The past couple of days I had the privilege of teaming up with a prominent research team from the University of Alberta while they were doing fieldwork in Fort McMurray. The name Fort McMurray might not immediately ring a bell, yet it is one of the world most well-known places as it is the town right next to the Canadian oil sands. The town is home to about 125.000 inhabitants. During our stay we explored the area and interviewed a number of people involved in the governance of this place; including the mayor of the town, Melissa Blake. The fieldwork is part of an extensive research project toward Boom and Bust that aims to better understand the possibilities and challenges for resilient communities.
Arguably Fort McMurray is the most interesting place in the light of this research as the boom and its related developments have been so fast and enormous that it magnifies many of the processes, developments and challenges going on in other places. It is the perfect example of an extreme case that reveals interesting insights in the difficult choices that need to be made while planning for rapid development, the factors that influence decision-making and the various ways in which local actors deal with trade-offs and lock-ins.
Let my briefly elaborate on some of our observations and the thoughts that came up during this fieldwork.
The image of place
First of all it was interesting to see that the town itself is beautifully situated in a river valley. It is completely different from what most people would expect it to look like. Many people might have seen pictures from the oil sands and the industrial constructions used to extract the oil, but they don’t seem to realize that this is not the place where people live. The town itself is a bit more south and it looks like many other town in northern America. What makes it different is its history of rapid development, its strong dependence on one particular natural resource, and the consequences this has for planning and future development. Yet, from our interviews it became clear the image many people have of the place makes the family of workers and tourist reluctant to visit it. It also influences decision-making as politicians at provincial and national level based their opinion upon an image of an oil town, often not realizing that more than 100.000 people are living there and that all those people have demands that are similar to these of people living elsewhere.
The institutions that shape local government in Canada strongly differ from those in for example the Netherlands. An important different lies for example in the competences and possibilities for spatial planning. For a variety of reasons the instruments available to work on spatial planning are limited and strongly geared towards zoning and taxing. This makes it difficult for local authorities to develop and implement spatial planning and work on sustainable development. In the particular case of Fort McMurray planning was further more hampered by the fact that large parts of the land are crown lands, governed by the provincial authorities. The province of Alberta therefore decides which lands can became available for development and which not. The local authorities strongly depend on these decisions and might in some cases different in their opinions on what the best places for development are. Furthermore there are always issues about constructing infrastructures and about the distribution of costs and benefits of urban development and the oil industry. The provision of goods and services lies with the local authorities, while a large part of the tax income goes directly to the province or even the state.
The need for innovation in governance
The rapid developments that have been going on in the past decades urged the local government to be creative and innovative as “standard” institutions and policies are not sufficient to manage and steer development in the right direction and to ensure meeting the demands of an ever growing population. The municipality is forced to invest in facilities and infrastructures of which the capacity might already be insufficient to serve the needs of the growing population by the time they are finished. At the same time it is also possible that population growth will stagnate or even shifts to a period of decline, in which case facilities might end up empty. Both scenarios are equally possible and both largely depend on the development of global markets, far beyond the control of the local government of Fort McMurray. This demands for creative and innovative solutions for sharing responsibilities and risks, attracting funding, and developing infrastructures that allow for different kind of developments.
Institutions that foster long-term planning
Most people expect that the oil industry will last for some more decades, but that it nevertheless is worthwhile to start thinking about the time after. The town has over the years developed into a large town and it is unlikely that will turn into a ghost town; something that has happened to some smaller town in the north-west of Canada. Yet a decline of the oil industry will certainly have an impact on the labour market, on land and property prices, and on the funds available for local government. Most people involved in local governance are very much aware of this and are in their decision-making considering a future that may lay far ahead. During our interviews it became clear that this is not an easy job. The options for development are currently so much dominated by the dependence on the oil industry that any other option faces huge challenges and barriers. Land prices and wages are extremely high, which makes most other investments very risky and few are willing to take these risks. The Boom and Bust project therefore aims to identify the institutions that foster long-term perspectives and to increase the understanding of their working and their interplay with institutions that tend to focus more on the short-term.
Some final thoughts are on resilience. During our visit it became clear that resilience in a place like Fort McMurray can and does have divergent meaning. Resilience is a highly ambiguous concept that needs to be defined and developed in a context-sensitive way. Furthermore we learned that the social dimension of resilience requires much more, and more advanced, elaborations than those currently found in most of the literature. This social dimensions involves not just actors and institutions, but also politics, different understandings of the environment, discursive dynamics, performances, shifting expectations and dealing with a huge variety of ever changing perspectives, opinions and interests. All these are in a continuous interplay with each other and evolving as a consequence of this interplay. Those responsible for the future development of Fort McMurray are very well aware of this. In the words of mayor Blake: the governance of Fort McMurray is continuously evolving and we should learn from past and present experiences to better prepare ourselves for the future to come.