Happy Simcoe Day, Ontario: A Holiday Celebrating a Great Planner

It is a statutory holiday in most of Canada today, usually called something banal like "civic holiday"; it is simply a way to give Canadians an extra long weekend in our extra-short summers. In Toronto, they call it Simcoe Day, in honour of John Graves Simcoe, Lieutenant Governor of Upper Canada (now Ontario) in the 1790s.

Simcoe did a great deal, but his most lasting legacy is a lesson in the power of planning and design, and how it can influence history.

Simcoe had to deal with a huge influx of United Empire Loyalists who had to (or wanted to) leave the United States after the American Revolution. His surveyors laid out a vast super-grid across the province that is remarkably accurate; you can be driving north on a country road and have to jog a bit at an intersection; this is an adjustment for the curvature of the earth, to keep the lines from converging as you go towards the North Pole.

An immigrant receiving a land grant had to clear the road on all four sides within a period of time to get title to the land. Ontario got a grid of lines and concessions that made transport of agricultural and then industrial goods easier than anywhere else in the country. Ontario became the Canadian industrial and agricultural powerhouse because of a planning and design decision made in 1795.

In Quebec, they relied on rivers for transport well into the 20th century. Most of it is still inaccessible.

When Canada's former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau was asked what he thought his legacy would be, he responded with story of a discussion he had with Chinese Premier Zhou Enlaii . He said that he asked Zhou what he thought was the impact of the French Revolution; Zhou reportedly answered "It's too early to tell."

Planning and urban design is like that; the decisions we make can have repercussions for centuries. As we keep building highways and suburbs and try to figure out what to do with our suburbs, we should remember that.

Tags: Holidays | Ontario | Urban Planning

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