Like so many issues around where we live, mention greenbelts and you are in for an argument. They are sacrosanct.
But there are both pros and cons for having them in subdivisions. Often it will depend on where you live - Calgary, Ottawa, another large city - but the arguments we hear today are all about the greenbelts in Whitehorse, so let’s address them.
Those who were here in the ‘20s, ‘30s and ‘40s would remember the free running Yukon River, the Whitehorse Rapids, Miles Canyon, 15 metres lower than it is today, and the White Pass Docks, which were the city’s centre of commerce.
In the late ‘40s and early ‘50s when I was going to school, we lived downtown on Jarvis Street. A three-block walk north on Fourth Avenue took my dog and me into a wonderful marsh, full of little black spruce islands which ducks, muskrats and beaver called home.
Walmart and other stores now occupy that space.
In 1960, my husband and I bought a lot in the first residential subdivision to be developed in Whitehorse Ã Riverdale.
There were a few federal and two or three private homes that year. Whitehorse boundaries had just expanded from the downtown core to take in Riverdale and the new hospital site.
Teslin Road joined Lewes Boulevard and Alsek to enclose a nice, neat little community. Farther to the east, near where Klondike Road and Liard are today, the new Whitehorse Cemetery was established. We were on Takhini and could ski or bike from our front door. The rest of the area was filled with old wood trails from the steamboat days. There were little springs and ponds: an idyllic greenspace getaway. Maybe this is where your home is today. So it goes Ã we grow, people come and things change.
Whitehorse expanded its boundaries in the early ‘70s to take in the entire valley from mountain top to mountain top Ã a very large area and, at the time, the third largest city in Canada.
But for all its size, finding areas to develop fully serviced residential lots was and still is a challenge. We are on an old lakebed, heavy with unstable silts, little glacier kettle lakes and large boulder fields left by our geological history.
Follow our water and sewer system today and you will be amazed at how well travelled it is just to serve our present needs.
Our Riverdale sewage crosses the Yukon River twice.
But back to our greenbelts of 2010, why we want them, the purpose they serve and the best uses for them.
The pluses are really more imaginary than real. They do give separation from one’s neighbour; it looks good in the ads to sell your home; you can attract more wildlife Ã birds, fox, coyote, maybe even the odd moose, bear, lynx or wolf. But other than the birds, it is not a healthy situation for the others. It’s a great place for a walk with the dog, but 60 per cent of those walkers do not pick up what is left behind and the next person (or school group) is walking in more than sweet smelling pine needles.
Whitehorse greenspaces have many functions: good for extending backyards, piling garden waste, storing seasonal toys and access corridors for motorized recreation vehicles. Properties backing on to, or adjacent to, greenbelts are more prone to vandalism and break-ins. But the greatest hazard is forest fire.
Many greenbelts are not well maintained and there is an abundance of dead and fallen trees, dry underbrush and grass.
Who should do this maintenance? The adjacent property owners or city parks at taxpayers’ expense?
Whitehorse is in a very large boreal pine-spruce valley, the floor of which is heavily fuelled with duff and blowdowns.
This valley has burned before, it will again, and we should do everything we can to Firesmart all developed areas. With the right winds, fires will travel 45 kilometres an hour and greenbelts provide excellent linking fuel sources to carry a fire through a city. In fact, all standing coniferous trees will do this.
We are living in the largest “wild”, unspoiled greenspace in the world, Yukon. Fifteen minutes in any directions and you can be surrounded by silence and natural beauty. It is important to protect drainage systems, i.e. McIntyre Creek and others, with reasonable buffers. It is important to keep playgrounds and outdoor hockey rinks in our subdivision; but it is equally important to do as much ‘infill’ as we can on the greenspace areas in subdivisions to maximize our existing utility systems and protect against urban sprawl into what is now wilderness, with the related costs and taxes for all of us. If we are serious about our environmental footprint, we know the right thing to do is utilize all suitable building areas.
If we want the great outdoors in our backyard, then look at country residential. If we have lots of “toys” and need storage parking, then use commercial storage. Every time we have a big serviced residential lot all our taxes are affected.
I had the privilege to chair the development of our first Whitehorse zoning bylaw back in 1973. The new OCP has moved us light years forward from then. With its provision for 58 per cent greenspace, this is more than reasonable.
As a taxpayer I fully support infill with smaller and more affordable lots. It makes good economic sense and good environmental sense. Being a “green city” is a lot more than just having a few scraggly pines outside our back door.