Solutions to urban sprawl

By Nathan Grivell

This article is the final article of a three-part series focusing on challenges of Calgary’s urban sprawl.

Many of you reading this article probably live in the suburbs and don’t see a problem with it. Who would criticize you for making such a grand investment, you may ask.

You may or may not be aware that a host of problems have arisen with suburban development. These problems need to be brought to the public’s attention. Land that was once fertile is being rapidly repurposed for suburban growth. Tax dollars are going towards maintaining infrastructure for suburban development rather than projects such as transit or public art.

Cities like Vancouver and Toronto have started to make inroads into sustainable planning, partly because they have dealt with the consequences of urban sprawl earlier than Calgary. Calgarians could learn valuable lessons about combating suburban sprawl by studying the methods used by these other major cities.

This article will focus on solutions that have successfully been employed elsewhere to reduce sprawl: using alternative housing strategies to make downtown living more affordable, land-use management to reduce the burden on downtown amenities, increasing the cost of greenfield development and using a greenbelt to protect surrounding green space.

Housing alternatives

One argument for unlimited growth on the fringes of the city is that an ample supply of new houses makes houses less expensive. While these lower costs often mask the added expenses of vehicle fuel as well as the social costs, such as isolation and time spent commuting, the popularity of suburban housing clearly illustrates the need for more affordable options in the city. Two innovative methods for having more housing choices in established neighbourhoods are laneway housing and secondary suites.


Studio North is a small start-up design company based in Calgary that develops projects such as laneway housing. Architect graduates Matthew Kennedy and Mark Erickson are excited and optimistic about changes in the future design of Calgary’s inner city.

“Currently laneways are used for garbages and access to garages but we feel that the infrastructure can be used in a more interesting way in terms of creating a pedestrian scale walkway. If you walk down a laneway, it is objectively an idealic setting with trees and a canopy — there is a pedestrian feel,” says Kennedy.

Laneway houses are smaller houses, generally built along the alley in the back yard of a detached, single-family home. Often laneway houses stand where garages had been, or can even be created through renovations to existing garages.

They can add greater demographic diversity as well, as they can be used, for example, by retired seniors who want to live closer to their families while maintaining privacy or by young people who want to start families while living closer to the central city.

“The nice thing about laneways is that it adds a separate social intricacy where it allows people of a different financial background to live, for example, around Varsity as well as the new downtown areas such as Rosedale and Ramsey, areas close to the center of Calgary. It offers a lot of amenities and it allows our generation to be able to purchase a house and build a laneway to have a secondary income to offset a mortgage. It allows a more diverse renting pool for people to rent from,” says Kennedy.

Building Laneways can potentially increase density, for example, helping neighbourhoods cope with the effects of generational demographic shifts that result in school closures when all the children in a neighbourhood grow up and leave the area.

“There aren’t too many laneways houses currently in Calgary. I think there would be a demand for laneways in Calgary. There is a less than one per cent vacancy rate for apartments in Calgary, so there is a definite need for new housing. There needs to be a focus on densifying the core and providing options for living closer to the city than allowing the city to sprawl,” says Kennedy.

Studio North is currently designing laneway housing in Ramsey. It is their first project and they want to do more. However, they face permit and zoning hurdles in many jurisdictions.

“Right now, it’s a catch-22 — all the neighbourhoods in Calgary that are zoned for laneway housing are in the suburbs. Near downtown areas, where there would be a need for densification, it isn’t currently zoned for laneway housing. There is quite a bureaucratic process that turns a lot of people off from developing,” says Erickson.

Vancouver, Canada’s leader in laneway housing, introduced a bylaw in 2009 allowing laneway development. According to CBC News, Vancouver has seen over 500 laneways built since then and is looking to expand its program.

Naturally, if Calgary wants to address sprawl, decrease its urban footprint and develop existing communities, the rules surrounding laneway development need to be revisited and simplified to make development more feasible.

Secondary suites

Similar to laneways, the regulation of secondary suites has been a hotly contested political issue in Calgary for the past few years. Secondary suites are additions to houses or components of existing houses that can be rented out, such as a basement suite.

Allowing a single-family home to be used for two families is a simple and inexpensive way to increase the availability of housing in established communities and to discourage sprawl. Renovations to build a secondary suite are considerably less expensive than the cost of constructing a new home. Secondary suites provide the same benefits as laneway houses, in that they allow more diverse people to live in an established communities without significantly altering its character.

In most large Canadian municipalities, secondary suites are legal — however, in Calgary, the number of neighbourhoods in which secondary suites are allowed is severely restricted. People who wish to develop a secondary suite have to appear before city council, which is invasive and time consuming for most people. Secondary suites exist throughout the city, but are technically illegal. The number of illegal rentals in Calgary has been estimated in the tens of thousands.

These alternatives are, of course, not a cure to all the city’s sprawl problems. Edmonton, with a more successful secondary suite program than Calgary, still faces the same sprawl concerns. Vancouver has similar issues, despite its innovative housing solutions and dense condo tower development.

Land-use management

Calgary’s zoning regulations allow neighbourhoods to develop along the edges of the city. As pointed out by Calgary mayor, Naheed Nenshi, “with this kind of development, we have been slowly emptying the center of our city.” The impact is that downtown becomes a ghost town at night.

Calgary’s downtown currently acts as the city’s financial and corporate hub. Residents of surrounding neighbourhoods are dependent on the downtown core for work and entertainment. The result is long commutes to work and big costs for infrastructure and expensive office rent and parking.

So the question is: How can we manage land to fight urban sprawl? Imagine being able to walk or bike to work in the summer because your office is only 10 minutes away from where you live. Imagine only spending 15 minutes maximum in your vehicle and not having to pay so much for parking. You would have more time for family, friends and more time to study for school. By developing offices, entertainment centres and other services in suburban communities, we can reduce the burden on downtown areas.

The City could rezone areas into mixed use developments by including more businesses in residential neighbourhoods. Incentives such as lower taxes can attract businesses to move out of downtown. Bank and business headquarters can still remain in downtown and we can fill the downtown vacancy with residential housing.
Over time, this policy will help create a balance among residential, commercial and offices over the whole city.

Financial tools to manage growth

While zoning bylaws influence the type and location of development, the City can influence development through fees. Development fees are collected in order to cover costs, such as infrastructure. The City can use these fees as a tool to help encourage sustainable future development as well as manage growth. Increasing the cost of suburban living can indirectly influence demand.

Asad Niazi from Canada Lands describes how consumer demand depends on affordability.

“Demand will still be there and there are a couple of reasons. Number 1 reason is the price point ­­— the value a person gets compared to a downtown unit, the value in terms of investment. You can have in downtown a small lot with a very high price whereas you get a decent sized lot with an affordable price in suburbia. The life style and affordability will always keep the demand of suburbia,” Niazi says.

Developers invest time and money into their developments while taking on significant risk in order to make a profit — no one does this stuff for free! However, their profits are obviously affected by their costs. By increasing development fees, a municipality can motivate the developer, and indirectly the consumer, to demand more sustainable models of development and perhaps encourage developers to develop in the inner city and consumers to buy in downtown rather than on the outskirts.

Development fees can be set in several ways. First, the fees can be adjusted to be area-specific. Instead of a city-wide fee, which encourages sprawl, area-specific fees could ensure that fees reflect the true infrastructure costs for a development such as if new infrastructure needs to be built. Municipalities could also provide fee credits for development proposals that incorporate more sustainable designs. Finally, the timing of when these fees are collected could be delayed. In exchange for more sustainable development, municipalities could be flexible with these payments which could be attractive to developers, allowing more financial stability and thereby lowering the financial risk.

According to Niazi, if development costs increase, this may cause higher overall costs of living in Calgary.

“People are moving to Calgary because it is affordable and has a fair tax structure. Affordability is very important. If you erode that, the town will stop when people realize that it is too expensive to buy a house and that will cause a negative migration to the city,” says Niazi, who further believes that a levee on greenfield development will cause prices to skyrocket in downtown.


Associate dean of architecture David Monteyne touched upon the challenges of suburban sprawl in Calgary.

“There is a lot of room to grow out of Calgary, a lot of seemingly empty land. Calgary is somewhat unusual as it constantly expands its boundaries. That brings you to one of the things the City could do which would be to establish stricter growth boundaries — a greenbelt, for example,” he says.

A greenbelt is a protected area of land typically surrounding a municipality and is generally composed of valuable agricultural land, environmentally sensitive land and open country. As a municipality sprawls outward, it will use up precious rural land, prime agricultural land or sensitive wildlife habitat. The loss of these valuable lands can have a significant effect on the region’s economy, food production, wildlife and environment.

In 2005, the government of Ontario recognized the current and future impacts of urban sprawl on the Golden Horseshoe Region in southern Ontario and created a greenbelt around this region. The urban region is one of the fastest growing areas in North America and includes municipalities such as Hamilton, Toronto and Oshawa. The implementation of the greenbelt limits the region’s sprawl and encourages more efficient land use.

This greenbelt — the largest in the world ­­­­— now protects 1.8 million acres of countryside, including 535,000 acres of lakes, wetlands, river valleys and forests, 1,285 cattle ranches and 5,500 farms, many of which are small family farms. According to the Friends of the Greenbelt Foundation, this area contains some of the most valuable agricultural lands in Canada. By creating this greenbelt, development will now focus on existing urban centers, and more money can be focused on maintaining existing infrastructure.

The greenbelt may not be a perfect solution as it raises issues of increased housing costs within the municipality and development potentially leapfrogging the boundary and building on the other side of a greenbelt, thereby creating even greater sprawl.

“If prices do go up, there will be a greater chance of development outside the city boundary. You can’t control what Airdrie would do, that would be a provincial problem. It would be difficult to establish control over the entire province. Calgary would be the biggest influence over the region. People debate about growth boundary and green belts. It has worked in some places but not others,” says Monteyne.

However, there is no denying that this tool could have a positive effect on urban sprawl or, at the very least, protect valuable land from being developed.


The suburbs are what architect Vishaan Chakrabarti has called a “creation of big government, an explicit, policy-driven, subsidized scheme that has guided how we live, work and play.”

Alternate housing, re-zoning, development fees and use of a greenbelt can help curtail some of the costs of urban sprawl. Ultimately, however, it comes down to the consumer. People must be willing to live closer to work, school and the other amenities they require.

We must be willing to recognize the social cost of spreading people out so far from each other, and the ecological destruction caused by building on natural and agricultural land. We must recognize that density is a viable social option which allows people to live closer to more amenities, connect easier and more often with more people, and to decrease the size of our ecological footprint through lower fossil fuel consumption and land use.

This will come, in part, from government and private investment in central communities, but investment will only take place if people are also choosing to live there. If people continue to demand unsustainable growth, there are no physical barriers in any direction that will stop them.

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