Environmental experts say the Ford government’s proposal to build thousands of homes in parts of the Greenbelt while adding more conservation lands elsewhere will cause a host of environmental problems.
Last Friday, the provincial government announced a proposal to build 50,000 new homes in some areas that are now part of the Greenbelt and add 9,400 acres of conservation land elsewhere. Premier Doug Ford says it’s all part of the province’s plan to tackle the housing crisis by building 1.5 million homes over the next decade – as the federal government pledges to start doing come half a million immigrants a year.
The new protected areas would include parts of the Paris Galt Moraine, which stretches about 150 kilometers from the Caledon area to Port Rowan, nearly 170 kilometers southwest of Toronto on Lake Erie. Thirteen urban river valleys in the Greater Golden Horseshoe would also be prohibited from development. This change, according to the government, would represent a net gain of 2,000 acres. But some experts say the proposal misses the point of a permanent strip of protected land.
“This idea that you can destroy part of the Greenbelt and then catch it up – that’s just not the way the natural world works,” said Gideon Forman, climate change policy analyst at the Foundation. Suzuki.
“When you start removing pieces of the Greenbelt from the Greenbelt, you compromise the integrity of an ecosystem. And that’s what’s so damaging.”
Plan puts wildlife at risk, says conservationist
Ryan Norris, a wildlife ecologist at the University of Guelph, says “the integrity of any habitat is not just the structure of the habitat itself, it’s also what surrounds it.”
Norris says further analysis is needed to determine which species would be most affected by the proposed switches, but placing residential development near natural land, as the new proposal suggests, creates a “hard barrier” for some animals, interrupting the corridors they use and will likely result in the disappearance of wildlife.
Introducing people and pets, including outdoor cats, into an ecosystem has the potential to ruin an area, Norris says.
Farms next to wildlife habitats are preferable, as some species may still use or move into these areas, he adds.
Changes could endanger drinking water, warns expert
“Removing land from the system has a cascading set of effects,” said Mark Winfield, professor of environmental and urban change at York University.
Winfield says that the “hardening of surfaces”, due to the construction of roads and buildings where there were none before, affects how this land can then interact with water systems, how groundwater is recharged, runoff functioning and provision of habitats.
He says such changes usually make the problem of flooding and stormwater worse, because a natural ecosystem would have fed water back into the system more slowly, but a hardened surface leaves water with nowhere to go.
Winfield says the longer we fail to protect water sources and recharge areas where drinking water comes from, a fundamental goal of the Greenbelt, the more possible pathways there are for contaminants to enter the environment. ‘potable water. That should be of concern to anyone who drinks Lake Ontario water at home, he says.
Farms and high-density residences don’t mix, professor warns
The Greenbelt is not all forests and wetlands. It also contains what is considered by many to be some of the richest farmland in the country, Winfield says.
“It’s basically soil that you can grow anything in,” he said.
“There have long been planning priorities and policies in Ontario around protecting these foodlands precisely because of the quality of the land,” he added.
Growing crops in southern Ontario means food has a shorter distance to travel to reach major urban centres, which is also good for the environment, he says.
Tom Dolson, spokesman for the Peel Federation of Agriculture, says he thinks changes to the Greenbelt were “inevitable” given other pressures the government has faced, such as housing needs.
He is not necessarily opposed to the changes to the Greenbelt, but has significant concerns.
“They have no idea of the conflicts it creates to have a high-density residence right next to farming,” he said, citing issues such as trespassing and littering on farm properties. .
“You will always have the Greenbelt and you will always have something next to the Greenbelt that is not the Greenbelt,” he said, but he thinks industrial uses would be better than residential developments.
Dolson says he would ideally like to see the greenbelt expand into western Ontario, where farmland is also good and doesn’t already face the same density pressures.
A written statement released Tuesday by the Ontario Ministry of Housing and Municipal Affairs does not directly respond to CBC Toronto’s questions about issues surrounding the construction of high-density residential developments next to the Greenbelt.
But he says the ministry is doing all it can to solve the housing crisis.
Housing Minister Steve Clark’s press secretary Victoria Podbielski said the areas to be added to the Greenbelt would include “prime agricultural land to support a healthy and vibrant agricultural system and capture natural features such as wetlands and woods” adjacent to moraines.