I recently published a paper with Dr. Denver Nixon of Oxford University that gives a sweeping overview of ALR protection in our corner of the world over the last four decades. The full paper is available in Land Use Policy, but as academic papers are notoriously hard for non-academics to access, I decided a short summary was in order. This first Agriburban Research Centre white paper summarizes our main findings, which were, for the most part, good news.
By comparing the initial ALR boundaries with current boundaries, we found that on average in the areas South of Fraser, 5% of the total farm area was lost to development over the last 40 years. This is good news when we consider that before the ALR was initiated, losses were much higher. The ALC estimates losses at 4000 ha per year before the ALR was created. Lisa Stobbe of Trinity Western University estimates these losses at somewhere between 1% and 1.5% a year. If this accurate, the ALR slowed land loss by about a factor of 8.
The issue is particularly pressing in the Lower Mainland, as our region has so little land. We have roughly 2000 square kilometers of flat land to work with, which is about 1/6th the area of Greater Toronto. Much of this land is by far the most productive farmland in Canada, and there is little nearby farmland to take up the slack. The Lower Mainland is a ready market for our products, and we also sell to export as well. The stability of the land base has helped create a robust agricultural sector.
That said, we found some interesting variances in the ALR. As expected, Chilliwack and Abbotsford have done a reasonably good job of protecting their farmland from land loss. However, what was unexpected is that Surrey has done an even better job of protecting ALR land. Surrey has concentrated urban development outside of the ALR; that said, this does not translate into production, as Kent Mullinix at KPU has shown. His team found many small lots in Surrey are not actually farmed. However, that wasn’t our focus in this work.
We were quite concerned with the level of land loss in one region: Langley. There has been significant residential encroachment onto farmland there, which is odd given Surrey is closer to Vancouver. The usual pattern is in effect flipped. Langley also has more spot removals of land, leaving more boundaries between ALR land and development land. To be fair, Langley had little development land to begin with, and is under intense development pressure, but the nature of exclusions there is worth watching.
We also noted the near extinction of farming on Bowen Island. This might seem a trivial point, as the total amount of farmland is so small, but going forward it would be interesting to compare losses on Bowen to other islands and to the Sunshine Coast. Likely farming is simply too difficult on islands given the cost of the ferry system, but this is a shame given that most of our islands badly need jobs and tourist draws.
The map below gives a broad overview of the losses in the ALR up to 2012. We will be updating and expanding this work to more areas as time allows. Given the intense competition for land in the lower mainland, I expect we will be discussion the ALR for a long time to come.