Treading Heavily

Edmonton confronts its giant eco-footprint

By Tim Querengesser

Lisa Jimmo wakes up at 6 a.m. each weekday to prepare for her 30-minute drive to work in downtown Edmonton. Her house is in Horse Hill, an idyllic farmland community some 18 kilometres northeast of Edmonton’s core. From Horse Hill School, where her kids once went to classes, the tips of the city’s skyscrapers shimmer on the horizon. “We wanted to be close enough to the city for the amenities but far enough out for the yard,” Jimmo says. “It was a choice I made 20 or 30 years ago. I don’t know at what point I would say ‘This is too much.’” Over the coming decades, Jimmo’s house and property will be swallowed by Edmonton’s next major suburban development, also called Horse Hill. The plan calls for five subdivisions by 2050 that will house roughly 70,000 people on 2,800 hectares, a density close to Edmonton’s 30-person-per-hectare minimum (far less than Greater Toronto’s new suburban target of 150 people and jobs per hectare; a hectare is roughly 2.5 acres). When council considered Horse Hill in 2013, then city councillor (now mayor) Don Iveson published a blog post acknowledging research showing that the city would effectively have to subsidize the development. But, he said, Edmonton residents wanted another suburb. “Demand is still strong for suburban low-density housing,” Iveson wrote. “And why not? The land is cheaper and the infrastructure and structures are new. With my 59-year-old fixer-upper house [in Edmonton’s inner city] and crumbling, uneven sidewalks, even I can see the appeal.” But while Jimmo is similar to many Edmonton residents—she values a yard, detached home and connection to rural roots more than she worries about her dependence on a car—she can also see things need to change. Back in 2011, when the Horse Hill Area Structure Plan was being discussed, Jimmo pushed for transit links to the city, bike lanes within the community, multi-family housing and smaller yards to boost density. Little of that was in the original proposal, she says. “What we put back to planners was, ‘Wouldn’t it be nice to plan this into the development when you’re starting out rather than putting it in after?’” One wonders what Edmonton would have got in Horse Hill without hearing from concerned locals such as Jimmo, or what it will get in the future. Horse Hill, after all, is not an anomaly. In 2015, Edmonton councillors approved the second-largest land annexation in city history, a plan to swallow about 4,000 hectares from Leduc and Beaumont counties to the southwest for future subdivisions and industrial spaces. The city’s website claimed Edmonton is “quickly running out of room to grow.” While that’s debatable, what’s undoubtedly growing is the city’s car dependence. A 2008 Statistics Canada study found nearly 8 in 10 Edmonton residents made all their daily trips in a car—the highest rate of any major city in Canada. Vehicle registrations per capita in Edmonton have increased since then, from 580 per 1,000 people in 2007 to more than 600 in 2012. A recent Queen’s University study found that Edmonton grew faster than all Canadian cities except Calgary between 2006 and 2011. More than 90 per cent of that growth was suburban sprawl. Edmonton’s future as a city appears stuck in traffic. That’s partly why, when Horse Hill was debated at council, more than 2,000 people signed a petition asking the city to reconsider. After all, Horse Hill isn’t just a new subdivision. It’s also a sign that Edmonton is continuing to sprawl to deal with its breathless growth. Given Edmonton’s already huge ecological footprint, continuing to build the city around the car seems about the worst idea there is.

 If the rest of the world lived like Edmonton, we’d need four more Earths to sustain our demands on nature.

An ecological footprint (or eco-footprint) measures how many resources you consume and how much waste you generate. If you have a long drive to work, heat and light a big house and consume foreign-grown foods and foreign-made goods—an iPhone from China; February tomatoes grown in Mexico—your eco-footprint gets bigger. Eco-footprints are measured in land use, with the average human requiring 2.8 hectares. This is a problem, since, at the current human population, our planet can only sustain usage of about 1.9 hectares per person. Eco-footprints are biggest in the richest countries. Canada has one of the world’s largest footprints, and Edmonton’s and Calgary’s are larger still. It takes 9.45 hectares to support each Edmontonian’s lifestyle. In other words, if everyone lived like Edmontonians do, we’d need four extra planets just to sustain the world’s population. Energy is Edmonton’s ecological Achilles heel. Four hectares of the average Edmontonian eco-footprint is land that supplies or absorbs energy use. While much of that energy is a result of coal-fired electrical plants that are beyond individual or city control, the second-largest part of Edmonton’s energy demand—transportation—is within the control of individuals and the City alike. Economist Mark Anielski, co-author of a 2004–05 Federation of Canadian Municipalities study that found Edmonton’s and Calgary’s eco-footprints to be the largest in the nation, says transportation is the “biggest single component” of eco-footprints that people can influence. It is also where the city can make its largest shifts. Since 2005, when Anielski’s eco-footprint calculation became a corporate performance indicator for the city, Edmonton’s footprint has risen slightly. Transportation, Anielski says, is roughly 35 per cent of that demand. Where it gets complicated, Anielski explains, is in the incentives influencing individual transportation choices, including where people choose to live. Anielski lives in Edmonton’s Old Strathcona neighbourhood, which has a Walk Score of 83 out of 100 (a measure of the ease of travelling a community on foot; 100 is most walkable). Anielski walks and bikes everywhere. “People always say, ‘I wish I could live there.’ Then they say—and there’s always a but—‘But I can’t afford it.’ Why would they like to live there? They say they want to walk to the farmers market, bike trails, the river valley.” House prices in Old Strathcona are some of the highest in the city, which Anielski believes is an indication of the value people place on a walkable lifestyle. The high prices are also an incentive for many to live in the suburbs. Edmonton can’t manipulate housing prices to change that incentive, but it can push developers to build suburbs more like Old Strathcona and less like, for example, Windermere, an Edmonton suburb with a Walk Score of 11 out of 100. “Make the incentive to developers to plan for the highest possible Walk Scores,” Anielski says. Until Edmonton does so, it will continue to make economic sense for developers to create sprawl. “The way we deal with developers can change and has to change.”

 Over 90 per cent of Edmonton’s growth is suburban sprawl, and 8 in 10 residents make all of their daily trips by car.

Over the last two years Edmonton has added more than 60,000 residents. The growth has been so intense, says Kurt Borth, a University of Alberta expert in what’s called “location efficiency,” that Edmonton has no choice but to continue building suburbs. “To get the numbers [of people] that are coming to the city into housing, we have to develop the outer areas,” he says. That is, the population projections he has seen are far greater than infill housing in the existing city can absorb. “My location efficiency research speaks to the fact we need to develop in innovative ways, instead of the good old suburban model with cul-de-sacs.” Borth uses two extremes to explain location efficiency. Household A is connected to an urban grid that allows its residents to take transit, cycle or walk to work, buy groceries and take the kids to school. Household B has the same number of people but is located in a low-density, car-dependent neighbourhood. The difference? House B consumes 40 per cent more energy than House A. “That’s an extreme example, but it shows what a car’s effect on your footprint is,” Borth says. Why do people choose House B, then? Borth’s answer: perceived value. “People drive until they qualify [for a mortgage]”—that is, they head outside the city centre until the price of a house, at the size they desire, is affordable at their income. That they aren’t factoring in other costs is “one of the big takeaways from my research,” Borth says. “You’ve got this great house, but after 10 years, who’s coming out ahead?” Comparing two similar people, one in the inner city and one in a suburb requiring a vehicle with all of its hidden costs, “I’m not sure it’s the person who paid $50,000 less out there in the suburbs,” he says. Research has also shown that longer commutes and car dependence are connected to higher rates of heart disease, divorce and diabetes. “All these things add up,” Borth says, “but we still keep building in the same way.” To find out why Edmontonians choose to live in the suburbs or closer in, Borth spoke to 60 individuals. He found three distinct types. Group one was “very aware” of the costs a location creates and were willing to compromise on their house’s size or features to lower them. Group two “wouldn’t compromise,” wanted a large house and didn’t worry about commuting to afford it. Group three valued a house’s yard above the house and thus were attracted to mature, inner-city neighbourhoods. What Borth takes from these findings is that groups one and three are relatively ignored by current development in Edmonton, while group two seems to get all the love. Where, he asks, are the multi-family brownstone developments inside the city, where people might raise a family without moving to the ’burbs? Where are the housing co-ops and laneway homes for those who “get” location efficiency? Since 2009, single-family lot owners in Vancouver have been eligible to build a laneway home where their garage would otherwise be. Reports show that this housing option appeals to people in Borth’s groups one and three: the location-conscious and the boomers wanting to downsize. “We just don’t see those innovative types of products [in Edmonton],” says Borth. “We have either the suburban giant house or the tiny condo with a patio and no yard. There’s a lot of stuff in between that we’re not seeing here.” Ken Cantor, a vice-president of Qualico, one of western Canada’s largest new-home builders, rejects the idea that Edmonton’s suburbs are a problem for which inner city development is the answer. Those who criticize new surburban developments as “wasteful,” says Cantor, should concede that some of them are denser than many of the city’s mature neighbourhoods. Those who criticize Edmonton’s transit system and reliance on cars, he adds, should realize the city has five different employment hubs, most of them on the outskirts. “If you work down here, in Nisku,” Cantor says, pointing at a quickly sketched map, “that home in Windermere is a lot more efficient than a condo downtown. …Everybody talks about the stuff up in Horse Hill, and I kind of go, ‘If you’re living and working in Redwater or Fort Saskatchewan in Refinery Row, that’s an ecologically more appropriate place to live for your daily commute, because those jobs aren’t downtown.” It may seem Edmontonians are devoted to suburban living and don’t care much for the environment. But in many ways Edmonton is an environmentally progressive city. Back in 2009 Edmonton’s Clover Bar landfill was nearly full. The city had been spending millions on studies of more than 100 locations for a new landfill but residents near each potential site told city council they didn’t want a dump, thank you very much. With its main landfill at the brim and residents saying no to a new one, most cities would have gone for a Hail Mary strategy, like Toronto’s choice to send their garbage to Detroit. Instead, Edmonton decided to search for ways to limit what it put into Clover Bar. Edmonton was already quite good at keeping trash out of landfills. In 1988, when the city first realized Clover Bar had a space problem, Edmonton became one of the first large Canadian municipalities to launch curbside recycling. In 1992 Edmonton began mining the Clover Bar landfill for methane to generate electricity. In 2000 it built a massive composter and started a pickup program for organic waste. In 2009, when Clover Bar was nearing its limit, the city was already diverting over half of Edmonton’s garbage away from landfills. Today about 9 in 10 Edmonton residents recycle and nearly two-thirds of their household trash does not go to the landfill. The Clover Bar dump has become Edmonton’s innovation cluster, with a biofuels plant, a company that makes paper out of old cotton and recycled paper fibres, and a landfill-methane-powered electrical plant that produces 4.6 megawatts of electricity annually (enough to power about 4,600 homes). Municipal leaders from around the world come to Edmonton to see the Clover Bar landfill. David Dodge, a former Pembina Institute communications adviser who heads the Green Energy Futures project, says this waste story is an example of Edmonton being way ahead of its time, creating “one of the most innovative waste management processes in the world.” “It’s because we were backed into a corner,” he says. “Nobody wanted a landfill, so we got green.” When asked to comment on Edmonton’s eco-footprint, on why it isn’t at the same environmental standard as the city’s waste management, Dodge says, “I don’t think anybody feels backed into the corner” by the eco footprint. Regular people “have no idea what it means.” Does the City of Edmonton feel compelled to act on its outsized ecological footprint? Its website acknowledges that Edmonton’s eco-footprint is four and a half times larger than what the Earth can sustain per capita. The City does have a strategy to help people understand the problem. Its Sustainable Development department says energy use is the city’s biggest challenge to reducing its eco-footprint—not surprising given that nearly all energy used in Edmonton is linked to gasoline, oil, coal or natural gas. Alberta’s new climate change strategy, which includes getting Alberta’s electricity production off coal by 2030, will help. But much more needs to be done. Edmonton’s goal is to be carbon neutral by 2050, emitting only as much CO2 as it sequesters or offsets. The plan includes reducing fossil fuel use by 25 per cent and greenhouse gas emissions by 80 per cent. The City will attempt this mostly by altering citizen behaviour (e.g., creating bike lanes), greening the electrical grid, encouraging “infill” developments, incentivizing greener buildings and using more energy-efficient vehicles for the City’s fleet. Edmonton’s LRT will expand by up to five new lines that will connect to West Edmonton Mall and suburban population centres. New lines may extend beyond the ring road into suburbs such as Horse Hill and employment hubs such as Refinery Row. The costs will be high, but by 2035 so too will the savings on energy: about $2.5-billion more savings than costs, the City says. Individuals are also key to achieving the change, says Chandra Tomaras, a project manager with Edmonton Sustainable Development. “People have to be educated about the challenges and impacts of energy use,” she says. “The first couple of years are really going to be about establishing education and awareness.” One proposal is to mandate energy labels for new homes, similar to those already on refrigerators. “There’s no one silver bullet,” Tomaras says. “A lot of different actions need to happen to become a sustainable and resilient city.” A key response to Edmonton’s eco-footprint problem is the Blatchford development. Just three kilometres from Edmonton’s core, on land made available by the closure of the municipal airport, Blatchford will house up to 30,000 people when it is completed (likely in 2017). Concept drawings show an LRT gliding through a walkable community reminiscent of Europe, with multi-floor, multi-family housing and streetside retail outlets. The City is touting Blatchford as “one of the world’s largest sustainable communities.” The plans are ambitious and logical: a connection to Edmonton’s LRT; a district energy system to heat and cool water and buildings; buildings that exceed the current energy-use building code; capture of waste heat from hot water going down the drain; energy supplied by renewable sources. For David Dodge, Blatchford is proof Edmonton doesn’t need to compromise on its vision and ambitions, and may even have turned a corner on its wasteful ways. “When they announced it, I thought, ‘Okay, they’ll call it green and then they’ll do some big compromise and it won’t really be green,’” he says. “That was my fear, as somebody who would really like to see us do this well. But I’m increasingly confident we can and will.” Blatchford is unique in that the City of Edmonton is partly its developer, setting targets that it will then ask private-sector housing developers to meet. In a way, it’s a trial run for developments to come later as the city learns to demand more and design better. For some, the City’s larger than usual involvement in Blatchford is the fly in the ointment. Developer Ken Cantor says he was behind Blatchford, even if it would take too long to be built. He was impressed with the original vision and the best-in-the-world planners who created the strategy. But ever since that vision was released in 2012 Cantor says the city has “played with this piece, adjusted that piece, deleted this component and deleted that component” for reasons only it understands. The result, he says, is a development that’s less green. “Now we’re delivering something for the sake of delivering it. It’s being diluted, I think, substantially.” Others say the main targets for energy use intensity at Blatchford, perhaps the most important components, remain. The biggest test for Blatchford may be if people such as Lisa Jimmo can be swayed to change the way they live for what the new community offers. “I made a conscious choice to live out here [in Horse Hill], but I’m getting older, too,” Jimmo says. “We might come into the city. We’re looking to see what the development is going to look like.”

Tim Querengesser is the editor of Metro Edmonton. Send your comments on this story to

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