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.

Results?

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.