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opinion

A hiker starts on a high graded hill climb at the Rouge Urban National Park,on June 15, 2021. Ontario is proposing to remove land from the Greenbelt, an area created to protect environmentally sensitive lands from development, in order to build at least 50,000 new homes, while adding new land to it elsewhere.Giordano Ciampini/The Canadian Press

Back in 2018, when he was running for premier of Ontario for the first time, Doug Ford made clear his desire to see new housing in the province’s Greenbelt.

Speaking informally at an early campaign event, he said would open up “a big chunk” of the two million acres of protected land surrounding the Greater Toronto Area and Niagara region in order to make way for new suburban subdivisions.

“The demand for single-dwelling homes is huge, but no one can afford them,” Mr. Ford lamented.

He said he had spoken to “some of the biggest developers in the country,” who told him, in his words, “‘Give us property, we’ll build and we’ll drive the cost down.’ That’s my plan for affordable housing.”

When a video of these statements was released to the media, the blowback forced him into a full retreat. “The people have spoken,” he said. “They don’t want me to touch the Greenbelt, we won’t touch the Greenbelt.”

But four years later, touching the Greenbelt remains an itch Mr. Ford just has to scratch. And so, earlier this month, under the cover of a provincial and national housing squeeze, and the federal government’s plan to once again raise immigration targets, to 500,000 a year in 2025, he made his move.

On Nov. 4, Mr. Ford said his government will make 7,400 acres of Greenbelt land in 11 different locations across the GTA and Niagara region available for new housing.

As required under the provincial Greenbelt Act, which says the government can’t reduce the total amount of protected land, the Ford government will add 9,400 acres to the Greenbelt in a single chunk on its northwest border.

Mr. Ford says his move will pave the way for the construction of 50,000 new homes, and that it is part of a broader plan announced last month – prosaically named More Homes Built Faster – to construct 1.5 million homes in Ontario over the next 10 years.

But it feels more like an excuse to allow developers to make a quick score, by allowing them to create new suburbs on land that was set aside in part to limit suburban sprawl.

The wisdom of opening up a chunk of the Greenbelt to build what amounts to a mere 3 per cent of the government’s goal of 1.5 million homes is highly questionable.

The Greenbelt was created in 2005 to protect the headwaters of the rivers that flow into Lake Ontario, to preserve valuable farmland, and to connect the forest and wetland ecosystems that run in an arc across the top of the GTA and the Niagara region.

Picking away at that for so small a return is short-sighted. It also opens the door to further erosion of the Greenbelt.

Worst of all, it’s unnecessary. The problem in Ontario is not a shortage of land; the problem is that too much urban land, in Toronto and especially in the surrounding 905, is zoned exclusively for low-rise, single-family homes – the least dense form of housing.

Mr. Ford’s More Homes Built Faster plan will allow detached-home owners to build a laneway apartment on their property, and to turn their basement into a rental. That’s a start, but it falls well short of what an expert government panel called for in February: allowing, as of right, the construction of up to four units and up to four storeys on every lot in cities provincewide.

Instead, Mr. Ford prefers to act like it’s still the 1950s, with suburbia growing out instead of up. On the same day he announced the Greenbelt incursion, his government told the City of Hamilton to do something similar. The city wisely planned to restrict the footprint of its future growth; he ordered it to expand its urban boundary by 5,500 acres.

Mr. Ford is also pushing ahead with plans to add another superhighway north and west of Toronto. Highway 413 will push up against the edge of the Greenbelt, and swallow 400 acres of it, while encouraging developers to lay out ever more distant subdivisions.

All of that, in a word, is sprawl – chewing up greenfield land that today is, literally, green fields, and replacing it with new, car-centric, highway-dependent suburbs.

Canada has a serious housing crisis, and Mr. Ford is right that the influx of immigrants will put tremendous pressure on the housing market and further increase the need for housing.

But it’s 2022, not 1952. The Ford government needs to get with the times.