Gov't must lead regional planning

By Ryan Walker, The StarPhoenix August 16, 2013 - Saskatchewan's large city regions need strong provincial leadership on growth management and regional planning in order to take full advantage of the opportunities presented by rapid growth, and to avoid costly mistakes linked to unco-ordinated land use and infrastructure decisions across the regions. The metropolitan areas centred on Saskatoon and Regina are tied together by dense travel patterns between the cities and nearby towns, reserves and rural areas for home, work, commerce and leisure. Municipal boundaries that separate communities in such areas are increasingly ineffective for guiding large-scale land use, transportation and infrastructure development decisions that will have long-term implications for how the region grows and functions.

Ontario has a strong strategy for optimizing growth in its largest city regions. By focusing on patterns of growth, the province is helping to build better cities, support well functioning agricultural systems, and sustain its natural heritage and environmental health. Ontario adopted the Places to Grow Act in 2005, which led to its growth plan for the greater Golden Horseshoe region in 2006.

Ontario's growth plan directs municipalities in this rapidly growing region to focus on development patterns so that 40 per cent of new residential development occurs within the built boundary of urban communities, achieving a more compact urban form that permits efficient public investment in transit and other infrastructure.

The development of new greenfield neighbourhoods must occur between the built boundary and settlement area boundary. Neighbourhoods must be designed as complete communities that integrate residential, commercial and other land uses, and are oriented to induce citizen demand for travel by transit, cycling or walking as compelling alternatives to private automobiles.

Land outside the settlement area boundaries supports fully capitalized agricultural or rural uses instead of low-density subdivisions and land speculation that don't serve either the rural or urban communities well in the long-term.

The Nova Scotia government took a leadership role and dissolved the municipal boundaries of Halifax, Dartmouth, Bedford and surrounding rural communities, and replaced them with the Halifax Regional Municipality, whose mayor and councillors are elected from across the region.

Councillors also sit on community councils to engage with citizens on local issues in the districts where they are elected. While the 2006 regional municipal plan takes precedence, district level secondary plans associated with community councils guide many localized development decisions.

The HRM model provides the city-regional perspective needed to keep this Atlantic economic and cultural hub thriving, and offers more clarity on how the province can direct its public investments in the region. This is balanced with mechanisms for work at the district level, where distinct rural and urban community identities, histories and current needs are articulated. While it functions well overall, the HRM model is least effective in the most distant rural communities outside of the urban commuter shed along the eastern shore.

The Portland Metropolitan Area, or Metro, also has become famous for its regional governance and planning framework. Led by an elected regional government, Metro administers growth management, transportation, waste and recycling, natural areas and some arts and culture facilities. It revises the urban growth boundary, or UGB, every five years to ensure enough land is available for urban development for the following 20 years.

Metro also designates urban and rural reserves outside the UGB that will serve for 40 to 50 years, adding further predictability to the land market of the region.

Stable agricultural production occurs on lands right up to the UGB. Urban development inside the boundary is intensified, supporting fiscally responsible investments in infrastructure such as transit, and enhancing protection of regional environmental assets. It was the state of Oregon that set the original parameters for the creation and management of UGBs for its urban communities.

Given the weight of public interest in having city regions that function optimally, voluntary measures for regional governance and planning are insufficient. One example is the recent breakdown of the voluntary Regina-Sherwood planning district and their competing land-use visions. Another is the Calgary Regional Partnership, where after drafting a Calgary metropolitan plan, some rural municipalities and the town of High River left the voluntary partnership due to differing interests, and the provincial government delayed adoption of the plan.

Local stakeholders will meet in November to explore the potential for a Saskatoon regional authority. While it's an important step, it is not a substitute for a strong overarching provincial role. Our government needs to build on the positive steps in its Saskatchewan plan for growth and recent amendments to bolster regional planning in the Planning and Development Act.

It should follow these up with an ambitious strategy that targets large city regions, addressing development patterns, infrastructure, regional governance and enhanced provincial investment.

Walker is a professor of regional and urban planning at the University of Saskatchewan.

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