OUR MISSION: As our climate changes, ACER supports communities with grassroots initiatives to plant trees, and educates on how to measure, monitor and report on tree health and growth.

7.3.6 Regions/Watershed/Local Protection



Regions/Watershed/Local Protection

Bringing Into Being the Future We Wish to Live in

The Oak Ridges Moraine Land Trust

Urban Sprawl or Wild Land for the Future?


Home and Native Land

The use of land at the edges of growing cities is often the subject of differences of opinion and debate. People who are new arrivals need homes. Developers wish to build houses. Municipalities need to provide roads to provide access to their city as it grows. Small Ontario farms wish to remain in business, but competition from large and often foreign food-growing businesses is difficult to compete with. Farmers are often tempted to sell their land to developers as the suburbs sprawl closer, and land values rise. And property owners and environmentalists raise concerns over the health of green spaces and habitat: wetlands, forested lots, grasslands, and rivers’ edges.

Preserving healthy wild land, and preserving healthy ecosystems for the future in and around rapidly-developing cities, is a challenge. An effective and familiar way to protect green spaces is for cities and towns to set aside land as public parks or conservation areas. Another less-visible method is for private land to be purchased or legally bound by owners’ agreements to preserve it in its natural state. Organizations that buy or arrange for the future legal protection of wild lands by owners have come to be called nature conservancies or land trusts. The Oak Ridges Moraine Land Trust is one such group. It is an organization which works to preserve wild land on a unique landform north of the city of Toronto, a glacial deposit called a moraine.

A Unique Ontario Land Feature

The Oak Ridges Moraine is one of the most significant landforms in southern Ontario. Located just north of Toronto, its rolling hills and river valleys extend 160 kilometres west to east, from the Niagara Escarpment to Rice Lake. This long ridge of sand and gravel hills was deposited 12,000 years ago by retreating glaciers.

The moraine is important to both local water quality and local species. It contains the headwaters of 65 river systems (35 in the Greater Toronto Area alone) and has a wide diversity of natural features such as streams, woodlands, wetlands, kettle lakes and kettle bogs.

It is home to significant flora and fauna (plants and animals). This strip of nature is one of the last remaining continuous green corridors in southern Ontario: still 30 per cent forested, it is one of the diminishing places of refuge for forest birds in southern Ontario.

Homes or Habitat?

Because it is so close to Toronto, the Oak Ridges Moraine has become the site of a debate between developers and preservationists as to how much land should be built on, and how much should be kept green and wild. Thousands of new homes have already been built there. Now local citizens groups joined by a committee at the City of Toronto, and attention from the Ontario Liberal provincial government (2004) are trying hard to slow the rate of development.

The Design of Urban Sprawl

Urban sprawl does not simply happen in random fashion as people build new houses. It is planned by large land developers companies that buy land and subdivide it into residential subdivisions, malls and industrial zones. Southern Ontario “conurbations” or city-suburb combinations are spreading across the landscape. And in 2004, housing developments surrounding cities continue to use low-density patterns of land use as they did in the 1960s. New isolated subdivisions, and the highways needed to reach them, replace farmland and forests.

The suburban patterns of urban sprawl are a serious contributor to climate change. But even as concerns about this global warming continue to grow, so do new suburbs. Large, not particularly energy-efficient homes, surrounded by rolling lawns cut with gas-powered mowers are built in communities with no nearby services. Suburban development separates homes from businesses, schools and shopping areas, requiring the use of fossil-fuel burning cars for nearly every family need. More and more people are also buying sports utility vehicles (SUVs) to transport their families and goods, greatly increasing the consumption of gas (fossil fuel) and carbon dioxide emissions. SUV are technically trucks, and can weigh twice as much as a conventional car.

Building a Suburb

Suburban development begins by removing all trees and vegetation so they will not be in the way of the builders, or limit the number or the arrangement of houses to be built. Topsoil is frequently removed to level the land. The loss of old trees removes shade as well as their carbon-dioxide absorbing capacity. Unshaded neighbourhoods need far more air-conditioning on hot summer days, requiring high summer energy use. And the houses-only layouts of suburban design build in a requirement for homeowners to use cars for nearly all their errands. Car use for all transportation contributes to increased greenhouse gas emissions and climate change.

Sprawl, Energy Use and Climate Change

  • About 70% of Canadian greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from transportation are from cars and trucks. Two-thirds of these emissions are produced within urban areas.
  • People in suburbs are less likely to walk, cycle and take public transit to get around than are people in densely built-up city centres. In addition, the wider the suburban areas spread, the longer people’s commuting distances become to get to city centres. Increasing traffic – and eventually gridlock – on highways make it difficult for Canada to meet its Kyoto pledge.
  • The degree of reliance on cars created by suburban sprawl puts a heavy burden on Canada’s energy supply, and adds to pressures to find new supplies. Tar sands oil extraction in Alberta produces 125 kg of GHG emissions for each barrel of oil produced.
  • The loss of nearby farmland reduces the availability of local fresh fruits and vegetables, and requires more transportation of produce from farther away, increasing greenhouse gases production in their shipping.

The New “Smart Growth”

Cities will not stop growing. But they can grow differently. Both city officials and citizens are recognizing that a new balance is needed between human needs and nature’s needs.

The concept of “smart growth” has been developed for towns and cities, to keep their countryside, natural areas and farmlands protected. A growing number of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) are calling upon governments to build protection for rural and natural areas into planning policies.

One group, Ontario Nature (formerly the Federation of Ontario Naturalists) has described “smart communities” as those that “maintain existing urban boundaries and are compact, pedestrian- and transit-friendly, attractive, livable places that put nature first. They protect woodlands, wetlands and wildlife in both rural and urban areas.” Their campaign to protect urban, suburban and rural green spaces can be accessed at http://www.cnf.ca/naturecanada/spring04/terra.html.

Ontario Nature has also produced a book called A Smart Future for Ontario which is accessible on their website at http://www.ontarionature.org/enviroandcons/issues/sprawl.html. It outlines the problems with urban sprawl, how smart growth can help cities take a different approach, a vision of an Ontario that ranks protection of nature as a priority and ways to make smart growth happen.

Informed Citizens Make Change Happen

Ontario Nature began their smart growth work when they became involved in protecting the Oak Ridges Moraine. They knew that citizens and non-governmental groups are THE most important voices in making governments change the way they do things.

Informed citizens are also one of the most important ingredients in working to address climate change. When knowledgeable, informed people speak out together, they can create the future they want for both themselves and the ecosystems that support human life.

Anthropologist Margaret Mead’s famous saying remains as true as ever: 

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed people can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.


The Federation of Ontario Naturalists: A Smart Future for Ontario: How to Protect Nature and Curb Urban Sprawl in Your Community, November, 2002

David Suzuki Foundation: Driven to Action A Citizen’s Toolkit Sprawl Facts



  1. Give minimum of 3 reasons that farmers sell their land to developers.
  2. Although people need homes to live in, what are the problems of housing being built in the suburbs? Living in the suburbs?
  3. List the features of an ideal community that would provide a healthy environment and have a minimum contribution to climate change.