The Regional Municipality of Niagara was formed in 1970 as an amalgamation of 26 previously existing municipalities and two Counties. The new Region’s first Policy Plan was adopted in December, 1973.
To appreciate the merits of the Region’s Foodland Conservation Strategy it is helpful to recall the context for its origins. At the time of the adoption of the original Regional Policy Plan, the Provincial government had identified certain matters of Provincial concern including the Niagara Escarpment, fruitlands in Niagara and elsewhere, and good agricultural land throughout Ontario. As it has done throughout the past, the Province insisted that its interests be protected in regional and local official plans.
The Niagara response to these matters of Provincial interest, and to the new Region’s own planning needs, has been articulated in the Regional Policy Plan as the Regional Strategy for Development and Conservation. This Strategy, which is still in place in Niagara, recognizes the Region’s strategic location, its tourism and historical assets, its environmental and urban areas, and its unique tender fruit and grape lands. This particular foodland asset, which lies predominantly north of the Niagara Escarpment, is conjoined with extensive prime agricultural lands south of the Escarpment.
The Strategy is based on the building blocks of Urban Areas, Major Natural Areas, Tender Fruit and Good Grape Lands, and Good General Agricultural, Rural, and Environmental Areas. Given its historic settlement pattern, Niagara contains over twenty discrete urban areas bordered by agricultural and rural communities.
The Strategy has sought, throughout its history, to balance protection of prime agricultural lands with demand for development opportunities in a growing regional economy. The Strategy is founded on two main elements: the concept of Urban Area Boundaries to clearly delineate between agricultural land to be protected and lands to be developed; and, a set of decision criteria to be considered when assessing additions to an Urban Area Boundary.
The history of the Region’s Strategy indicates two basic and reciprocal themes. First, the need for additional urban lands should be assessed in relation to lands already available in the existing Urban Areas, thereby using existing infrastructure and making wise use of existing resources. Secondly, the need for urban growth must be considered in relation to the need to protect agricultural lands, particularly the tender fruit and grape lands. As a consequence, urban growth should be directed to areas that do not involve unique agricultural lands.
In addition, the Region has also pursued the objective of maintaining a pattern of distinctive, separate, and identifiable communities. This has meant a commitment to containment of sprawl and linear extension of urban activity that could have the effect of fragmentation of the agricultural land base. As a result the agricultural community has experienced some considerable degree of stability in knowing that their operations will not be threatened by urban encroachment.
It has, at times, been difficult to maintain agricultural lands in the face of urban development pressure. Notions of the ‘permanence’ of the Urban Area Boundaries have been confounded by continuing permission in the Provincial Planning Act for consideration of private applications for their alteration.
At the same time, Niagara’s agricultural economy has itself manifested competing demands from wineries, vineyards, orchards, and greenhouses for the limited land base. The presence of these competing activities, of course, indicates the diverse potential of this asset.
More recent demands arising from agritourism, and opportunities to add value to on-farm production, have in turn inspired Niagara to investigate how the farm economy can be supported through a broader menu of activities while maintaining the integrity of the land base. These investigations will lead to further fine-tuning of Regional policy within the context of the Strategy for Conservation, thereby assisting in securing the land base and providing for the future of the agricultural community.
As we move into the early decades of the Twenty-first Century we find that the Provincial government is playing a renewed role in many aspects of regional planning in Ontario. Of immediate interest to Niagara have been the Provincial Policy Statement of 2005, the Greenbelt Plan, and Places to Grow.
These Provincial measures have the effect of reinforcing Niagara’s long-standing leadership strategy for the conservation of foodland. The Provincial Policy Statement contains criteria for the expansion of settlement areas. These criteria are reflected in Places to Grow, which also prohibits private applications for urban area boundary expansions. Finally, the Greenbelt Plan adds long-term stability to the Urban Area Boundaries in North Niagara.
The fact that Niagara’s strategy is now approaching thirty years of existence speaks to its merit for recognition as a community planning initiative of great visionary strength that has more than achieved its expectations and now represents a significant Canadian planning heritage.