Realities of Regional Planning: ALI Panel at AAMDC Fall Convention

Dr. Sandeep Agrawal, Director of the University of Alberta Planning Program and author of the ALI report 'Urban, Suburban and Wet Growth in Alberta', leads a panel discussion at the AAMDC Fall 2016 Convention.

Dr. Sandeep Agrawal, Director of the University of Alberta Planning Program and author of the ALI report 'Urban, Suburban and Wet Growth in Alberta', leads a panel discussion at the AAMDC Fall 2016 Convention.

What will new regional planning requirements mean for some of Alberta’s smallest communities? How will changes to the Municipal Government Act influence the relationships between the province’s municipalities? Those questions were among many asked last week at the Alberta Association of Municipal Districts and Counties (AAMDC) fall convention in Edmonton. Continuing its mission to connect research and policy for better land management, the Alberta Land Institute participated in the event, to help explore some of the answers.

Regional planning is an important element in the ongoing revision to Alberta’s Municipal Government Act, or MGA. Under the proposed revisions to the MGA — which are expected to be passed in the provincial legislature next year — every municipality in the province is required to have an Intermunicipal Development Plan (IDP) with each neighbouring jurisdiction, to address social, economic, and environmental needs in a cooperative fashion.

These IDPs are intended to reduce unnecessary duplication and competition, and increase quality of service to ratepayers. Communities across Alberta already participate in thousands of such agreements, but under the revised MGA they will become mandatory, meaning that thousands more will need to be developed throughout the province. To examine questions arising from this new requirement, ALI partnered with AAMDC to provide a workshop at the convention.

Led by Dr. Sandeep Agrawal, author of the recent ALI report Urban, Suburban and Wet Growth in Alberta, the session first reviewed his recent research about regional planning in Alberta, then discussed real-world experiences from three jurisdictions. Joining Dr. Agrawal on the panel were Lorne Hickey, Reeve of Lethbridge County, Nick Lapp, Director of Planning and Development for the County of Grande Prairie, and Dave Dittrick, Director of Planning and Development for the Red Deer County. Thanks to a full and active audience and the engagement of this expert panel, the workshop revealed a strong diversity of views about regional planning in the province.

Dr. Agrawal reported that much of Alberta's recent urban expansion has taken place on its most productive Class 1 and Class 2 farmland. Workshop participants agreed, and supported his conclusion that steps should be taken to limit further loss of this valuable type of land. The audience was also highly receptive to the concept of 'wet growth' — a relatively new planning concept that Dr. Agrawal has suggested for the province, which calls for development plans to be constrained by the availability of water. Alberta's South Saskatchewan River basin has been fully allocated, with no new water licenses being issued, so municipalities in that region are already facing challenges as a result of growth exceeding a watershed's carrying capacity. 

However, when Dr. Agrawal introduced the concept of British Columbia’s regional districts as a potential model for regional governance in Alberta, planners and councillors expressed concern with the creation of another level of government over their jurisdictions. Dr. Agrawal's suggestion that growth management boards such as the Capital Regional Board and the Calgary Regional Partnership be implemented for other Alberta cities also proved unpopular, as rural officials feared such organization would give cities a veto over their development plans.

In contrast, many workshop attendees preferred the idea of ad hoc collaborative groups formed for specific purposes — for instance, a group of municipalities working together to manage water treatment. This method of regional planning — termed by one panelist as simply ‘being a good neighbour’ — was popular with the audience, and was believed to be an effective alternative to legislated solutions.

Having seen many such voluntary partnerships succeed in practice, Dr. Agrawal praised their development, though his concern remained: many complex issues extend beyond the jurisdictions of individual municipalities, and in the absence of a willing partnership between neighbours, a lack of structured planning might leave difficult issues without solutions. Consensus was not reached on this point.

While opinions differed about possible structures for regional planning, certain observations about the revised MGA were shared by all workshop participants. Most significantly, the obligation to create an IDP with each neighbour will place an administrative burden on many of Alberta’s smallest communities — especially its summer villages. With tiny populations and limited resources, some these communities may find compliance with the new regulations difficult to achieve.

Another serious concern was the absence of regional plans for five of the seven regions established under the Land Use Framework, and the Alberta Land Stewardship Act (ALSA). Because locally-developed plans must comply with the larger ALSA framework, municipalities in areas without a completed ALSA regional plan cannot secure provincial approval for plans that have already been finished and locally adopted. How this compliance issue could impact the implementation of IDPs remains unclear.

These concerns, and the differences of opinion about regional planning structures, will help inform ALI’s ongoing research in the area of municipal development. Regional planning requirements will be among the most significant changes to the future of municipal governance in Alberta, and by engaging directly with the the province’s communities about these issues, ALI will continue its mission of connecting research and policy for better land management.

The Institute wishes to extend its thanks to AAMDC for the opportunity to take part in the Fall 2016 Convention, and looks forward to future collaborations.