Time for a serious conversation about infill

The time has come to get serious about infill development in Edmonton’s mature neighbourhoods.

Over the past 5 years, Edmonton’s population has grown by over 12%, making it one of the fastest growing major cities in Canada. In fact, Edmonton’s population is projected to double to 1.5 million by 2044.

Where will all of these future Edmontonians call home? Our city already occupies one of the largest land areas in the world. It is unrealistic and undesirable to expect that we can accommodate all future growth through expansion of our borders.

While annexing new land to accommodate additional development and build up our industrial tax base is one part of the solution to growth pressures, we also need to take major steps to increase infill development and population density in our mature neighbourhoods.

Growing up, out, and in is the key to our success.

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Currently, City administration is working hard to plan innovative new infill initiatives including the Evolving Infill project. Through this project, City administration is working with a number of different stakeholders (community leagues, mature neighbourhood residents, architects, and developers) to develop a roadmap to advance infill in Edmonton.

As this work is ongoing, there is a need for a public conversation and debate on why we need to increase population density and bring more people into our mature neighbourhoods. Here are some of my thoughts on why infill is good for all Edmontonians:

  • We often label suburban neighbourhoods as ‘urban sprawl’, but did you know that our suburbs are actually much denser than our mature neighbourhoods. In fact, Edmonton’s mature neighbourhoods have an average density of 26 housing units per residential hectare, while newly developed neighbourhoods in Edmonton’s suburban periphery have a projected average density of 35.6 housing units per residential hectare.

  • With better ways to move people around the city, such as improved mass transit, and an increasing variety of housing options at our disposal, we have a lot of space and opportunity to add new housing units and still maintain -- and even enhance -- the integrity and feel of the mature neighbourhoods.

  • The limited amount of housing and land in Edmonton’s mature neighbourhoods means that many young families cannot afford to live in or even near the centre of the city, and are deciding to establish their families far from Edmonton’s core. This leads to the trend of many mature neighbourhoods losing their population. Unless we work to reverse this trend, by encouraging development of affordable infill projects in our mature neighbourhoods, these neighbourhoods will continue to face school closures and see important community amenities close or move to the urban periphery where the density is much greater.

  • Edmonton is at a crossroads. The way we manage population growth has not changed significantly since the post-war era. What we know from the experiences of cities like Vancouver, Toronto, and others in Europe and even Eastern Canada, is that it simply isn’t economically feasible to have significant numbers of low-density housing areas close to the city core. Increasing density through additional development and redevelopment of our mature neighbourhoods will help ensure long term viability of our core neighbourhoods and our city.

  • For every dollar of residential property tax the city of Edmonton collects, it costs us ~$1.35 in services in return. More efficient use of residential areas in the core of the City will help lower this cost and keep taxes lower for everyone in the long run.

  • Mature neighbourhoods with the flexible zoning which enables infill are very hot real estate markets in our city. While we’ve heard worries from homeowners in core neighbourhoods that allowing infill development will lower the value of their homes this has not been the case. Infill also encourages new amenities to arrive, and younger families to move in. It will also be important to ensure that infill development is consistent with the character and flavour of a neighbourhood.

As someone who lives in a mature neighborhood, I understand that change can be difficult. It is sometimes hard to deal with the uncertain future of a neighbourhood you love and have invested your time, money, and energy in. But we need to look past our fears and have the courage to make a good decision here. Ultimately I believe infill will put our city and our mature neighbourhoods on a stronger foundation as we grow together.

At our April 15 Council Meeting I made an inquiry to look at infill rates compared to the zoning of mature neighbourhoods, why mature neighbourhoods are zoned the way they are, and the impact of zoning on infill and revitalization. This inquiry is designed to provide a deeper understanding of current barriers to infill in our city, and to begin unpacking the opportunities that increased infill can provide for our neighbourhoods.

In the coming weeks I will write about how I think Elevate, a Council Initiative I am co-sponsoring with Councillor Bev Esslinger, can contribute to increasing density in mature neighbourhoods and subsequently keep schools open.

To help accelerate the infill process for those who are thinking about infill on their property, and to further promote Edmonton’s infill strategy, I am also going to explore the idea of expediting infill projects within our our Sustainable Development department by establishing a separate infill window and permitting strategy to make the process as efficient and easy as possible.

We are well past the question of to infill or not to infill? In my mind, the answer is clear. The question now is how and how quickly can we as a city accommodate high-quality, affordable density in our mature neighbourhoods?

I will be speaking as part of an IDEA (Infill Development Edmonton Association) Panel on June 11th. Please come out and join the conversation. To read more visit the IDEA blog.