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“We Have to Change our Whole Mindset if We are Going to Have a Future”

I’ll have a massive post about urban planning and Edmonton up over the weekend, but I want to talk a bit about a decision made – and how an almost better one was made – in Ottawa earlier this week.

Ottawa was debating the expansion of its suburban lands on which development is permitted. The administration recommended adding another 842 hectares; developers wanted more than 2,000. In the end, after a motion to fully freeze development outside the suburban boundary failed by 3 votes, a compromise allowing development on 222 new hectares of land passed by a single vote.

Edmonton is considering its new Municipal Development Plan, aptly titled “The Way We Grow”. I view Ottawa and Edmonton as similar cities. Both have a population in the city of around 800,000, and a metro population of over 1,000,000. They both have harsh winter climates, and are heavily government/public sector cities. Looking to Ottawa for lessons is better than comparing Edmonton to Montreal, Toronto, or Vancouver.

Edmonton’s draft MDP talks about focusing more on infill – which is progress, but doesn’t go so far as actively discouraging low-density suburban growth. Like the majority of cities across Canada, it would appear that Edmonton is not quite ready to take that step, despite increasing evidence that low-density growth just isn’t cost-effective or sustainable.

The title of the post is a quote from Councillor Diane Holmes, who moved the motion to freeze the suburban boundary. She also added this:

She said her residents are getting fed up with their property-tax dollars supporting suburban growth through road, sewer and water service construction, which developers profit from, then subsidizing operating costs in the suburbs. A city study has shown that households inside the Greenbelt pay an average of $1,000 more in taxes than they receive in services from the city, while households outside the Greenbelt pay less.

More and more people are starting to realize this. 10 in favour, 13 opposed to a freeze on new development space. A few years ago this would have been unfathomable. I believe we’re nearing the tipping point where it will become common wisdom that we have to grow up, and not continue to grow out indefinitely. In a few years time, the votes on Ottawa City Council will turn around. Kudos to our nation’s capital for almost getting it right. Someday Edmonton and other cities will follow suit as well.