Calgary struggles to rein in sprawl

December 15, 2008 § 2 Comments

Christina Ryan

Calgary's urban sprawl in the city's northwest. Photograph by : Christina Ryan

From: The Calgary Herald

Date: December 15th, 2008

The Smuszkos wanted an affordable four-bedroom house, a yard, a place for the kids to ride bikes.

The home that fit was in the suburbs.

“I used to live in Marda Loop,” says Deanne Smuszko, who stays at home in the northwest neighbourhood of Tuscany with her and husband Jerry’s three young children, Noah, Wyatt and Addison. “I would love to live in that neighbourhood again. But the fact of the matter is we have three kids now. A four-bedroom house in an area like that is not feasible.

“Our yard is big enough to play soccer in. For our family, right now, it’s the best choice.”

Tens of thousands of people are making that same choice, flocking to Calgary’s edges, pushing the boundaries of the city farther and farther out.

With the city’s population exploding by 115,000 over the past five years, even more people are heading for Panorama Hills and Coventry Hills.

Phenomenal growth has the city walking a fine line — trying to encourage more compact communities and additional residences in the inner city instead of new communities built on open land on Calgary’s fringes.

While thousands of new condos have been built to accommodate the influx of people, a home with a yard — and often a more affordable price tag — still draws residents to suburban communities.

“Calgarians still require some yard space for their kids and pets,” says Bob Clark, a vice-president with Carma Developers, which built Tuscany, among other communities. “It’s very much still in demand.”

But critics decry a sprawling city that still eats up 548 hectares every year — the equivalent of almost a third of Okotoks. Calgary’s one million residents live on 745 square-kilometres, a fact often negatively compared to the more than eight-million people who call New York’s 830 square-kilometres home. The city argues the sprawl in cities like New York take place on the other side of its city limits.

Brad Stelfox, a land use expert, says the city’s area has grown by 4.5 per cent a year on average over the past six decades, compared to population increases of about three per cent.

Others argue an average of 23,000 new people a year — more than the population of Okotoks — can’t possibly fit in existing neighbourhoods and new communities are necessary to house the influx.

People also vote with their mortgages, with the suburbs absorbing more than 100 per cent of growth in the past few years, while established neighbourhoods lost population. The ebb and flow of older communities means less people live there, as grown children move, seniors downsize and families have fewer kids.

Stelfox points out Calgary has about half as many people living in each square kilometre than in the 1920s, although that’s a reality for most cities.

A recent City of Calgary report charting its growth predicts in the coming years the population of established communities will drop in every sector except the city centre and the west.

“There’s no doubt we’ll still be building suburbs in the foreseeable future,” says David Watson, the city’s general manager of planning, development and assessment. “We’re trying not to stop suburban growth, we’re trying to encourage more intensification.

“We want to make sure we’re more sustainable.”

With 1.3 million people expected to call Calgary home by 2022, how — and where — the city grows becomes even more important.

All those new people, whether living in condos, an inner-city infill home or new suburbs, require more of everything — from rec centres and schools, to police and fire stations to cemeteries, something the city is trying to find land for.

Houses in new communities come with extra demands — extensions of roads, the LRT, sewer and water systems. The increased traffic fuels the chorus calling for interchanges.

The city needs $11.5 billion over the next decade to handle the growth. The fire department alone requires at least seven new stations in the next three to five years.

On top of the one-time, initial cost of building those facilities, there are the long-term operating repercussions — paying the salaries of more police officers, fire fighters, paramedics, librarians, transit operators.

As the city struggles to meet those infrastructure demands, not all suburbs are created equal, Smuszko says.

At the beginning of summer, the family moved to Tuscany from Royal Oak, in large part because Noah heads to kindergarten this fall and the old neighbourhood is still waiting for its own school. Their new home, an older suburb, also has a community centre, which Royal Oak doesn’t.

“It’s like the city hasn’t caught up from when the boom hit,” Smuszko says.

The city would be the first to agree, facing the added challenge of the boom driving up the cost of construction for virtually every project.

“One of the biggest challenges is finding out the services citizens want and figuring out how to pay for it,” Watson says.

Levies placed on new communities help pay for some of the amenities, with a per hectare fee that goes toward buses, rec centres and roads. Despite the added cost to each new home, prices for an average house in the suburbs have still been more affordable than closer in.

Ald. Druh Farrell argues the real cost of building in a new community is not being paid for by those living there.

“We plan our city based on what the market wants without attaching consequences to the choices,” the inner city alderman says. “We need to start attaching true costs.”

If those costs were in place, the price of homes would be more in line with other areas and demand would drop, she says.

Mike Flynn, of the Urban Development Institute, which represents developers, says it’s hard to argue that point when the city doesn’t have an accurate cost of the infrastructure required to accommodate more people in existing areas.

As the city works on a long-term plan that includes both land use and transportation demands, UDI is calling for 70 per cent of new homes to be “greenfield” sites, with 30 per cent coming through infill.

As well, Flynn and others argue that putting limits on where growth can occur will simply push people outside the city limits, where they would continue to use Calgary’s infrastructure without paying for it.

The city has been making decisions they hope will slow the sprawl, through more housing in the city core and doubling the number of units per acre in the suburbs to more than seven. Some new communities see densities as high as 12 units an acre.

The city’s Watson says balancing demand, affordability and sustainability is a challenge.

“It’s a puzzle which no city, I would suggest, has figured out,” he says.

Deanne Smuszko pictures herself staying on the puzzle’s edges for the foreseeable future.

“We love it here,” she says of her suburban home. “It’s what our family needs right now.”

kguttormson@theherald.canwest.com

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