Sprawl and Ontario's Greenbelt

Sprawl is one of the most wasteful forms of development, leading Ontario’s former Environmental Commissioner to call it “Ontario’s oil sands.” A strong Growth Plan, together with an expanded Greenbelt, can help ensure growth in a way that is sustainable and more cost effective.

Sprawl is the Dominant Growth Style in Simcoe County

We’ve been dealing with losing our natural spaces and farmland to sprawl in this region for a long time. It’s been the main way we’ve grown our communities for decades, and we continue to do so, even though it’s outdated and extremely wasteful, today.


  • Between 2006 and 2014, Simcoe County released more greenfield lands for development (sprawl)  than any other region in southern Ontario. This, despite the fact that the amount of growth they were anticipated to receive was much less than many places;1Neptis (2013) Implementing the Growth Plan for the Greater Golden Horseshoe
  • The IGAP report in 2006 outlined that due to urbanization pressure of sprawl and without intervening action, “the available potable water and aquaculture of these watersheds are threatened” within Simcoe County;2Intergovernmental Action Plan for Simcoe County. (2006)
  • The Lake Simcoe watershed is calculated to lose 12,000 hectares of natural and semi-natural space by 2031.  That’s equivalent to 1000 Vaughan Mills Malls;3Ministry of the Environment and Climate Change. (2014).  Minister’s Report on Lake Simcoe
  • Over the past 40 years, Barrie’s footprint grew by 550% losing over 150km2 of natural and semi-natural space.4Statistics Canada

What Can Be Done?

First and foremost, we have to intentionally choose different development patterns.  Sprawl must be stopped and settlement boundaries must be held firm. 

Unfortunately, this doesn’t make developers and those wanting to cash out very rich. 

As a result, extreme lobbying efforts within our municipal councils promote sprawling patterns as a supposed answer to economic woes – which simply isn’t true. 

In fact, sprawling developments have been shown time and time again to cost the municipality more than what it brings in with new tax revenue and growth.5Report: The High Cost of Sprawl

Infographic on the high cost of sprawl. Credit: Smart Prosperity Institute.
Infographic on the high cost of sprawl. Credit: Smart Prosperity Institute. (Click image for larger version.)

We can also address this through provincial policy, specifically, the Greenbelt. 

The Greenbelt Plan was created to direct growth to existing communities to prevent sprawl from paving over farmland and our most precious, sensitive landscapes. 

Ontario’s Greenbelt policies have been recognized internationally as one of the most legally effective and clear policies when compared against other greenbelt across the globe. 

Although far from perfect, the Greenbelt has been shown to stop the loss of farmland to sprawl, support water systems and act as a natural solution to climate change.

The only thing that is required is political will to prioritize protection of our water, wetlands, greenspaces and farmland over outdated economic policies that are based on infrastructure such as sprawl, highways and pipelines.

We Have an Opportunity to Shift Our Decisions

The province is asking for feedback about how and where to grow the Greenbelt in Ontario. 

Frankly, we think we should protect as much of our land and water as possible – our economy, food security and water security depend on it. 

However, we also recognize that the political will isn’t as bold as the vision that Ontarians may have, so that’s where citizens need to push the needle. 

We need to have conversations about how we create healthy, sustainable, thriving communities. 

Science is showing us that our patterns and choices are problematic for our own survival. 

Let’s start by doing one meaningful thing – grow the Greenbelt to the rest of the Lake Simcoe basin, to areas within Simcoe County that are important to providing clean water, air and food for residents. 

Better is always possible even if it isn’t politically expedient.

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