Tighten The Belt


 

Is it time for St. John’s to consider an urban growth boundary?

In medieval times, cities had defensive walls for protection from invaders. Walls created a tidy separation between civic space and wilderness. They also had the unintended side effect of limiting the growth of cities, and gradually driving them towards higher density. They fell out of fashion along with city-states and barbarian raids, but in the last few decades, the city wall has been reincarnated in a new form—made not to keep things out, but to keep the city in. ‘Urban growth boundaries’ and ‘greenbelts’ have been implemented by many municipalities to limit development along the urban edges. Given the pace and character of current developments here, I have to wonder if St. John’s, too, should have an urban growth boundary.

What we have right now is a city limit—set to encompass large areas of open land far beyond the actual developed urban areas of St. John’s. This makes sense for some reasons, including controlling the use of watershed land. A greenbelt or urban growth boundary is not the same thing as the city limits—it can lie well within the city limits at the point of intersection between urban development and wilderness. Ottawa is an example of this type of set up—where a ring of natural or agricultural land is zoned as undevelopable, beyond which lies the city limit.

In Portland, Oregon, a successful but controversial urban growth boundary has helped preserve natural land, reduced traffic congestion, and justified transit oriented development. It has helped regenerate vacant historical buildings, as well as keep businesses in the urban downtown core without contributing significant increases in land prices. Critics have argued that a negative result of the growth boundary has been a decrease in affordable housing.

St. John’s has always had unofficial urban growth boundaries on its west, north and east sides—Pippy Park to west, Torbay (and Logy Bay) to the north, and the South Side hills to the east. This has resulted in its particular north-south linear configuration. Also, to the south, Mount Pearl creates a part of that boundary. This results in a kind of upsidedown ‘U’ shape, that opens up right about where the site for Glencrest is located.

As we have all heard about, this 2,179 acres of mature boreal forest is slated to become a new suburb the size of Mount Pearl, and will undoubtedly share the common characteristics of sprawl—unmanageable transit, strip malls, box stores, inhospitable roadways and fast food chains. Not to mention hundreds of new single family homes (which, by the way, are becoming less and less affordable or even suitable for the needs of new homebuyers’ family structures and lifestyles).

It seems to me that the approval of this development clearly contravenes the directives set out in the Municipal Plan at section 1.2, which states that “Achieving a compact city requires commitment to orderly land use patterns. In addition to the direct commitment to increase density and mix land uses… the city must also limit growth in areas where it may threaten the natural environment and require the extension of infrastructure networks at undue cost.”

(Facepalm.)

The city tried to incorporate the tenets of ‘smart growth’ (which includes limiting sprawl) in its previous municipal plan but that plan was either too dilute, the city simply didn’t follow its own regulations, or developers were speaking a language that navigated around these directives.

For me the troubling question is, has the opportunity to achieve a more complete urban growth boundary been lost? It’s quite possible that an effective closed ring could be achieved with the inclusion of the Glencrest land and adjacent greenspace to the south.

Also, has the opportunity been lost to redirect that development back into the existing footprint of the city, to further improve and enhance the value of the urban space we already have (such as generating the critical mass required to make public transit effective and financially self-sustaining)?

I am not totally confident that our current mayor will recognize the urgency of addressing these issues. Nor do I expect that regulating sprawl developments will be high on his list of priorities when you have crises like unprotected gazebos and fenceless harbours to deal with.

But I am pretty certain that there is sufficient room, including open lots and vacant buildings, within the developed core of the city to build more housing, shops, offices and even industrial space, and in doing so making what we do have more valuable to everyone. “Smart Growth” was a phrase that got thrown around alot in the last campaign, but I think the city leaders need to be honest about whether or not all current and future developments are really held to that standard.

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Interview: Matt Mays

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1 March 2009

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