By Brian Barth
There is an inescapable relation between landscape and human activity. The earth is not a tabula rasa, but continues to render a sculpture across its surface—an expression of its character with which we must speak when laying our own designs.
Lines in the Earth
In Lanark County, each of the historic towns is located along the contours of a river. Outside the scattered villages, an agricultural landscape sweeps broadly across the eastern half of the county, stopping abruptly at the edge of the fertile limestone plain. On the other side of this line, in Shield country, human activity is spread over vast distances, focused primarily on the extraction of raw materials from the land.
Viewed from a mile high, other lines crisscross Lanark’s landscape. The original “concession lines” that opened Ontario to settlement form a perpendicular grid, though this is often skewed by the geology of the Shield and a mosaic of localized landforms. A spiderweb of roads and rail lines linking the larger urban areas that lie beyond the county line intersect the grid at odd angles, along with the serpentine lines of waterways and wetlands.
There are lines that few individuals ever travel on or notice from the ground. Originating where energy is produced or extracted from the earth’s crust, they take the most direct route to the population centres that consume it. Like the internal organs and bodily systems of human beings, hydro lines, oil and gas pipes and fiber optic cables are vital, unseen infrastructure, powering the greater body of civilization.
Some lines are completely invisible in the landscape, yet are the most powerful in controlling human activity—the county line, property lines, the borders between nations. The lines of a river, the crest of a watershed divide along a ridgeline and the loosely drawn borders between ecosystems are boundaries that many species respect, including ours, at times.
Lanark County’s Aboriginal inhabitants would have possessed a mental map of the area, including boundaries that defined their activities and the pathways of their ancient transit network. The soils of the limestone plain were plied on a modest scale for the few domesticated plants in their possession. The wet lowlands of the county yielded certain seeds, tubers, berries, fish and fowl, while the rocky moraines were a source of acorns, beech nuts and larger game. Alvars and other unique ecosystems may have yielded additional physical resources or held special cultural value.
Early British surveyors would have had no such maps in their minds when they laid out the concession roads that underlie many of our current political boundaries. These road lines determined the 100-acre parcels that were practically given away to any hardy soul who would clear the land and farm it.
Lanark County’s mill towns emerged in places where a significant drop in the riverbed provided a source of power to the industries of the day. The towns were divided up for settlement along their original roads and later overlaid by a fine grid of residential streets and lot lines as population increased. There is a ubiquitous similarity in the names of the oldest city streets across eastern North America, including the town of Al Monte: Mill Street goes to the mill; Water Street parallels the river; and Main Street is the site of the original courthouse.
On this primitive framework pioneered by the county’s founding fathers, we now overlay an incredibly complex system of invisible boundaries that determine our future activities and settlement patterns, the visual character of the region, as well as the quality, and quantity, of our natural resources, with tangents that reach into the social and cultural fabric of the community. Planners paint zoning designations, environmental overlays and investment districts on a map with a vision of how developers will sculpt the constantly evolving landscape.
In the modern context, land use plans approximate the purpose of the cultural maps in the collective conscience of Indigenous peoples. Collectively, we determine how to live with the land and the built environment we have inherited. Instead of agreements on hunting grounds and foraging rights, we set forth rules for residential density, permitted commercial uses and public space. The means and the mechanisms differ considerably, but the goal of an equitable sharing and sustainable use of our assets is essentially the same—human fallibility notwithstanding.
Choosing a Trajectory
At the current juncture, Lanark County’s cumulative geo-morphology depicts a fairly stable—and thus able to be sustained—pattern of land use. Population growth is modest and most of the land remains in agricultural use, whether farming or forestry, as it has for the last two centuries. Urban areas creep slowly outward at a pace that regulatory checks and balances can keep a handle on. There is nothing yet out of control here in comparison to what has been imposed on the environment in the heavily urbanized areas of the world.
To me, this picture speaks of opportunity.
In a place where development is not yet proceeding at a velocity beyond any well-intentioned means to direct it, we have the chance to build something that can resist the wave of track homes, faceless apartment buildings and strip malls filling the horizon on the outskirts of Ottawa. That wave may seem distant, but if something of greater value does not rise to meet it, the tide of suburban sprawl will eventually cover the land. Hopefully, future development can strike the tenuous balance between short-term economic worth and the lasting intrinsic value of a place with a meaningful regional character, which Lanark County has thus far retained.
I say this as someone who was born in a burgeoning American metropolis in the 1970’s. Over the course of my life, the population of metro Atlanta increased by about one million people per decade. When I was born, small towns 50 kilometres from the downtown core were farming communities, home to people with an unequivocally rural mentality. Now, these areas are plastered with subdivisions, including many unfinished developments, carcasses of projects that did not survive the collapse of America’s housing bubble.
Ottawa is certainly not growing at that rate, but its sprawl will eventually consume the communities around it. If the footprint of the Greater Toronto Area was transplanted to Ottawa, half of Lanark County would already be in it. Because it takes decades to sway the course of large-scale development trends, the time to build an alternative development scenario is now.