Nature holds the key to our aesthetic, intellectual, cognitive and even spiritual satisfaction.
– E.O. Wilson

On Feb. 4, 2009 the Provincial Government announced the start of the Northeast Avalon Regional (NEAR) Plan. The NEAR Plan would replace the 30-year-old, out-of-date St. John’s Urban Region Regional Plan (at least the new plan would have a better title). Covering 15 communities, the NEAR Plan would address issues like development sprawl, preservation of coastal land, comprehensive land-use planning and regional transportation. The new plan was ambitiously slated to be completed by early 2011.

First, the bad news: the plan is years overdue.

NEAR Plan starts slowly

At a meeting of municipal councils for the region in 2010, it was noted that “…there has not been a leadership committee meeting regarding the Northeast Avalon Regional Plan for some time.” Three years after the initial announcement, in 2012, the status of the plan was also raised in the House of Assembly. Government’s response was that the plan was “bogged down” in a rewrite of the consultative process. When asked, “Will we see these plans shortly?” government’s response was “absolutely”. Having worked in government myself, I can attest that the general public’s perception of time is different from that of the government’s. The latest, according to NEAR’s Leadership Committee, is that the plan is slated to be submitted to government for approval by March 31, 2014.

Over the past four years, however, the issues addressed by the plan have changed from development sprawl and preservation to settlement and development needs, transportation, economic projects and “natural environment considerations”. If you start a plan looking at what you want to build on and pave over, it is doomed to fail. Instead, regional urban plans like this should start with what we need to protect. Many readers may think this is counter-intuitive or simply the opinion of a protected areas advocate. But I only echo the latest science. And here’s the good news: there is time to get it right.

Green Spaces – not just children’s playgrounds

Historically, green spaces in urban planning were restricted to “park lots” or small recreational areas. In more recent years, thoughts have shifted from ball fields and manicured green spaces to areas that actually provide ecological functions and benefits. As I have discussed in this column before, our province has an antiquated view of protected areas. We often view them as a liability, rather than a necessity. Would you have your mechanic fix your 2012 car with a 30-year-old manual or would you rather they use the most up-to-date specifications and techniques? There is a wealth of new information and expertise out there regarding urban planning; it is up to the provincial government and NEAR’s Leadership Committee to ensure we use the latest tools.

There are different kinds of “green spaces”, each with their own purpose and design criteria. Some protected areas are required to protect biodiversity. There are several areas on the Northeast Avalon that are considered Important Bird Areas. Two that immediately come to mind are Cape St. Francis and Quidi Vidi Lake. These and other areas have been assessed using internationally accepted criteria and are important on national and international scales. Although not a hotspot for rare plants, the Northeast Avalon still has areas important for the conservation of flora. Wetlands (bogs, fens, marshes) are biodiversity hotspots and are usually one of the first landscape features mapped and assessed in any planning process.

Indeed, the conservation of wetlands is not only important for the protection of biodiversity but also for the protection of ecosystem services – in other words, the good things that nature does for us. For example, when the tailings pond for the old Gullbridge mine collapsed near South Brook, government was quick to tout the filtering virtues of a nearby bog. The loss of forest and wetlands also contributes greatly to flooding.

Then there are scenic green spaces. It is impossible to be unmoved by the dramatic and often harsh coastal landscape of the Avalon Peninsula. This coastline has been rated the best coastal destination in the world by National Geographic. Without hyperbole, this coastline helps define who we are. But wishful thinking will not replace modern planning tools and approaches. We must make a conscious effort to ensure adequate measures are in place to preserve our coastline and the subsequent impact it has on our lives. Without such planning, conflicts like that seen over Ragged Beach in Witless Bay will only become more common.

Modern ideas and modern tools

An essential tool for urban planning falls under the label of GIS, or Geographic Information Systems. GIS is simply the umbrella name for powerful computer applications that synthesize geographic data and allows for easy manipulation and modeling. The Humber Valley Regional Land Use Plan from Western Newfoundland used several GIS tools to great effect. My experience, however, is that there are relatively few people who appreciate the power of these tools or, more importantly, have the skills and knowledge to actually use them. Half the battle is getting a good GIS person on your team.

Students of ecology will recognize the name E.O.Wilson. From his studies on ants, Dr. Wilson has made giant strides in our understanding of sociobiology, ecology, evolution and conservation. He is a proponent of the idea of biophilia, which basically states that humans are wired to interact with nature. This idea strongly resonates with me because I find I feel better when in natural surroundings. I bet most of you do, too.

So we have a chance with the NEAR Plan to get it right. While I’ve strongly condemned government and others for missing legislated time frames or delaying implementation of various plans, in this case I’m glad the NEAR Plan is late. In fact, I would rather the plan not come out until 2015 if it means they get it right. The fact of the matter is, unless we use the most modern and up-to-date information and tools this time, it will probably be too late for many of our natural spaces. If we get it right now, the NEAR Plan will help maintain our treasured quality of life.