Vision In Place, Tough Choices Still Required

28 07 2009

Edmonton City Council made a bold decision in the direction of urban densification in early July, voting to eventually close the City Centre Airport, with precise timing still to be determined. The vision that will replace the medevac flights, hobby craft and small charters is a transit-oriented, mixed use, high density green community centred around an LRT station, and an expansion of the Northern Alberta Institute for Technology campus. While there were some understandable concerns about the effect this decision would have on businesses currently located at the airport, Council decided that the benefits of redeveloping the 217 hectare (500+ acre) area vastly outweighed the business and transportation benefits of keeping the airport open.

NAIT's crowded campus, with City Centre Airport hangars in the foreground

NAIT's crowded campus, with City Centre Airport hangars in the foreground

In April I wrote about the choices several other North American cities had made to close their centrally-located airports and redevelop them as model mixed use urban communities. I personally think that the decision Council has made is the right one and that, if realized, the vision for the airport lands could signal a paradigm shift for Edmonton away from its predominantly suburban development form. But while I applaud this particular decision, I question whether this city realizes what will be required to have it become a reality. A shift towards an urban sensibility in Edmonton, even just to the point where urban development is in balance with suburban growth, requires big picture thinking on the part of City Council and planners to see how all the elements fit together, to ensure that support is given to this type of urbanism.

Edmonton is growing surprisingly fast. The 2009 municipal census shows that the city managed to add some 30,000 residents between April 2008 and April 2009, bringing the total population to 782,000. This is a rather impressive rate of growth, considering the difficult economic conditions during that time period, including a collapse of the oil prices which are so important to Edmonton’s economy. Continued growth is an important pre-condition for the redevelopment of such a large site as the airport, and as oil prices creep back upwards the short-term outlook, at least, appears positive.

But while growth usually equals demand, demand is not a homogeneous thing where real estate is concerned. Approximately three quarters of residential development in the Edmonton market currently takes place in newly-developing suburban areas, with urban redevelopment capturing the rest. And there is no shortage of suburban areas being developed. As of 2008, there were 42 neighborhoods under development across the city. The Planning and Development Department keeps track of development trends relative to supply in approved plan areas, using single family lots as a barometer for the overall market. In 2008, there was a 10 year city-wide supply of single family residential lots in Neighbourhood Structure Plan Areas. Taking higher level Area Structure Plan numbers into account, Council approvals were in place for almost twice as many lots, representing an 18 year supply†. With new areas being proposed to be opened up for suburban development through the draft Municipal Development Plan, this state of oversupply seems poised to continue.

While oversupply is good in some respects, moderating the cost of new homes, the question is not just about quantity or cost. Through the Strategic Plan, Edmonton City Council has expressed a desire to shift the city away from the predominant sprawling suburban form. If Edmonton really wants to densify, make better use of existing infrastructure, make a shift to public transit and other alternative modes of transportation and invigorate mature neighborhoods, then Council cannot have its cake and eat it too. If Edmonton wishes to revitalize Downtown, The Quarters, the Downtown North Edge, Alberta Avenue, Jasper Place and the City Centre Airport lands (all of which have seen planning efforts in recent years) through redevelopment, as well as hoping for redevelopment activity in other mature neighborhoods and along LRT lines, then continuing to offer support for new suburban development is naive. If these redevelopment efforts are the brainchildren of City Council, why would Council eat their young?

An important task of City of Edmonton planners should be to understand clearly how much development the city really needs, and make firm recommendations to Council about where to place priorities. This is not to say that development should be halted or artificially constrained. Everyone needs a place to live. But it can and should be directed and shaped so that development occurs in a fashion and the locations where it can support the city’s vision for itself.

People complain so often about developers ruining their neighborhoods, cutting down this, tearing down that, building that other thing that “no one wanted”. We seem to forget that it is in our power to guide developers, through clear regulations and policies, about how we want our city to look and function. We can’t really blame them for looking out for their bottom line, particularly if we are not confident enough as a city to look out for our own.

Note: Calculations for city-wide supply are my own, extrapolated from City of Edmonton estimates for developing sectors of the city.





Infrastructure Folly

6 07 2009
Rendering of the interchange under construction at 23 Avenue and Gateway Boulevard, Edmonton - www.23avenue.com

Rendering of the interchange under construction at 23 Avenue and Gateway Boulevard, Edmonton - http://www.23avenue.com

Coming back into Edmonton on the airport shuttle tonight I passed under or through several monumental interchanges along the Queen Elizabeth Highway. I took particular note of the progress being made on the interchange at 23 Avenue and Gateway Boulevard. The dehumanizing mess it is making of what was already a pretty dismal intersection turns my stomach.

The massively overbuilt interchange at Anthony Henday Drive and QEH amazes me with its scale, dwarfing even the massive trucks that trundle through it all day long. It amazes me that complaints about Anthony Henday Drive not being a true freeway along its entire length are now to be heard in every conversation about the road. “How could they have been so stupid not to build all the overpasses right up front?” so many people wonder. “Why are the planners so incompetent that they could allow traffic to be so bad?” they cry. As if we have always been entitled to this road, complete and unobstructed. Never mind that Anthony Henday did not even exist as a functional ring road a few short years ago. Never mind that when it is finally completed it will have cost us billions and billions of dollars. Never mind that the ring road does absolutely nothing to ease traffic problems because its raison d’etre is in fact to support and facilitate increased driving to increasingly far-flung and car-dependent suburban areas.

I was returning today from San Francisco. I’ve been awed by interchanges on the highway in from the airport in that city, impressed by them. I’ve had similar responses to even grander interchanges in other US cities such as Houston. But being impressed does not suggest it is something I would like to see repeated. When I see Spaghetti Monuments to the Almighty Car being constructed in my own hometown, I do indeed find my stomach turning. Why are we going down the same literal and figurative road that so many other cities have gone down? Why are we not seeing that other places are turning away from this model of building their way out of roadway congestion? Why aren’t we realizing that they are turning away from it because they have discovered that building new roads actually increases car-dependency and therefore ultimately adds to congestion? And why is it that the Province of Alberta is already planning for the next ring road around Edmonton? I suppose they think that this little game of chicken and rotten egg will just go on forever and ever.

Why did the chicken cross the ring road over and over again? Because he was an unevolved bird-brain who never learned how to fly and didn’t notice how his predecessors all got squished by 18 wheelers.

San Francisco's multi-level Embarcadero Freeway, a bittersweet casualty of the 1989 earthquake - unattributed on www.infrastructurist.com

San Francisco's multi-level Embarcadero Freeway, a bittersweet casualty of the 1989 earthquake - unattributed on http://www.infrastructurist.com

Oh all right. I’m ranting. Where’s my evidence? Who says Anthony Henday Drive and the new Gateway Boulevard interchange aren’t necessary, aren’t needed for trade and the movement of people? I can’t honestly say for sure. I don’t have the necessary empirical data to back up my assertions that the City of Edmonton would be better off without them. But other cities are tearing down freeways and interchanges at the same time we are building them. The Infrastructurist recently highlighted four freeway tear-downs that measurably improved life in the surrounding city (two of them in San Francisco) without traffic or the trade of the city grinding to a halt.

I think in these times of change, when the winds are increasingly blowing in the direction of less car-travel, less energy consumption overall and the need for an aggressive shift towards less environmentally disruptive ways of living, that these massive “investments” may soon be seen as a massive waste of taxpayer dollars. When you contrast the $250 million being spent on just one interchange with the $100 million Edmonton will be spending over the next 10 years on cycling improvements and the similar amount over the same period to be spent on pedestrian improvements, it seems clear to me that priorities are out of whack.

It’s not about ceasing all investments in road infrastructure. But it is about planning for a livable and equitable city, and looking forward to a future in which our current assumptions may no longer hold true. I’m not sure how many of my fellow citizens are thinking the same way, unfortunately.