Thursday, August 29, 2013

Sprawl? What Sprawl?

With about seven weeks to go before the Edmonton civic election, the first mayoral candidates forum took place on Tuesday. It was attended by the three main candidates, and presented by the Urban Development Institute Greater Edmonton Chapter and the Canadian Homebuilders' Association. Unsurprisingly the subject of urban sprawl came up. Here's Kerry Diotte's take on it:

Let's clear this up right now, shall we?

Urban sprawl is generally thought of as a low-density development with a great dependency on cars to get around. Lots of detached bungalows spaced well apart, two-car garages, no sidewalks, and driving on a freeway is how you get anywhere. Cities that grew before the invention of the car rarely have a sprawl problem; when your main and likely only mode of transportation is walking, you don't want things too far apart. Also, cities that have natural geographic boundaries are forced to develop more densely - think of Vancouver or San Francisco, each surrounded by water on three sides.

Conversely, cities that have no natural limitations, and that grew in earnest in the twentieth century, are much more likely to sprawl. Pretty much every city in the western half of North America fits this description, including Edmonton. Of Canada's top six metros, Edmonton is the sprawliest:
  • Neighbourhood density: according to the Pembina Institute, Edmonton has the lowest percentage of residents living in high-density areas at 0.4% compared to an average of 6.2% and over 15% in Montreal. Medium-density residency is similar at a national low of 29%. 64% of Torontonians live in medium-density neighbourhoods, and the average is 47%. Which means over 70% of Edmonton lives the low-density lifestyle, highest in Canada and well above the average of 47%.
  • Similar data from a poster at SkyscraperPage, who actually drilled into the census data and graphed the densities for each city. The steeper the curve, the more dense areas exist in the city.
  • Commuting: Edmontonians drive the most of the six cities. They are the least likely to take public transit, least likely to bike, and the least likely to walk.
  • Population density: Edmonton has the lowest population per square kilometer, about half that of Calgary, one quarter the average and seven times less than Toronto.
  • Roads per capita: Ottawa spoils Edmonton's perfect streak with 236 people per kilometer of road, compared to roughly 260 for Edmonton, Calgary and Vancouver. Toronto's roads serve about four times as many people. [Given the Ottawa and Vancouver results, I'm a little suspicious of this last statistic - there is no single consistent source for road network kilometers.]
Apart from the numbers, I can add that having lived in Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver and Edmonton, this is truly the sprawl city of champions. Every city has some element of low density growth as it expands, but the most livable ones have lots of high and medium density options as well. I can think of only two or three neighbourhoods in Edmonton where you can live reasonably without a car.

Whether you believe urban sprawl is good or bad, Edmonton obviously has it in spades and to pretend it doesn't exist should disqualify Mr. Diotte as a credible candidate. I understand Karen Leibovici made some similar sprawl-denial remarks at the same event, but I am unable to confirm this. Don Iveson has maintained a blog during his six years on council so his views are quite transparent.

I personally think urban sprawl (and its opposite, smart growth) should be the main issue in the election. The more we sprawl we allow, the less compact of a city we build, we create the following problems for ourselves:
  • increased costs for car ownership and fuel
  • increased pollution
  • isolation of those who cannot drive
  • longer commutes are associated with mental health issues
  • physical health problems which could be avoided with increased walking or cycling
  • more infrastructure to build and maintain (Edmonton repairs nearly half a million potholes each year - that's about one every ten meters of road.)
  • fewer densely-populated areas challenge local businesses like restaurants and shops
  • discourages diversity
  • prevents human interaction (a key element for Richard Florida's creative class)

Low-density, auto-centric sprawl is inefficient, expensive, unhealthy, uneconomic and inhuman. We can't simply pretend it's not a problem, or worse, that it doesn't exist. It does, and it's going to cost Edmonton greatly as young people take their talents to more livable cities. Unless we elect ourselves a mayor who gets it.

Friday, June 28, 2013

More Crap

After decades of the "bungalow and bunker" school of architecture in Edmonton, where aesthetics, form and style were low priorities, mayor Stephen Mandel demanded in 2005 that we build "no more crap". Interesting and beautiful buildings did not spring up overnight, but at least design became part of the urban conversation.

Now we have a rare opportunity to redevelop eight acres of land close to downtown where the Molson brewery was a landmark for years. The proposed design is a real letdown for urbanists and anyone who has a bit of vision for Edmonton. The problem is that the proposal is a glorified strip mall that caters to cars.

It looks amazingly like the Oliver Square West shopping mall literally right next door. Perhaps the new development is intended to be an extension of it. Here's the current mall on the north side of 104 Avenue - the empty lot on the far left where the Molson/Crosstown mall will go.

If there was one chance to do something different and break the mould, this is it. The Oliver community is active and progressive, and wants a pedestrian and bike friendly development. Oliver is already the closest thing Edmonton has to a walkable neighbourhood, and is an easy stroll or ride from downtown or 124th street. The kicker is that this development is also the site of a future LRT station: Molson/Crosstown is an ideal candidate for transit-oriented development. Instead we're about to approve and build more crap.

If you want to get more information or find out how to make a difference before this gets approved, check out the Oliver Community League.

Here are a few more illustrations from the developers:

Note that there is no connection between the sidewalk and the mall. Pedestrians would have to jump over a flowerbed to get in.

This one reinforces the idea that cars are the centre of attention.

My favorite: stay in your glass enclosure, humans, while the cars roam free.

Thursday, May 2, 2013


This week a list of new schools was announced by the Alberta government, possibly as a distraction from the PC's complete bungling of the Remand Centre strike. The announcement was spread over several days for maximum self-promotional effect. Like a doctor who refuses to treat terminal patients, the provincial government is there to deliver only good news, and leaves the unpopular and dismal work of school closures to the school boards.

Young families who migrated to the suburbs will be pleased, as this is where virtually all of Edmonton and Calgary's new schools will be located. Now they will only have to drive their kids a few blocks instead of halfway across the city. And likely these schools will be full when they open.

In a very short-sighted way, it makes sense to put the schools where the children live. But for those like myself concerned about the insidious effects of low-density sprawl, this is feeding the beast. People who moved to the outer ring of the city are being rewarded with brand new schools that are likely to be far more modern and well-heated than most of the older schools they will draw students from. At the same time, maintenance of the mature schools has been neglected. As a parent looking for what's best for your children, would you move to an area with a crumbling school and declining enrollment at risk of being closed, or would you choose a brand new modern school that will be there long after your children graduate? The incentives are currently stacked towards moving families ever outward from the city.

Thinking it through a bit more, what happens when the outward growth hits the city limits? Edmonton is almost there now. What happens is the population jumps over to adjacent communities on the other side of the border. As the population leaves the city, tax revenues are lost, enrollment numbers shift from the city school board to the adjoining towns, more and more central areas stagnate or decline, and basically you get Detroit: the first North American city to shrink its population under one million. When cities stop supporting their core, then the outward migration begins. Detroit proper had a population of close to two million in the 1950's, and it is currently less than half that. In contrast, the greater Detroit area, including all the bedroom communities that people moved to over the years, has grown over the same half-century from roughly 3 to 4 million.

On the other hand we have Vancouver, which has over the past dozen or so years made a priority of supporting services and institutions that serve its central residents, including families. This means zoning more 3-bedroom condos, providing transit options, public spaces, and most importantly keeping downtown schools open. It worked. Vancouver's city population has kept pace with the growth of its surrounding towns. Vancouver's downtown schools suffer from "disgraceful overcrowding." Edmonton's inner city schools are neglected until they close, while the overcrowding happens at the edge of the city.

Like dropping a stone in a pond, Edmonton's population is rippling wider and farther from the centre, leaving an equally expanding empty spot in the middle. Families have a carrot drawing them further into the suburbs, and a stick preventing many from locating in a mature neighbourhood. If there is no awareness or will to change, the detroitification of Edmonton will continue: everyone relocate ever outward in an increasing orbit around a growing black hole, taking their vitality, diversity and money with them.

Here's a few things that would improve the situation:

1) Understand the full, long-term costs of building low-density sprawl.
And not just the demographic impacts discussed here. There are social aspects as well, most apparent in the isolation of children and seniors, or anyone without ready access to a car. Car-dependency is also turning out to be extremely bad for our physical and mental health. The actual bricks-and-mortar infrastructure is expensive and inefficient; we create more road-miles (and more potholes a few years later) per person as we sprawl. A water main in a dense neighbourhood that serves 10,000 residents costs the same as one in a suburb with 500 houses.

2) Commit to providing options for living in the core, especially for families.
This is not to force people to live in denser areas, but to allow them the choice. Provide the option of a variety of housing (smaller footprints than in the burbs, but not all apartment buildings either), easy walking and biking access to shopping and public spaces, and amenities for singles, couple and families of all ages.

3) Give the school board control over all infrastructure funding, including the building of new schools.
I would also give the city veto power over the location of new schools and maybe even school closures as well, to ensure urban planning goals are not undermined. These two levels of government need to work hand in hand, not at cross-purposes.

4) Prioritize repairs and upgrades to existing schools over building new schools.
This is an extension of the last point, and has already been acted upon by the Edmonton Public School Board. In principal at least, since currently all the board can do is prioritize maintenance and new school projects in its capital plan; the provincial government has final say on which projects go forward. Except in the largest of projects, modernizations are generally much less expensive than new buildings.

5) Recognize that a small elementary school has immense value to a neighbourhood.
Having an elementary school in the neighbourhood does more than allow children to get some exercise to and from school every day (which is very important too) - it builds a connection to the community for the child and the family. It develops citizenship and local pride in a way that commuting to a school away from home does not. Again, small schools do not have to cost more per student than big box institutions. And again, learning outcomes are usually better in small schools, regardless of the number of options offered. Reinvestment in an existing school can anchor a mature neighbourhood and promote infill and revitalization.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013


Interesting times over at the Edmonton Public School Board. EPSB superintendent Edgar Schmidt recently stated he will be leaving his position at the end of summer. And just yesterday he was in the news again, this time to announce that two suburban schools just opened in 2010 are overcrowded and will be relocating their grade 8 and 9 students next fall.

The grade shuffle at Esther Starkman and Johnny Bright schools does not appear to have any ulterior motive other than the schools are at capacity and something has to give. Changing to a more customary K-6 elementary school would probably have been a better choice, except that closing three consecutive grades would be considered a school closure under provincial law, and would automatically trigger a full review with all the hilarity that ensues. Even if parents and community were onside (which would require a track record of trust and partnership), a closure review could not be completed within the current school year. I wonder if they can legally close grade 7 next year - maybe.

Looking at each school's profile, enrollment is highest in the entry level grades (kindergarten through grade 2) which means the schools are serving a lot of young families, and both schools will easily remain full without junior high students. And here is the point: poor research and planning by the school board caused them to underestimate the elementary-level population and demand in these neighbourhoods, opening the schools to more grades than they should have, which in turn is causing the current messy reorganization. The census age breakdown and projections in these neighbourhoods (readily available online) would have shown that these two new schools could have been originally designated as K-6. This might have not been popular for the grade 7-9 students in those neighbourhoods, but now those same kids are having to relocate in the middle of their junior high career. Unchecked urban sprawl is a major factor, plus the provincial funding formula that penalizes perceived unused space may have encouraged EPSB to pack in as many grades as possible from day one, but I'll leave those issues out of this discussion for now. I will say that young families shopping for a house may want to consider communities that already have schools. Adequate planning and prioritizing student stability ahead of utilization rates might have avoided this disruptive scramble.

A couple of examples of school board ineptitude. When closing schools, the administration puts together their evidence including population statistics and projections. In the two closure processes I was involved with, the EPSB numbers were way off - the neighbourhood they said was in decline has grown and revitalized in the past few years. The bad data is due either to incompetence or was intentionally massaged in order to help build the administration case for closure (probably a little of both). Another one from personal experience is the ongoing mismanagement of the Spanish program my daughters are in. EPSB's failure to extend the program past junior high is resulting in a high attrition rate after grade six as families lose faith in the future of the program. This is despite strong and increasing entry-level enrollment. In contrast, the Edmonton Catholic Spanish program started the same year now has double the number of students as EPSB (in a district less than half the size), thanks mainly to planning and support. Calgary Public's Spanish program was started about the same time, and is now almost ten times the size as ours, because of proper planning and support. Both programs will graduate grade 12s this year, while EPSB continues to wait for sufficient demand.

The Edmonton Public School Board has developed a stagnant bureaucratic culture that rewards subservience and discourages initiative. In this way it is like any organization that doesn't go through some kind of renewal from time to time: administrators don't work or think too hard, and never challenge or get challenged. All the negative civil service stereotypes apply. I doubt employees who are used to hustling in a more dynamic and entrepreneurial work environment would have been surprised by enrollment numbers that were obvious from the demographics years ago, or would sit around waiting for success while the competition is out there making it happen. There is a tough provincial budget coming up and teachers are on the chopping block, but I think we could save money more judiciously by cutting a few layers of fat from school board middle management instead. I doubt we would notice the impact.

[One other tangent to the story is this little euphemism from the EPSB website: "Students attending the school, who live outside the attendance area or are non-resident to our District, will not be able to stay at the school." The non-resident to our District part means Catholic students, of which there are a couple of hundred to be displaced. It would have been more fair if declared Catholic students had been grandfathered, where those already enrolled allowed would be allowed to stay at their schools. But I think EPSB is justified in not wanting to pay to educate students whose families' taxes are supporting the Edmonton Catholic School Division. Having a separate Catholic schools system is a particular Canadian historical legacy which often results in inefficient duplication (in buildings, transportation, staff, just about everything). One interesting aspect of Edmonton Public's district of choice is the emergence of religious alternative programs within the public system. I sort of disagree with this under a general separation of church and state philosophy, but on the other hand it might pave the way for an eventual merging of two government-funded school systems without either one losing its purpose or identity. A unified school system would at least avoid some of the ugliness of ostracizing a group of children based on criteria that would otherwise be illegal.]

As the most recent episode of administration bungling unfolds, Edgar Schmidt announced his retirement from the district effective August 31st. I've spoken to him once in person and a couple of times from a microphone, and followed his time as superintendent off an on; he seems like a decent and intelligent person committed to doing his job well. But he is a company man. He became superintendent in 2007 in the wake of the dismissal of his predecessor Lyall Thomson. Mr. Thomson was an outsider, recommended by a third-party executive search firm, hired and then promptly fired without any public explanation. The majority of the board of trustees who fired him were largely old-guard career educators. Rumour had it that Thomson wanted to do things a little differently, which clashed with the EPSB culture in 2007 as it would today. Schmidt was promoted from within at least in part to ensure no more challenges to that culture.

The current crop of trustees has been markedly different from previous boards. By and large they are more responsive, communicative and consultative than before. While the adminstration culture has not changed much, the board that governs it has, and consequently EPSB has been able to make positive progress on a lot of important issues. But the future direction of the public school system is uncertain. There are at least four sitting trustees who will not be running for re-election in 2013, including two or three who are more on the progressive end of the spectrum. Will EPSB continue building bridges with city and provincial counterparts to value schools and education in the context of our overall society, or will it revert to its recent history of isolated, dissent-intolerant, school-closing reactionaries?

This board will decide who the next superintendent will be shortly before the election in October. The next superintendent could make all the difference: a visionary with strong leadership skills could reinvigorate the public school district. Without a doubt this person needs to come from outside the existing administration to make a real impact, maybe even from another profession entirely. It was bold of Edmonton voters in 2010 to elect a number of trustee candidates from outside the system, based on their ideas and their passion. Look how far those outsiders have run with their mandate. Now it's time for them return the favour and shuffle things up with a bold new superintendent with a fresh perspective, who can breathe new life and energy into an organization that sorely needs it.