The Canadian Dream

The Canadian Dream

A few weeks ago I read a very interesting article about zoning in American cities. Using data from UrbanFootprint to map a city, The Upshot calculated how cities across the United States are zoned, with a focus on highlighting the amount of land that outlaw multi-family housing through their zoning. It’s intended to show how cities have come to regret previous decisions to zone suburbs exclusively for single-detached housing – aka the American Dream. It comes at a time when cities like Minneapolis and states like California and Oregon are proposing (and in the case of Minneapolis, passing) laws that outlaw zoning exclusively for single detached dwellings. The reason is the decline in affordable housing options (aka, rising housing prices), and rising urban sprawl as cities continue to grow at historic levels.

This topic is not exclusive to the US, however. Canadian cities like Vancouver and Toronto have long battled with the lack of affordability in their housing markets, but it is also being discussed in most every major city across Canada. In Edmonton, affordability is better when compared to other major urban centres in Canada, but I would argue the results are skewed by a higher than average income in Alberta than in other provinces. Gotta love the Alberta Advantage.

Zoning and Edmonton

Because I’m a naturally skeptical person, especially when it comes to my hometown, I wondered how Edmonton fared with respect to zoning for density when compared to the cities from the Upshot article. My initial hypothesis was “very poorly”, as the City has been sprawling with single-detached homes like crazy over the past 20 years. So I embarked on a project of my own to find the answer. Thankfully, the City has an open data portal that helped me map out all residential areas, and separate them into two categories: zones exclusively for single-detached housing, and zones that permit higher-density housing like row housing and apartments. I was genuinely shocked by the results:

PINK: single-detached only zones
BLUE: multi-family zones
RED: City Boundary
NAVY: North Saskatchewan River
showing only single-detached zones
showing only multi-family zones

A note before I dive into the results: the study by Upshot only took into account purely residential zones, thereby excluding mixed-use zones. Essentially this removed most urban cores and downtowns from the scope, meaning this was basically a study of suburbs, and the results would naturally look worse. I thought that was a little unfair, but in the interest of an apples-to-apples comparison, I begrudgingly did the same.

The result was that Edmonton actually performed pretty well compared to the examples in the Upshot article, with 61% of purely residential areas devoted to single-detached dwellings. If we include mixed-use areas, that percentage dips to 58%. This puts Edmonton in a more advantageous position to promote infill development (increasing density increases affordability) than any of the cities in the Upshot article other than New York and Washington. I was impressed. But there is a caveat.

Zoning vs. Reality

The caveat is that zoning does not reflect the as-built situation. First generation suburbs in Edmonton like Ritchie and Alberta Avenue that were built after WWII are largely zoned RF3 – which allows for everything from single-detached housing to apartments. While these neighbourhoods are experiencing densification, the majority are still single-detached dwellings, and infill development has been in the form of replacing single homes with skinny homes and duplexes instead of apartments in most cases.

Ritchie – still mostly single-detached dwellings even with higher density zoning
Alberta Avenue – also primarily single-detached dwellings even with higher density zoning

Generations of suburbs

3rd generation suburbs, built outside the Anthony Henday over the past 20 or so years, actually perform much better than expected by this metric. This is mainly due to the RMD zone, first used in 2013, which allows for a range of housing types from single-detached dwellings to row housing. Neighbourhoods like Allard and the Orchards in Edmonton’s southside have large areas zoned RMD, even though the majority are built out as single-detached dwellings. These neighbourhoods are set up for future densification with the flexibility of the RMD zone, which should simplify infill development in these neighbourhoods, as developers would not have to go through complicated rezoning processes to increase density.

It is also worth noting that the requirements of the Edmonton Metropolitan Region Growth Plan to densify urban neighbourhoods also plays a major role in the zoning of 3rd generation suburbs.

Loosely identifying suburb generations

2nd generation suburbs, like the one in which I grew up in Blue Quill, perform terribly under this lens. They are largely exclusive to single-detached dwellings, and are among the least dense neighbourhoods in the City. These are also the most active neighbourhoods in fighting densification efforts.

These suburbs offer a huge opportunity though, more than 3rd generation suburbs in my opinion. The reason is the amount of densification that can occur. Consider this, the cul-de-sac in which I grew up has 15 houses on about 120m of roadway frontage. Each lot is on average 18m wide, meaning each could easily be subdivided into 3 row houses; effectively tripling the current density.

Locating Blue Quill, a 2nd generation suburb
15 houses on 120m of road length in Blue Quill

In contrast, this cul-de-sac in Chappelle, a 3rd generation suburb, already has 25 houses on the same length of roadway, for an average width of 11m.

Locating Chappelle, a 3rd generation suburb
25 houses on the same 120m road length in Chappelle

The units are already so close together that densification would not yield as many additional units as the 2nd generation suburbs. It’s crazy to think, but these suburbs may already be as dense as they will ever be, barring large redevelopments or a new form of housing we haven’t seen yet changing single-detached homes into far more dense products.

Personal Opinion

With less space available for densification, does the beneficial zoning really make that much of a difference? Or will the lack of appropriate zoning and large amounts of resistance from residents in the 2nd generation suburbs prevent densification opportunities from being realized. We will have to wait and see.

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