I stumbled across the South March coalition yesterday. They’re a movement dedicated to saving the South March Highlands. It’s an interesting movement, but about an issue of which I know very little. I don’t travel out that way much*, and I won’t claim to know if what they’re doing is wise or not.
That being said, it seems like worthwhile advocacy. There is always pressure to increase development further and further out. It’s not about evil developers trying to destroy pristine nature. It’s about people looking for places to live. It’s good that we have an advocacy group that is pushing back against this pressure. Even if we should be sprawling out further, we need people keeping that impulse in check, making sure we sprawl properly.
But that’s not really what I’m interested in, right now. The group got me thinking about how the mechanisms of urbanism and rural conservation might intertwine.
I don’t embrace the urban/suburban war. It might seem like I do, but I never embrace policies that intentionally disfavour or disadvantage suburban living. I oppose policies that directly privilege suburban living at the expense of other communities. Which is where rural conservation comes in.
Urbanism is not a threat to the rural way of life or rural areas. In Ottawa, we’re not worried about urban sprawl destroying the small towns and rural lands outside of Kanata, Barrhaven or Orleans. It’s suburban sprawl that is such a threat, and suburban sprawl is aided by anti-urban policies.
Suburbia, as we know it today, depends on a massive infrastructure of roads and thoroughfares. Considering these bedroom communities are not particularly self-sustaining, they require the ability to commute great distances to jobs either in the inner-ring of suburbia, downtown or across town. Sprawl necessities massive roads cutting through our central neighbourhoods, cutting off walkability and hampering efforts at improving bike infrastructure.
Urban renewal needn’t lie solely on centrally-planned urban neighbourhoods. Urbanism can thrive organically as we stop subsidizing the commuter life. If we build our streets to benefit pedestrians and cyclists equally as cars (and, in the case of pedestrians, perhaps even more so), we will no longer be giving commuters a free pass through the city. They will have to pay with their time.
Further, if we adopt pricing schemes that will internalize the negative externalities of commuter culture–road tolls, congestion charges, gas taxes, etc.–fewer people will be encouraged to buy into that lifestyle.
This isn’t about discouraging people from living the suburban dream; it’s about properly pricing the suburban dream so that it is no longer subsidized by other residents.
These sorts of measures will draw more people into the city and the inner suburbs (seriously, Barrhaven, build some apartment buildings already). It will re-inforce urban development and urban living. It will also relieve some of the pressure on the exurbs and the adjacent rural areas.
Conversely, when rural conservation measures are put in place, it acts as a cap on sprawl. The suburbs are not able to continuously expand, and potential residents are forced back inward. The cap on sprawl will keep more people in the inner-ring suburbs, forcing up housing prices. Either those suburbs will have to start increasing density, or people will continue to move further and further in, where density increases.
(And I’m sure I’m not the first person to think of all of this.)
It is easy to think of reasons why urbanists and rural conservationists might not work together. We have rather starkly different lifestyles, and, politically, we’re often at opposing ends of the spectrum (on the aggregate), but there are definite opportunities for collaboration. If we’re able to actually see where our interests meet, we’ll be able to build a better, healthier city.