Make Toronto into World’s Coolest City: Turn White Belt into Forest

While Toronto may be famous for having green life veins flowing through its heart of forested ravines, the city is surrounded by a vulnerable mass of farmlands leased by developers and the federal government, (as a reserve for the Pickering Airport)  for cash cropping that is termed “the White Belt.”  While some may romantically call these lands a “food belt”, in reality most is used for grains grown for industrial feed stocks including bio-fuels or to dangerously fatten livestock in their last weeks of life for unhealthy  “marbling.”

The White Belt, also defined by the Neptis Foundation as the “Unprotected Countryside”, is the lands between the urban zoning envelope of greater Toronto- Hamilton and the Greenbelt. The Neptis Foundation, in a brief to the provincial government on the eve of the Greenbelt’s creation a decade ago, estimated that this area was some 146,000 hectares in extent.

Since 2005 Neptis has found that the White Belt has been cut away by some 17, 100 hectares for urban zoning: some of which has taken place in the worst imaginable places from an environmental point of view, in the headwaters area of the Twenty Mile Creek and Welland River in the City of Hamilton. It has found that only 5,200 hectares of these lands have been actually built upon. This swells the overcapacity of existing urban boundaries well over another half century. It also means that there are still 129,000 hectares of agriculturally zoned and designated land in the Toronto-Hamilton White Belt.

The environmental movement in Ontario currently suffers from an overly defensive posture, focused on rescuing natural areas from burial by urban sprawl. While such battles remain important these core natural areas in the White Belt and within urban boundaries should be viewed as in inviolable nucleus of a future forest to cool Toronto-Hamilton.  By reducing summer cooling and refrigeration energy loads, taking such a step would be a dramatic way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions that generate global warming. They would also serve as the best imaginable mitigation measure to reduce the impact of summer sweltering that will be an inevitable curse from human induced climate change for at least another century.  While planting can help reforest the “unprotected countryside”, by simply acquiring the land in public ownership in most cases the forests would regenerate successfully if left undisturbed by humans.

The easiest way to build a cooling forest for Toronto is to complete the reforestation of the federal-provincial land assembly east and north of the city, some of which now forms the Rouge Park. Reforestation even in the Rouge Provincial Park has been taking place glacially, with more than seventy per cent in cash cropping. To kick start the process of increasing forest cover in the assembly the first step should be for the federal government to cancel the proposed Pickering Airport and commence its reforestation as Canada’s cutting edge measure of carbon capture and climate change mitigation.

The basic technique to acquire the approximately 100,000 hectares of privately owned White Belt lands for forest conversion is the same quick and blanket expropriation means that were used to acquire the current assembly for the proposed Town of Seaton and the Pickering Airport. There is no need to target the lands of farmer-owners, or rural estates for the purpose-what needs to be put into trees are the vast assemblies of developers and land speculators.

Cities of comparable size to greater Toronto ranging from Kobe, Japan, to Stuttgart, Germany have developed plans to use forest creation to modify climate extremes. The basic method of delivering cooling temperatures has been enshrined in Stuttgart since its 1901official plan recognized the importance of wind movements. Forests were further recognized in Stuttgart’s 1948 official plan as natural air ventilators and are now seen as “landscapes for fresh and cold air production.”

Stuttgart’s forested uplands   convey cool breezes from surrounding forests through valleys into its urban core to eliminate heat impacts of urbanization. This is a situation identical to that which exists in the basic arc of the Greenbelt, through the Oak Ridges Moraine-Niagara Escarpment forest corridor, and the various streams that flow from there into Lake Ontario. Going beyond the mere task of protecting existing zoned agricultural land as exists in the White Belt surrounding Toronto, Stuttgart prohibited development on 60 hectares of land originally slated for greenfield building because doing so would have obstructed the ventilation effect of nocturnal-air flows.

Paying for the cost of the new Toronto forest is one of the best methods that carbon trading and revenues from related taxes can be directed to. Taxing and trading bloated emissions of carbon into our atmosphere can fund the acquisition of land needed to cool the cities where most of Canada’s population lives, also cleaning its air and streams. 

Written by: John Bacher

Photo: Taken by Alyssa Beurling, the Carruthers Creek headwaters which cross Concession 7 in Pickering. Unless the White Belt lands which lie in the Carruthers Creek watershed are added to the Greenbelt, this already small stream will  lose its biodiversity and disappear.