Single Home Suburban Sprawl or Densified Urbanism

Appreciating the net cash flow and life cycle cost of house ownership might influence more people to purchase or rent in more densified neighbourhoods within catchment areas of more frequent serviced transit routes and rapid transit lines, with more transportation options, and with less dependency on car ownership. More home procurement choices based on net cash flow might result in more densified neighbourhoods that cost less for cities to service. Emotion is a key influencer in home location. Knowledge and options make better decisions in settling in single-family houses or in more densified neighbourhoods.

Suburbia, Signal Hill Calgary AB ©Photograph by H-JEH Becker, 2013

Suburbia, Signal Hill
Calgary AB
©Photograph by H-JEH Becker, 2013

One way to look at the two options is the need to own a car (car dependency) or having a choice of whether one needs to own a car.  For suburban sprawl, it can be said that the right of choice, which we so treasure, is taken away from us and suburban city designs makes us prisoners to owning a car.  When we live in suburbia, how quickly we forget that choice of how we spent and enjoy about $10,000 per year, after tax, is not available to us.  It must be spent on a car, not on a nicer or larger house, not on pleasurable things we like to do.  When a home is an apartment, the decision to not have a car or to use car share allows about $30,000 to $50,000 to be spent on a nicer apartment or on other pleasures.

Setting aside the monetary perspective, for suburban sprawl it can be said that it is a retreat from people, from crowds, from street sounds, from simple access to vibrancy of cities.

Recently in the Calgary Herald, there was another perspective presented on the argument that city sprawl does not work, a more personal argument than the financial drain that sprawl forces on a city and the amount of financial support suburban sprawl needs from more densified urban cores.  It reads:

Local Shopping Inglewood  Neighbourhood Calgary AB ©Photograph by H-JEH Becker, 2013

Local Shopping
Inglewood Neighbourhood
Calgary AB
©Photograph by H-JEH Becker, 2013

“So people move to a far-flung neighbourhood and demand that amenities, education and transit infrastructure are all built up to support their home-buying decision? Are these the same people who also demand zero tax increases and deficit-free government year after year?  People need to drop the sense of entitlement and be open to living in established neighbourhoods. We lived on the edge of town and then in Cochrane for several years, but our daughter’s birth made us realize that the beauty and size of our cookie-cutter homes were far outweighed by the time, frustration and expense of commuting and travelling to Calgary for hours each week for work, shopping and other activities.  Now our inner-city neighbourhood of Capitol Hill has all levels of education, transit, shopping and entertainment all within a 10-minute walk or bus ride; these amenities have all been here for decades. We sold one of our vehicles and spend less time commuting and more time together as a family. Most older communities have homes from small apartments to million-dollar mansions – there is something for every budget.  I may not have room for an RV, quads, snowmobiles, dirt bikes and boats, but that’s what those self-storage places on the edge of town are for.” 

With thanks to the author of this note.

So, what is the right balance of densification of a city?  Needs there to be an equivalent to transportation mode share targets for city densification?

Do we need some metrics as targets for housing, such as:

Single family homes, duplexes, and townhouses                                30%

Low to medium density residential buildings                                       25%

High density residential buildings                                                25%

Mixed-use residential and commercial buildings                              20%?

Needs there to be limits for the land size for cities based on population?  It could be well argued that a landmass of 125 square kilometres is quite sufficient for a city with population ranging from 600,000 to 1,500,000.  Do we need cities the size of Calgary with its 1,000,000 plus population, having a landmass of 825 km2?  Even the City of Toronto with its 2.700,000 people has a smaller landmass of 630 km2.  Montreal can house 1,600,000 people very well into a landmass of 365 km2.  Vancouver with its 600,000 people is preparing for a population of 1,000,000 within its landmass of 115 km2.

Higher level of densification
False Creek, Vancouver BC
©Photograph by H-JEH Becker, 2013

So, on the one side we have a City of Calgary with a land mass base that could accommodate 5,000,000 to 7,000,000 people with a downtown core that is avoided by people and has a target or reducing car dependency to 75%.  On the other, we have the City of Vancouver with half the population of Calgary and preparing itself for reaching the population of Calgary with an active downtown core and car usage of 50% in the city.

So, what is the right size of a city if one wants a liveable, vibrant, sustainable, and green city to live in?

As a comment, I live in both cities, have homes in the downtown sectors of both cities, and my preference is very clear. Give me a city with vibrancy, people on the streets, liveable, with plenty of transportation mode choices, that is green, and with clean air. I have tried living in the country, in a village, in suburbia a number of times years ago.  I have spent years living in midtowns and downtowns.  My homes are now surrounded by bike trails, bike lanes, separated bike lanes, bus service, and rapid transit stations within 450 metres.  The only thing missing is a streetcar or tram line.

H-JEH Becker, Velo.Urbanism, Third Wave Cycling Group Inc., 2013
©Photograph by H-JEH Becker, 2013, unless otherwise noted
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