By Meaghan Trewin

City-Region Studies Centre Director Kevin Jones moderated a panel of four municipal leaders from across Alberta at the APPI 2015 conference. The panel included Mayor Don Iveson (Edmonton), Mayor Tara Veer (Red Deer), Councillor Jim Stevenson (Calgary, Ward 3), and Mayor Bill Given (Grande Prairie). The theme of the conference was “Great Cities, Great Regions: Prairie-Urban Transformations,” and the discussion explored how the changing demographic and geographic realities of our province have impacted planning on a local and regional level.

There’s no question that Alberta’s rural and urban landscapes are undergoing drastic transformation. Explosive population growth has necessitated unprecedented development within and surrounding our municipalities. At the same time, many services and policies traditionally considered the responsibility of other levels of government have been downloaded to, or taken up, at the municipal level. This process of “reterritorialization” – a flashy political science term for an increasingly common occurrence – has given our local leaders increased authority in many areas of governance, elevating both citizens’ expectations towards them, as well as their influence.

Through the Municipal Government Act, last updated in 1994, Alberta’s municipal governments have the right to decide autonomously where to build homes, businesses, schools, and roads within their respective domains. This has had the unexpected impact of introducing a competitiveness to land use planning in Alberta, as each municipality seeks to promote its own interests. Time has proven, however, that this approach to development, what Mayor Don Iveson labels “the ‘wild west’ autonomy-driven scramble for land of the past 20 years,” is not sustainable nor equitable.

“The status quo is not working. We have to change the game. It’s going to involve some tough conversations about brand and identity, it`s going to involve some tough conversations about how we approach economic development, about how we approach infrastructure.” – Mayor Don Iveson, Edmonton

No city or town exists in isolation, and municipal leaders are recognizing that planning decisions have impacts that extend past geographic boundaries. Here in Edmonton, regional planning through the Capital Regional Board and newly created Edmonton Metro Mayors Alliance has become an important focal point for decisions in transportation, land use, and housing. Through our panel discussion at the APPI 2015 conference, it became clear that this shift towards planning on a regional level is part of a much larger movement happening all across Alberta. For Mayor Tara Veer, the conversation has shifted by necessity, as municipalities navigate what she coins “our shared new normal.”

Adapting to this new normal goes beyond simply serving larger populations. From a regional planning perspective, several key issues come to the fore. To begin with, population and community growth does not always reflect geographic boundaries. In the words of Councillor Jim Stevenson, “the problem is that we think we need to recognize boundaries of the municipalities, instead of recognizing our area as communities.”

“The problem is that we think we need to recognize boundaries of the municipalities, instead of recognizing our area as communities.” – Councillor Jim Stevenson, Calgary Ward 3

Further, explosive population growth has triggered rapid and often unsustainable development, much of which hasn’t taken into account the long-term implications for the surrounding region. There has to be a balance between residential and non-residential land use. A sustainable community requires roads, transportation, water and sewage service, police and fire stations, a library, garbage collection, recreation facilities, and parks. Municipalities rely on the tax income gained from non-residential or high-density residential development to fund this infrastructure. Political complications arise when one municipality dominates non-residential development, while its neighbours house a disproportionate amount of people. As Mayor Bill Given reminds us, however, residents of a community are not concerned with which government delivers a service, or the politics behind how their roads are funded: “residents only care about having a great place to live, work, and play.”

“Residents only care about having a great place to live, work, and play.” – Mayor Bill Given, Grande Prairie

The concept of planning without borders, however, is highly political. In addition to issues of sustainability and tax distribution, inter-municipal collaboration is fraught with debates on regional brand identity, land use development rights, and governance. How can our municipal leaders balance these concerns to better serve their populations, and work together as regions to build a stronger province? This is the question that has driven our panelists to develop innovative strategies to meet the urgent need for an intentional, coordinated approach to regional development. In Mayor Veer’s view, “great cities, great regions, great communities are designed with intention, not by default.”

“Great cities, great regions, great communities are designed with intention, not by default.” – Mayor Tara Veer, Red Deer

Alberta’s regional planning toolkit has evolved to support sustainable development, as mechanisms such as regional boards, inter-municipal development plans (IDPs), and operational agreements reframe neighbouring municipalities as partners, rather than competitors. Technical tools such as GIS mapping, modelling, and projections have helped depoliticize the planning process by increasing politicians’ understanding of how planning decisions impact their municipality and the surrounding region over time.

Planners too have an essential role in regional development, not solely as technical experts, but also as a pragmatic and non-partisan voice at the planning table. Mayor Veer draws on her own experiences in Red Deer: “as long as politicians are functioning in these highly charged political environments… planners continue to ground us in solid planning rationale.” Councillor Stevenson agrees that “it’s very hard to find a politician that looks beyond the next election . . . we can’t do it that way if we’re going to build something that’s there for our kids, and our grandkids, and our great-grandkids.” This pragmatic direction provides an essential foundation for making informed, data-driven planning decisions.

Looking forward, our municipal planners and leaders see tremendous opportunity to shape Alberta’s future. Mayor Iveson advocates for a more bottom-up, community approach to governance on a provincial scale, one that honours Albertans’ community values and trust in their local leadership. Mayor Given challenges leaders, planners, and citizens to rethink how we visualize the urban versus rural divide: “On a provincial scale, Alberta is successful because we have both urban and rural parts. We have fantastic riches and resources in our rural areas, and we are empowered by dynamic urban areas that provide the services needed to sustain an economy. We absolutely couldn’t separate the two . . . The challenge is to recognize this success on the provincial scale, and see how we can do that at the local scale.”

Regardless of methods, regional collaboration at its heart means negotiating competing municipal interests to address shared issues, and Albertans are having the right conversations to manage our growth sustainably and emerge stronger than ever. As Mayor Veer puts it, “we are aspiring to a preferred future. There are lots of options in terms of the tools we can bring to the table, whatever that future may bring.”

Further reading

If you are interested in learning more about municipal governance, check out Curb Magazine Volume 5, Issue 2, Growing Pains: Embracing Municipal Governance in Canada. Essays on city-regionalism can be found in the recently published book City-Regions in Prospect? Exploring the Meeting Place between Place and Prospect, Ed. Kevin Edson Jones, Alex Lord, and Rob Shields.

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