Planning not just for cities

Master of Planning students get real-life experience in rural Alberta, helping Parkland County preserve farmland and wetlands.

By Colin Brandt
December 2015

Standing in a farmer’s field, down a rutted grid road, three and a half hours’ drive from campus, eight Master of Planning (MPlan) students from across Canada and the globe are trying to figure out how to save a rural county’s agricultural land, preserve its natural ecosystem and keep, and grow, its economic viability.

This is a far cry — and drive — from the bike lanes, condo towers and public art debates that characterize Calgary’s planning scene. But for students in Harry Harker’s class, extending and expanding the concept of planning, and the profound impact it can have on rural communities, is key to the experience offered by the Faculty of Environmental Design (EVDS).

At the end of September, Harker took the entire class to Parkland County, visiting the small communities that dot the region, to get a sense of both the scale of the area and the lived experience of its residents.

Students' work helps preserve rural way of life 

Harker’s class then traded their work boots for dress shoes, as they presented to the Parkland County Council on Dec. 8. For the semester, the MPlan class has been focused on the county (a region west of Edmonton with a population of 30,000 spread between the town of Spruce Grove and a wide swath of surrounding acreages and farmland), developing a new policy model designed to meet the strategic goals of the county while preserving a distinctly rural and Albertan way of life.

“For a few of us, it was the first time we’d stepped foot outside of Calgary since we’d moved here for school,” says Ryan Siersma, MPlan student. “Now, all nine of us were piled into a van with Harry driving, visiting farms and staying in hamlets throughout Parkland County.

“Most of us had never heard of places like Entwistle, Tomahawk and Keephills; now, we’re staying in these communities, learning about the challenges they face and thinking of new policy and design approaches to help them.”

Rural regions need planning to protect critical agricultural land

For rural communities, the need for effective planning is enormous. As their populations grow older and younger generations move away to seek economic opportunity in urban centres, smaller communities become hollowed out, losing their schools, public buildings and businesses as the surrounding population can no longer support them.

Many farmers are seeking to retire and leave the farm, using the land they have worked for years as their major source of retirement income, subdividing their land for industrial and residential development. The process of subdivision parcels up important natural and agricultural land, fracturing natural landscapes, threatening ecological sustainability and sacrificing the richest, and most fertile, agricultural land in the process.

For a region like Parkland County, protecting their most important natural spaces and their critical agricultural areas go hand in hand as they often overlap.

Directing development away from food-growing areas

The MPlan team’s proposed model is based around Transferable Development Credits (TDCs). TDC programs allow municipalities to direct development away from areas that are environmentally, or agriculturally, sensitive, while promoting development in areas that make more sense for the community as a whole.

This is done through a simple mechanism, where landowners in designated protected areas can sell their land’s development potential to developers, who can use that sale as credit toward building in areas that the County wants. By incentivizing landowners to sell the potential for development, without actually developing the land itself, the land stays whole, major food-growing and ecologically critical areas remain protected, and developers can use the credits to build more easily and economically.

“TDCs have been tried with success in the U.S., but have never had traction in Canada,” says Harker. “The advantages are enormous for a county like Parkland, as their existing Municipal Development Plan, Environmental Conservation Master Plan and Future of Agriculture Study all align with the TDC model, which can be implemented at a minimal cost with limited governmental intervention.”

After their presentation to council, the MPlan class hopes to launch a pilot of the TDC program in Parkland County, working with researchers in EVDS and the Haskayne School of Business to develop the policy model further and tailoring it to meet the needs of the community.

“By setting us up as consultants, Harry gave us a sense of the real lived experience of a planner in a rural setting,” says Siersma. “Taking us out of the class — and giving us a sense of the actual work that is being done every day by planners across the province — is an experience I would have never expected entering into the program.”



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