The Ontario Greenbelt is a great success, but is its future secure?

At almost 2 million acres, it’s the world’s largest permanently protected greenbelt.  Dan McDermott, who is just stepping down as Chapter Director of Sierra Ontario after many years, weighs in on the Greenbelt’s successes and his concerns for its future as it reaches the ten-year review point.Dan McDermott remembers how, before the creation of the Greenbelt in 2005, he and his late wife, Helen, would head out of Toronto every spring to go hiking in the countryside, often only to find that some previously green space was now a development or a development under construction:  “We almost became resigned to the situation, telling ourselves that Southern Ontario would simply become paved from end to end.” As our world becomes increasingly crowded and urban sprawl threatens to engulf us, greenbelts are seen worldwide as one way of ensuring that critical green space, natural wilderness areas and farmland are preserved.  Ontario’s Greenbelt accomplishes all this. In addition, Ontario’s decision to protect the rivers flowing into Lake Ontario should help to ensure that the province has good quality drinking water.Of course, other Canadian cities have also developed plans to protect farmland and green space. There is the Ottawa Greenbelt, with its 203 square kilometers of protected green space within the city of Ottawa. In Montreal, a plan has been developed to protect green and natural spaces, but the plan is not backed by mechanisms to enforce it and does not have a budget. Other cities in Canada also recognize the need to protect natural spaces and halt urban sprawl.  On the provincial level, both British Columbia and Quebec have enacted agriculture zones to protect farmland from development.But the comprehensive nature of the Ontario Greenbelt and its scale make it a model for other urban areas, both inside and outside Canada, to emulate.Dan, who has been working with Sierra Club since 1998, loves the work he did to help protect the Greenbelt:  “I found myself in the happy position of working to protect the very landscape that we respected and enjoyed in southern Ontario.”He sees it as something that has enhanced the quality of life for residents of southern Ontario, by helping to prevent urban sprawl, improve air quality, provide natural spaces for recreation, promote bio-diversity and even enhance food quality.  “Protecting Ontario’s farmland and food growing capacity has lead to the growth of the local food movement. … Farmers that are inside the Greenbelt are doing better than the farmers that are outside.”Dan is particularly happy that three of the new parcels of land being proposed for addition to the Greenbelt by the Government of Ontario have been areas in which the work of Sierra Club has made a difference. These include the City of Mississauga’s application to add the publically owned lands of the Credit River Valley, an effort begun in 2010 by Peel Group founder, the late Peter Orphanos, and carried on by Sierra Peel’s dedicated volunteers including Greenbelt advocate, Thaia Jones. Thaia and Sierra Peel scored a second victory when the provincial government proposed Greenbelt protection for Etobicoke Creek, which expands the city of Brampton’s Greenbelt presence. St. Catharines based Sierra Club Greenbelt advocate Dr. John Bacher succeeded in getting Niagara Region to move forward, and the Ontario Government to propose, the long delayedThorold move to add the Lake Gibson lands to the Greenbelt.This is certainly something to celebrate. Environmental successes are almost always the work of many and Dan is the quick to credit many Sierra volunteers including Kristina Jackson and Thaia Jones as well as many other Sierra volunteers and supporters for these successes.However, Dan is concerned that, despite its many successes, the Greenbelt is vulnerable to economic pressures: “It is one of the biggest greenbelts, but it continues to remain vulnerable to economic development.”  For example, the Crombie’s Panel’s Review included a proposal that would see the “de-freezing” of parcels of land that were previously completely protected from development.  “Many developers,” says Dan, “have declared war on the Greenbelt.”He is hopeful that the views of people like Toronto’s Chief Planner and Executive Director of the City Planning Division, Jennifer Keesmaat, will prevail.  In an op-ed piece in The Toronto Star, Keesmaat stated: “The Greenbelt has helped to reduce sprawl, protect our natural environment and provide food for our growing region.” went on to say: “Our region is not running out of land to build houses.  Far from it: there are more than 1,500 square kilometers of undeveloped land in the Greater Golden Horseshoe.  We could build five more Mississaugas, or 11 more Oakvilles, without bumping into the Greenbelt.”  She sees better planning and mass transit as the keys to affordable housing.Dan McDermott is hoping that when the final government recommendations come down this fall, the integrity of the Greenbelt will be protected.  As the Sierra Club Ontario representative on the Ontario Greenbelt Alliance, he is keeping a close eye on the situation.  In his view, this is no time for complacency: “Public support is of course needed,” if the Greenbelt is to be protected.Ontario’s Greenbelt continues to serve as an inspiration to other cities in Canada and around the world. Let us hope that it continues to do so.