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On April 7, the Toronto Star ran a commentary by David Crombie and Ajax mayor Steve Parrish on the on-going Co-ordinated Land Use Planning Review. It took issue with claims from the development community that the Greenbelt was responsible for high housing costs and their desire to open it to more housing.

In contrast, the authors noted the amount of under-utilized land not in the Greenbelt, the need to avoid further auto-dependent sprawl, and presented three high-level objectives centred on strong and timely action, a comprehensive approach to integrated planning, and flexibility for local government.

The Ontario Headwaters Institute supports the position of the two authors.

We are concerned, however, that the heavyweights still slugging it out at this late stage, as the review has disappeared behind cabinet doors, are almost uniquely focused on city form, the cost of housing, transportation, and municipal services. One line from the commentary is chilling: “The bottom line is that we must use land more effectively and create livable communities.”

While these are certainly significant concerns, they are not the bottom line. The real bottom line is that the Greenbelt, and more, must be protected, and better protected than until now, to ensure the region’s natural heritage, its water, and its agriculture.

Each of these is already in trouble, and each face the challenge of a changing climate. Natural heritage is so thin and poorly protected that the government has pledged to do a natural heritage inventory and suggested a benchmark that 30% of developable lands must remain in their natural state, which is too little according to recent international studies while it ignores the distinction between development and the rest of the Greenbelt. Water quality and temperature are in trouble across the Greater Golden Horseshoe, and are best protected by watershed management policies and not lines on maps.  Conversely, lines on maps have helped farmers in some areas while infuriating landowners in other areas, but what agriculture in Ontario needs to thrive is tax and regulatory reform.

While many people think of the Oak Ridges Moraine as the rain-barrel of southern Ontario, the OHI sees the broader Greenbelt like Australia’s Great Barrier Reef: it shelters us, harbours life, provides nutrition, and it is in trouble. It may not look like much compared to a $3.4B one-stop subway, but clean air, water, and access to local food are priceless. The Greenbelt must not only be expanded, the natural heritage, water, and agriculture of the Greater Golden Horseshoe must be given greater protection than what it is currently afforded.