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May 03, 2021

Municipal Capacity for Supporting Agriculture and Agri-food in Ontario: A Case Study of the Greenbelt

Municipal Capacity for Supporting Agriculture and Agri-food in Ontario: A Case Study of the Greenbelt
Regardless of where you live and work, urban or rural, suburban or somewhere in between, agricultural communities and the agri-food sector are integral to our individual and collective wellbeing. Perhaps we have begun to appreciate this in our personal lives, as the last year called the home chefs, novice bakers, and backyard gardeners among us. But in our professional lives, what is the relationship between our work as planners, policy influencers, or decision-makers and the success of this critical industry? This question underscored our research project this past year, looking at municipal capacity (staffing available, resources, expertise, and budget) to make timely and relevant decisions for agriculture and the agri-food sector. This phase of the project focused on 66 municipalities in the Greenbelt of Ontario, and involved collecting survey and interview data from elected officials and planners in each of those communities.
map of southern Ontario

The Greenbelt phase of this project has now concluded, and the project is being expanded to capture municipal capacity from across the province. If you would like to receive updates on the next phase of this project or be the point of contact for your municipality, we would appreciate the opportunity to  hear from you and invite you to contact us at the email addresses provided below. To learn more about the research, here is a snapshot of what we have found so far:
Table 1  - Municipalities with the fewest and most full-time planners  (Survey results and Statistics Canada, 2016)
Tier Municipality Full-time planners Population (2016) Land Area (km^2)
LT Uxbridge 0 21,176 421
LT Adjala-Tosorontio 0 10,975 372
UT Northumberland 1 85,598 1,905
UT Dufferin 2 61,735 1,486
UT Grey 5 93,830 4,514
The other 56 municipalities fall somewhere in the middle in terms of planning staff capacity.
UT Durham 29 645,862 2,524
UT York 32 1,109,909 1,762
ST Hamilton (City) 44 536,917 1,117
LT Richmond Hill 50 195,022 101
UT Halton 56 548,435 964

Through this research, we have found that varying capacity at the municipal level may impact whether municipalities proactively or reactively plan for the agricultural sector. Municipalities who have the capacity and can proactively plan for agriculture often go above and beyond what is mandated by the provincial government, contributing to the overall viability and resilience of the agricultural sector. For example, the municipality of Grey County has an impressive range of programs and resources available to support the agricultural community such as Grey Ag Services, Ag 4.0 conferences (to connect the agri-food and tech sector), and the Made in Grey economic development initiative. Other municipalities have developed similar proactive approaches and actively build relationships between the municipality and the local agricultural community. Examples include Dufferin County’s Ag Roundtables, Agriculture In Dufferin resources, Durham Region’s farm tour for municipal staff, Peterborough County’s Agricultural Wall of Fame, and Northumberland County’s leadership in the Ontario Agri-food Venture Center. Likewise, Halton Region has developed an agricultural strategy and York Region is creating a climate change action plan. Each of these initiatives is set to include specific provisions for supporting agricultural communities and guiding municipal actions in that regard.

Other municipalities have gone beyond the minimum provincially legislated responsibilities to establish a framework for planning, prioritizing and enhancing agricultural protection and support. This initiative is exemplified with Halton Region’s Official Plan, whereby additional agricultural policies have been included  (e.g., provisions for on-farm diversified uses and opportunities for agricultural commercial uses). Other municipalities support water quality initiatives (e.g., Wellington County) and other ecosystem enhancements (e.g., Clarington’s Trees for Rural Roads and Wellington County’s Green Legacy Program).

The above activities are not mandated by upper levels of government and result from staff and elected official knowledge, will, leadership, values, and capacity. These proactive and forward-looking approaches to planning for the agricultural sector ultimately raise questions about why some municipalities may or may not be embracing agriculture to this extent.

Research that explores the challenges facing rural municipalities when dealing with complex and multifaceted issues, such as climate change impacts is limited, particularly research with a rural lens and an agricultural focus. Past research also does not focus on the ever-evolving issues impacting agriculture today (e.g., land use regulations for cannabis production were not a planning issue thirty years ago).  A current and comprehensive assessment of municipal capacity to support agricultural priorities and issues is needed and would be of value to stakeholders across the province, such as:
  • Agricultural communities
  • The planning profession
  • The Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food, and Rural Affairs
  • The Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing
  • Elected officials and municipal planners
  • The general public
Readers can access the full report from the first phase of this research, focusing on the  Greenbelt, on Wayne Caldwell’s website. We would like to thank the Greenbelt Foundation for sponsoring this project and all of the planners and elected officials who offered their insights in our initial study. If you are interested in participating in the next phase of this project exploring municipal capacity and agriculture across Ontario, please contact:
Regan Zink, B.E.S, RPP Candidate
Wayne Caldwell, PhD, RPP, FCIP

The views expressed in this blog post are those of the author(s), and may not reflect the position of the Ontario Professional Planners Institute.

Post by Wayne Caldwell, RPP, Elise Geschire, Emily Sousa & Regan Zink

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