Friday, June 26, 2009

Sprawl Defined

The City of Calgary is in the process of passing a plan for managing the city's future development. The document, named Plan-It, has continued to be the subject of controversy as the city goes through public hearings to discuss the plan. Plan-It is aimed at developing more mixed-use neighbourhoods and communities in the city and get away from the on-going suburbanization of the city by building further and further away from the city's core. It is all but self-evident that the continued expansion of Calgary's already substantial footprint with place further strain on the city's overwhelmed infrastructure.

Throughout the hearing that have taken place this week, however, Alderman Ric McIver made a point of challenge participants in hearings on the housing supply and the definition of sprawl. He made it clear with his line of questioning that his position is against Plan-It. Mr. McIver is apparently a low-tax, small-government oriented politician and his stands on these issues is apparently in keeping with a laissez-faire approach to the future development of the city.

The aversion to Plan-It because it will impose limits and direction on the development of Calgary is specious. The aversion to the plan out of a desire to keep taxes low is illogical.

One of the main arguments against Plan-It is that it will restrict the housing supply and drive up the cost of housing. Calgary is already among the least affordable cities in the world for housing and it seems necessary that the city take some intervention to reduce these costs rather than let developers continue proceeding without guidelines. One of the components of Plan-It is take bring together people from a variety of income levels to share the neighbourhoods that will evolve under the plan. Currently, the construction of suburbs allows people to insulate themselves in communities of people with similar incomes. Another factor that has contributed to the rise in the cost of housing is the conversion of rental units in to condominiums for purchase.

There is a possibility that Plan-It may induce a short-term squeeze in the supply of housing but this could be a consequence of a slow response to the plan by building developers. However, there have been several good models for the type of community development that will help ease this problem, some even in Calgary.

The other problem is Alderman McIver's quest for a definition of sprawl. Throughout the hearings he cited Calgary's move to increase density from 4 to 10 units per acre. This is an improvement but another component of sprawl is distance and again the demand on infrastructure. For example, a house fire in Royal Oak, one of the furthermost suburban communities in Calgary, resulted in the fire spreading to two neighbouring houses. This is a consequence of the close proximity of the houses with that higher density and the distance from a fire station.

Allowing Calgary to continue expanding its footprint and building mono-use suburban communities into greenfield areas will result in a need to expand the city's infrastructure or place more demands on it. The consequence is going to be higher taxes, whether Mr. McIver can complete that equation or not.

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