Life on the edge of the shield: The push and pull of development, Part 3

by Brian Barth 

Part 1 of the series is available here; click here for part 2

Beckwith Subdivision
300-acre farm in Beckwith Township divided into 100+ residential lots. Source: Ontario Ministry of natural Resources

Regulating density is the number one tool used by urban planners to influence the outcomes of urban development. Lacking influence over the number of people that want to live in an area and their individual desires, we can at least attempt to orchestrate the pattern by which population is concentrated across the landscape in an effort to avoid lackadaisical sprawl and pollution of the genius loci.

In a relatively rural environment like Lanark County, it is not surprising that there is little political will to use zoning ordinances to their full potential to guide long-term growth, as the dark sides of urbanization have barely encroached here. Yet, they lap at our border with Ottawa, where the newly inaugurated official plan mandates an unequivocal end to suburban sprawl—which will shift pressure for this type of development to our side of the county line.

Capitalism comes with a massive paradox that the process of urbanization is not immune to: large scale, long term trends are dictated by short term profitability, rather than the long-term vision of society. An individual or community may want to build in a certain way based on their values and ideals, but if it can’t be sustained economically, it will inevitably fail. The market eventually corrects these errors, but not until long after the damage has been done.

The Urban Life Cycle

As a city expands, large tracts of agricultural land become increasingly subdivided on its outskirts. It is vastly cheaper to build homes in a farmer’s field than it is to add housing stock by increasing residential density in the middle of the city. Homebuyers get much more space for their dollar in a ‘greenfield’ development; plus, humans seem to have a nearly genetic inclination toward pastoral landscapes, which large lot subdivisions manage to fulfill.

Fifty years later, if an area has become desirable, these subdivisions begin to densify. Any remaining undeveloped parcels are developed as townhomes and towering apartment buildings spring up on the arterial streets where detached homes are no longer desirable because of the increasing traffic noise outside the front door.

In the interim, the tiny trees that the first homeowners planted in the sterile new neighbourhood have grown to form a shady canopy over the street. Many of the homes sport magazine-worthy gardens, along with lavish renovations and additions to accommodate their growing families. Community gardens are established, quaint cafes and shops pop up along secondary streets and the place develops a reputation as a trendy neighborhood. Real estate values soar through the roof, filling the public coffer and making further community-scale improvements possible.

Interestingly, the environmental devastation of clearing the land to build those homes 50 years back—sedimentation of waterways, stripping of topsoil, destruction of habitat—has begun to reverse. Extensive gardens and the now mature tree canopy become the new habitat. Riparian areas are restored by environmentally-minded community members. In the Atlanta suburb where I grew up, many birds of prey have returned, along with several larger mammal species, and a fastidious contingency of urban naturalists actively stewards the ecological revival. When my family moved there in the 1980s, the creeks were lifeless and foxes, coyotes and osprey were unknown. Today, the neighborhood abounds with life, ecologically, culturally and economically.

Housing Economics and Human Ecology

At the outset, development operates like any other economy of scale. The more the product can be mass produced—in this case homes, shopping centers and entire neighbourhoods—the greater the profit margin. A single custom home, painstakingly built into the landscape with minimal disturbance to the environment is a labour of love that anyone can appreciate, but very few have the buying power to purchase. Furthermore, banks prefer to finance more conventional housing products, like ‘cookie-cutter’ subdivisions, with their thousands of nearly identical homes. As easy as it is to despise this style of development, there are implacable forces that continue to breathe life into it.

Fortunately, over time, assembly line housing products transform themselves according to a force that is arguably more powerful than either nature or the free market: the innate need for human community and the shared sense of place that flows from it.

The 50-year result of community development can never be replicated in new construction, just as the wonderful ambiance of an 800-year old European city takes 800 years to accrue. However, good planning and design can eliminate many of the negative values associated with plopping 80 homes in a farmer’s pasture, draining wetlands to build office parks or bulldozing a forest to build a shopping mall. As always, the patterns of nature hold a clue.

Natural systems function in a pattern of nodes and pathways. Areas of concentration are linked by the necessary relationships between them. The trails between winter nesting areas and summer feeding grounds are the roads that link our homes to places of employment. The upland erosion that builds a fertile floodplain downstream is a capital investment that ensures future economic growth. The patterns of nature are never repeated acre after acre, but they are quite predictable. Densifying development into distinct nodes within an integrated web of transportation routes is the goal of sensible urban planning.

Simple Solutions

In a place like Lanark County where serious urban development has barely begun, there are a few ways to preempt the 50-year loss of vibrancy, beauty and environmental quality that will occur before the market corrects its long-term trajectory and internalizes its negative externalities. Fortunately, there is still time to implement them.

One of the simplest approaches is the conservation subdivision. The concept is to concentrate development on a small part of a large parcel and place the balance of the property into a permanent conservation easement, never to be developed. For example, rather than allowing a developer to divide 100 acres into 20 five-acre lots, 20 one-acre parcels are clustered on one corner of the lot and the remaining 80 acres is left intact as greenspace to be shared by the 20 families that buy into the development. The developer gets the density they want (and the ensuing profits), but development occurs in a way that allows natural processes to continue uninterrupted across 80 percent of the landscape. Design guidelines are needed to steer development toward the 20 percent of the land where it will have the least impact on ecological function. The same principle can be applied to concentrate 20 one-acre parcels into quarter-acre lots covering just 5 of the original 20 acres or any number of similar scenarios.

Where these developments are located away from existing water and sewer infrastructure, the developer will have to build self-contained utility systems, which is where it gets tricky. Developers will tell you they can’t get their money back on the investment if they have to provide everything that the municipality typically does. That is a poor argument, since developers typically pay fees to the municipality to cover their share of the public infrastructure. The real problem is that the government agencies regulating water and sewer infrastructure at the provincial level use protocols that are not geared toward such small-scale systems. Their standards are in the interest of public safety, but they need to be revamped in ways that streamline the process for a wider variety of applications and remove unnecessary regulatory roadblocks for projects that are otherwise in the best public interest.

 Permitting Graceful Urbanization

Conservation subdivisions are a development tool with potential to increase tax revenue in rural areas and pay for intelligent planning programs that will preserve rural values in the long term. They are an ideal fit for those that want to live near the city, but not in it, and who are not farmers. Over time, they become quaint hamlets and villages. One conservation subdivision for every 4000 to 5000 acres of undeveloped land can accommodate the population growth that is occurring in Lanark County without losing the pastoral character that is so priceless and makes it such an attractive destination in the first place.

Brian Barth is an urban planner, garden designer and lifelong student of the landscape. He and his wife, Christine, live in a heritage schoolhouse with their dog, Mitzi, where they continually learn more of life’s mystery and meaning on their daily walks into the surrounding forest.