Jacques Gréber: “What is a City Green Belt?” (1952)

You’ve likely seen it: Yousuf Karsh’s well-known portrait of Jacques Gréber. Image: Yousuf Karsh / Library and Archives Canada, Acc. 1987-054 NPC, Item e008293327.

The so-called “Green Belt” was, at its inception, incredibly contentious. Even today, Ottawa’s greenbelt is not free from controversy or conflict and those elsewhere in Ontario can be even more of a lightning rod.

“National Capital Region – Proposals” (1950). The proposed version of the green belt is depicted in pistachio. Source: Plan for the National Capital (1950), Plate 8.

In spite of all of the controversy, it has been pretty rare to hear – at least historically speaking – from chief capital planner Jacques Gréber himself on the matter. This memo, dated June 1952, was located in a Federal District Commission file at Library and Archives Canada.

June 1952

WHAT IS A CITY GREEN BELT?

  It is a worldwide fact that modern cities have in common their very worst defect: their suburbs. A few exceptions however give the proof that such evil could be avoided through appropriate foresight. 

  The western approach to Philadelphia, or to Berlin, the northern development of the greater London; le Vezinet or Chatenay Malabry near Paris, residential sections between Lille, Roubaix and Tourcoing in France; the residential outskirts of Zurich in Switzerland, or of the larger Dutch towns, are examples of intelligent planning, and are the ideal transition from the sense urban area gradually blending into the country land; but as a rule, an uneconomical and social disorder encircles and dishonours the proudest cities, old and new.

  Speculation and neglect, selfishness and unwise profiteering are responsible for such menace of human decay. One blames the size of the city, but this is a poor excuse, when one thinks that the largest cities of the world, New York, London and Paris show, unfortunately to much too small extent, that the remedy rests in good and sound planning. 

  The multiple advantages of previous planning and of zoning of every human agglomeration have become too obvious to be stressed again. In spite of long ignorance and stubborn resistance against the elementary measures of protection of community interests, the principle of zoning, of organizing the occupied territories according to the normal use of the land, is now accepted and established as the basic element of urban progress.

- 2 -

  But here comes the difficult problem: where does the city stop, where does the country commence? The old walled-in towns had the answer, but still they had to protect themselves, but Royal Edicts, against mushroom aggregations of suburban outgrowths as detrimental to the proper defences of those cities. Now walls had to be built, enclosing such suburbs, at repeated periods. 

  Then the railroads came, and encircled the city, while its constant outgrowth brought the urban limit far beyond the former railroad belts. Ottawa is the most striking example of such disorder, as also is Montreal or Detroit. 

  All the world over, the waste of time, money and energy, as the result of such lack of foresight, is impossible to estimate. 

  The only remedy was found in the careful survey of demographic and economic needs, which lead to the establishment of an optimum growth of every city, calling for a generous and sometimes flexible perimeter of urban development, embodying the overall coordinated expression of all its contained areas, and all the activities of urban character, disregarding the political limits of the municipal territory, either smaller or greater than the estimated needs of final extension. This logical procedure leads to regional planning, involving in certain cases, slight or large revisions of its contained municipal limits, and suppression, outside the urban area, abnormal and unjust developments, having the sole but questionable merit of temporary tax economies. 

  The city of the present, not speaking of its further rehabilitation in later periods, takes a more physiological form; it becomes a stable, although flexible body, composed of interdependent cells, whose life is precisely governed by adequate zoning: industrial, commercial, residential, rural. 

- 3 -

  Then was born the so-called "Green Belt". A fallacious name, source of serious misunderstandings, except perhaps to the British mind, always open to welcome the benefits of nature, and to listen to the providential exhortations of Ebenezer Howard. But still, the "green belt" appears to many of its opponents as a sort of "no man's land", a capital loss, artificially imposed by irresponsible planners and impractical dreamers. Nothing is more contrary either to the facts or to their effective scope. 

  The "green belt" should really be called: 

  Rural zone contiguous to urban areas. 

  In fact, it is a part of the rural area, but due to the physical position of its territory, in direct contact with the outer zones of the urban body, it needs particular care to ensure its becoming the natural and harmonious link between town and country. It is so obviously a fact, not a dream, not an opinion, that the strongest arguments, the most powerful resistance cannot defeat such natural tendency; should they delay its development, the community would simply have to pay a higher price to force it, plus the waste of eliminating the blight. 

  We all know the harm done, by haphazard ribbon developments along the main highways, to the land valuation and to the comfort and the daily movements of the whole community. It is proved that traffic, interurban and even local, is greatly hampered by the irrational and disgraceful treatment of the congested suburban approaches. The zone in direct contact with the urban and rural zones, sentimentally called "green belt", is the answer to that challenge. 

  Today, the rural zone, which may also include forest and mountain scenery, is accepted with unanimous consent, for obvious reasons, including that of the 

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impossibility of the farmers being tempted to transform it in a built-up area. It must therefore be protected, maintained and equipped for its function, with reciprocal profit to the townsman and the farmer. There is no other way of insuring such protection, for both, than the existence of a specially organized part of the rural area, such as the "green belt" zone. 

  Far from being "a no man's land", and to fulfill its function of natural link, its characteristics are the following:

1 - In common with the rural zone, it is essentially devoted to agricultural life, including, as nature of the soil may permit, market gardening (fresh food for the city), farms, and dwellings for agricultural labor, even industries specialized in the transformation, canning, and treating of rural products, which establishments and buildings are consequently permitted in that zone.
Also, like in the rural zone, large estates, on suitable sites, may be established, with residences and their commons, annexes and services. As utilities for rural uses are only available in such zone, the proper additional equipment should be at the expense of the land owners. No urban subdivisions should be permitted, in order to keep the rural character of the whole area.

2 - Owing to the proximity of the urban development, construction in that zone should be recommended, for large public institutions particularly suitable to natural and widely open settings, and also favourable located out of the densely inhabited areas, such as hospitals, colleges, offices for vital governmental departments, sport and recreation centres, country

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clubs, etc. All being at short distance from the fringe of the urban area, would form, within their frame of agricultural activities, an ideal transition between town and country.

  Beside, as may be seen on the master plan for the National Capital Region, this outer green belt would be directly continued throughout the entire urban extension of the present city, by a system of intercommunicating inner green belts, all being subject to similar possibilities as those of the outer one.

  By such system of open spaces, not entirely devoted to park purposes, but particularly reserved for future public institutions, (educational, cultural, administrative, recreational or sanitary), the various new communities and neighbourhoods included within the limits of the urban area would not form a compact human settlement around the densely occupied central area, which likewise would gradually be renovated along the same principle of the open plan, intended, wherever possible, to replace the monotonous rectangular block subdivisions. But ultimately, the entire urban area would become an homogenous group of communities of various natures, functions and densities, independent but co-ordinated.

  It is then easy to realize that the so-called "green belt" is not a heavy and costly burden to the city, arbitrarily encircling it and depriving it of any relation to the outside region, but, on the contrary, all linked to each other by local green belts, especially reserved on grounds recognized as improper to housing developments.

  Thus, the whole green belt system, including the wide outer frame and its smaller inner branches, is the

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essential background for the ultimate layout of the entire compound of the city, linked and associated with its natural setting.

  Far from being an artificial element of isolation of the city from the country, the green belt, with all the facilities given to its normal and functional use, is a vital and efficient factor of mutual protection of both communities, urban and rural, and of enhancement of their real estate values.

Jacques Gréber,
Consultant to the 
National Capital
Planning Committee.

June 1952.1LAC RG 34 Vol. 294 File 219 - C(1)

Gréber’s primer on just what a green belt was, was affixed to a small chain of correspondence between D.B. Mansur, President of the Central Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC) and Major-General Howard Kennedy, Chairman of the Federal District Commission (FDC; or since 1959, National Capital Commission). The chain, which began with a letter from Mansur to Kennedy dated April 9, 1954, is transcribed below.

C O P Y

CENTRAL MORTGAGE AND HOUSING CORPORATION

Ottawa, Canada,

9th April 1954

Major-General Howard Kennedy,
Chairman, Federal District Commission,
291 Carling Avenue,
Ottawa, Ontario.

Dear General Kennedy,

  The protection of open land designated in the National Capital plan as a green belt has been a problem for the last few years. To the extent that a small part of this land lies within the boundaries of the City of Ottawa, the City takes steps to prevent intensive development. However, the majority of the land is in the two townships and I can quite understand their unwillingness to take steps to prevent farmers from selling land for residential use at a profit.

  In the meantime I understand that those responsible for the National Capital Plan and interested in preserving the green belt, have been attempting to persuade the townships to assist in limiting intensive development.

  In the hope that this persuasion might be successful, this Corporation, for the last year, has refused to approve National Housing Act loans involving high density in the so-called green belt area. The rationale of our so doing is that should means be found in the near future for the proper enforcement of low density in the green belt area, then any sub-division in the green belt area would be isolated in character and therefore an unsatisfactory credit risk. I must say that I am not too impressed with this agreement. Nor do I believe that the townships can be persuaded to keep the land vacant by municipal action.

  Our present policy is that the applicant is told, unless he is already a resident of the so-called green belt area, that a National Housing Act loan will only be approved if the lot is at least 150 feet in width, along with a presently travelled road, not less than one acre in area, and that the house must be placed centrally on the lot, at least fifty feet back from the road. During 1953 we made six National Housing Act loans, all of which met these requirements. There were another 184 houses started, many of which did not meet these requirements.


Major General Howard Kennedy     - 2 -            9th April 1954

  This has the effect of refusing loans for residential sub-divisions. It may be good planning but it is very unfair to owners of land in the so-called green belt area - to an extent that I have doubts whether it should or can be maintained through the building year 1954 without some positive action being taken by those who wish to preserve the so-called green belt.

  There are a number of things about this green belt that I do not understand. A green belt in the town planning sense is vacant land, or land of low density, to prevent one municipality spreading into the outer fringe of another municipality. Such protection does not result from Ottawa spreading into Bells Corners and Orleans, other than the problem of financing municipal services.

  The idea may be that Ottawa should be limited in size to about half a million people. If so, the inside perimeter of the green belt presently designated might more properly be called the outside perimeter of urban development. Under these circumstances however, the presently accepted boundaries of the green belt are difficult to understand. A case in point is the location of the so-called green belt in the vicinity of Bowesville Road.

  I realize that although I may not understnad what this green belt is all about, it is not my job to question its desirability. What I am really concerned about are the artificial restrictions now being imposed upon the legitimate residential development in this area of low density, without any basis of authority for so doing. If the Government would state a policy of not wanting National Housing Act loans to be made within the so-called greenbelt, then my difficulty would be resolved. Even the present condition would be easier to maintain if we could see some useful purpose being served. Where the townships can supply satisfactory municipal services there are many areas within the present so-called green belt where I believe satisfactory residential construction could take place.

  I think that the desirability of attempting to maintain a green belt in its present designated location and the manner in which the equities of individuals owning land in the green belt are treated, are matters which should have immediate attention. In the meantime we will maintain present policy, but I would like to talk with you about it in the near future.

Yours sincerely,

(sgd) D.B. Mansur

President.2LAC RG 34 Vol. 294 File 219 - C(1)

To which Major-General Howard Kennedy replied nearly three weeks later,

COPY

FEDERAL DISTRICT COMMISSION

File No. 211-0-2

April 27, 1954


D.B. Mansur,
President,
Central Mortgage and Housing Corporation,
Ottawa, Ontario

                        Re: The Greenbelt for the National
Dear Mr. Mansur:            Capital and its Maintenance   

  Your letter of the 9th instant with reference to the above was brought to the attention of the Federal District Commission at the regular meeting held on the 21st instant and it called forth considerable discussion.

  The Commission appreciates very much what the Central Mortgage and Housing Corporation has been doing in the last year or so in endeavouring to protect the greenbelt areas by restricting housing loans therein. Your concern is noted of artificial restrictions being imposed on legitimate residential development in this area without any basis of authority for such steps as it also your view that your difficulty would be resolved if the Government would state a policy of not wanting National Housing Act loans to be made in the so-called greenbelt.

  All agree that the maintenance of the greenbelt affecting municipalities other than the City of Ottawa alone will be difficult, but notwithstanding the Commission considers that the National Capital and its development under the Master Plan should be protected by some form of greenbelt.

  The Federal Government through the Federal District Commission is subsidizing the construction of certain principal sewers and water facilities in the City of Ottawa under the so-called Accelleration [sic] Formula. You will appreciate that by the delimitation of the ultimate area of City growth, the size of the trunk sewer and water mains over their whole length has contributed to, are of the proper size. If intensive and unserviced growth is permitted beyond the City's boundaries, it is not unreasonable to expect that such areas will become a health menace to the community as a whole that the City might be forced to annex such areas. Should such areas be annexed, the newly laid sewers and water mains will become inadequate and will have to be replaced or duplicated. In that event, the Federal Government will not only have made a poor investment in its grant for the construction of such services, but a recent full-fledged taxpayer of the City will find itself paying higher and higher taxes rather than reaping the benefit of its contributions to the City's farsighted policy of sewer and water extensions.


Mr. D.B. Mansur
  - Page 2.

  Accordingly, the Commission feels that the protection of the greenbelt is a meter of considerable concern to the Federal Government and decided to bring the matter to the attention of the Prime Minister requesting that steps be taken, as you suggest, preventing loans under the National Housing Act within the greenbelt of the National Capital.

  Until the Government has an opportunity of giving its decision, we would ask you to kindly continue with your present policy in this connection. 

  Complementary thereto, the Commission decided to approach the Province of Ontario requesting it, under the authority of its "Planning Act 1947", to refuse land subdivisions within the greenbelt areas of the Ottawa Planning Area, when such subdivisions supply services and schooling of lesser standard than these suppled within the boundaries of the "designated" municipality. 


Yours truly,


Howard Kennedy.3LAC RG 34 Vol. 294 File 219 - C(1)

Mansur and Kennedy would not see entirely eye-to-eye on the matter.

Copy

CENTRAL MORTGAGE AND HOUSING CORPORATION

Ottawa, Canada

7th May 1954


Major-General Howard Kennedy,
Chairman,
Federal District Commission,
Ottawa, Ontario,

Dear General Kennedy:

  I have your letter of April 27th, and in accordance with your request we are prepared to continue our present policy until July 1st, 1954. I do hope that by then the difficulties will have been resolved. Although a most pressing problem is authorisation from the Government for maintaining a lending policy with artificial restrictions, I realise that the trouble is full of complications. 

  In my opinion one of the main reasons for pressure for residential development in the so-called green belt is the unwillingness or inability of the City of Ottawa to provide adequate residential services for land on the fringe areas of existing urban development. I can think of no better case that the East end of Ottawa, where there is plenty of unserviced land within the boundaries of the City, not more than three to four miles from the Parliament buildings, which remained unserviced while we are resisting urbanisation in the so-called green belt area directly East of the City. I suggest to you that many of the pressures for urban development in the green belt area would disappear is some way could be found to provide an adequate supply of serviced land within the City. 

  Furthermore, the general impression that there has been unusually large residential development in the City of Ottawa during recent years is quite incorrect. Largely as a result of the condition I have already mentioned, the rate of residential construction in Ottawa has been below the national average. 

  I think that this condition should be borne in mind under the so-called acceleration formula. I can think of no greater assistance that could be rendered the reduction of urbanisation in the green belt area, than the installation of trunk water and sewer services in the East of Alta Vista and into the area lying between Carling Avenue and Base Line Road.

  I noted with interest the decision of the Commission to request  the Province of Ontario to refuse land sub-divisions within the green belt areas of the Ottawa Planning Area. I would guess that the Minister of Planning and Development would seek a recommendation from the Ottawa Planning Area Board. I happen to be one of the members of that Board. If the matter comes before the Board I will oppose such a recommendation until there are adequate assurances from the City of Ottawa that positive steps are being taken to provide municipal services for land sufficient to meet residential requirements. This is not presently the case and I will not be a party to stopping legitimate residential growth in the townships if facilities for such residential growth are not available within the City of Ottawa.

....2


Major-General H. Kennedy           - 2 -          7th May 1954


  From the foregoing you will gather than I am not entirely in sympathy with certain steps now being taken. The lending activities of Central Mortgage under direction from the Government are one thing, but my views as a member of the Ottawa Planning Area Board and as an individual interested in the proper development of Ottawa are quite another. My trouble is that I just do not believe in the National Capital Plan as it relates to residential needs in Ottawa.


Yours sincerely,

(sgd) D.B. Mansur,
      President.4LAC RG 34 Vol. 294 File 219 - C(1)

Kennedy and the Federal District Commission decided that they would stand their ground.

Federal District Commission

File No. 211-0-2

May 21, 1954


Mr. D.B. Mansur,
President,
Central Mortgage and Housing Corporation,
Ottawa, Ontario.

Dear Mr. Mansur        Re: Greenbelt for the National Capital
                           and its control                   

  I am in receipt of your letter of the 7th instant in reply to my letter of the 27th ultimo regarding the above matter, and wish to thank you for arranging to continue your present policy of restricting loans under the National Housing Act within the Greenbelt until July 1st, 1954. By that time the matter should have been fully dealt with by the Government.

  Your letter of the 7th instant was brought to the attention of the Federal District Commission as its well-attended meeting on the 17th instant. It was observed because of points mentioned by you that you are not fully in sympathy with the Commission's position as set forth in my letter of the 27th ultimo.

  After full discussion the Commission considered that the decision regarding greenbelt matters taken at the April meeting, and as outlined in my letter to you of April 27th last, was sound, and affirmed it.

Yours very truly,


Howard Kennedy


MRC:sja5LAC RG 34 Vol. 294 File 219 - C(1)

The above-transcribed short chain was included as part of a package sent by officials at the Federal District Commission to the Privy Council. It was accompanied by a lengthy memorandum and selected primary source documents, such as the 1947 Report of the Ottawa Planning Area Board, a copy of the Planning Act (Ontario), 1950, and as transcribed above, Gréber’s 1952 memo on greenbelts.

Notes   [ + ]

1. LAC RG 34 Vol. 294 File 219 - C(1)
2. LAC RG 34 Vol. 294 File 219 - C(1)
3. LAC RG 34 Vol. 294 File 219 - C(1)
4. LAC RG 34 Vol. 294 File 219 - C(1)
5. LAC RG 34 Vol. 294 File 219 - C(1)

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