He only meant to save a few woodlots from development north of town, but Oakville Mayor Rob Burton got a taste for the benefits of greenbelts 20 years ago that he says blazed a trail for sustainable growth in his community. The town is now custodian to three greenbelts, with constituents enjoying a better quality of life and lower tax increases. “Back then our taxes were going up by 12 per cent each year,” he says. “The average increase this year is three per cent.”
As urban sprawl began taking hold in his community in 1994, Burton and his wife Wendy were concerned about the lack of land set aside for parks, soccer fields and other recreational uses. “Sprawl is the most expensive way to grow,” he says. “We were growing too fast and too recklessly, and were subsidizing it with our taxes so we were shortchanging ourselves.”
A developer had its eye on a large swath of land that held sensitive wetlands and woodlands, which moved them to take action. “It was an opportunity to create a big tent of people to support the idea of a greenbelt,” recalls Wendy, who is now doing her PhD on greenbelts at the University of Toronto. “It was a very intensive seven-year period dealing with the authorities.”
Mayor Burton discussed his greenbelt ideas at a talk in Halifax on November 8, hosted by HRM Alliance. The Alliance is made up of 40 community, business, health and environmental groups that see greenbelts as key to making Halifax more sustainable and livable. Mayor Savage attended the talk and said he is in favour of establishing greenbelts. “Greenbelts cost taxpayers less,” Mayor Burton says. “Research shows that they increase customer visits and spending, increase residential home values. Livability drives economic development.”
Wendy notes that greenbelts shape—not stop—growth. Development becomes focused on central areas rather than the outskirts, which should save money on services and infrastructure. People are attracted to the quality of life and recreational activities the greenbelt sustains, which grows the population. “The more land you greenbelt, you focus the growth into the central areas,” she says. “The more spread out you are, the more you need roads, equipment and staff to service those areas. People want to raise their families where there is clean air, access to nature and easier access to parks, soccer fields and arenas.”
Greenbelts encompass much more than parks, watersheds and woods. They are actually multi-purpose “zonations” that include agricultural land and countryside, saving spaces for soccer fields and parks. Most of the land is privately owned, with restrictions on its future use. “When it comes to farmland, your final crop is not going to be a subdivision,” says Mayor Burton. In the region of Halton (formerly Oakville’s county), 51 per cent of the land is now protected in a municipal greenbelt.
Noting that she had only skimmed HRM’s revised Regional Municipal Planning Strategy 3.0, Wendy thinks Halifax has the foundation in place for change. “There are some good directions and good overall policies, but a bit of timidity on putting a hard line on things. You need more clarity and a hard edge to your greenbelt where you cannot build.”
Mayor Burton thinks Halifax stands to benefit from greenbelts. “The timing is perfect for Halifax,” he says. “You’ve got winning conditions—an engaged mayor and the CDAC [the Community Design Advisory Committee on Council] and a new provincial government. I think you will get there if you keep working. The public engagement you have is impressive. The most important part is the way your community engages with it, the way they care.”