The Ontario government has unveiled plans for the province’s first-ever urban provincial park located in the Township of Uxbridge. Uxbridge encompasses many existing conservation lands and protected countryside, such as the Durham Regional Forest, Greenbelt, and Oak Ridges Moraine.
Teased by the province in the 2023 budget, the park was officially announced by Minister of Environment, Conservation, and Parks David Piccini in April on Earth Day. According to Piccini, designating these lands in Uxbridge as a new provincial park will help to protect and conserve local ecosystems and wildlife. The public can also look forward to increased access to hiking trails, campgrounds, and more recreational activities.
The province plans to work with the Township of Uxbridge, Toronto and Region Conservation Authority, Lake Simcoe Region Conservation Authority, the Nature Conservancy of Canada, and local stakeholders, such as the Regional Municipality of Durham, The Schad Foundation, and Green Durham, to decide on the best location for the park and its full conservation and recreation potential. The proposed park is still in the developmental stages, but the site may include over 500 hectares of provincially-owned land, which is 50 per cent larger than New York City’s Central Park. The province will conduct a series of environmental assessments before the final location is determined.
“Uxbridge is known as the ‘Trail capital of Canada,’” says Gary Wheeler, communications officer for the Ministry of Environment, Conservation, and Parks. “And its location only 45 minutes outside of Toronto and its proximity to York Region make it an ideal location for Ontario’s first urban park.” The province also hopes that a new park will support local tourism and economic growth in Uxbridge and Durham Region as a whole.
It is unclear how the proposed park is considered an “urban” park and if this designation will add any extra protections for biodiversity and conservation. The Township of Uxbridge is located near vast amounts of land that are already protected and conserved, such as the Greenbelt’s outer boundary to the north and the Oak Ridges Moraine to the south. Uxbridge is a largely rural township located outside the GTA and away from main population centres in Durham.
“The proposed site is right on the urban boundary of Uxbridge and encompasses a mixed area of land, both urban and rural, to the south,” says the mayor of Uxbridge, Dave Barton. “This park has been decades in the making, so to have the very first urban park and the first provincial park in 40 years, here in Uxbridge, is a real privilege.”
Despite enthusiasm for the new park, the Ontario government has recently been criticized by conservation authorities for its controversial Bill 23 and amendments to the Greenbelt Act. The intent of Bill 23 is to spur development by suspending certain environmental regulations in order to get houses built faster. Changes to the Greenbelt Act have made it easier for developers to build on the land, with over 7,000 acres of land already purchased. This is all so the province can build 1.5 million homes in the next 10 years.
It is not clear whether or not this new provincial park is intended to address those criticisms. “It’s kind of a both/and situation,” says Edward McDonnell, CEO of the Greenbelt Foundation. “Clearly the Environment Minister is a big proponent of conservation, but the provincial government cares about development too,” he says. “It matters that they acknowledge the need for greater conservation efforts in southern Ontario.”
“As we grow as a province, we need to be more cognizant of protecting the environment near major urban centres,” says McDonnell. “How we protect our waterways, agriculture, and forests is crucial to our growth as a province and country. Near-urban nature is particularly important in this regard.” Near-urban nature refers to ecological systems that surround and intersect with urban communities, such as the Greenbelt and the proposed urban park. They are also one of our greatest resources for adapting to and fighting climate change.
To compensate for removing protections to the Greenbelt lands, the Ford government has promised to replace it with 2,000 acres, but this has yet to happen. The urban park in Uxbridge could be an additional measure to compensate for development in the Greenbelt and the possibility of selling off more Greenbelt land. But instead of expanding protections for Greenbelt and Oak Ridges Moraine land in Uxbridge, the province has chosen to create this entirely new urban provincial park.
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