During the Second World War, one of the great intellectuals of our time, George Orwell, penned an essay about what the course of action for a Labour Party government he hoped for would be following a victorious peace. He contemplated what such a government would do if it were serious and “meant business.”
As it turned out, Orwell was quite prophetic in anticipating what a Labour Party government would do. It did truly “mean business.”
Major greenbelts were established around growing cities such as London. They have become so effective that the rate of loss of rural land after Labour’s landslide victory in 1945 became minuscule compared to the impacts of urban sprawl after the First World War.
Ontario may be ready to spare more green places like the one on the left from what became of it on the right.
Here in Ontario, with the exception of protecting Niagara’s unique fruit lands, the designation in 2005 of a Greenbelt in Niagara and other parts of the Golden Horseshoe, was not a sign that the province “meant business” about stopping urban sprawl. This was because virtually everywhere else in the province, there was a gap in between the actual urban zoning boundary and the borders of the Greenbelt.
The agricultural and environmental protection zoned lands left out of the Greenbelt were given to expressive names. One was the “White Belt”, reflecting the colour on maps in between the Greenbelt and the grey urban boundary. An environmental protection group the Neptis Foundation came up with a more mocking phrase, inverting a planning designation of the Greenbelt Plan. This was to call the “White Belt”, “the Unprotected Countryside.”
In a 2005 study, released shortly before the passage of the Greenbelt legislation, Neptis calculated that the “Unprotected Countryside”, would create a land use planning disaster.
The “Unprotected Countryside” put 146,700 hectares of rural land at risk for sprawl. It found that even if the Greenbelt borders were extended right up to the actual urban zoning limits, densities would still be too low to efficiently encourage a high level of service for transit.
Neptis’ fears have come true in a most disturbing way. Through isolated hearings of the Ontario Municipal Board, (OMB), chunks of the Unprotected Countryside have passed from agricultural to urban zoning. Some 17,500 hectares of formerly agriculturally zoned land are now in urban land use designations, shrinking the White Belt to 129,500 hectares. One of the worst consequences of this sprawl will be its eventual consequences, once the land is actually built upon, on the ability of watersheds to support life.
White Belt sprawl hits lands that are very ecologically sensitive, impacting some of the province’s most vulnerable watersheds, lakes and streams.
In Hamilton, OMB hearings have led to the urbanization of hundreds of hectares of White Belt lands. This has impacted the headwaters of Twenty Mile Creek, which is already dry for most of the year, except for isolated ponds where fish such as the Northern Pike struggle to survive in the summer.
In 2005, there was a Lake Simcoe White Belt in Newmarket and Aurora. All these formerly agriculturally zoned lands are now in urban designations. To accommodate the anticipate flush of storm water, a new sewage treatment plant will have to be built at Holland Landing. This threatens the precarious Lake Trout and Whitefish populations of Lake Simcoe with a toxic tide of phosphorous loadings.
Threatened landscape in Midhurst near Springwater Provincial Park north of Toronto. Land on left is in park and immediately to right is threatened by urban sprawl.
A provincially endowed but independent think tank, the Greenbelt Foundation, recently issued a study that hopefully is a sign that the province is getting ready to mean business in tackling sprawl. It is appropriately titled, “Growing the Greenbelt to Protect Vulnerable Water Resources in the Greater Golden Horseshoe Region.”
Hopefully the release of “Growing the Greenbelt” is a sign that the province is preparing to cut back the bloated White Belt to protect our precious watersheds. It proposes to do this in three areas that encompass all headwaters of significant streams.
Two areas are part of the Oak Ridges Moraine in the Humber and Rouge watersheds. The third is a fragile stream with a more vulnerable headwaters area, Carruthers Creek in Pickering.
The “Growing the Greenbelt” report notes that 1,500 hectares of the Carruthers Creek headwaters area is threatened by urbanization supported by Durham Region. It notes that, “An Environmental Assessment produced by Ajax found that upstream development of the headwaters would increase downstream flooding in Ajax, directly impacting more than 1,000 residents, and causing an increase in flood speed at levels of up to 132 per cent.”
Pollution from development in the headwaters put two native cold water fish species at risk, the Mottled Scuplin and the endangered Redside Dace. It also jeopardizes a fishery of Rainbow Trout. A watershed study by the Toronto and Region Conservation Authority (TRCA) found the threatened headwaters are important for threatened Bobolink, Meadowlark and Monarch butterflies. They are also a resting refuge for migrating birds.
“Growing the Greenbelt” documents carefully the ecological threats posed by the urbanization of the Rouge headwaters in Markham, some 2,000 hectares. It concludes that, “Enveloped on three sides by the Greenbelt, protection and enhancement of these lands can provide important natural connections to the highly fragmented watershed and help reverse a serious decline in water quality downstream.”
In addition to the cold water Mottled Sculpin and Rainbow Darter, the Rouge here provides habitat for another good ecological indicator, the Brook Lamprey. A TRCA watershed study finds that these species are all “on the threshold of decline.” It warns that urbanization would bring about consequences similar to those on the Rouge’s most degraded tributary, Beaver Creek, where there is a “higher concentration of phosphorous and E. Coli.”
A TRCA watershed study for the Humber River also notes the threats posed by expansion into the White Belt. It has identified such “harmful impacts of urbanization” on “water balance, water quality, natural cover, aquatic and terrestrial communities, cultural heritage and air quality. These effects include increased surface runoff, more water pollution, greater annual flow volume in rivers and streams, increased erosion and sedimentation, channel instability and losses of cultural heritage and biodiversity.”
In addition to greening the White Belt the “Growing the Greenbelt” report identifies the need to stop 2,000 acres of sprawl in the Midhurst area of Springwater Township, located in the headwaters of the Nottawasaga River. A two year struggle involving a native occupation was required to stop the proposed closure of Springwater Provincial Park, an important source of water for the Minesing wetland. The report stresses the need to grow the Greenbelt here to protect “large swaths of recharge lands” vital for this significant wetland complex.
The “Growing the Greenbelt” report also listened to the City Council of Thorold which for a decade has been calling for the extension of the Greenbelt around Lake Gibson. It stresses an area that “supplies drinking water to half of Niagara Region, including St. Catharines and Niagara on the Lake, with an estimated 150,000 residents dependent on these supplies. The Lake also supplies flow to coldwater streams, many with brook trout populations and provides habitat for water birds such as herons. Largely forested, the area connects Short Hills Provincial Park and the Welland Canal.”
It is to be hoped that “Growing the Greenbelt” reflects the still secret recommendations of the hearing panel on the provincial Co-ordinated Plan review, headed by former Toronto Mayor, David Crombie. If this is the case, it may be a good sign that the province is finally meaning business when it comes to protecting our watersheds.
John Bacher is a veteran conservationist in Niagara, Ontario and long-time member of the citizen group, Preservation of Agricultural Lands Society. A past contributor of posts to Niagara At Large, his most recent book is called ‘Two Billion Trees and Counting – The Legacy of Edmund Zavitz’.