Edmonton’s Infill Roadmap is one year old. It is a good time to look back over the past year and reflect on our progress, particularly in light of the Infill Roadmap Progress Report. The roadmap was built to address our rapid growth and challenges facing mature communities. Edmonton has to grow much differently in the next thirty years than we did in the last thirty. In order to do this effectively we need to ensure the proper checks and balances are in place for builders and communities.
Edmonton is at a critical stage of its growth. You can see the 2014 City of Edmonton Growth Monitoring report here.
In the past decade, we’ve spent a lot of time wringing our hands over suburban development and the city’s rapid outward growth, and in recent years we've started to take action. This year, with the passage of two bylaw amendments to lower the minimum lot width from 39 feet to 25 feet, and to allow for the development of garage/garden suites in over 100 RF1 neighbourhoods city-wide, we’ve taken small steps to encourage reinvestment in mature neighbourhoods, which will in turn curb some of our outward growth.
Residents, community leagues, and even the City are experiencing certain levels of trepidation over developing more density in our mature neighbourhoods. Many believe that we’ve made way for row housing and condominium developments in RF1 neighbourhoods, which is not the case. But regardless, we can’t let fear of incremental change hold us back from doing what is ultimately right for Edmonton.
Soon rather than Later
People generally agree with the concept of “infill” because the benefits are easy to see. It’s better for the environmental and fiscal well being of cities, it helps support schools and commercial centres in mature neighbourhoods, it can rejuvenate communities that have a decaying housing stock, and in some cases it helps with the affordability of housing for younger families.
In 2014, 86% of Edmonton's new units were built in developing neighbourhoods, and only 14% in mature areas- mostly in central core neighbourhoods. We’re reaching the point where all of the land within our city limits is planned and allocated, and our resources are strained trying to handle the amount of infrastructure that is required to build new neighbourhoods.
Our city's population is projected to be 1.5 million people by the year 2044, which is nearly double our current population. So both from good sense and from necessity, we have to move to increase our city’s density sooner rather than later.
Creating equity but emphasising the core and transit nodes
The Infill Roadmap was drafted to give the city, residents, and developers a better picture of where Edmonton is headed in terms of density and development. At its core, the Infill Roadmap is about equity - ensuring that no neighbourhood bears the brunt of infill development, but also that no area is wholly exempt from contributing to our city’s density. The policy doesn’t allow us, as a Council or a City Administration, to cherry-pick the neighbourhoods that will see infill, which I think objectively, everyone can agree is fair.
In 2014, I held meetings in every community in Ward 10 to inform people about the proposed policies to increase density in the city. I felt it was important to do this because the change in policy that took place in April allowed for the possibility of a few more homes fitting into mature neighbourhoods. People could be affected and had a right to know.
In almost every neighbourhood, at some point someone will stand up and say, “This isn’t the area for infill.” Many have said there are some areas where infill should be focused - close to transit like in the case of Century Park, the downtown core, Blatchford, communities with aging housing stock, such as our RF3 neighbourhoods and on arterial corridors like we have done with the 109 Street ARP. This in fact is where our infill policies encourage most densification. But small increases in the density of all of our mature neighbourhoods contributes to bringing us closer to the goal of a more compact and sustainable city.
Ensuring Community Voice and Character
Some people had justifiable concerns with new development, and I’ve endeavoured to address the gaps in policy through subsequent motions at Council. We’ve made motions to improve our policies on:
- Retaining mature trees
- Creating a single point of contact for people with questions or concerns about a variety of development issues.
- Mitigating bad construction practices in mature neighbourhoods, (which are not solely related to densification of course.)
- Better training for development officers considering infill applications
Two of these reports are coming to Executive Committee on October 6th, and will give Council definitive steps that can be taken to improve the experience of infill development in mature communities.
There is no silver bullet in the infill question. We have to always live with the tension of protecting the existing character of neighbourhoods while encouraging creative and modern design. Both of these things make neighbourhoods beautiful. But we cannot dither in indecision for another 10 years - now is the time to move forward. This policy is one that will be good for Edmonton as a whole.
There are still some holes to be filled in the Infill Roadmap: how we consider the structural integrity of our ravine banks, how we promote building practices that allow our seniors to age in place, and the role of the Mature Neighbourhood Overlay as it relates to subdivision of lots in mature communities. This last question is particularly pressing, as it affects how neighbours are consulted and how “existing character” is considered when a subdivision application is made near them. We need to make sure that meaningful checks and balances exist for communities.
These are gaps that other Councillors and I are actively working to address. Nobody promised that our infill policy would be perfect right away - it’s a process that is going to require growth and change for everyone, City Administration included.
But ultimately, we know that the benefits of infill development make that process worthwhile. As the largest City in our region, we have a duty to be smart and strategic in our regional planning, and that means we must spend time looking not just outward, but inward to accommodate the many people who are choosing to call Edmonton home. The environmental and social benefits of preserving our wetlands and arable farmland on the edges of the City are also enormous.
All in all, I still believe that pursuing the goal of 25% infill development annually will bring us closer to the vision of Edmonton as a globally competitive and admired city. Developing that policy certainly brings a new set of challenges and questions, but they are worth facing head on.