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.