I caused a bit of a stir on Thursday at Council by raising some concerns about the city’s proposed development plan ‘The Way we Grow’. I rather flippantly suggested we could call it ‘The Way we Sprawl.’
Scott McKeen wrote about the plan in Friday’s Journal and his critique is similar to mine. In spite of what he said, there are some very positive things in this plan, so I don’t want to write it off completely. I’ll come back to that.
First, though, the part of the plan I spoke against and voted against yesterday is the part where our expectations for relative share of growth are set out, which is section 126.96.36.199, on page 13, which reads:
Encourage a greater percentage 25% of city-wide housing unit growth to locate in the Downtown and mature neighbourhoods (see Map 3: Mature Neighbourhood Overlay) and around premium transit locations where infrastructure capacity supports redevelopment.
The underlying assumption of the plan is that the city will grow by 400,000 people in the next 30 years. This means 75% of the units will be outside of the core and away from ‘premium transit’ (i.e. LRT or the very best bus service). Furthermore, since we’re assuming that households occupying infill and intensification units have fewer members, 25% of units in the core only comes to 20% of the people (which has been our experience, since families with children still largely flock to the suburbs, vs. the singles and empty nesters who may pick smaller units with better locations). On other words, our plan presumes that 320,000 people will locate on the periphery, near or beyond Anthony Henday Drive.
I find this tough to swallow.
But here’s the plan’s qualifying statement in the plan about how fast we can ‘turn the ship’ from our suburban character to urban, from page 12:
Changing our current growth pattern will take time. Edmonton’s mature neighbourhoods received 18% of the city’s growth in housing units in 2007; despite this unit growth, the population in these mature areas has declined in recent years. Between 2005 and 2008, mature neighbourhoods declined in population by 1%. All new population growth during this time occurred in other areas of the city, primarily in our developing communities. The MDP proposes a new direction for growth and it will take time to effect change. The Plan is a long term strategy and will require incremental decisions that support our commitment to saying “yes” to the things we want and need and “no” to the things that do not advance our City Vision and goals.
I think we need to ‘turn the ship’ faster and push for a bigger share of growth to be urban, rather than suburban, over the 30 years of the plan. Easier said then done, yes, but let’s ask why would it be desirable to urbanize at least as much as we suburbanize?
- A less efficient city will cost more to serve well, or will end up with declining services. We know these peripheral neighbourhoods will be very expensive to deliver services to and maintain infrastructure for; things like fire protection, waste collection, and transit will be more costly to deliver to further suburbia than if we densify the exiting footprint properly. This is intuitive, but the city is also studying this. Wish we had the results.
- Peripheral neighbourhoods, no matter how walkable or attractive, will lock in automobile dependancy for the vast majority of their residents. There is well-documented public health evidence that automobile dependance leads to higher rates of obesity as well as impacts to emotional well-being. Our council-stated goal to see a shift from car use to other modes of transportation (principally transit, walking and cycling) stands in jeopardy. This means more traffic, more delay, more private and public expense on cars and infrastructure.
- Plus there’s no way we achieve community-wide reductions in greenhouse gasses with rising distances travelled by car and worsening downstream gridlock.
In other words, for fiscal, social and environmental reasons, there is a strong case against conceding to so much peripheral development. Again, I’m not calling for a halt to it, since I don’t see how we could accomplish that under current legislation. I’m calling for greater urbanization within today’s footprint. We’re told that market demand’s not there, that demand is for the suburbs, and that we can’t fight that. But I think we have to work to make urban living more family-friendly – which we’re beginning to do – and we need to make it competitive in terms of affordability. This is work worth doing, even if it’s hard. It doesn’t mean cramming families into highrises, it means more duplexes where there are bungalows, nice townhomes where there are underused lands, and family-oriented units on the ground floor of some taller buildings. That, by the way, is city building.
I should note that there is much to like in the plan: the parts that deal with integrating transit and land planning in established areas are positive (section 2.3); the new provisions in chapter 9 about Urban Agriculture and Food are very encouraging; and the design principles for planning in established and new areas are sound in my view (e.g. chapter 3).
The one outstanding issue we’ll grapple with next time Council deals with the plan in February is density targets for new development. These are mandated under the Capital Region Land Use Plan, but these were not going to be discussed in our MDP. At my urging, they will be. Targets were a source of significant debate in Calgary’s recent plan, and were watered down before final passage. If we can achieve sufficient thresholds of density in the new areas then some of the inefficiencies and negative impacts of this growth can be reduced.