Developing an Official Plan

October 7th, 2008, by Jeremy Krygsman

March 18, 2008. By Jeremy Krygsman

1 Introduction

Preparing a city’s Official Plan is a difficult job by any measure. It requires a thorough knowledge of many different attributes, ranging from public opinion to economics to demographics. To discover these attributes, several different methods of research need to be used simultaneously. They need to be compiled and developed into a plan that adheres to the regulations of several higher powers and spawns many lower plans and policies. This paper describes that process in the context of the city of Waterloo, Ontario. It will describe what an Official Plan is and how much power it has. It will then outline the steps needed to complete an official plan, including research methods and the planning process.

2 Research

Research for this paper was conducted using many resources, including Statistics Canada, Ontario and Waterloo government planning documents, news articles, and reliable web sites. Additionally, lecture notes from University of Waterloo Professor Mark Seasons and the textbook Planning Canadian Communities by Gerald Hodge and David Gordon (2007) were used frequently. All of this research was secondary, because it is simply too time consuming to compile primary information. The most valuable information came from those closest to the source, especially government documents such as the Ontario Planning Act.

3 Waterloo Today and Tomorrow

3.1 Waterloo Today

The City of Waterloo is a mid-size city in Southern Ontario, with a population of 87,000. It is located within a larger regional municipality called the Region of Waterloo, which encompasses neighboring cities of Kitchener and Cambridge. In total, the Region’s population is 438,000, making it the tenth largest metropolitan area in Canada. Even so, Waterloo has a small town atmosphere with winding, treed boulevards and a dense core, called “Uptown”. Waterloo is a university town, with two large universities located just blocks away from each other and 53,000 students between them. The University of Waterloo specifically is ranked one of the best comprehensive universities in Canada. Its employment base includes several large technology and insurance corporations as well as the automotive sector.

3.2 The Forces of Change

3.2.1 Economic Change

Canada, specifically Ontario, is now going through a large scale economic restructuring that has seen Ontario loseWeight Exercise twenty thousand manufacturing jobs in February 2008 alone. This has a profound effect on the Region of Waterloo, which has over twelve hundred manufacturers that provided jobs to over sixty thousand people in 2004, twenty-five percent of the population. However, the city has also spearheaded a trend that has seen 66,000 service and construction jobs created in Ontario in February. In Waterloo, this is reflected in growing technology companies like Research in Motion. What this means for city management is that there will be an increasing number of industrial brownfield sites which will need to be redeveloped into another land use. This will require zoning flexibility to allow developers to easily make the transition between two different land uses.

3.2.2 Socio-cultural Change

Like many cities across Canada, Waterloo’s cultural landscape is changing. Historically, Waterloo (as well as Kitchener) was an area with German background; as seen by Oktoberfest and the large number of German Mennonites living north of Waterloo. Today, the city’s core population of Western Europeans, especially Germans and those from the British Isles are making up less of the total population, while East Europeans and Asians are becoming more common. This can have several effects on the region. For example, in a presentation on the Waterloo Region District School Board, Chris Smith said that because of large numbers of immigrant Portuguese in an area of Cambridge, demand for English as a Second Language (ESL) classes shot up.

3.2.3 Environmental Change

Recent polls show that thirteen percent of Canadians believe the environment is one of the country’s most important issues, second only to health care. The environment does indeed affect our lives in very direct ways. For example, increased freezing and thawing from warmer winters causes faster deterioration of road surfaces, which may require higher maintenance budgets. Waste management is an important issue, especially in Waterloo region which currently does not practice any recycling programs. Most importantly, Waterloo has promised that it will no longer expand its borders to develop surrounding farmland. This presents a huge challenge to the city to promote high quality, increasingly dense development to continue to keep the city viable.

3.2.4 Demographic Change

The population of the City of Waterloo is made up of many groups: ethnicities, students, elderly, middle aged, and young. All of these groups have needs that continually change as they get older. New arrivals also effect demographics; Waterloo Region is one of the fastest growing urban areas in Canada today. The City of Waterloo alone is projected to reach 150,000 people by 2031, which will present huge challenges in terms of providing places to live, work, and play. Additionally, the Baby Boom generation, which was born between 1946 and 1964, is starting to get older and will soon begin to enter retirement. They will need old age homes and accessible buildings and transportation. However, the younger population is also getting smaller and shifting to the suburbs, which will have impacts on elementary and secondary schools.

4 The Official Plan

4.1 What is an Official Plan

A city’s Official Plan is its central planning document. It is an outline of what the city intends to do in the future, and what kind of policies it will follow. It to co-ordinates expansion by outlining how much growth will occur, how dense it will be, and where it will be located. It makes broad goal statements about what kind of a city its authors would like to create. However, it does not provide the exact means of achieving these goals, but lays a foundation to build secondary plans and policies on to. In Ontario, Official Plans are usually written every two decades.

4.2 Language

An Official Plan must be meaningful for many different groups, including city staff, trained planners, and the general. It must describe, in layman’s terms, what the city plans to do in the next twenty years. It is written in a casual style that uses plentiful graphics, including photos, graphs, and maps, to illustrate points. This allows the average citizen to get involved and understand what is going on, which helps get people involved in the process. Most plans are structured using short paragraphs and lists to manage and summarize vast amounts of information, which is then organized into sections and sub-sections according to topic.

4.3 Position and Influence: the Planning Hierarchy

The province of Ontario mandates that all municipalities must have an Official Plan, which must be approved by the government. Once it is approved, it becomes a legal document, which the city is bound to follow until it drafts a new one. The plan can be amended to allow for change, or for unique circumstances that require special arrangements that circumvent it. An Official Plan is not a stand-alone document though; it is just one level in a series of documents that have the power to direct city planning. These are illustrated in the diagram below, and described in the following sections.

4.3.1 The Ontario Planning Act was created in 1994 to outline what a development plan should be like. It has rules for public participation, approvals, and amendments. Most importantly, the Planning Act mandates the use of a municipal Official Plan (Government of Ontario, 2006c).

4.3.2 Provincial Policy Statements are a set of requirements for well planned growth for cities in Ontario. It works to limit sprawl and use land and resources effectively. It also aims to keep negative effects of development, such as traffic, air pollution, and water contamination to a minimum.

4.3.3 Places to Grow is the Ontario government’s version of an official plan, but for the entire Greater Golden Horseshoe, which is projected to grow by 3.7 million people in just twenty-five years. It puts an end to sprawl, and requires good solutions to municipal problems.

4.3.4 The Regional Official Plan is required for cities in Ontario, allowing for coherent growth. It outlines how infrastructure, development, services, and the natural environment will be built and managed on a regional scale.

4.3.5 Regional Growth Management Strategy (RGMS) is the policy arm of the Regional Official Plan. It outlines exactly where growth should go in Waterloo Region, and sets boundaries for the maximum extent of development in the outer suburbs. What this effectively will do is force smarter, higher density development.

4.3.6 Departmental Plans and Strategies are small-picture policies, developed by city departments such as Public Works, Recreation, Development, and Finance. They only look at a small facet of the larger Official Plan, and also contribute to the development of new Official Plans.

4.3.7 Policy Plans are developed from the Official Plan. They transform the visionary goals of the Plan into hard objectives, strategies which allow it to be carried out. These are usually divided within the appropriate city departments. For example, Waterloo’s Public Works Department takes care of capital projects, infrastructure such as roads, sewers, and water, and city parks.

4.3.8 Subdivision Plans start zooming in on small sections of the city in order to apply city policies to each area individually. Subdivisions need to be appropriately located and designed, and require parks, water mains, and capital projects. These plans make sure all of those things are intelligently applied.

4.3.9 Site Plans deal with just one single property within the entire city. This is the level at which zoning laws and policies like setbacks, driveway widths, and greenspace requirements are followed.

5 The Planning Process

5.1 The Rational Comprehensive Model for Planning

The RCM has been developed over time by a series of professional planners, building on the idea that you must be able to “see, know, and appreciate all the basic facets of a community before making plans for it”. The diagram below illustrates the stages of the RCM approach.

The process begins when there is a need for improvement in the city. This can be because of public complaints, or requirements from higher levels of government. The problem, needs and opportunities that present themselves must be identified through research, public polling, and “town hall” events. From this, a series of goals and objectives are developed. These goals are taken and, with additional research, transformed into multiple possible solutions to the problem. The plans are shown to the public, then the criticisms carefully evaluated, comparing the plans to each other and to what the situation would be like if left unplanned. Whichever plan has the least foreseeable negative consequences, and the most positive advantages, is adopted. It must be comprehensive; that is, it must take the entire city into account and look at the big picture. Once the correct plan is selected, a program made up of policies, budgets, regulations, and schedules. When the plan is complete and put into action, it must be regularly reviewed to make sure it is working correctly. If not, the process moves back to step two again.

6 Research Methods to Develop a Successful Plan

6.1 How to do Research

When researching information regarding a city plan, it is important to use a combination of qualitative and qualitative research (described in the following sections) to support or refute your findings. This is called triangulation. Qualitative research supports quantitative by helping to formulate ideas and questions which can be put into surveys. Quantitative research supports qualitative by identifying the causes of statistical trends. For example, the qualitative approach of asking people their opinion, combined with quantitative research into population numbers and economic statistics, can be used to pinpoint a problem. Using triangulation lends greater credibility to research and is generally more accurate, allowing better plans to be made.

6.2 Qualitative Research

Perceptions, opinions, feelings, and ideas are all qualitative values; that is, they are qualities, not numerical quantities. Qualitative research is necessary because simple numbers are not sufficient to describe complex ideas or concerns. In doing this type of research, we can also delve deeper into the problem to discover other issues and ideas, by asking people follow up questions. However, it can be hard to get objective data using qualitative research, because people’s ideas and opinions are often biased or uninformed. Additionally, sifting through vast amounts of qualitative information can be extremely time-consuming, because it must be organized, classified, and summarized.

6.3 Quantitative Research

Quantitative research is made up of cold, hard, concrete numbers such as population data. However, quantitative information can be used to collect results from surveys that are written using qualitative information. The responses can then be compiled and converted into statistics to aid in decision making. Quantitative research can also be used to predict trends in population demographics, as well as in economics, employment, traffic, and more. Having these hard numbers allows planners to discover a solution that is beneficial, addresses the most important issues and objectives, and most importantly, is financially viable.

6.4 Which Research Method Should Be Used When?

Qualitative research is very useful when the researcher doesn’t know exactly what they are looking for, often early in the planning process. It helps develop more refined questions which can then be used to investigate quantitative data later in the process. Below is a summary chart outlining which research method should be used during different stages in the RCM planning process.

Stage in RCM process

Qualitative Methods

Quantitative Methods


1: Indentify problem, articulate goals

Focus groups


Open houses

Consensus on reason for doing OP

2: Design alternative plans to suit future conditions


Group discussion

Focus groups

Open houses


Demographics, economics, etc. research

Collect two types of information, statistics and non-statistics

3: Compare and evaluate alternative plans

Focus groups

Open houses

Town hall meetings

Surveys, comparing positive and negative numbers

Consensus on direction, selection of policies, projects etc

4: Adopt a single, comprehensive plan

Focus groups

Identify areas and strategies for Official Plan implementation

5: Monitor current trends and review outcome of plan

Annual report card regarding progress on plan

Discussion on whether the goals of the plan are met

Testing to see if projected demographic, economic numbers are met; adjust plan accordingly

Help monitor and explain progress

7 Summary and Conclusions

Creating a new Official Plan is certainly a monumental process. It involves taking a comprehensive look at the city, its infrastructure, forces of change, and public opinion. All of this raw information should be carefully measured and compiled to create an accurate description of the current and future state of the city. Legally, an Official Plan must conform to several higher plans including provincial regulations and regional policies. Finally, all of these characteristics must be written fluently into a document that both the general public and city staff can understand. After reading this paper, you, as the new Chief Administrative Officer of the City of Waterloo, will have a better idea of how to direct city departments to create a new Official Plan. This Official plan will guide the city of Waterloo to a prosperous, healthy, bustling, dense, and enjoyable future.


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