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what is “sustainable land use”?

September 16, 2007

The cohousing group I am a part of, Laurel Creek Commons is developing quite nicely. We’ve approved our Vision Document, and are sinking our teeth into a Mission Document, membership policy, and other big matters. However, one issue seems to loom large in all of our minds: location. Do we as a community want to locate ourselves in an urban/suburban area, or a more rural/agricultural setting? No small question.

My personal preference is to look for agricultural land. It provides us with room to grow as much food as we could possibly need in a post peak oil world (when it finally comes), first and foremost. It is also two orders of magnitude cheaper than urban land. Extra space will also allow us to become more energy-independent (if not entirely so) without worry of lot line restrictions or by-laws, not to mention the much smaller amount of solar exposure an urban lot gets as compared to a rural acreage.

Of course, those are not the only considerations to where to build. Land stewardship is part of Laurel Creek Common’s vision, and so we have to determine what is best for the land.

The term “sprawl” has entered our group’s discussion in terms of locating rurally. I agree that urban sprawl is not a good thing to perpetuate. (In fact, we are being faced with exactly that on Waterloo’s West Side right now, with three subdivisions being pushed into development over the region’s moraine.) However, I wonder if our group’s purchasing and development of rural land could really be considered “sprawl”.

In your typical subdivision sprawl, the bulldozers come in, pile up the topsoil, flatten everything, utilities are dug in, kilometres of roads entomb the now-barren earth, the land subdivided into tiny parcels, and then hundreds of houses are put up. Mature trees, if they did exist are gone, not to return for decades to come. Topsoil is returned only in minute quantities if at all, and put over highly compacted earth that is now littered with construction debris and garbage. The land (generally former crop land or pasture) is gone, never to return.

What Laurel Creek Commons is wanting to do is very different, however. Assuming we go rural, I see us purchasing approximately 100 acres, 98% of which we would very likely not be developing. The possible land uses in our hands would be naturalization or farming (based on organic and permaculture principles), but it won’t be bulldozed and turned into a strip mall. Our proposed final community size is around 30 dwellings, which can be built on 2 acres, based on existing cohousing developments (Ecovillage at Ithaca, Windsong Cohousing). Two acres may sound like a lot, but that is roughly the same footprint that one farm house, a barn, and a driving shed occupy. Is that sprawl? Not if all of the currently aerable land stays intact.

Another point to consider is what is truly sustainable in terms of land use. One acquaintance of mine likes to consider sustainability as being the “carrying capacity” of the land. By that he meant, if you walked out into the middle of the wilderness, how much wilderness would it take to keep you alive, just by living off of what is there (the edible flora and fauna)? That amount of area has a carrying capacity of one person. Of course, through agriculture you can significantly increase the carrying capacity of the land, but there’s likely a point at which said agriculture cannot be sustainable – it will deplete the soil, the water, drive out native plant species, whatever.

Right now pretty much any agricultural land in South-Western Ontario is being farmed using modern techniques (and equipment and chemicals), which I would argue falls under the “not sustainable” category. Huge monocultures of crops taking up every last square meter of land, multiple crops being grown in the same field over one growing season, no place for native species (flora or fauna), and the whole thing mechanically worked over within an inch of its life. A recent article in Scientific American goes so far as to say that agriculture may be the “largest threat to biodiversity and ecosystem function of any single human activity”.

In my vision of our community’s future, any land that we’d have would be brought back into being sustainable, yet still having an increased carrying capacity. The total amount of agriculture would drop tremendously, and the agriculture that would happen would be done with organic, permaculture techniques that would rebuild the soil and promote future soil health. Naturalization and the re-introduction of native species would allow the remainer of the land to heal and reclaim some of its natural, wild roots. In short, we’d be improving the land, and the regional biosphere in general.

The only aspect about locating on former agricultural land that remains distasteful is the lingering worry about essentially taking one farm out of production, forever. Somehow, that just seems wrong, denying humanity the food that could be produced on that land. With some thought, that worry is dispelled quite quickly.

If you’ve been paying attention, you’ll know that biofuels are coming on very strongly in the automotive sector; both biodiesel and ethanol are being promoted to no end, with some governments mandating minimum levels of biofuels within the next decade. The question you must ask is, “Where are these biofuels coming from?” In the case of biodiesel, some of it is coming from processed waste vegetable oil. That is an excellent use of what would otherwise be a waste product. However, biodiesel is also made from virgin oil, most preferably rapeseed (canola), as well as other varieties. Ethanol can be made from any feedstock with sugar in it, the current favourite in North American being corn. With all these formerly food-only crops being diverted into producing biofuels, do you see any food shortages? (Would a corn-burning pellet stoves be on the market if we needed all the corn we could produce?) No – we are producing way too much food, so much so that farmers leap at the opportunity for another market for their produce. In other words, taking one small farm out of mass production forever will not harm the world’s food chain, but will positively affect the biosphere.

The conclusion I’m drawing is probably crystal clear at this point – our cohousing group should purchase a rural piece of land, and focus our land stewardship goals there. I’ll admit that I may have missed something in drawing this conclusion, so if you have a counter-point, I’d love to hear it. In the meantime, I’m going to go check some agricultural properties on MLS.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. February 28, 2009 12:20 pm

    I love your site!

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