Beyond the Greenbelt

A region-wide approach is required

The Greenbelt would be a historic advance in Provincial policy. By establishing a permanent, continuous, and large-scale band of countryside across the middle of the Toronto Metropolitan Region that incorporates environmentally significant, agricultural, and recreational lands, the initiative would bring widespread benefits within its boundaries.

But the broad problems that the government proposes to address through its regional Growth Plan -- the gradual loss of farmland and important natural features and the negative effects of sprawl at the edges of the region's cities and towns -- will not be solved by the introduction of the Greenbelt. In fact, the Greenbelt may exacerbate these problems, which are essentially regional in nature and scale. To address them now would require that Provincial planning and policies move beyond the Greenbelt, both by introducing measures other than the Greenbelt, and by addressing problems at the broader scale of the Toronto Metropolitan Region.

Effective protection of non-urban lands

The Province may wish to consider an approach that would make a clear distinction between urban and non-urban lands. In such a system, all non-urban lands would be provided a far higher degree of security than that currently afforded by municipal land use designations. Non-urban land would be redesignated for urban use only as part of a provincially established region-wide growth strategy that includes economic, transportation, infrastructure, and environmental objectives, not simply in response to local growth and market pressures.

That is what occurs in Sydney, Australia, -- a comparable fast-growing and diverse region. The State government of New South Wales protects and controls all non-urban lands, or "green landscapes" which, altogether, account for about 85% of the land area of the Greater Metropolitan Region of Sydney. Half of these are National Park, State Forests, water catchment areas, regional and local open space, and wetlands that are permanently protected from any urban development. In the remaining non-urban lands, urban development may be permitted from time to time, but only on land released by the state government in accordance with regional development strategies. New South Wales has recently released land for two satellite towns for the Sydney region. Together, they are planned to accommodate expected greenfield growth over the next 30 years, with rail and other infrastructure that is integrated with existing regional networks. A bold approach such as this -- which combines high protection for non-urban land with a highly strategic approach to infrastructure and land use -- might be what the Toronto Metropolitan Region needs to successfully and imaginatively accommodate the growth expected in the decades to come.

Map 10: Sydney Metropolitan Region

The need for an integrated plan for urban growth

In its draft growth plan Places to Grow, the government of Ontario stated its intention to improve the efficiency of urban land use by promoting both the intensification of existing urban areas and more compact forms of new development on greenfield sites. Furthermore, it stated that new development would occur primarily in prescribed growth centres and be supported by appropriate investments in transportation. The need for such action by government has been repeatedly shown by Neptis research. So it is of some concern that the proposed Greenbelt boundaries have been drawn in advance of the region's growth plan, with no sign of how the Greenbelt itself will further the Province's laudable goals. Leaving a large swath of unprotected land south of the Greenbelt belt could, in fact, be interpreted as a willingness to continue "business-as-usual."

The history of greenbelts in the region suggests that a Greenbelt unrelated to regional growth strategies is unlikely to survive. It is essential, therefore, that the Greenbelt be made an integral part of the as-yet-unreleased regional growth plan. Perhaps, as the Greenbelt is incorporated into Official Plans, its boundaries might be modified to accommodate well-conceived development nodes and the transit infrastructure they will need.