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From Russia to Montreal: Why how we "occupy" our land matters

Actu - Steven Guilbeault crédit martinelarose.com

By Steven Guilbeault, cofounder and deputy executive director of Equiterre

For several weeks now, the Montreal Metropolitan Community (MMC), which includes the island of Montreal, Laval, Longueuil and the North Shore, has been holding consultations on its first ever proposal for a land use and development plan (PMAD).

Some question whether Greater Montreal really needs a development plan. 

Others say that they support sustainable development, but that we must continue to "grow" to avoid "stifling the economy."

I don't want to overwhelm you with numbers, but...

  • Census data for Quebec shows that between 1971 and 2006, the population of our metropolitan areas increased by 62%, while the area of land occupied increased by a whopping 261%.
  • Between 2001 and 2006, 14% of Montrealers between the ages of 25 and 44 left the city centre for the suburbs, but only 5% of suburbanites made the move in the opposite direction.
  • Recent studies of the Greater Toronto Area show that residents of low-density suburbs use 3.7 times more energy for transportation than their counterparts in densely populated urban areas. 
  • From 2001 to 2011, more than 2000 acres of our best farmland was rezoned for continued urban sprawl – and that's just in Greater Montreal!

Which brings me to Russia.

"Russia," you say. "What's that got to do with land-use planning in Greater Montreal?"

To which I say, "Dear reader, be patient."

So, Russia, 2010. The country is experiencing what are possibly its worst forest fires in history. Hundreds of forests across the country are in flames. In the East. In the West. There is so much smoke that even Moscow's Red Square is obscured by a thick fog.

By late summer, the situation is so bad that the Russian government announces that it will stop exporting grains, including wheat.

Now, since Russia is one of the largest grain exporters in the world, you can imagine what happens to world markets: the price of food made with these exports soars. The price of wheat rises from $4.50 to $8.00 in just six months!

It is stories like these that explain why many experts now believe that the era of globalized agriculture is coming to an end and that we will return to an increasingly regionalized agriculture.

As I said in my presentation to the MMC, we understand why it's becoming more and more important to protect our farmland and curb urban sprawl.

I don't know about you, but what do I think we're talking about when we talk about how to use our land?

We're talking about how we're going to feed our children in the future.

And you know what?

Something tells me that we don't have to worry too much for real estate developers.

They will find somewhere other than farmland to meet the needs of their customers: land in an urban area with access to public transit and other services.

Photo: martinelarose.com (taken during a conference of the Association québécoise de la distribution de fruits et légumes)