Finding the Right Fit

In 2023, UDI identified rightsizing public infrastructure requirements as a top advocacy priority, and our committees developed Right-sizing Public Infrastructure, a roadmap with issues and strategic opportunities to pursue.

The punchline – we need to be strategic in how we build on both private and public lands.

At our May luncheon, Katrina Rowe, President (Communities) for Cantiro and the Chair of BILD Edmonton Metro, convened city builders from the public and private sector, to dig into this topic even further. Through her involvement with the industry, Rowe has helped to advance important policy initiatives like the Zoning Bylaw Renewal Initiative.

“Over the past several years, our industry has been vocal about the over-engineering of our public realm,” Rowe said to an audience of 200 members. “While investments in roads, paths, pipes, ponds, parks, lights, and laneways are critical to well-functioning neighbourhoods, excessive and out-of-date requirements contribute to the shape our communities take and directly impact the cost of new homes.”

She asked the panel about how investments made to the public realm can be more efficient and support affordability goals in the region.

Otto Hedges, VP of Development at MLC Group, said, “Actions we take today impact us tomorrow. And not everyone wants to live in the same area of the city, and they have different needs. So, we can’t be too prescriptive in our regulations.”

Hedges has been a professional engineer for over 20 years. As a PhD student at the University of Alberta, he is researching preserved wetlands, and how a range of developer interventions can support sustainability objectives.

Travis Pawlyk, Branch Manager of Development Services at the City of Edmonton, noted how city builders need to strike a fine balance between policies and their implementation.

“We need to consider our overarching vision for our future city and balance that with the costs associated with policies. We need to build different, not more.”

In his role, Pawlyk stewards public and private sector investment through zoning, subdivision, servicing agreements, permitting, licensing, inspections, and compliance.

Pawlyk and Hedges shared with the audience their perspective that the public sector, including its agencies and utilities, should focus on planning, designing, and investing in smarter and more practical ways – saving space and costs for homeowners and taxpayers.

For example, Hedges said we should consider multiple uses of a site. “A dry pond can double as a soccer field.”

“And school sites can be more compact,” Pawlyk added.

Is it reasonable to have ever-growing public road rights-of-way flanking smaller private lots or maintaining the same large pipe sizes as water consumption plummets thanks to accelerating efficiency? Rowe asked this question, almost rhetorically, to a sympathetic audience.

Keri Jenkins, a practice lead at Stantec Consulting, who has helped to develop many neighbourhoods such as Terwillegar Towne and Windermere, responded, “If we genuinely want to become more sustainable, we need to ask ourselves how we can continue to meet the needs of residents without defaulting to continuously adding more, of everything, everywhere — all at once. The focus for the public, including its agencies and utilities, should be to plan, design and invest in smarter and more practical ways — saving space and costs for homeowners and taxpayers.”

When asked about how to move forward, Pawlyk said, “We need an environment that supports change and innovation. Standards have a place, as they create shared language and predictability, but we need some level of flexibility to change and adjust when things are not working well or as intended.”

Hedges shared how the municipality advances many well-intentioned priorities but that we need to be strategic about which ones we put our investment and resources into.

“We have a shared goal of creating vibrant communities and cities but when we add up the costs and the physical footprint associated with all these growing aspirations, how does that impact the development of great neighbourhoods, and how has our thinking around what defines great neighbourhoods changed over time?”

Thank you to our generous sponsors – B&A, Select Engineering Consultants, and Hi Signs.

5 Key Takeaways

  • Strategic decision making is a priority. The wise use of space, energy, and resources has never been more important. We need to be collectively disciplined in our city building approach and the decisions we make. The development industry cannot build all the infrastructure and communities at once, so choices and tradeoffs must be made.
  • Policy can impact affordability. Even the smallest of policy changes or shifts in engineering standards can impact homebuyers in big ways. The industry is aligned in the public sector’s goal of creating housing attainability and choice – as this means that current and future residents can find a home that is suitable to their needs when and where they need it. What needs to be watched carefully, though, are the unintended impacts on this affordability through the application of a growing number of requirements without the discipline to remove older ideas as new ones are added.
  • Context is important. Design standards and guidelines imposed by regulators should be reviewed regularly for alignment with overarching community goals to ensure efficiency of land and resources. They need to add clear value and should be structured to stimulate, not stunt, ongoing investment and support thriving communities. The private costs associated with public policy changes should be understood and accounted for up front, rather than externalized to homebuyers or waved-away.
  • Densify. The private sector has been pushed to densify, to build more compact housing. As a region, we can make things even more compact – like school sites, storm ponds, and underground infrastructure. Despite increased densification pressures and better private land efficiency realized in recent decades, there has been a marked tendency for communities and utility providers to seek more elaborate and land-consumptive public infrastructure. We need to do things differently.
  • Collaboration is key. The City and industry are working together to right-size infrastructure requirements and to advance progress on the cost of policy on development. Several policy projects are emerging, District Plans and Complete Streets, and they require the input and stewardship of both the public and private sectors.