Infill and densification has been an important issue in our city’s public discourse in the past 4 years. This is likely to continue through to October 16th and beyond. It’s an important conversation about Edmonton’s future.
I have learned a lot by listening to citizens in the past 4 years.
I have learned that by and large Edmontonians understand and support the need for densification and to reduce the amount of land consumed by suburban growth. The arguments that densification allows for a more efficient use of services, roads, pipes etc. and eventually breathes life into schools and neighbourhood businesses by making space for more families are well documented.
I have learned that Edmonton can’t do it alone and that densification must be a regional goal. This is why we worked with our 23 neighbouring municipalities to create a new Edmonton Metro Region Growth Plan that over the next 40 years of growth in our region lead us to using 250 fewer quarter sections of farmland and spending $5 billion less on infrastructure.
I have learned from hosting community meetings about infill in each of the neighbourhoods in Ward 10 that strong checks and balances for infill sites are necessary along with sufficient staff resources to enforce new rules. And we’ve done this. Read about it here.
And I have also learned that some people don’t agree with much of what I just wrote above and that in some neighbourhoods most people don’t think any densification is necessary.
WHERE WE CAN DO BETTER
I have four key infill ideas.
1. Create better public engagement between city planners and neighbourhoods.
2. Create a culture of better design
3. Provide more choice for neighbourhoods
4. Focus where it counts the most
In this coming election campaign I will be happy to defend our policy choices but with humility. I am willing to keep listening and working together with citizens and communities to make infill better.
Infill and densification will lead to a more attractive and compact city. It will lead to a more environmentally and financially sustainable city. We need to stay committed to working with all of our communities. We cannot pick and choose for political reasons. We must have the courage to do what’s right for Edmonton’s future even if our choices may be unpopular with some.
PLEASE READ ABOUT HOW WE WILL ACHIEVE BETTER INFILL
1. Create better public engagement between planners and neighbourhoods.
This begins with developing deeper neighbourhood profiles on each post war mature neighbourhood. Census data tells us the very large majority of mature neighbourhoods are still losing population. In fact every Ward 10 neighbourhood, except Parkallen, is losing population. Using tools like this one from Well Being Toronto will not only help our planners work with communities to understand their current realities, it can also help determine what kind of housing, density or services neighbourhoods may need in the future. This is not to suggest we go as far as completing costly and time consuming Area Redevelopment Plans for all 100+ mature communities, but rather that our planners are willing to work collaboratively with neighbourhoods with relevant data to understand how to plan for that neighbourhood’s best possible future.
It’s important for our planning department to realize that public engagement actually begins once policies are approved, not just leading up to their approval. While we’ve done well explaining the “infill is important for the city” narrative we need to seriously improve the “it’s important for our neighbourhood” narrative and use good evidence, data and public engagement to create that narrative. It’s like creating a health diagnosis for a neighbourhood and determining the kind of treatment it needs to improve over time.
2. Create a culture of better design
People love beautiful things. People hate ugly things. But there is no universal agreement on what is beautiful or what is ugly. We have debated design and architecture many times and conclude always upon advice from lawyers that it’s not possible to regulate. But what we can expect from our building community is a high standard. And what we can expect in exchange for their architectural, creative, and entrepreneurial freedoms is an appreciation for context. Where this interest in context has been absent is in designs that hurt the infill cause rather than help it.
The first house shown below with its big black corrugated steel walls doesn’t make much effort to consider the context of the existing neighbourhood. The neighbour here is mad and they have every right to be.
I realize that the builder, even if the lot had not been subdivided, could have built a single large house with the same massing, setbacks, materials and colours. But that is not a good enough excuse to say that this is okay. I think we can create a culture of good design, with meaningful consideration of context and by allowing more flexibility on the site so situations like this don’t become the norm. Better design will allow narrower lot homes to fit in more sensitively to established neighbourhoods.
Below is another example of a new build wildly out of context with the surrounding homes. This is the opposite of a sub division, where two lots were consolidated into one and as it turns out municipalities have no jurisdiction over lot consolidations as this is simply a provincial land titles issues. Similarly the city has no jurisdiction over a neighbours lack of rights to appeal a consolidation or a subdivision. Our MNO rules apply but in relation to the built form on any new lot(s), so while it’s enormous there were no variances on this property. Both of these examples illustrate why we need to have a serious conversation about context and good design.
3. Create more choice for neighbourhoods
This leads me to the idea of choice. Based on the evidence and data-driven public engagement I refer to above we need to give neighbourhoods more choices about future housing types. The truth is that in most mature communities there are limited choices if you want to redevelop an aging home; you can either build one single (usually very large) home or you can you build two smaller, but still pretty large homes. To make the one larger home on an original lot more affordable a secondary suite or a garden suite is permitted. I don’t believe that these should be the only choices for neighbourhoods. “Skinny homes or Monster homes” shouldn’t be the only options. We need to be prepared to say to communities like Parkallen (read op-ed here) for example, where I’ve heard many residents say they prefer semi-detached houses to “skinny” houses that more choices can be made available to them. The pictures below illustrate the difference. They achieve the same results but one pays more attention to context than the other.
And for those who feel their choice should be no densification at all, I respect their right to place Restricted Covenants on their properties and certainly won’t support any move to tax them at a higher rate. I do however feel a better job must be done to understand the pitfalls of Restricted Covenants for homeowners and neighbourhoods.
4. Focus where it counts the most
In a recent debate about changes being made to the Mature Neighbourhood Overlay, Mayor Iveson made the following motion. That in anticipation of Evolving Infill 2.0, Administration bring a framework to Committee for addressing areas where more diverse and affordable housing opportunities should be clustered - perhaps a "Missing Middle Overlay" (and/or base zone revisions) for mature areas where higher heights, smaller front setbacks, bigger building pockets and more flexibility for multi-family buildings could be warranted, such as: pre-war areas with taller existing homes, areas near transit nodes and corridors, areas with deteriorating housing stock that would benefit from revitalization, and/or areas with existing clustered ground-oriented multi-family zoning.
What this means is that in older pre-war neighbourhoods we have the opportunity to provide greater flexibility when it comes to height, design and density. Many pre-war neighbourhoods have a combination of aging housing stock in need of renewal and eclecticness. Additionally similar to the 109 Street ARP passed in 2012 much of our focus needs to be along major transit corridors. Five and six story commercial on the street with residential above buildings as well as row housing along these major corridors can provide both affordable housing and more vibrant and active streets throughout Edmonton. Additionally we have great opportunities to continue to densify downtown and important areas like Blatchford, Rossdale and transit oriented sites like Century Park and Northlands. Each of these areas are critical to Edmonton’s future.
What we’ve achieved so far.
For the first time since we set the target in 2009, Edmonton came within a whisker in 2016 of achieving our target of 25% of new housing starts being in mature and/or established communities. The primary focus of our infill strategy is on revitalizing our downtown, creating more density near transit and LRT and along major corridors like 109th street or just off Whyte Avenue. We have shown the courage needed to face our growth pressures responsibly and do what’s right for Edmonton over the long term.
I have heard people’s concerns about neighbourhood scale issues like bad constructions practices, bad builders, worries about lot drainage, and mature trees. I have also heard the need for better communication between builders and neighbours and between the city and communities. All of these concerns and more have been widely addressed and many new resources have been added. A council report from earlier this year details the progress made on these issues. We have listened to communities and made the changes necessary to protect neighbourhoods and neighbours. We need to continue to listen to neighbourhoods while remaining steadfast in our commitment to make Edmonton more compact.