Can the Greenbelt be Saved?

February 26, 2019

The Greenbelt is a conservation area that surrounds the Golden Horseshoe in Southern Ontario. It includes the Niagara Escarpment, stretching from Niagara to Tobermory, Cove, Flowerpot and Russel Islands. In it, one can find 36 species of reptiles and amphibians, 53 species of mammals, 90 species of fish and more than 350 species of birds, along with the 1000-year-old trees. Oak Ridges Moraine, another stretch of nature, also belong to the Greenbelt, encompasses the area between Caledon and Rice Lake, and plays an important role in the hydrological system of the region. In addition, over 1 million acres of agricultural land form the Protected Countryside, whose Holland Marsh produces 4 pounds of carrots and 2 pounds of onions for every Canadian per year. Bill 135, which became law in February 2005, ensures that the Greenbelt area is permanently protected.

But with the latest round of provincial elections, the Greenbelt and its incredible biological diversity could have been lost.

In April 2018 a video was leaked showing the PC Leader and soon-to-be Premier pledging to a group of developers that he’d allow them to build on the Greenbelt. “We need to open that up, and create a larger supply to build affordable housing”, Ford asserted. The Greenbelt was thus in grave danger. It was only after a sustained and energetic public campaign that the PC government was forced to amend the bill. In May 2018, Ford capitulated, saying that “the people have spoken and I am going to listen to them. They don’t want me to touch the Greenbelt. We won’t touch the Greenbelt”.

Ford promised not to touch the Greenbelt in May 2018, however, by December 2018, he appeared to have changed his mind.

At a time when Ontario loses 71 hectares of farmland every day to urban development and following Ford’s promise not to touch the Greenbelt, the Progressive Conservative government attempted to introduce Bill 66. Its Schedule 10, as it relates to the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing adds section 34.1 that creates an economic development tool, which allows local municipalities to pass the so-called ‘open-for-business’ by-laws. Through it, the PC government sought to ensure that businesses seeking development sites would not be hampered by regulation as it pertains to the environment, such as the Greenbelt Act and the Clean Water Act, among others. If the businesses could demonstrate that their sites could provide employment opportunities, no public notice or hearing would have been required and once passed, the by-law would enter into force in 20 days. Likewise, there would have been no site plan control application, a process that examines the design and technical aspects of a proposed development, as stipulated by Section 114 of the City of Toronto Act and Section 41 of the Planning Act. There would also be no possibility to appeal to the Local Planning Appeal Tribunal, which adjudicates cases relating to zoning, finance and land disputes. This would have removed community participation in the design of their own community and prevented them from challenging the zoning by-laws. This would have allowed for the removal of areas from within the Greenbelt protection zone that would then be incorporated within the settlement area. The sprawl would certainly have continued to expand.

Burkhard Mausberg delivers a presentation on Ontario’s Greenbelt at the Toronto Reference Library

It is in the midst of this uncertain future of the Greenbelt that Burkhard Mausberg, former executive director of Environmental Defence, and Friends of Greenbelt, and the current Commissioner of Niagara Escarpment, addressed the audience assembled at the Toronto Reference Library. His 30-year long experience in environmental advocacy, of which 20 years were spent in direct involvement with the Greenbelt give him an air of authority on the subject. And certainly, he appears to have it, given the ease with which he rattles off numbers relating to the area. With contributions to the tune of $9.1 billion to the annual GDP,  and employing 161000 full-time workers, Mausberg views the Greenbelt as the Tar Sands of Ontario, without the obvious negative environmental connotations. In fact, the Greenbelt employs more full-time workers than the fossil, fishing and forestry industry combined. Contrary to the tar sands, the Greenbelt sequesters the amount of CO2 equivalent to the amount 33 million cars produce per; enough to power 15 million households. There are 530,000 acres of water, as well.

Himself an urbanite, Mausberg spent a lot of time in the agricultural Greenbelt and shared some innovative ideas with the audience, such as the work done by WindReach Farm. WindReach Farm is an initiative developed by Sandy Mitchell MBE, a Paralympian born with cerebral palsy, aimed at creating an accessible farm and natural environment for differently abled children. For example, the wheelchair-bound would have the opportunity to pick the fruit of dwarf apple trees. Various equipment enables children to do other farm tasks, as well. The Greenbelt Mausberg described was an area of opportunity, innovation, compassion, and unparalleled beauty.

Then Mausberg turned to the thorny issue of politics.

Despite the common association between conservatism and environmental deregulation, Mausberg contended that in Ontario, and even in Canada as a whole, no other political party had done more for the environment than the Progressive Conservative party. He reflected on the role Bill Davis played in introducing the Niagara Escarpment Plan in 1973, and how Stuart Smith and the Liberal Party, which was in the opposition then, voted against the proposed legislation. Even the controversial Mike Harris’ environmental credentials were lauded by Mausberg whose government in 2001 set the stage for the creation of the Greenbelt by creating the Oak Ridges Moraine Conservation Plan. For Harris, the issue was that of intergenerational equity; he did not want future generations to pass on the experience of the Greenbelt. One might hasten to add that he likewise did not want to pass on the deficit, at the expense of the current generation whose access to public benefits and resources were ruthlessly slashed. To Mausberg, the former PC Leader Tim Hudak, who wanted to decimate the environmental authorities, and the current Doug Ford are simply outliers. The current conservatives need to go back to their conservative routes, the audience was told. Echoing Preston Manning, Alberta-based conservative, Mausberg reminded the audience that conservation and conservatives come from the same root.

Unfortunately, what got lost in the speech was the organizing that took place around these issues that forced the government to act, and continually prevents it from harming the environment, be it the Trans Mountain Pipeline or the Greenbelt. Which is a rather surprising omission, coming from someone steeped in the environmental movement.

Mausberg did acknowledge that the Greenbelt is threatened by development and by continual growth in GTA’s population. With more than 100,000 new residents annually, Toronto is continually expanding and threatens to encroach upon the Greenbelt territory. Even Doug Ford and the developers argue that it is the protected area that drives up the cost of housing in the GTA and that it is, therefore, necessary to rezone it. However, Mausberg proposes that building takes place within the GTA’s current limits, following the so-called ‘gentle density’ planning. ‘Gentle density’ refers to attached, ground-oriented housing such as the stacked townhouses of Liberty Village, that does not impact the overall character of the community, yet. This would require a change in the zoning laws to accommodate such novelties that would increase density, create affordable homes for younger generations hoping to enter the housing market.

Mausberg’s numerous visits to the Greenbelt and talks with the local residents offered a few ideas about how to preserve the area from the perspective of its residents. For example, promoting the local agriculture to the City dwellers and ensuring that the food on our plates does not travel great distances would provide continual employment and profitability of the farms. Informing the City that loves the Cottage Country of the great bed and breakfast establishments that offer respite following recreational activities would boost the local economy. Overall, people were unanimous in that they must be given a financial incentive not to turn their lands to the developers.

Ending the presentation by presenting a poem written and recited by Shane Koyczan, Mausberg reminded the audience that we must not forget where it all comes from. By destroying nature, we threaten to destroy ourselves.

Burkhard Mausberg is the author of the recently published book The Greenbelt: Protecting and Cultivating a Great Ontario Treasure.

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