Rural areas may not stay that way: Think sprawl before it’s too late

I received an e-mail from a development officer in a large rural municipality in northern Alberta who hopes to persuade his council to reduce the minimum permissible size of residential lots from the current minimum of 72′ x 110″, and wanted a second opinion from me.

He’s looking ahead, as rural municipal officials and politicians everywhere should. Here’s my response, more or less, to his query: 

In the cities I’m familiar with, your proposed 50 or 55-foot lot frontage would not be considered small – nor would it count as large. In many high-quality suburban subdivisions a lot frontage on the order of 40-45 feet would be standard. To be sure, many suburban lots are larger than that, and a largely rural area like your county might not wish to emulate the standards of big-city suburban neighbourhoods. For now therefore, I consider your proposal to represent a reasonable balance between long-standing habits on one hand and the need, on the other, to look to the future.

The future is bound to look different from the past. Some communities in your county are experiencing growth rates approaching 7 per cent. In a rapidly-growing rural or semi-rural area it’s important to bear in mind that there are cities in your future, and to consider how these cities can develop in a manner that will keep taxes down and maintain the pristine environment your residents enjoy now. Moreover, there is a growing consciousness, in society as a whole, of the importance of environmental sustainability to the future of our communities – a consciousness shared by the Alberta Urban Municipalities Association.

In light of those considerations, I offer the following comments on your proposal:

In the long run, wider lots mandate more vehicle miles driven, as well as more pavement and longer lines of underground municipal services. As any municipal council is well aware, infrastructure is expensive – a consideration that will become more important as urbanization gets underway. There is a long and unhappy history of municipalities undertaking ambitious programs of infrastructure expansion, only to find themselves unable to justify the property tax levels required to maintain the infrastructure. In many cities across North America, the end result has been crumbling streets and sewer lines.

In light of these realities, it seems counter-productive to maintain a planning regime that forces developers and prospective homeowners to build and maintain large-lot developments, when some of them might well prefer medium-sized lots. It is worth underlining that the proposed changes do not force anyone to do anything. They only offer the option of slightly smaller lots to those who might wish to take advantage of it.

In short, your proposals look reasonable to me.

One response to “Rural areas may not stay that way: Think sprawl before it’s too late

  1. There will be an increasing number of failures in critical infrastructure such as dams, bridges, power plants, electrical grids, water, sewer and garbage disposal networks, databases, air traffic control systems, etc. The global lack of adequate disaster warnings and outdated technical systems, (e.g., port security, border violation, air traffic control, etc.) will take decades to correct unless a real tragedy or serious system failure with widespread economic consequences forces a greater sense of urgency. The earthquake in Haiti, the Katrina hurricane, the Gulf oil spill, floods in the Midwest, and the Japanese earthquake and tidal wave catastrophes demonstrate how unprepared we are.

    The average age of potable water systems in the United States is seventy-seven years, and every two minutes a major water main breaks causing significant property damage. Yearly, three-hundred thousand water-main failures are already causing water shortages, and the problem will only get worse. It will require hundreds of billions of dollars to replace—not just repair—the thousands of pipelines crisscrossing our continent, but many of our states and municipalities are nearly bankrupt. Just as serious, the United States is in a global race for innovation in this information age yet is last in internet speed and security among developed nations. That is just incredible.

    Infrastructure failures will compound the problems caused by an economic collapse but are also one means of employing workers to minimize a depression. When survival is at stake, people can be motivated to secure and improve their own towns and neighborhoods as well as the surrounding areas for a minimum wage. The problem at present is that the country is bankrupt and unless foreigners buy our debt, we can only pay in scrip. During recovery from a national disaster, workers are often paid in food and/or essential supplies so that government funds can be stretched. Idle labor conscripted for infrastructure repair is not paid the high wage scales of better times, but its employment must provide genuine humanitarian aid to stricken families.

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