Lack of paper roads hampers urban growth

Dr Eric Crampton
The Dominion Post
5 April, 2021

Three roads bounded the farm where I grew up in Southern Manitoba. To the East was the highway. North, a dirt track, suitable for farm bikes and trucks if the road was dry. South was a proper gravel road – the back road to the village of Somerset.

But to the West was something a little bit different. Something New Zealand is missing, or at least in this form. And it’s made it harder than it should be for our cities to grow.

The western boundary of our farm was an unformed or paper road – what we called a road allowance. There was no road there. Just the stub end of a grassed track leading off into a small bit of bush and a hand-painted “No Hunting” sign.

We were miles away from the nearest village in any direction and about ninety miles from the city. There was no chance of urban encroachment. But the road allowance was there, waiting, just in case it was ever needed.

If you have ever flown over the American plains or Canadian prairies, you will have seen the patchwork quilt of croplands. The checkerboard pattern was set by land surveys a century and a half ago. 

Beginning in 1871, the Dominion Land Survey parcelled out Canada’s prairies into square sections one mile on each side. The sections opened the prairies to agricultural development, with quarter-sections forming homesteads.

The land survey set aside room for a road one and a half chains in width, or about 30 metres, on each side of each full section of land.

Because who knew what the future might bring? Would a road ever be needed? Or a highway? Or space for electricity lines decades later that nobody had yet imagined? Or bike lanes?

A 30-metre allowance meant Manitoba roads and highways were rather wider, and more pleasant, than those here.

Whether or not a road would ever be built, the land survey kept room for them. They would meet at right angles, aligned with the compass, on the mile, every mile.

As nice as the long straight roads were in the countryside, they were more important closer to town as prairie cities grew. They provided a natural grid for urban expansion.

Building main roads would not require complicated land designations. The road allowances were already there. Services could run under and alongside them. Building a road could simply mean using the land that the government had kept aside for that purpose in the 1870s.

The road allowances provided so much room for growth that land-banking would be practically impossible. Roads and potential roads on the mile, every mile, meant limitless possibility. Owning some land close to town could hardly block someone else from building in the next section, or the next, or the next.

The land survey’s square-mile grid made gridded urban streets a natural complement, running parallel to the main roads, meeting at right angles. They made navigation simple and reduced traffic snarls. A city built on a grid provides options rather than chokepoints. And compared to cul-de-sac subdivisions, grids also simplify public transit.

Urban growth in New Zealand has been more difficult.

New Zealand, like Canada, has road allowances, or “unformed legal roads”. But remaining unformed roads are not part of any systematic grid. They rather were set to ensure access to pieces of land that might otherwise be landlocked, to provide access along waterways, and to provide access to the coast.

Designating corridors for urban growth here has consequently been more difficult.

Manitoba’s land survey, 150 years ago, preserved space for roading. Here and now, it requires designating a corridor on top of land already owned and already in use. If the corridor comes to be used, the owner will be compensated under the Public Works Act. But the designation itself can impose uncompensated costs by introducing uncertainty. It is hard to make full use of your property if it hangs under the risk of compulsory acquisition for a road or highway.

Retrofitting a full prairie grid onto a topographically difficult country might not work.

But there could be promise in designating more corridors for growth well in advance of their being needed and compensating the owners of the designated land for the inconvenience. Then, when there is need for a road or busway, and the funding is lined up, Council could exercise its option and use the corridor.

I have not been back to the old Manitoba farm in a long time. But Google Maps shows me that there is now a road on the old road allowance. Growing up there in the 1980s, we never would have imagined that a road would be needed on the west side of the farm. But the land survey a century earlier had kept the option open, and it proved worthwhile. New Zealand’s cities need those kinds of options too.

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