Southlands is a 538-acre tract of land south of Vancouver that has been the subject of contentious public hearings to decide whether it should be developed or returned to the province’s agricultural land reserve – or be turned into what planners at HB Lanarc have called “agricultural urbanism,” a mixed use residential, commercial, and farming subdivision. The outcome of an ongoing public consultation process (the next public hearing is scheduled for April 14) will determine the fate of the property and, to some extent, the public’s view of these kinds of mixed use projects.
The previous owner of the Southlands property proposed developing the site in the early 1970s as a conventional 3,500 home subdivision. Local residents challenged that project and the land was subsequently incorporated into the region’s agricultural land reserve (ALR), a program designed to protect peri-urban farmland from development. However, the property was removed from the ALR in 1981, and a new, conventional development proposal emerged in 1989, only to flounder again. The Century Group, a development firm, acquired the property and in 2006 began crafting a new proposal for the site that would incorporate farmland along with homes. Roughly one-third of the site would be developed for housing, one third for community amenities, and one-third for agriculture. The planners from HB Lanarc together with New Urbanism guru Andres Duany, held an 8-day charrette to design the project with community input.
The project that emerged included environmental innovations like greywater recycling, solar power and energy conservation, as well as New Urbanist traditional neighborhood design features such as walkability. But the most innovative feature was the effort to integrate food production into the heart of the project at different scales – including private kitchen gardens, community gardens, one-acre neighborhood parcels, and a farmers market and cooking school. (Perhaps the best-known example of a farmland subdivision is Prairie Crossing, in Grayslake Illinois. Prairie Crossing was built on a similar-size corn and soybean farm, and now supports 40 acres of farmland, approximately 20 acres of which are farmed in any given season.)
But the developers and planners underestimated the public’s concern about farmland loss and their opposition to building on any portion of the site. And because the property required a rezoning from agricultural to mixed use to move forward, those opponents successfully convinced local officials to deny the zoning change, thus putting the brakes on the project – at least for now. In response to public opinion, in February, 2011, the Delta Council approved an application to have the Southlands property included in the Agricultural Land Reserve.
While many issues have motivated members of the public to testify against the project, a large sticking point is the desire to protect the region’s remaining farmland and to preserve the integrity of the ALR system, which has lost nearly one-fifth of its land since it was established in 1972. Some oppose any farmland loss, many are suspicious of the viability of mixed farming/residential communities, and others feel that farms are simply subdivision amenities like golf courses, and that any greenfield development is damaging to the environment. Developers and planners, and those who are looking for innovative ways to integrate agriculture into communities, should pay close attention to the outcome of t