My parents live in a house that is about the same age as they are. A quick real estate search for houses built in the year I was born places pins in a ring around the city, averaging at least 25 minutes driving time to the city centre. While my parents house isn’t in the centre either, it’s much closer than any neighbourhood built in the last twenty years. I don’t live in the centre of the city now, but whether I end up in Edmonton or somewhere else, I’d like to at least have the option of central housing one day.
By basic facts of physical space, the space within city centres is finite, while expansion outwards is possible for as long as land is available. Edmonton’s population is growing every year1, and the majority of this growth is focused on new developments spreading outward from the city’s edges. As average family size decreases and inhabitants of mature neighbourhoods age, density in the middle of the city decreases2 as Edmonton’s suburbs grow continuously outwards.
Sprawling subdivisions eat up land, contributing to habitat loss for local wildlife. Additionally, new developments require new roads, utilities, schools, and recreation facilities, putting economic strain on local governments (the majority of Edmonton neighbourhoods built in recent years were not built at high enough densities to cover the costs of establishing them) while using up even more land and resources. As well, the far flunglocations of new suburbs and the “drive till you qualify” phenomenon necessitate that suburbs are predominantly car commuter communities. Low density urban sprawl results in more cars on the road and greater daily driving distances, placing greater strain on the state of the planet.
Although low density, sprawling suburbs are economically unviable and environmentally detrimental, in cities like Edmonton they continue to be built at a rapid speed. The driving force behind this construction is steady demand for spacious single family homes with plenty of personal space, and general unwillingness to consider alternative housing in established areas. Since the post-WWII suburban boom, urban growth in North America has reflected societal schisms: suburbs are populated primarily by middle and upper-middle class citizens, leaving low income populations in city centres. As development and resources are fed into newer areas, cities become segregated based on social perceptions of “good” and “bad” neighbourhoods. This conception of safe suburbs and dangerous centres further increases the demand for new low density development, increasing the problem of sprawl over time3 .
The issues and impact of sprawl have been recognized by the municipal government in Edmonton. Currently, the city has set targets to preserve land, revitalize the city centre, and densify mature neighbourhoods2. However, many of these targets are currently made unreachable by public resistance to densification4 and continued demand for the suburban existence that has become the image of the Canadian and American dream5. For progress to be made, residents of established areas need to accept the changes that come with working towards living more sustainably, and new home buyers need to shift their desires away from the pattern that has been the norm since the baby boomer generation, and open their minds to more sustainable options.
As city populations grow, new development needs to occur. Developing within existing areas instead of progressively outward decreases driving times, results in more efficient use of public transit, and makes use of existing infrastructure, as well as increasing the cohesiveness of communities and decreasing social segregation. A change in public attitude is an important first step towards more sustainable development for an entire city.