Celebrating the rural-urban divide

Angie Koch is the manager of the Fertile Ground Farm near St. Agatha, scene of this year’s Hold the Line Festival. She sees the event as a great fit given the need to protect farmland in the region. [Faisal Ali / The Observer]

You don’t have to travel far from any of the region’s urban areas to take in the lush golden-green and earthen browns that are the land at this time of year.

Far from an accident, the region’s distinct rural-urban divide has been carefully protected at the municipal level over the years through what’s known as the “countryside line” – the invisible boundary that separates and protects the region’s farmland from its cityscapes.

It’s that obscure but important bit of land-use policy that the organizers of the second annual Hold the Line Festival, set for September 7-8, are hoping to celebrate and support.

“We think we’re one of the very few festivals out there that celebrate a rather arcane planning policy tool,” said Sean Campbell, one of the organizers.

Arcane though it may be, the countryside line, first enacted by the Region of Waterloo in 2003, acts to protect cultural, economic, and environmental heritage of rural lands from urban sprawl.

The boundary, which runs around the urban centres of Waterloo, Kitchener and Cambridge, as well as the separate, smaller settlement areas of Wellesley village and Elmira, indefinitely prohibits housing development from being pushed outwards into arable farmland. The line also protects the crucial water moraines that recharge the region’s aquifers, which account for 75 per cent of the local drinking water supply.

The big event of the festival will be the bike rides, which will take riders on a tour along the countryside line to see it in action.

“What it looks like on the Saturday is that we have two rides going out. We have a really long Kitchener, Waterloo, Cambridge line which goes 130 km, and it traces the full outline of the countryside line that goes around Kitchener, Waterloo and Cambridge,” explained Campbell.

“And for riders going on this ride, they’ll see development and the city on one side, and they’ll see natural ecosystems and farmland on their other side. And for them this is a really visual and tangible way that they can experience this important tool.”

A second shorter, more accessible bike ride will be held tracing the countryside line around the settlement of Wellesley – roughly a 35-km run, says Campbell.

“When the riders return, that’s when the festivities really start. So we have about seven or eight great bands this year, and we’ve taken a bit of a different approach by partnering with local art organizations like Neruda, which does the world music festival each year. And Sofar Sounds, which does pop-up events throughout the year.”

The festival itself is being held at the Fertile Ground Farm, a community supported agriculture business in St. Agatha.

Angie Koch, the farm’s manager, says she was glad to host the festival, with the themes of protecting farmland and connecting farmers and residents being so important to her and her mainstay.

“So much is about relationships,” she said. “And what I would hope is that an issue like protecting agricultural land, and sensitive landscape just outside of the city, would become more important to people if they would start to feel a relationship with that land, and the people who are producing food on it. So a festival like this provides a bit of an opportunity to make that real for people.”

There will be some high-class musical talent at the festival, including sitar-player Anwar Khurshid, whose music was featured in the Oscar-winning Life of Pi (2012). Also featured will be the Latin American styling’s of CASCABEL, the Onion Honey folk band and the Blue Sky Singers First Nations group.

The Hold the Line Festival kicks off with a pre-party on Friday (September 7) at 6 p.m., featuring some around the fire camp jams into the night.

On September 8, the bikers will take their marks at 8 a.m. for the larger route, and 11 a.m. for the shorter Wellesley ride. Back at camp, the day begins at 10 a.m. with songs and a sharing circle, and the music gets into full drive by 2 p.m.

The issue of the countryside line becomes even more important now, notes Koch, with the retirement of regional Chair Ken Seiling – who helped bring the Line to fruition – and a municipal election coming up. Just as the line was created by the municipal government, it could also be undone by future governments as well.

“And so it does seem like a particularly important time to be raising awareness of this line and making sure that people understand the value of it.”

More information is available at Hold the Line.

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