Toronto city council recently directed staff to look into the logistics of adding public lands in the Don, Humber, and Etobicoke Creeks to the Greenbelt’s protective fold.
A noteworthy and exciting step, according to Erin Shapero, co-ordinator of the Ontario Greenbelt Alliance. For Shapero and her colleagues, Toronto’s decision marks not only a shift in how we think about protecting our ravines, but also a shift in how we think about the Greenbelt itself.
“When the [Ontario] Greenbelt was first announced in 2005 by the provincial government it was really about protecting our farmland and protecting our water sources,” says Shapero. “Urban areas weren’t considered a key part of it. So this is really opening the conversation about what the Greenbelt is and can do.”
Since it first became law nine years ago, the provincially established Greenbelt has proved an effective albeit sometimes controversial tool for combating sprawl by protecting prime farmland, countryside, and green spaces in the Greater Golden Horseshoe. At 1.8 million acres, Ontario’s Greenbelt is the largest in the world, but, until recently, municipalities have not been able to leverage the Greenbelt Act to protect land and water within their boundaries.
In order to bring municipalities on board, the provincial government introduced something called the “urban river valleys designation” in January of 2013. It’s a small but significant adage.
“It opened up a new frontier,” Shapero explains.
“The urban river valleys designation allowed municipalities to add their public lands to the Greenbelt. This was huge: it meant that the province recognized that urban river valleys are really important as a source to the lake and should have greater protection. It also gave cities a way to use the Greenbelt Act to protect their river valleys.”
The designation allows municipalities to add public waterways and the land around those waterways to the Greenbelt while also allowing them to maintain their existing environmental controls. That means that, despite designating areas as part of the Greenbelt, municipalities would be able to build on those lands if the purpose was to protect urban rivers and the surrounding areas (e.g.. municipalities would still be able to build flood protection systems, building that would normally be banned on Greenbelt land). Essentially municipal policies can still override the Greenbelt Plan in cases where their environmental polices are stronger.
For Shapero, the move to add river valleys the Greenbelt has both a symbolic and practical significance. Not only will the designation offer further protection for river valleys, but by invoking the language of the Greenbelt, Toronto and other municipalities are recognizing that sustainabilty is a regional protect.
“This designation is all about protecting water and making ecological links to the larger Greenbelt. Watersheds are all connected. Municipalities can draw lines but rivers don’t follow those types of boundaries. It’s the same with the Greenbelt – it’s a regional system. When we’re talking about thing like river valleys, it’s really a regional issue.
“Urban River valleys are really the lungs of the city. If you look at an aerials map of Toronto we are one of the greatest cities in North America,” Shapero continues, “we have river valleys…and they house our rivers which flow into Lake Ontario. That  water becomes our drinking water so the cleaner that water can be the better for all of us.”
If council votes to add Toronto’s publicly owned waterways to the Greenbelt it will become the third Ontario municipality, after Mississauga and Oakville, to take advantage of the provincial river valley designation.
“The river valleys are also really important places in the city where people recreate, where people walk and jog,” adds Shapero. “They’re really precious spaces that have, in some case, been neglected over the years. It’s time to show them more love.”
Writer: Katia Snukal
Source: Erin Shapero, Program Manager, Environmental Defence, Coordinator Greenbelt Alliance…