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Promised Land: Inside the debate raging around the Greenbelt

Doug Ford’s U-turn decision to earmark swaths of the Greenbelt for development prompted widespread outrage—plus pockets of praise—across the GTA. But what do the people who live and work on the land think about it?

By Christopher Katsarov Luna
Promised Land: Inside the debate raging around the Greenbelt

Promised Land

Doug Ford’s U-turn decision to earmark swaths of the Greenbelt for development prompted widespread outrage—plus pockets of praise—across the GTA. But what do the people who live and work on the land think about it?

Interviews and photography by christopher katsarov luna

Video by Patrick Marcoux

June 16, 2023

Everyone within a 200-kilometre radius of Toronto has an opinion about the Greenbelt.

Some people believe that its two million acres of farmland, rivers, forests, wetlands and lakes are an irreplaceable natural resource and must remain protected at all costs. Others argue that the Greenbelt limits the supply of housing and drives up real estate prices. It’s the most polarizing issue to hit the GTA since amalgamation.

When the province created the Greenbelt, in 2005, the goal was to limit urban sprawl and prevent further loss of farmland. After years of promising to uphold the policy, the Ford government reneged last November, announcing its intention to free up land from the Greenbelt to build 50,000 new homes—part of its More Homes Built Faster Act. The objections came fast and furious. Undeterred, the province has gone ahead with plans to allow development on roughly 7,400 acres from the Greenbelt and Oak Ridges Moraine, vowing to designate 9,400 acres elsewhere as protected land. Several well-known developers—some of whom have donated money to Ford’s Progressive Conservatives in the past—own sections of the land being slated for development, raising questions about who stands to benefit now that sections of the Greenbelt are unprotected.

In March, the feds waded into the fray, commissioning an environmental study on the potential effects of development, but this has yet to stall Ford’s momentum. The ongoing debate raging around the Greenbelt is most often reduced to pro conservation versus pro development and rarely gets at what is truly at stake for those who live and work on the land. In the pages ahead, an inside look at the people who know the area best.

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Janet Jardine, 59

artist and civil servant, Burlington

“The greenbelt has protections on it for a reason. There are other areas that have been put aside for development, so there’s no reason to develop here. It’s very upsetting. A few people are going to make money, and the rest of us—and the environment—are going to suffer.”

Janet Jardine, an artist and civil servant, on a hike in a conservation area in Burlington, Ontario. She loves the Greenbelt and doesn't want to see it developed. ARTIST AND CIVIL SERVANT, BURLINGTON “The greenbelt has protections on it for a reason. There are other areas that have been put aside for development, so there’s no reason to develop here. It’s very upsetting. A few people are going to make money, and the rest of us—and the environment—are going to suffer.”
Janet Gardine, 59, poses for a photograph while on a hike in a conservation area in Burlington, Ont., on Sunday, March 26, 2023. (Christopher Katsarov Luna/cred}) Janet Gardine lives in Burlington and works as an artist and for the government part-time. She loves the Greenbelt and comes to its conservation areas for connection and peace of mind. Janet thinks Greenbelt protections are necessary. She says.” The Greenbelt has had protections on it for a reason and those should not be removed.” The changing boundaries of the Greenbelt have her very upset and doesn’t believe the reasons for developing on the Greenbelt are justified: “There are other areas that have been put aside for development. A few people are going to make money off of it and the environment and the rest of us are going to suffer.”
Bob Roswell is a civil servant. He doesn't want to see the land developed because of the potential environmental impact.

Bob Rowsell, 62

civil servant, Burlington

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“For me, the Greenbelt is like a church. I have a degree in hydrology, and I know the benefits of having wetlands and retaining ponds as natural buffers. Paving over something makes it impermeable and leads to flooding. We need these areas or we’re going to have trouble down the line. Also, the Greenbelt is invaluable for wildlife. Even though we don’t necessarily see them, there are deer, coyotes, foxes and rabbits beyond the trees.”

Promised Land: Inside the debate raging around the Greenbelt

Paul Doner, 46

grain farmer, Richmond Hill

“Our family has been farming here since 1806. We grow corn, soybeans and wheat. Farming isn’t a 9-to-5 job; it’s a lifestyle. Growing up, I remember playing in the barn and sitting on my father’s lap while he drove a tractor. It’s the same with my kids. I’d be happy if they continued the family business, but I don’t want them to farm here in Richmond Hill anymore. The rate of urbanization has made it difficult to work—the agricultural infrastructure has completely changed. I’m one of the last farmers in the area. Moving machinery on the roads is so dangerous now, and it’s only going to get worse. I don’t want to go to my kids’ funerals because they were killed in a traffic accident. I’d like this land to be opened to development so I can sell and then buy something farther out, but the current zoning prohibits me from doing that.”

Promised Land: Inside the debate raging around the Greenbelt
Phil Smith, 67, poses for a photograph on his sheep farm, Breezy Ridge Farm, in Georgina , Ont., on Saturday March 25, 2023. (Christopher Katsarov Luna/cred}) Phil grew up always wanting to farm. He and his family own and run the Breezy Ridge Farm, in Georgina raising Rideau sheep. They currently have more than 120 sheep. He says it’s nice to have a Greenbelt, that he and his family like the wilderness and that his sons sometimes hunt on the land. He feels like development of parts of the Greenbelt is necessary to help further establish infrastructure like roads connecting farms like his to markets. He feels the lack of road infrastructure through the Greenbelt creates bottlenecks of traffic that impede farmers: “We need roads, to move traffic. You know, you just can’t not have a population and then have no roads to it. That’s just crazy. And then what happens so as a farmer, it gets people off these back roads. these back roads are really busy now. And you run farm equipment up and down the road.” He also feels like housing is needed. “We’ve got all these people coming in, and they need a place to live”

Phil Smith, 67

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sheep farmer, Georgina

“My family and I own and run Breezy Ridge Farm, where we raise Rideau sheep on 380 acres. It’s nice to have access to wilderness through the Greenbelt—my sons sometimes hunt on the land—but parts of it should be developed. We need more roads to move traffic, because the back roads are really busy now, and that’s where we run our farm equipment. We also need more housing. We’ve got all these people coming in, and they need places to live.”

Areeb Bajwa, 37

software developer, Campbellville

“My family moved to Campbellville because we could buy a home on two acres of land with a swimming pool for the same price as a smaller place in Milton, where we were before. Living out here feels like being in cottage country but with the city close by. It’s the best of both worlds. It’s a beautiful and peaceful area, and I would hate for it to be developed. But I also understand the need to grow. It’s a hard question.”

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Promised Land: Inside the debate raging around the Greenbelt
Software developer, Areeb Bajwa, 37, poses for a photograph while on a bike ride in Campbellville, Ont., on Sunday March 26, 2023. (Christopher Katsarov Luna/cred}) Areeb, moved to Campbellville from Milton where he was able to buy a home on two acres of land with a swimming pool for the same price as a home in Milton. “It made no sense to stay in the city because the kids were being home schooled and I could work from anywhere. My wife wasn’t working”. He works remotely as a software developer but commutes to the city whenever he wants to. He thinks the grow of remote work industries will allow for living further away from traditional business centres but still staying connected. He says living out here feels like living in cottage country but also very close and accessible..’ it’s the the best of both worlds. I love it!”. Areeb and his family like to hike in the area and he understands the tension between development and conservation. He says he likes Campbellville for how quiet and peaceful it is: “it’s a beautiful area and I would hate for it to be developed but I also understand the need to grow. So it’s a hard question.”.
Promised Land: Inside the debate raging around the Greenbelt
Farms on the Greenbelt, in Milton, Ont., on Sunday March 26, 2023. (Christopher Katsarov Luna/cred})

Bill Strachan, 82

Auto body shop owner, burlington

“I live in Brampton, but I’ve owned Greenbelt land in Burlington since 1992. I think we should open up the Greenbelt for housing, but we’d be better off developing parts of it that aren’t farmland. Build a goddamn home where there’s nothing going on, in the rock cuts, and let people enjoy the atmosphere.”

NIGEL PARIS, 47

MANAGER AT PUROLATOR, MILTON

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“My family has season passes to Conservation Halton, and that helps keep us healthy. Our kids get outside, and at the same time, they can learn all about local flora and fauna. I’m definitely against development. I think the entire Greenbelt is valuable and should remain protected. That way, people can continue to take advantage of its beauty.”

Promised Land: Inside the debate raging around the Greenbelt
Nigel Paris, 47, poses for a photograph in his neighbourhood in Milton Ont., on Sunday March 26, 2023. (Christopher Katsarov Luna/cred}) Nigel has lived in Milton for more than 14 years. He appreciates that it’s close to both rural areas but is still connected to cities by way of the highway. “Its has a home town feel. It’s special”. He says there’s no reason people shouldn’t take advantage of the Greenbelt’s beauty: “to be outside and get away from it all. Your mind just opens up to everything. As long as you let it.”. Nigel and family have season passes to Conservation Halton. He says getting to outdoor spaces really picked up during covid-19 restrictions and now is an important aspect to his family’s health. He also loves that there are education aspects to Conservation park lands, that his kids learn about the local fauna while they’re outside. He doesn’t agree with hurting the Greenbelt for housing or economic development..”the Greenbelt should be saved”, he says.
Promised Land: Inside the debate raging around the Greenbelt
Elizabeth Smith, 65, poses for a photograph on her family sheep farm in Georgina , Ont., on Saturday March 25, 2023. (Christopher Katsarov Luna/cred}) Elizabeth Smith is sheep farmer and owns and runs Breezy Ridge Farms along with her husband Phil. She feels it’s important that not every part of the Greenbelt is paved over or made into houses. She says growing up she could still see green between urban developments. But that has changed “Now, all the way from Toronto..you don’t see anything that looks anything like farmland.” She feels it’s really important to continue to grow food on the land. “There’s a lot of land that they haven’t that set aside for development that hasn’t been developed yet” Elizabeth disagrees with her husband’s view that parts of the Greenbelt should be used for housing. When seeing the urban sprawl in Bradford, she says: “This is why the Greenbelt is important. Because otherwise, all those farms are over there. If they’d been in the Greenbelt, they would be farms. They wouldn’t have all this sprawling development that happened.”

LIZ SMITH, 65

SHEEP FARMER, GEORGINA

“My husband and I disagree—I don’t think parts of the Greenbelt should be used for housing. When I was growing up, there were still green spaces between urban developments, but that’s all changed. Now you don’t see anything that looks like farmland. Seeing the urban sprawl in Bradford, which isn’t far away, you can tell why the Greenbelt is important. If that land had been protected, there would still be farms. It’s really important to continue to grow food on the land.”

Promised Land: Inside the debate raging around the Greenbelt
Farmlands in Milton, Ont., on Sunday March 26, 2023. (Christopher Katsarov Luna/cred})
Promised Land: Inside the debate raging around the Greenbelt
Mustafa Wali, 40, owner of Casa Loma Furniture and Lighting and real estate agent, poses for a photograph at his store at the Promenade mall in Thornhill, Ont., on Saturday March 25, 2023. (Christopher Katsarov Luna/cred}). Mustafa Wali, has lived in Pickering for 17 years. He lives next to the Rouge Valley and hikes there with his friends. With all the stresses of urban living, access to nature is extremely important for mental and physical health. “In my opinion it’s very important to have the Greenbelt saved, rather than to keep building houses. He says “There’s two ways to look at it: profiting and making money versus the long term value of [conserving] the Greenbelt”. He says he understands the other side of the debate, that development creates opportunities, housing and tax revenue, yet he asks at what cost should development come? Reflecting on his home Kabul in Afghanistan, he says he saw natural spaces there destroyed and an increase in air pollution due to rezoning. He doesn’t want that to happen here; “people need oxygen, they need fresh air more than anything.”, he says. Although Wali works in real estate, he says that making money should not be the only objective: “Life is not all about work, work, work and make money. You need enjoy life and peace. By cutting into the Greenbelt they’re cutting into the peace of people”

Mustafa Wali, 40

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real estate agent and owner of Casa Loma Furniture and Lighting, Pickering

“I ’ve lived in Pickering for 17 years, right next to Rouge Valley park, where I go for hikes with my friends. I understand that development creates opportunities, housing and tax revenue, but at what cost? I’m originally from Kabul, in Afghanistan, where I saw natural spaces destroyed and an increase in air pollution. I don’t want that to happen here. People need fresh air. Even though I work in real estate, making money isn’t my only objective. Life isn’t all about work, work, work. You need enjoyment and peace. Cutting into the Greenbelt means cutting into people’s peace.”

Steve Corrigan, 54

industrial sales rep, hamilton

“I live right at the end of the Dundas Valley, on the edge of conservation land. I get out into nature at least once a week, and I like to hike and cycle the trails of the Greenbelt. I’m a Green Party voter, and I’m a realist. I believe in expansion because of the housing problem we’re having, but it should be done responsibly. There should be smart development rather than cookie-cutter housing, and we should understand the environmental impact. If we’re going to build houses in green spaces, we should incorporate green construction practices and design. It’s important to protect our natural areas while we still have them.”

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Promised Land: Inside the debate raging around the Greenbelt
Steve Corrigan, 54, poses for photograph while on a hike in a conservation area in Burlington, Ont., on Sunday, March 26, 2023. (Christopher Katsarov Luna/cred}) Corrigan Lives right at the end of the Dundas Valley, on the edge of conservation land and gets out into nature at least once a week where he enjoys hiking and cycling the trails of the Greenbelt. He’s a Green Party voter. He says he’s a realist. 
 “I’m definitely about responsible expansion, because of the housing problem we’re having”. He doesn’t expect everyone to want to live in a condo so he understands the demand for housing. But he believes there should be smart development, rather than cookie cutter housing. He wants people to understand the environmental impact of the constructing subdivisions. He says that if you’re going to build housing in green spaces it should take into account green construction practices and design. Ultimately, he says what’s important is “protecting the natural areas that we still have while we have them.”.

MICHAEL MANETT, 70

URBAN PLANNER, VAUGHAN

“I grew up at Bathurst and Sheppard, which used to be all farms. My company, MPLAN Inc., focuses on land-use policy advice and advocacy, and we represent both private and public sector clients, including farmers in the Greenbelt. The current regulations around land use are inhibiting effective urban development. The way things have developed around farms in urbanized Greenbelt areas is forcing those farmers to find land else- where, so planning should include an exit strategy for them. I am in favour of developing the Greenbelt in already developed areas, particularly around train stations. At the end of the day, we should create safe communities where people can live, work, shop and go to school without having to drive long distances.”

This story appears in the May 2023 issue of Toronto Life magazineTo subscribe for just $39.99 a year, click here. To purchase single issues, click here

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