Urban growth isn't all it's cracked up to be

Armchair Mayor
By Mel Rothenburger
February 4, 2017 - 9:00am

KAMLOOPS — As you’re driving around, do you ever wonder about the massive infrastructure needed to meet the demands of the First World lifestyle to which we’ve become accustomed?

When will we have enough big-box stores, coffee shops and drive-through restaurants? Is there a quota?

I think about it sometimes. So does Bill Bryson. I’ve been reading his book The Road to Little Dribbling. Bryson is an American-born British citizen probably best known on this side of the pond for a movie based on another of his books, A Walk in the Woods, starring Robert Redford.

Bryson more or less decided to go on a pilgrimage to rediscover his adopted country, where he’s lived for more than 20 years. He truly loves the land he now calls home, though he sees its warts, too.

He likes to compare it to the U.S. At one point he writes, “It is a permanent astonishment to me how much support an American lifestyle needs — shopping malls, distribution centres, storage depots, gas stations, zillion-screen multiplex cinemas, gyms, teeth-whitening clinics, business parks, motels, propane storage facilities, compounds holding fleets of U-Haul trailers, FedEx trucks or school buses, car dealerships, food outlets of a million types, and endless miles of suburban houses all straining to get a view of distant mountains.”

For most of my years on this Earth, I’ve subscribed to the wisdom that if we don’t grow, we die —cities that don’t expand, stagnate. We’re caught in a never-ending quest to build more so we can get more. We put more pipelines in the ground to get more oil to somebody on the other side of the world who wasn’t around 20 or 30 years ago but now needs gas for his car and petroleum products for just about everything in the house. We dig massive holes in the ground to find the metals to build those cars and turn into cellphones and electrical cables. We cut down our forests to construct the houses needed in the cities that are hell bent on getting bigger.

We worship at the altar of growth. Ask any economic developer. We see it as the way to prosperity and getting all those swimming pools and hair salons and decaf lattés and 4X4s we think we need. I’m not turning all David Suzuki on you, but growth isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

Growth is why our cities have become automobile friendly and pedestrian unfriendly, why Seymour and Lansdowne Streets are one-way race tracks, why neighbourhoods aren’t walkable any more.

We try to manage growth but we can't control it. We have zoning, development cost charges, fringe-area policies and planning commissions but we’re only trying to steer growth a little this way or that way — it has a mind of its own.

Bryson writes about London’s Green Belt. I’ve experienced London’s impressive parks and public squares but I didn’t know about the Green Belt.

It was created in 1947 to make sure London didn’t gobble up the rural areas surrounding it.  As a result, within a short drive of the city centre, one can be among small villages and farms.

Bryson calls the Green Belt “the most intelligent, far-sighted, thrillingly and self-evidently successful land management policy any nation has ever devised.”

Yet it hasn’t caught on anywhere else. In fact, there’s tremendous pressure in Britain to get rid of the Green Belt and let development take its course. That would be a shame.

The book I read before this one was Walking to Camelot, written by John A. Cherrington, a B.C. author who decided to walk 300 miles from the North Sea to the English Channel.

It was possible because, in Britain, public use of footpaths is protected by law even if they cross private property. It’s a marvelous thing.

Kamloops has some fine parks, and the Rivers Trail, but every one of them was a struggle, and every one has been limited by the demands of urban growth. We can’t stop growth unless we stop having children, and the more we grow, the tougher it gets.

Managing urban growth effectively takes vision, the kind that inspired London in 1947.