Good things are grow­ing in On­tario’s Green­belt

Toronto Star - - OPINION - DAVID SUZUKI AND FAISAL MOOLA Dr. David Suzuki is a sci­en­tist, broad­caster, au­thor and co-founder of the David Suzuki Foun­da­tion. Dr. Faisal Moola is the David Suzuki Foun­da­tion’s On­tario and North­ern Canada Direc­tor and an ad­junct pro­fes­sor at the Univer

More than half the planet’s peo­ple now live in ur­ban ar­eas. The need to sup­ply food, shel­ter, fresh wa­ter and en­ergy to bil­lions of ur­ban res­i­dents is re­sult­ing in the loss of farm­land, forests, wet­lands and other ecosys­tems, as well as the crit­i­cal eco­log­i­cal ser­vices they sup­port, such as pro­vid­ing food, clean air and drink­ing wa­ter.

Al­most half of Canada’s ur­ban base is on land that only a few gen­er­a­tions ago was be­ing farmed. Ac­cord­ing to Statis­tics Canada, nearly four mil­lion hectares of farm­land — an area larger than Van­cou­ver Is­land — were lost from 1971 to 2011, mostly due to ur­ban­iza­tion.

A grow­ing num­ber of ju­ris­dic­tions have re­sponded by en­act­ing strong land-use poli­cies to pro­tect farm­land and green space through sound ur­ban plan­ning. In the 1970s, Ore­gon’s gov­ern­ment im­posed strict ur­ban-growth bound­aries around a num­ber of cities, in­clud­ing Port­land, sep­a­rat­ing ur­ban land, where ur­ban growth is per­mit­ted, from ru­ral land. As a re­sult, growth in the city was con­fined to ex­ist­ing built-up ar­eas, thereby pre­vent­ing devel­op­ment from spilling out to farm­ers’ fields. Many de­vel­op­ers and busi­ness­peo­ple fought the plan, ar­gu­ing it would hurt the econ­omy, but Port­land is now rec­og­nized as one of the most liv­able cities on the con­ti­nent. It has fa­cil­i­tated den­si­fi­ca­tion, im­proved walk­a­bil­ity and de­creased the cost of en­ergy and trans­porta­tion for homes and busi­nesses.

In Canada, On­tario has en­acted the Growth Plan for the Greater Golden Horse­shoe to en­cour­age towns and cities to grow up­wards through den­si­fi­ca­tion rather than out­wards through car-de­pen­dent ur­ban sprawl. On­tario has also es­tab­lished a 728,000-hectare green­belt of pro­tected farm­land and green space, which wraps around the Greater Golden Horse­shoe’s ma­jor towns and cities, in­clud­ing Toronto, Hamil­ton, Markham and Burling­ton.

On­tario’s gov­ern­ment is re­view­ing the growth plan and the Green­belt Plan, along with two other ad­join­ing land-use plans, which work to­gether to man­age growth, pro­tect the nat­u­ral en­vi­ron­ment and sup­port eco­nomic devel­op­ment. This co-or­di­nated re­view process of­fers an op­por­tu­nity to ex­am­ine mod­ern land-use plan­ning and as­sess whether On­tario’s ap­proach to man­ag­ing growth should be ap­plied to other towns and cities fac­ing sim­i­lar ur­ban pres­sures.

Ama­jor out­come of the plans has been their suc­cess in pro­tect­ing farm­land from devel­op­ment and re­vi­tal­iz­ing south­ern On­tario’s agri­cul­tural in­dus­try. The Green­belt alone, com­pris­ing just over 20 per cent of the re­gion, gen­er­ates more than $9 bil­lion in an­nual rev­enue to lo­cal economies, pro­duc­ing a bounty of fruits and veg­eta­bles, beef, pork, dairy, honey and award-win­ning wines.

David Suzuki Foun­da­tion re­search shows the Green­belt’s farm­land and green spa­ces also pro­vide an es­ti­mated $2.6 bil­lion an­nu­ally in non-mar­ket benefits, such as wa­ter fil­tra­tion by wa­ter­sheds. This saves lo­cal mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties hun­dreds of mil­lions of dol­lars they would oth­er­wise have to spend on wa­ter in­fra­struc­ture and treat­ment fa­cil­i­ties.

The growth plan and Green­belt also en­cour­age smarter ur­ban growth in the re­gion through more ef­fi­cient use of avail­able land, which in turn re­duces the amount and cost of in­fra­struc­ture and sup­ports public tran­sit. A re­cent re­port by ur­ban plan­ning group the Nep­tis Foun­da­tion found ur­ban ex­pan­sion has slowed since plans were im­ple­mented. From 1991 to 2001, the ur­ban foot­print of Toronto and sur­round­ing sub­urbs grew by 26 per cent to ac­com­mo­date about 1.1 mil­lion new res­i­dents. Be­tween 2001 and 2011, it ex­panded by just 10 per cent to ac­com­mo­date roughly the same num­ber of new­com­ers.

Although the Green­belt Plan is curb­ing sprawl and pro­tect­ing farm­land and green space, it’s far from se­cure — and the re­main­ing 80 per cent of the re­gion’s farm­land and nat­u­ral sys­tems re­main un­pro­tected. Pro­posed new high­ways, pipe­lines, hy­dro cor­ri­dors and sprawl­ing, car-de­pen­dent sub­di­vi­sions could frag­ment nat­u­ral and agri­cul­tural sys­tems and en­able leapfrog devel­op­ment out­side the Green­belt’s bor­ders — with ex­ten­sive land spec­u­la­tion in ex­pec­ta­tion of the type of sprawl th­ese plans were specif­i­cally in­tended to pre­vent. En­vi­ron­men­tal­ists have joined farm­ers and lo­cal food ad­vo­cates to urge On­tario’s gov­ern­ment to strengthen reg­u­la­tory pro­tec­tion for the Green­belt and ex­pand it.

Canada’s towns and cities are at a cross­roads. One path leads to con­tin­ued low-den­sity, sprawl­ing ur­ban ex­pan­sion, with end­less pave­ment, long com­mutes and traf­fic jams, and the high so­cial and eco­log­i­cal costs of waste­ful forms of ur­ban de­sign. The other path ends sprawl by cre­at­ing com­pact, higher-den­sity com­mu­ni­ties with midrise hous­ing and ac­cess to public tran­sit, bike paths and walk­ing trails, sur­rounded by pre­cious farm­land and green spa­ces like On­tario’s renowned Green­belt. What kind of cities do you want?

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