Bill 66 and the Greenbelt
“The people have spoken. I’m going to listen to them, they don’t want me to touch the Greenbelt, we won’t touch the Greenbelt,” stated Premier Ford during his candidacy earlier this year before taking the highest chair in the province. While it’s not surprising for politicians to skew statements and promises as it suits their purposes (and to wait for critics to die down), this doesn’t excuse a reversal of policy on ensuring the protection of Ontario’s environmental landscape on which the sustainability of its major urban centres stands on.
Also called the Restoring Ontario’s Competitiveness Act, Bill 66 contains many measures which would reduce existing regulations on business activity in the province. More specifically for this topic, it contains amendments to two important Acts: the Toxic Reduction Act and the Planning Act. The Toxic Reduction Act of 2009 ensured toxic substance reduction plans would be put in place in facilities that used toxic materials to reduce their quantity and ensure safe and effective containment and discharge of such things.
More importantly, the Planning Act allows municipalities to pass open-for-business planning by-laws with the approval of the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing and with the satisfaction of prescribed criteria. This would allow local municipal projects to subvert existing regulations on property development, such as the Planning Act, Places to Grow Act, Oak Ridges Moraine Conservation Act, Greenbelt Act, and Ontario Planning and Development Act, allowing them to pose higher risks on the environment, frustrate strategic plans for regional growth, and potentially harm residents of those municipalities. It could allow developers in outlying municipalities to construct factories and condominiums in the protected land of the Greenbelt, threatening what it stands for.
Now why is the Greenbelt such a big issue? It’s a good question to ask in that we often take for granted, especially those living in highly-urbanized Toronto. Firstly, it prevents urban sprawl and the neglect of inner cities. It’s a commonly-known phenomenon to have rich families live in spacious homes in the uptown suburbs, while lower income families live downtown in run-down neighborhoods with high crime and little opportunity. You also might know of American cities plagued with constant gridlock and the social and economic divisions between uptown and downtown areas. By creating a development boundary around the city, we are forced to work on existing neighborhoods and encourage more efficient use of space. In turn, this allows public services and transit nodes to easily service more people, reducing the drain on taxpayer money.
Moreover, it has a major impact on local living standards across the GTA. Its forests can offset the equal of 27 million cars driven in a year. It protects almost 270,000 acres of marshes, wetlands, rivers and streams—a considerably bigger area than the city of Toronto or even New York – allowing us to have accessible clean water supply through a good chunk of southern Ontario. The belt protects and nourishes the production of local foods, giving us summers filled with cherry-picking and wine tasting, and providing livelihood for many Ontarians. Most surprisingly, it provides many free public services, natural water and air filtration, flood control, carbon absorption, and outdoor recreation, where otherwise we would probably need to pay for expensive government programs to simply replicate the multiple benefits the Greenbelt brings to our physical, mental, and social well-being.
Ontario definitely has to be competitive in order to continue growing in a modernizing world and to maintain or raise living standards and well-being in the province. However, we must ask ourselves: in allowing businesses and developers more leeway in economic development, will this Act bring us closer to that goal? Or will the potential multiplicity of negative consequences on the regional environment be enough to offset, even overwhelm, all the foreseen benefits to this move?