Tuesday, September 14, 2010

What Is Community Growth?

We’re in the warm-up to the most important day in Alberta community life, and no, I’m not referring to the day of the 2010 Grey Cup victory parade in Calgary. The most important day in Alberta community life is the triennial municipal elections, and Oct. 18th is the day for beginning our new municipal governance cycle.
Very soon now, candidates for local government will be at your door and a community hall near you, sharing their perspectives on local issues and asking for your support. Your job as a responsible citizen is to ask questions that get beyond the usual political rhetoric.
You might start with the word “Growth’. Most wannabee municipal leaders will tell you how they will promote “community growth”. That’s when you look them in the eye and ask, in your best Peter Mansbridge voice, what they mean by “community growth”. Do they mean community economic growth? Community social and cultural growth? Community environmental growth? And while you’re at it, why not ask them for their definition of “growth” in each of those areas?
If there were homes for abused words, “growth” would be one of the first residents. “Growth” has many potential meanings. It can be a carefully planned increase in depth and richness of existing attributes and assets, or an increase in diversity. Growth can be an increase in the volume or quality of activity or outputs driven by local community aspirations and values- the Okotoks model. Finally, growth can be an increase in the volume or quality of activity or outputs driven by outside forces indirectly imposing their will on communities, as has happened in the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo.
Alberta’s seemingly eternal boom / bust cycle has given many communities first-hand experience of the outcome of growth driven by outside forces. Communities across Alberta reel from the cost of paying for boom’s excesses with today’s lighter wallets.
Might this pain be a direct result of seeing “growth” as only positive, and failing to measure the negative impacts of that growth on the community? If we’ve learned one thing from the latest recession, it is that “limitless growth” is a lie. Growth for the sake of growth is exposed for what it is- failed dogma.
That reality raises some interesting questions. Should communities independently develop and administer their own standards and plans for economic, social, and environmental growth? Should citizens expect their local governments to adhere to those plans? Must proposed “growth” respect and support those plans?
These are appropriate questions to ask our would-be leaders in this run-up to October’s vote. If Albertans hope to ever escape the Boom-Bust Monster’s grisly grip, heavy-duty thinking about growth is first on the to-do list. In my next three postings, I’ll examine the possible implications and permutations for “growth” on the economic, social, and environmental fronts. We’ll start by remembering Bill Clinton’s immortal phrase - “It’s the Economy, Stupid”.

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