Skip to content
You are here > Home > Your Ministry > Land Use Planning > Greenbelt Protection > Archive > Building a Greenbelt (2004-05)

Follow us

Building a Greenbelt (2004-05)

Email this page

This information provides a basic outline of the key elements and research that were used to formulate the government’s approach to greenbelt protection in the Golden Horseshoe.

  1. The “Layers” of a Greenbelt
  2. Specific Advice from the Task Force
  3. The Greenbelt Plan
  4. Identifying Natural Heritage Systems in the Golden Horseshoe
  5. Building Agricultural Systems in the Greenbelt
  6. The Places to Grow initiative and the draft Growth Plan in the Greater Golden Horseshoe
  7. Conclusion

1. The “Layers” of a Greenbelt

The Greenbelt Task Force, in advice submitted to MAH after the task force concluded public and stakeholder consultations in the spring of 2004, recommended a five-layer approach to greenbelt protection:

  1. Environmental protection, to include lands identified through a natural heritage systems approach;
  2. Agricultural protection, to include key agricultural lands, as well as the tender fruit and grape lands of the Niagara Peninsula, and the Holland Marsh;
  3. Transportation and infrastructure needs and concerns;
  4. The preservation of renewable and non-renewable natural resources, especially mineral deposits; and,
  5. Culture, tourism and recreational opportunities to enhance the economy of the greenbelt and the overall quality of life of people in the Golden Horseshoe.

The task force recognized that the greenbelt would be part of a larger picture. The Golden Horseshoe will be accommodating significant population and employment growth over the next few decades.  Building the greenbelt involved constant discussion with staff from the Ontario Growth Secretariat, (OGS) of the Ministry of Energy and Infrastructure (MEI) who were charged with the provincial Places to Grow initiative and the development of a draft Growth Plan for future growth in the Greater Golden Horseshoe in order to ensure than enough land is available outside the greenbelt to accommodate this growth. 

2. Specific Advice from the Task Force

In addition to the framework for building a greenbelt, the task force provided some specific advice.  The greenbelt should:

  • Include lands which are already permanently protected;
  • Include lands which the Province has previously expressed an intention to protect, such as additions to the Niagara Escarpment Plan;
  • Consider inclusion of provincially owned lands;
  • Include provincially significant and/or major natural heritage and hydrological features and functions such as the Oak Ridges Moraine, the Niagara Escarpment and the Rouge Valley;
  • Include the major river valley systems connecting Lake Ontario with the Niagara Escarpment and/or Oak Ridges Moraine; and,
  • Include the Niagara Peninsula tender fruit and grape lands, and the Holland Marsh.

In more general terms, the task force also recommended:

  • That a systems approach to environmental protection be utilized;
  • That the systems approach include a natural heritage system, a water resources system, and a landform conservation system;
  • That a network of open spaces be identified;
  • That key agricultural lands, apart from specialty crop lands, be identified  by considering the criteria and methodology of the Agricultural Land Evaluation Area Review (LEAR);
  • That the identification of agricultural lands consider socio-economic factors such as fragmentation, urban/suburban encroachments and the loss of agricultural support mechanisms; and,
  • That areas with high potential for mineral aggregates be included.

Finally, it was generally agreed that the Golden Horseshoe Greenbelt should be built from lands that were not previously intended for urban development, based on their land-use designations in municipal official plans.  Becoming part of the greenbelt would require no changes to land-use designations, but rather the preservation of the status quo.  There would be no “downzoning” or loss of approved land uses, but rather a continuation, and over time, an enhancement of current uses of greenbelt properties.  

3. The Greenbelt Plan

Greenbelt protection would be implemented through a provincial plan, approved under the authority of the proposed Greenbelt Act, 2005, if it is passed. 

The draft plan is similar to other provincial and municipal land-use plans - it establishes policies for the desired land uses and maps the area to which the policies apply.  It uses science as its foundation, but also considers a variety of socio-economic and environmental factors, including the prospect of accommodating another four million persons and two million jobs in the Golden Horseshoe by the year 2031. It looks to the future.  Professionals in an array of disciplines were consulted, and reviewed the draft plan. 

In addition, the information and opinions of residents and stakeholders gathered through the consultation process have been given significant consideration in refining the government’s approach to greenbelt protection.   

4. Identifying Natural Heritage Systems in the Golden Horseshoe

The natural heritage system for the Golden Horseshoe Greenbelt is based on an approach to natural heritage management that has been both an accepted and evolving science for many years.   This approach has been utilized in a number of jurisdictions including the United States and Canada.  A “natural heritage system” is a system made up a natural heritage features and areas linked by natural corridors necessary to maintain biological and geological diversity, natural functions, viable populations of indigenous species, and ecosystems.  These systems can include lands that have been restored and areas with the potential to be restored to a natural state. 

A key reference for Ontario is “The Natural Heritage of Southern Ontario’s Settled Landscapes” (Riley, J.L. and Mohr, P., 1994).  The natural heritage systems approach has been incorporated into provincial land-use planning with the release of the Comprehensive Set of Policy Statements in 1995, and was entrenched in the 1996 Provincial Policy Statement.  MNR’s “Natural Heritage Reference Manual” has included the methodology for the establishment of natural heritage systems since that time. 

This general approach was used in the development of the natural heritage system outlined in the Oak Ridges Moraine Conservation Plan.  Generally, the system involves the identification of major core areas in locations where there is a concentration of natural features, together with a series of linkages that provide connectivity between the cores and other areas. 

The natural heritage systems of the Oak Ridges Moraine and the Niagara Escarpment, for the purposes of the Greenbelt Plan, remains the same as the systems defined in the Oak Ridges Moraine Conservation Plan and the Niagara Escarpment Plan, respectively.  A natural heritage system that supports and reinforces the systems in these two plans has been developed for the additional lands protected by in the greenbelt, or the “Protected Countryside” of the Greenbelt Plan area.

The Protected Countryside of the Greenbelt Natural Heritage Plan consists of three parts: cores, linkages, and river valley corridors.


Sixteen Natural Core areas have been defined in the Protected Countryside.  These areas are recognized for high concentrations of natural heritage features and functions.  They have at least 50 per cent of their land areas covered by natural features such as woodlands, wetlands, streams, valleys and/or they are at least 50 per cent public lands.

Minimum core sizes are 500 hectares in areas south of the Oak Ridges Moraine, east of the Niagara Escarpment and in the Niagara Peninsula; and 1000 hectares in areas north of the Oak Ridges Moraine and west of the Niagara Escarpment.


Linkages were identified to connect natural core areas inside and outside of the Greenbelt Plan.  These linkages allow the movement of plants and animals between the cores and to natural cores located outside the Golden Horseshoe area.  Linkage widths vary, and have no set minimum.  In locating linkages, attempts were made to include natural features as “stepping stones” between cores.

River Valley Corridors

River valley corridors flowing south from the Oak Ridges Moraine, and north and east from the Niagara Escarpment, provide linkages between the Greenbelt and Lake Ontario, and protect wildlife habitats along shorelines.  These valley corridors, where appropriate, link to the valley corridors identified in the Oak Ridges Moraine Conservation Plan.

The widths of river valley corridors are wide enough to protect water and riverbank habitats in the valley, as well as the linkage function of providing for the free movement of plants and animals.

The outside boundaries are defined as:

  • 60 metres from both sides of a stream where no defined valley exists;
  • the entire valley where a well-defined valley exists, plus an additional setback from top of the valley wall; and
  • where a natural feature, such as a woodland or wetland, within these setbacks, the boundary would include the entire feature plus an appropriate setback.

Wider river valley corridors were defined for a number of significant streams including
the Little Rouge Creek through Markham,  the Markham East/Rouge River/West Duffins Creek, and the East Branch of Sixteen Mile Creek.

Water and Watersheds

The task force also recommended that important water resource areas like the Iroquois Shoreline be included, and that watersheds are the most meaningful way to manage resource planning.

Accordingly, the draft plan area included the tops of the watersheds draining into Lake Ontario that were not already included within the Niagara Escarpment or Oak Ridges Moraine Conservation plans.  It extended into Wellington and Dufferin counties to include the tops of the watersheds of the Credit River, Bronte Creek and the Sixteen Mile Creek.  As well, the non-urbanized portion of the Lake Iroquois Shoreline in Durham Region was included because of its groundwater recharge and discharge functions, as well as the concentration of wetlands and woodlands associated with these functions.

5. Building Agricultural Systems in the Greenbelt

The province has long been interested in the identification and protection of prime agricultural land.   Some of the best agricultural land in Canada is found within the Golden Horseshoe region, but these prime agricultural lands are being lost to urbanization at a rapid rate.  One of the central components of the identification of prime agricultural lands is an evaluation of the soil capability for agriculture. 

OMAF has developed a guide that was revised in June 2002, to the land evaluation and area review (LEAR) system for agriculture as a tool for the identification of key agricultural areas. LEAR provides a structured methodology for incorporating subjective criteria that has been used by municipalities to identify agricultural areas for protection in their official plans.

The LEAR system has two components:

  • A Land Evaluation (LE) that assesses the land capability for agriculture based on the Canada Land Inventory (CLI); and
  • An Area Review (AR) that assesses other important factors that affect agricultural activities such as parcel size and surrounding fragmentation.

A scoring system and weighting is assigned to each LE and AR factor.  Every land parcel is analyzed and given a score for each LE and AR factor.  A total score is calculated for every land parcel based on the weighed value for each factor.

A LEAR analysis was conducted for lands within the Greenbelt Study Area and adjacent areas.  The analysis focused on lands that were designated as agricultural or rural in municipal official plans.  The process was conducted using Geographic Information Systems (GIS).  The factors for LE included CLI capability for agriculture, climate and the factors for AR included parcel size, fragmentation, infrastructure and economic activity. 

The final output from the analysis is a series of maps showing parcel scores.  The maps were used as one of the bases for determining the agricultural system in the Greenbelt.

A LEAR analysis was undertaken for the good tender fruit and grape growing specialty crop areas in Niagara.  In addition, grape and tender fruit specialists at the University of Guelph and OMAF provided field verification and expert advice.  The areas identified reflect existing areas of tender fruit and grape production and areas with the potential for production based on climatic and soil conditions.

6. The Places to Grow initiative and the draft Growth Plan in the Greater Golden Horseshoe

The boundaries of the Golden Horseshoe Greenbelt have been developed in the context of the development of a draft Growth Plan for the Greater Golden Horseshoe.  This context ensures that the Greenbelt provides adequate and appropriate accommodation for the population growth that is anticipated over the next 30 years and beyond.

To assist with the analysis of growth management opportunities for the Greater Golden Horseshoe, MEI released three technical papers to support the provincial Places to Grow initiative and the development of a draft Growth Plan for future growth in the Greater Golden Horseshoe. They can be found on the Ontario Growth Secretariat website.

"A Current Assessment of Gross Land Supply in the Greater Golden Horseshoe" provides an overview of gross land supply in the Greater Golden Horseshoe (GGH), and outlines the assumptions and definitions that have been used in determining land supply figures. This technical paper focuses on the amount of land that is urbanized or built upon, lands that are designated for settlement but not yet built on, lands that have been identified through various provincial natural heritage plans or proposed plans, including the proposed Greenbelt Plan, as well as significant parks and conservation area lands and lands that are not currently designated for urban uses.

“The Growth Outlook for the Greater Golden Horseshoe” provides population, household and employment forecasts to 2031 in the Greater Golden Horseshoe in the context of the policy directions proposed in the “Places to Grow” Discussion Paper.

Application of Land-Use Intensification Target for the Greater Golden Horseshoe"  reviews the application of intensification targets in other jurisdictions and proposes a methodology for the application of the intensification target discussed in the “Places to Grow” Discussion Paper.

7. Conclusion

It is important to note that the government’s approach to permanent greenbelt protection in the Golden Horseshoe was drafted using an exhaustive consultation process, in addition to a thorough review of relevant research and data.

Work continues on the finer details of both the proposed Greenbelt Act, 2005 and the draft Greenbelt Plan, and its maps.

Comments, opinions and other information received through public and stakeholder consultations continue to be fully considered as the government moves towards finalizing its approach.

For more information on the greenbelt consultations and the process used to build the government’s approach to permanent greenbelt protection, please visit the Greenbelt: Consultation and Process page.