(originally published as "Grass" in Vancouver Matters, 2009)
Southwest Marine Drive marks a threshold in the City of Vancouver. To the north, Dunbar’s grid of single family homes and neighborhood shops roll over the heights; the pulse of traffic and everyday urban life keep time. To the south the scene shifts. Automobiles yield to horse and rider along the roadways. Immaculate 18-hole golf courses stretch out over much of the landscape. Many of the properties boast private tennis courts, pools, and pleasure boats. Early century cottages are being replaced by opulent and expansive estates which capitalize on some of the most expensive real estate in Canada. This is the Agricultural Land Reserve in Vancouver.
A local developer boasts that “Southlands will make you forget you are still in the city.” Southlands can just as easily make you forget that you are in the Agricultural Land Reserve (ALR). Occupying ground that is zoned provincially and locally for agricultural use (Vancouver’s only RA-1 designation), the area is surprisingly, and almost completely, devoid of what might be considered traditional agricultural production. Livestock, vegetable fields, and modest farm homes have been replaced by equestrian clubs, fairways, and lavish mansions. Today, the community exists as an exclusive, semi-rural “leisurescape” -- a hybrid landscape that values urban leisure in an idyllic rural setting over a working agricultural landscape.
Recontextualizing the ALR
The ALR was established in 1973 as a special provincial land use zone designed to protect and preserve British Columbia’s diminishing supply of farmland. Lands designated under the Act included those deemed “capable and suitable” for agricultural use, land that was at the time under cultivation, and land zoned locally for farming. The intent of the Act was to preserve land vital to provincial food security while sustaining the agricultural sector in the province. In terms of protecting the overall agricultural land base, the Reserve is often cited as a remarkable success – the ALR’s original boundaries remain largely intact and thousands of acres of farmland remain dedicated to agricultural uses. However rising land prices, urban growth, and fluctuating global markets continue to pose serious challenges to the viability of much the province’s prime agricultural land along the Lower Mainland’s urban/rural edge.
Under increasing pressure from urban encroachment, the edge has become a site of opportunism. Land values at the urban edge vastly exceed those of adjacent ALR properties. This disparity is the driving force behind the hundreds of exemption claims fielded each year by the Agricultural Land Commission – the economic value of agricultural land increases exponentially when freed from the land use restrictions of the Reserve. Millions of dollars are at stake in each acre of land along this threshold. Where the line exists, it inspires creative interpretation by land owners and speculators eager to capitalize on the inherent value of their land. While the institution of the ALR is expressed as a permanent condition, the volatility of political whim and the high economic stakes involved ensure that the reality of the Reserve’s legal framework remains malleable and open to negotiation. Despite the strong presence of the ALR, the complex urban forces present at the edge sustain a perpetual tension.
Though defined and codified in singular terms, agricultural land in Vancouver assumes complex and abstract forms at the urban/rural edge. Beyond serving as simply a space for cultivation and food production, the edge is comprised of multiple constituencies and interest groups that are invested in the future of this landscape. Though understood and imagined politically as a singular agrarian condition, the ALR edge has been strongly influenced by the urban domain. An emergent urbanism influenced by civic interests has woven its way into the fabric of the landscape along the ALR’s edge. Not fully suburban and not fully agrarian, Vancouver’s Southlands function as a hybrid landscape—a site for a “rural urbanism”. The typologies that result are representative of the different ways that the rural landscape is valued and codified by an urban society.
The Reserve itself exists as a political framework—a set of land use policies and guidelines that govern how ALR land can be used. Because this landscape is “imagined” in a regulatory sense, it is vulnerable to distortion—the exploitation of loopholes, political manipulation, and subversion of the rules are manifest in the physical fabric of the Reserve: dozens of “community institutions” (temples, churches, schools) have been constructed on ALR land at the edge; local urban teens exploit fallow parcels for social events; construction waste is smuggled to illicit micro-landfills hidden on farm parcels; water parks and go-kart tracks sit amidst active farm fields; driving range carts harvest golf balls, while farm machinery operates simultaneously on the other side of a screen netting.
The result at Southlands is a heterotopic space in the city—a site of remarkable “otherness” and juxtaposition. Here, and elsewhere along the urban/rural edge, the ALR represents recreational, scenic, environmental, and economic opportunity. These interests operate both in conjunction and in conflict with agriculture to produce a contested landscape. The ALR in Vancouver has acquired a complexity that goes beyond its singular categorization. Exploring and understanding these anomalous conditions opens up a new set of possibilities along the edge. Neither strictly urban, nor strictly rural, the edge has assumed a multiplicitous character that defies conventional definitions and challenges existing notions of what is possible here. The edge has the potential to cultivate an exchange between a diverse and complex set of ecologies. By engaging and investing multiple interest groups in this landscape, its future existence becomes more secure by virtue of embedded advocacy. Change is inevitable, and productive, for any landscape; but the question of how change manifests itself at the ALR edge is what is at stake -- and is open to design.
Documenting ALR Edge Conditions in the Lower Mainland
BC’s prime agricultural land occupies a highly contested geography within the province. As Vancouver’s population continues to expand, the tension between urban growth and agricultural land becomes exacerbated. For urban edge farmers this presents challenges; and opportunities. Many Lower Mainland farmers have begun to reconsider their relationship to the urban areas they border, thinking of these as untapped markets for value-added organic products and recreational/tourist activities that could support traditional agricultural production. Agriculture at the metropolitan edge is becoming more urban.
One of the ALR’s original mandates included a provision for the protection of wildlife habitat. While this responsibility has been passed on to other agencies, preserving nature-space remains one of the most valued aspects of the ALR. In addition to providing space for wildlife and migratory birds, the ALR represents scenic value for an urban population. Despite providing a highly valued public good, farmers receive no incentives for environmental stewardship. This condition represents the inequity that many urban edge farmers feel towards the ALR – highly restrictive land use regulations coupled with an uneven burden of responsibility.
The ALR is a political construct – and thus it has a long history of strategic reinterpretation. A clause was recently amended allowing non-conforming land uses that serve a “community need.” The commission’s most recent service report allows for the removal of over 4,700 hectares of prime agricultural land for this purpose over the next three years. Such loosely defined terms have served as loopholes inspiring country clubs, religious institutions, industrial zones, and convention centers on ALR land. Redevelopment here often occurs in sudden, and often unplanned, surges as opportunities arise.
Land prices on the urban edge often exceed those of adjacent farm properties by 10 times. Without political protection, farming as an industry cannot compete with a market valuation of the land based on residential and commercial uses. Speculators have bought up parcels at the agricultural edge, anticipating future exclusion from the ALR. This practice increases the cost of land, making farming here more difficult and development more attractive – a self-fulfilling cycle.
Many Lower Mainland residents enjoy the ALR as a space of leisure: from formalized golf courses and go-kart tracks, to informal biking and bird watching. Agricultural land as a site of recreation produces a set of provocative, and contentious, adjacencies. Driving ranges and bike trails are buffered from farmland to prevent theft and vandalism, while u-pick operations and wineries create interfaces for urban and rural constituencies. Inviting urban populations onto agricultural land could yield new markets, and difficulties, for urban edge farmers.
Most of Metro Vancouver’s agricultural districts remain profitable despite increasing challenges. Vancouver’s Southlands, however, consistently shows losses in its agricultural sector. The many hobby and equestrian farms here serve a different economic purpose for their owners -- properties that produce $2,500 annually in agricultural output are assessed as farm class properties and are taxed at a fraction of the previous rate. The result is a landscape of hobby farms that function as tax write-offs and pastimes for an increasingly “urban” rural population.
 In The Country and the City, Raymond Williams examines a literary tradition dating to the Middle Ages which bemoans the “death” of agrarian life and the urban consumption of rural landscapes. Williams calls the short-sighted resistance to change in the agrarian landscape “a problem of perspective.” Instead, he suggests that change in the rural landscape should be considered in terms of temporal increments beyond the immediate present; and that change should be productively accounted for in the designing the future countryside.
 In Imagined Country: Society, Culture & Environment, John Rennie Short discusses the different ways that the “countryside” is imagined by an urban society and the significance of myth-making in the way that this rural landscape is imagined. The “pastoral” notion of a more wholesome and nourishing existence in the countryside has long been evoked—the agricultural landscape as “a perfect past to an imperfect present and uncertain future.”. While the urban imagination of the rural is often out of sync with the realities of the working landscape, such collective imaginations can serve as powerful forces in shaping policy and practice.