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.
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.”
Bob Rowsell, 62
civil servant, Burlington
“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.”
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.”
Phil Smith, 67
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.”
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
“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.”
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.”
Mustafa Wali, 40
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.”
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.”