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Greening The Region

By Marc Mitanis
Novae Res Urbis: Greater Toronto & Hamilton Area
Vol. 24, No. 39
Wednesday October 6, 2021

York Region is contributing 142 hectares of land to its expansive regional forest network to increase passive recreation opportunities in the region and to mitigate the impacts of extreme heat and flooding.

An August 24 staff memorandum informed York Region’s committee of the whole that the regional government had acquired a 72-hectare property at 4762 Queensville Sideroad and a 70-hectare property at 20753 McCowan Road in the Town of East Gwillimbury for the purpose of expanding the York Regional Forest. The forest is composed of 2,400 hectares of protected land located in different parts of the region. Public access to the forest is free all 365 days of the year.

“This additional land will offer many lasting benefits to residents including increased access to green space, expanded trail systems, and further opportunities to connect with nature;’ Town of East Gwillimbury mayor Virginia Hackson told NRU.

York Region natural heritage and forestry manager James Lane said the lands, which were previously privately owned, will contribute to protecting and enhancing the natural heritage system of the Greenbelt.

“The acquisition also provides more access to green space for residents during a time where it’s even more important that it has been previously;’ Lane told NRU.

Lane said the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the importance of green space for residents. “We saw that through the very high use we experienced in York Regional Forest-particularly during the strictest public health measures-when our parking lots on weekends were consistently exceeding capacity;’ Lane told NRU. “Many other land managers-Ontario Parks for example- experienced the same thing:’

Approximately 82 hectares of the 142-hectare lands will be reforested, helping the region reach its target of 25 per cent woodland cover within the next 30 years.

Woodland cover across the region-comprising areas of land at least 0.2 hectares in size which are heavily treed-has increased over the years to its current coverage rate of23.6 per cent in 2021. According to York Region’s 2021 State of the Forest report, the region is not projected to meet its 25 per cent woodland cover target by 2031, but with “continued planting and protection efforts”, that target “can reasonably be achieved” by 2051.

Although growth in woodland cover is less than originally anticipated, East Gwillimbury mayor Hackson said reasonable gains are being made given the pressure from different land use needs in the region.

“York Region is achieving a desired balance among the multiple goals and objectives in the Regional Official Plan;’ Hackson told NRU. “The woodland cover target of 25 per cent applies to both public and private land, and we all have to work together to identify and act on opportunities to expand woodland cover across the region to continue this trend:’

Ontario Nature director of conservation and education Anne Bell said the acquisition of the properties is great news for a number of reasons, particularly for conserving the region’s biodiversity, for enhancing its climate change resilience, and for improving local water quality and human health.

“Area residents will benefit in many ways from the expansion and restoration of the forest;’ Bell told NRU. “It will absorb carbon emissions and mitigate climate impacts, such as flooding and drought; it will filter the air and buffer a local creek from runoff and pollution; and it will provide people with nearby access to nature, important for their physical and mental well­being. And of course, for those who care about the natural world and its conservation, there will be more habitat for wildlife:’

Approximately 40 per cent of the acquisition and reforestation of the parcel is funded through Infrastructure Canada’s Disaster Mitigation and Adaptation Fund. The planting of trees on the lands will help to mitigate the climate change impacts of extreme heat and flooding.

“Trees and forests provide relief from extreme heat, and that’s a matter of increasing importance to people living in this region;’ Bell told NRU. “The Greater Golden Horseshoe is already one of the hottest places in Canada, and the number of summer heat waves here is expected to double by 2050:’

Greenbelt Foundation program director Shelley Petrie said forested areas not only absorb water more quickly than grassed areas, but dense woodland cover also helps to stabilize riverbanks and floodplain areas, keeping any potential floodwaters within the river system and out of urban neighbourhoods.
The actions taken by York Region to protect and restore its municipal forest network are some of the best investments municipalities can make in nature, added Petrie.

“It has very high returns on biodiversity, high returns on climate adaptation, and it can even support community priorities, such as creating more green space, which has always been in high demand in this region;’ Petrie told NRU. “Certainly, during the pandemic, that demand has increased, and in some areas, doubled. This step taken by York Region is quite commendable and we’d like to see it across the [GTHA]:’

Bell said more could and should be done to increase the availability of green space throughout the GTHA, which can lead to major improvements in the physical and mental health of Ontarians.

“There is not enough accessible green space to meet the demand in this heavily populated region, and that gap between supply and demand is expected to grow as the population increases;’ Bell told NRU. “The beauty of nearby, publicly accessible forests, from a health perspective, is that they provide opportunities for physical activity, social interaction, outdoor learning and spiritual renewal. I imagine most of us know from personal experience that a walk in the woods is an ideal way to relieve stress:’

Referencing a 2019 report that outlined a need to maintain support for large parks to keep up with the growing population, Petrie echoes Bell’s call for additional green space throughout the GTHA. According to the State of Large Parks in Ontario’s Golden Horseshoe report-completed by the Greenbelt Foundation, Green Infrastructure Ontario Coalition, Credit Valley Conservation, and the Toronto and Region Conservation Authority-the Golden Horseshoe region requires an additional 15,000 hectares of new large parkland to maintain the current level of large park supply per person in the province by 2041. As of 2019, there are, on average, 3.7 hectares of large parks for every 1,000 people in the Golden Horseshoe.

The 142 hectares of land were acquired through the Regional Greening Strategy, which was adopted in 2001 and refined in 2012 by York Region. The strategy prioritizes investments in green infrastructure, including tree planting and forest restoration. In 2021, York Region allocated $1.94 million towards Greening Strategy programs, including protecting and restoring natural heritage features through the Environmental Land Protection and Preservation Program.

York Region is currently undertaking another refinement of the Greening Strategy in search of additional opportunities to protect and enhance green spaces through new partnerships with non­ profit organizations, such as land trusts or conservation authorities. East Gwillimbury mayor Virginia Hackson said York Region residents will have an opportunity to provide input through an online survey to be launched on October 13.