In 45 years growing beans, wheat and corn on his rolling land in historic Campbellville, Ontario, Peter Lambrick has seen more changes than he can describe in a single conversation.
But you can remember the early days when Ontario’s Green Belt was just a rumor traveling between farms (in whispers and phone calls) in 2004.
The Liberal government at the time was planning to establish the protected area to stop urban sprawl, which was devouring rich farmland and environmentally sensitive areas in southern Ontario. Lambrick said some farmers felt cheated by the idea because it meant they couldn’t sell their land to deep-pocketed developers.
“There was a lot of angst,” said Lambrick, 72, a local industry member and former president of the GTA Farm Action Committee. “There were a lot of people who were very vocal, but they were probably farmers who felt they had been treated harshly.”
Finally established in 2005, the Greenbelt is a protected area of land above the Greater Toronto Area that must be permanently off-limits to developers. At 8,100 square kilometers, it is a rich expanse of farmland, forest and wetlands that is larger than Prince Edward Island, making it the largest greenbelt in the world.
Nearly two decades later, Lambrick said the heat has died down, at least among most farmers. It recently became the subject of political controversy for the Ontario government, which intends to develop parts of the Green Belt for housing, in a process the auditor general said was influenced by well-connected developers.
Lambrick and industry experts agree that the Green Belt has not only achieved its original purpose of containing city growth, but has also helped offset the effects of climate change, which they say should be the purpose. highest today.
“It is rare that there is a consensus between [economists, urban planners and environmentalists]but “No one will tell you that it’s a good idea to get rid of the Green Belt,” said Diane Laure Arjaliès, an associate professor at the Ivey School of Business at Western University in London, Ont. “Absolutely nobody”.
What should green belts do?
Green belts have been used to protect agricultural land, food supply, biodiversity, water quality and influence development around the world, from San Francisco to Los Angeles, Melbourne and Amsterdam. In London, England, protected green areas were used as buffers to prevent distinctive cities from merging.
They do not always manage to stop the expansion of cities. A horseshoe-shaped greenbelt around the city of Ottawa has been administered by the federal government since the 1950s, but unlike its Ontario neighbor, there are no laws to protect it from development.
Some farmers, environmentalists and urban planners consider this type of land to be sacred. Developers see it as an arbitrary obstacle that has worsened housing problems, because it cuts off access to land where new homes could be built, driving up the price of existing land across the region.
Last year, a provincially commissioned report said the Greater Toronto Area has enough land to cover outside the Green Belt; It is simply not being used to its full potential, stagnated by inefficient housing policy.
“Ideally, you need both sides of the coin: you need the Green Belt to protect the land and [you need] policies within the city that allow people to build more so that development pressure doesn’t increase,” said Shoshanna Saxe, associate professor of civil and mining engineering at the University of Toronto.
The Green Belt in southern Ontario became politically controversial in December 2022, when the provincial government removed nearly 30 square kilometers of land from protected space, opening it to the construction of 50,000 new homes. At the same time, the government added almost 40 square kilometers of new land to the Green Belt elsewhere.
Resistance was intense, as residents and opposition politicians feared it would be a slippery slope. The reaction intensified when a report by the auditor general found politically connected developers who could make billions of dollars over the land exchange had influenced the agreement.
‘Key’ environmental benefits
Saxe said building in the Green Belt is shortsighted because the area cleans the air, absorbs excess rainwater, keeps development out of watersheds, provides habitat for wildlife and offers recreation spaces like trails and trails. for hiking, all of which should continue in a warming world.
“If we care about climate change, we must protect the Green Belt. If we care about our taxes, we must protect the Green Belt. If we care about having clean drinking water, we must protect the Green Belt,” Saxe said. “I could go on.”
Arjaliès stated that the Green Belt “plays a key role in climate [across] the entire continent.”
“People don’t realize it, but what’s happening here will affect Quebec, Manitoba and the United States.”
Lambrick, who is now thinking about retirement, said he believes Greenbelt has done its job.
“Over the years, he’s done what he needed to do,” he said.