Executive Director, Ontario Farmland Trust
Program Director, Greenbelt Foundation
A coalition of governments, communities, and non-profits is pushing for greater protection of near-urban nature in the Greater Golden Horseshoe area.
The next phase of a Canadian government commitment to preserve biodiversity needs to target near-urban nature in areas like Southern Ontario, says a coalition working to protect it.
As part of a UN pledge signed by 84 countries in 2020, Ottawa has committed to protect 30 percent of the country’s land and waters by 2030. The federal government has also committed to plant two billion trees nationwide over the same period. The Southern Ontario Nature Coalition (SONC), which includes various community-based conservation organizations, policy experts, and Indigenous engagement specialists, says that vital near-urban natural systems, which contain some of the country’s highest levels of biodiversity, are at risk but that government targets provide an exciting opportunity to protect them.
Near-urban nature is comprised of the forests, river valleys, wetlands, farmland, and other ecological features that surround and intersect urban communities. This nature provides important ecosystem services like flood control and water filtration.
Among SONC’s leading participants is the Greenbelt Foundation — an independent, charitable organization, which, among other priorities, invests in the enhancement and stewardship of near-urban agricultural and ecological areas in and adjacent to Ontario’s Greenbelt.
Taking a coordinated approach
The Greenbelt Foundation and its partners hope to contribute to a coordinated approach to protecting near-urban nature through a Near-Urban Nature Network identified by SONC. This project uses new federal tools to identify high-value habitats and corridors in order to strengthen near-urban ecosystems and accommodate the migration of plants and animals.
The challenge is that these near-urban areas have fragmented landscapes with a high degree of agriculture and private landownership. To get lawmakers and landowners onboard while also attracting government investment will require a highly-coordinated approach.
With agriculture being a predominant land use in Southern Ontario, members of the agricultural community play an important role in providing habitat and creating ecological corridors.
“Once we pave over farmland, we can never get it back,” says Kathryn Enders, Executive Director at Ontario Farmland Trust, another SONC partner. “There’s a lot of pressure from urban expansion in that area.”
As part of SONC, Ontario Farmland Trust is helping farmland owners establish easement agreements as a strong tool to permanently protect their lands from non-agricultural uses and urban development. Easements can cover any land or property size, and owners can still sell or will their land, but the agreement stipulates that it must remain in agriculture, says Enders.
Stronger policies would help, but it’s important to remember that policy can change when governments change, so we need to find ways to permanently protect farmland.
“Stronger policies would help, but it’s important to remember that policy can change when governments change, so we need to find ways to permanently protect farmland.” she says.
Planting the seeds
One important solution identified by SONC is to plant trees across the region, including in the Greenbelt’s 21 urban river valleys. Doing this will improve flood management capacity and wildlife connectivity. SONC partners estimate that tree-planting investment through the Federal 2B Tree Program could amount to 54 million new trees in the region — enough for a healthier 30 percent forest coverage.
“For new initiatives like SONC to grow and emerge, there needs to be guaranteed and specific funding set aside for near-urban nature restoration, stewardship, and conservation,” says Shelley Petrie, Program Director of the Greenbelt Foundation. “There’s a great deal of conservation activity localized in various municipalities and jurisdictions, but it’s a challenge to coordinate these activities to work collectively on bigger-picture regional conservation.”
Working in tandem with Indigenous communities is key to SONC’s collaborative efforts to realize that bigger picture, she adds. Cambium Indigenous Professional Services joined the coalition as a partner to help create safe and meaningful space for leaders from Indigenous communities to collaborate on the best approaches for protecting the region’s biodiversity.
“Indigenous knowledge systems, science, and other ways of knowing have preserved nature for centuries but aren’t always sufficiently recognized or acknowledged in Western science,” says Petrie. “These are critical perspectives to take into account as we work toward protecting and restoring near-urban natural areas.”
Through its work in developing a plan to protect near-urban nature in the Greater Golden Horseshoe, SONC hopes to begin a national conversation about protecting near-urban biodiversity, apply its findings to other near-urban areas across Canada, and help Canada meet its UN commitments to protect biodiversity in impactful ways.