Project Profile: Rural Residential Mapping in Southern Alberta
Rural residential (or exurban) development is prominent on the southern Alberta landscape. Acreages are common on the outskirts of major cities like Calgary, Red Deer and Edmonton, and all along Highway 2. Indeed, throughout much of the province Albertans have moved to these “semi-rural” properties seeking a more solitary setting, while still expecting that big-city amenities will be accessible.|
This type of development has a considerable impact on the rural landscape. Most acreages require the construction of private roads or driveways, increasing the density of these features on the landscape. Developments are commonly built on agricultural land and are re-seeded with non-native grasses, altering both the natural and cultural environment. Many rural residences are not serviced by municipal water utilities, necessitating water wells and septic tanks. The costs of this type of development are substantial – providing services and infrastructure to low-density rural areas requires a considerable investment of municipal resources.
In spite of all this, little had been done to quantify rural residential development in Alberta until 2003, when Miistakis initiated a project aimed at understanding the extent of this type of activity. Using data from municipal property tax assessment rolls, we counted and mapped the number of residential structures per quarter-section for six Municipal Districts and Counties in southwestern Alberta. The resulting dataset provides a decade-by-decade summary of nearly 100 years, and is still one of our most frequently-requested Miistakis Institute data sets.
The 2003 project measured and mapped exurban development, but did little to explain it. In 2006 we took the original Rural Residential Data Set, and analyzed the location and number of residential structures as factors of natural, geographical, and amenity-based variables. We found rural residences to be most likely to occur in areas that are close to the city of Calgary, handy to a golf course, and that allow for a scenic view of the Rocky Mountains.
We have recently completed work on the update and expansion of our Rural Residential Data Set. The “old” data was only current to 2002, and much has changed in southern Alberta over the ensuing decade. Furthermore, we have recognized the need for collecting this data over a broader spatial extent. The new Rural Residential Data Set is current to 2011, and covers twelve rural Alberta municipalities: MD of Bighorn, Cardston County, MD of Crowsnest Pass, MD of Foothills, Lacombe County, Mountain View County, MD of Pincher Creek, Ponoka County, MD Ranchland, Red Deer County, Rocky View County, and MD of Willow Creek. Staff at each of the municipal offices were instrumental in helping to create the new data set.
Compiling this data is a significant challenge, as most municipalities record their assessment data differently, and some effort is required to reconcile these differences and create a harmonized end product. We have a good sense of the process now, and could expand the study area to include more municipalities (like those surrounding Edmonton) with incremental effort and resources.
Now that we have the data, we’d like to use it to explore some research questions around the impact that exurban development has on the functional and ecological connectivity of the rural Albertan landscape. Some potential research questions might include:
- To what extent does exurban development impact the productive agricultural capacity of the region?
- What are the resource requirements for this kind of development?
- Do acreages affect the movement of wildlife? If so, how?
- What do the answers to the above questions suggest to us about appropriate patterns of residential development in the future?
We’ll also be sharing this data back to the municipalities that helped us create it, in hopes that they’ll be able to use it to identify and answer their own planning and research questions.