Ontario's 7,300 square-kilometre Greenbelt is undergoing a critical land use review that could determine the fate of one of Ontario's greatest environmental legacies.
When Ontario’s 7,300 square-kilometre Greenbelt was approved by then-Liberal Premier Dalton McGuinty in 2005, reaction was mixed.
Some saw the protected space as the best defence against suburban sprawl and the gradual destruction of watersheds, forests, marshes and agricultural land in Canada’s most heavily populated area. Others worried the strict new rules would limit housing stock, jack up home prices and wipe out the nest egg farmers had built in the hope of selling their once-isolated farms to developers.
Now, 10 years after coming into force, the Greenbelt Plan—along with the Oak Ridges Moraine Conservation Plan, the Niagara Escarpment Plan and the Growth Plan for the Greater Golden Horseshoe—is undergoing a co-ordinated land use planning review.
From March to May of this year, the province held regional town halls to solicit public feedback and encouraged municipalities, industries, regions and environmental groups to offer their thoughts on how to strengthen the existing plans.
Here’s why this matters.
World’s Largest Protected Greenbelt
Ontario’s isn’t the only greenbelt in the world, but it’s far and away the biggest — at 1.8 million acres of land, it’s 400,000 acres bigger than Prince Edward Island.
The Greenbelt sits atop the Greater Toronto Area like sprinklers in a greenhouse, cooling, oxygenating and hydrating us to keep us alive. It cuts and swerves from Cobourg to Niagara Falls, forming a dense thicket around Toronto, Hamilton, St. Catharines, Orangeville, Newmarket and Port Perry. Following the Bruce Trail to Georgian Bay and Lake Huron, the Greenbelt heads north towards Collingwood before moving west to Owen Sound and Tobermory.
Along with the Niagara Escarpment Plan (revised last in 2005), the Oak Ridges Moraine Conservation Plan (2002) and the Growth Plan for the Greater Golden Horseshoe (2006), the Greenbelt Plan helps organize and regulate how cities and communities throughout southern Ontario grow.
With the goal of building complete communities at their core, together, the plans support regional transit and higher density neighbourhoods, protect watersheds and agricultural land and mitigate the local effects of habitat destruction and climate change by keeping ecosystems intact.
In 2011, the David Suzuki Foundation and Ontario Nature argued that fragmentation of natural spaces has been a nightmare for the province’s flora and fauna. “When poorly sited, developments can fracture ecosystems or rupture connecting corridors among natural areas,” they wrote [PDF]. And what moves in to take the place of natural spaces brings new dangers beyond the loss of habitat: road mortality from vehicles and paved highways, raccoons and household pets, and a monoculture that boosts the spread of invasive species.
The Greenbelt dramatically slows the habitat fragmentation that’s been underway in southern Ontario for a century. More than half a million acres of wetlands, river valleys, lakes and forests are protected by the Greenbelt Plan. This contiguous stretch of natural spaces is home to 78 threatened or at-risk species, including birds, reptiles, fish, mammals, plants—and one dragonfly.
Leaving the Greenbelt’s forests intact is the carbon dioxide reduction equivalent of taking 27 million cars of the road. It also encourages Ontarians to take advantage of dozens of skiing, hiking, biking or walking trails throughout the Greenbelt lands.
Southern Ontario contains some of the largest stretches of Class A farmland left in Canada, much of it protected from development by the Greenbelt Plan. According to Friends of the Greenbelt, farms situated in the protected area are 33 per cent smaller than other Ontario farms located outside the Greenbelt, but are 12 per cent more productive.
Some 5,500 farms are currently operating in the Greenbelt, the vast majority still family businesses. They supply produce to millions of Ontarians within a 250 kilometre radius. But not just produce—much of the local beef, lamb, pork, dairy, wine grapes, maple syrup and cut plants and flowers are grown within the Greenbelt.
Good for Business
Protecting these natural spaces comes with significant economic savings. A 2012 report from Friends of the Greenbelt argued the direct and indirect benefits derived by businesses from the Greenbelt is worth more than $9 billion annually. Direct, indirect and induced Greenbelt-related activities employ an estimated 161,000 Ontarians; they supply $2.8 billion in taxes to all levels of government.
What accounts for the high levels of economic benefits? Most Greenbelt-related employment is labour intensive, the report argued, and requires big spending in areas where the province has a competitive advantage—tourism, recreation, agriculture, and forestry. The jobs are also sustainable, since if you take care of the natural assets contained within the Greenbelt, they’ll continue to take care of us.
Population Growth in the Golden Horseshoe
More than nine million people already call the Golden Horseshoe home, and that number is expected to rise to 13.5 million over the next 25 years. Since the beginning, detractors of the Greenbelt have argued that taking hundreds of thousands of acres of land in the GTA out of the development picture will inevitably lead to land shortages and skyrocketing housing prices.
But that argument doesn’t hold water—at least not to Toronto’s Chief Planner Jennifer Keesmaat. In March of this year, Keesmaat responded to Greenbelt critics by arguing the Greater Golden Horseshoe still has 1,500 square kilometres of undeveloped land, allowing the province to build 11 new Oakvilles without pressing against the existing boundary of the Greenbelt.
A 2011 report from Friends of the Greenbelt also argued against the “whitebelt”—the term used to describe the undeveloped land between existing municipal boundaries and the Greenbelt lands. Developers had claimed the whitebelt wouldn’t suffice to provide the housing demand, though the Friends of the Greenbelt report argued expansion plans for the next 20 years in Durham, York, Peel, Halton, and the City of Hamilton would use just 17 per cent of the whitebelt for development, leaving roughly 120,000 acres of land untouched for the next 16 years.
Our urban footprint is also getting smaller, in accordance with the Growth Plan: the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area expanded by 26 per cent to accommodate one million new residents in the 1990s, Keesmaat wrote, but needed just 10 per cent growth between 2001 and 2011 to add another million people.
The real problem, as Keesmaat sees it, is a shortage not of affordable homes but of transit in and between communities where people want to live. “If scarcity were driving up prices, homes on the suburban fringes would be much more expensive,” Keesmaat write in the Toronto Star. “In reality, they’re the lowest-priced options — because the majority of homebuyers want to buy in more urban neighbourhoods.”
The first decade of the protected area’s life was a “cause for celebration,” Keesmaat noted. She’s right—the Greenbelt is something all Ontarians should be proud of, and polling by Friends of the Greenbelt routinely shows that over 90 per cent of us agree. Let’s hope the changes implemented by Premier Kathleen Wynne, expected in Winter 2016, will strengthen one of Ontario’s greatest environmental legacies.