Urbanism is the broad term used for the study of city life and its ongoing evolution. Urbanism includes infill, public transportation, neighbourhood composition, public transit, walkability, built form, active transportation, urban isolation, community and all of the myriad human impacts all of these elements have. Human beings are fascinating creatures. Well-designed cities can catalyze human creativity and connection. In my journey as an infill builder and developer I have done a great deal of research about the ingredients of a successful city. There are all kinds of examples around the world and throughout history of good and bad urban development. I hope you will find this as interesting as I do.
There has been an enormous amount of research done on the evolution of big cities around the world. There have been many missteps and failed strategies but we have the opportunity to learn from all of them. According to a UN report published last year, 55% of the global population lives in a city. By 2050 this number is projected to rise to 68%. In 1950, when urban planners were contemplating cities where everyone would drive everywhere because land was plentiful, car ownership was synonymous with freedom, and pollution associated with burning fossil fuels wasn’t part of the calculus, only 29.5% of the world lived in a city. Concepts like sustainable development, walkability, active transportation, and urban isolation were barely considered. As we face the future we need to wrestle with these complexities if we are to leave our children with a city in which they can thrive.
As an infill builder and developer, I am constantly on the lookout for best practices regarding the many factors that impact on the evolution of Edmonton as a world-class city. It’s a fascinating subject and I count myself truly privileged to have the opportunity to play a small role. I’m also happy to share what I learn and I hope to learn even more from the many smart and thoughtful people who recognize the changes happening in our city and are invested in making the ongoing process as positive as it can be.
Urban Planning in Edmonton
When we consider that people have inhabited Edmonton and the area around it for at least 3,000 years we get a small sense of the massive changes humans have made upon the land. From its beginnings as an intersection of trade routes of various local indigenous peoples, which was adopted by the early fur traders in the late 1700’s, Edmonton has been a local commercial centre for a very long time. When the Hudson’s Bay Company moved the original Fort Edmonton from the Fort Saskatchewan area to the approximate location of the current Alberta Legislature, a small hamlet soon sprang up outside the walls of the fort. In 1882 the original lots were surveyed for the farmers who lived in log cabins along the river. In 1894 the Town of Edmonton was established around today’s Boyle Street and McCauley neighbourhoods. When Alberta joined confederation in 1905 and Edmonton was named as the capital city, development accelerated.
Edmonton’s first Zoning Bylaw was passed in 1933. There were only 11 zones created and it’s important to note that Zone A (they were lettered back then, not numbered) designated the “public park zone” encompassing several small urban parks and officially protecting the North Saskatchewan River Valley and ravine system. Almost a century has passed and the Zoning Bylaw has grown to 45 Standard Zones, 49 Special Area Zones, 1,154 Direct Control Zones and 126 Use Classes but the protection of the river valley and ravine park system has changed very little. Clearly, Edmontonians are consistent in the value they place on this special land.
What About Infill?
Our modern cities are incredibly complex, particularly when contrasted with the ancient cities of Europe and the rest of the world. Our street systems are much more elaborate than the cart tracks that were the norm long ago. We also have municipal water and sewer systems, an electrical and telecommunications grid, policing, fire safety, public health and education infrastructure. The list is almost endless. As they evolve, modern cities need to consider the impacts on all these elements and on the stakeholders who depend on them. This evolution includes infill, but also encompasses all of these other factors.
Infill has been around for a long time. In the last couple of generations it has also been known as “Urban Renewal” or “Gentrification” or, in many cases, “Colonialization”. Nevertheless, cities around the world have been doing it for centuries but nobody called it infill. Does anyone imagine that the Rome we know today bears any resemblance to the Etruscan fishing village it evolved from? What about the changes that occurred in London during the rise of the British Empire and the Industrial Revolution? Here is a great video showing the Renovation of Paris mandated by Napoleon III and executed by Baron Haussmann. Everyone loves the lively public spaces, the majestic boulevards and the magnificent buildings that these efforts have produced. If we think about it at all, we applaud the foresight and imagination of the municipal leaders who organized and directed the changes. We don’t often think about what the impacts on the residents must have been.
When new buildings are built in a busy city, old ones usually come down. They may be decrepit, dangerous, and derelict, but they may also be someone’s home. At the very least, they are familiar landmarks in the neighbourhood. Without a doubt, they are being replaced by something much better, but we have a responsibility to think about a transition process. In the developed world, in a city like Edmonton, the residents of a neighbourhood have a much louder voice than they have ever had historically. One of the frustrations of a democracy is that even the least informed members participate. When a city is planning what it will look like in 30 or 40 years, a great deal of consultation and education is in order.
Edmonton has been engaged in extensive consultation and as a result has created the Infill Roadmap – a list of actions aimed at welcoming more people into Edmonton’s core, mature, and established neighbourhoods. The urban planning methodology that Edmonton has followed since the 1950’s has resulted in neighbourhoods comprised almost exclusively of single-family detached housing. There are a few high-rises here and there, but not much in the way of duplexes, row houses or low-rise apartments. The most pronounced and obvious result of the changes to the zoning by-laws has been the phenomenon of the so-called skinny house. In 2013, Council approved a motion to reduce the minimum width for RF1 (single-family) lots from 33’ to 25’. This triggered many builders to buy 50’ lots, demolish the existing house, subdivide the property and build two narrower, taller houses. Many long time residents of mature neighbourhoods were upset by the idea that the architecture they saw on their street would undergo a dramatic change. They were used to a streetscape composed mostly of bungalows and were emotionally connected to the view they had had from their front porch for so many years. While there was some backlash at first, after 5 years or so, people have generally accepted that skinny houses aren’t so bad after all, and in fact are usually an improvement on the crappy, run-down house they replaced. Indeed, if we objectively consider the aesthetic value of the homes of the 1950’s we can’t help but conclude that they weren’t very thoughtfully designed.
The other visible change triggered by the Infill Roadmap is the emergence of the Garage or Garden Suite. The most popular form is the Garage Suite. Most of the time this is simply an apartment above the garage like the place Fonzie lived on the TV show Happy Days. Increasingly, people are building them with some living space at grade as well as more upstairs. Usually this is done at the expense of one inside parking space.
If you want to learn more about Edmonton’s Infill Roadmap, click on this link.
The Missing Middle
In most modern cities in the western hemisphere, the suburbs were designed around the idea that people would be happy to drive everywhere. There was no need to have stores, restaurants, schools or recreation facilities close by when there was no perceived reason that people wouldn’t rather drive than walk. As a result our neighbourhoods are characterized by lots of detached single-family houses, perhaps a tower on a busy intersection and very little in between.
Our neighbourhoods don’t have the density to support local businesses or recreational infrastructure. Everyone is compelled to drive to the “Big Box” whether it’s for sports, shopping or entertainment. If we’re going to create the density in our neighbourhoods that will support local businesses and make our local streets interesting places to walk around on, we need to find more creative and affordable ways to fit more households onto them.
Another benefit of the Missing Middle is that it creates more affordable housing types. Fitting more households onto expensive urban land reduces the cost per unit. Granted, these units won’t have big yards for kids to run around in, and will not be as private as a detached home, but let’s face it, most of the world shares a wall and/or a ceiling with a neighbour.
If we think about the increasingly recognized phenomenon of Urban Isolation and the mental health problems that accompany it, we must recognize the value of a housing type that brings people into closer proximity in a neighbourhood but not in such high numbers that they become anonymous. Missing Middle housing is community scale. Most people don’t have the capacity to get to know 200 neighbours in a high rise, but they will easily recognize the dozen or so people that live close to them in a smaller multi-family development. These developments are easy to design in ways that cause people to bump into each other and provide the opportunity for neighbourly conversations. Psychologists refer to this neighbourly behaviour as collective effervescence. Humans have lived in tribes for thousands of years. Our instincts to get to know the people around us are still there. We’ve just built our cities in ways that suppress these instincts, much to our detriment.
There are a few reasons the Middle is Missing in Edmonton. The main one is that the current zoning bylaws are very restrictive and completely out of step with the market. If a developer wants to build a missing middle project that won’t require significant variances it probably won’t make money. Allowable densities are too low, lot size requirements are too high, setbacks are too wide, parking requirements are too strict, and spatial separation requirements between buildings are too big.
Another reason is utility infrastructure. If water, sewer, or electricity upgrades are required to accommodate the higher density a Missing Middle project brings, it falls on the developer to pay for everything. This policy works fine if the developer is building a 200 unit high-rise or a 40 hectare subdivision where the infrastructure cost can be shared across hundreds of lots, but it doesn’t make any sense for a small condo project. Here is a link to an Edmonton Journal article about a project I didn’t build because of this policy.
Think about the cities we love to visit because they are interesting to walk around in. The sidewalks are wide, the buildings are usually a maximum of 6 stories tall and there are lots of restaurants, cafes, pubs and shops at street level. We don’t visit them because traffic flows smoothly and parking is readily available. On the contrary, traffic is snarled and chaotic and parking is rare and expensive; it’s much more pleasant to walk or take transit. These cities are built to a Missing Middle scale. With some sensible changes to zoning and infrastructure policy, we have the opportunity to build Edmonton into a more interesting, walkable, neighbourly place.