Growth, Density, and the Way Forward

I am confident in stating that Edmontonians universally believe Edmonton should be a more compact city. The question is, how do we get there?

In alignment with the principle of a more compact city, on Monday City Council approved two amendments to the zoning bylaw, one to allow the subdivision of 50 ft wide lots into 25 ft lots, and the other to decrease the regulations around what kind of lots garage and garden suites can be built on.

Years in the Making

Last year, Administration presented the 2014 Growth Monitoring Report to Council.The report showed that 30,000 people choose to make Edmonton their new home each year. It was also reported that on average, 10,000 new homes are constructed every year in Edmonton. Even with the small downturn in the economy, Edmonton is still adding jobs and housing at a steady pace. This is a position that would any city would love to be in, and we certainly are lucky to experience such consistent growth.

However, it was also noted that of the 10,000 homes constructed in Edmonton each year, only 14% are being built within our mature neighbourhoods, and most of the development is occurring downtown. This is well short of the 25% target outlined in our Municipal Development Plan.

The report made it clear that this shortfall was largely due to slow growth in Edmonton's mature neighbourhoods. While the population of the City has grown rapidly, up 70% from 1981, populations in mature neighbourhoods across the City have actually declined 8% in overall population since that time. Many Ward 10 neighbourhoods could serve as case studies for this problem, and are seeing the real impacts that a lack of housing diversity can have on a neighbourhood. Of the 14 mature neighbourhoods in Ward 10, 4 have seen a population decrease of 10%, and 10 neighbourhoods have seen a decrease of 18% since 1981.

The Amendments

The Growth Monitoring Report demonstrated that if we did not begin to look seriously at ways to incrementally move us closer to the 25% target, especially in the core areas of the City, our suburban land supply would diminish quickly, which is why in August of last year, as a part of the Infill Roadmap, Administration presented the following amendments to our zoning bylaw:

  • Allow for the subdivision of 50 foot lots to a minimum of 25 ft. (The current rule is only lots 78 ft. or greater can be subdivided.)
  • Remove location restrictions of garage and garden suites to allow for them to be constructed on all single-family RF1 lots with a detached garage.

The Consultation

With this information in hand, I set out across Ward 10 in September to host conversations about our growth, the topic of infill, and how the proposed amendments could affect mature neighbourhoods. We worked hard with Community Leagues to engage as many residents as possible.

I hosted meetings involving all 16 communities in Ward 10, and over six hundred Ward 10 residents came to share their ideas. I consistently heard that infill and increased density are good for the City, and that densification is necessary to build an economically, environmentally, and socially sustainable City.

Many citizens in mature neighbourhoods realize that their low density communities have not or will not sustain schools and commercial hubs if they can’t attract new young families and find a way to create better housing options for seniors. These neighbourhoods are cautiously embracing necessary changes.

At the same time, I heard loud and clear that though infill and increased density may be good for the City as a whole, it may not necessarily be perfect for every neighbourhood. For neighbourhoods that are still pretty stable, with full schools and young families moving in, potential densification represents a solution to a problem that has not and may not emerge in their area.

During the community meetings, a broad range of opinions that were presented. There were three worries, with which I wholeheartedly agree, that were consistently raised at each of the seven meetings:

  • A lack of trust between communities and the City in terms of permitting, adherence to the Mature Neighbourhood Overlay, and enforcing compliance.
  • The special nature of each neighbourhood needs to be taken into consideration when proposing zoning amendments.
  • The real lack of seniors housing within our mature neighbourhoods.

When asked what people value about their neighbourhoods and what their ideal neighbourhood would look like, consistent themes emerged. I heard that the residents of Ward 10 value a compact City with diverse and vibrant neighbourhoods, affordable homes for seniors and young families to live, strong local schools with high enrollment, and commercial community hubs that neighbourhood residents can easily access.

I want all of these things for our neighbourhoods, I know you want all of these things for your neighbourhoods, and I am sure other Edmontonians across the City want these things for their neighbourhoods. Some neighbourhoods are already pretty close to achieving these goals, while others are struggling with revitalization.

Neighbourhoods in Transition

But from a zoning perspective, it is pretty difficult to distinguish between the neighbourhoods in transition and those that are currently stable. What I’ve come to appreciate is the inherent potential of a more nimble and clearer Mature Neighbourhood Overlay. Neighbourhoods struggling to sustain amenities will change character more quickly and likely with less opposition, while in more stable communities that need less change, existing character is more resilient and as a result, opposition to change is strong. A strengthened MNO could ask Development Officers to consider including factors like school enrolments or number of school aged children in a neighbourhood when considering applications.

The point is that two or three neighbourhoods not wanting to change shouldn’t hold up necessary policy changes that make other neighbourhoods better, or make the city better. Especially when the neighbourhoods resisting change are the ones the least likely to change anyway.

Council's Motions

As for the neighbourhoods where more change will occur and has been occurring, the message to me has been clear - we need to do more as a city to build trust. I have heard from my meetings with Ward 10 residents that we need to make sure we do density right, and have checks and balances in place to guide this process. At Monday’s Public Hearing, I requested that Administration start looking at creating those checks and balances with the following two motions:

a.) That Administration prepare a report, in conjunction with the appropriate actions in the Infill Roadmap, outlining options to create district-oriented positions for each quadrant of the City to act as a point of contact for community members on issues such as:

  • Subdivision applications
  • Development and building permits
  • Development compliance
  • Informing residents about statutory plans and City regulations such as the Mature Neighbourhood Overlay

b.) That Administration provide a report outlining options and incentives related to development permits aimed at preserving trees on private residential property in mature neighbourhoods and return to Executive Committee.

Additionally, earlier this month at Executive Committee, and as a result of an inquiry made by Councillor Bev Esslinger that asked for information on the lot grading guidelines applicable to both new and infill housing, a motion was passed that asks Administration to prepare an amendment to the Zoning Bylaw 12800 that will integrate the surface drainage provisions in the Drainage Bylaw 16200 that require positive drainage to City right of ways into the zoning and development permit approval processes; this motion intends to address the issues that some homeowners face when a home is being constructed next to them.

Council has also passed a motion that directs Administration to begin creating an inventory of our heritage sites throughout the City, and Administration has recently finished developing its Good Neighbours Construction Guide, which will continuously be updated with the input of community leaders.

I will also be  looking into new ways to ensure that seniors in our Mature Neighbourhoods have the housing options that they need in order to stay in their neighbourhoods. I will be working with Councillors Sohi and Knack on the Seniors Initiative to create a Mature Neighbourhood Seniors Housing Strategy that will provide recommendations on improving seniors housing options.

Thank you to everyone who attended the community events and to those who connected with us via email or by phone. Clearly, there are a lot of engaged Ward 10 residents who are passionate about their neighbourhoods.

Great neighbourhoods are the foundation of a great city. We must care about their past, present and future when we make decisions that will affect them.