by Tineke Kuiper
This is usually a question that Town Planners ponder while they develop well-integrated approaches for future growth, yet it should really be of interest to all of us. In 2005, leaders and volunteers in our community came together and created our first Community Official Plan (COP). The COP is a legal document containing the goals, objectives and policies that will guide the development, growth and change of the Town of Mississippi Mills over a 20-year period. The vision adopted by Town Council at the time was and still is:
“Mississippi Mills is an outstanding urban and rural community that is recognized for its natural and architectural beauty, high quality of life and respect for its heritage and environment. In its vision of the future, the community will be seen to promote and manage balanced economic growth.”
Every five years the COP is reviewed and updated to take into account changes in the community and provincial policy requirements. The Plan builds on the tradition of responsible stewardship of the resources and assets of the community.
The Town of Almonte (population ~5200) is located about 50 km from the centre of Ottawa, and as such it is an exurban town rather, than a suburb of Ottawa. The profile of our town is gradually changing from that of a rural mill town in an agricultural setting in the late fifties, to a self sufficient, up to date and lively place with fine community spirit and cultural aspirations. It has gained a reputation as a good place to live and so, it also appeals as an exurban bedroom community for Ottawa and a retirement community. Both longtime residents and many newcomers alike share a strong sense of history, and optimism about the future of the community. Over the next 20 years, the municipality is expected to grow at a moderate annualized rate of 2.0%.
There are several villages, hamlets and settlement areas in the rural areas, and growth has varied. Between 1981-2001 annualized growth in Ramsay ward accelerated to 4.67% (with most dwellings on private services) compared to 2.45% in Pakenham ward and 1.03% in Almonte ward. The haphazard growth during that period dramatically changed the rural character and physical landscape of Ramsay. There were increased concerns about the loss of natural areas and the health of the environment, loss of farmland and noticeable impacts on the local agricultural industry. Most noticeable was the visual impact of scattered rural residences and country estate lot subdivisions. There were also concerns about cost and economies of scale of providing services to a dispersed population and urban sprawl.
Subdivisions often cut through natural areas. This breaks the natural area into two pieces, or fragments, thereby fragmenting wildlife habitat and altering wildlife movement patterns. The fragmentation of a large forest and wetland habitat into smaller patches disrupts ecological processes and reduces the availability of habitat for some species. It is the greatest threat to native biodiversity. Some forest fragments are too small to maintain viable breeding populations of certain wildlife species, especially bird species that require forest interior habitat (i.e., habitat that is in the interior of a forest, a long way from the forest edge). Ecological changes resulting from fragmentation include the introduction of invasive, exotic (non-native) species and increased predation and parasitism. Creating small, isolated forest patches can also interfere with pollination, seed dispersal, wildlife migration and breeding. Ultimately, these changes can result in the local loss of species.
While at first glance some may look nice, country estate lot subdivisions contribute strongly to fragmentation, much more so than normal severances (Figure 1). They directly impact biodiversity, through the direct removal of habitat, through the loss of interior habitat, through the introduction of non-native plants, and through predation/harassment by domestic animals, especially housecats. These effects are well documented in the scientific literature. Country estates lot subdivisions are also detrimental to the sustainability of villages, as residents of such subdivisions do not appear to support village services and amenities, but tend to commute to suburban areas, strip malls, etc., to conduct their business and shopping. As a result, many municipalities, such as Ottawa and Kingston, have now banned country estate lot subdivisions.
In a recent article in The Millstone (February 3, 2014), Brian Barth paints a picture of how urban sprawl in the USA, in the form of rural subdivisions and strip malls, has consumed many small rural towns, which prior to this had an unequivocally rural mentality and identity, like Mississippi Mills. This is a picture that is also being played out in Canada. He suggested that Ottawa is certainly not growing at the rate of cities like Atlanta, but its sprawl will eventually consume the communities around it. If the footprint of the Greater Toronto Area were to be transplanted to Ottawa, half of Lanark County would already be in it, he said. Urban sprawl consumes agricultural lands, natural areas such as wetlands and forested lands, adding impervious cover in its place.
Smart Growth instead of Urban Sprawl
One of the alternative development strategies to counteract urban sprawl is the concept of Smart Growth, an idea developed in the early nineties, and a strategy adopted in our 2005 COP, and promoted by the Province. Smart Growth is about reducing sprawl, it’s about growth management, it’s about creating livable communities, it’s about economic growth, it’s about protecting the environment, it’s about efficient government – it’s about all of these things! Communities across the country are using creative strategies to develop in ways that preserve natural lands and critical environmental areas, protect water and air quality, and reuse already-developed land. They conserve resources by reinvesting in existing infrastructure and reclaiming historic buildings. By designing neighborhoods that have shops, offices, schools, churches, parks, and other amenities near homes, communities are giving their residents and visitors the option of walking, bicycling, taking public transportation, or driving as they go about their business. Through smart growth approaches that enhance neighborhoods and involve local residents in development decisions, these communities are creating vibrant places to live, work, and play. The high quality of life in these communities makes them economically competitive, creates business opportunities, and improves the local tax base.
Smart Growth Principles
Based on the experience of communities that have used smart growth approaches to create and maintain great neighborhoods, the Smart Growth Network developed a set of ten basic principles:
- Mix land uses
- Take advantage of compact building design
- Create a range of housing opportunities and choices
- Create walkable neighborhoods
- Foster distinctive, attractive communities with a strong sense of place
- Preserve open space, farmland, natural beauty, and critical environmental areas
- Strengthen and direct development towards existing communities
- Provide a variety of transportation choices
- Make development decisions predictable, fair, and cost effective
10. Encourage community and stakeholder collaboration in development decisions
Preserve important Natural Heritage Areas
One of the principles of smart growth is to ensure that important natural areas are protected from development, so that critical habitat is preserved, and nature is able to run its course, providing fresh air and clean water. The Town has requested that the Mississippi Valley Field Naturalists assist in identifying and characterizing the most important areas and in developing a system of interconnected Core natural areas that will greatly benefit the community. Based on mapped data, provided by OMNR, on provincially significant wetlands, significant woodlands, areas of natural and scientific interest, wildlife and other features, the first phase has been completed and several important Natural Heritage Core areas, such as the Wolf Grove and Pakenham wetland complexes, the Appleton wetlands, and the Burnt Lands Alvar, can now be designated. This information is important, as it allows for planning decisions on the appropriate location of development, as well as set an appropriate level of protection for individual Core areas. The next phase of this project will be completed within the next few years.
Difficult decisions ahead for Council
The current COP is not saying no to development, but rather provides direction on how to develop in a way residents have said they hope to see their community progress. Council is grappling with the question of how much development is appropriate and how we should go about doing it without losing the small town and rural character and natural heritage areas that we all highly prize and that our COP tries to help maintain. Thus, Councillors face some tough decisions. Your input is important at this time. A public meeting is being planned. Stay tuned.