The challenges of controlling urban sprawl

This article is the second half of an article written as part of the Gauntlet’s summer longform project. You can find the first half (a href=””>here. Stay tuned for design suggestions from U of C planning students.

Three years ago, on October 18, 2010, Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi swept up 40 per cent of the electorate vote by giving charismatic speeches and proving himself to be a forward-thinking politician. His platform appealed to both those in the academic world and to those in business. His use of Facebook, Twitter and other media tools shaped his first campaign and made him appeal to younger voters unlike any previous mayor.

His first term in office was marked by the development of Calgary’s bike pathways and the revitalization of downtown areas such as the East Village. Nenshi has continued many projects that were approved under Mayor Dave Bronconnier such as the extension of the southwest C-train line and construction of the Peace Bridge. While advocating for more sustainable communities, Nenshi is also following in the footsteps of Bronconnier by increasing the number of acreage levies and, consequentially, the cost of suburban development.

“Mayor Nenshi is absolutely right in trying to change the way municipal government is financed,” says Richard Parker, previous head of the planning department at the City of Calgary. “We have a huge challenge in terms of how municipalities are financed which is why we are now looking at the developer to say that you pay everything.”

Forcing developers to pay for the cost of suburban growth is exactly what Nenshi plans to do, and with the election on Monday Oct. 21, he continues to advocate this as part of his re-election campaign. The Harvard graduate, who seems to have taken Calgary by storm, may be light years ahead of his time. The issue of suburban development subsidization remains a controversial issue that has become a hot topic during the 2013 campaign.

Relentless though he may be, the ultimate decision will come down to city council and the people of Calgary. He already faces resistance from the development industry, particularly developers who risk losing money on undeveloped land. Many citizens of Calgary are also wary that housing prices will continue to soar.

Nenshi’s vision for the future is what he calls balanced development and that means more efficiently designed suburbs and more high-rise condo development in the city centre and downtown communities. He wants suburban communities to have walkable pathways with employment close to homes so that traffic and travel time can be reduced. According to Nenshi, there have been some successful collaborative efforts with the development industry to address these problems.

“The newest neighbourhoods that we have approved for 120,000 people are neighbourhoods that will not have any cul-de-sacs. We are going back to the old grid system which is much more efficient for moving people and goods but also much more efficient for transit. So we are starting to make some real inroads into the design and style of newer suburban developments,” Nenshi says.

Birol Fisekci, president and CEO of Bordeaux Developments Corporations has been in the industry for a long time. He says that Springbank is one example of a new community based on the organic grid with all streets linked to one another and more pedestrian walkways.

“Especially in the community in Springbank, we follow the triple bottom line ­— a blend of environmental initiatives, fiscal responsibility and social design. A great place to live that doesn’t cost third-party tax payers,” Fisekci says.

Easier said than done, however, as changing development policies is proving to be a challenge. Rob Talarico, a professional engineer and leader of subdivision development at the City of Calgary describes how one of the biggest issues has been improving the quality of pavement used to build these suburbs so that the City does not have to cough up the money to maintain them once they break down.

“There is a new specification for concrete and the goal is to increase longevity of the product and the Urban Development Institute is concerned with that,” Talarico says. The UDI typically represents the development industry and consists of 180 member companies including Bordeaux Development — companies involved in residential, multi-family and commercial construction in Calgary.

Other utilities such as water and wastewater infrastructure require maintenance as well and the maintenance cost has become expensive for the City.

“For the last decade up until 2011, developers were paying nothing towards water and wastewater infrastructure needed to support new growth. And rate payers had to pay all of it and our water and utilities took on over $1.5 billion in debt as a result,” Nenshi says. Since the 2011 Development Agreement, developers pay half of the cost of their water and wastewater infrastructure but Nenshi believes that they need to pay more.

“I think that it is fair and correct and I think that most developers understand that somebody has to pay for it and it makes sense for people building in those new areas to pay for the infrastructure that is needed to reach them,” he says.

Nenshi is planning to move towards developers paying 100 per cent for water and wastewater infrastructure. Currently the industry receives a subsidy of $33 million per year towards suburban development.

A small group of homebuilders who benefit from this subsidy have been exercising their influence by trying to elect candidates on city council to protect their interests. Many Calgarians expressed dismay when a secret video of a meeting organized by Shane Homes’s founder Cal Wenzel and Jayman Homes’s founder Jay Westman, was released to Global News earlier this year. In this video, Wenzel speaks at a municipal election strategy session outlining his plan to undermine members of council who are against the interests of homebuilders.

“Certainly people are nervous when they saw that video of homebuilders earlier this year that folks are trying to take over city council. The best way to avoid that is to make sure that you are paying attention during the election and people really need to ask tough questions on all candidates,” Nenshi says.

Densifying inner-city Calgary is another imminent issue on the table. The Area Redevelopment Plan calls for large-scale construction of apartment buildings, office towers, retail shops and restaurants within walking distance of the Calgary C-train. While this plan may serve to make Calgary more walkable, it will also increase traffic along the C-train corridor and high-rises can serve to obstruct resident views.

“The more difficult part is that we have to continue to sensitively intensify existing areas particularly along transit corridors and that can be tough because it means change to neighbourhoods people love,” says Nenshi regarding strong opposing voices in Brentwood to development along the transportation corridor. “And we still haven’t got the formula exactly right but I think the examples of the kinds of sensitive intensification stuff that we’ve moved forward on have been working really well.”

While the quality of suburban development is improving, many developers disagree that denser development is necessarily the best thing.

“It is a misunderstanding that it is more expensive socially and fiscally to develop in greenfield areas,” says Fisekci who explains how higher-density neighbourhoods have more paved surfaces and that can lead to greater stormwater runoff and even flooding. He also says that it is more expensive to dig up, enlarge and replace existing infrastructure than it is to build a new line. If the City wants to increase urban densification, they need to make it easier for developers.

“The City is absolutely geared towards assisting greenfield development and we are not geared to help the guy do a redevelopment of an existing site. The first thing we need to do there is make it as simple as possible,” says Parker.

Developers build a large part of the city and by choosing to develop they bear most of the risks. Change in regulation implies economic risk and that risk costs money and puts companies in a position where they may not be comfortable being.

The City cannot simply implement stringent policy because, according to Talarico, “Without hearing what their ideas are, the risk is that they might have some better solution than us. If we implemented what we wanted to there is always the risk that they might not develop as much in Calgary and go to areas outside of Calgary such as Airdrie and Chestermere. We need to work together to get stuff done,” he says.

Collaboration can indeed be a difficult task. It takes synchronization of planning at all levels of bureaucracy.

“It is easy enough to criticize the developers for not being innovative, but part of their challenge of being innovative is getting city hall on side. It is not just getting city hall on the senior level, the message needs to get translated to the technician who signs out the drawing,” says Parker. Parker speaks to the challenges he faced when redesigning Garrison Woods. Garrison Woods was a military site and existing infrastructure was used in the new design. As lead planner, he found that the City was often a major roadblock when trying to change development rules.

“There was a real fight to get revised rules, primarily inside city hall. We were trying to use the existing infrastructure when it was a military site and save trees. Neither the standard city rules nor the standard development agreement enabled that to happen. In Garrison Woods we had to move the sidewalk to save a tree and that was a fight,” says Parker.

According to most developers, the demand for suburban living seems to be increasing in the few months after the flood.

“In greenfield sites, you are doing it new and planning it properly. Why didn’t one house flood in Cranston in the river land area? We shouldn’t be surprised by that because the engineering is much different than it was in the past,” Fisekci says.

Many academics including Francisco Alaniz Uribe, adjunct associate professor in the faculty of environmental design, further question whether developers have correct notions of consumer demand.

“Just because something is selling successfully does not mean that it is what people really want. It could mean that it is what people can afford or the best option available,” says Uribe. If there were more options provided to people they might choose their options differently.

“I have never seen any research or any numbers that support that claim. Saying that it is what people want is jumping to conclusions,” he says.

Developers do agree that there needs to be more options, but that suburban living should be one of them.

“Fundamentally, there is definitely room for both. I don’t think that one should be replaced by the other,” Fisekci says.

And options are exactly what Nenshi is trying to give, but right now there seems to be an imbalance in supply and that needs to change.

“Our municipal plan has a goal to move towards 50 per cent in new areas and 50 per cent in existing areas,” says Nenshi who adds that, historically, there been a imbalance with an extensive amount of growth happening in new areas. We are slowly hollowing out the city from the middle.

“Last year it has probably been an anomaly but it was two-thirds to one-third [new to old areas] so we are starting to see that shift happen,” he says.

Planners such as Parker think that McKenzie Towne and Garrison Woods have been huge improvements in terms of environmental and design issues. In both communities, there are a greater variety of single-family homes, duplexes and apartments. Although market prices are considerably higher in these areas, these models are indeed giving options to consumers.

For the most part, Calgary is fraught with disagreements about what needs to be done and how it’s going to happen. In the end, money still rules the day and developers and homebuyers will continue to make the most economical decisions even at the detriment of the environment and the community.

Urban sprawl will most likely continue in the years to come but hopefully in a more sustainable way.

“Our guess that over the next five years, 94 per cent of housing starts will be in new greenfield development but those developments will still have great houses and great big back yards but they can be done in a more responsible way and I think most people would prefer if their home was done in a more responsible way,” Nenshi says.

Nenshi only has one vote on council and therefore the ultimate decision making power still lies with the councillors.

“As they say in democracy, the electives get the government they deserve. My father always said if you want good planning you need a benevolent dictator,” Parker jokes.

For it seems that the market place has yet to find a solution for good urban planning. Nenshi may not be able to implement and construct monuments equivalent to the Sun King’s Palace of Versailles or Napoleon Bonaparte’s Rue de Rivoli. However, if he succeeds in being re-elected, perhaps he will be the leader Calgarians need.

Democracy means that a greater part of the responsibility lies in the hands of citizens. Whether this means getting involved in community planning initiatives or choosing to live in a smaller home closer to work, everyone has a role in helping to turn this city into what he or she envisions it to be.


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