It is becoming more evident with each passing year that urban growth is a matter national concern. The growing ease and speed of the global movement of money, goods, people and ideas has made it more and more clear that the prosperity of nations is heavily dependent on the prosperity of cities. At the same time, poorly managed urban growth is a major contributor to the global-scale environmental problems we face. For both environmental and economic reasons, therefore, we need to think of urban growth as a national and global issue, not a purely local one.

In my previous post, I showed how, in North America, city councils are entrusted with many of the decisions that determine the growth of our cities. Since these councils frequently lack the political will to resist the blandishments of developers, in practice, we are allowing the cost accounting of individual development companies to play a major role in determining the growth of cities.
The question of whether the location and design of a new development responds to environmental concerns, and maximizes the city’s ability to maintain the viability of its network of infrastructure and services, is unlikely to be high on an individual developer’s list of concerns. The developer’s responsibility is to shareholders, not the city as a whole. In other words, far from being responsive to national and global concerns, the growth of cities, typically, is not even responsive to the best interests of the city as a whole.
It gets worse. Most North American cities, or metropolitan areas, are actually loose agglomerations of municipalities. In those metropolitan areas, a significant amount of the growth is taking place in municipalities that are partly or largely rural. In such communities, control over growth may be even looser than it is in major cities.
I gained an insight into growth at the urban fringe a few years ago, when I attended two sessions of a Manitoba Municipal Board panel that was deciding whether to recommend approval of the proposed official plan of the Springfield Municipality, an agricultural area and bedroom community immediately east of Winnipeg. The municipality’s proposed new official municipal plan defined four land forms in the municipality:
•Two high-potential agricultural areas,
•An area near a provincial park that is the prime source of ground water for the municipality and
•An area that is defined as having lower agricultural potential.
In defining objectives for development of the municipality, the plan stressed the high priority placed on:
•Preserving agricultural viability and natural resources and
•Preventing proliferation of residential development.
A substantial scholarly literature cites a variety of ways that residential development in farming areas damages the viability of agriculture: complaints from urban residents about smells, heavy machinery on roads and other perceived nuisances resulting from agriculture; residential activities that interfere with farming operations such as commuter traffic, harassment of farm animals by pets; and escalation of land prices that inflate the cost of farming.
The proposed Springfield official plan itself stated that the growth potential of livestock husbandry had already been limited by past residential development. To this point in the plan, therefore, an analysis of land forms indicated the location of good agricultural areas and important water resources, while statements of objectives stressed the determination to preserve these assets in the face of urbanization.
However, the proposed zoning categories set out in later chapters of the plan appeared to have been established by someone who did not read the chapters containing planning principles. Most of the residential development was planned for the larger of the two prime agricultural areas and in the area where the 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.
There was a cluster of residential development planned as well in the community of Anola, which is located in the low-potential agricultural area and would therefore seem to be the natural area for urban development if harm to agriculture were to be minimized, but that community was slated to receive only a limited amount of development because it was not to be provided with the water and sewer services needed for higher concentrations of development.
Nor were there any plans for providing Anola with services, even though the plan stated that there was a demand for residential development there. Meanwhile, two urban communities in the middle of the prime agricultural area, Oakbank and Dugald, had been provided with the services required for higher concentrations of urban development. In short, everything possible was done to encourage urban development in those areas which the plan claimed a determination to protect, and almost nothing done to encourage development in the area that the plan designated as unsuitable for other purposes: a good line of talk, but no action to back it up.
Attendance at two hearings of the municipal board panel provided insights into the sources of this exercise in appearing to plan without actually doing so. From a variety of statements that were made, it became clear that numerous residents of the municipality had been able to improve their fortunes by subdividing farmland in the past, in order to sell it for residential development, and that others wished to do so in future. When witnesses at the hearing called attention to the gap in the plan between objectives and proposed outcomes the argument was repeatedly made that, since some had been allowed to subdivide their land, it was not fair to restrict others from doing so.
In short, the municipality was meeting its legal obligations by providing something that resembled a plan, but political pressures from constituents in a community small enough to allow almost anyone to have a personal relationship with her or his representative on council prevented the municipality from adhering to the principles stated in the plan. In a community as small as this one, it is not necessary to imagine cases of rye or thousands of dollars changing hands in order to understand what is happening. In the absence of clear provincial planning guidelines, pressures on council are too immediate and too personal to permit genuine planning.
The situation in Springfield is very different from that in the Greater Toronto Area, described in my previous post, but the outcome is the same: it is those who stand to gain from development that largely determine the way the community will develop. Environmental concerns, and even the question of the long-term viability of a municipality’s network of infrastructure and services, is likely to take a back seat.
Elsewhere I have made the case that cities and communities ought to be more involved in decision-making about social assistance, social housing and immigrant settlement. In those policy areas, there is room for more local involvement in decision-making. Land use planning is a different matter. There is too much leverage available to those who are most likely to subvert good governance. Since the growth of our cities is critically important to the national economy and the global environment, it is everyone’s business. Although local interests need to be considered in land use decision-making, local decisions should be circumscribed by rules that reflect the needs of society at large.
You can look further into the arguments in this blog entry by checking out:
Rural Municipality of Springfield. Development Plan (By-Law 98-22). Oakbank, MB: Ruraland Consulting Ltd, June, 1998.
Christopher Leo, “Urban Development: Planning Aspirations and Political Realities.” In Edmund P Fowler and David Siegel, eds., Urban Policy Issues (second edition.) Toronto: Oxford University Press, 2002.

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