Who’s responsible for the Edmonton Metro Region?

Last week the Metro Mayors Alliance signed a Memorandum of Understanding “outlining a commitment to plan, decide, and act as one Edmonton Metro Region on regionally significant issues.” The MOU was the first recommendation of the Advisory Panel on Metro Edmonton’s Future, which delivered its report in early June. The next step is to negotiate a legally binding Master Agreement.

Mayors at MOU signing
Photo courtesy of the Metro Mayors Alliance

Today the Capital Region Board approved its updated Edmonton Metropolitan Region Growth Plan with a 22-2 vote. The plan “sets a path for more compact and efficient growth within the region’s 24 municipalities” over the next 30 years. The next step for the CRB Growth Plan is to send it to the Government of Alberta for review.

CRB Growth Plan

If you’re thinking there might be some overlap here, you’re right.

The Metro Mayors Alliance is made up of the mayors of nine municipalities: Mayor Roxanne Carr (Strathcona County), Mayor Stuart Houston (City of Spruce Grove), Mayor Don Iveson (City of Edmonton), Mayor Gale Katchur (City of Fort Saskatchewan), Mayor Rodney Shaigec (Mayor of Parkland County), Mayor Greg Krischke (City of Leduc), Mayor John Whaley (Leduc County), Mayor Tom Flynn (Sturgeon County), and Mayor Nolan Crouse (City of St. Albert). The latter two are not pictured above and were not at the ceremony, but they did sign the MOU. All nine municipalities are of course members of the Capital Region Board, and together they represent 95% of the region’s population, 96% of its assessment base, and about 80% of its land base.

The Metro Mayors Alliance MOU declares the municipalities’ intent to work in three key areas: economic development, public transit, and land use and infrastructure. The idea is that by acting together on opportunities related to these three areas the region will be better able to compete globally. The CRB’s Growth Plan also aims to “advance the Region’s global economic competitiveness” in a way that balances the region’s diversity and rural and urban contexts. It too discusses economic development, transportation, and land use and infrastructure.

There are some key differences to note between the Metro Mayors Alliance (MMA) and the Capital Region Board (CRB). First, as mentioned above, the MMA is much smaller than the CRB which has in the past been criticized for moving too slowly due to infighting (the new Growth Plan took 30 months to develop). Fort Saskatchewan Mayor Gale Katchur spoke about this to the Fort Saskatchewan Record:

“Quite often, it takes us a long time to make decisions (at the CRB) and a lot of the projects can take years before we see any advancement on them. The Metro Mayors came together to say we would be the willing who want to move things forward and to see how we can advance the items out of the recommended report. We can show that working together corroboratively with the biggest population and the biggest land mass, we can be more effective and more efficient than the CRB.”

In theory getting just nine municipalities to approve something is easier than getting a majority of the twenty-four at the CRB.

Another key difference is that while the CRB was mandated by the Province in 2008, the MMA is merely a partnership between the nine municipalities (formed in 2015). It’s a “coalition of the willing” as opposed to a group of cities forced to play in the same sandbox. That means that until a legally binding agreement is in place, there’s really nothing forcing the members of the MMA to do the things they say they’re going to do, unlike with the CRB. At the same time, the members of the MMA are the ones with all the resources (and the bulk of the challenges) needed to make things happen.

St. Albert Mayor Nolan Crouse is the chair of the CRB and this week suggested the two groups have too much overlap. “The report that was issued by the panel is basically the same mandate that the capital region board is already working on,” he told the St. Albert Gazette. He signed the MOU, but only because there was no cost and nothing binding, and said he’d be skeptical of next steps. “I’m being critical because we’ve got a good amount of work going forward with the capital region board.”

Note that two CRB members voted against the new growth plan. Leduc County voted against it because they felt it didn’t value the agricultural land south of Edmonton highly enough (the new plan includes an Agriculture policy area). Parkland County voted against it because they felt the CRB was expanding its mandate by considering agriculture and economic development. The rest supported the new plan however, which CRB CEO Malcom Bruce has said will save the region $5 billion in land and infrastructure costs and will save 250 quarter sections (160 sq km) of land.

It does seem redundant to have two groups focused on the same goals. And it’s confusing when there are potentially two different visions for the future of the region, especially if they overlap significantly. Some are already trying to use this confusion to their advantage. On top of this there’s the Municipal Government Act review and the City Charter discussions, both of which could have an impact on how things get done in the region. Especially if the City of Edmonton is granted new powers that the other municipalities lack. And of course there are annexation proposals that add to the tension. Does our regional governance need to evolve to clean all this up? It’s a suggestion that has come up many times over the last few decades.

At least there seems to be some consensus that we’re calling it the Edmonton Metro Region.

Highlights from the 2015 Growth Monitoring Report

The City of Edmonton released its annual Growth Monitoring Report recently, known as Our Growing City. At 90 pages it’s full of information. Here are some things I wanted to highlight!

Upward, Inward, Outward?

growth

The report (and associated infographic) likes to talk about how Edmonton is growing up, in, and out. But is it really?

Several key initiatives demonstrate how this vision guides Edmonton’s growth. The Quarters Downtown, West Rossdale, Blatchford, downtown redevelopment, and Transit Oriented Development are helping our central neighbourhoods and areas along Edmonton’s expanding LRT routes grow “upward.” Ongoing efforts to enable infill opportunities in our mature and established neighbourhoods help the city grow “inward,” and the construction of new neighbourhoods in developing areas enables our city to grow “outward.”

The truth is that developing neighbourhoods, the “outward” part of growth, account for the majority of residential development. The report states that as in 2013, “developing neighbourhoods accounted for 83% of all residential growth” last year. Our city continues to grow out much more quickly than up or in.

You can see the neighbourhood classifications on a map here.

Core neighbourhoods accounted for 8% of all growth in 2014 while mature neighbourhoods accounted for just 6%. “This is an increase of 18% from 2013 unit growth (704 units),” the report says. “It is, however, a relatively low proportion of city-wide growth due to strong increases in newer neighbourhoods.” Established neighourhoods accounted for 3% of all new units.

Nine of the top ten fastest growing neighbourhoods over the last five years are in the south.

The fastest growing are Summerside, The Hamptons, and Windermere.

The only potential bright spot here is that recent NSPs tend to plan more dense communities and “contain a more balanced range of dwelling types” than they have in the past. Here’s a look at the density map:

low density residential lot supply by subsector

You can see that the new areas around the edge may actually be more dense than existing communities in mature and established neighbourhoods. If we don’t do anything to increase the density of those areas, that is.

Demographic Shifts

As of June 30, 2014 the Edmonton CMA had 1,328,290 residents, up 3.3% over the same time in 2013. We’re the second fastest growing CMA in the country after Calgary. And we’re comparatively young.

The Edmonton CMA is comparatively much younger than major Canadian city regions with a median age of 36 years.

Most other cities have a media age of 39-40 years. Our city’s largest cohort is 25-39 years of age, followed by the 49-65 age group.

dwelling unit density by neighbourhood

You might think with all of those young people that we’d have more families. And maybe we do, but not in established parts of the city.

A demographic shift is occurring in mature and established areas of the city. The population is ageing and households are decreasing in size. There will be a significant increase in lone person and two person households.

It’s a complicated issue, but ageing in place means that young families are pushed to the developing areas (as shown in the above map), which means we have to build new schools, recreation facilities, etc. It means we continue to grow outward.

Regional Competition

In 2014, 71% of all housing starts in the Edmonton region occurred within the city, which is better than the 10 year average of 66% (our high was 94% in 1982 and our low was 53% in 1996). But remember, the bulk of our growth is happening in developing areas, and that often means single-detached homes.

neighbourhood summary

Our share of regional single-detached housing starts over the last 10 years has averaged 59%. We don’t have much competition when it comes to folks wanting to live in condos or apartments. But for single family homes, there are lots of options just outside Edmonton’s boundaries. And this is a problem because surrounding communities don’t build communities that are as dense as the ones Edmonton is building.

Zoning & Annexation

boundary history

The report states that the Edmonton region is expected to grow to just under 2.2 million by 2044, with the city itself reaching 1.4 million people by that time. Looking further to 2064 our city’s population is expected to grow to 2.1 million. All those people are going to have to live somewhere, so “approximately 270,000 new housing units” are required to handle the anticipated growth.

This is why the City is pursuing annexation.

“The City of Edmonton is quickly running out of room to accommodate anticipated growth. This is especially true for industrial lands but is also true for residential developments.”

We’re only “quickly” running out of room because our growth pattern hasn’t changed much. There is room to grow inward:

Edmonton’s core, mature and established neighbourhoods share a total of 180 ha of vacant land, with the distribution of this land varying widely amongst them. In total, 1,343 vacant lots have been identified within the central core, mature and established neighbourhoods.

That vacant land could house an additional 3,287 dwelling units and potentially 7,725 people, based on existing zoning. If we re-zoned land and consolidated some lots the potential could be even higher. Not enough for all of the anticipated growth, but more than we’re on track to house centrally.

For the last decade or so, a 2:1 ratio of residential to industrial/commercial land area has continued in Edmonton.

“Without annexation, Edmonton will exhaust its industrial supply of land in 10 years and its residential in 12 to 17 years. The proposed annexation ensures that both industrial and residential land inventories meet the policy target of maintaining a minimum 30-year supply.”

The need for more industrial land is what’s really driving the two currently proposed annexations, in Leduc County and Sturgeon County.

In Edmonton the current proportion of zoned land uses is roughly 32% residential, 3% commercial, 12% industrial, 7% institutional and 9% parks and open space, special “direct control” zones account for 4% of land uses, Transportation Utility Corridor (TUC) 6% and 27% agriculture.

That’s a big drop in agricultural and reserve land, which was at 37% previously. “For the past decade Edmonton has been converting an average of 1,000 hectares of agriculture and reserve zoned land into urban zones.”

More Information

You can learn much more about Edmonton’s growth at the City’s website.

There are also some useful data sets in the open data catalogue. Here are a few that are relevant (but there are dozens):

What else did you find interesting in the report?

My comments at the Food & Agriculture Strategy public hearing

Good morning Mr. Mayor, members of Council,

My name is Mack Male and I’m here today on behalf of myself, in the capacity of a citizen who loves both food and Edmonton.

There are very few things in this world that impact us on a daily basis as much as food. I firmly believe that food should be an important part of our city’s long-term planning, so I am very pleased that we’re discussing a Food & Agriculture Strategy in Edmonton. Unfortunately, I cannot endorse the document as it currently exists.

After reading the strategy, it was abundantly clear to me that it was not created with a goal of transforming Edmonton into a leading food city. Should we aim that high? Absolutely yes. We have an extremely vibrant and growing food community in Edmonton, and a long history of urban food production. Unfortunately the strategy is not only for the most part vague and non-committal, its almost unfathomably uninformed, or at best, incomplete. There is no mention of Operation Fruit Rescue, the River City Chickens Collective, Eat Alberta, or perhaps most shocking of all, Edmonton’s Food Bank, the first in Canada and a key supporter of food security in Edmonton for more than three decades. These and other omissions reflect the highly compressed timeframe in which the strategy was created, and the failure to include key stakeholders from the food community.

This should be a strategy about food, not about land in the northeast, but citizens have no other opportunity to comment on that development. I’ve heard the argument that at this point, the land is too valuable to be used for agricultural purposes. If that is true, it’s a direct result of the actions of City Council. You approved the Edmonton Energy & Technology Park directly across from the land in question in June 2010, thereby setting the stage for a large centre of employment that will require nearby residential areas. At no point in recent memory has there been any indication from Council that development in the northeast was anything but a foregone conclusion. I regularly and publicly praise your efforts and leadership on our city’s vision and strategic plan, but I think this issue illustrates that you need to do more when it comes to the issue of growing strategically and sustainably.

On Tuesday, the Community Services Committee recommended that Council approve the WinterCity Strategy and that Administration report back with a status update. Today it has been suggested that you endorse the Food & Agriculture Strategy in principle and that Administration first come back with options and costs before starting any implementation. I think that recommendation is another indication that this strategy has been rushed and is not ready to be endorsed by Council.

If we’re going to endorse a Food & Agriculture Strategy, let’s make sure it is one that we’re proud of and one that provides a solid foundation on which we can build.

I will leave you with three requests:

  1. First, reject the draft Food & Agriculture Strategy
  2. Second, schedule a public hearing on the Growth Coordination Strategy so that citizens can provide input into that very important document and the discussion about land use can move to a more appropriate place
  3. Third, establish the Edmonton Food Council as an official Council Committee and task it with the creation of a new Food & Agriculture Strategy that reflects the vibrancy and creativity found in Edmonton’s food community

Thank you very much.

The non-statutory public hearing continues this afternoon. For background, read these links. To follow along, use the #yegfoodag hashtag on Twitter.

We all have skin in the game

I’m registered to speak during tomorrow’s non-statutory public hearing on the Food & Agriculture Strategy. I’m looking forward to the opportunity to share my thoughts with Executive Committee (though I expect we’ll see more than just the five standing members in attendance). I’m yet to hear anyone on Council say they are looking forward to it, however.

“If you own the land and you want to grow berries, go ahead. If you don’t own the land, I would say the same thing, get the heck out of the way. You have no interest. We’re going to have everybody with no interest, financially or otherwise, coming forward supporting something that they really have no skin in the game about, and those that do, are going to suffer the consequences.”

That was what Councillor Caterina said at the September 5 meeting of Executive Committee, voicing his opposition to the public hearing (ultimately he did vote for it along with the rest of the Committee).

No interest? No skin in the game? Councillor Caterina could not be more wrong, and let me tell you why.

First of all, we’re talking about the Food & Agriculture Strategy, not the “What To Do With Land In The Northeast Strategy.” Food is something that touches all of us, and if we’re going to take a position as a City on the importance of food to our community, I want a say in that.

I think we screwed up by attaching the Food & Agriculture Strategy to the specific land issue in the northeast. I want a WinterCity Strategy-like approach to food. There is so much that was left unexplored, and so many people that were not involved that have important, valuable contributions to make, and that’s largely because the discussion was dominated by the northeast.

Secondly, Council is largely responsible for turning this into the “What To Do With Land In The Northeast Strategy.”

I have not seen any concrete evidence to suggest that we can sustain our outward growth, nor have I seen any concrete evidence to suggest we can’t. There’s lots of anecdotal information, and certainly there are dozens of other places we can point to that clearly demonstrate the unsustainability of sprawl, but we need facts and figures for Edmonton. We need to know, for every unit of housing we add into new areas, what that costs the city. We need to know, for every unit of housing we add into existing areas, what that costs the city. Then we can start to determine whether or not we can afford to move ahead with more sprawl. My educated guess is that we can’t.

We should have had those numbers from the Integrated Infrastructure Management Plan (IIMP) and the Growth Coordination Strategy (GCS), but that’s not going to happen. In September, Administration asked for the IIMP to be treated as a “framework” rather than a plan, then provided a meaningless two-page document to serve as the framework. Council let them get away with it.

The GCS is slated to go to Council on November 19. A draft was released in May, but it has been rewritten and was distributed to select stakeholders at the end of the day on Tuesday. The deadline for comments? Tomorrow. And beyond that select group, there has been zero public consultation, and there’s no indication that a public hearing will be held for the GCS. The purpose of the GCS is to “manage future public obligations and growth opportunities” so can you guess what was removed from the latest draft? Anything related to mature areas, transit oriented development, and infill. So much for the “coordination” part of our growth strategy.

As our elected representatives, Council should be the ones asking why. Why do we still lack the information we need to make smart decisions? Why have we rushed these documents? Why haven’t we included the public in their creation?

In short, Council has not provided citizens with confidence that we can grow sustainably, nor have they provided opportunities for citizens to have a say on the plans that will affect where and how we grow. The only opportunity we have is the Food & Agriculture Strategy.

Thirdly, and most importantly, I pay taxes like everyone else. It costs money to provide services to an ever-expanding list of neighbourhoods, and that means there is upward pressure on my taxes. Police stations, libraries, and parks do not build themselves. There are no magic fairies that remove snow in the winter or fix potholes in the summer. Taxes pay for those civic services.

I have an interest in ensuring Edmonton’s food security because food is central to my everyday life. I have an interest in what happens in the northeast because I have an interest in living in a sustainable city. I have “skin in the game” because I pay taxes like everyone else. And above all, I as a citizen of Edmonton, have a right to be involved in decisions that affect me.