Last October, Ed McDonnell joined the team at the Greenbelt Foundation as our new CEO. On the occasion of his 4-month anniversary and the Greenbelt's 13th birthday, Ed answered a few questions about himself and his vision for the Greenbelt.
You have a diverse background – why the Greenbelt?
What really attracted me to the Greenbelt was first of all the scope of the work that’s gone on at the Foundation – spanning environmental and ecological issues, land use planning and the future of the Greater Golden Horseshoe, as well as economic development, tourism and recreation activities – that are really making Ontario and the region a great place to live and work.
Most of my career has been spent in various ways contributing to system change and to innovation in organizations and with programs that hopefully are creating stronger and healthier communities and people. I clearly see the work of the Greenbelt Foundation and Fund as a great opportunity to make an impact.
What do you see as the top priority for the Greenbelt?
The Greenbelt has come a long way in its history. In the 12 years before I arrived, it’s carved out a strong identity in Ontario - there’s a high degree of awareness. It’s one of the most popular environmental initiatives in the province. So it’s gone from being a concept to being a reality that’s prominent in people’s minds across the Greater Golden Horseshoe. But we have a lot more work to do.
There is a lot of unrealized opportunity in the Greenbelt – socially, economically, environmentally. We need to continue to raise awareness of the benefits of the Greenbelt. We need to continue to seek out the opportunities that will really strengthen the Greenbelt and what it contributes to Ontario. We need to continue to work with communities, municipal leaders, the agriculture and food sector and other partners to invest in areas that will really benefit both the Greenbelt as a landscape, but also as a place that people live and work.
The Greenbelt is turning 13 - what do you think it might look like 13 years from now in 2031?
My hope is that the Greenbelt will have retained its presence and vitality, as a starting point. We know the Greenbelt has ecological and water systems that need support and investment. As a Foundation, we will be looking to make and facilitate investments so that 13 years from now the Greenbelt's water systems are healthy, residents have reliable clean water sources in their communities, farmland is healthy and productive, and the environment is strong.
More broadly, I think in 13 years the Greenbelt will look like the smartest decision, and investment, we've made in our regional health. This region is expected to grow by 2.5 million people to 12 million by 2031. The prosperity of the region in that context is linked to a strong Greenbelt, and in 2031 that will be even more evident than it is now.
When you were 13 what did you think you’d be doing as an adult?
Good question. When I was 13, I had recently moved to rural Ontario and at that point I wasn’t thinking too far into the future. I was really engaged in understanding what it was like to live in rural Ontario in a small village and focused on finishing elementary school.
Do you think your 13-year-old self would think this is pretty cool?
Oh yeah. I mean, at age 13 and in the years that followed, I really enjoyed living in rural Ontario. I could see the hard work, creativity and productivity of my rural community. I think the notion that a future self would be playing a part in contributing to that kind of a community in a broader landscape would be pretty exciting.
What’s your favourite place in the Greenbelt?
That’s not something I could easily answer. The Credit River Valley is incredibly gorgeous. I’ve always loved the landscape of the Holland Marsh, just the lush green of it. Areas on the Escarpment and Moraine when you’re around Creemore are just breathtaking in terms of their views. The Conservation Areas around Hamilton and Halton, the Bruce Trail, Ganaraska Forest. It just goes on and on.
You’ve been at the Foundation for 4 months, out and about meeting people. What has been your biggest takeaway?
I’ve been really impressed by the level of engagement the Foundation and Fund have with stakeholders throughout the province and across a whole variety of sectors. I’ve really experienced the commitment and the passion for the Greenbelt among the people we work with, and a real level of sophistication in how they understand the Greenbelt as a multifaceted benefit to the province.
It’s been exciting. It’s obviously very rewarding to spend time with people who are passionate and engaged, and I’ve learned a lot from talking to people who are in the food and agricultural community, people who are involved in environmental and water system issues, people who have done work on tourism and rec in and around the Greenbelt.
People really understand all the things the Greenbelt does for the province, and there are such great voices out there supporting this wonderful asset and all the ways we benefit from the Greenbelt.