Saving our urban backyard

Middle class homeowners in affluent areas are not typically typecast as staunch environmental activists. Yet that’s what happened in 2000, when news stories reported that the residents of Richmond Hill, Ont., were engaged in heated rallies to save the Oak Ridges Moraine (ORM). Their grassroots activism caught the attention of Gerda Wekerle, Anders Sandberg and Liette Gilbert, professors in York’s Faculty of Environmental Studies. 

Until then, residents of Richmond Hill, a town just north of Toronto and within the ORM, had been considered largely in favour of new building developments. The town was politically conservative and residents were not generally identified as environmentalists, says Sandberg.

The situation changed when plans to develop a section of the environmentally fragile area became public. Residents joined forces with some of the most vocal environmental groups in the region and embarked on a battle to stop rezoning proposals that would allow the building of 17,000 new homes, and, in the process, swallow up 1,100 hectares of agricultural land and green space. The York Environmental Studies professors decided to find out how the partnership came to be and why it worked.

Left: York Professors Liette Gilbert, Gerda Wekerle and Anders Sandberg

Their investigation into the events and developments in Richmond Hill became the starting point for an extensive four-year research project on the ORM conducted by Wekerle, Sandberg and Gilbert and for a book they are co-authoring that will be published by Broadview Press in 2008.

The book focuses on the politics of development and environmentalism on the ORM and examines how the struggle spearheaded by local, regional, national and international environmentalists and citizen groups led to the Oak Ridges Moraine Conservation Act, passed by the Ontario government in December 2001. “We’re looking at what the antecedents [to the Act] are, the history and policy change,” says Wekerle.

Left: Map depicting the location of the Oak Ridges Moraine (area in green)

The landform known as the ORM extends 160 km from the Niagara Escarpment in the west to the Trent River in the east. It is one of the last continuous corridors of green space left in south-central Ontario. A geological formation of porous rock, sand and gravel created 12,000 years ago by glaciers, it encompasses aquifers (on which 250,000 people depend for water), lakes, rivers and streams, habitats for endangered species, forests, green space used for recreation, farms and long-established villages. Situated along the northern edge of the Greater Toronto Area, it is in the path of urban expansion.

In conducting their research, the York professors attended and studied public-consultation meetings organized by various levels of government and public presentations made by members of social and environmental movements; analyzed the various stakeholders’ press releases, flyers and Web sites; conducted interviews with key environmental activists; and studied planning documents and newspaper articles.

The information-gathering stage was not easy, says Wekerle. “Most people do research on things that have already happened. To do research on a policy issue that is so politically charged and that is in the newspapers every day is very difficult."

To keep track of the fast-paced developments, they had the help of York graduate students. “A lot of our students lived on or near the moraine so they were interested in what was happening,” says Wekerle. "Also, there is a large number of planning students in the Faculty so several did their major research papers on the moraine.”

In their research study, the York professors identified and analyzed how the environmental and citizens’ groups were able to achieve their goals by shaping public opinion. As a result of these public relations efforts, the ORM (which is one of many moraines in Ontario) came to be embraced as a cause celebre and perceived as a unique and valuable bioregion by people all across Ontario. “Fifty years ago, nobody in the general population would have talked about it [the ORM],” says Sandberg.

“But it is not just a story about environmental activism,” says Wekerle. Sandberg agrees. “One of the important conclusions of our book is that there isn’t one story about the ORM, there are many,” he says.

Other stories that the York trio have identified and mapped in their work are the history of the ORM and the development of land-use planning and policy changes.

In terms of policy changes, the enactment of the ORM Act was the most significant. “It was a real coup, an environmentalist success story,” says Wekerle. "There is a piece of legislation, not just a voluntary guideline."

The process that led to the legislation was interesting to study, says Wekerle, as it was precedent-setting in the way it brought together stakeholders with different interests, including residents, property owners, environmentalists, developers, the sand and gravel industry, farmers, politicians and bureaucrats, says Wekerle.

“It is both the plus and the problem [of the legislation] that it tries to have something for everyone –people who want to continue with growth and wealth-creation and, on the other end of the continuum, those who would like nothing better than to basically fence it off to everybody and just let nature take its course,” says Wekerle.

The upshot is that while the legislation protects the environment, it also contains exemptions that allow for further development.

Nevertheless, Sandberg says "the struggle to get this legislation and to get the moraine recognized as significant ecologically and hydrologically, as a piece of Ontario – that is something that needs to be celebrated, recognized and recorded." Through their research, Sandberg, Wekerle and Gilbert have done just that.

As other unspoiled green spaces surrounding Canadian cities come under increasing threat from urban sprawl in years to come, the story of how the key actors on the ORM won the day will no doubt serve as an inspiration for those involved in similar environmental struggles.

Story by Olena Wawryshyn, York communications officer.