Opening up Ontario’s Greenbelt to development would be a multi-generational disaster. Words :: Leslie Anthony.
The Don River is no Amazon, but the valleys of the watercourse bisecting north Toronto were my first version of jungle exploration. When we moved to the suburb of Don Mills in the early 1960s, it was making waves as Canada’s first “planned” community. A paragon of organization, the ’hood the rest of the world would come to know from urban-planning textbooks was then a mosaic of newly minted housing, service hubs, undeveloped lots, pasture, grown-over orchards and deep, dark ravines where streams bubbled toward the coffee-colored Don. Green tendrils penetrated the concrete patchwork of curling streets from a towering forest of maple, oak and pine.
Indeed, at first, we dwelt on the edge of something approximating wilderness as a parade of displaced animal life was welcomed on our street by cheering throngs of children weaned on a steady diet of storybook critters. As the city grew around us, I spent more and more time in the valleys it engulfed, preserved in a forward-thinking series of interconnected parks like Edwards Gardens, Sunnybrook, Wilket Creek and Taylor Creek. These were the places to which my parents often took my brothers and I on family excursions. When time allowed, we were transported further afield to peri-urban conservation areas of the Toronto and Region Conservation Authority (TRCA), where we could see ecosystems known in bit and part functioning as a whole and in real time. School trips likewise made use of the TRCA’s fortuitous classrooms.
Not only did I garner appreciation for the natural world, but also for the region’s post-glacial topography and hydrology—the deep aquifers that provide water for so many communities, the dendritic systems that carry the land’s runoff to Lake Ontario, and the mechanics of natural wetlands.
The heuristic value of such greenspaces to myself and thousands of others living in big-city suburbia cannot be overstated. Not only did I garner appreciation for the natural world, but also for the region’s post-glacial topography and hydrology—the deep aquifers that provide water for so many communities, the dendritic systems that carry the land’s runoff to Lake Ontario, and the mechanics of natural wetlands. One of the first things I remember hearing was how the TRCA was established in direct response to destructive flooding that occurred in and around Toronto during Hurricane Hazel in 1957, and that conservation areas were built around water-regulating systems in regional headwaters to ensure such flooding would never repeat (it hasn’t, and, in fact, Ontario’s unique system of conservation authorities is the main reason the province sees far less flooding than others). Decades later, I’d likewise take my own daughter to these same haunts to inculcate similar lessons.
In 2005, long after I’d moved away, I was heartened to hear how these manifold landscapes, waterways and set-asides, having been painstakingly stitched together by generations of governments and nonprofits, were added to key farmland in an officially designated Greenbelt, protected from development under provincial legislation by the Liberal government of Dalton McGuinty. But then, only 15 years later, I was equally disheartened to learn that this huge, progressive win for biodiversity, recreation, natural disaster-control, and climate, water and food security for almost a quarter of Canada’s populace is threatened by a Progressive Conservative government that campaigned on not opening it to development.
This is a disaster of a different kind, and it behooves the people of Southern Ontario to understand what’s at stake.
Greenbelts aren’t a new idea, but Ontario’s is the world’s largest and most studied, containing some 2 million acres of protected farmland, forests, wetlands, rivers and lakes. That’s $9.6 billion in economic impact annually—$3.2 billion in ecosystem services alone, including $224 million in flood protection—representing 178,000 jobs. The wildland component, 721,000 acres of wetland, grassland and forest, contains 78 different species at risk. These irreplaceable natural assets both make the region more climate resilient and annually offset 71 megatons of carbon—equivalent to emissions from 56.5 million cars.
The health of the Greenbelt affects drinking water, manages stormwater, helps prevent flooding and buffers against diseases and other natural stresses in times of drought. Greenbelt agriculture drives local economies: High-quality soil, favourable climate and proximity to Canada’s largest market see 4,800 farms—comprising 40 per cent of the protected area—produce a staggering diversity of local food and drink, including rare specialty-crop areas like Holland Marsh and the Niagara Tender Fruit and Grape Area. With more than 450,000 acres of farmland lost in Ontario since 1991, a permanently protected Greenbelt is essential to a reliable local food source.
Greenbelt agriculture drives local economies: High-quality soil, favourable climate and proximity to Canada’s largest market see 4,800 farms—comprising 40 per cent of the protected area—produce a staggering diversity of local food and drink, including rare specialty-crop areas like Holland Marsh and the Niagara Tender Fruit and Grape Area.
Given this litany of benefits, it’s worth remembering how we got here. It began in 1973, when a first ecological building block, the 725-km-long Niagara Escarpment, was protected; in 1990, the Escarpment was designated a UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve comprising coastlines, cliff faces, talus, wetlands, woodlands, alvars, oak savannas, conifer swamps and others biodiverse habitats collectively containing more than 300 species of birds, 55 mammals, 36 reptiles and amphibians, 90 fish and 100 different special-interest flora. Following the lead of citizen groups, the 125-km Oak Ridges Moraine was protected in 2001. Ontario’s “rain barrel,” the moraine filters and recharges groundwater, feeding headwaters that ultimately provide drinking water for 7 million Ontarians.
As noted, in 2005 Ontario officially created the world’s largest Greenbelt by conjoining the Escarpment and Moraine with close to a million acres of prime farmland. To mark the designation’s 10th Anniversary in 2015, Ontario conducted an historic review of four cornerstone land use plans and found the Greenbelt’s first decade was an unqualified success. So much so that in 2017 protection was extended to 21 urban river valleys and seven coastal wetlands connecting suburban and rural lands to Lake Ontario across the Greater Golden Horseshoe—one of the fastest-growing regions in North America. Up to 13.5 million people will live here by 2041, making it more important than ever to protect resources that provide for good quality of life.
As the Greenbelt passed its 15th year in 2020, public support had never been higher. But it wasn’t long before Premier Ford and Municipal Affairs and Housing Minister Steve Clark began softening up the target for what would become Bill 23, dropping bombs of intent to reverse their “hands-off the greenbelt” promises in the guise of a plan to build more than 1.5 million houses. Reaction was swift, widespread and overwhelmingly negative, as summed up by David Crombie, former Toronto mayor and past chair of the Provincial Greenbelt Council: “I am profoundly disturbed by the government’s proposed actions,” he said. “They won’t solve the housing crisis but they would make it harder to fix our existing [towns and cities]… as well as protect the farmland and natural areas that sustain them… we’ll have more sprawl and much less local food and protection against flooding and the climate crisis.”
On November 21, 2022, an unlikely 125-strong coalition of community groups, farmers, urban planners, housing advocates, environmentalists, labour unions and healthcare workers released a damning seven-page statement revealing Bill 23 as a recipe for sprawl, a violation of federal-provincial agreements on land use, and a threat to everything from farmland to species at risk. Despite the unprecedented pushback, Ford’s plan to eat into the Greenbelt quietly came to pass in December 2022.
Candy-coated as a land swap, Bill 23 removed 7,400 acres from 15 sections of Greenbelt and added 9,400 acres elsewhere. But the exchange appears to have no net benefit: The compensation land comprises a small portion of farmland northwest of Toronto already protected under other mechanisms, and a series of publicly owned urban river valleys that cannot be built on anyway. Tellingly, it soon came to light in a joint investigation by The Narwhal and the Toronto Star that developers who’d benefit most from the proposal had donated large sums to Ford’s PCs.
Aside from broken promises and potential chicanery, the government’s turnaround on the Greenbelt was no surprise. Its anti-environment, business-at-all-costs agenda had already made it easier to build on wetlands, gutted conservation authorities (and, ergo, flood-control capacities), forced municipalities to open farmland to development, greenlighted a contentious sewage plan for York Region, began construction on the controversial Bradford Bypass, and made sundry energy policy decisions that will reduce the cleanliness of Ontario’s electrical grid. As noted by Ontario Nature, “What’s being snipped is the thoughtfully interwoven web of protections for our wetlands, woodlands and farmland that has been developed over decades. Years of hard work… is being rapidly unraveled under the guise of ‘more homes built faster.’”
According to every analysis, however—including by its own advisors—the government’s excuse of needing Greenbelt land to solve the housing crisis is manifestly untrue. The Ontario Greenbelt Alliance points to a February 2022 report by the Alliance for a Liveable Ontario that shows municipalities across the Golden Horseshoe having already set aside enough land to build in excess of 2 million housing units—far more than the target of 1.5 million for the entire province by 2031. “Bill 23 undoes all we’ve learned about how best to manage urban growth. It will severely hurt municipalities, both their revenues and their ability to plan and design their communities properly,” said Anne Golden, former chair, Task Force on the Future of the GTA.
Not only is tightening the Greenbelt clearly unnecessary, it’s anathema to the reasons for its creation in the first place—connection and permanence.
“We have to avoid the idea we can take here and add there because these are unique, interconnected systems that affect everything from drinking water to biodiversity to the ability to farm,” says Edward McDonnell, CEO of the Greenbelt Foundation. “The idea of permanence needs to be reinforced so it gives certainty to everyone involved. If we look at other greenbelts around the world, the questions are always about cumulative impacts and why those lands were protected in the first place. Not all land is equal—whether to do with growing conditions or the headwaters of a particular water system. Different areas and systems in the Greenbelt are what they are and not replaceable in any meaningful way.”
Because the particular wetlands, woodlands, rivers and farmland that would be paved over for no good reason seemed lost in the media uproar, Ontario Nature has highlighted 10 unique places—including major wildlife corridors and thousands of acres of farmland, sensitive woodlands and wetlands—that will forever degraded or lost to Bill 23.
“The Greenbelt is a real point of pride to Ontarians, a strong emotional attachment that can vary by person,” says McDonnell. “For some it’s food and agriculture, for others the water systems, ravines or understanding the connection of headwaters to Lake Ontario, and, for still others, learning about the greater whole represented.”
As someone for whom all of the above resonates, I can only lament the lost opportunities for a new generation.
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