Eating Soil

Our voracious appetite.

By Kevin Van Tighem

Look at a satellite image of Alberta at night, and you can map our richest agricultural soils by the concentration of urban lights. When European immigrants arrived here in the late 1800s and early 1900s, they were looking for good soil. Our larger towns and cities sprang up in the heart of our best farmland. The cities are still there; increasingly, the soil isn’t.

Fescue grassland produced Alberta’s finest black soils; that’s why fescue grassland is now one of the province’s scarcest natural ecosystems. From Lloydminster west to Edmonton, then south through Red Deer to Calgary and a bit beyond, fescue prairie went under the plow while towns and cities grew up to serve the farmers.

Plowing native grassland starved the soil by killing the vegetation whose roots sustained and renewed its organic matter. Prairie agriculture has come some ways towards restoring the ecological processes that help soil renew itself. There’s always hope for soil as long as there’s a place for vegetation to grow. There is no hope, however, once asphalt, strip malls and houses take over.

That’s the dark side of the bright arc of light smeared across the face of Alberta each night. That glow illuminates a province that is killing its best farmland. Black prairie soil is piled, even today, on the outskirts of Wainwright, Edmonton, Red Deer, Airdrie, Calgary and most other large towns or cities as urban developers scrape away once-fecund prairie soils and replace them with urban sprawl.

The Alberta Land Institute, based at the University of Alberta, recently released some disturbing statistics about the rate at which we are cannibalizing our best farmland. “Economic Evaluation of Farmland Conversion and Fragmentation in Alberta” found that, in the 30 years ending in 2013, more than 1,600 km2 of land between Calgary and Edmonton was converted to urban or industrial use. That’s an area bigger than both cities combined.

Towns and cities don’t need to devour more land. They can grow denser. The population density of Edmonton is barely more than 3,000 people per square mile. By contrast, New York City has 27,000 souls per square mile—nine times denser than Edmonton. Vancouver, squeezed between the mountains and the sea, is five times as dense as Alberta’s capital.

But Alberta cities aren’t constrained by geography. That’s why most urban Albertans live in mass-produced neighbourhoods that used to be farmland.

Over 30 years, 1,600 km2 of land between Calgary and Edmonton was converted to urban or industrial use—an area bigger than both cities combined.

Not everything about sprawl is bad. Demographia, a US think tank, argues that suburban development keeps housing affordable. Their International Housing Affordability Survey analyzed cities around the world and concluded that policies designed to keep cities compact also drive home prices out of reach. But critics counter that the sticker price is only one factor in a home’s affordability. Suburban living often imposes long commutes to work and school. Transportation and other costs considerably change the affordability equation. Having briefly lived in Okotoks while working in downtown Calgary, I can attest to that; our mortgage seemed affordable but we barely made it from one paycheque to the next.

Suburbs are a 20th century aberration built around the private automobile. Fundamentally, suburban sprawl is unsustainable because it consumes non-renewable resources: oil, soil and space. It also hurts community by separating families from the places where they work, go to school, shop and play. Jane Jacobs considered suburbs city-killers. They are farm-killers too.

Sprawl extends even beyond the suburbs; in recent decades urbanites have been buying land an hour or two out of town to build homes there. The attraction of “rurban” life is obvious, but if suburbia wastes land and resources, rurbanization is even more extravagant.

Ecologist Brad Stelfox models future changes to the Alberta landscape using various spatial databases and statistics about social, environmental and industry trends. His ALCES model (A Landscape Cumulative Effects Simulator) is used by industry and government to evaluate future investment or policy choices. It should come as no surprise that ALCES predicts ongoing losses of farmland and natural habitats. But what might be surprising is that the biggest culprit isn’t suburbia, oil and gas, forestry, mining or another industrial use. It’s city people moving to the countryside. Unfortunately, areas near major cities contain not just our most productive agricultural soils; some of Alberta’s richest wildlife habitats are in the near-urban foothills, lake country and river valleys.

The 21st century is shaping up to be a time when humanity can no longer avoid hard choices. One of those choices will be whether farmland soils and rural nature are too important to our future to be replaced with houses.

Kevin Van Tighem’s latest book, Our Place: Changing the Nature of Alberta, was released in spring 2017 by RMB.


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