Why Edmonton needs to consider creating an urban growth boundary by Tim Querengesser

This past week, Edmonton's inability to place real value on its land has become plain. First, the provincial government doubled-down on car-based sprawl by kicking $100 million of public money into widening the just-completed Anthony Henday ring road, in effect subsidizing further wasteful, expensive sprawl in the southwest for generations to come. And then, almost at the same time, with no apparent irony or comparison, discussion about what to do with the Coliseum lands, a massive brownfield parcel right in the city centre that's already serviced by an expensive LRT system, have ranged from comical to tragic. One suggestion that nearly made me scream: let's put a parking lot on it.

So, it won't surprise you that I think the value Edmonton puts on land is broken and that this is preventing many other things Edmonton residents say they want. Our planners and thinkers treat land like it's endless, free and easy and they seem unbothered when it sits empty, idle and unused. And we pay the price for all this. We can't seem to incentivize meaningful infill development, or more than a handful of urban areas. Our downtown is an increasingly modern and vertical metropolis surrounded by surface parking lots. And at any point in the city, within a 10-minute drive from wherever you may be, sits an industrial land park that is, at best, used to only a portion of its capacity.

 Sprawlin' sprawlin' sprawlin', keep your city sprawlin'. Photo: Flickr/Mack Male

Sprawlin' sprawlin' sprawlin', keep your city sprawlin'. Photo: Flickr/Mack Male

When one makes an observation about how Edmonton doesn't value land, as I often do, the default reaction people have is to compare Edmonton with Vancouver. There, the argument goes, horizontal development (or sprawl) is limited by the ocean and by the mountains. Edmonton doesn't have mountains or an ocean, these people say, so sprawl and Edmonton is just inevitable. 

Well I say this is bunk. Many other cities surrounded by swathes of developable land have nonetheless decided that the best way to build compact, livable cities cities that redevelop their former industrial sites quickly into retail areas or housing, or offer walkable neighbourhoods, or build housing options beyond greenfield suburbs is to create an urban growth boundary.

Edmonton needs to consider this. And fiscal conservatives should be screaming for it. Here's why.

Back in the early 1970s, London, Ontario, predicted that it would hit half a million people by today and that it would do so within the newly annexed land it had just acquired to grow. Fast forward to today and the city is only 350,000 or so people and yet it has sprawled well beyond those original annexations. London's response? Over the past few decades it has started to re-evaluate how it values land. And, most importantly, it has started to limit growth to incentivize this re-valuation. Or, in short, it has created an urban growth boundary.

Since 2008, London has developed nearly 40 per cent of its population growth into housing in its developed areas. That's nearly double the rate Edmonton just recently been able to hit. Somehow, London, a city that's just one third the size of Edmonton, sees actual value in smart growth rather than dumb growth. And yet if we were to ask which city would be more fiscally conservative and averse to waste, I'm going to suggest most would think it was Edmonton.

The trick London has figured out is valuing land. The city has released a plethora of thinking (more reading: here) on land value and I say value in a sense beyond cash value that's eye opening for an Edmonton reader simply because such studies are few and far between here. Indeed, London ran a scenario recently to examine how it will absorb the 200,000 people it expects will move to the city over the next 50 years.

It looked at three different uses for land. The first was to allow unlimited sprawl. The second, or compact model, was to keep the city within its existing boundaries. And the third was to limit growth but allow some greenfield development. It was called a hybrid.


The sprawl model, London argued, would result in 70 per cent of new housing units being single detached houses. Most of the growth would be in new greenfield neighbourhoods. To accommodate this growth, more than 6,400 hectares of greenfield land would be needed -- equivalent to the entire city of Waterloo, Ontario. The cost for the development -- for new infrastructure, schools, fire halls: $4.2 billion.

The compact model, London argued, would be far different. This approach would result in just 30 per cent single detaced houses, with 35 per cent townhouse and mid-rise and 35 per cent high rise. Most single detached houses would be built in greenfield areas available within the existing boundaries, but most other housing would be in existing neighbourhoods. Cost: $452 million, or about a tenth of the sprawl model.

The hybrid model would see 50 per cent of new homes be single detached in greenfield suburbs, with 23 per cent mid rise and townhouse, and 27 per cent high rise. It would require about 1,100 hectares of new sprawl. Cost: about $890 million.

I don't think I have to underline that Edmonton is growing using the sprawl model. It is wasteful and expensive. It leaves large pockets of land empty. It confounds development. It de-values housing. It exchanges the promise of affordability today for higher taxes for everyone tomorrow.

It's broken.

The Canadian Studies side of me (unknown quirk about me: I have a master's degree in Canadian Studies) can't help but note that much of the Canadian west was settled using a program that essentially gave land away to those who promised to farm it, as well as keep out those pesky, expansionist Americans and marginalize the people whose land it really was, the Indigenous nations already there. But perhaps that's just a bit too meta. Surely, in 2018, land can be worth something in Edmonton just like it is in most other cities in Canada? 

One way to change this thinking is to discuss, debate and consider creating an urban growth boundary. 

Why we will never be done building the Anthony Henday by Tim Querengesser

There is a joke that the needs of the bureaucracy will be met by the ever-expanding bureaucracy. A similar joke could be made about our devotion to meeting the ever-expanding needs of the Anthony Henday.

When the meme-worthy sign went up recently, bragging that “We Done B**ches,” the truth was we were done, but just for now. Today, responding to traffic demand and car-dependent development that saves some of us money up front but costs all of us more in the long run – all literally incentivized by the Anthony Henday’s design – the province will announce an expansion of what is already the most expensive infrastructure project in Alberta’s history. It all exposes the truth that, on our current path, we will never be done building this mega road, nor will we become the city we say we aspire to be. And despite the dizzying public subsidy one form of mobility and lifestyle is about to receive, I expect we will hear comparatively little outrage from fiscally-conservative columnists or anyone, really, about today's announcement. It’s easier to debate the cost of a politician’s orange juice, a protected bike lane network, or even a public investment in a downtown hockey arena, than it is the cost of, say, an interchange in the middle of a roadway that we only see as it flashes by, or the expansion of a ring road. We lack even the language to debate the cost of this way of developing in Alberta, so in our silence we let it make decisions for us.


 Photo: Mack Male/Flickr

Photo: Mack Male/Flickr

The Henday, as most call it, was first proposed in 1950s, and over the past six decades has become Edmonton’s main infrastructure project, swallowing at least $4-billion of investment in a province where hospitals and courthouses still require staff to place buckets to catch water due to leaks whenever there’s a rain storm. Portions of the roadway are part of the CANMEX corridor, an uninterrupted trade route that connects Mexico to Alaska. Some sections are wholly funded by the public, while others have been built as a public-private partnership. Today, the Henday is one of the busiest roadways in western Canada.

Undeniably there are positives that come with having the Henday. And yet.

The politicians who represent residents living in the southwest of Edmonton, where traffic is by some accounts becoming unmanageable, are responding as best they think they can to the apparent problem. The Henday has incentivized more drivers and more sprawl, and therefore, obviously, we need to build more of the Henday to keep up. It’s hard to blame these decision makers on one hand. But then again, on the other, it’s almost impossible to imagine one of them breaking from this pattern and doing what’s needed, which is invest these hundreds of millions in upgrades to transit infrastructure for these communities or, at the least, to have a very honest debate about the sustainability of building cities the way we are.

You may detect a sense of frustration (and rushing, too, as I have to write in my little spare time) in this blog and you’re right. Over the past year, I have worked on my own time and without a paycheque in order to push for a bikeshare in this city of nearly one million, despite bikeshare systems taking root in cities as small as Kelowna, Waterloo and Victoria. I’ve sat at tables with federal, provincial and municipal leaders and shown the incredible statistics – the cost-effectiveness of the systems, the amount of car trips they divert onto bikes or as connections to transit, the myriad benefits to street retail or health outcomes or carbon emissions or infrastructure wear and tear. Literally, they provide more mobility for less money than car dependency.

And yet despite all this, I’ve also been told, countless times, that such a project doesn’t really qualify for government help, or should really find a way to pay for itself, or will only work if it’s self funded, or backed by a celebrity with deep pockets, or perhaps should be funded by a private corporate backer. All of these leaders I’ve met with have meant well, have seen and acknowledged the promise of bikeshare, but have come up against the sheer inertia of car think. Of projects like the Anthony Henday. Once you start building them, induced demand will guarantee you will keep building them. At the cost of so many other things.

Today is a great day to have this discussion. But I don't expect we will. 



Why it's noteworthy that today's discussion about bikeshare had next to zero bikelash by Tim Querengesser

 Photo: Richard Masoner/Flickr

Photo: Richard Masoner/Flickr

The narrative arc for bike infrastructure in most cities is consistent. It begins with bikelash, which everyone talks about, most especially news media, and ends with bike-love, which next to nobody does. 

First, people claim bike lanes (and it's usually bike lanes that lead the infrastructure debates) will create bedlam. Then, once built, people will next complain about bike lanes taking too much road space, or not being used sufficiently to justify their expense, or catering to "elite" cycists (how someone using less space and resources is an elite, I do not understand, but let's just leave that).

What's less discussed is the final step in the story arc – the resolution of the tension. That's when after a year or a few, people just stop complaining. It's at this stage that people realize their bike lanes work and start asking for them in their own neighbourhoods. It's the moment, oh so quiet, when cycling becomes mainstream. 

People then start to exhibit bike-love.

I couldn't help but think today's discussion of bikeshare, inspired by a story by Elise Stolte in the Edmonton Journal that examined just how easy, low cost and simple bringing a dockless system could be in our city, underlined that Edmonton is on the cusp of stage three of the arc. 

I expected bikelash. I expected angry emails in my inbox. I expected criticism. I expected mockery. I expected someone to suggest I deserved to die. Instead, as Stolte sought to spur discussion of the idea on Facebook and Twitter, I saw an almost unanimous belief a bikeshare could be useful, convenient and positive for Edmonton. Even the people who disagreed just kind of said, "No, not for me," and moved on. Hardly a barb was thrown.

Dare I say it, but we've come a long way in not so long in Edmonton when it comes to perceptions and attitudes. While I won't suggest we're at the stage of bike-love, I will suggest we're closer to it than we are to bikelash. And that's a very noteworthy thing in one of the most car-dependent cities in North America. 



Four reasons I'm not convinced gondolas are what we need by Tim Querengesser

 Photo: Alexander Baxevanis/Flickr

Photo: Alexander Baxevanis/Flickr

I'm torn by the gondola discussion. For once, the central wealth Edmonton has as a city, our river valley, is at the centre of a discussion about how to move people without cars. So, be still my heart. And yet the thinker in me can't get on board with a gondola. This has surprised a few people. They deserve an explanation.

Here are my four reasons for questioning if a gondola project is what we need right now.

1. What backbone will it supplement?
A gondola is supplemental transit infrastructure, not backbone infrastructure. In simpler terms, a gondola would be great for Edmonton – if said gondola could accentuate a robust central transit system. And that's the problem, folks. If we're talking about connecting downtown Edmonton with Whyte Avenue, as we should be (how is this something we're only tackling now?), what transit backbone is the gondola supplementing? Answer: A very weak one.

Also: Several urban gondolas exist and are successful. But one major thing a vast majority of those gondolas have that we don't is density along the line. Our river valley, thanks to a freeway we built within it that saw us bulldoze former residential neighbourhoods, is the antithesis of dense. That's a problem.

For me, a gondola in Edmonton brings to mind not images of the system in Bogota, Colombia, but instead the gondola in Spokane, Washington. Ridership? About 70,000 passengers per year (or roughly the number of people who commute into downtown Edmonton daily).

2. Gondolas have whimsy but other parts are flimsy 
Whimsy is my favourite argument for a gondola, and literally the one that sways me the most. A gondola is cool, it shows off our city, it makes us stand out. I agree. And yet.

We already have a whimsical public transit option that connects the north side of the core with Whyte Avenue: the High Level Bridge Streetcar. The fact this street car is: 1) eminently walkable (see a point on walkability below); 2) connected to the High Level Line's plans to re-imagine the corridor as a walkable urban paradise; 3) already exists; 4) is basically connected to already existing transit nodes; and 5) is therefore more likely to happen than a gondola, are the reasons I can't get behind a gondola. Want to connect downtown with Whyte Avenue? Create a reliable, ETS-run tram from bank to bank. Simple, cheap and effective. 

3. So let's talk walkability
For me, the main problem with a gondola is that it struggles on walkability. Walking to and from a gondola car or station isn't as walkable as, say, a low-floor LRT or a bikeshare or a car share or [insert basically any transit option here]. Further, a gondola creates another street, in the air, rather than one on the, well, street. All the pedway haters in Edmonton should really hate gondolas.

Further still, a gondola between Edmonton downtown and Whyte Avenue, if built, might convince some that we don't need to figure out ways to divert people from car dependency for over-used corridors like Whyte Avenue itself. Instead, they might argue, let's just build a gondola, so the drivers can keep their space. A gondola above Whyte Avenue is a very bad idea. They are not high capacity like LRT. They are not street-building infrastructure. Germany tried this idea, with the Wuppertal Suspension Railway. Today it's a head scratching anachronism rather than a key piece of transportation infrastructure. Never heard of Wuppertal? Exactly.

4. Gondolas are taking transit oxygen
If you agree with me that a gondola is supplemental, almost tourist-focused infrastructure rather than backbone type stuff, devoting resources to studying a system and debating it in public discourse potentially takes away resources, attention and understanding of basic things we still don't have. We don't have a bikeshare, a vastly more cost-effective way to open up our river valley as well as all sorts of other areas (124 Street, Ritchie Market, French Quarter, Chinatown, The Quarters, Little Italy, etcetera) to residents, newbie cyclists and tourists alike. We don't have a decent bus or LRT connection between our two downtown cores. We don't have successful transit-oriented development. We don't have a strong, world-leading strategy to curb sprawl and make sure transit exists in our now hyper-dense suburbs. And yet we're talking about gondolas.