Toronto Star Series: How green is the municipal election landscape?

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Every Sunday from September 14th to October 17th we'll be publishing a Greenbelt-focused article by veteran Toronto Star journalist John Barber. The articles, which will first run in the Toronto Star on the Saturdays preceding our posts, cover a range of topics relevant to the Greenbelt as it exists today, and to the challenges it may face in the future. On the Wednesdays following each of Barber's articles, we'll be using his pieces as a conversation catalyst in an evening Twitter Party from 8pm to 9pm.

Toronto Star Series: How green is the municipal election landscape?

by John Barber

Twenty years ago I attended a presentation in Toronto given by an eminent Dutch policy maker on his country's Groene Hart or Green Heart, a huge swath of open countryside hemming in the booming cities of Amsterdam, Rotterdam, The Hague and Utrecht, protecting by iron decree the landscape of Rembrandt in the very thick of the most densely populated region of Europe's most densely populated nation.

I wondered aloud whether a similar initiative might one day rescue the rapidly receding countryside surrounding our own Golden Horseshoe.

“No,” the expert replied without hesitating. “It is not possible.” He knew the local ground as well as anyone, and during those dark days nothing was more sacred in Ontario than the right to sprawl. We all nodded our heads in sad agreement.

And we were all so wrong. The Ontario Greenbelt introduced by the McGuinty government in 2005, inspired by widespread concern about unchecked sprawl, was no weak-kneed imitation of European best practice. It set a new world standard in landscape protection, and with it brought revolutionary change to Canada's densest urban region.

But nothing that cuts so strongly against the grain can succeed without controversy. Farmers still struggle to maintain their operations on the congested urban fringe, and many complain that the Greenbelt has hindered rather than helped them. Local politicians resent what they consider to be heavy-handed provincial interference, and their resistance is encouraged by developers eager to breach the perimeter. Plans and proposals to remove certain lands from the Greenbelt have become a staple of local politics outside Toronto.

Even provincial policy cuts both ways, with plans afoot for new highways and urban infrastructure that threaten to promote more sprawl as well as leapfrog development beyond the Greenbelt's outer border.

Wherever the horseshoe glints gold, there is pressure. Much of it will come to a head in 2015, when the provincial government undertakes a mandated review of the Greenbelt precisely in order to address such concerns. And the concerns that come forward will be determined in large part by the results of elections being held this fall in dozens of municipalities directly affected by this land-use revolution.

On the surface, the Greenbelt seems secure. Five times larger than Holland's Green Heart, it currently enjoys statutory protection as strong as that governing any national park. Surveys show that it has the support of 90 per cent of Ontarians, along with all major political parties. Inspired by an active foundation and volunteers, it is the focus of dozens of agricultural, environmental and recreational initiatives. It is the source of the food we eat and the water we drink – the very stuff of life. Not the least, it is by far the most successful provincial policy of the century so far.

“When policy makers from near and far look to Ontario's Greenbelt, they see 1.8 million acres of solution – an answer to urban sprawl, environmental degradation and food security,” says Burkhard Mausberg, charismatic CEO of the Friends of the Greenbelt Foundation.

And when the seven million people who live here look to the Greenbelt, increasingly they see themselves. What was once a restless frontier with an uncertain future, where all tenure seemed temporary, has become an essential expression of our identity.

Alert to the opportunity – and the threat – one group of municipal leaders has already stepped forward with a bold proposal to expand the Greenbelt outward and to create a new “food belt” between the edges of their towns and the Greenbelt proper – in effect rescuing agricultural land that is still ripe for rezoning. Led by Oakville Mayor Rob Burton and Ajax Mayor Steve Parish, the Municipal Leaders for the Greenbelt have challenged all candidates throughout Ontario to pledge their support for its expansion.

“Access to nature, local food and clean water is important to Ontarians,” Mayor Parish says. “The pledge will help voters easily identify Greenbelt-friendly candidates who care about what matters to Ontarians.”

If nothing else, the current political drumbeat attests to the enormous difference the Greenbelt has made to business-as-usual in southern Ontario. Although recent public consultations undertaken in Niagara and Durham revealed serious concerns among farmers, nowhere did they find outright opposition. In Ontario, basic support for the Greenbelt's intended goals is universal.

Seen this way, the Greenbelt is not so surprising after all. It incorporates the Niagara Escarpment and the Oak Ridges Moraine – both landforms originally protected by Progressive Conservative governments – and responds directly to widespread public concern about the future of the planet and our special corner of it.

More than anything, though, the Greenbelt is a work in progress. Lines on a map alone cannot secure a local food supply, nor can they protect sensitive ecosystems. Ongoing vigilance and sustained effort is needed to ensure that future generations can enjoy the full benefits of this farsighted creation.

Please join us over the next six weeks as we explore the Greenbelt further, explore its many opportunities and savour its pleasures. There's a whole new world on our doorstep.

 

 

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