The reason most normal people never pay the slightest attention to land-use policy is that it has no apparent effect. It often takes years before new regulations take tangible form as buildings in a landscape, and even then the connection between the original impetus and the final result can be hard to detect. The whole business of planning is such a foggy, indeterminate, bureaucratic drizzle.
But sometimes lightning strikes, and everything changes forever -- as it did in Ontario this week. The new Toronto green belt legislation introduced by the McGuinty government is as historic as any law laid on this landscape since the first rough survey gang dragged a 66-foot chain into the Upper Canadian bush more than 200 years ago. It "stands on a par with OHIP and the public school system in terms of Ontario history," says lawyer David Donnelly of Environmental Defence Canada. It is fundamental and very likely permanent. It is stupendous.
Sitting at the technical briefing in Queen's Park where government bureaucrats spelled out the details of what is, in fact, a whole package of new laws and regulations to regulate growth in the booming region, my mind drifted back to a similar presentation I attended a decade ago. Then, it was a Dutch planner describing the strict controls that discipline the cities and protect working farms in his country. One Torontonian asked him if he thought a similar regime might work here. He knew something about the laissez-faire planning of North American cities, but he didn't want to offend his hosts by laughing out loud. He smiled benignly and shook his head. "Never, I'm afraid," he said.
A few months later, Ontarians embraced Mike Harris and, in one of their first acts, his "common sense" revolutionaries killed all the planners. Sadly, it seemed that the Dutchman was right.
But look at us now. Like a smart, fast-developing Third World country leapfrogging straight from semaphore to cell phones, this urban region has instantly acquired what is quite likely the most progressive, comprehensive regional-planning regime in North America. Although its effects will not appear immediately -- they never do -- they will be profound.
One result, of course, will be to ban virtually all urban development in a broad swath of countryside reaching as far north as Lake Simcoe, ensuring the area remains open countryside with working farms, resorts, trails and strictly protected natural areas. The legislation bans the construction of any new permanent residence outside existing villages across the entire area. It also bans any new subdivisions, even the so-called "retirement lots" that farmers like to carve out of their land. "This is very progressive," says John Riley of the Nature Conservancy of Canada. The government is no longer dealing with the environment in isolated and disconnected ways, he adds. "They're really starting to think about the system as a whole."
But the big winner, according to Mr. Donnelly and many others, will be the uncouth megalopolis beneath the belt. Although the new regime leaves Greater Toronto ample room to sprawl over the next 30 years -- too much, according to some environmentalists -- it creates a powerful, physical force for redevelopment and intensification.
Developers complain that the green belt will drive up the price of land, and they're right. As long as it is easier to pave over the next farm than it is to redevelop already serviced urban land, city properties are undervalued. In a few years' time the developers will be scrambling to buy previously marginal land they never would have considered in the days before Toronto had a firm border. Midtown NIMBYs may well have reason to resent the green belt once it starts to bite. Indeed it is perfectly reasonable to expect that the green belt, along with new growth incentives also announced this week, will be the saviour of Toronto's neglected, undervalued central waterfront.
The new legislation will also have a profoundly revitalizing effect on the protected lands themselves. For years the city's borderlands have hovered in land-use limbo, locked up by speculators and cash-cropped by tenant farmers. But the legislation is strong enough to remove any lingering doubts about their future, meaning that the absentee speculators are going to have to find something more productive to do with their holdings.
The result, of course, will be development -- resorts, golf courses and more intensive farming operations. All such uses will be permitted, and many will be controversial. But even that's good. The inevitable complaints about violations will only prove the value of the green belt as it becomes ever-more deeply embedded in our cultural consciousness and legal reality.