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Editor’s Letter (August 2012): digging up the dirt

Editor’s Letter (August 2012): digging up the dirt

Toronto has been growing at a ferocious rate for as long as I can remember. The Greater Toronto Area has six million inhabitants now, and the province estimates that by 2021 we’ll be at more than seven million. I tend to take this constant expansion for granted. Many North American cities, however, look at us with envy: Buffalo, which was once an economic engine, is now shrinking at an alarming rate. The U.S. government has spent hundreds of millions of dollars on Buffalo’s economic revitalization, to little avail. Detroit, a city whose population fell by 25 per cent between 2000 and 2010, is now planning to slash services in thinly populated neighbourhoods to encourage residents to relocate to denser areas (the strategy is called “shrink to survive”). Toronto has the opposite problem: we have one of the highest per capita immigration rates in the world. Our challenge is figuring out how to quickly absorb all our newcomers.

All this growth is worth celebrating. It’s a sign of our desirability and our economic strength, and it bodes well for the future. There is, of course, a cost. As we construct new buildings and pave new roads, some of the natural landscape is sacrificed—which forces us to decide what areas are worth protecting, what areas are appropriate for expansion, and where we should go to excavate the raw materials needed for development.

Unfortunately, we can’t seem to make up our minds. The fierce battle over land in Melancthon, a small farming community roughly 100 kilometres northwest of Toronto, illustrates our ambivalence about growth. Sasha Chapman carefully details the conflict in her story “The Farmers Revolt” (page 56). A company called Highland, backed by a U.S. hedge fund, has bought up huge swaths of the region to develop a one-billion-tonne limestone quarry. Many people object: families who have farmed the area for generations, chefs keen to preserve Ontario’s dwind­ling farmland, and, increasingly, a group of influential Torontonians who have taken up the cause.

A year or so ago, I had never heard of Melancthon. When a family across the street from me put up a sign that said “Stop the Mega-Quarry,” I had no idea what it referred to. Then I saw another sign in Roncesvalles, and a few more near Trinity Bellwoods Park. Something had captured the imagination of downtowners. Last fall, Foodstock, a giant anti-quarry fundraiser spearheaded by the award-winning chef Michael Stadtländer, attracted 28,000 people, many from Toronto. It was a brilliant piece of political theatre—it made the debate relevant to Torontonians by appealing to our enthusiasm for local produce. Supporting the anti-quarry movement now seems as simple as endorsing the 100-mile diet. Who, after all, wants to defend the destruction of farmland? This fall, Stadtländer and friends are organizing a follow-up fundraiser called Soupstock to be held in Toronto, which is sure to attract thousands of people.

The irony is that the people who care about farmers’ markets and the future of agriculture also favour neatly paved roads, well-built housing and other symbols of a prosperous, high-functioning metropolis. If Toronto is going to continue to grow, building materials have to come from somewhere. You could even argue that the closer the point of extraction is to the market, the more environmentally friendly the whole undertaking. Ultimately, some form of compromise will have to be reached. Meanwhile, we also need farmland to feed our growing population. Our collective goal, then, should be to grow responsibly. After all, the alternative is Detroit.

(Image: Christopher Wahl)

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