For years, I’ve argued that urban sprawl is the source of a long list of serious urban social, economic and environmental problems. In recent years, I’m finding that more and more people agree with that line of argument. Today when they disagree, the disagreement, as often as not, takes the form, either of allegations that government policy favours cities over rural areas, or of hymns of praise to the virtues of rural life.
The impression I leave, apparently, is that, because I oppose sprawl, I am pro-urban and anti-rural. Not only is that impression mistaken, the whole idea that there is an irreconcilable conflict of interest between cities and the countryside is a major source of bad public policy.

The reality is that sprawl is potentially as harmful to commercial agriculture as it is to cities. The problem begins with the fact that a very substantial proportion of Canada’s best agricultural land is located near cities, and that, conversely, urban development often takes place on prime farmland. But here’s a bigger problem yet: You don’t have to pave over farmland to erode its viability. All a rural municipality has to do to undermine commercial agriculture is be open-hearted in allowing farmers to sell out some tracts of land for residential development
Disillusioned urbanites move out of the city because they think they prefer the bucolic charms of the countryside – until they notice how it smells. A substantial scholarly literature cites a variety of ways that residential development in farming areas damages the viability of agriculture:
• Complaints from residents not only about smells, but also about heavy machinery on roads and other perceived nuisances resulting from agriculture.
• Residential activities that interfere with farming operations such as commuter traffic and harassment of farm animals by pets.
• Most significantly in the long run, escalation of land prices that inflate the cost of farming.
Environmental implications of such development are even more disturbing, as we can see from the typical example of the Municipality of Springfield, immediately east of Winnipeg. Springfield is allowing widely-scattered residential development, and most of it is in one of the municipality’s prime agricultural areas and in an area where the municipality’s major resource of ground water is located. All the residential development on top of the prime water resource relies on septic tanks for sewage disposal, which invariably poses a greater risk to ground water than a community sewage system.
Two urban communities in the middle of the prime agricultural area, Oakbank and Dugald, have been provided with the services required for higher concentrations of urban development. The Springfield official plan itself stated in 1998 that the growth potential of livestock husbandry had already then been limited by past residential development, but the municipality was and is determined promote further residential development, even though it remains primarily an agricultural area and will certainly not rely primarily on urban development for its economic viability in the foreseeable future.
This is not an unusual situation. It is typical. It has been a political issue in the United States for decades, but has received much less attention in Canada. It ought to be a greater concern in Canada, because we have less high-potential agricultural land and a greater percentage of it is threatened by urban develiopment. Canada’s situation has been likened to having the population growth of Florida located in the heart of the U.S. cornbelt.
In other words, the sprawl issue is not about decadent urbanites wishing to deny solid citizens the spiritual and physical health benefits they will supposedly gain from fresh country air. It’s about viable commercial agriculture and clean air, water and soil – as well as the social health and financial viability of cities. This is only one more reason why, instead of viewing the sprawl issue as a clash between urbanites and people who don’t like cities, we all need to recognize the importance of sensible land use control measures.
Medieval cities were walled, not only for self-defence, but also because cities work better when they are contained. We will not wish to go back to building walls around our cities, but the sooner we give up on the illusion that it’s possible, at one and the same time, to enjoy the benefits of both rural and urban life, the sooner we will stop laying waste to cities, the countryside and the environment.
Documentation of the points I’ve made, and much more, can be found in:
Ralph E. Heimlich and Kenneth S. Krupa. 1994. Changes in land quality accompanying urbanization in U.S. fast-growth counties. Journal of Soil and Water Conservation, 49(4) 367-374.
Christopher Leo, with Mary Ann Beavis, Andrew Carver and Robyne Turner. “Is urban sprawl back on the political agenda? Local growth control, regional growth management and politics.” Urban Affairs Review, 34 (2) 1998, 179-212.
Christopher Leo. 2002. “Urban development: Planning aspirations and political realities.” In Edmund P. Fowler and David Siegel, eds., Urban Policy Issues (second edition.) Toronto: Oxford University Press.

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