Will Smart Growth Save Ontario’s Aquatic Habitats?

Will Smart Growth Save Ontario’s Aquatic Habitats?

by Linda Pim, Federation of Ontario Naturalists

The concept of smart growth has taken hold in and near cities in many parts of the United States in the past few years (visit the Smart Growth Network at www.smartgrowth.org). With its attention to preserving rural areas and natural heritage, comprehensive and region-based land use planning, re-development of neglected urban cores instead of sprawl into the countryside, and promotion of public transit as a viable alternative to car travel, smart growth — at least in theory — should work to protect aquatic habitats.

In Ontario, it is only within the past couple of years that smart growth has been discussed in so many words. While progressive, environmentally responsive land use planning is nothing new in some quarters here, what is new is the sense that urban sprawl is irrevocably destroying many parts of the southern Ontario landscape.

While sprawl has been creeping into rural areas for decades, the pace quickened dramatically with the regressive overhaul of Ontario’s Planning Act by the Mike Harris government. They made the overhaul an election promise in 1995 and made good on their word by 1996, undoing in one stroke the ground-breaking work of the Commission on Planning and Development Reform (the Sewell Commission) that had led to a new, greener Planning Act in early 1995 under the previous government.

As early as 1990, conservation groups such as the Federation of Ontario Naturalists joined with Save the Oak Ridges Moraine (STORM) Coalition in the struggle to stop urban sprawl onto the 160-kilometre-long (100-mile-long) Oak Ridges Moraine north of Toronto. The battle heated up by 1999 when the Harris government, by then into its second term, kept turning a blind eye to sprawl’s slow but inexorable destruction of the moraine, which is rich in unusual kettle lakes and kettle wetlands and forms the headwaters of 65 rivers and streams.

It was only public outcry about sprawl from moraine communities — the so-called “905 belt” (after the telephone area code that surrounds Toronto) — that seems to have awakened the Harris government to sprawl and the solution to it — smart growth. Now, the Province is, or seems to be, embracing smart growth. Whether this is happening largely because the “905” voters have been Harris government supporters in the past, or for loftier, environmental reasons hardly matters; we have to be hopeful about the fact that they’re thinking seriously about stopping sprawl. And if they’re prepared to check sprawl on the Oak Ridges Moraine, it should have positive spin-offs for sprawl problems across Ontario.

Predictions that the sprawl tide is turning have to be balanced with some healthy cynicism. While Premier Harris had the smart growth generalities right in a January 2001 speech to the Toronto Real Estate Board, the first announcement under the government’s smart growth banner in March was about a spate of new mega-highways — the primary boost to more sprawl! As former Toronto mayor David Crombie, now CEO of the Canadian Urban Institute, wrote recently: “The danger, of course, is that a vague term like ‘smart growth’ can be used to justify almost any project. The temptation to label all growth ‘smart growth’ becomes overwhelming. American decision-makers are learning to use the term cautiously, and apply rigorous criteria to smart-growth projects.”

In April, a smart growth summit in Burlington (on Lake Ontario near Hamilton) attracted some 300 municipal councillors and planners, private-sector developers, NGOs, transit authorities, chambers of commerce, and others. We heard of exciting progress from Maryland Governor Parris Glendening’s special assistant on smart growth, from the chair of the Greater Vancouver Transportation Authority, and from an array of Ontario thinkers on smart growth. (Summit proceedings will soon be available at www.city.burlington.on.ca)

Where it will all lead is another matter. The Harris government has only two or at most three years left in its current mandate. Habitat-damaging urban sprawl cannot be turned around overnight. If Harris plans to protect the Oak Ridges Moraine from sprawl and restore the smart growth features of the pre-1996 Planning Act to help save natural areas across Ontario, he has no time to lose.

To keep in touch with what Ontario NGOs are doing on smart growth, contact Linda Pim at the Federation of Ontario Naturalists, lindap@ontarionature.org or (416) 444-8419 ext. 243 or 1-800-440-2366 ext. 243. To find out more about smart growth conferences being held this year by the Canadian Urban Institute, go to www.canurb.com.

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Images courtesy of Steven Huyser-Honig,
West Grand Boulevard Collaborative, & Yellow Dog Watershed Preserve.