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:
“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.”