TORONTO — Spreading across two million acres, Toronto’s Greenbelt is a vast swath of protected and ecologically sensitive lands that forms an arc around the city and its suburbs, as if holding Canada’s most populous and fastest-growing region in an embrace.
“It’s our Central Park,” said Jeff Bowers, 57, recently retired from a “high-stress, 24/7” job in technology, who was hiking recently in one corner of the Greenbelt. “The Greenbelt was declared, it was decreed. It had a sacredness to it. Now, the current government is tinkering with that, and that’s creating a lot of uproar. You can imagine if they said they were going to develop Central Park.”
Yet this is what is happening in Toronto.
The Ontario provincial government in December opened up privately owned parts of the Greenbelt to developers for the construction of 50,000 new homes, arguing that the move was necessary because of Toronto’s worsening housing shortage and an expected influx of newcomers stemming from sharply rising immigration rates.
The move on the Greenbelt has forced Toronto to confront more than ever the competing forces reshaping it as a metropolis: its ambitions to be a world-class city and the destination of talented immigrants against its goals to be green and curb sprawl, as embodied by the Greenbelt itself.
“There’s broad agreement now that we need to build a lot of housing because we have a supply shortage,” said Matti Siemiatycki, the director of the Infrastructure Institute at the University of Toronto. “But the question is, really, ‘How is it going to be done?’”
Toronto, like many metropolises worldwide, is suffering from housing shortages, skyrocketing real estate prices and the hollowing out of the middle class.
The development plan by the provincial government, led by a conservative premier, Doug Ford, has proved unpopular and has also raised ethical questions after reports that some of the lots removed from the Greenbelt were owned by politically connected developers.
The federal environment minister said recently that Ottawa might use federal environmental laws to block some of the development, but stopped short of giving details.
But opening up the Greenbelt has also been endorsed by developers, some economists and farmers, who argue that it exacerbates Toronto’s housing crisis and that the strongest opponents to development do not own land inside the Greenbelt.
Consisting primarily of privately owned land, the Greenbelt serves as a physical barrier against sprawl and is home to some of the most fertile farms in Canada, as well as to rivers, wetlands and forests that shelter hundreds of animal species and offer countless trails to hikers.
Created in 2005 by the provincial government, the Greenbelt quickly gained a cultural significance that belies its age: sacred to its fervent supporters, and derided as a rainforest by others who consider it an arbitrary obstacle to growth.
The provincial government in December removed from the Greenbelt 15 tracts of privately owned land totaling 7,400 acres, in that way stripping them of their protected status and opening them up to the construction of 50,000 new homes. At the same time, the government added 9,400 acres of new land elsewhere in the protected area.
Mr. Ford has argued that the 15 tracts are not “in the middle of some marsh or something” and that they are on the periphery of the Greenbelt, next to existing developments. The government has also pointed out that, with the addition of the 9,400 acres, there will be a net gain in the Greenbelt.
But during a 30-day public consultation period that preceded the decision, environmental groups and opposition politicians overwhelmingly expressed objections to the plan.
“Once you open the door to development, who knows where it’s going to end?” said Al Potvin, 63, a Toronto resident retired from the insurance industry, who was hiking with Mr. Bowers in Rouge National Urban Park, which is 22 times as large as Central Park and part of the Greenbelt, on the northeastern edge of Toronto.
Critics have said that the government does not know what the effect of the land swap would be because it did not adequately study the value of the land being removed or added — and held only a perfunctory public consultation period.
“We discourage this idea of land swap because not all land is created equally,” Edward McDonnell, the chief executive of the Greenbelt Foundation, a charitable organization that seeks to protect the Greenbelt and receives government financing, said, adding that “the large majority” of the Greenbelt is privately owned.
Mr. Ford pledged in 2018 to not open the Greenbelt for development and his government made a similar promise last year. But after the federal government announced plans to increase immigration levels to a half-million newcomers a year in two years, he said the change was necessary.
Echoing growing concerns about Canada’s capacity to welcome the new immigrants — given the country’s housing shortage and overwhelmed health care system — Mr. Ford said that Ontario needs to build 1.5 million new homes over the next decade to accommodate the 300,000 immigrants he said were expected to settle in the province every year.
Opponents to Mr. Ford’s plan said that new high-density development in existing residential areas could better accommodate the newcomers and accused Mr. Ford of using immigration to encroach on the Greenbelt and reward friendly developers.
Opposition intensified after local news media reported that some of the 15 tracts of land had been purchased as recently as September, raising accusations that politically connected developers had been tipped off to the impending change — which Mr. Ford has denied. Two provincial government watchdogs have begun investigations into the policy change.
Concerns about urban sprawl and green space emerged in Toronto in the early 1970s. They intensified as Toronto grew rapidly and eventually dislodged Montreal as Canada’s leading city, following the exodus of English speakers out of the French-speaking province of Quebec, which was trying to secede from the rest of the country.
Toronto’s growing pains have been exacerbated by the region’s enduring preference for low-density housing and the notion of a “good life tied to a suburban lifestyle with a driveway and a single-family home,” said Mr. Siemiatycki of the University of Toronto.
Mr. McDonnell said that the Greenbelt should be seen not as an obstacle to growth, but as a basis for sustainable growth. “When you grow, there’s greater demand on your water resources and greater public need for green spaces,” he said. Conserving “the Greenbelt is part of the solution,” he added.
But David Fleming, a real estate agent and longtime blogger on Toronto’s real estate market, said that given the housing pressure Toronto is facing, developing parts of the Greenbelt “shouldn’t be ruled out.”
“It’s not a rainforest, it’s not a sacred holy land,” he said. “If we’re going to bring 500,000 people into the country every year, where are we going to house them?”
Among some farmers in the Greenbelt area northeast of Toronto, there was also the sentiment that the fiercest opponents of development idealized land that they did not fully understand.
“It’s a 416 mentality of ‘open space for us,’” said Hubert Schillings, 66, referring to the area code in the city of Toronto and describing himself as a “905 farmer,” the area code surrounding Toronto.
With a view of eventually selling his 117-acre poultry farm, a place called White Feathers that has been in his family for 45 years, Mr. Schillings bought a 200-acre farm about 10 miles away a decade ago and has been gradually moving his operations there.
He said he believed it was only a matter of time before his old farm — half of which lies in the Greenbelt — was freed up for development, given agricultural labor shortages and the influx of immigrants.
“The problem is that most of these people who complain don’t own the land,” he said. “They don’t own it. It’s like you own a house and me telling you you can’t use your backyard.”