Regional Districts Part 1: The Roots
of Regional Districts
For more than half a century,
Canada's provincial and municipal
governments have confronted various
challenges related to the delivery
of efficient, economic and
well-planned local services
across regions. In a 1961 article,
Canadian political scientist Thomas
Plunkett described some of these
challenges in the country's urban
regions. According to Plunkett,
"striking changes in the economic
and social environment" of urban
regions made municipalities
"interdependent", despite their
"political fragmentation". Roads,
water services and policing, for
example, were no longer contained
"within limited political
boundaries" (Plunkett, 30). For
Plunkett, these changes meant
neighbouring municipalities within a
region needed better methods for a)
co-operating in the delivery of
local services and b) planning for
growth management, infrastructure
development and service equity.
In contrast to Canada's
urban regions, rural parts of the
country have dealt with an
inverse challenge. In these areas,
small and sometimes remote
communities had difficulties
developing infrastructure and
delivering services with limited
property tax bases. Ira Robinson, a geographer, wrote in 1962,
that these places faced the difficult
challenge of creating acceptable
and viable communities in Canada's
vast rural landscapes (Robinson, 6).
In B.C., these regional challenges
were, and still are, particularly
pronounced. With its mountainous
terrain, much of the province
remains sparsely inhabited. In 2006, 87%
of the province's population
lived in its 156 municipalities,
which collectively occupied only
1.4% of the province's total area (Bish,
35). Most of B.C.'s population is
concentrated in its south-western
corner, while the province's large
Interior features clusters of
archipelago-like settlements running
through mountain valleys and aside
long, thin lakes.
With limited areas available for
settlement, B.C.'s urban
municipalities faced the challenges
of co-operating with each other
earlier in the 20th century than elsewhere in Canada.
By the 1940s unregulated growth
and uncompensated use of municipal
services in unincorporated areas
adjacent to many urban
municipalities had become a major issue.
In rural areas, the communication
and transportation difficulties
posed by vast mountain ranges were
factors that had led to more
autonomous local governments in B.C.
However, the isolated setting of
many small communities in B.C.'s
interior meant it was often
difficult to develop economical,
locally-tailored services such as
policing, road maintenance and
Regional Governance Initiatives
Between 1910 and 1945, a number of
initiatives sought to address the
province's diverse regional
challenges. In the 1920s, amendments
to B.C.'s Water Act introduced the
improvement district (ID) as a tool
for providing irrigated water to
fruit-growers in unincorporated
areas of the province. These IDs,
which had the power to tax and were
governed by an elected board, proved
successful enough that by the
1930s non-farming communities
adopted the model for other
local services e.g. garbage disposal
and fire protection.
In urban areas during the 1910s and
1920s, municipalities began to
petition the Province for permission
to join together to fund and
administer individual services. In
1924, the Province passed a notably
innovative act that established the Greater
Vancouver Water District (GVWD) with
a "joint" board made up of members
appointed by each municipality. The
Greater Vancouver Water District Act
included provisions that allowed any
other municipality in the region to
decide whether or not to join the
GVWD. This feature made the GVWD one of
the first voluntary inter-municipal
boards in North America. Because it
facilitated co-operation and
respected municipal autonomy,
voluntarism became a principle of
Provincial involvement in
inter-municipal affairs. A
number of similar boards were
created for the joint provision of
services by the 1940s. In 1946, the
Province generalized the principle
of voluntarism by amending the Municipal Act to
allow two or more municipalities to
jointly provide selected municipal services.
In the 1930s and 1940s, the Province and municipalities developed other inter-local
initiatives. Changes to the Public
Health Act and the Public Libraries Act in
1936 enhanced the ability of
municipalities to jointly provide
health inspection and library
services. Major reforms to the
province's education system in 1946
gave the Province a greater role in
education financing and 'detached'
school districts from their
municipalities. The 74 new school
districts replaced over 800 city,
municipal, and rural school
Outside of government, a committed
group of academics and planning
advocates joined together in 1937 to
form the Lower Mainland Regional
Planning Association (LMRPA) with
the intention of raising awareness
and support for regional planning.
While inactive during the Second
World War, members of the LMRPA went on to
influence regional planning in B.C. after the war. (Wilson, 103).
The Second World War: Planning for
During the Second World War, the provincial government's
interest in regional
development grew. Concerned about
demobilization and eager to
facilitate economic development,
B.C.'s Liberal-Conservative Coalition
government enacted the Post-War
Rehabilitation Act at the end of
1942. In 1944, the Province
established a semi-permanent
Bureau of Post-War Rehabilitation
and Reconstruction. A year later,
this Bureau added a Regional
Planning Division (RPD), which developed
the first integrated study of
social, economic and geographic
conditions throughout the Lower
Mainland. Later, the RPD recommended the
establishment of a Lower Mainland
Regional Board (LMRB) to consider the
future direction of growth in the
As part of its new focus on regions, the Coalition
government also vigorously pursued
economic development outside of the
province's densely populated
southwest. Reforms to
industry regulation, highway
construction in the Peace River region, and
railway expansion to Prince George
in the post-war period
were all supported economic
development in northern and interior
regions of the province.
The role of local government in
these regional initiatives,
particularly outside urban areas,
was limited. The Province
focused on new economic
opportunities, paying less
attention to the inevitable demand
for local services that regional
development would entail. Before the
1950s, regional planning took place
at the provincial level. The few
local services that did exist in rural areas were usually provided by
Provincial ministries or IDs.
Assessing the Early Years
Today, B.C.'s regional
governance framework is in many
respects derived from pre-1945
attempts to address the province's
regional challenges. By the end of
the Second World War:
Later in the 20th century, these innovations were incorporated into B.C.'s regional governance and service
- elected IDs provided
much needed local services to
unincorporated communities at a
lower cost than municipal
- voluntary joint
service boards in urban areas
relationships based on dialogue
rather than coercion, and
planning had become an issue for
consideration by policy-makers because of both public advocacy in
the Lower Mainland and provincial initiatives during the Second World War.
However, most regional issues constituted
a ‘moving target’ for policy-makers,
as communities and their regional
contexts change over time. The 1947
Goldenberg Commission, appointed by
the province to investigate all
aspects of local government, would
recognize some of these ongoing
regional challenges, including the
need for increased inter-municipal
co-operation in urban areas. While
some single services were now handled by
joint boards, the increasing
complexity and cost of local
services meant that a co-operative
model based on individual services
would not suffice in the long-term.
Meanwhile, as the Provincial government
began to consider planning for
the future of its regions, it had
yet to face the difficult
challenge of co-operating with
municipalities to shape the future
During the 1950s and
early 1960s, it would become clear
to Provincial policy-makers -
particularly those leading its
Department of Municipal Affairs (DMA) -
that a more comprehensive and
flexible approach to the challenges
of regionalism in B.C. was required.
Regional Districts: Part 2
describes these efforts to introduce
effective regional governance in
B.C. during the 1950s and 1960s.
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(Winter 2006-2007): 34-39.
British Columbia. Bureau of Post-War
Rehabilitation and Reconstruction.
Preliminary Report on Proposed Lower Mainland Regional Plan.
Victoria: Queen's Printer, 1945.
British Columbia. Legislative Assembly. Provincial-Municipal Relations in British Columbia: Report of the Commissioner, H. Carl Goldenberg. Victoria: Queen's Printer, 1947.
Collier, Robert. "The Evolution of Regional Districts in British Columbia."
BC Studies 15 (Autumn 1972): 29-39.
Chadwick, Narissa Ann. Regional
Planning in British Columbia: 50
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