Growing up in a small county in northwestern China, Yangzhe Cao witnessed first-hand the loss of agricultural land to urban expansion. When Cao came to the University of Alberta for graduate studies, she noticed a similar trend in Edmonton and Calgary, where rapid economic and population growth are reshaping open spaces.
“Urban Alberta is spilling into rural,” says Brent Swallow, an environment and development economist and Cao’s graduate research supervisor. Too often, decisions about land designation are driven by short-term goals, he says. But there are long-term costs to development and to the “ecosystem services” that rural land provides for cities, such as clean air and water.
Balancing urban expansion with rural conservation is challenging and heavily influenced by people’s attitudes and beliefs. For example, do urbanites in Alberta want to preserve the rural land around their cities? Do they want more locally grown produce at the farmers markets? Are they willing to pay extra to keep the city outskirts green?
The Alberta Real Estate Foundation wants to find answers to these questions to help the real estate industry better understand issues around land stewardship. The foundation’s $50,000 donation will make it possible for Swallow and his research team in the Faculty of Agricultural, Life & Environmental Sciences to conduct a provincewide survey of urban attitudes toward fragmentation, conversion and conservation of agricultural land.
“Our mission is to invest in projects that enhance the real estate industry and benefit the people of Alberta,” says Cheryl De Paoli, the foundation’s executive director. “Growth and conservation policies each have a profound impact on property values. Understanding the drivers behind people’s attitudes will help developers and urban planners minimize the negative consequences of these changes.”
The U of A study aims to capture a wide range of opinions and improve the dialogue among Albertans — with the goal of more careful planning by developers and urban planners.
“Municipalities are the gatekeepers of the land,” says Swallow. “Our goal is to provide strong evidence-based tools to help Alberta’s municipalities make better-informed decisions about land management.”