Gambling with the future

Land-use planning is not rocket science; it's much more complicated. For those of you already rolling your eyes and thinking "leave it to a scientist to make things complicated," bear with me.


by Fiona Schmiegelow

Land-use planning is not rocket science; it’s much more complicated.

For those of you already rolling your eyes and thinking “leave it to a scientist to make things complicated,” bear with me. Unlike the engineering of rocket parts, there are no formulas that dictate exactly how the parts of a land-use plan should be combined, and there is no immediate measure of success, such as the launch of a rocket, that indicates that you got it right. Instead, the process of land-use planning is really an exercise in speculation about the capacity of the land to sustain desired values.

Herein lies the rub. Because there is no formula that guarantees particular results, speculation creates complexity and uncertainty in outcomes. Those of you with a gambling bent will appreciate that the more things you are betting on to coincide, the lower the odds that they will.

Just as being dealt a full house is much less likely than getting a pair, from the perspective of land use, the more values you are trying to sustain, the more complex the planning process. The difference is that with gambling, there is limited ability to affect the odds. But we can significantly reduce uncertainty and improve the odds of achieving desired land-use outcomes through careful planning.

We have before us five plans for the Peel region: one from the planning commission (the final recommended plan) and four concepts advanced by the Yukon government. This is a daunting amount of material to wade through.

In general, all the plans strive to achieve desired social, environmental and economic outcomes throughout the region, and understandably, discussions about their content has been distilled into summary reporting on the percentages assigned to broad land-use categories.

This is misleading, however, because such figures tend to polarize the debate, and the details of how the desired outcomes are to be achieved really do matter.

Returning to the earlier theme of speculation, one way of improving the likelihood of success is to ensure that you have an opportunity to learn from experience what works and what doesn’t. The only way to do this in a scientifically robust way is to ensure that you can unambiguously attribute success (or failure) to a particular management decision or action.

A related planning principle is to assign different activities to different areas, and to have some in combination, but also to ensure you designate some areas of sufficient size that allow you to understand what might have happened in the absence of active management. These are controls or reference areas that serve as benchmarks for evaluating management success. This strategy is referred to as adaptive management, and is a widely recognized means of reducing uncertainty and improving management outcomes.

There is a great deal of uncertainty associated with land use in the Peel region, and recognizing and addressing this through planning is key to reducing the likelihood of unintended outcomes. Perhaps the most important lever in this will be how access is managed.

There is a wealth of evidence from systems across North America that roads diminish wildlife and water systems. Where roads are absent, these values are typically sustained, even in conjunction with some development activities. Where roads are present, these values are typically diminished, even when development is otherwise undertaken to high standards.

An important distinction between the final recommended plan and the concept plans is the ability to tease apart the effects of different activities on the stated values for the region. Despite advancing a number of tools to actively manage development, none of the concept plans forbid roads in any of the land-use designations.

There are provisions for managing the amount of total disturbance in an area, but by allowing all activities to happen simultaneously, it will be nearly impossible to determine why certain management measures have succeed or failed. There is no control or benchmark, and improving the odds over time has been compromised. It’s gambling with the future.

This approach is also likely to stifle innovation. In contrast, the final recommended plan presents a structured approach to land-use zoning that provides benchmarks to measure management success, and a phased approach to development that will encourage innovation and maintains options to capitalize on these. Some of the additional tools proposed by the concept plans could further improve these measures.

I am a pragmatist and firmly believe in the principle of learning by doing. I also believe in taking measured risks. The present polarization of discussion around the Peel land-use plans does a disservice to all. Too often, we spend most of our energy arguing over assumptions, rather that exploring the potential.

As a scientist, I see incredible opportunities to move beyond conventional approaches to land use in order to achieve a broader set of objectives through innovation. As a Yukon resident for nearly a decade (I know, still a relative newcomer), I hope we will seize this opportunity.

Despite assertions that high levels of protection are incompatible with a vibrant resource-based economy, there are examples where this is happening. The Far North and Plan Nord initiatives by the Ontario and Quebec governments have committed to at least 50 per cent protection in conjunction with community-based land-use planning and sustainable development, and this is over areas equal to and twice the size of the Yukon, respectively.

Industry is rising to this challenge. Our Alaskan neighbours have similarly achieved high levels of protection and economic prosperity. Why not here?

Fiona Schmiegelow is a professor with the University of Alberta.