Dec 19, 2014

POP! Goes the World


There has been a lot of chat over the past six months about YYC’s population growth. The impact on land supply, where will people live, affordable housing and over the past few weeks, the cost to The City to build and operate the infrastructure and services to accommodate that growth. As part of the budget information Council was informed that each new door in YYC costs The City about $44,000 in capital costs. Things like roads, sewers, water treatment facilities and recreation facilities. 

City staff also highlighted that capital cost recovery, how much builders pay to The City to accommodate the growth through development charges, falls considerably short of covering those capital costs, leaving aside for the moment the operating costs for things like maintenance. A gap in capital costs is best described through the debt incurred to fund the capital improvements, including the cost of borrowing the money to fund them.


Our 36,000 and 38,000 population increase over the past two years rivals the ten year annual growth average of New York City. However, NYC over the past two years is growing by 73,000 with Los Angeles at 31,000, both cities are considerably larger at 8.4 and 3.9 million respectively. So our numbers have us growing at a faster rate. In comparison to other places around the continent, we are second, with Louisville, KY surprisingly third at around 35,000. Comparing other Canadian cities, Edmonton and Brampton were averaging 20,000 (higher numbers the past two years) and 15,000 respectively up to 2011. Toronto is not even in the top 15 in North America.

Less known, in fact obscure, is an equally telling number, the population growth per square kilometre, commonly referred to as population density and a good measure of whether an urban area is considered to be in a sprawl situation. YYC may have the second highest population growth in absolute numbers, the highest in terms of a percentage of the population, but we rank way lower in terms of our population density.

YYC population density per sq. Km between 2001 and 2011, at 257 people added per sq. Km, placed us 18th of Canadian cities. While the number has increased in recent years, we are still way behind believe it or not Brampton at 745 persons added per sq. Km which ranks first and Vancouver which comes in fifth at 503 persons.  When looking at these numbers, it is important to consider that up until recently, most of the growth in YYC was through new housing built on former pasture lands (greenfield growth).  This accounts for our lower number, where we still have vacant land to build on versus a city like Vancouver.

YYC has sprawled, as anyone driving around the ring road would certainly compare the scenery to many other cities whom have been accused of sprawl. Calgary has significant existing land for development and The City continues to work with developers to address the development of these existing lands. An encouraging sign is the big upswing in the increasing share established neighbourhoods are getting out of the new growth.  This is largely attributed to the increase in mutli-unit construction and infill, plus we see an increase in people doubling up in the existing housing.

The good news is things are changing. First, the big population growth has resulted in an unexpected shift to people moving into our established areas, let’s call it infill. Infill can be a new house in the middle of a block or a new condo in the mission neighbourhood.  The Municipal Development Plan calls for a 50| 50 split in new people moving to the suburbs and the established areas over the next 20 to 30 years. Well, we are approaching that mix over the past two years.  In fact, if we added just 400 more units each year to the current split, we would be at our long term goal.  

We are utilizing our existing infrastructure in areas where the population has actually decreased over the past few decades as the number of people living in each household has decreased.  We as a city are consuming less new land and that generates many environmental benefits.  Servicing costs are lower when we do not have to extend our service areas. For example, new condominiums pay to have their garbage and recycling picked up by private companies, while the same number of units in a new subdivision receive City garbage service.


The darker the red the greater the drop in population in these Calgary neighbourhoods over historical averages..


Next it makes YYC more competitive in the housing market by increasing the supply of different types of housing from one and two bedroom apartments to single family housing. This helps create a wider range of affordability and meets the demand of the rapidly changing population on two fronts, both the number of younger people moving to YYC and the rapidly aging population who might be looking to downsize.

The higher land costs are an incentive for a greater number of units on the same parcel of land. We have seen this shift in the suburbs particularly where new subdivisions are at much higher densities than they were even a decade ago. New ideas are coming into our housing market as we see more builders from other cities come to YYC and bring their experience in providing new ideas like back to back townhouses or buildings with a greater mix of unit sizes.

Mattamy's Cityscape townhomes.

Next it makes YYC more competitive in the housing market by increasing the supply of different types of housing from one and two bedroom apartments to single family housing. This helps create a wider range of affordability and meets the demand of the rapidly changing population on two fronts, both the number of younger people moving to YYC and the rapidly aging population who might be looking to downsize.

Westbrook Station rendering from teh Westbrook Area Redevelopment Plan
The higher land costs are an incentive for a greater number of units on the same parcel of land. We have seen this shift in the suburbs particularly where new subdivisions are at much higher densities than they were even a decade ago. New ideas are coming into our housing market as we see more builders from other cities come to YYC and bring their experience in providing new ideas like back to back townhouses or buildings with a greater mix of unit sizes.

It is not rocket science to know that if the same piece of infrastructure is used by a greater number of people, the cost per each use of that infrastructure goes down. Retailers understand this. A good city example would be the West LRT line.  It is not efficient considering the huge costs to construct, to service just single family homes. That means other tax payers are subsidizing that transit line. However, when our transit stations like Westbrook get developed, or the Jaques Lodge site moves forward, the new ridership use goes up, lowering our cost per user.

As YYC moves forward, whether infill or new subdivisions, it is important to maintain our trends. Mixing housing types to create more sustainable communities, bringing in more activity areas for goods and services, creating more rental and affordable units and maintaining the split in housing going into the established areas, are all critical to a fiscally, environmentally and socially great city.

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