Decoteau - How Dense Should Our New Suburbs Be?

At the Public Hearing on February 9th, Council voted 6-5 to refer Bylaw 17011 - the Decoteau Area Structure Plan (ASP) - back to our administration to work with the proponents to improve aspects of the plan. I'm glad we did. Since Monday, there has been quite a bit of discussion about this plan, its specifics, and the debate during the hearing. I wanted to share some of my thoughts on the plan and how it reflects the Edmonton we hope to build.

The concept for the ASP for this land area in the southeast was approved in 2010 as part of The Way We Grow. The land area covered in the ASP is around 1960 hectares, much of which is currently occupied by private agricultural lands. Development is expected to occur here quickly.

The area included within the Decoteau ASP is the last chunk of land within the current Edmonton boundaries which has been identified as an Urban Growth Area without a development plan. The Decoteau ASP represents the roadmap for the development of 5 neighbourhoods.

 

Even 10 years ago, the idea of developing the area of Decoteau would have seemed distant and unlikely. But Edmonton’s growth is showing no signs of slowing down, which is why its so important to get the framework for this ASP right - we need to make sure we are making best use of the land we have left for outward growth.

Those who follow this blog and my work on Council know I’m a proponent of density - of building inwards and upwards rather than out. But I also understand the need for some outward growth in order to accommodate Edmonton’s rapidly growing population. There are some things I like about this Decoteau ASP, and there are some things, in my view, which need work.

Let’s start with the positives. The plan focuses on creating a great mixed-use community, with access to retail and commercial opportunities. This kind of diversity is great for developing communities - it means residents aren’t going to be entirely dependent on going outside their communities for shopping or employment or services.

The plan also preserves a great deal of the natural heritage of the area. Wetlands and ecologically fragile lands which are within the plan area have been set aside, with buffers to separate them from the residential developments. The plan has also connected these areas to the community and made them accessible. I think this is wonderful - incorporating the existing natural assets to create green recreational spaces is community planning at its finest.

But here are my issues. Decoteau is expected to house around 67,800 people. The City is expected to have a population of 1.4 million by 2050, which is ~500,000 more than today. As we ponder where they will all live we need to ask - can our newest communities be designed for more density to accommodate this growth?

I say yes. The Capital Region Growth Plan from 2009 set out density targets for Edmonton’s new and developing neighbourhoods. Each neighbourhood is expected to comply with a target of 30 to 45+ residential units per hectare, with 30 units/hectare being the absolute minimum. This policy was implemented to ensure effective land use within our new neighbourhoods, and thus far has worked quite well in creating more sustainable neighbourhoods.

The Decoteau ASP proposal suggested a density target of 31 units per hectare of single family housing. This is within the targets set out by the Capital Region Plan - just barely.

Statistics from the 2014 Annual Growth Monitoring Report show developing neighbourhoods in Edmonton have an average of 33 units/hectare of single family homes. This means the Decoteau plan isn’t even meeting the average for density in developing neighbourhoods, let alone beating it.

For an area very important to the future growth of Edmonton, an area which is the last piece of unplanned land within the City limits, this seems just plain unambitious.We should be doing our best to use this land effectively and efficiently, while creating a vibrant community. The developers for the Decoteau ASP are on track for the latter, but I would like to see the former as well.

According to The Way Ahead, Edmonton’s Strategic Plan for 2009-2018, we should be striving to preserve Edmonton’s environment and to transform the urban landscape of Edmonton; these are goals supported by citizens, by City Administration, and by City Council. We need to ensure all of our decisions are made within this context, and I think the Decoteau ASP and subsequent Neighbourhood Structure Plans should share the same aspirations as The Way Ahead does.

During the Public Hearing on this ASP, some concerns were raised about my interactions with developers. I have the utmost respect for the people working on this plan - we meet frequently and have great working relationships on this and many other projects. In earlier meetings with the development team, I was firm in my statements regarding this plan needing more density, and I held that line throughout the public hearing. I don’t believe the developers and proponents of this plan were surprised or affronted by my comments.

As a City Councillor, it is my responsibility to ask the tough but fair questions on this and many other issues, to ensure we are doing the best thing for the City. I will continue to push for the best for Edmontonians because I believe the City both needs and deserves imaginative and ambitious planning for new growth.