Wednesday, May 11, 2011

They Built their Farms Upon the Sand

Where there's a city today, in years gone by there was more than likely one of two things: forest or farmland. The first is more common in the built-up areas of Metro Vancouver, where Stanley Park stands as a testament to what the downtown core would have looked like a hundred and fifty years ago, whereas back in Ontario and throughout North America, the second is practically ubiquitous. Major cities tend to become that because they sit at favorable locations for trade and transportation, and there's little that's more favorable to trade and transport than food. The problem, of course, is that as cities expanded and suburbs sprawled, that fine farmland was plowed under concrete - something that is very common in Ontario.

I've never thought that building over farmland, particularly considering the world's populations issues, was a particularly good idea. You'll find effectively none in Toronto these days; while places like Scarborough and North York were pretty much village-dotted farmland sixty years ago, today the tide of development has long since swept through them.

Things are different in Metro Vancouver. From my apartment in New Westminster, it's about a thirty-minute bicycle ride to Richmond - and aside from the developments just across Boundary Road from Queensborough, a good chunk of Westminster Highway in the City of Richmond doesn't seem to be passing through "city" at all. In fact, much of central Lulu Island seems to me that it can't have changed much in sixty years - aside from dottings of houses and wineries and a big concrete factory, the middle of the island is pretty much farm to the water.

A view of the farmland in central Lulu Island at Westminster Highway and No. 7 Road, looking toward the city beyond the river.

Thankfully, I'm not the only one who seems to like this state of affairs. A few days ago, the Burnaby NewsLeader released the results of a poll regarding agricultural land in Metro Vancouver - a poll which found ninety-three percent agreeing that the protection of the remaining agricultural lands is important, for a variety of reasons. Aside from the environmental issues which apparently dominated in New Westminster, there's the issue of food security, containment of sprawl, and the maintenance of local agricultural jobs. Beyond that, there's something relaxing about riding through the countryside on a bright, warm day - and it's a countryside we can practically reach by SkyTrain.

Beyond that, there's also the issue of proper land use. To be blunt, if it was up to me, Richmond wouldn't be a city at all but a collection of villages between farmland - not because of any specific dislike of development, but purely geological concerns. It may be the case that Richmond is one of the worst places in the Lower Mainland to have built a city. Recall that Lulu Island is made of sediment transported by the Fraser River - while this may be what made it so good to farm in the first place, it is an extreme liability when it comes to earthquake preparation.

It's all down to liquefaction. If a sufficiently powerful earthquake strikes, the ground beneath Richmond will act more like a liquid. The same is true for pretty much all of Delta save western Tsawwassen, a chunk of west-central Surrey, parts of Coquitlam and Port Coquitlam, Pitt Meadows, and land further along the Fraser. It will happen, one of these days.

So it comes down to proper land use. I support the defense of Metro Vancouver's existing agricultural land, because every acre of farmland in an area with high seismic risk - and, to my eyes, most of the farmland appears to be in exactly those areas - is an acre that isn't converted to cities that may collapse and kill their occupants in the next earthquake. The advantages of an agricultural economy so close at hand is a pleasant bonus.

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