Change in Ontario Planning Regulations Could Kill Millions of Birds Along the Atlantic Flyway

How a change in one Canadian province affects the entire hemisphere.

Birds in New York
Birds found near the World Trade Center in New York City on October 23, 2022.

Melissa Breyer

The government of Ontario, Canada introduced Bill 23 (“More Homes Built Faster Act”) to remove restrictions that they claim are driving up the cost of housing and slowing construction. There are many parts of the act that are causing shock and horror among environmentalists and urbanists in Ontario, but there are some that have a much wider reach than just the province.

One of the major features of the act is to remove the authority of municipalities to develop their own green standards that differ from the provincial standards. When questioned, the office of the Housing Ministry told The Star that “if municipalities create their own standards, this patchwork of energy efficiency and other requirements reduces consistency and erodes affordability.”


U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

One of those municipal standards that are threatened is Toronto's Bird Friendly Guidelines. Toronto and the land around it are smack in the middle of the Atlantic Flyway, a major migration route running from the Arctic to South America, with many of them flying over New York City.

Melissa Breyer, Treehugger's editorial director, volunteers with New York City Audubon’s Project Safe Flight program and explains what happens when birds meet unfriendly buildings:

“The birds don’t really know to steer clear of New York because they’ve been doing this forever,” Breyer says. “They get drawn in by the light or buildings that are illuminated. And then they can either get disoriented and crash into buildings at night. Or they will find a green space—a little park or a tree—and then when they wake up to go forage, they’ll crash into the glass. They either don’t see the glass or they see the reflection of greenery or sky.”

Brendon Samuels and Lester the Parrot
Brendon Samuels and Lester the Parrot.

Brendon Samuels

Many of those birds got there via Ontario. To get more information about how the changes in the legislation might affect birds, Breyer pointed me to Brendon Samuels, a Ph.D. candidate in Biology at Western University doing research about developing strategies for preventing birds from colliding with windows on buildings. He works for FLAP Canada and is the chair of the City of London, Ontario advisory committee on environmental stewardship and action that consults with the local government about development and climate change plans.

Brendon Samuels

The international consequences of this move will be widespread and tragic.

"Each year, billions of birds are killed all over the world by colliding with windows on buildings. Collisions with buildings are one of the most severe ways that humans are impacting declining bird populations," says Samuels. "Usually, collisions happen because birds mistake a reflection on glass for an extension of open space or habitat, or they fail to detect glass that’s transparent, like on a railing or bus shelter. The solutions for this problem include adding visual markers on the outside of the glass, such as patterns or less reflective glazing that birds will visually detect and avoid. Birds are most likely to be killed during their migrations, as they travel vast distances across international borders and stop over at various points along the way."

"We know how to construct new buildings to be safe for birds, but in general, it is left up to governments to implement through development approvals," he adds. "Toronto was the first municipality in the world to adopt a bird-friendly building design guideline as part of the Toronto Green Standard back in 2007, in effect requiring that new buildings subject to municipal site plan control had to be designed using materials (i.e., glass with visual markers) that reduce the risk of bird-window collisions. Since then, over a dozen other municipalities in Ontario have adopted similar measures, and there is growing interest. This initiative in Toronto and elsewhere has been highly successful and has led to the proliferation of bird-friendly building design practices across North America."

Samuels says the new bill strips municipalities of their authority to demand bird-friendly design. "Under changes buried in Bill 23, in the midst of the transition to newly-elected municipal governments, the Ontario provincial government is proposing to take away the authority of municipalities to implement green standards in new site plan approval," he says. "In addition to throwing a wrench in municipal efforts to build more sustainably in anticipation of climate change conditions, it also means that municipalities can no longer require bird-friendly building design through site plan control."

He adds: "The international consequences of this move will be widespread and tragic, but difficult to measure. Migratory birds that are preventably killed in Ontario in spring and fall each year will never make it to their overwintering grounds in the United States, Central America, and South America. All the biodiversity services and all the cultural roles that those birds would serve throughout their geographic range will be eliminated. Where Ontario was once a global leader in bird conservation, we are now seeing environmental protections rolled back in service of private developer interests who regard bird-friendly measures as unnecessary red tape."

black dots
Bird-Friendly windows at the Toronto Metropolitan University.

Lloyd Alter

Others have noted the bill will have a significant effect on conservation lands and wetland habitats. Phil Pothen of Environmental Defence, a Canadian environmental advocacy organization, writes: "The result will be a massive gap in Ontario’s system for protecting public safety and ecosystems, and ultimately, the unleashing of bulldozers and backhoes on cumulatively vast areas of wetland, forest and other sensitive areas currently off-limits for development."

Brandon Samuels

Habitat loss is the single greatest cause of biodiversity decline in the world.

Samuels says the legislation is marketed as a solution for affordable housing, but it's complicated. "The discussion to be had about proposed regulatory changes surrounding conservation authorities, wetlands, and development planning is a complicated one," he says. "To really understand what’s being proposed and the long-term implications require a base familiarity with how planning and environmental law are practiced in Ontario. Most of the public does not have this background knowledge and frankly isn’t interested to learn; this is precisely why the province has been able to market this successfully as being in the interest of building more affordable housing quickly. In truth, Bill 23 does not address the systemic causes of affordable housing being in short supply."

Another element being overlooked, says Samuels, is flood risk. "The proposed changes will facilitate the construction of new subdivisions proceeding in places that should not really be developed, at least according to the current legal and scientific framework, out of consideration for impacts to existing natural heritage like wetlands and forests, and also considering elevated flood risk under climate change conditions," he says. "Another relevant aspect is that Ontario has not updated most of its floodplain mapping in about 40 years, and the way we are building now doesn’t factor in what flooding conditions will look like in the coming decades. So, in the long run, the housing that is happening now will end up being quite a bit more expensive to municipalities, the province, and homeowners left to cover the costs of disaster mitigation."

"Meanwhile, conservation authorities are being restricted in the services and information they are allowed to provide to municipalities as development applications are reviewed. In larger cities, nowadays there are usually staff ecologists that can support these reviews internally. But in smaller municipalities, the government critically depends on regional conservation authorities to scrutinize the anticipated environmental consequences of new development and provide recommendations for mitigation. Conservation authorities will no longer be able to provide that kind of advice, so smaller municipalities will be making less-informed decisions. Sadly, it is often the smaller municipalities that have the most remaining natural and agricultural land left to lose."

Samuels says the big picture problem is the hit to biodiversity courtesy of habitat loss:

"Habitat loss is the single greatest cause of biodiversity decline in the world. Southern Ontario, a region facing the highest development pressure in the country, is also home to the most native biodiversity of anywhere in Canada. In Ontario, there are natural heritage features—wetlands, forests, and other natural habitats that are legally protected because of their designation as 'provincially significant.' There is also an extensive natural heritage that is not designated and is generally less protected despite still being important. Part of what conservation authorities offer municipalities is that they look at how local impacts on natural heritage caused by development could impact the entire system, like contaminating the watershed or eliminating rare habitats for species at risk."

The damage, says Samuels, would be significant. "Now, under changes proposed to how these natural heritage features are to be evaluated by the province, in many cases it would become permissible for developers to 'offset' or compensate for the clearing of habitats to make room for new buildings, roads, etc. by paying into a fund that would somehow go towards creating new habitat elsewhere," he says. "But anyone who has ever visited an older forest or wetland in Ontario should appreciate that these are not ecosystems we can just fabricate instantly from money, and the loss of existing ecosystems and their functions within the surrounding landscape would be impossible to make up elsewhere."

This is, as Samuels notes, an issue of international consequence and relevance. The Toronto bird-friendly standard was a model for the world; the wetlands are a waystation on the Atlantic Flyway. People in Ontario are justifiably outraged, but bird lovers from across the western hemisphere should be too and should let Premier Doug Ford and the government of Ontario know it.