The Greenbelt is a band of over 810,00 hectares of protected land encompassing the Greater Toronto Area in Toronto, Canada . The protected land includes forests, farmlands, wetlands and green spaces along with the Oak Ridges Moraine Conservation Plan and the Niagara Escarpment Plan . Surrounding what is known as Canada's Golden Horseshoe, the Greenbelt confines the country's most populated and industrialized area; and one of the fastest growing regions in North America . The goal of the Greenbelt is to protect the golden horseshoe region from the harmful effects of development while also promoting economic and social activities in rural communities . However, since the its inception in 2005, the Greenbelt has been under extreme pressure from housing development projects due to the regions housing affordability crisis and the continued outward expansion of the Golden Horseshoe.
The Issue: Urban Sprawl, Ontario's Housing Crisis and the Greenbelt.
Since its formation in 2005, the Greenbelt has successfully served its purpose in preserving the ecologically and environmentally significant lands of southern Ontario. However, this has significantly contributed to Ontario's housing crisis by limiting sprawl and hindering the province's supply of newly constructed homes. The Golden Horseshoe is now Canada’s most expensive region to purchase a house . As a result, the Greenbelt is significantly threatened by the housing crisis; notably as a result of the provincial government's plans to remove 7400 acres of land from the Greenbelt to accelerate housing construction and reduce housing costs . With plans to build 1.5 million homes within the next decade, the Ontario Government promises to expand the Greenbelt in other areas to compensate for the land it removes . That said, the proposed Greenbelt expansion areas are deemed to be significantly less ecologically valuable and considerable push back remains from many parties . In particular, the government's plans to remove land from the Greenbelt incited public concern over the precedent it sets for the future viability of the Greenbelt’s ability to withstand development pressures .
The Greenbelt: History & Purpose
Over 15,000 years ago, what is now southern Ontario was covered with glaciers and glacial lakes. Their gradual retreat formed the Great Lakes, rolling hills and fertile soil that is there today . One of the most biologically rich regions of Canada, southern Ontario has been inhabited by First Nations and Métis peoples for Millenia. Following widespread colonial influence starting in the 1700's, Toronto saw rapid expansion because of the industrial revolution and European immigration. As a result, the vast deciduous and mixed forests of Southern Ontario were logged to make way for agriculture and raw timber for export. By the 1950's, the majority of Southern Ontario was altered for agricultural use making it a prime region for food production into the 20th century and present day . Additionally, the vast amount of clean water and available aquifers within the area increased the suitability of the land for agricultural and housing development.
Into the later half of the 20th century, with rapid development and expansion from urban centres like Toronto, Hamilton and Niagara, the vast agricultural and environmentally sensitive landscape of southern Ontario was being consumed by Urban Sprawl. Due to increasing concern over the loss of such agricultural significant land, the modern environmental movement as well as increased citizen involvement within Ontario's political and environmental landscapes, there was an increasing push to preserve the ecologically and environmentally significant lands of southern Ontario that were increasingly threatened by development .
In 1973, the Niagara Escarpment, a large ridge of unique rock formation stretching from Tobermory to Niagara was protected by the Ontario government “to provide for the maintenance of the Niagara Escarpment and land in its vicinity substantially as a continuous natural environment, and to ensure only such development occurs as is compatible with that natural environment" . In 1990, The Niagara Escarpment was also named a UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve which reinforced the environmental significance of southern Ontario's geology . In 2002, The Oak Ridges Moraine Conservation Plan was unveiled to protect over 470,000 acres of land stretching from the Trent River to the Niagara Escarpment . Forming the watershed between Lake Ontario and Lake Simcoe, the Oak Ridges Moraine is a crucial resource for ground water and providing optimal landscapes for agriculture. Furthermore, this unique landscape offers protected ecosystems for one thousand plant species and over two hundred animal species. The Oak Ridges Moraine Conservation Plan ensures the hydrological and ecological integrity of the area remains while providing beautiful landscapes for Ontarian's to enjoy.
On the heels of the Niagara Escarpment Protection and the Oak Ridges Moraine Conservation Plan, the Ontario Government unveiled the world largest green belt in 2005 . Protecting almost one million acres of farmland, forests, wetlands and green spaces, the Greenbelt was created by integrating parts of the Niagara Escarpment Protection and the Oak Ridges Moraine Conservation Plan to created a large band of protected areas surrounding the Golden Horseshoe . This preserves agricultural land and environmentally significant areas from urban sprawl by preventing municipalities from re-zoning their land for development. Since its establishment, the Greenbelt remains a significant protected area today and ensures the viability of Ontarios agricultural industries and green spaces by limiting the Golden Horseshoes urban sprawl.
Golden Horseshoe and Urban Sprawl
First coined in 2004 by Ontario's Ministry of Public Infrastructure and Renewal, the term Golden Horseshoe broadly refers to the dense urban area extending from Niagara Falls to Oshawa, along the shores of Lake Ontario. The Golden Horseshoe is home to 9,765,188 people according to the 2021 Canadian Census . Forming one of Canada's main economic backbones, the industry found within the Golden Horseshoe is an important part of the Canadian Economy. As such, the region attracts a diverse population from all around the world, making it one of the most multicultural regions in Canada .
After World War Two, car culture and promotion of the suburban lifestyle caused major metropolitan centres like Toronto and Hamilton to expand outwards. Simultaneously, increasing industry and more shipping routes to the United States created many jobs, attracting lots of immigration from around Canada and the World to the region . With a a rapid increase in population throughout the 1950's to 1970's, housing developments and highway infrastructure began to extend from the various city centres along Lake Ontario, eating up farmland and forests . This trend reached a peak in the 1990's, due to a phenomenon coined "drive until you qualify", in which young homebuyers could not afford homes in city centres and were forced to drive farther away to find homes within their price range .
In 2005, the Ontario Government established a large network of protected areas around the Golden Horseshoe called the Greenbelt. The Greenbelt has significantly limited urban sprawl by confining the Golden Horseshoe in between the Greenbelt and Lake Ontario . This confinement has caused increased densification of the region, capping the outward expansion of housing development projects. However, this has also in part caused the cost of homes to skyrocket in the region within the past two decades, due to increased housing demand from population growth and insufficient supply associated with the now limited housing development opportunities .
Ontario's Housing Crisis: as it pertains to the Greenbelt
Ontario is ranked as the least affordable province in Canada and is currently in what is deemed as a "housing crisis" . This is because housing costs now account for over 30% of the average household income in the Golden Horseshoe; causing the region to become increasingly unaffordable for the average individual . Toronto has recently surpassed Vancouver as the most expensive city to live in, making it the second most expensive city in Canada to rent and the most expensive city in Canada to buy a property . According to the Government of Ontario, this is caused by Greenbelt confining urban sprawl in the region and will only get worse as a result of increased immigration . It is also undeniable that single detached home developments now extend from city centres all the way to the edge of the Greenbelt throughout the majority of the Golden Horseshoe region, and the current trend of single detached housing developments will soon run out of lands not protected by the Greenbelt . In response, Ontario unveiled plans in November 2022 to allow construction on thousands of acres of property within the protected Greenbelt to address the housing crisis .
One of the key drivers of the housing crisis remains the interpersonal influences within the social fabric of the provinces large middle class; in which families strive to own a single detached homes . Several groups, including Environmental Defence Canada, find that the housing crisis cannot be solved by building more single detached homes but rather by slow densification of urban areas and the increase of rental properties within urban centres . This is because single detached housing developments within the Greenbelt are not designed to be affordable or address the rising cost of housing for young people and low income individuals, but rather to deal a shortage of single detached homes for the provinces middle class . Additionally, single detached homes promotes the further growth of car culture within the province which is proven to be harmful for air quality, green spaces and human health . Thus the provincial governments plan is highly criticized for the lack of impact it will have to address the housing crisis in terms of affordability, densification and aid for low income individuals. Moreover, recent reports from The Alliance for a Liveable Ontario indicate that there is enough currently available non-Greenbelt lands to build over 2 million single-detached homes, which contradicts the Ontario governments proposal and reasoning for removing lands from the Greenbelt .
Governmental History, Policy and Conflicts
The greenbelt was passed by Ontario’s government, led by Dalton McGuinty’s liberal party, on February 28, 2005. As the liberal party remained in power for 15 years, the Greenbelt remained fairly unchanged until 2017, when the protected area grew to encompass 21 Urban River Valleys and 7 coastal wetlands. This addition to the Greenbelt connects the land to Lake Ontario and provides filtered water and air, as well as reduces flooding and a home for wildlife. Protecting this area is crucial in protecting the hydrological features many Ontarians rely on. While the Greenbelt has had successes, such as this addition, it has faced backlash from opposing parties since it was implemented back in 2005. With the election of Doug Ford taking place in 2018, the Progressive Conservative Party gained majority in the government and the Greenbelt has lost the protection from the Ontario government that it once had. Following this change in power, Ford’s government has changed the conservation surrounding the Greenbelt to focus on regional boundaries, growth management and transportation.
Beginning in 2018, Ford’s government started to campaign the development of the Greenbelt which was heavily criticised and quickly withdrawn to prevent any lasting public debate. However, while the government hid the plans from the public, the development of the Greenbelt has always been on their agenda with plans resurfacing in 2019. Ford’s plans involved reducing density targets that were established by the Liberal government, so much so that they would not even be able to support a bus service. Furthermore, Ford’s government passed Bill 5 in 2018 that reduced the size of Toronto’s City Council from 44 to 25 seats, recognized as an attack on local democracy. Following this, Bill 66, Open for Business Bill, and Bill 109, More Homes, More Choice Act, were passed, both which are supported by the development of the Greenbelt. Ford’s plans for the Greenbelt did not stop there as in April 2021, Ford appointed former conservative minister Norm Sterling as the chair of the supervisory Greenbelt Council, despite publicly declaring himself opposed to the protected area. The following year, in 2022, Ontario's Premier Doug Ford announced a plan to construct two highways through the Greenbelt, claiming it would promote economic development and help resolve Ontario's housing crisis. However, critics argue that the plan includes vast cuts to environmental protections, which are both risky and unnecessary. Prior to any change to the Greenbelt's zoning, a business owned by a developer from Ontario paid $80 million for 700 acres of unusable property situated in the Greenbelt in September, 2023. These developers have donated to the Progressive Conservative Party and have hired conservative lobbyist, thus raising the question was protecting the Greenbelt ever part of the conversation. Most recently, on December 14, 2023, the cabinet passed two regulations that implement its contentious plan to remove land in 15 different areas from the Greenbelt for development. The Ontario government's promotion of car culture and urban sprawl, despite the push for sustainability, poses a threat to the Greenbelt's future. Regional and suburban governance are linked to urban expansion and are associated with political economies governed by state, market, and private authoritarianism. This move by Ontario's government places the Greenbelt in danger from the same team that created it in the first place.
Since Ford's plan to develop the Greenbelt has been brought to light, a response from Ontarian's has been the #HandsOffTheGreenbelt demonstrations. Many organisations have shown support for the Greenbelt such as the Ontario Federation of Agriculture, Association of Municipalities, The Registered Nurses Association of Ontario and Ontario’s First Nations Chiefs as they are each directly affected by the development of this land in one way or another. Despite immense support for the Greenbelt, a lack of voter turnout in the recent election has allowed Ford to stay in power with only 40 percent of the popular vote. Thus, encouraging regional voters to get to the polls will ensure proper democracy and protection for the Greenbelt. Currently, Canada’s Federal government is launching a study into Rouge National Urban Park which homes 42 at-risk species and is currently located next to one of Ford’s development areas. This study is being done in collaboration with the Impact Assessment Agency of Canada, Parks Canada and Environment and Climate Change Canada Previous developments have been stopped when the results of an impact study show consequences for at-risk species, thus, the federal government is hoping these findings will put a halt to Ford’s development plans.
Protecting Ontario's Greenbelt from urban encroachment and encouraging its growth and improvement have been the main goals of the environmental movement in this area. Environmental organizations have been effective in increasing awareness and blocking policy changes that would have imperilled the Greenbelt through campaigns and political activity.
In order to get to work, education, and other amenities, people would have to travel farther, which would result in more traffic congestion. Higher levels of carbon emissions would result from this, which would further the cause of climate change.The Greenbelt's development will also jeopardize the habitats of many species and result in the loss of green space, which is crucial for urban dwellers' mental and physical wellbeing.
The "Protect the Greenbelt" campaign, started in 2017 by Canadian environmental group Environmental Defence, is one instance of environmental activism in support of the Greenbelt. The goal of the campaign was to defend the Greenbelt from amendments to the Greater Golden Horseshoe Growth Plan that would have permitted development in some parts of the Greenbelt. The campaign included a number of protests, open forums, and online activism; eventually, the amendments were dropped.
Environmental organizations have planned campaigns, petitions, and demonstrations to increase public awareness and lobby for the protection of the Greenbelt. Instead of allowing for urban sprawl, they have urged the Ontario government to strengthen and enlarge the Greenbelt.
The expansion and improvement of the Greenbelt is one potential future. Environmental groups and concerned residents have urged the Greenbelt to cover additional territory and to be strengthened in order to better safeguard farming, natural habitats, and water supplies. In 2020, the Ontario government announced intentions to add 60 new urban river valleys and associated wetlands to the Greenbelt, demonstrating some openness to contemplate extension.
The Greenbelt may still be in danger as a result of urbanization pressures. Over the coming decades, the Greater Toronto Area is expected to experience tremendous growth, which might result in higher demand for housing, infrastructure, and commercial development. If strong safeguards and legislation are not put in place, these pressures might lead the Greenbelt and its priceless resources to steadily deteriorate.
In the upcoming years, the Greenbelt is anticipated to see major effects from climate change. The resilience and health of the farmers and ecosystems in the Greenbelt could be impacted by increased temperatures, altered precipitation patterns, and extreme weather events.
Ontario’s Greenbelt is a crucial resource guarding against the negative consequences of urbanization and development on natural areas, farms, and water supplies . As a band of over 810,00 hectares of protected land surrounding the Golden Horseshoe, the Greenbelt has significantly hindered the urban sprawl and housing development emanating from metropolitan centers like Toronto and Hamilton. However, faced with increasing developmental pressures as a result of the province's housing crisis, its future viability is at stake. This is because the golden horseshoe region is now significantly confined by the Greenbelt, having consumed a majority of the non-Greenbelt lands. Recently, the provincial government plans to address the housing crisis in part by taking away lands from the Greenbelt to build more houses, while simultaneously adding more land to the Greenbelt elsewhere. Inciting controversy over a variety of factors, this move has been highly criticized by Ontarians as some which to reinforce and expand the Greenbelt, while others want to see more construction inside its bounds.
In addition to the housing crisis, the Greenbelt is threatened by climate change, which is anticipated to have a substantial influence on the area's ecosystems and agricultural industry in the future. It will be crucial for decision-makers and residents to collaborate in order to identify solutions that strike a balance between economic, social, and environmental concerns in order to safeguard the Greenbelt and preserve its long-term viability .
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