Thursday, May 20, 2010


One thing people struggle with a lot in the Gulf Islands is their idea of what the Gulf Islands are, and what they should be. Most agree we should be rural, but most don't agree on what rural is. It used to be that rural was just not urban. Rural homes were often built by the homeowner or a local builder. Rural communities had wilderness for backyards and were places where everyone knew everyone else, or were related to them. Food was not just grown in a row, it was also gathered or hunted. Doors weren't locked. Rural used to mean open spaces, few services and little in the way of planning. The profession of planning is about as old as me, and people have made community decisions about where they live and how much longer. Those who study rural development agree that policies applied top-down by bureaucrats and politicians don’t work in rural areas. They also agree that a “place-based” approach to rural problems is best. All that means is every rural community is different and decisions are best made by the local people who are affected.
I grew up on a mountain side rural community close to Vancouver. Forest behind us, fruit trees, garden and field around us. The kids were free-ranged then, gleaning fruit from orchards and running from bears, watching for cougars, eating salmon berries and huckleberries in the woods. In the fall, deer and bear would go down to the river, the bear eating berries and fruits, then salmon in the river at the bottom of the mountain. But before my memories were my mom's memories, because she grew up there, too. My grandfather homesteaded the property when there was only a logging road and stumps from where the forest used to stand. He built a house, planted trees, put in a garden. Slowly more houses grew down the hill from us. Growth continued and now, my parents' neighbours have moved away as they were taxed off their land. Their houses replaced with intensive development, the entire hillside was again deforested. Rural is gone just like that as the city climbs the mountain and moves in. Confused bears still follow the creek down the mountain to the river but end up in the backyards of the new houses and the front pages of newspapers. Mom sees the bears a lot, and hears coyotes. There were no coyotes when I was a kid, but as cougar were shot, relocated or moved on, the coyotes took over. Mom and dad now lock their doors, and not just because the developers have been knocking. Rural can be viewed as future urban, like where I grew up, or an intentional rural community - like we have in the Gulf Islands.
Mark Partidge of Ohio University, a speaker at the Canadian Rural Revitalization Foundation conference in 2006, said that planners overestimate the capacity of the rural areas to implement government policies, and underestimate the entrepreneurial capacity of the rural areas to do things for themselves. A Canadian federal commission reported that rural policies need to respect rural diversity, need to help those that help themselves, need to be place-based and need to recognize that rural Canada doesn't necessarily want to be urbanized. Rural Canada, especially places like the Gulf Islands which are so beautiful, filled with amenities, and close to urban centers are particularly vulnerable to gentrification.
Gentrification is a result of urban people moving to a rural community for the rural lifestyle, but demanding urban amenities. There is greater pressure to upgrade schools, roads, communications. Who complains the loudest about the potholes and want all the roads paved? Who “needs” cable to the end of their road? Once all is said and done, will our Gulf Islands remain rural? As cities densify, we will no doubt see more amenity migrants moving to the islands – so why don't we slow down. Divided communities need leadership to encourage dialogue and to listen. We need a long view of the future, and an understanding of the past. Perhaps to really have the Gulf Islands as rural communities we need less planning by outside professionals with urban training and perspectives, and more democratic input by the rural residents of the Gulf Islands before it is too late. Like the bumper sticker say, “I am on Pender time.”
Barbara Johnstone Grimmer

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