Globe and Mail:How Cities Grow – up is in

It’s a tale of three cities, and three very different models of urban growth.

An in-depth Neptis Foundation study of expansion in three Canadian supercities – Toronto, Calgary and Vancouver – shows density is an art, and sprawly metropoles get what they planned for.

While Vancouver sits smugly as a dense urban planner’s dream, Calgary’s Wild West growth has seen it sprawl into southern Alberta’s foothills. And, when it comes to urban density, Toronto the Good is Toronto the in-between.

Vancouver

Prognosis

Lotus Land has one more thing to be smug about: It’s grown up and in, not out, focusing on getting denser as its population has grown. Out of the three cities studied, it’s the only one that sprawled less between 1991 and 2001.

How it grew

Avoiding sprawl is easier when you’re hemmed in by mountains and ocean. But Vancouver’s relative density is no accident: It’s largely the result of a series of public policy decisions dating back to the late 1960s and early 70s, when the city was considering building freeway extensions of Highway 1 over the Burrard Inlet and the downtown peninsula.

“That was a key turning point,” says planning consultant and economist Eric Vance. Decisions like that, and the creation of the Lower Mainland’s agricultural land reserve, put developable land at a premium: It only made sense to leverage that limited supply by building as many units in as small a space as possible.

Where it’s growing

Vancouver’s plans verge on the utopian: Mayor Gregor Robertson has adopted his predecessor Sam Sullivan’s “EcoDensity” strategy and aims to make Vancouver the world’s greenest city by 2020.

Secondary suites? Check. Laneway houses? Check. Now Vancouver’s challenge is working with 21 other municipalities in the Lower Mainland to check sprawl across the region.

The Bottom line

Vancouver’s a model of how public-policy choices can foster dense growth or curb sprawl. The missing piece, says Simon Fraser University’s Gordon Harris, is making it affordable to live there.

“If we can’t create housing that the people who work in the city can afford, pretty soon the city stops working so well. You start to see economic decline that is directly related the to cost of housing: People will choose to live and work elsewhere.”

Calgary

CALGARY: WILD WEST GROWTH

Prognosis

Welcome to big-sky country. Except by “big-sky,” we mean “big, sprawly spaces.” Throughout the 1990s, Boomtown Calgary also became Canada’s Wild West of urban sprawl, with nearly 80 per cent of growth eating up green fields.

How it grew

Rolling prairies make it easy to spread out, city-wise. But Calgary’s growth has been no accident: The city has had a strong planning culture since the 1950s – the 1963 Calgary General Plan was the first statutory municipal plan in Western Canada. The city functioned as a de facto regional government, gobbling up the land on its borders through annexations, often at the urging of developers who’d already purchased those plots.

“We talk about geography as destiny,” said Noel Keough, a professor of environmental design at the University of Calgary. “But in a place like Calgary where it is easier to expand and sprawl into prairie land I would argue that obligates you to be even more pro-active in your public policy and planning. It’s going to cost you anyway.”

Where it’s growing

In the past decade, Calgary has started checking its sprawl, motivated in part by a looming water shortage.

“There is an increased emphasis on urban redevelopment and infill for increased density,” said Mike Quinn, also an environmental design professor at the University of Calgary.

The Bottom line

Brent Toderian, who has worked as a planner in both Vancouver and Calgary, points to such initiatives as McKenzie Towne – a transit- and pedestrian-centric residential development in the city’s southeast – as examples of Calgary’s new “smart growth” communities. But make no mistake. As anyone on the Deerfoot Trail will tell you, Calgary remains a spread-out city of drivers.

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