Environmentally Sensitive Landscapes (ESLs)

In 2007, the Region of Waterloo created a ground-breaking policy and planning framework to protect more than 15,000 hectares of environmentally sensitive lands. The Environmentally Sensitive Landscapes (ESLs) framework is the first of its kind in Ontario and one of the first in Canada. It will protect significant ecological systems - not just individual environmental features.

Laurel Creek Headwaters ESL Case Study

The Region of Waterloo is undertaking a case study to look at how best to balance transportation needs and environmental considerations in the Laurel Creek Headwaters ESL.

Final Report

For the full report, please contact Tim Van Hinte, Principal Planner at or 519-575-4500 x 3649.

What is an ESL?

ESLs are areas in Waterloo Region that have significant environmental features, such as wetlands, rivers and creeks, groundwater recharge areas and the habitat of endangered and threatened species. They also include farms, villages, small towns and outdoor recreation areas.


So far, four ESLs have been designated:

  • The Laurel Creek Headwaters ESL links several important natural habitats and landforms on the Waterloo Moraine, while the Blair-Bechtel-Cruickston ESL encompasses the juncture of the Grand River and the Speed River. Together, these 3,456 hectares are home to provincially significant wetlands and a wide variety of wildlife, birds, amphibians, rare plants and species at risk.
  • The Beverly ESL and North Dumfries Carolinian ESL are made up of 11, 918 hectares of sensitive lands in North Dumfries Township and the City of Cambridge. These two areas contain the northern fringe of the Carolinian Forest Zone, Ontario's most threatened ecological area.


How are they being protected?

The Regional Official Plan has special policies for ESLs to make sure the land uses and activities in these areas won't damage the environment. The policies will also help preserve the unique rural features of these areas by limiting the type and amount of development that is allowed.


How can the public get involved?

The policies in the Regional Official Plan are also designed to encourage stewardship of ESL lands. Things like new tax assessment practices are being considered, and technical assistance and financial incentive and recognition programs are being offered to make it easier for landowners, as well as volunteers and community organizations, to protect and enhance property or environmental features within an ESL.


An implementation plan will be developed for each ESL with help from the community. The Laurel Creek Headwaters ESL Public Liaison Committee has been set up with members who are private property owners in ESLs, as well as other people with interest and expertise in land stewardship. This committee will serve as a model for future ESL Public Liaison Committees by:

  • Developing tools to enhance natural features and connections;
  • Promoting responsible land stewardship;
  • Assessing possible impacts of activities such as recreational use water extraction proposals;
  • Exploring options to acquire conservation lands;
  • Addressing relevant concerns of residents and property owners within the ESL; and
  • Investigating opportunities to provide incentives and recognition for good land stewardship.


What is an Environmentally Sensitive Policy Area (ESPA)?

An Environmentally Sensitive Landscape refers to a large area that contains several significant environmental features. An ESPA is a designation under the Regional Official Plan that may be given to one of these features within an ESL in order to protect it. An ESPA designation places restrictions on the activities or development that are allowed within or near the designated ESPA. For a list of ESPAs in the Region, click here.


For more information

ESLs and ESPAS are part of the Region's Greenlands Network. For more information on the Greenlands Network, check out Chapter 7 of the ROP.

Chris Gosselin, Manager of Environmental Planning

Email Chris Gosselin

Phone: 519-575-4501