Ford government's proposed changes to Greenbelt could spell trouble, environmental experts warn
Flooding, biodiversity loss, conflict with agriculture could be the result, experts say
Environmental experts say the Ford government's proposal to build thousands of homes in parts of the Greenbelt while adding other protected land elsewhere will cause a host of ecological 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 protected 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 bringing in half a million immigrants a year.
New protected areas would include parts of the Paris Galt Moraine — which extends about 150 kilometres from the Caledon area to Port Rowan, almost 170 kilometres southwest of Toronto on Lake Erie. Thirteen urban river valleys in the Greater Golden Horseshoe would also be off limits to development. This change, the government says, would represent a net gain of 2,000 acres. But some experts say the proposal misses the point of a permanent swath of protected land.
"This idea that you can destroy part of the Greenbelt and then somehow make up for it — it's just not the way the natural world works," said Gideon Forman, a climate change policy analyst with the Suzuki Foundation.
"When you start to take chunks of the Greenbelt out of the Greenbelt, you compromise the integrity of an ecosystem. And that's what's so damaging."
Plan endangers wildlife, ecologist says
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's surrounding it."
Norris says a deeper 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 corridors they use and will likely result in wildlife loss.
The introduction of 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, because some species can still use or move over such areas, he adds.
Changes could endanger drinking water, expert warns
"Taking land out of the system has a cascading set of effects," said Mark Winfield, a professor of environmental and urban change at York University.
Winfield says the "hardening of surfaces," due to the construction of roads and buildings where there were none before, affects how that land can then interact with water systems, how groundwater is recharged, how runoff works and the provision of habitats.
He says such changes generally make the problem of flooding and storm water worse, because a natural ecosystem would have fed the water back into the system more slowly, but a hardened surface leaves the water with nowhere to go.
Winfield says the more we fail to protect source waters and recharge areas where drinking water comes from, a core purpose of the Greenbelt, the more pathways are possible for contaminants to get into drinking water. This should be of concern to everyone who drinks Lake Ontario's water at home, he says.
Farms, high-density residential don't mix, prof warns
The Greenbelt is not all forests and wetlands. It also contains what is considered by many to be among the richest agricultural land in the country, says Winfield.
"It's basically soil in which you can grow anything," he said.
"There have been long-standing priorities and planning policies in Ontario about protecting those food lands precisely because of the quality of the land," he added.
Growing crops in southern Ontario means the food has a shorter distance to travel to reach large urban centres, which is also good for the environment, he says.
Tom Dolson, a spokesperson for the Peel Federation of Agriculture, says he thinks changes to the Greenbelt were "inevitable" given other pressures the government has been facing, such as housing needs.
He isn't necessarily opposed to changes to the Greenbelt, but has some significant concerns.
"They have no idea the conflicts it creates having high density residential right next to farming," he said, citing concerns such as trespassing and littering on farm property.
"You're always going to have Greenbelt and you're always going to have something next to the Greenbelt that's not Greenbelt," he said, but he thinks industrial uses would be better than residential developments.
Dolson says he'd ideally like to see the Greenbelt expand into western Ontario, where farmland is also good and isn't already facing the same density pressures.
A written statement issued Tuesday by the Ontario Ministry of Housing and Municipal Affairs does not directly address questions from CBC Toronto about issues surrounding the building of high-density residential developments next to the Greenbelt.
But it does say the ministry is doing all it can to address the housing crisis.
The press secretary for Housing Minister Steve Clark, Victoria Podbielski, says 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 woodlands" adjacent to moraines.