A belt too tight

Michael Prentice
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Rising home prices driving residents to the ’burbs

It makes no sense economically that the city of Ottawa is divided in two, separating those who live inside the Greenbelt and those who live outside it.

A view of Ottawa's Greenbelt.

But there is not the slightest sign on the horizon that the federal government, which manages the Greenbelt through the National Capital Commission, is prepared to offer any of it for meaningful development. Nor does the City of Ottawa seem ready to push the feds in this direction.

No one seems to know how much the Greenbelt costs us all. But it is safe to say it is billions of dollars.

The Canadian people are sitting on about 240 square kilometres, or 90 square miles, of prime real estate visible from the top of the Peace Tower on Parliament Hill.

That is the approximate surface area of the irregularly shaped Greenbelt. It consists mostly of farmland, forests and parks, and extends in a semicircle around the city as it existed a half-century and more ago. The semicircle begins and ends at the Ottawa River, the natural  boundary to the north, at the border with Quebec.

The Greenbelt is about four times the surface area of Manhattan, the central borough of New York City. The island of Manhattan has a population of more than 1.5 million.

The Greenbelt’s original purpose was to discourage urban sprawl, to keep the city compact, making it easy to get around by streetcar or on foot, and to keep down the cost of providing services such as public transit, roads, light and water.

Today, as the city’s population edges towards one million, almost as many city residents live outside the Greenbelt as inside. Many of these people cross the no man’s land of the Greenbelt twice daily to and from work.

It’s more expensive to provide city services to these suburban residents, many of whom must waste more time commuting than their urban cousins who live inside the Greenbelt, where most federal government offices are located.

Let them live inside the Greenbelt, some say, editorializing that these suburbanites are contributing to urban sprawl, when all they’re doing is finding a place to live at an affordable price.

Today, there is minimal construction of new single homes inside the Greenbelt, because almost no land is left to build on.

The average price of a new single home built inside the Greenbelt today is more than $710,000, according to figures compiled for the Greater Ottawa Home Builders’ Association.

Compare that with average prices for new single homes outside the Greenbelt. These range from about $442,000 in the eastern suburbs to about $500,000 in the southern and western suburbs.

About 98 per cent of new single homes in Ottawa are built outside the Greenbelt. Between May and July, there were 403 sales of new single homes outside the Greenbelt. In the same period, just seven new single homes were sold inside the Greenbelt.

Not surprisingly, builders and developers favour developing at least some of the Greenbelt. However, they seem to have few allies.

Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson said through e-mail that he wanted the Greenbelt to preserve its current acreage. If any land is taken out, he wrote, it should be replaced with an equivalent amount.

As the federal agency responsible for the Greenbelt, the NCC is preparing a new master plan for this green garland around the old city of Ottawa and its inner suburbs.

The NCC expects to reach some conclusions next year. But, if anything, it plans to expand the Greenbelt, NCC officials say.

This direction has significant implications for how Ottawa will grow in the coming decades, dramatically constricting the city’s ability to provide cost-effective municipal services while sending residents further and further afield in search of affordable housing.

 

THE NCC’S PERSPECTIVE:

Questions submitted by OBJ to the National Capital Commission and answers, edited for length.

What is the estimated value of the Greenbelt?

We don’t have that number. One of the action items of the new plan will be to determine that value.

What’s the point of the Greenbelt, when many city residents now live outside it?

Our capital will see more people added over the next 55 years. In that context, the Greenbelt, as a resource of healthy natural areas, local food production, and a place for recreation and experiences, will be more important than ever.

Doesn’t the Greenbelt just add to the cost of city services, and to travel times for those who can’t afford to live inside the Greenbelt?

It is not for the NCC to comment on past decisions by former cities to plan outside the Greenbelt.

 

A HOMEBUILDER’S VIEW:

Here’s what Cardel Homes’ Greg Graham, past-president of the Greater Ottawa Home Builders Association, hopes will happen with the Greenbelt:

“The Greenbelt was established more than 50 years ago to promote growth within the Greenbelt boundary. As Ottawa has grown and matured, development has leapfrogged the Greenbelt with the establishment of Barrhaven, Orleans, Kanata and Stittsville.

Even today, with new municipally imposed policies surrounding intensification and restrictions on the urban boundary, we are once again seeing further urban sprawl. Communities such as Arnprior, Almonte, Carleton Place, Kemptville and Rockland are flourishing with new home construction and migration into their communities. Yet many of those residents work in Ottawa and use Ottawa’s infrastructure, but pay their property taxes elsewhere.

We have asked the question before – why not sell chunks of the Greenbelt for development? Take that money and buy lands further outside the city boundary that might then remain undeveloped for the next 100 years? The money raised from selling Greenbelt lands would be considerable and would certainly pay for considerably more lands further out. It would also provide an injection of capital to the NCC.

The problem lies with the NCC. It is very protective of the Greenbelt, and I don’t believe the city has sufficient clout to negotiate with the NCC. Urban sprawl could be better controlled with many new residential communities being developed within the Greenbelt lands.”

Organizations: National Capital Commission, Peace Tower on Parliament Hill.That is, Greater Ottawa Home Builders Association

Geographic location: Greenbelt, Ottawa, Manhattan Ottawa River New York City Arnprior Carleton Place

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Recent comments

  • Alex Brett
    October 15, 2012 - 12:34

    The article asks how much the greenbelt is costing taxpayers. Let's turn the question around and ask how much the greenbelt is saving taxpayers. One of our biggest costs over the next decades will be infrastructure -- especially around wastewater and stormwater management as we move toward more extreme weather events. Do we want to rip out and pave our 'natural infrastructure'? That would be the wetlands and forests that naturally absorb and filter water going into our rivers. If we do, then we have to replace those natural systems with expensive and ineffective infrastructure. And remember, the dirtier the water in the Ottawa River, the more costly it is to treat it for drinking, and we all, in this city, drink Ottawa River water. Leave the wetlands and forests of the greenbelt. It will cost us less in the end.

  • Richard Tomkins
    October 15, 2012 - 11:06

    Thank you, thank you, thank you. The Greenbelt gives all Canadians the most welcoming, beautiful, natural, preserves of nature in their capital city. This unique feature places our nations capital above all others, representing the heart of our nation and the character of our peoples. We Ottawans are fortunate to live within such a beautiful city and we should always protect this unique Canadian legacy against the profiteers that would have us walking through the paved forests of cement and jungles of office towers that are the predominant features of all other capitol cities around the world.

  • Tracy
    October 15, 2012 - 09:52

    Joni Mitchell had it right how long ago.....? Paved paradise put up a parking lot. In this case it's both. If somehow the developers get their hands on the Greenbelt, even just a little, they will want more and more. We do have something special here in Ottawa that is pretty rare in cities like ours. NCC don't let the greedy developers worm there way in, cause once they are in, they are in, and they will slowy eat away at it.

  • Gary
    October 15, 2012 - 09:28

    People cause sprawl - developers, policy-makers, planners and housing consumers. The greenbelt "causes" nothing but carbon capture, water filtration and species preservation. There's lots of land inside the belt, but many people who can afford a mortgage want big houses on big lots. And developers love that kind of development because it is easy money. It's all completely rational until you add climate change and the costs of servicing sprawl. Build in the greenbelt and you will foul your nest and shoot your childrens' grocer at the same time.

  • Watchdog
    October 15, 2012 - 09:12

    Norman, you and thousands of people in ottawa are with you on your comments. I challenge the reporter making statements in the OBJ as to how much it costs the taxpayer; billions, I think not! The relevance of the Greenbelt in Ottawa has not diminished over time. I have spoken to many a tourist who have visited our city and they are impressed that we have such a feature and wish that American cities would have adopted a similar stance when it comes to providing a respite from the, "Manhattan Sprawl". So what if there are many suburbs outside the Greenbelt? So what if the people there have to travel into the city? So what if we have to provide transportation services to them to get to work? These people enjoy being outside the core or they would not live there. We have a unique infrastructure here in Ottawa with a Greenbelt separating the suburbs and the city core. Raping the Greenbelt to provide high rise condos, shopping malls, gas stations, hazardous waste facilities etc. is not what we want. In fact, if this reporter wanted a better story, he should investigate that a significant number of people are moving far away from the city into the country to get away from the sprawl.

  • Larry
    October 15, 2012 - 09:05

    Actually what we needed was a second greenbelt outside the first one in order to breakup the urban sprawl. It should have been between Kanata and Stittsville, around Manotick and Greely, etc. Instead of that we got big box urban sprawl and housing developments next to farm land. It's sad to see. We need more Greenbelt and less greedy developers.

  • Marianne
    October 12, 2012 - 17:12

    Green space could be better accessed and the most ecologically sensitve saved by changing to a green finger approach. Land could be traded with developers in order to maintain the same level of green space while creating development corridors with green space on either side - much more accessible to the public. Trading some little used and not environmentally important greenbelt land for the development land in the South March Highlands would much better suit the mandate of the NCC.

  • Norman
    October 12, 2012 - 16:34

    I see the developers are chomping at the bit to get their hands on this Greenbelt acreage. We have something special here in Ottawa in that the congestion of other cities does not exist. The Greenbelt is a welcome oasis for the city to catch its breath and we need to preserve it. I would recommend for anyone keen on doing away with the Greenbelt to visit Toronto. Toronto has no such thing and the result is sprawl as far as the eye can see. We really need to get away from this development driven frame of mind and enjoy the special city we have here withouet destroying in in the name of rampant development. What will we have become then, another Toronto or large city with strip malls on every second corner? Toronto begins 50 kms. outside the city now and we do not want this here. I hope this city and region does not sell out and thank you NCC for playing an active role in this..