Innovative planning aids advancement of food, farming and environment
By Lilian Schaer
It might be hard to find a bigger advocate for Niagara Region than Patrick Robson. Ask him about the opportunities for food, farming and culture in the area and the region’s head of planning quickly lists half a dozen initiatives that are helping to rejuvenate Niagara’s economy as it transitions away from its traditional manufacturing base.
Innovative planning that helps weave together farming, agri-tourism, food processing and even research and development shape Niagara’s regional policy plan, supported by the backbone that is Ontario’s Greenbelt Plan. The Greenbelt spans 1.8 million acres across Southern Ontario, including an estimated 5,500 farms, and encompasses parts of the municipalities of Niagara, Hamilton, Halton, Peel, York and Durham.
“Our location and our economy dictate that agriculture is at the forefront of what we’re doing so we have an agriculture-focused approach to the Greenbelt in Niagara,” says Robson. “Simply saving the land is not the same as saving the farmer. We’re limited only by our own imagination in terms of where agriculture can go.”
Vinegar production at a winery, pumpkin and lavender farms and peach salsa production are just some of the new ventures now possible on-farm thanks to policy changes that are allowing for innovative redevelopment of rural areas.
The region is also working on local culture and food action plans to allow visitors to the area to explore wine routes, culinary trails, museums, galleries and restaurants helped by self-guided tours on your handheld device.
“Part of our value-added policy is not to inundate our landscape with shiny new industrial buildings but to foster adaptive reuse of existing structures, like old barns for example,” says Robson. “It’s great to have policies that allow you to repurpose old buildings but if family farms can’t afford it, it’s not much of a help. So part of our role is to see how we can offer incentives to help with the capital investment without taking away from the visual and cultural assets we have.”
Agriculture had taken a back seat in many Greenbelt municipalities in recent years, but the introduction of the Greenbelt Plan in 2005 has placed renewed emphasis on food and farming and made it a key part of regional planning.
For example, the Friends of the Greenbelt Foundation is working with the Niagara Region, City of Hamilton and the Greater Toronto Area Agriculture Action Committee to develop an agriculture and agri-food strategy and action plan for the entire Golden Horseshoe. This action plan responds to the common challenges and opportunities the regions share and will help drive collaboration among governments and the value chain over the next ten years.
The Greenbelt Plan is also driving innovative planning changes across the Greenbelt’s six major municipalities and has changed the planning dialogue at the municipal level, says the lead author of a recently released study that looked at the impact of the legislation.
“What we found is that the Greenbelt Plan has been essential in changing conversations around planning from “ifs” to “how and what”. This legislation is a critical backdrop to all the work the municipalities are doing in terms of policy, programs and projects,” says Melanie Hare of Urban Strategies Inc., the planning firm behind The Living Greenbelt: Capturing the Full Value of this Legacy Landscape.
“Viable agriculture is as important as urban growth in these municipalities. Ontario’s growth plan has such a focus on urban settlements and the Greenbelt Plan makes sure the other half of the conversation, the rural component, continues to be had,” she adds.
Hare says now’s the time for ongoing commitment to the Greenbelt in order to capture the momentum that has been developing over the last six years. This includes boosting collaboration and fostering innovation but she stresses it doesn’t necessarily mean more funding.
“We don’t necessarily need new tools and new money or even more money. What we really need are better ways for aligning and strategically re-directing the resources we already have,” says Hare. “There are pockets of money out there and if redirected and redefined, we could all make better use of them to apply them to implement policies that are not in place yet.”
Collaboration and integration need to happen regionally and in local communities but also with and across the provincial level to bring continued positive change in the Greenbelt, such as supporting pilot and demonstration projects that can help turn innovative ideas into best practices.
“We need to realize the true value of this landscape and that the sum is bigger than its parts. It’s more than just an ecosystem, an economic opportunity, or a sign on the highway,” she says. “We have the opportunity here to make a legacy investment that includes an extended trails system, agri-tourism and other value-added agriculture opportunities, and regenerated hamlets that will attract the next generation.”
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