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John Michael McGrath: Why carve up the Greenbelt? Suburban nostalgia
Doug Ford's obsession with suburban sprawl above all else doesn’t explain everything – but it explains a lot.
By: John Michael McGrath
Ontario Premier Doug Ford is getting good at apologies; he’s had so much practice. Speaking to reporters on Thursday afternoon in Niagara Falls, the premier finally announced he’ll reverse his government’s decision to allow development on previously-protected lands around the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area — the Greenbelt created by a previous Liberal government nearly 20 years ago.
Ford admitted he’d broken a promise to preserve the Greenbelt and says he’ll listen to the people. Of course, he said that last time, too — he was caught on video in 2018 proposing to open up the Greenbelt before hastily disavowing his own words.
The move to carve up the Greenbelt has been mystifying on the most basic political grounds since the beginning. The Greenbelt is ridiculously popular among Ontario voters urban and rural, from farmers to laptop jockeys. It was always going to be suicidal to modify it even with the best of intentions. As reporters and opposition politicians dug into the decision — and the beneficiaries, particularly well-connected developers and PC Party donors — it became clear that the government was never, ever going to be able to convince people that their motives were pure, either.
Which leads to the obvious question of why this government squandered so much political capital to achieve so little.
A fiasco like this never has a single cause. Was it because the Tories wanted to enrich their campaign donors to the tune of $8.3 billion, as calculated by the province’s Auditor General? Yes. Was it because the government let a minister’s chief of staff run wild with a file they arguably should never have held in the first place? Also yes.
But you can’t explain this omnishambles without understanding something about both Doug Ford and the PC Party, who were critics of the Greenbelt when it was created and have remained skeptics of the entire enterprise — apparently — into the present day. We got a hint of this not long ago, when the premier was speaking to a crowd of adoring fans at the most recent “FordFest” in Kitchener. “We’re going to offer a 1,600-square-foot home, with a basement that’s finished that you can rent out or have family there,” Ford promised. “You’re going to have a backyard with a fence.”
Notably, Ford promised that public land would be donated to accomplish this. It’s telling that at the highest levels, this government can’t conceive of a solution to the housing crisis that doesn’t involve replicating the suburban ideal — using the power of the state, if need be. Across the political spectrum, people tie themselves in knots on housing policy because they think, in the absence of government action, the wrong kind of homes will be built. They’ll either be too big, too small, too ugly, too expensive or simply too many. Ford, here, is no different, except that sitting at the head of a government with a $200-billion budget he really can do what he wants — and it seems what he wants is for taxpayers to replicate the neighbourhood he grew up in. Nostalgia, just at everyone else’s expense.
In contrast, the small-government position — the one you’d expect a Tory government to embrace — is obvious: people, not governments, are best suited to understand the tradeoffs they need to make between their ideal home and the one that actually suits the context of their lives. After more than a decade of writing about housing and planning policy in the GTA, as far as I can tell, nobody actually believes the small-government argument. Instead, we get the Premier himself promising the only kind of public, affordable housing the Tories find palatable: the kind that come with white picket fences.
And this is why the Greenbelt, in particular, found itself the target of this government’s housing strategy, even though razing protected lands is not actually necessary to create more homes.
Before the 2022 election, the government convened an expert task force to advise them on how to get more homes built. That task force report included passages like “a shortage of land isn’t the cause of the problem” and “Greenbelts and other environmentally sensitive areas must be protected.” Instead, it recommended massive liberalization of planning rules inside Ontario’s cities. Former minister of municipal affairs and housing, Steve Clark, all but declared the report dead on arrival before it had even cooled from the printers.
If anything, Ford’s affection for suburbia has grown more profound over time. While the first Ford mandate could never be described as “urbanist” in the orthodox sense of the word, it’s nevertheless a fact that the premier and Clark brought in a raft of laws with the express intent of making it easier and faster to build in Ontario’s cities, particularly in already built-up areas. This is especially true of areas around mass transit, where they laid the groundwork for intensification in new parts of the GTA as Ford pursues an aggressive transit-building plan.
Then, not long after that year’s election, the Tories put their feet on the gas for suburban sprawl. In cities around the GTA such as Hamilton, allowed a huge increase in construction into greenfield areas even over the opposition of local councils who will pay for the infrastructure that serves that growth.
Perhaps most mystifying for the cranks and obsessives who follow GTA planning policy (It's me, hi, I'm the problem, it's me) has been the government’s total silence on changing the planning around Toronto’s subway and commuter rail stations, delaying untold numbers of new homes.
All of this is to say that the Ford government hasn’t just thrown their lot in with the sprawl machine in their second mandate; they’ve done so even when their own handpicked advisors and the clear text of their own laws have been pushing them towards denser, more economical development in the province’s largest cities.
Because while there are undoubtedly people inside the government who understand the importance of adding new homes close to where the new jobs are, the people actually in charge – the Premier himself, and several onion-rings of advisors around him – just don’t believe it, and are wearing ideological and aesthetic blinders that only let them see what they want to see.
Even as they decry NIMBYism that blocks new housing from being built, Ford and his government have fallen victim to a kind of NIMBYism of the mind: they can’t imagine anyone wanting to live anywhere other than suburbia — certainly, they can’t imagine anyone being happy there — so they’ve let actual effective housing policy fall almost entirely off their radar. Instead, they’ve burnt one of only four years they get between elections and have accomplished very nearly nothing except a scandal that might yet chase Ford all the way out of office while producing zero new homes. To put a cherry on top of this sundae of political malpractice, they’ve energized the opposition New Democrats and the moribund Liberals, who desperately needed a shot in the arm as they struggle to find a leader who can at minimum win them back official party status.
When the Tories conduct their inevitable post-mortem on this whole sorry affair, let’s hope their conclusions are more sophisticated than "keep your mitts off the Greenbelt, dummies” though that would still be an excellent place to start. Rather, they need to ask why they ended up fixated on carving up the Greenbelt when literally nobody except for a handful of aggrieved landowners was telling them this would be a useful solution to the problem Ontario faces right now. Their obsession with suburban sprawl above all else doesn’t explain everything – but it explains a lot.
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