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Why we all need to get involved in land use planning

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Not so long ago, communities were built around the core of a town - the school, post office, church and local businesses, which were surrounded by homes and farms. The proximity to services allowed for most people to get around on foot, which in many cases helped to create a vibrant local economy and a resilient community spirit.

How we build our communities has evolved over the years. The democratization of the automobile allowed the choice to develop less dense living environments for those who had the means. The urban sprawl that resulted has created many significant issues: the loss of natural and agricultural areas, reduced access to local services, the expansion of road infrastructure and a serious dependence on cars.

Those who choose to live in these less dense communities often don’t realize the consequences of urban sprawl, nor the fact that it is often the most vulnerable people who are generally the most affected by these consequences - people whose neighbourhoods are surrounded by highways, whose air is heavily polluted, and who have less resources to get where they need to go.

The principal vocation of land use planning should be the sustainable well-being of our communities, ensuring safe and healthy living environments for the entire population. But decisions made with regards to land use planning have evolved to focus more specifically on economic indicators, to the detriment of socio-environmental justice and well-being.

For decades, there has been a lack of government consideration and oversight with regards to urban sprawl and its serious consequences on our environment, health, safety and collective well-being, particularly for lower income communities. Too many decisions have been made in silos and we have a lot of catching up to do. It’s time to get involved!

An opportunity to get on the right track

The Quebec government held extensive consultations on land use planning for the province’s cities, regions and territories, with the intention of creating a new land use strategy for the province. Several government ministries were taking part, as well as many professional, economic and municipal associations. Public consultations was held  inviting citizens, groups and organizations to join the conversation.

Équiterre and our partners participed in the consultations to encourage policy makers to bring about systemic changes.

Let’s get a bit deeper into land use planning issues and look into the causes and consequences of urban sprawl.


 Urban sprawl - How did we get here?

Since the end of World War II, most North American societies, including Quebec, chose to transform their land use models in favour of more spread out cities, suburbs further away from the urban core, and sparsely populated, monofunctional neighbourhoods. A key factor in this shift: the democratization of the automobile.

Perpetuating this type of urban development, as is being done in Quebec, inevitably leads to a greater dependence on cars, as well as massive spending on public infrastructure and the expansion of road and highway networks.

There is a dynamic link between land use planning and the public’s preferred modes of transportation: “Plus on planifie pour l’automobile, plus elle devient nécessaire pour se déplacer.” [the more we plan for cars, the more we need cars to get around]
(Association du Transport Urbain du Québec, (ATUQ), 2010) 

The vicious circle of dependence on cars:

Urban sprawl increases the distances residents must travel, leading to a significant reliance on cars. The resultant increase in traffic causes increasing congestion, which governments respond to by developing sprawling road and highway networks that serve outlying areas located further and further away from the urban core.

That’s where the vicious circle comes into play: by increasing highway capacity in order to reduce congestion, the opposite of what was hoped for occurs. Because the expressways exist, some people choose to move to increasingly remote areas, thereby creating new travel needs. That’s what’s called “induced demand.”

3 consequences of urban sprawl

1. Loss of natural areas and agricultural lands:

Urban sprawl results in extensive encroachment onto our natural and agricultural environments.

Despite the Act respecting the preservation of agricultural land and agricultural activities, adopted 40 years ago, our farmland continues to disappear year after year because of urban sprawl and financial and real estate speculation. Over 35,000 hectares have been affected over the past 20 years.

In 2020, cultivable farmland accounted for only 2% of Quebec’s land mass. The scarcity of these lands has driven up prices, causing additional speculative activity on farmland and putting them further and further out of farmers’ reach. And once farmland has been paved over, we can no longer recover the living, fertile soil lying underneath.

As for our natural ecosystems, industrial expansion, intensification of agricultural practices and accelerated urban sprawl in the past decades have caused irreparable harm to numerous ecological habitats, wetlands and riparian areas throughout Quebec. Fragmentation of natural habitats has impeded wildlife movements and the destruction of wetlands and shorelines has accelerated the decline of endangered species.

2. Devitalized communities:

In less dense areas, many services and businesses can be accessed solely by car. Sidewalks are rare, streets are poorly connected and neighbourhoods are hemmed in by roadways.

Communities that have been developed through urban sprawl often have shopping centres built along with them. These shopping centres are most often filled with big-box stores, rather than local artisans and businesses, thus undermining local economic vitality. What’s more, many residents will forego traditional downtown shopping districts for these mega-stores, sounding the death knell for the small businesses in these once established commercial areas.

And the direct impacts on neighbourhoods from urban sprawl are not just economic and social. Where there’s more concrete, there are more heat islands and there’s a greater risk of flooding because of impeded soil drainage. The destruction of wetlands and shorelines has also made communities more vulnerable to extreme weather events caused by the climate crisis.

3. Less infrastructure for public transit and active transportation:

With a low population density, it can be very expensive, if not impossible, to provide regular and appealing public transit options.

Outside of our largest cities, public transit remains marginal, and opportunities to get around on foot, by bike or via some other form of active transportation are limited. In 1971, some 80% of Canadian children aged 7-8 walked to school. Over the years, there has been a dramatic decline in active transportation among school aged children.

Living in neighbourhoods where it is necessary to have a car can also lead to health problems caused by GHG emissions and by a more sedentary lifestyle for motorists who often move less than those who can get around via active transportation or public transit.


Équiterre feels strongly that we must put an end to the silo vision that continues to guide Quebec public policy on land use. Quebec’s new land use strategy must have an integrated and coherent vision for transportation, agriculture and land use planning, which takes the entire population into account.

The current national conversation is an opportunity to express our concerns and our hopes for sustainable, resilient living environments that focus on quality of life, health and social justice.

Stay tuned for more information about how to take part. We must work together to build more resilient communities and a more resilient Quebec!

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