Is your town outgrowing the comfortable and friendly size that once
made it an appealing place to work, raise a family or retire? Are you
concerned about escalating traffic congestion, increased taxes, crime
and the plethora of social ills that come with a rising population?
Worried that the inexorable result of continual growth will be an urban
sprawl which will eventually degrade or consume the natural places
making your community so beautiful and special?
Bigger isn't necessarily better. That's what some communities are
realizing as they stare into the ominous challenges that come with
continual growth. So some are deliberately limiting their size to
preserve those qualities that make them appealing and liveable.
Okotoks is an Alberta community of 16,500 that nestles in the Sheep
River Valley about 18 km south of Calgary. Its decision to pursue a
policy of "smart growth" stems from a limited supply of water. Rather
than stress their scenic river by taking more than 10 percent of its
flow, the community has decided to restrict its population to 30,000.
And it is petitioning Calgary to reduce its spread before Okotoks
becomes just another impersonalized suburban appendage of the city.
But a much better example is the town of Qualicum Beach,BC. It, too, has
considered the results of continual grown and it didn't like the
prospects. Why should any community willingly participate in a process
that destroys the very attributes that make it appealing? So Qualicum
has set its population limit at 11,000, very close to its present
The reasons are many, explains Councillor Barry Avis. Water supplies
are an issue. So are the natural features and wildlife habitat that
contribute so much to the quality of life in the community. But the
major concern is lifestyle. The town has a friendly and manageable size
that would be compromised by further growth. The challenge now is to
maintain and enhance these desirable attributes, a task made even more
difficult when the pressure to develop actually increases with the
quality of life. Qualicum recognizes this dilemma and is taking
conscious measures to avoid the trap set by its own success.
At first glance, its policy of zero growth seems selfish and
exclusionary. What consideration does it show for others who want to
live in Qualicum? What are the ethical implications of denying others
access to its quality of life? When by-laws are imposed to legitimately
regulate development and population, the situation begins to resemble
the "lifeboat" dilemma that prevents survivors from coming aboard. On
the other side of the ledger, what are the costs to Qualicum's residents
if their openness causes them to lose the very attributes that make
their community special?
Avis sees a way through this dilemma. The strategy is to help others
build their own lifeboats. In other words, to work with the regional
district to discourage sprawl outside Qualicum's boundaries where the
town has no direct control of zoning - adjacent sprawl would inevitably
undermine Qualicum's primary objective of self preservation - and to
promote nodal communities as an option.
Nodal communities would encourage populations to cluster, to develop
their own identities and to solve their own problems in their own unique
ways. Rather than let population increases create expansive and
impersonal suburbs where people feel lost and ineffectual, each node
could eventually become a distinctive community where people have
control and influence. The strategy would also preserve agricultural
land, so important for local food production and sustainability.
Qualicum's gesture of self-interested survival actually becomes a model
for intelligent growth.
Avis is aware of this effect. When Qualicum's living conditions are
manageable - it still wants to better attend to the full life cycle of
its residents by providing more nursing care facilities for its seniors
- it can then more easily help other communities improve their own
living conditions. Communities are most capable of assisting others when
their own lives are in order. The "lifeboat" metaphor is closer to the
"airplane" metaphor - "In the event of a loss in cabin pressure, please
attach your own oxygen mask before attempting to help others." Expressed
on a larger scale, this is the process whereby wealthy nations help poor
ones to help themselves.
Such a strategy has implications for national immigration policies,
particularly when environmental problems are becoming more critical and
human population is expected to rise towards a peak of 9 billion by the
end of this century. Accordingly, immigration policy is already being
hotly debated in Canada and other developed countries. Perhaps the
biggest schism to occur in the century-old history of America's
venerable Sierra Club was related to whether or not the organization
should officially endorse a US policy of continual population growth
through immigration. One side argued that people pollute, consume
resources, occupy space and eventually destroy the natural ecologies
that make places special. The other side countered that immigrants
create economic prosperity and cultural wealth, and that every nation
has a moral responsibility to receive the refugees of other countries.
Qualicum and Okotoks are just two examples of the world's population
dilemma written small enough to be local. Expressed in their by-laws is
the realization that growth can be self-defeating if it ruins the human
and natural environments that enrich community life. More challenging,
however, is the brave realization that we must confront the reality of
population limits simply because indefinite growth is not an option on a
planet of finite space and resources. Perhaps towns are the best places
to test this new thinking