This November, the people of Prince George will be asked to vote for a new mayor and council. And the people asking for those votes are going to lay out their vision for the city. Is there a performing arts center? An engineering program at UNBC? But for my money, one of the best chances to understand how our current council envisions the future of Prince George will be in the discussion surrounding 85 new homes proposed for a small neighbourhood east of the city.
The proposal is to take a 45.5 hectare piece of land and divide it up into 85 smaller lots. The land is in city boundaries but outside of “the city”, past the airport and in what might be more accurately characterized as the “country” part of town. In fact, the land is currently classified as agricultural, something that would have to change for this development to go ahead.
Let’s go back to the notion of “vision”. Back in 2009, the city started a process called “MyPG.” It was a comprehensive set of community consulations basically asking people “what kind of city do we want this to be?” Hundreds of aspects of life in the city were looked at, and an overall plan with lots of smaller plans were put into place to help guide future decision making.
Fast forward to 2014 and this proposal. City staff receive the request for the 85 new lots and they prepare a report to help the mayor and council decide whether to support it. That report was presented back in April. In it, city staff recommend that the new lots not be approved. Why? Because of the city vision.
One bullet point in the report given to council was about something called “Complete Communities.” The vision for Prince George is that it be easy for people to work, play, and shop close to their home without having to rely solely on cars (ie that they be able to bike, walk, and take the bus to the places they have to be). Staff warn:
“The Blackburn neighbourhood offers limited services beyond an elementary school and a community hall. The lack of services results in residents having longer vehicle trips to meet everyday needs. The proposed development would be considerable distance from common destinations such as highschools (Duchess Park – 12.3km) or commercial centres (Parkwood Shopping Centre – 12.1 km). Without any conventional public transit routes in the Blackburn neighbourhood, these longer trips are almost entirely dependent on the private vehicle. There are also no formalized pedestrian or cycling routes serving the Blackburn area at present. The Active Transportation Plan (2010) identifies the potential to create a shared Bike/Traffic lane along Blackburn Road and Giscome Road in medium term forecast, but any trail or cycling connection from the Blackburn area to the Downtown is a low priority.”
To put it more simply, approving this development would contribute to urban sprawl. In fact, the staff report says exactly that later on:
“The term sprawl often refers to settlement patterns that feature some or all of the following characteristics: subdivision of unused agricultural land; large residential lots; tie-in to municipal services; lack of public transit and pedestrian connections; and, considerable distance to other land uses. The proposed rezoning and subsequent subdivision has the characteristics of sprawl.”
There are other concerns surrounding this: the cost of building and maintaing new roads and sewer, the problems of taking agricultural land and making it residential, that sort of thing. But to me the real interest is in the question of how we want the city to grow.
Right now we have roughly 80,000 people. There is an unofficial target of 100,000 in the next decade or so. How do you make space for those 20,000 new people? You could do it by focusing on making smaller lots, apartments, and duplexes in what we already consider the “urban core” of the city: downtown, the Millar Addition, and ‘the bowl’ generally. Strategic building can accomodate quite a few people in urban centers.
Another method is to keep on expanding. If you drive from the university to College Heights, you will see a number of new and developing neighbourhoods that have been created in the last decade. You can see empty space in all directions of town that could be turned into large family homes. We have the space to grow out and out and out.
It’s not an either/or scenario, either. There can be a combination. Certainly, one of the selling points for a place like Prince George is that you can own a home with a yard and still be a few minutes drive from the city proper. One of the supporters of this project argues that by developing Blackburn you will support downtown, because it will be the closest shopping center for anyone who moves there. To hear the case for this development as a counter to the staff report, I recommend listening to this.
None of this is a science. You can’t say for sure that any single subdvision or highrise is “right,” and certainly one highrise or subdivision does not a city make. But listen to the discussion around those subdivisions and highrises and you might get a sense of where the vision’s looking.
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