The Greenbelt stretches across 325 km of Ontario in a horseshoe shape from the Niagara River on the south side of Lake Ontario, to around Hamilton in the west, and all the way to Coburg and Peterborough in the east.
It’s one of the most biologically rich areas in Canada, and includes the Niagara Escarpment, a UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve. The Greenbelt is integral to filtering and replenishing the groundwater that we rely on. It also has some of the oldest forest ecosystems and trees in this part of North America.
The Greenbelt helps offset 71 million tonnes of carbon in the atmosphere every year. Its tree cover and vegetation keep temperatures down and protect some of the largest populations in Canada from warming caused by climate change.
There are over 4,700 farms and 750,000 acres of Ontario’s best farmland in the Greenbelt. The rich soils grow an enormous amount of fruit, vegetables, grains and seeds that help feed over seven million people living in Ontario’s Golden Horseshoe.
In 2005, the Greenbelt Plan was established by the Ontario government to permanently protect it from development and restrict urban sprawl. But Premier Ford is intent on undoing those protections.
Ford Undoing the Greenbelt
In early April 2023, Pothen explained, Ford’s government changed the Growth Program for the Golden Horseshoe, which originally had a two-pronged requirement for development: that municipalities demonstrate that they had already done their best to densify already-existing neighbourhood, and that at least 50 per cent of growth go to densification of existing neighbourhoods. This allows developers “to leap into creating McMansions, which will produce fewer homes with the same amount of construction,” Pothen says.
In December 2022, the Ford government passed Bill 23, “More Homes, Built Faster,” into law. The Bill removed land from 15 areas of the Greenbelt and the Oak Ridges Moraine, and got rid of protections on 2,995 hectares in the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area (GTHA), allowing developers to buy the land and build on it.
But Ontario has more than enough land that is already designated for housing and new development outside of the Greenbelt, according to Phil Pothen, Counsel and Ontario Environment Program Manager of advocacy group Environmental Defence. Pothen calls this area the Whitebelt, as it is shown as white on the province’s Growth Plan maps. There is 350 square kilometres of it, and we’ve only used about a third over the last 20 years, he notes.
In November, Ford’s PCs ordered Hamilton to expand its urban boundary by 2,200 hectares, even though the city council had voted against it and opted instead to build in existing neighbourhoods. This move forces Hamilton to allow housing developers to build into the Greenbelt.
Then The Narwhal and The Toronto Star found that eight of the 15 areas that Bill 23 opened for development had been bought by developers since Ford came to power, but before Bill 23 was announced. One parcel, comprised of 700 acres of Greenbelt land, was bought for $80 million just months before Bill 23 was passed.
What’s Up Now?
Despite these changes, Pothen says, “To our knowledge, construction has not begun in any areas of the Greenbelt that were previously protected, and no construction has yet been approved in these areas.” Such construction may be coming soon, but “construction capacity would need to be diverted away from projects in existing built-up areas,” Pothen says, and that isn’t happening yet.
What Ontario really needs, according to Pothen, is densification. “We’ve built densities that are far too low because there just isn’t the critical mass of people to keep all of the basic amenities going within reasonable walking distance,” Pothen says. In other words, building within already existing infrastructure is the way to go for new developments.
There has been widespread outrage at Ford’s plans, with rallies popping up at politicians’ offices and petitions circulating. The federal Liberal government, looking to hold seats in the GTA, announced it will study parts of the opening of the Greenbelt, including Rouge Park. This will slow things down in those areas.
The bulldozers haven’t come out yet, as far as we know, but the moment they do will mark a major environmental loss.
This article appeared in the 2023 May/June issue.