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marcus gee

You know you've hit the big time when David Suzuki sings your praises on YouTube. That is what happened to a pair of Markham councillors who propose creating one of Canada's first food belts.

The measure, which goes before Markham town council Tuesday evening, would protect farmland by freezing Markham's urban boundaries. New subdivisions would have to be built within those boundaries, leading to the "intensification" of built-up areas of the town and leaving the land beyond it for the birds, bees and cows.

Mr. Suzuki, the renowned broadcaster and environmentalist, adores the idea. In his YouTube video, he lauds Markham for heading in a "bold new direction" that will serve as a model for other Canadian municipalities. Farmland and green space is priceless, he intones, providing "critical eco-system services" like cleansing the air and filtering the water. By protecting it, Markham is showing it has "the courage and foresight to embark on a visionary path."

But not everyone wants to go down that path. Farmers aren't keen on seeing their priceless soil preserved for eco-system services. Many say they can't make a living off it and want the option to sell to developers for a fair price. Developers, for their part, say they won't be able to supply the demand for houses if council freezes Markham's urban growth.

Markham, notes industry spokesman Stephen Dupuis, already has one of the toughest plans in greater Toronto for fighting urban sprawl. He's right. A proposal by city staff would ensure that that 60 per cent of the city's growth over the next two decades takes place through the process of intensification. Most regional municipalities struggle for goals of 40 or 50 per cent.

Markham is working to focus development along corridors like Yonge Street, Highway 407 and Highway 7. It wants 50 per cent of households to be living in apartments or townhouses by 2031, up from 30 per cent today. It plans to accommodate 80 per cent of job and residential growth within the current urbanized area, easing the stress on rural areas.

To further protect the environment, its plans call for a 7,400-hectare "greenway" system of protected streams, valleys and woods. Another 8,700 hectares outside the urban area would be preserved for farming. These policies come on top of provincial rules prohibiting development in the Greenbelt or on ecologically sensitive areas. Markham, in short, has plenty of green amid the sprawl and plans to keep it that way.

The only issue is over building in the so-called white belt, buffer zones along the borders of the urbanized area that are the sensible place to put new development. Markham is expected to gain about 150,000 new residents between 2006 and 2031, and many of them will be couples who dream of a nice house in the suburbs for their growing families - still a legal aspiration, Mr. Suzuki notwithstanding. The municipality needs somewhere to put them. The staff plan calls for adding 600 hectares of residential land in these white-belt areas, hardly an environmental Armageddon.

Yet backers of the food belt are full of Suzukian talk about saving the planet. At a time of "global warming, peak oil and rising global population," says Councillor Valerie Burke, "we're in a new paradigm." She says Canada would have only three days worth of food if its borders were closed and so we Canadians have to grow more of our own. "We should be looking at honey bees," she says. "They're 50-dollar bills flying by."

There is also a whiff of NIMBYism around the food belt plan. One proposal, defeated in a town committee, called for Markham to ask the provincial government to reduce the population-growth plan for the municipality by 40,000 people. Wouldn't it be nice if Markham could avoid urban sprawl by shunting all those people to other addresses in the 905? The food belt idea gained traction partly because many residents see it as a way of protecting their space by raising the drawbridge.

That's the wrong way to go. Markham, like its neighbours across the booming roof of Toronto, has to find a way to grow without paving paradise. Its sensible growth plan aims to do just that. It doesn't need Mr. Suzuki to tell it how.