Why Does Edmonton Need Infill Development?

Our Riverdale Narrow Lot Project

Since the 1950s, following the discovery of oil in the adjacent area of Leduc, Edmonton has experienced a period of spectacular growth. In just over 100 years, Edmonton grew from a small town into a metropolitan region with over 1.2 million residents. A population explosion, a new civic centre, new subdivisions, and new suburbs transformed the city and the surrounding area. Edmonton became a major centre for the petrochemical industry and expanded its traditional role as a government, educational and transportation centre. We are now starting to experience what I would call a hangover from these cycles of extreme growth and development.  We are beginning to recognize now that the model of building out and out and out, suburb after suburb, is perhaps not the best way to develop a city. It does not create a resilient city or insulate it well from swinging oil prices, or position the city well for future growth.

There is now a growing need and desire to revisit the areas of the city that were built during these previous boom-and-bust cycles. The suburbs of the 50s and onwards were built very much around a car culture. They were also built as a series of monolithic structures, all intended for the same demographic – young families. These types of developments work well in the immediate short term, and for a while it flourishes. Schools are full and homes are affordable due to material and floor plan repetition and cheap land. But when you build a community around one demographic, what happens as that demographic ages, and when the infrastructure ages? As well, the older homes were built with cheap materials, using floor plans that are no longer desirable for today’s families. They need major retrofit and repair. As a result, many schools, community parks and municipal infrastructure are now under-utilized.

The area of our city that is seeing negative population growth also has some of the lowest density housing in the entire city. What you see here is an overall gradual increase in density in the suburban communities as the city was built out over the decades.

Over the years, urban planners have gradually learned to design our communities better. They have learned that we need diverse housing options, denser built forms, more walkable neighbourhoods with local amenities, more climate appropriate design, and more transit oriented design that allows for less dependency on a car.

So, what does the leave us with? Opportunity. The opportunity to revitalize our older neighbourhoods in such a way that injects new life, new housing types, and more diversification in the demographics. A healthy community is a diverse community, and a diverse community requires different housing options – big, small, luxury, affordable, market housing, government subsidized housing. You need a healthy balance and mix so you attract a diverse population and culture.

This is why infill development and densification of these older suburbs is becoming a hot topic of discussion in Edmonton, and why I was a founding member of IDEA – the Infill Development in Edmonton Association. The city is learning now that they cannot use the same principles and permitting approaches to infill that they have been using for brand new communities. It requires more skill, more facilitation and more urban planning knowledge to understand the additional constraints created by infill. Developers have learnt very quickly that they cannot use the same business models or construction approaches that they use in the suburbs. Infill development is harder, more time consuming, and often lower returns on investment.  So why is infill important to me?

I grew up on a farm, where I was raised to think about the impacts of my actions today and how they affected generations tomorrow. We were organic before organic became “cool”. It was harder work, with lower immediate returns, but the long-term benefits far outweighed the short-term pain. My mother instilled in me the importance of striving to leave the world a better place than when I found it. Combine that with a passion for buildings, I have realized that the legacy I want to leave behind is to be a great city builder.

Edmonton is now at the stage of its evolution where we need to inject new investment in many of our older suburbs. They were designed monolithically with one demographic in mind many years ago, and we now know better.  A healthy community is a diverse community – a community that works for all Edmontonians.

That’s all for now, chat again soon.

All the best,

-tmd.

 

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