Friday, February 18, 2011

Are we that dense?

I was sad to read on Tuesday that the Edmonton city centre airport is essentially dead. I never gave it much thought until my wife and I were airlifted from 500km north of Edmonton to the Royal Alexandra Hospital so she could be treated for late pregnancy complications. The trip would have been close to an hour longer had we landed at the International. Same can be said for when her and our premature daughter were transferred to Grande Prairie. Instead, the driving time to and from the hospital was a mere 5 minutes.

As much as this disappointed me, I was happy to see that Edmonton city council is at least going to do something progressive with the land and reverse the pattern of development over the last 15 years that has seen Edmonton sprawl to absurd proportions. The development will see 30000 housing units built INSIDE the existing city. High density development is more ecologically sensitive and leads to more livable cities. Unfortunately, if planning principles aren't changed this will be a one-off rarity. Why is it that 75 years after the Greater London Regional Planning Committee legislated a greenbelt around London, North American municipalities, with few exceptions, have still not figured out the benefits of this arrangement?

The Metropolitan Green Belt allowed the purchase of land around Greater London that would be restricted to commercial and residential development. As such, the area of Greater London has been perpetually restricted to 1623 square kilometres. The demarcation is easily seen in the path of the M25 ring highway around the metropolis.
The area is officially referred to as the Greater London Urban Area. It has a population of roughly 8.5 million individuals and a population density of 5240 people per square kilometer. If Edmonton had the same population density it could fit 3.6 million people. Now some of you might cringe at that number. But consider the inefficient manner in which resources are used when individuals are spread out as much as they are in Edmonton. Before I elucidate some of the benefits of higher urban population density, let's consider other major urban areas in Canada. You will see that a dispersed populace is by no means ordained in Canada's cities.

1. Toronto
3972/km sq.
2. Montreal
4439/km sq
3. Calgary
1360/km sq
4. Ottawa
2207/km sq
5. Mississauga
2545/km sq
6. Winnipeg
1365/km sq
7. Vancouver
5335/km sq

The most densely populated city in Canada is Vancouver and it has a population density similar to that of London. According to Mercer's Quality of Living Index that ranks world cities by their livability, Vancouver is tops in Canada. It also received the honor of Most Livable City in the World by The Economist. The other highly ranked cities in Canada are Ottawa, Toronto, and Montreal, all falling in the top 25 on the Mercer Index. (As an aside, Toronto is a bit of an outlier. Although it may be livable, it's unfettered sprawl has led to the destruction of some of the best agricultural land in Canada. Had we planned ahead, Toronto could have come to rival London as one of the world's great cities.)

If you look at all the highest ranked cities in the world it appears the relationship is not straightforward, but more U-shaped. That is, there seems to be a sweet spot and it runs right around the 3500-6000 people per square kilometer. Obviously you'd reach a certain point at which you just couldn't fit any more bodies in an area without damaging living conditions. But there is certainly an argument to be made for more densely populated metropolises.

Before considering the advantages of this approach though we must fairly consider some of the advantages of urban sprawl as it has been practiced in the Edmonton-Calgary corridor and many other urban areas in North America. If it weren't advantageous for at least someone, it never would have been implemented. It does indeed lead to lower land and real estate prices, making housing more affordable. London has some of the most pricey real estate in the world. It does reduce traffic congestion significantly and leaves more space for wide open green areas within cities. Finally, it opens more land for development, thus encouraging investment and economic growth.

However, all of this comes with a lot of baggage and this baggage weighs down the argument in favor of concentration, not sprawl. First off, consider that suburbanization is essentially unsustainable in that it relies on a bygone era of cheap energy. Sure, energy still seems relatively inexpensive, but it won't last. Consider the recent leak from Saudi Arabia that their oil reserves are in reality 40% less than has been officially reported for many years. And a new report in The Guardian shows that it is not just turmoil in the Middle East and North Africa driving oil prices higher these days, but more chronic systemic factors. But, even if it were sustainable, would it be a good idea? Not really.

Suburbanization and sprawl cost money. A lot of money. Spreading municipal services over such a large area is costly. Public transportation is near impossible to develop efficiently. Sure, traffic congestion goes down, but travel time is higher given the increased distance. And since everyone is almost 100% reliant on their automobiles for travel, carbon emissions are much higher.

And let's talk about real estate. Sure, it is awfully nice that sprawl can keep property prices low. But look at the lifestyles this has spawned. Since houses were so "affordable" in the 2000s out in the suburbs, everyone and his dog bought one. But they needed a car to get to the job in the city that helped them pay for their house. Add up the mortgage and the car payment and all the gas commuting back and forth, and you already have one heck of an expensive lifestyle. Where did that lead us? The housing crash. Now you have crumbling suburbs in Florida and even the degradation of the uber-planned Disney community of Celebration. Maybe highly priced real estate isn't such a bad thing.

With London's restriction of sprawl, it now has some of the highest priced commercial real estate in the world. Finite land means development is forced inward and, just the same, supply is limited. As demand rises but supply remains the same, prices rise in step. Consider One Hyde Park, an upscale development built overlooking the iconic Hyde Park in London. Actually, to call it upscale is an understatement. Four penthouses have already been sold at 135 million pounds each ($216 million) and the average price per square foot of living space is 6000 pounds ($9600), making it some of the highest priced real estate in the world.

I remember talking to a gentleman at the London Symphony Orchestra. He was about our age at the time and he was talking about the high prices of housing within London proper. He lived on the south end of the city, within the confines of the Green Belt. Because of it's relative distance from the City of London (the financial district) and high priced buroughs like Westminster (the touristy area), Kensington and Chelsea, and Hammersmith and Fulham, the area had more affordable housing. But even if it were at the very edge of the city boundaries, it'd be only 20 kilometers from the City. Consider a southern borough named Merton, at the end of the Tube line. Just a little shorter than Edmonton city centre to St. Albert. The difference being? You can hop on the tube in Merton and be in the heart of the City of London in 30 minutes, even in the heart of rush hour. Check the Tube site. I'm not lying. Try getting from St. Albert to Edmonton City Hall in 30 minutes during rush hour. And you won't be able to read on the way either.

I spent a week visiting London, which is certainly not a long enough time to form a full impression of the city, but I can tell you, if I had to choose between it and Edmonton, I'd pick London. If my family were only a 30 minute drive away, that is. But even between Edmonton and Vancouver, I'd go with the latter. Densely populated, well planned cities like Vancouver, London, and Paris, have a certain je ne sais quoi, a certain energy that you can't explain but feel every moment you're there. Edmonton could have that if we plan it right.

I sincerely hope Edmonton city council is signaling a new direction for urban planning in the city I called home for many years. If so, it would be a sea change for urban development in the Canadian prairies, and could pull Edmonton far out in front of Calgary in terms of an attractive place to live. If not, it's going to come back to bite them many years from now when the era of cheap energy ends.

(Of course, this is all very rich coming from a guy who chose to settle down in a town of 7000 people with a population density of 254/km sq.)

1 comment:

Marlene said...

"Why do I do this to myself? Is there a disease label for people who overanalyze everything?"

ahem. You already officially gave yourself the label....say it with dis - ease....N i c k o n c h u k.
Congratulations.

Oh. and Happy Birrrrthhhhday. Monsignor Anthony.