Denser neighbourhoods work in mid-sized cities, too

Urban density offers many benefits, including less costly transit, less farm land encroachment, fewer schools and walkability

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RED DEER, Alta. April 3, 2016/Troy Media/ – The push toward urban density in Alberta has mostly been about smaller single-family lots in the suburbs, multi-unit developments and ever-taller downtown buildings. Until now.

The latest strategy, residential infill, is dedicated to repurposing older neighbourhoods, lot by lot. Developers are slipping two homes onto large single lots, as aging homes lose their appeal, their sustainability, or their practicality and are replaced.

It is happening in neighbourhoods first created as recently as the 1960s and 1970s. And every time it happens, a debate rages, pitting neighbours against neighbours and sometimes entire communities against city hall.

But the truth is, central neighbourhoods have been withering for decades in Alberta’s cities. The most obvious changes have occurred in Edmonton and Calgary, but the trend is also underway in Red Deer, Lethbridge, Medicine Hat, Camrose and Wetaskiwin.

The infill movement certainly makes as much sense as ever as a tool of renewal. Now, it is moving outward from the core of cities to second generation neighbourhoods.

The benefits are easy to see: less costly transit serving shorter routes; less encroachment on valuable farm land; walkable neighbourhoods; fewer municipal tax increases overall; fewer new schools needed; and fewer school buses required. As well, in a more compact urban environment, there is less need for new police and fire stations, and services like branch libraries.

For developers and municipalities, the costs to add services like water, sewage and electricity all but disappear. For those marketing the sliced-up lots, the profits multiply: buying one lot and selling it as two can only lead to gains.

The entire transportation system gets relief: fewer connector and community roads need to be built and fewer new transit routes need to be serviced with buses and drivers. Everything gets compressed, although congestion is certain to rise.

In addition, existing commercial development is resuscitated with infill.

Infill should also save neighbourhood schools, which were built to accommodate communities full of large families. Now, students must either be bused into schools in older neighbourhoods to keep those structures viable or those schools are simply shuttered, replaced by larger regional institutions.

Two families where there once was one make those neighbourhood schools viable again. In the process, a sense of community is restored.

The social network built around schools and related activities tends to weaken in the suburbs, when schools are at some distance and families are forced to commute. But the infill conversation is not one-sided.

Critics liken infill to cannibalizing communities. They are concerned about the changing character of neighbourhoods, with houses built too close to the street, a rising number of front-drive garages, and even doors that don’t open to the street-front.

They maintain that narrow, constricted homes are not family friendly, that they often lead to transience as growing families are forced to quickly find more space elsewhere. The permanence of the community is disrupted. Parking shortages and increased traffic are also divisive issues.

From a buyer’s perspective, it also means a smaller yard (although that’s not necessarily a bad thing in the 21st century as fewer people plant gardens or have the time or inclination to care for a large yard).

But the truth is that infill has resurrected more than a few inner city neighbourhoods, replacing decaying and often abandoned homes with multi-family units.

Alberta’s cities have grown at astronomical rates in the past half century. We need to find ways to handle that growth as economically and sustainably as possible. We also need our cities to grow in ways that make them convenient and livable.

The key to making infill work is establishing a set of clear, responsible guidelines by engaging with the people who already live in these neighbourhoods.

Issues include honouring the historic nature of neighbourhoods, ensuring new development fits with the style, character and quality of the existing homes, protecting mature trees and mandating quality landscaping and streetscaping, managing traffic increases and parking pressures, and protecting the pedestrian-and-child-friendly natures of older neighbourhoods.

Increasing urban density makes sense, as long as we do it with care and commitment to maintaining quality communities.

Troy Media columnist John Stewart is a born and bred Albertan who doesn’t drill for oil, ranch or drive a pickup truck – although all of those things have played a role in his past. John is also included in Troy Media’s Unlimited Access subscription plan.


The views, opinions and positions expressed by all Troy Media columnists and contributors are the author’s alone. They do not inherently or expressly reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of Troy Media.
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