What does city building look like in Edmonton this year?

In 2023, urban issues dominated local headlines. The Valley Line Southeast opened its service to passengers after a three-year delay. Edmonton’s new zoning bylaw passed 11-2 and attracted nearly 300 people to a five-day public hearing. Migration to Alberta surged, with 31,371 from international origins and 13,926 from other Canadian provinces. And of course, macro factors like inflation, rising interest rates, and labour shortages were top-of-mind. Above all, housing was in the hot seat.

This year is shaping up to be no different. Since the beginning of January, Edmontonians, council and administration, have had to grapple with a series of intricate conversations – from encampments to power supply threats to water shortages. And recently, the declaration of a housing and homelessness emergency.

These debates have consistently placed Edmonton in the national spotlight. And how we address these urban issues are often critiqued by other municipalities, and in some cases, adopted as the best practice. In the worst-case scenario, our decisions might be regarded as “what not to do”.

What will we do with all this attention? Our hope is that we are able to build an inclusive metro region with a strong central city that welcomes the world, to attract talent and investment, and to shape spaces that meet the needs of current and future residents. That we are seen as a city with a focused plan and a steadfast commitment from all sectors to stay the course. A city that invites ideas, scrutiny, and compassion. A city that refines its practices when they no longer serve its goals. A city that compromises on solutions and listens to the needs of residents.

With two years left in our current council’s tenure, we are at an important fork in the road. What steps do we take? Where do we best aim our collective energy and efforts? Here are some of our thoughts on what city building can look like in 2024.

Sharpen our focus on the strategies that matter most now. There are almost 200 policy directions in The City Plan, and the intention is for these to influence urban growth and change over a roughly forty-year time horizon. Which ones do we want to place our attention on in the short term to make the biggest positive impact today? In 2023, there were hundreds of reports, policy initiatives, and programs for council, administration, and the community-at-large to review. This trend is shaping up to look much the same in 2024. How are these efforts being monitored and evaluated, and are they the most important actions to be accomplished today, or should they be set aside for future consideration? We have an opportunity to collectively mobilize around strategic areas of focus, and the success that we achieve through those concentrated efforts can become catalysts for our community. For example, we can and should be doubling down on our efforts to make downtown Edmonton a safe, livable, and attractive residential community, as well as a thriving business hub and tax base stabilizer. Similarly, we should be planning for population expansion within new neighbourhoods within an already-tight housing market. At the same time, we cannot leave migration to Edmonton to wishful thinking. We must collectively work towards attracting our share of it here, in Edmonton, by proactively promoting the reasons to live and work here.

Accelerate commercial and industrial development. Increasing non-residential investment is critical to meeting the goals of Edmonton’s Economic Action Plan – including the additional 520,000 jobs that will be required as we grow to a city of two million people. Achieving this vision requires that Edmonton has the land required to meet the needs of non-residential development. We are committed to supporting action that promotes growth in these areas so that our city can remain competitive, diversify its tax base, and enable private-sector growth. We encourage the city’s administration to annually report on their progress made to-date so that we can ensure we are able to collectively pivot and adjust the plan as required. Limited serviced and connected land supply, as well as a relatively high tax and complex regulatory environment, in Edmonton is driving up costs and further pushing new growth into the region. While this might be fine from a wider metropolitan perspective, it certainly does not help Edmonton’s bottom line as a municipality.

Address the housing crisis by bolstering market affordability. Canadian cities ranked the issue of housing supply as their number one priority last year. We are the last major Canadian city that offers affordable home ownership and rental accommodations that currently fit within the Canada Mortgage Housing Corporation’s definition of housing affordability, which is a maximum of 30% of net household income going to shelter. Our focus, as an industry, is on maintaining this strategic and pragmatic advantage, which is precarious. Increased costs imposed by governments on the price of new home construction erode affordability significantly for homebuyers and renters, thereby increasing pressure down along the affordability continuum. Even marginal increases in costs can price out a significant number of potential home buyers. For example, for every $10,000 added to the cost of an entry level home (benchmarked at $400,000), 7,951 households within the Edmonton Metropolitan Region are priced out of the housing market. When this increases to $50,000, an estimated 36,998 will be priced out. According to the city’s own description of core housing need, these households would then be added to the expanding group of households requiring some form of government subsidization for housing.

Curb the policy and red tape. Earlier in 2023, we stood shoulder-to-shoulder with council and administration to punctuate national news – that the City of Edmonton took the top spot among Canada’s major cities with regards to approval timelines, government charges, and planning features. This is a regulatory advantage. Over the last decade, the real estate development industry and the City of Edmonton have worked together to foster a healthy housing market, a great quality of life, and to address development uncertainty and barriers. As the city advances new planning initiatives, it will be important to discuss the impacts of these additional policy layers to costs to Edmonton homebuyers and renters, and the unnecessary regulatory complexity it may add to our already streamlined and nationally lauded development processes. As is the case with non-residential development, land for new communities in Edmonton has been constrained. Planning for new communities is unnecessarily being restricted, which is counter to the demand for housing. Artificial barriers to growth ultimately add to the cost of all homes. These additional policy layers need to be reconsidered and removed.

Successful city building requires the efforts of many. We are only as strong as the contributions of everyone. Our industry, which includes real estate developers, planners, architects, engineers, are highly engaged and want to contribute. But there are many other organizations that play an important role too – from community leagues to post-secondary educational institutions. We need a full ecosystem of city builders to be working at their maximum potential – for the good of our city and region. And it is important that we clarify what we all do, so we can leverage each other’s strengths. When we come together, and bring forward our ideas and perspectives, we can build an affordable, competitive, and inclusive city that’s poised to grow and prepared to lead.

By Susan Keating and Kalen Anderson

Susan Keating is the Chair of the Urban Development Institute – Edmonton Metro and Vice-President of Community Development at Melcor.

Kalen Anderson is the Chief Executive Officer of the Urban Development Institute – Edmonton Metro.