Study reveals Greater Golden Horseshoe unprotected green space provides $122 million in ecological benefits each year


TORONTO — A patchwork of remaining farmland and green space in Ontario's rapidly growing Golden Horseshoe region provides millions of dollars in services and benefits, according to a David Suzuki Foundation study. The report examines the Whitebelt Study Area, more than 94,000 hectares of unprotected farmland, fields and forests in the municipalities of Durham, York, Halton, Hamilton and Peel. The fate of these lands remains uncertain as the provincial government considers whether to approve proposals to develop prime farmland and green space as the region grows.

"Despite having sprawl-curbing provincial policies on the books, like the Greenbelt Act and Greater Golden Horseshoe Growth Plan, these green spaces closest to urban centres are under intense development pressure for sprawling new housing estates, highways, big-box stores and other infrastructure," said Faisal Moola, director of Ontario programs at the David Suzuki Foundation. "This study demonstrates why municipalities and the Government of Ontario should redouble their efforts to protect our remaining farmland and natural green space from costly and polluting urban sprawl."

Using valuation techniques from the field of natural capital economics, the study estimates that the Whitebelt Study Area's rich tapestry of natural and agricultural assets provides more than $122 million in economic benefits a year for communities throughout the region. These values are derived by estimating the value of services and benefits provided by ecosystems, such as naturally cleaning air, filtering water and offering flood protection.

Although these lands are currently farms and green space, municipalities have proposed developing more than 10,000 hectares over the next three decades. This is in addition to 52,000 hectares that the province already approved for development before the current land budgeting process.

"Canada has relatively little good-quality farmland and most of our best farmland is found in the Greater Golden Horseshoe, yet we're losing our valuable natural assets at a blistering rate to sprawling urban expansion," Moola said. "If we value local food and want to maintain the critical benefits that nature provides to our communities, our laws, policies and actions should put food and water first."

The study shows wetlands and forests provide the greatest estimated annual value($39 and $28 million), while agricultural lands provide ecosystem services worth an estimated $53 million per year. Durham Region holds the largest share of natural capital in the study area, with $36 million in benefits, followed by Halton ($28 million), York and Peel Regions ($24 million each) and Hamilton ($11 million).


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For more information, please download the report from or contact:
Faisal Moola, Director, David Suzuki Foundation 647.993.5788




  • The study estimates the value of ecosystem services provided by natural capital (farmland and green space like forests and wetlands) in the area known as the "Whitebelt," as well as within approved "vacant greenfield" lands already designated for urban expansion and available for development now among the inner ring municipalities of the Greater Golden Horseshoe region. For the purposes of this study, we refer to this area as the Whitebelt Study Area, spanning approximately 94,000 hectares.
  • The total estimated value for the ecosystem services provided by the Whitebelt Study Area's natural capital is $122.3 million per year.
  • The estimated average value per hectare for natural capital across the entire study area is $1,367 per year.
  • These estimates significantly underestimate the full value of nature and farmland, as they don't include the market value of food grown in the area. It is based on a narrow selection of economic benefits that can be accurately valued using current techniques. For example, a recent analysis of the economic contribution of agriculture in the adjacent Greenbelt found that these lands produce $1.5 billion in total revenue annually, representing almost one fifth of gross farm receipts for the province as a whole.


  • Wetlands and forests within the Whitebelt Study Area provide the greatest amount of ecosystem services at $67.7 million per year ($39 million and $28 million per year, respectively).
  • Agricultural lands provide ecosystem services worth an estimated $53.3 million per year, including $28 million by croplands, $20.5 million by idle lands, $2.7 million by perennial pasture lands, and $2 million by hedgerows.
  • The municipality with the highest values in the Study Area was Durham Region with $35.7 million/year from 23,241 hectares, followed by Halton Region (23,689 ha, $28.4 million/yr), York Region: (17,758 ha, $23.6 million/yr), Peel Region (21,154 ha, $23.6 million/yr) and the City of Hamilton (8,629 ha, $11 million/yr)


  • Southern Ontario's Greater Golden Horseshoe is the most densely populated area in Canada, with about 25 per cent of the country's population. It is also one of the fastest-growing regions in North America, where an additional 4.5 million people are expected to live by the year 2041.
  • The rapid increase in population and intensity of urban land use is placing unprecedented pressure on the natural capital assets of the region, such as forests, wetlands and prime agricultural soils. Today, less then 6 per cent of the region is forested, and only 2.8 per cent remains as natural wetland.
  • The most recent analysis found that an outstanding 16 per cent of Class 1 agricultural land was lost to urban encroachment in the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area between 1995 and 2001.
  • A recent study by Ray Tomalty at McGill University (Inside and Out: Sustaining Ontario's Greenbelt, 2011) reported that 10,115 hectares of the Whitebelt has been proposed for development from now to 2031 in the current round of draft municipal Official Plan amendments.
  • According to the Ontario Growth Secretariat five-year update on the Growth Plan, about 52,000 hectares within the Whitebelt study area are "designated greenfield areas" that have already been approved for urban expansion (i.e., before the present land-budgeting exercise) and are available for development among the inner ring municipalities of the GTHA.
  • The David Suzuki Foundation believes that new development in the Whitebelt Study Area must be carefully controlled and managed to avoid the loss and degradation of valuable farmland and green space in Canada's fastest-growing urban region. The Foundation is calling on the province and municipalities to implement the Growth Plan fully in order to direct growth into existing built-up urban areas, protect rare ecosystems like wetlands and other natural heritage features, and expand Greenbelt protections to conserve prime farmland and nature in the region.

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