What local government should be asking for is resources to enable them to do better, long-term planning to ensure a sustainable future for their communities.
Driving home after a visit to Grasslands National Park in southwestern Saskatchewan this summer, I saw our rural landscape with new eyes.
After spending a few days in this 400-square-kilometre preserve of mixed-grass prairie uplands, the familiar cultivated fields, small towns and roadways seemed a dramatically altered, even artificial landscape.
It would be unrecognizable to the settlers and land speculators of the last century whose eyes beheld nothing but miles upon miles of open prairie.
How strange it would have seemed to them that within a century, we’d be scrambling to preserve a tiny fraction of what seemed so limitless.
Likewise, it’s hard for us today to grasp that Canada’s arable land is a finite resource – and disappearing.
A Statistics Canada study released in 2005 reported that, by 2001, almost half of all of urban Canada – that is, towns, villages and cities – had been built on land converted from dependable agricultural land.
Put another way, we’ve built over half of the best.
Worst examples of farmland losses are in places like the Lower Mainland of B. C., or Ontario’s Golden Horseshoe, but Manitoba has its own land losses to contemplate too.
Manitoba has lost between two and three per cent of all its Class 1, or prime agricultural land to urbanization since 1971. That may not sound like much until you consider that only about 13 per cent of this province’s entire land base has agricultural potential.
The provincial government has proposed changes to its Provincial Land Use Policies (PLUPs), that are an attempt to gradually halt this trend, or at least slow it down. The revisions to the PLUPs, which haven’t been revised since their development in the 1980s, ask local government to start planning for agriculture.
Basically, that means designating agriculture as a priority use for good farmland – and keeping it that way. Some municipalities already do this. But others tend to categorize agricultural land in their development plans as “rural area,” which is then “catch all” land that can be rezoned when golf courses, cottages, or residential development come along.
Some municipal lead-e rs hear the gate being slammed on rural growth in what the PLUPs propose. At the Association of Manitoba Municipalities’ (AMM) Western District meeting this past June, there was little debate and near unanimous support for a resolution asking the association to tell the province to go back to the drawing boards on the PLUPs and “revise the policies to lessen restrictions on rural municipalities and be accommodating to development in rural communities.”
That reflects a legitimate concern that land use policies shouldn’t make it even harder to attract people to live in rural areas. But it’s the wrong thing to request.
What local government should be asking for is for resources to enable them to do better, long-term planning to ensure a sustainable future for their communities.
Small and cash-strapped municipalities that can barely pay their road repair bills these days can scarcely afford to do the kinds of cost-benefit analysis and studies that in-depth, forward planning requires.
“There is a cost to doing this type of planning,” was one comment posted during consultations with local government leaders on the PLUP changes this spring. “Where will the extra dollars come from?” was another. “Requirements for preparing a plan are demanding and will need professional assistance… what resources are available and who will pay for them?” and “Is the province expecting municipalities to go out and hire experts to do these studies?”
The double-edged sword facing local government is that poor planning costs money too.
COST OF POOR PLANNING
Some types of development that seem an answer to mayors’ and councils’ prayers, need very careful evaluating.
Red Deer County, the 13th largest municipality in Alberta, took a hard look at the long-term costs versus benefits for various kinds of development in their Cost of Community Servicing Study, done in partnership with the Alberta Real Estate Foundation and the Miistakis Institute. Some surprising findings emerged. It showed that residential development would actually cost the county more than the revenues it would generate, and ultimately would be a fiscal drain on their budgets. Industrial land uses, on the other hand, showed to be a boon, while commercial and working landscapes (agriculture) a break-even.
It’s worth noting that the intent of Manitoba’s proposed changes to land use policies, is not to restrict rural development.
“We’re not saying only agriculture can occur in rural areas,” says Sheri Grift, a land use specialist with Manitoba Agriculture, Food and Rural Initiatives who was part of an intergovernmental team that reviewed the PLUPs. “What we’re saying is that all uses should be appropriately planned and designated for. Ideally, you’ll designate an agricultural area, a rural residential, and a commercial area.”
Good planning that ensures we will have vibrant communities, healthy rural economies and a good supply of dependable farmland will only happen if local government, on whom land use planning decisions ultimately rest, has capacity to do it.