Ring Around the Region: U of A students tour the Edmonton Metro Region

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“Seeing the variety of housing challenged my assumptions in a positive way,” said Eugene Masakhwe, a University of Alberta student studying human geography.

Masakhwe and fourteen city planning students from the University of Alberta toured the Edmonton Metropolitan Region as part of a partnership with the Urban Development Institute – Edmonton Metro (UDI-EM).

Masakhwe said he and his peers were surprised to see communities in the region focused on dense, walkable, and community-oriented developments.

The tour was part of an annual field school offered by the Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences. This year, the field school focused on the topic of sustainable urbanization and how actions like growth management, job creation, age-friendly planning, and housing are essential for great communities.

“Every year, we invite students to reflect on topics they have learned about in the classroom through walking tours, site visits, and interviews with experts,” said Dr. Joshua Evans, a professor with the University of Alberta’s Human Geography Department.

“We were excited to partner with the Urban Development Institute to bridge academic studies with real-life city building practices, and the people and places they are sure to work with and in.”

For Wendy Yang, an urban planning student, the tour was her first foray in municipalities outside Edmonton.

“It was an excellent experience to learn about different planning strategies in the region,” said Yang. “I was interested in the age-friendly design and multi-generational housing being built. Different housing types allow downsizers to move into different homes without having to move out of their current neighbourhoods.”

With stops in Ardrossan, Fort Saskatchewan, St. Albert, and Spruce Grove, students heard from elected officials, municipal planning staff, and developers about the policies, regulations, and partnerships needed to maintain Edmonton’s affordability advantage, enable more development opportunity, and improve speed-to-market.

At Ardrossan, Andrew Usenik, Partner of Strata Developments, gathered students at the Ardrossan Recreation Complex, the nucleus of the community. He cited location and servicing as the primary reasons for his development venture.

“Significant underground infrastructure capacity existed in the area that was originally intended for country residential development,” Usenik said. “We were able to work with the county on a plan that utilized that capacity to add density to create an urban-rural hybrid community that will be more sustainable for both the residents and municipality.”

A growing population, he credits, as prompting commercial development. A mixed-use building is expected to break ground next to the recreation centre in 2022, boasting a daycare, restaurant, and small convenience store.

“Ardrossan is a mere four-minutes from Sherwood Park,” he said. “Many are moving here for its affordability and emerging amenities.”

A resident of Edmonton, Usenik concluded, “Development is egoless. We build products that meet the needs of others, not our own.” A statement that resonated with the student body – that the homes they live in may not serve the needs of others across the region.

The tour made its way to Fort Saskatchewan, where Councillor Jibs Abitoye, and planning staff, Shree Shinde, Manager of Current and Long Range Planning, and Janel Smith-Duguid, General Manager of Infrastructure and Planning Services, highlighted their innovative, place and design-based Municipal Development Plan to create diverse and complete communities. Along with Usenik, they spoke to new housing development forms including zero-lot-line maintenance-free semi-detached housing with reduced lot depths, barrier-free housing design, and the importance of collaboration.

“We’re bracing for a major economic boom in our city, with an estimated $10 billion investment to shift our petrochemical plant to net-zero,” said Councillor Abitoye. “That means more than 7,000 construction jobs. These people will need places to live, places to shop, and places to connect – and to make that happen, we’re all going to need to work together.”

Students headed west, joining the City of St. Albert’s Councillor Mike Killick and Manager of Planning, Kristina Peter, Averton’s President Paul Lanni and General Manager Rebecca Priest, and Melcor’s Regional Development Manager, Michaela Davis. The panel of speakers spoke to the collective desire among developers, planners, and elected officials to diversify the tax base and to offer a range of housing types.

“It starts with a vision,” said Councillor Killick. “City builders like Averton and Melcor, among many others, work with our incredible planning staff to bring their ideas to life.”

He added, “There are, of course, challenges associated with change. We can address these hurdles through collaboration, good communication, and creative compromise.”

The City of St. Albert’s vision is outlined in its Municipal Development Plan, Flourish, which identifies goals like improved housing diversity and increased employment opportunities.

“These goals are critical to ensuring that St. Albert continues to thrive as one of Canada’s best communities to live and work in as it grows to 100,000 people,” said Peter.

“Communities like Midtown and Jensen Lakes, with their mixed use development and premier housing choices, support these goals and increase the long-term viability of St. Albert.”

Averton’s vision, Midtown, is a well-designed, amenity-rich, medium-density community for an anticipated 1,000 residents.

“Our vision for Midtown was to set a new standard for sustainable development in the region, responding to a growing need for more diverse housing options,” said Lanni. “It’s widely held that St. Albert offers some of the best amenities of any municipality, including schools, open spaces, and services. Yet so many of its people have had to look to communities outside St. Albert due to a lack of options that fit their lifestyle.”

“With Midtown, we are building a community that prioritizes people and their experiences, with innovative award-winning design, thoughtful planning of trails and open spaces, and uncompromising quality. We are seeing a positive response from people of all ages and stages, who are drawn to Midtown’s unique lifestyle.”

Melcor’s Jensen Lakes, a master-planned community, is premised on access to water, park space, and modern design.

“We were fortunate in Jensen Lakes to have two schools built in the neighbourhood early in our development timeline,” said Davis. “This required some earlier coordination with the City of St. Albert but has been a key component in attracting new families to the area.”

She shared with the students that, “Establishing public infrastructure early in the process helps define living in these neighbourhoods and is integral creating a long-lasting community.”

A final detour in the City of Spruce Grove convened Councillor Erin Stevenson, Planning and Development Director, Carol Bergum, and Cantiro’s President of Communities, Katrina Rowe and Development Manager, Nicole Wiebe. They highlighted the hands-on, experimental approach that has occurred in their city – how ideas and strategies are monitored and adapted overtime; how features that were once considered innovative have become the standard in neighbourhoods; and how sustainability continues to be an important consideration.

“Many of the green features we incorporated in Greenbury were new and innovative when we first launched the community,” said Rowe. “Now, a decade later, we’re starting to reflect on what worked well, what can be improved, and how we can keep innovating in other communities.”

Greenbury is a community developed by Cantiro, and is comprised of a collection of distinct brownstone walk-up homes – made famous in many cities across the world, like New York or Boston. As Rowe and Wiebe explained, Greenbury was premised on timeless design, sustainable living, and green infrastructure.

In reflecting about Greenbury, Rowe noted, “The lessons never end, and as a company, we need to be flexible and adaptive to pivot with an ever-changing community and policy landscape.”

She noted how Cantiro’s past projects provide insight on how to best meet the national building code’s net-zero target in 2030.

The tour concluded at the Urban Development Institute office, where students discussed what they learned, and identified solutions and opportunities for the future.

They reflected on how communities across the region are grappling with housing supply and affordability challenges, are seeking ways to grow their population and spur economic activity, and are trying to adapt their policy and regulations to enable development. They were inspired by the work being done to address environmental, social, and spatial sustainability challenges.

Masakhwe said, “We saw how these communities were using both tested and new environmentally-conscious technologies, were adding a variety of housing on the same street to accommodate people from different socio-economic backgrounds, as well as building homes with smaller footprints to reduce the amount of land that would need to be developed.”

When asked if he would work in these communities in the future, Masakhwe replied emphatically, “Definitely!”

“It’s wonderful to see how these communities have changed over the years in response to the needs of people living there.”

This story was made possible through a sponsorship from FortisAlberta, owner and operator of more than 60 per cent of Alberta’s total electricity distribution network. FortisAlberta’s focus is delivering safe and reliable electricity to more than half a million residential, farm and business customers. The company serves more than 240 communities with 127,000 kilometres of distribution power lines across Alberta.