Editorial – Greenbelt vs Urban Sprawl

It seems like everyone is talking about the Greenbelt these days. For those in the know, the Crombie report on the Greenbelt and Growth Plan changes is imminent, the result of many months of public consultation and submissions by municipalities, organizations, companies and individuals.

For those not as up to date, when the Greenbelt was originally established in 2005, it came with a 10 year review period. That time was this year. Premiere Kathleen Wynne promised as part of her campaign platform to grow the greenbelt in conjunction with the ten year review.

So let’s take a look at what the greenbelt is for. In its own documentation, the Province indicates the greenbelt purpose is “curbing urban sprawl and preserving our agricultural lands and natural heritage”. I’ll focus on curbing urban sprawl. What exactly is that? The term has been around forever. When I first heard it, it was in reference to an American subdivision where the lot sizes weren’t described by foot frontage, but rather portions of an acre. This is not generally what is built in Ontario, and certainly not these days as part of tract subdivisions. So if urban sprawl is now considered the use of greenfield land (note this is greenfield land, NOT greenbelt land), then sure, urban sprawl exists. But what does a new subdivision look like these days? It’s not quarter acre lots, it’s not 60 foot lots. It’s 30 foot single family houses, townhouses, mid rise and even highrise developments. It is a mix of unit types that provide a variety of choices at a variety of price points. I don’t consider that urban sprawl. I consider that recognizing that all new people who move to the GTHA (Greater Toronto Hamilton Area) cannot all be accommodated in the existing built boundary (the line where currently the last built house stops) and in order to house them, there must be land to do so.

The greenbelt does in fact limit the encroachment of development into its boundaries. But what effect does that have on the remaining undeveloped lands inside that line? (These lands are called the “whitebelt”) It is pure economics. As the supply of a commodity (in this instance land) is limited, and the demand remains unchanged, the price goes up. Thus the price of housing increases. This isn’t the only thing that is currently affecting housing affordability, but it is certainly a significant one. As house prices increase, people get less for their money. A $500,000 dollar budget may no longer buy a 2,000 square foot house, and the homebuyers hoping for that type of product are forced to consider smaller or different unit types.

Too often I read that the big bad developers want to continue building urban sprawl. Well let’s think about why that is. Like most commerce, it is market driven. It’s because people want the product they build. Residential neighbourhoods with single family homes sell out quickly in these parts. That’s not because there aren’t other product offerings – there certainly are. But not everyone wants to live in a downtown highrise. Not everyone wants a walk-up apartment, a stacked townhouse. Some do. But some people still want that back yard that will house a pool, a driveway that will house both spouses’ cars and those of their twenty-something kids still living at home because they can’t afford their own house. So is it the big bad developer not wanting to change his or her ways? It is the public, the taxpayers and their vision of what home looks like to them. And who is anyone to tell another person that what they want for a home is wrong?

So as beneficial as the greenbelt is to residents, for its curbing of sprawl, environmental and climate benefits, it does have a negative impact on the price of houses. And that’s something that is unavoidable. The government must weigh all of the options they have, in balancing between protection of land and the general affordability of housing. It’s a fine balance that affects us all.


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