The idea of preserving undeveloped land around an urban center is not new. Ebenezer Howard, the famous creator of the English Garden City in Great Britain, invented the idea of open space for agriculture and food-based gardening near urban centers in the nineteenth century (see picture of garden city Chatham Village, Pittsburgh). Even today this is one central goal of greenbelts around the world.
A major threat for greenbelts all over the globe is urban growth and development. This was the major finding coming out of the first Global Greenbelt Conference, which took place in Toronto in 2011. Many greenbelts face the pressure of developers who question the needs and benefits of greenbelts in order to gain new land for housing areas, infrastructure or industrial use.
Example: The London Metropolitan Greenbelt
The Greenbelt surrounding the city of London is one of the oldest greenbelts, established in 1938, and has a surface of about 1.2 million acres (see map of the London Greenbelt). Its major objective is curbing the unrestricted growth of London and the neighboring towns.
That’s a quite demanding proposal as London is a fast growing city; over the next 20 years the city is predicted to grow to 10 million inhabitants, 2 million more than today. Therefore about 1 million new homes have to be built; but there’s a lack of (easily) available land.
The pressure on the London Greenbelt is steadily increasing to make protected land available for development (see picture of London, Photographer: phault). But it isn’t only the economy and the real estate market that demand new areas for urban development; in London, there is also a discussion about balance. Due to the booming real estate market a lot of people can’t afford the rental prices in London anymore. The pressure on cheaper quarters increases and the so-called Gentrification takes place. Gentrification means the restoration of run-down urban areas by the middle class resulting in the displacement of low-income residents.
But does the London Greenbelt cause or increase this problem? I would say no. As I did my diploma-work on Gentrification I know, that this is a syndrome one can find in most booming cities around the globe – regardless of whether there is a Greenbelt or not. In my opinion, there is no evidence that this problem could be solved by building new housing areas in the outskirts of a city. France, for example, has huge problems with violence and riots in the so-called banlieus, cheap housing areas in the outskirts of Paris. The task for municipalities is more about maintaining sound neighborhoods, avoiding ghettos, and supporting socially balanced inner-city developments.
How to face the challenge
Greenbelts shouldn’t be considered as an obstacle for development and progress; greenbelts offer in fact a broad variety of benefits. In my opinion it is key to make people understand these benefits and impacts on their life. Otherwise greenbelts don’t get the support and awareness they need.
Municipal administrations all over the world not only face the challenge to retain affordable housing areas, but also to supply the cities with clean water, fresh air and healthy food, to solve the problem of increasing traffic and to obtain a livable environment. Greenbelts are able to successfully support these objectives.
Benefits of the Ontario Greenbelt
Although the situation in Ontario is not the same as in London, urban development is a big threat for the Greenbelt as well. To focus only on this issue doesn’t meet the benefits of the Ontario Greenbelt. The Greenbelt rather addresses people’s basic needs and helps avoiding future problems by protecting clean air and water, supporting regional food production and providing jobs. Let’s have a look at some convincing fact and figures:
1. Food and Farming
The 5,500 farms in the Greenbelt produce the highest volume of foods consumed in Ontario, including, more than one quarter of apples (27%), 88% of peaches, and more 85% of grapes. The advantages are obvious: short transport ways and therefore low pollution, guaranteed quality standards of production, and secure jobs in the region.
The agricultural land of the Ontario Greenbelt is contributing more than $9 billion to the province’s economy each year. And the Greenbelt is a job generator that provides 161,000 direct and indirect jobs. This volume of employment is larger than that of the entire fish, forestry, mining, quarrying, and oil and gas extraction sector in Ontario.
Thanks to the effects of air and water protection the Greenbelt saves the Province around $2.6 billion a year in essential services such as fresh drinking water and clean air.
The Greenbelt is a kind of washing machine producing fresh air for Ontario and especially the Greater Toronto Area. Its forested area alone can store the equivalent of 27 million cars driven over one year and remove 25,000,000 pounds of pollutants.
Protecting water resources is a benefit of the Ontario Greenbelt as well. The Great Lakes, including Lake Ontario, are one brilliant, flowing system, storing about 95% of North America’s, or one fifth of the worlds, fresh water. As water is a live necessary resource, a good water quality is essential for the people living in Ontario.
4. Growth and Planning
The Greenbelt is working with municipalities to ensure that valuable lands are protected or used in a sustainable way for many generations to come. It is a great signal that the Greenbelt is still growing: In January 2013 the Ontario Government announced the expansion of Ontario’s Greenbelt by adding 265 hectares of land in Oakville in the form of the Glenorchy Conservation Area, and by including the new urban river valley designation.
To gain the support of people it is important to make them see, feel and experience the Greenbelt. The Greenbelt Foundation built up more than 220 highway and regional road signsof the Greenbelt reaching over 75 million people.
These examples make you understand that greenbelts have an impact on people’s life, especially in greater urban areas or agglomerations.
Are Greenbelts the answer?
So, are Greenbelts able to solve our main future problems? Of course they can’t solve them all, but in my opinion greenbelts are a very good way to institutionalize a sustainable development strategy. Municipalities always have to face different needs such as industrial development, environmental protection, and social equity. Some problems have to be solved immediately, some need a long-term strategy. In fact, politics tend to focus more on quick wins than on the long-term benefits for the next generations. Therefore the decision of the Ontarian Government to create the Ontario Greenbelt in 2005 is highly respectable and forward thinking. After 8 years, some benefits of the Ontario Greenbelt are already visible, and more will come in the future. The Greenbelt remains a human, sustainable and healthy development for the people living in Ontario and the Greater Toronto Area.
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About the author:
I’m Diana Scharl, a Volunteer at the Greenbelt Foundation. In my ‘real life’ I’m a public relations manager in Germany and I’m visiting Canada for two months – a fantastic experience. I’ve got the great opportunity to work with the Greenbelt Foundation in Toronto not only to improve my English skills, but also to gather international experience and exchanges ideas. For the Foundation’s blog I want to tell about some of my impressions and thoughts. I hope you enjoy it.