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Smart Growth Not as Simple as Saying, “We don’t do suburbs”

Posted December 10th, 2012 in Calgary Growth, Calgary Herald, News and tagged , by Marc Henry

Too much of a good thing can actually be a bad thing.  Let’s say you’re sick, and the doctor prescribes medication for you.  You take a pill and start to feel better.  Some logic might say – if one pill makes me feel a bit better, taking a whole bunch would make me feel great, right? Most of us know better.


Keep this in mind as we head into the municipal election next year, and candidates talk about urban sprawl and smart growth.

It’s great that Calgary is growing more urban in form – that is, growing up more than out – but urban densification much like a prescription, should have a warning label: do not exceed recommended dosage.


Calgary is a city that suffers from sprawl, no doubt.  It’s a product of geography, demography, culture and political policies.  Sprawl isn’t a good thing.  It’s expensive to service; it chews up a lot of valuable farmland; it’s very car-oriented and amenity deprived; it lacks the community character and feel of more compact development.


Smart growth is the antidote to sprawl.  It is an approach to urban planning that focuses on more densely populated, compact communities.  It de-emphasizes the car, with more thought to pedestrian and cycling opportunities.  It espouses complete communities with more amenities, mixed use development and a range of housing options, particularly multi-family/condo-style housing.


Done well, it’s outstanding – go walk through Garrison Woods sometime to see what a well planned and executed community looks like.


So what’s the problem?


The City of Calgary has a new head planner, Rollin Stanley.  He’s a “planning rock star”, a “smart growth evangelist” and he “doesn’t do suburbs”.  No, Mr. Stanley isn’t the problem, but rhetoric suggesting that new suburban neighbourhoods are bad, is.


Smart growth and not building new city suburbs is not the same thing. In fact, it’s akin to our analogy about prescription medication.  But if this strong rhetoric becomes manifest in new city policy that artificially restricts supply or inflates the price of single-family homes in new suburbs, Calgary is headed for trouble.  City planners are right to be applying smart growth principles to new development – encouraging more densification – but they need to be very attuned and mindful of market forces.


Fact is, not everyone wants to live in a condo.  Not everyone can afford to live in in-fill single-family homes in established inner city communities.  Calgary is a young city with a lot of young families, and single-family homes in new suburban neighbourhoods are an important and necessary segment of the housing market.  Ignoring that reality isn’t smart growth – it’s dumb policy.


Why?  Simply put, the housing market has legs, or more aptly wheels.  If someone can’t find the kind of housing they want at a competitive price inside the city, they will look beyond the City Limits.


When it comes to picking a place to live, city planners need to be mindful that Calgary isn’t the only game in town.  Bedroom communities like Airdrie, Cochrane, Okotoks, Chestemere and High River lie a reasonably comfortable commuting distance from Calgary.

There’s only one thing worse than a sprawling city; that’s a sprawling metro-region.  The City bears much of the service and infrastructure pressures of this development, but without the corresponding tax-base to pay for it.  If Calgary taxpayers get grumbly about the notion of their taxes subsidizing new suburban neighbourhoods, they see red at the idea of their taxes subsidizing residents of another town altogether.


Won’t happen?  Guess what, it already is.


According to the CREB report released in early October, 3rd quarter home sales in Calgary’s bedroom communities are up by between 20% – 30%.  The reason for it?  CREB President Bob Jablonski notes: “We keep seeing strong sales growth in the surrounding municipalities because, when it comes to single-family homes, the supply is down in Calgary proper.  Plus, generally speaking, you can find more house at a more affordable price.”  In fact, currently the premium on Calgary single-family vs. surrounding municipalities is about 22%.


This isn’t a jab at the folks who live in Calgary’s neighbouring municipalities.  If people choose to live outside the city for lifestyle and community reasons, that’s great.  But if people are choosing to live there because the housing choices they want and can afford aren’t available inside Calgary, that’s a bad sign.


Therein lies the irony of the whole situation.  If smart growth in Calgary becomes characterized by “not doing suburbs”, The City is about to experience a very perverse unintended consequence; the very thing that you are trying to eliminate – urban sprawl – will in fact be accelerated, and be accompanied by a declining tax base.


Smart growth doesn’t mean not doing suburbs in favor of density everywhere else.  Smart growth means adding density where and when it is smart to do so.  In Calgary’s case, it also means being very mindful of the market and competitive forces that drive consumer choices on housing.


Calgary’s sprawl didn’t happen over-night, nor will it be abated tomorrow.  And though we may be tempted to remedy the condition aggressively, too much cure can kill you.


Marc Henry is president of ThinkHQ Public Affairs Inc., an Alberta-based government and public relations strategy and public opinion research firm.