Connecting People to Nature through Ontario's Greenbelt

Ontario’s Greenbelt seems made for the theme of this year’s World Environment Day, ‘Connecting People to Nature.’ The Greenbelt permanently protects nearly 2 million acres of land stretching from Niagara to Northumberland and north to Tobermory. It encircles Canada’s most populous region, providing fresh food, water, and opportunities for active, local recreation. Half of the Greenbelt is some of Canada’s best agricultural land, and the rest boasts natural features including the Niagara Escarpment UNESCO Biosphere Reserve.

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People enjoy the Greenbelt’s natural heritage and opportunities in a myriad of ways; in fact, we think there’s something for each of the 9 million people who live within 20 kilometres of the Greenbelt. It’s home to over 10,000 kilometres of hiking trails; a 475 kilometre cycling route; and 13 distinct cycling loops through the Greenbelt’s headwaters, lakeshores, limestone cliffs, forests, and rolling countryside. All this Greenbelt recreation is good business, too—recently, recreational activities alone were valued at $2.1 billion per year.

Another critical function of the Greenbelt is connecting both people and environment with agriculture. As our urban populations continue to grow, it’s vital that we preserve agricultural lands and support rural communities. At 43% of its total area, agriculture is the Greenbelt’s number one land use. The Greenbelt grows 55% of Ontario’s fruit, 13% of its vegetables, and is home to 40% of its nursery acreage. Spending a day in the Greenbelt, you can easily cycle to a farmers’ market or pick-your-own farm before catching a scenic sunset or hopping into a canoe. Four self-guided brewery discovery routes also highlight local brewers, distillers, food and culinary experiences in the Greenbelt. We take pride in the Greenbelt’s broad, holistic approach to connecting people with nature and food.

It’s clear that the Greenbelt helps facilitate relationships between natural features; one more of these vital connections is water. In 2013, the addition of an urban river valleys designation enabled municipalities to connect public, urban waterways to the Greenbelt. Just a few weeks ago, with the conclusion of a two-year long land use review process, 21 major urban river valleys and seven coastal wetlands were officially protected. However, over 1 million people rely on water in the ‘Bluebelt’—areas outside the protected waterways, which we have identified as vulnerable to unsustainable sprawl and resource extraction. With the population of the Greater Golden Horseshoe projected to rise to 13.5 million people by the year 2041, it’s more vital than ever to take proactive measures.

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We are currently part of a coalition to Grow Our Greenbelt and ensure protection for even more sensitive water supplies like headwaters, wetlands, lakes and moraines. Environmental changes like flooding and drought are impacting agriculturally rich lands like the Holland Marsh, one of two specialty crop areas within the Greenbelt. In another mutually beneficial relationship, the Greenbelt provides significant carbon sequestration and flood protection for private property, valued at $52 million and $220 million per year, respectively.

For all its natural benefits, it’s people who nurture the Greenbelt as a unique and vibrant place to live and work—artists, farmers, entrepreneurs, cyclists, paddlers, planners, parents and so many others. We are continually inspired by stories of innovation and dedication, of communities coming together and leaders taking a stand to protect our food, water, and natural systems (Some of these stories and insights are captured in our new book, The Greenbelt: Protecting and Cultivating a Great Ontario Treasure) The Greenbelt supports the unique opportunity to both grow at home, and to share more of Ontario’s local food and natural experiences with the world. Thanks for celebrating with us on World Environment Day!