Why Edmonton's inner-city suburbs need to embrace density already / by Tim Querengesser

Residents in Edmonton’s inner city neighbourhoods hold more power than most of us when it comes to what sort of city we can build in the future.

The reason is their acceptance—or refusal—of urban density and how that will affect our upcoming election. 

Allow me to explain.

Most of us, me included, hate simplistic discussions about over-used words like “density” but love the things it enables. We want a better transit system. We want vibrant, walkable streets with cash-registers dinging within small-scale retail bays. We want a sustainable growth model that doesn't see our tax dollars used to subsidize revenue losing suburban sprawl. We want a downtown with economic resilience and 24/7 culture. We want streets that feel safe. 

To achieve all of this we need density across our entire urban grid. And to get that, we need to at least figure out, if not solve, the anti-infill NIMBYism that’s on fire in some of our inner-city suburbs rather than argue for another second about the merits of infill.

Much of this will largely be sorted in our upcoming municipal election. Expect more than a few candidates to see a potential win by running as one-issue, anti-infill nincompoops.

Let's hope we advance the discussion beyond that before they get a chance.

Now, before we go too far here, I think it's necessary to bust some myths about population densities in Edmonton. While regular wisdom might have it that the city is densest at its middle and most sparsely populated at its edges, in Edmonton it's just not the case.

Edmonton's newest and most far-flung suburbs are car dependent and sprawling, yes, but they're also surprisingly dense. The more we've grown, it seems, the more we've realized density isn't just a buzzword but instead a survival mechanism. And so our newest suburbs, like Tamarack, or Eau Claire, or so many other names that we struggle to place on a map, see the duplexes and four-plexes and dense, multi-unit housing we keep saying we need all over Edmonton, despite offering those who live there relatively unusable transit options and few services within a walk. 

In comparison, the gorgeous neighbourhoods ringing our core, mostly built between the end of the Second World War and the 1980s, are actually our most sparsely populated—and by a long shot. Sure, as we walk or drive through these hoods, the large trees, beautiful older schools and more mature retail activity might fool us into seeing a denser place than is actually before us. But the numbers don’t lie. Areas of the suburb of Terwillegar, for example, see up to 50 residential units per hectare, while areas of Glenora, which I still consider walkable or at least bikeable to downtown, and which is blessed with bountiful transit options, already-built schools, parks and other expensive infrastructure, can see just 18 units per hectare. 

What that means is that Edmonton has an internal donut of old fashioned suburbia that isn't growing while the rest of the city is

The concerning part for the whole city is how this donut votes based on its feelings toward density (or its stand-in word in these neighbourhoods, “infill”). Because it’s in the inner donut where the battles over density are the loudest and meanest. 

It just makes economic and logical sense that as a neighbourhood ages out, as its original families leave and its schools struggle to maintain enough students to stay open, that we bring people back. That’s why neighbourhoods like Glenora, Rio Terrace, Capilano, Gold Bar and others see so many attempts to fill-in their gaps with newer housing, often more dense. 

And yet it’s some residents in these and many other donut communities, with the least dense built form in all of Edmonton, who say that their neighbourhood will be destroyed by skinny homes or duplexes or—shudder—a mid-rise rental building.

At stake if we can’t figure out a way to bring density into these communities is, well, a lot. It’s everything from the viability of our transit system (should our buses skip our empty inner suburbs in an attempt to get service to the far more densely populated communities on the fringes, for example?) to our efforts to reign in costly sprawl. 

Edmonton is projected to swell to 1.4-million residents by 2044. If we do it in the style we’ve been doing it so far, a lot more people are going to have to buy into a world of dense suburbs on the edge of nowhere—places with large multi-unit housing but few services to walk to and a long drive to work in the core. 

A better approach would be pressuring our inner-city suburbs to think beyond their backyards and elect councillors in October who understand density isn’t a bad thing, but something that we can all share the benefits of. 

Over to you, Edmonton.