March 7, 2019 | Greenbelt
Should Toronto’s Greenbelt go? Some realtors, politicians, and developers think so. They feel the Greenbelt has been a huge contributor to higher home prices in the Greater Toronto and Hamilton areas. Developers are eager to build in the outer regions of the GTA where city limits meet the Greenbelt. They feel the restriction to develop on the Greenbelt has limited their ability to build new and needed housing. To be clear, I’m not one of those realtors who believes in reducing the Greenbelt. Building on the Greenbelt is short-sighted and really helps no one over the long term.
I am sometimes irritated that anything with an environmental angle has been defined as a political position exclusive of the left. It is frustrating that if you take a certain position as liberal or conservative, you are expected to take a series of bundled beliefs. It is presumed that liberals are environmentalists and conservatives are not. Even if you are not an environmentalist or liberal at heart, there are benefits to the Green Belt that are for everyone. So, with that said, let’s do a simple refresher on the Greenbelt for everyone.
What exactly is the Greenbelt? Well, when it comes to Toronto, the Greenbelt was born in 2005. It is a protected green space, farmland, forest, wetlands and watersheds that surround the Golden Horseshoe. It is 7,284 sq kms. See map here. In a nutshell, development is not permitted in these protected areas, though sadly it has been happening already. Still, the idea is to protect this area from development. And there are several reasons why that’s a good idea:
- THE LONG GAME In some ways, the anti-Greenbelt folks are right. By restricting the area outside a given suburb to expand, you restrict the cheap land to develop on. It is easier to build houses on old farmland. It’s land that is not contaminated, like industrial land would be. It’s also an easy purchase of a lot of land off of just one seller, not likely a complicated assembly of several sellers. It allows more land for development. But here’s the catch. Even if this land is freed up for development, you would have more supply for a time, but then that land would be gone too. Also, there is a lot of land to be developed in the suburbs that is not within the Green Belt, even with the Green Belt intact! There’s old industrial and poorly designated employment lands that could be freed up. According to Tim Gray, the director of the Environmental Defense activist group, municipal data tells us there is enough available land to provide housing within the current Greater Toronto and Hamilton urban boundaries until 2031. There is a lot of land that could be rezoned. I’m certainly not against less red tape for developers as long as it is smart development. And in case you are wondering about land availability after 2031, there is an option to develop beyond the Greenbelt too.
- FOOD SECURITY A generous portion of the 7,284 sq km Greenbelt is farmland. This farmland in the Greenbelt produces vegetables and other foods for Ontarians. If you were to develop this farmland, you reduce your food production in a growing region. Then you import your food from other parts of the world. The problem with this is: when you rely on another nation or regions to supply your food to such a high extent, you have no bargaining chips. Food is not like a cars or iphones. We need it to survive. If we don’t have control over our food supply, prices could go up astronomically based on outside forces out of our control. If, for example, there is some sort of destabilization in the region you are shipping food from, politically, environmentally or economically, that food supply could be disrupted. If there is a drought in California, and we rely on them for a crop like lettuce, then prices would go up. In the worst case scenario, they wouldn’t send us any more lettuce and would keep it for themselves. Of course, Canada imports a great deal of food from overseas as it is. We do have long winters, and we are the largest per capita consumers of fresh vegetables in the world! We also export food, like meat and grain. This is normal trade. Still, it is smart to have some food production for your own region so we can be in control of our food supply in a crisis. Saying good-bye to the Green Belt would put us in a more precarious security position.
- BETTER FOR YOUR TAX BILL The Greenbelt will bring lower taxes or at least taxes that don’t rise as fast. How’s that? Well the Greenbelt encourages densification. That doesn’t mean that there needs to be 90 storey towers all over Oakville, but more people/ square kilometre. If there are more people in a given area, you have more taxpayers, and then you have more taxes to fix and maintain the infrastructure. With a low density population, each person has to carry a higher tax burden.
- BY ENCOURAGING BIODIVERSITY, YOU PROTECT YOU Here is a very simple science lesson: As we all know, a biodiverse area is a healthy area. We humans are a complicated organism and we rely heavily on the organisms below us. Without them, we would suffer and die of starvation. So, it seems wise to encourage a biodiverse region in the future. On a nicer note, we could do a better job of sharing the planet with other living creatures. The world is not for us humans alone.
- DISCOURAGES SPRAWL This goes back to my first point somewhat. The Greenbelt encourages better development, but not sprawling low density housing across farmland. As we learned from the 60s, 70s and 80s, sprawl does not encourage community. Often low density areas do not have the numbers to encourage transit. So, people must rely on cars. I’m not against cars. I drive one. But if everyone has to drive, and there are no transit options, then the traffic is horrible.
I certainly understand the frustration about the high prices of buying a property in this region, but blaming the Greenbelt for high prices is ridiculous. It is not a barrier like mountains or the ocean. We are not like Vancouver, restricted by the mountains and the sea in terms of growth. We can grow in and beyond the Greenbelt. There are growing cities in the world like Houston that sprawl in all directions with very little environmental protection or barriers. And real estate is cheaper there than in Toronto and other major U.S. cities. By developing over Houston’s wetlands, however, it has became more prone to flooding. Such was the case with Hurricane Harvey in 2017. Possibly, better environmental protection could have saved them such a large cleanup bill, plus the added insecurity to residents that this could happen again.
The Golden Horsehoe is one of the fastest growing regions in North America. We need to manage that success, and make sure people want to come here. And you know what people like? Nature, accessible transit, livable neighbourhoods and a well-run government that makes a region better for everyone.