Sprawl Pox

Don’t blame suburbanites for urban blight—we’re all in it together

By Margaret Chandler

Sprawl. No matter how you view the term, it’s what defines today’s urban form. And it’s not just our ample girth—it’s urban waste, too. The Calgary/Edmonton corridor is the fastest growing region in western Canada, which means that the lifestyle choices we make in our cities will likely have far reaching consequences. And there is no doubt that Alberta cities do sprawl. One section of downtown Vancouver houses 100,000 people, while an area the same size in Calgary is home to only 12,000.

Landscape ecologist Brad Stelfox studies the Calgary region’s remarkable growth. The bottom line: as its population increased over the past 100 years, density decreased. In the 1920s there were 3,500 people per square kilometre; that figure has fallen to about 2,000 today. Perhaps more importantly, while annual population growth since the early 20th century has been 3 per cent, the “urban footprint” has grown by an average of 4.5 per cent every year, to the extent that Calgary has doubled in area since 1980. “If we continue to grow at this rate, you’ll see the city consuming most of the Municipal District of Rocky View by 2050,” says Stelfox, the founder of a Bragg Creek-based sustainable resource research firm called Forem Technologies. “This includes the towns of Langdon, Airdrie and Cochrane.”

Stelfox say his Bragg Creek home is in “the west- ern shadow of the expanding metropolis” of Calgary. And although it may sound far-fetched, he argues that “Calgary could be one contiguous urban setting extending to Kananaskis within 50 years.”

One of the good things about North America’s cur- rent interest in sprawl is that public attention has turned to urban environmental issues, which for too long were neglected. This has literally brought home the realization that we can’t work just to save wilderness. It’s as important to lobby for better urban development and encourage people to make smarter and healthier transportation choices. After all, even here on the “frontier,” 80 per cent of Albertans live in cities.

Across the province, we see urban centres both large and small straining at their borders. We see developments that boast no corner store and an abundance of big box outlets flanked by concrete deserts. The litany of such places is depressing: Lewis Farms and The Grange in Edmonton, Shawnessey in Calgary, the massive Costco/Wal-Mart development in southeast Lethbridge, and so on. We see bland homogeneous communities designed primarily with one mode of transit in mind—the car. If you can’t walk to the store to buy a kilo of sugar and the bus only services your neighbourhood twice a day, it’s obvious that nobody without ready access to a vehicle would choose to live there. But we do choose to live there, and Alberta families ardently exercise their rights to own a car or four. That’s because freedom of choice is sacrosanct in Alberta, especially when it comes to staking our claims in the ground and owning property.

It doesn’t matter whether it’s Lethbridge, Calgary, Red Deer or Edmonton, the same slash and burn mentality besets us all. Even in remote communities. The incredibly rapid, oilsands-driven growth of boom town Fort McMurray, combined with the impression that the boreal forest goes on ad infinitum, deludes developers into thinking it’s a simple matter of clearing more trees and spreading out. (Geographical constraints—rivers on two sides and a slope on the third—do mitigate this longing for Lebensraum über alles in Fort McMurray.)

Throughout the province, rampant and often ill-conceived growth threatens prime agricultural land, ranchland, boreal forest and prairie grassland. It’s symptomatic of our inability to contain ourselves and think sensibly about the true value of land and water. As long as we continue to build houses with minimal restrictions as to size and location and scant consideration of the ground we pave over, we diminish the future capacity of the land to sustain us.

“How we govern our land and water in this province needs more dedication and effort,” says Barry Worbets, a senior fellow with the Canada West Foundation. “It is among the most important public policy issues facing Albertans. According to the polling we’ve done, it’s the second most important issue, after health care, to Albertans.”

What then are some of the tangible consequences of owning what some critics call suburban “bunkers”? One of the critical environmental concerns is the loss of prime agricultural land and other sensitive terrain, such as wet- lands. Our drive to urbanize is literally devouring our land. Between 1971 and 1996, urban expansion consumed 12,250 square kilometres across the country, a landmass twice the size of Prince Edward Island. Urban land use increased more than 70 per cent in less than three decades. And not surprisingly, almost half of the land converted to urban use was productive farmland. This is noteworthy because only 5 per cent of Canada’s land base is arable, compared to 19 per cent in the United States.

Development always means more paved surfaces. Houses on large lots, in fact, have 10 to 50 per cent more paved or nonporous area than traditional developments. These impervious surfaces ensure that water from precipitation runs off much more rapidly than if it could have soaked into the ground and returned to the water table. This urban runoff is often quite polluted and makes its way into rivers and streams without the benefit of natural filtration.

Air quality is another concern. The suburban lifestyle usually translates into more time spent in the car, ergo more air pollution. Vehicles spew out pollutants such as carbon monoxide, particulate matter, nitrogen oxide, methane and ozone, and one car releases four tonnes of these nasty substances into the atmosphere each year. That’s something to ponder as you while away the time ensnared in gridlock on Deerfoot Trail at 7 a.m. en route to the office. Moreover, transportation is responsible for 14 per cent of Alberta’s total greenhouse gas emissions, with personal cars and trucks accounting for about one-third of these emissions.

According to Don McSwiney, a traffic reporter with CBC Radio in Calgary, it often takes 30 to 40 minutes to drive downtown in rush hour from a suburb such as Midnapore. “A collision on one of the arteries will add another 45 to 60 minutes to the commute,” says McSwiney, who’s disappointed that more money isn’t being put into public transit. From his perspective, out there watching the streets every day, a need for more LRT (light rail transit) service is evident.

It’s not just the environment that suffers, either. Many economists point to the tax burden that all residents must shoulder. A David Suzuki Foundation report called “Sustainability within a Generation” concluded that it costs more to build new roads, electrical lines, sewer and water infrastructure for new subdivisions than to integrate people into existing communities. The Brookings Institution, a U.S. public policy organization, estimates that adopting more compact development patterns from 2000 to 2025 would result in the following savings for U.S. governments: $110-billion in road-building costs; $12.6-billion in water and sewer costs; and approximately $4-billion for annual operations and service delivery. Even when we translate these statistics into Canadian dollars and account for the fact that we have roughly 10 per cent of the U.S. population, the savings for Canadian governments remain significant.

Judy Ferguson, executive director of the Urban Development Institute in Calgary, says developers pay for all the infrastructure when a new subdivision is built, including roads in the community, underground utilities, sidewalks, street lights and so on. Once the properties are sold, the city starts collecting property taxes while providing minimal services to the new community for from three to five years. “During this time one could argue that the new community is actually subsidizing the inner-city communities,” says Ferguson. Developers are also paying a percentage of some of the downstream costs, such as new roads into the community. This year, developers have agreed to a transport levy of approximately $17,000 per acre in Calgary.

Casey Vander Ploeg, a senior policy analyst with the Canada West Foundation, argues, however, that new sub- urban development is a tax burden that is passed on to all, including inner-city residents. “You can’t just look at the infrastructure costs to build the community,” he says. “The interchanges that are often required in these communities can cost tens of millions of dollars.

And it’s not just residential developments that eat up tax dollars, of course. Case in point: South Edmonton Common. At the sprawling 128-hectare “power centre” on the southern edge of town—four new buildings will make it the third largest retail development in Canada, trailing only the West Edmonton Mall and Toronto’s Yorkdale shopping centre—a perpetual traffic jam has forced city council to consider spending $74-million for a new, unanticipated interchange. The log jam of cars heading to the big box stores has made the closest major intersection the most accident prone in the city. It also blocks traffic heading south to the international airport or beyond to Red Deer and Calgary.

One has to consider operating costs on the urban fringe, too. If you drink a glass of water downtown, it costs the city a lot less to provide it compared to pumping it out to an outlying suburb. Natural gas and electricity have to be delivered over longer distribution networks. Services such as solid waste pickup, police and fire are also more expensive to provide to low-density, far-flung suburbs.

A 1995 study in the Greater Toronto Area concluded that more compact and efficient urbanization would save about $10-billion to $16-billion (in 1995 dollars) in infra- structure costs and $2.5-billion to $4-billion in operating and maintenance costs over a 25-year period. This is especially significant when one considers that the Federation of Canadian Municipalities anticipates a $60-billion shortfall for Canadian municipalities’ infrastructure needs. Municipalities, after all, receive only 8 per cent of every Canadian tax dollar.

Another issue is the underutilization of resources, such as schools. While inner-city residents are lobbying to keep their schools open, people on the periphery are demanding new ones. In Edmonton, 35 new suburbs need schools. Vander Ploeg believes some cross-subsidization is occurring. It might be cheaper to heat a newer home in the ’burbs than a turn-of-the-century home in the inner city, for example. But ultimately, he says, “If people had to pay the full costs of services in these outlying communities, they wouldn’t want to live there.”

McMansions on the edge of town may also be a poor long-term investment, not only for the city but also for the purchaser. Who’s going to relieve the suburbanites of their 3,000-square-foot, four-bathroom homes when they come to prefer compact bungalows closer to the city centre or maintenance-free condos? Demographic trends indicate there won’t be much interest in swapping a downtown lifestyle for what suburbia has to offer.

Regardless, examples of suburban boosterism abound. On its website, St. Albert, the satellite city just northwest of Edmonton, touts its “family-oriented focus” by pointing out that 85 per cent of its developed area contains single-family dwellings, while the corresponding statistic for Edmonton is 60 per cent. It appears St. Albert is bragging about its low density and at the same time implying that multi-family dwellings are somehow less family-oriented.

Living space aside, how does a family’s quality of life factor into this equation? With long hours spent commuting, families have less time together. Children grow up in car-dependent households. Homogeneous neighbourhoods breed boredom and banality. Of course, some would argue the very opposite, as this letter to the editor of The Globe and Mail makes abundantly clear: “It’s not the cheap housing. Many of us like the suburbs and recoil at the thought of living cheek- by-jowl in large cities. The drive to work is a small price to pay for a decent place to raise our kids and a little green space to call our own… I wonder how much of our money goes to maintaining transit systems we will never use?”

An inner-city, car-free resident could equally well respond that he subsidizes roads he will seldom, if ever, use. There’s no denying that an automobile-dependent society lies at the heart of the beast. We always build with the car in mind. Up to 50 per cent of urban space is used for transportation and parking, primarily for cars. Low-density sprawl with people often far removed from their workplaces would not be possible without considerable investment in and use of the private car. And this investment is no paltry sum. The Canadian Automobile Association reckons that the 2004 costs to run a Chevrolet Cavalier z-24 four-door sedan (with a four cylinder, 2.4 litre engine) are $9,067.05 if it’s driven 18,000 kilometres a year.

Yet Albertans pride themselves on efficiency. How else could we have achieved our exalted Alberta Advantage? (Although next time you’re immobilized in rush-hour traffic, ask yourself if the word “efficient” best sums it up.) How we continue to expand—and expand we will—reflects our efficiency, which is ultimately linked to quality of life. As long as we continue to develop at densities that don’t encourage extensive use of public transit, while clamouring for more roads, efficiency will elude us. Though Canadian vehicle ownership per capita is now double what it was in 1960, as is the number of kilometres driven, we don’t seem to be get- ting anywhere we really want to or need to be any faster.

Which is precisely why Lewis Mumford’s five-decade-old caution is as cogent today as it was then. In his 1953 book, The Highway and the City, he wrote: “The paradoxical result of [this] concentration on motorcars is a curbing of freedom of movement, a removal of alternative choices of transportation, the steady reduction of the speed of local travel, and the total defeat of the city itself as a place that offers the maximum possibilities of face-to-face meeting, social cooperation and transactions of every kind.”

I live just on the other side of the tracks from the oft vaunted neighbourhood of Garrison Woods in Calgary. There is much to praise about this transformation from Canadian Forces base to upscale high-density development, but it’s not all sweetness and light. With the influx of thousands of new families, traffic pressures are intense. And Garrison Woods isn’t for the faint of wallet, either.

I asked Dave Colquhoun, the manager of transit planning for the City of Calgary, to enlighten me as to why I wasn’t seeing an increase in public transit to offset the rapid growth in the area. “Essentially we are limited in the resources we can provide,” he says. “This year we have the operating budget to increase public transit service by 31,600 hours. But we really need to increase it by 60,000 hours.” I suppose I shouldn’t complain. Some people live in new communities, such as Evanston in Calgary, that aren’t even being serviced yet. Take a walk through some of these new developments and check out the “Future Bus Stop” signs. How many years will residents have to wait until a bus actually pulls up to the stop?

Maria MacMinn, a friend of mine, is a single mother with two teenage sons. They live in a suburb called Tuscany in northwest Calgary; the buses there stop running by 9:30 p.m. on the weekends. “At a time when my kids want to become more independent, they’re more dependent on me than ever,” says MacMinn. “It’s created a whole new social structure for suburban teens.” For instance, she’s observed “the emerging phenomenon of co-ed sleepovers because it’s too difficult to always get their guests home at midnight.”

Given all these considerations, where do we go from here? There are alternatives to conventional development pat- terns. We are making the connections between the urban and natural landscapes. And this is where the concept of smart growth comes in. This expression was first used in the United States in the 1990s and is often synonymous with the terms “new urbanism” or “urban sustainability.”

According to Mary Ann McConnell-Boehm, a senior planner with the City of Edmonton, “smart growth principles are simply good planning principles.” After an urban sustain- ability conference was held in Edmonton in September 2003, Mayor Bill Smith launched an initiative called “The Four Pillars of Urban Sustainability.” In March 2004, council also approved several smart choices recommendations. Likewise, the City of Calgary has established a “Financing Growth Strategy” that will analyze the costs of Calgary’s growth and equitable options for financing that growth.

Yet John Kenward, the Ottawa-based chief operating officer of the Canadian Home Builders’ Association, believes too much time is being wasted debating meaningless terms. “Let’s not talk about smart growth,” he says. “Let’s talk about smart government.” Kenward would like to see industry and government working together to encourage the kind of development we want our urban residents to enjoy.

Indeed this is already the case in some cities. And it’s not just places such as Curitiba in Brazil and Copenhagen in Denmark that can boast of innovative and progressive urban developments. Even though 62 per cent of its residents already live in compact neighbourhoods, Vancouver has ambitious plans to develop an inner-city community for 10,000 people on an 85-acre former brownfield site on the southeast False Creek waterfront. Not to be outdone, the town of Markham, Ontario, is developing Markham Centre, a 243-acre lakeside core that will be built over the next 10 years incorporating the principles of smart growth including a walkable downtown and a transit accessible centre.

We can’t engage in yet another us versus them polemic, for sprawl knows no boundaries. We’re in it together no matter where we reside. It’s not true, of course, that sub-urbanites are automatically less worthy environmental citizens. Although a recent study done by the University of Maryland’s National Center for Smart Growth indicated that people in suburbs tend to walk less and be more overweight, let’s not fool ourselves. Unfettered consumption isn’t limited to the ’burbs.

My urban community, for instance, could certainly set a better example. The bus is often half empty at the same time streets are clogged with cars. We continue to squander water on our pesticide-drenched lawns that we cut with highly polluting lawnmowers. Although 50-foot lots with one home are being rapidly replaced with two homes, energy efficiency in these new homes isn’t a high priority for most builders. I know because I’ve scoured the neighbourhood and asked them.

Sprawl isn’t just about where we choose to live; it’s about how we live.

In the inexorable march (let it not be a lurch) toward an increasingly urbanized society, how will we weave our urban tapestry? The astonishing cathedrals built during the Gothic era engaged the entire community, sometimes for centuries. This medieval perspective and reverence for beau- ty has been mostly abandoned in a built environment where a busy thoroughfare often resembles nothing more than the inside of a shopping mall hideously writ large. But a concerted effort led by progressive-minded civic planners, engineers, builders, developers and community activists could steer us in the right direction. Only then might we come to celebrate an urban landscape designed to be in harmony with the natural world from which all true wealth flows.

Margaret Chandler is a freelance writer and teacher in Calgary, and the proprietor of Green Fuse, a company that specializes in environmental communications and event management.

 

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