Image As the planet’s population continues to grow and use finite resources, long-term sustainability comes more and more into question. Food sovereignty, responsible water use, the role of technology in environmentally sustainable development, and healthy communities all depend on long-range vision and good land use decisions.

The Rural Planning and Development program within the University of Guelph’s School of Environmental Design and Rural Development (SEDRD) maintains a strong focus on agriculture, food, water, rural issues, and sustainable community development. This focus encompasses research on rural municipalities, Ontario, Canada, and internationally.

“The whole issue of local food is of key interest to our students and faculty research is quite focused in this area. We have examples of people looking at land use policy across rural Ontario and within local communities, we have research looking at food security issues for the Commonwealth Association of Planners, we have research that has considered the Mennonite population and their role in food systems. Our research spans the food system all the way from organic to large-scale commodity production to people’s gardens in their back yards.” says Dr. Wayne Caldwell, SEDRD Director.

SEDRD’s Dr. Karen Landman co-authored a report that describes food initiatives in communities across the province, including farmers’ markets, on-farm stores, and urban farms. Called “Models and Best Practices for Building Sustainable Food Systems in Ontario and Beyond,” the study discusses local food systems, including economic, environmental, and social factors involved in food production and consumption, and how they help to strengthen communities. “As you tug on food, you pull everything with it,” says Dr. Landman.”
In addition to the focus on food security issues, SEDRD research has also revealed the need for enhanced rural land use policies as people are increasingly disconnected from the natural world. “If we look at population distribution – roughly 20 per cent of Canada’s population is rural. However, planners often find many issues that reflect the geography of country, which is closer to being 98 per cent rural,” says Dr. Caldwell. “Even within those regions that are urban, there are large rural areas that planners end up working with.”

Work with the Greenbelt Foundation within Ontario has highlighted the importance of having a solid background in rural issues. “Through our work speaking with farmers and planners, we have become more aware of how much the planning system benefits from having people who can connect with rural issues. It is not unusual for farmers for example, to feel that they are not understood – we have realized the need to provide greater focus for planning for rural communities,” adds Dr. Caldwell.

SEDRD’s connection to the Ontario Agricultural College (OAC) has provided immeasurable benefits to students and research alike. “Being based within OAC, we are within one of the preeminent, most highly regarded colleges in the world for agriculture and food production,” says Dr. Caldwell. This provides benefits of being able to share information and knowledge within the college between various disciplines.

Connections with the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture and Food (OMAF) and the Ontario Farmland Trust also provides a forum for people with similar interests on the Guelph campus and across the province to share ideas, knowledge, and solutions. Within SEDRD, Landscape Architecture and Capacity Development and Extension both provide resources and enhance teaching and learning opportunities for students interested in rural planning.

SEDRD does not just focus on issues within Canada. Important international research has been carried out by a number of students and researchers within the school. In fact, the MSc in Rural Planning and Development includes both an accredited Canadian focus and an accredited international focus.

Following an evaluation of a participatory beekeeping training project funded by CIDA and delivered by the University of Guelph, John Devlin, SEDRD faculty and evaluation team leader says, “Our evaluation demonstrates that beekeeping adds income, can be managed without taking away from other production activities, and both the young and the elderly can be involved. Food security requires expanding the economic base of small farmers and beekeeping does remarkably well.”

Over the past five years SEDRD faculty and students have conducted research in many countries including: Australia, Brazil, Chile, China, Colombia, Costa Rica, Cuba, Egypt, El Salvador, Ethiopia, Ghana, Honduras, India, Indonesia, Kenya, Latvia, Liberia, Malawi, Mexico, Mozambique, Nepal, Nigeria, Norway, Pakistan, Philippines, Scotland, South Africa, South Korea, Sri Lanka, Switzerland, USA, Uganda, Vietnam, and Zimbabwe.

“Let’s build a better planet, but let’s start at home. To me, this is part of The Better Planet Project,” says Dr. Cummings, referring to U of G’s fundraising campaign for food, health, environment, community, and teaching and learning.

As a recent poster from the Better Planet Project observed, “If we want a better planet then we better plan it.” The School of Environmental Design and Rural Development is devoted to planning it well.
John Devlin is associate professor and graduate coordinator of the Rural Planning and Development Program, School of environmental Design and Rural Development, University of Guelph. His research is focused on rural policy, environmental policy and impact assessment as a planning tool in Canada and internationally.
This article appeared in Ontario Planning Third Annual Planning School Edition, July / August 2013, Vol.28, No.4, pp.19-20.