Urban is Everywhere
Canadian suburbs are transforming into more dense, connected, and attractive places and spaces.
Given that 67.5% of all Canadians, or 23 million people, live in the suburbs, cities and those who plan, design, and invest in them, are exploring a myriad of ways to reshape these places to better meet the needs of those who live, move, and play there. In fact, experts indicate that greenfield sites increasingly feature development with greater density, mixed-use, and a diversity of housing forms than previously built. The suburbs are also home to a wide diversity of people, as many new arrivals to Canada and younger households build their lives and stake their futures in financially attainable and livable neighbourhoods.
Land development in the Edmonton Metropolitan Region, in particular, has shifted to more connectivity, compactness, universal design, mixed use, public plazas, placemaking, and nature-based infrastructure – priorities further reinforced in recent research from the University of Alberta. These outcomes are a positive by-product of an evolution in thinking by both the public and private sectors, who appear to be collectively focused on addressing the urgent need to create more housing and opportunities for people to connect with meaningful services and amenities, and each other.
As we know, significant attention gets paid to development and design in the core, but what innovation and redesign are we seeing in places where most Canadians actually live? This piece explores this question with several case studies across the Edmonton Metropolitan Region.
For example, Edmonton’s zoning bylaw was recently amended to enable diverse housing forms and to remove arbitrary barriers like parking minimums, which ultimately enables more development opportunity and lowers costs to the end user. In Spruce Grove, sustainability and green infrastructure features are being tested, illuminating insights for developers on how to achieve net-zero targets. In the City of St. Albert, higher density housing forms now abut single-detached housing. Policies and regulations are being updated to unlock development opportunities, enable creativity, and maintain affordability to welcome people, jobs, and talent.
Compact and walkable communities
Edmonton’s suburbs have increased in population and unit density and have seen a marked reduction in lot sizes – a departure from the typical low-density, rigid land use segregation characterized in the mid-1950s.
This trend is visible in the City of St. Albert with Averton’s Midtown, a 45-acre master-planned community that is designed for over 1,000 medium to high-density housing forms.
“At completion, Midtown will average more than 80 units per hectare,” said Paul Lanni, President and CEO of Averton. “That kind of density hasn’t been seen in a suburban community anywhere in the region.”
As Canada faces a housing crisis where access to market affordable housing is becoming increasingly endangered, particularly in our nation’s largest cities, projects like Midtown offer opportunities for people to enter the market.
“We’re building an urban community in a suburban context,” Lanni noted. “The City of St. Albert did not prioritize having a diversity of housing options. People were leaving year-after-year, and young people that grew up here could not afford to stay.”
As people’s housing needs change throughout their life course, Midtown offers a diverse mix of housing typologies to accommodate those aging-in-place, and fluctuations in family structures and income.
Midtown’s ground-oriented townhomes and mid-rise apartments are oriented in an irregular yet clever disposition so that every tenant has access to open space.
For Lanni, density cannot be at the expense of quality public space and good design. As best practices across the world have shown, public space can shape community connections in neighbourhoods. They are places where people can gather, interact, and exchange ideas and perspectives. As Priscilla explains, “it is crucial to consider the peripheries, guaranteeing quality public spaces to the population that does not live in the city center.”
Mike Kohl, Vice President of Brookfield Residential, shares this sentiment.
“Do I start building houses or do I build amenities? That’s the question that many greenfield developers consider,” said Kohl. “At Brookfield, we believe in putting in as many amenities as soon as possible. It’s important to sell the vision of a community and the amenities first, then the home.”
Brookfield’s Social House is a 6,600 sq. ft. amenity hub – a meeting place stretched over 5-acres of land. Located in Chappelle Gardens, a master-planned community featuring a mix of housing forms, Social House offers community programming like cooking classes and yoga, a community toolshed where residents can borrow tools, a daycare, and a large outdoor space for movies and events.
“This is a model that is a key differentiator for us in Edmonton and markets in the United States,” said Kohl. “We’ve learned that if you create well-designed spaces that enable people to connect socially, you are creating a sense of community, civic life, friendships, and connections.”
While most community centres are paid for by area residents, Social House was subsidized, at the start, by Brookfield.
The investment has paid off, says one resident, Joshua Brinkman.
“I moved to Chappelle in 2017,” said Brinkman. “I wanted to have something of my own, and housing here was affordable and close to everything I need. And if you’re looking for something to do, there’s a farmers’ market and skating at the Social House.”
Urban is everywhere
Many attribute amenities like Social House, recreation centres, and open spaces to our cities’ greatest urban places. For Luciano Salvador, Senior Vice President of Rohit Group of Companies, these types of features are as equally important in the suburbs.
“Urban isn’t just the downtown, it’s a place of connection in every pocket of our city,” said Salvador.
In Paris, France, Mayor Anne Hidalgo instituted the 15-Minute City, an initiative premised on jobs, services, and amenities located within fifteen minutes of where people live. The concept, while not new to city planning practices and urbanism debates, was popularized during the pandemic, as the need for walkable, connected places and spaces were laid bare. Smart growth, for instance, was a focus on increased density, commercial opportunities, and green spaces in the suburbs; while the idea of mixed-use is all about blending a diversity of uses, whether residential, commercial, parks and open space, in one area.
In Edmonton, policy makers are adapting the 15-Minute City into 15-Minute Districts. These districts will be guided by plans and policies that enable the ability for people to easily complete their daily needs within a fifteen-minute walk, bike, or roll from their place of residence.
Salvador adds, “District Plans are a way to ensure that the amenities and services people need are close to where people live – city-wide.”
City builders have and continue to borrow practices from other disciplines like business and marketing, where prototyping or “failing fast” is used to test new ideas quickly and in a low-risk way without large investment or disruption. Similarly, developers in the Edmonton Metropolitan Region see the suburbs as a place of real-time experimentation.
“The communities we build are sort of like urban incubators,” Kohl said of the Chappelle Gardens community. “We try to build different housing forms and design new types of open space and try out different construction practices. We often use this insight to refine our models, and better serve future residents, in other areas of the city.”
Kohl envisions Brookfield’s small land holdings as potential sites to test zoning and innovative site development practices. With an 8-acre site, he is currently exploring a sustainable community pilot, to provide Brookfield with insight on how best to meet net-zero compliance.
“The national building code requires us to get to net zero by 2030,” he said. “We need to get ourselves ready to meet these targets. Small-scale experimentation is the best way to learn. Successes can then be applied at a larger scale.”
These types of small-scale innovations, as Jodie Wacko, Chief Operating Officer of Cantiro, says, often start with a developer’s initiative and creativity.
One of Wacko’s project, The Hills, was an opportunity to test sustainability elements and technology. Specifically, its Sustainability Plaza, which won an international award for planning excellence, features a community garden, rain gathering system, refabricated sea cans, solar power, and free WIFI. The plaza’s green, nature-based infrastructure empowers diverse residents to connect and participate in community activities, and has improved mental health and community well-being.
The Hills drew inspiration from all over the world, and even imported a play structure, made entirely of wood, from Finland – a decision that was met with some initial resistance from the municipality.
“We had to get a special exemption from the city because it did not meet their standards,” he said. “It didn’t fit the box. It was new and different, which meant it took more work and time for us to get through city processes.”
A rebuildable city
Edmonton’s City Plan speaks to becoming a ‘rebuildable city’ – a concept premised on how spaces and places can continuously be reimagined and rebuilt to accommodate a growing population. This state of adaptation and leadership is seen in many suburbs.
For example, The Hills was built on a former golf course, an existing topography that Wacko leveraged.
“Instead of flattening everything, we made the best of it,” Wacko said. “We used the existing golf course holes and fairway to our advantage – creating green space, and greenways for new housing to front onto.”
Similarly, a development in Ardrossan, leveraged a different type of existing infrastructure – pipes and sewers.
“Significant underground infrastructure capacity existed in the area that was originally intended for country residential development,” Andrew Usenik, Partner of Strata Developments, 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.”
Collaboration, not competition
For Russell Dauk, Senior Vice President of Rohit Group of Companies, urban was not always everywhere.
“Urban was not achievable in the suburbs,” he said. “You couldn’t innovate in the suburbs because the rules were so structured that you ended up with the same thing over and over again.”
15 years ago, Dauk said that one of his neighbourhood plans sought 65% density in the form of multi-family housing, however, at that time, it was not allowable, as Edmonton policies only allowed a maximum of 35%.
“When we first tried to introduce density, the degree of over control was ridiculous,” said Dauk. “Around that time, we did a bus tour with elected officials and staff. They would look at our projects and say they liked what they saw, but at the end of the tour, we told them how those projects were not allowable under their current bylaws.”
Things have changed for the better, he says, and that is due to intentional collaboration between industry and municipalities, and a new way of looking at how housing and great urban spaces can be advanced.
“Edmonton and the region are interested in removing barriers and allowing for more flexibility. There’s a more open mindset here to doing things differently and to experimenting.”
A different mindset
Researchers and city planners from across the country recommend a few strategies to reinvigorate the suburbs – from supporting the vibrant cultural life that exists and incorporating agricultural activity on public lands to a diversity of urban forms of development and the importance of placemaking to build a sense of community and identity. As projects in the Edmonton Metropolitan Region, and many more like it demonstrate, these positive urban changes are happening in real-time.
For Usenik, a tangible place for developers and policymakers to start is to take their personal preferences out of the equation.
“If you’re just going to build communities that you think is the best, and ignore what current and future residents will want, you’re probably not going to be overly successful – you can’t force people to buy something. People will search out the options that are best for them.”
The question is – how willing and quick will we be to make those options available? At the end of the day, the goal is building new places for more people.
All Canadians deserve attainable housing and the opportunity to live and work in connected communities, whether they are in the core of a big city or the heart of a suburb. As Canada attracts people from around the world every year, our suburbs are the engines that settle new families and businesses. The Edmonton Metropolitan Region is actively trying new things and finding more ways to welcome people home.
Jason Syvixay is Urban Development Institute – Edmonton Metro’s Director of Metro Strategy and Advocacy. He is an urban planner and PhD candidate who has led policy and programs related to infill, zoning, downtown, and equity.
- Gordon, D., and Smythe, M. (2022). “Canada is a Suburban Nation.” Plan Canada.
- Grant, J. (2022). “Complete Communities: Ideas to transform the suburb.” Plan Canada.
- Filion, P., Tomalty, R., and Townsend, C. (2022). “Changes in the Built Form of Canada’s Suburbs.” Plan Canada.
- Priscilla, P. (2017). “Public Spaces: 10 Principles for Connecting People and the Streets.” The City Fix.