Friends of the Greenbelt Foundation’s Brenna Owen sits down to chat with author Burkhard Mausberg, on the launch of his new book The Greenbelt: Protecting and Cultivating a Great Ontario Treasure.
BCO: The new Greenbelt book highlights the stories of people who have nurtured the Greenbelt for more than a decade. Why were these stories and perspectives so important to capture? BM: Well, they’re important because the Greenbelt is more than just line on a map for me; it’s a living, breathing, vibrant system. For the Greenbelt to be successful, as a land use plan, the people have to step up. Having people tell their stories about how they’ve engaged, and what differences they’ve made—including during the 2015 Co-ordinated Land Use Planning Review—gives you a much greater appreciation for the fact that it’s more than just a map.
BCO: The leaders and activists profiled in the Greenbelt book have also come from different political backgrounds and stripes—a kind of rare consensus that makes the Greenbelt stand out. Can you speak to the meaning and importance of that? BM: What’s interesting about the Greenbelt is that it builds bridges. It builds bridges between rural and urban, between farmers and foodies, between conservationists and environmentalists. It’s a terrific bridge builder, and I think that has something to do with the Canadian tradition of being so closely tied to the land.
BCO: In the 12 years between when the Greenbelt was established and the release of this book, how do you feel Ontarians have embraced the Greenbelt; how have prevailing public feelings changed and grown? BM: In the early days there were some very loud opponents… and those voices got a fair amount of attention. But those voices over the time were drowned out by the quiet and active support of everybody else—those who recognized that the Greenbelt is a treasure, which we need to maintain for food production, recreation, and for clean air and water. In the 2015 Review, there were some 700 requests to take land out. Well they’re not taking it out to plant trees! They want to pave it over with inefficient sprawl. The quiet majority said, “No, we don’t want that. We don’t want to make the Greenbelt the Swiss cheese belt.”
BCO: Looking forward into the future of the Greenbelt and our region, what are you thinking about the most, be it what’s exciting or some of the challenges we’re facing? BM: The very first line of the book is, “In 2005 we were pretty green…” It’s sort of a double play. We were green, because we successfully, as green advocates, got this Greenbelt in place. But we were also pretty green in not really knowing a lot, and having a certain aspiration, certain ideals, and trying to translate it into reality. We learned a lot, and then accomplished a great deal. I think that the opportunity, and what’s exciting, is not knowing what’s going to happen in the next decade… maintaining that momentum, the interest that Ontarians clearly show in this landscape, and what else is possible. One of the things very well may be the Bluebelt—large-scale expansion in Wellington, Waterloo and Simcoe. That’s the opportunity I’m excited about.
What keeps me up at night is pressure on Greenbelt boundaries; what happens in a hundred years? We don’t want to play games where we take a piece out here and add a piece there. BC is a classic example… They are taking land out in the lower mainland, the most productive farmland, and they’re putting it somewhere in northern BC, where the temperature regimes and soil conditions are completely different… It doesn’t have the same food producing capacity. But on paper, the Agricultural Land Reserve is the same size. So I’m always sceptical about these things. What do we do now, to reduce that pressure on the boundary, and to have Ontarians say, “No, we’re not going to build there.”
BCO: What was your favourite part of writing the book? Was there a particular interview or a particular story that stuck with you? BM: Well it’s hard to play favourites when you have fifty or so good stories. You know what stuck with me? It was the universal, unquestionable view that the Greenbelt is now status quo. Twelve years ago this was a big deal: front-page news, and there was a great deal of anxiety in the community about what’s next… The conversation now is, “Wow, what else can we do with this?” So it wasn’t so much an individual favourite, but the consistent message that this is something rural and urban Ontario embrace… the best way I can say it is the Greenbelt is the new normal. People can’t imagine Ontario without the Greenbelt.
BCO: And perhaps 12 years from now we might be reading a book by Burkhard Mausberg about the establishment of the Bluebelt! Recently Premier Kathleen Wynne said that her government is committed to growing the Greenbelt. BM: She’s got some time left in her mandate. I love the fact that she uses the term ‘Bluebelt,’ which is something we coined. It tells me that it captures the imagination. How do we speak about the importance of water resources—as drinking water, as agricultural supply, as water for critters? I’ll be very interested to see what the political discussion will be.
BCO: So would you be up for writing another book? BM: Twelve years from now, yes!