The challenges of urban sprawl, versus the environmental impacts

Dan Dibbelt
Smoky River Regional
Economic Development

21 December 2015
Urban sprawl: the spreading of urban developments (as houses and shopping centers) on undeveloped land near a city. Merriam Webster Dictionary.
Annexation: to incorporate (a country or other territory) within the domain of a state. Also, Merriam Webster or in the context of this article annexation is the act of transferring land from one municipality into another municipality.
These two terms have a considerable amount to do with one another and both play an important part in reducing our human footprint on the world.

The world is growing. The global population has grown from one billion in 1800 to seven billion in 2012.

It is expected to keep growing, and estimates have put the total population at 8.4 billion by mid-2030, and 9.6 billion by mid-2050. That will become an issue as it is estimated that the world, from a food standpoint, can only sustain about 10 billion people. But that is another article.

The majority of growth is occurring in our cities, which is even evident in the recent Canada census.

The City of Grande Prairie grew by 13.5 per cent, Edmonton grew by 13.9 per cent and Calgary grew by 14.6 per cent.

Actually, all Alberta cities grew while many towns, villages and rural areas dropped in population. Some rural municipalities gained numbers but most of that growth is in the regions that are closest to a larger urban center.

One of the big negative impacts of all this urban growth is urban sprawl often necessitating annexation by large urbans. There are two important factors here; one valuable agricultural and is being converted to housing and industrial land and two, less agricultural land means less food production.

I appreciate this is somewhat long-term cataclysmic thinking, but two recent examples in Alberta bring this close to home.

In 2015 the Provincial Government issued an Order In Council approving the City of Grande Prairies annexation application which saw the city receive 15,607 acres or 6,316 hectares of land from the County of Grande Prairie.

That is equivalent to about 87 quarters of land or about 24 sections, enough according to the City’s press release to sustain growth for 70 years.

The press release went on to state, “To grow and remain sustainable, the City of Grande Prairie requires additional lands to attract industrial and commercial development within its boundaries. Industrial development provides a strong, viable tax base to fund more infrastructure, facilities and services.”

In 2016, the City of Edmonton reached an agreement with the County of Leduc to annex approximately 9,500 hectares (about 24,000 acres) and an additional 16 hectares or 40 acres from Sturgeon County. While the Edmonton annexation is much larger than Grande Prairie’s, Edmonton also has a population 21 times the size of Grande Prairie. Meanwhile in Europe, roughly 40 per cent of cities are shrinking.

Annexation proposals need to be approved by the provincial government and I have to wonder what they are thinking. While they are tackling greenhouse gas emissions and protecting land for Woodland Cariboo they are doing nothing to ensure our agricultural industry.

Urban sprawl will see more and more residents moving to outlying suburbs commuting to work every day. While the carbon tax’s main intention should be to deter, or lessen people’s reliance on carbon fuels, their approval of such massive amounts of annexed land from their rurals, does anything but that.

If the provincial government is serious about reducing our carbon footprint they need to encourage large urbans to grow up and better utilize existing urban space.

They need to encourage urban municipalities to reduce house sizes, reduce lot sizes and encourage downtown living to further reduce the use of vehicles.

As a city expands, so too do the water lines, sewer lines, fibre optics and, of course, roads and sidewalks. This is all part of the annexation process, often justified by the urbans to accommodate their growing population.

Instead, perhaps, the government should look at new ways to encourage people to move to rural regions that are losing their population and already have the infrastructure in place to accommodate them.

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