co-founder of Peterborough Green-Up, a hands-on, solutions-oriented local environmental action project, now in its 23rd year.

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