The Greenbelt: sprawl no more

Ontario's new greenbelt is cause for celebration. After much agonizing and many months of debate, Premier Dalton McGuinty finally announced the details of the legislation in February. "The plan will protect green space for future generations," McGuinty told a gaggle of reporters gathered at the McMichael Canadian Art Collection in Kleinburg. "It will be protected forever."

The designated area, which now encompasses about 720,000 hectares (1.8 million acres), stretches 325 kilometres in a giant arc from the Niagara River in the west to Rice Lake in the east.

As McGuinty pointed out, "When growth is not controlled, we all pay more in the long run. Sprawl is expensive. It strains our infrastructure and our transit systems and it harms our environment." And, as the premier also noted at the press conference, "The public appetite was for more, not less."

No kidding. Urban sprawl leads to social dysfunction and has been tied to declining levels of health, both physical and emotional. Car-dependent suburban development has also done tremendous damage to the environment and created some of the worst gridlock in North America. Indeed, studies now say cars consume 47 percent of their gasoline while they're stuck in traffic. And with the price of gas rising to unprecedented heights, suburbanites are now facing an expensive future.

Clearly, the greenbelt is an idea whose time has come. The province has wrestled with the concept since Bill Davis was premier back in the early 1970s and mid-'80s. Undoubtedly, McGuinty's pollsters told him the greenbelt would resonate with voters in the 905 as well as the 416 regions. Beyond that, though, the world has changed in the last few years. Suddenly the need to control sprawl has become one of the most pressing issues we face in the 21st century. Even suburbanites are waking up to the fact that there are limits to what former Metro Council chair Fred Gardiner used to call "multiplication by subdivision."

"The greenbelt is a remarkable accomplishment," says Rick Smith, executive director of Environmental Defence. "It still isn't fully implemented, so we'll be watching what happens. Its success is also closely allied to the success of the province's Places to Grow plans, which haven't been finalized. But the greenbelt certainly will protect endangered species and farmland, and contribute to better quality air."

The Places to Grow Act that Smith refers to is a companion piece of legislation to the Greenbelt Act. It's an encompassing law that will empower governments to enact future growth plans, such as the draft Greater Golden Horseshoe plan, which will spell out 25 locations in Southern Ontario to be set aside for high-density development. If and when this is implemented, there will be more reasons for rejoicing.

"The positive thing about the greenbelt is that it creates a huge provincial asset of 1.8 million acres," says Tony Coombes, respected planning consultant and executive director of the Neptis Foundation, a privately funded Toronto organization that does research into urban issues. "It will give structure to the region. It can be regarded as a huge park. It pulls together the Niagara Escarpment and Oak Ridges Moraine protection legislation established by previous governments and more than doubles their area."

However, the sad fact is that two-thirds of green land and three-quarters of prime agricultural land in the region remains outside the belt of protection. Ironically, because of the greenbelt, much of this land, already under pressure, will be more threatened than ever. Not surprisingly, this worries many experts. True, the greenbelt will remove a vast swath of land from play, but much remains up for grabs. There's enough land between the north end of the Greater Toronto Area and the bottom end of the greenbelt to build a community the size of Toronto. The question now is, how will this land be used? Will it be developed at suburban densities—typically five to 12 units or so per acre—or will it be built up to urban densities, which start at around 20 units per acre. Developers are already assembling large land holdings in south Simcoe County, directly north of the greenbelt. If development is allowed to leapfrog the greenbelt, chances of expanding it in the future are seriously reduced, if not eliminated.

Already, though, there are calls to expand the size of the greenbelt and connect it to other ecosystems to create enhanced continuity. This could be more easily accomplished if future growth is based on more compact, transit-based models. The province has identified a number of locations where development should be concentrated, and, of course, there's the GTA itself, where the potential for infill projects is large enough to accommodate huge population increases.

Sprawl is essentially a planning issue, say Coombes and other experts. Therefore, it must be dealt with primarily through better planning legislation and improved public transit. "We need a planning system that can give us more effective and efficient development," observes Toronto architect and urban-planning consultant Michael Kirkland. "The greenbelt is a blunt instrument in regard to controlling sprawl, because there's such a large amount of land outside its boundaries that's vulnerable to sprawl. The fact is we don't have zoning regulations or transit policies that support intelligent development within designated urban areas."

Still, the greenbelt will enshrine the differences between town and country, urban and rural. It will preserve a large island of green, albeit one surrounded by a sea of sprawl. Given that four million people are expected to move into the GTA over the next 30 years, that island will inevitably become a hugely important environmental feature.

However, we will have to remain vigilant. Already the greenbelt has come under enormous pressure, mainly from developers who have blighted much of Southern Ontario with countless subdivisions, each more ugly, wasteful and inefficient than the next. It has also met with fierce opposition from some small-town politicians who are dependent on developers for election funds, and from some farmers, who can't wait to cash in their property for big developer bucks. The battle lines are drawn. These groups have made it clear they will not back down in their quest to pave over what's left of some of the best agricultural land in Canada.

The development industry and its Tory backers have repeatedly demanded to see "the technical and scientific studies" that justify the greenbelt, although few take such requests seriously. Conservative MPP Tim Hudak (Erie-Lincoln) has proved himself to be vociferously anti-greenbelt. Maybe Hudak and his colleagues haven't realized it yet, but the end of suburbia is nigh. The signs can be seen in the growing problem of gridlock, the rising cost of gasoline, increased environmental degradation and the imminent depletion of the world's oil reserves. It isn't the greenbelt that needs justification so much as the car-dependent communities that make up the sprawl.

The greenbelt, as it stands now, will protect hundreds of working farms, wetlands, wood lots and various natural features. It represents a historic step forward in a province where developers traditionally have been allowed to control development. The notion, so prevalent in North America, that land is an infinite resource waiting to be exploited seems to be giving way to a more sophisticated and enlightened understanding: either we kill sprawl or it will kill us.

By itself, the greenbelt cannot control sprawl outside its boundaries, but it's an important start. Now governments must introduce a co-ordinated program of taxes, development fees, planning regulations, approval processes and mass-transit policies that can complete the task. Although the greenbelt is an excellent first step, the journey ahead will be long and arduous. We must all do everything we can to help preserve our countryside. All of us depend on it, no matter where we live.