The Case for Density

Posted on Dec 18, 2014

Increasing density in the inner-city is a strong theme in Calgary’s MDP and Mayor Nenshi’s vision for Calgary’s future.Without self-enforcing borders (like Vancouver’s mountains, or Toronto’s lakefront), Calgary continues to grow out into green-spaces, swallowing farming land and creating ever-expanding service requirements to meet new community needs.

This is, quite obviously, not a sustainable approach to the growth of an urban environment. Somewhere along the line of exponential growth the money runs out and the ability to service the great expanse falls short.

“Density has become a highly charged topic in development today. In many communities, the news of a potential project that proposes to increase the number of dwelling units per acre can unleash an uproar by neighbors. This is unfortunate as density is a tool-arguably the most powerful one controlled by a municipality-to create a more sustainable city while at the same time helping to preserve agricultural land and the open space beyond its borders. Furthermore, strategic densification offers positive benefits far beyond an individual metropolitan area: after all, given the continued growth in world population and the continued migration of people to cities across the globe, the densification of all urban settlements – when done properly – can play a critical role in improving the health of the planet as a whole.”

Read the whole paper here:

Calgary is vibrant and energetic, careful densification of inner-city and mid-range communities will increase our livability and sustainability. Feedback by inner-city developers is important in this process – integrated developments that encourage walkability and livability come from community involvement. Garnering community support for intensification of density can be difficult but encouraging partnerships between community stakeholders and City planners is important for positive growth.

Striking a balance between greenfield growth and established area intensification is important and complex. In 2013 the City developed a new matrix to systematically evaluate development areas and rate them for funding and/or approval based on criteria defined in the Framework for Growth and Change.

The Framework prioritized potential growth areas city-wide based on alignment with the Municipal Development Plan. Nine criteria were used to rank the areas:

  • Access to Transit
  • Capacity of Existing Infrastructure
  • City-Funded Costs
  • Readiness to Proceed
  • Employment Opportunities
  • Community Services in Place
  • Planning in Place (Land Supply)
  • Innovation
  • Contiguous Growth

The ranking resulted in three priority lists, one each for Developed Areas (existing communities as of 20058), Developing Areas (new subdivisions), and Industrial Areas. Using the priority lists, potential growth areas were then ranked on sequencing lists for future municipal infrastructure investment. The resulting rankings fall short of fairly evaluating funding focuses because they still evaluate developed and new areas separately, ultimately developed areas always rank higher as many of the criteria are already fully met (or very close) vs. new development that requires all of these criteria to be created or connected to for a new development (at significant costs).

The new ranking system is like comparing apples to pumpkins, where the cost is per pound and you have to purchase one whole unit at once. One apple is going to cost way less, many apples are going to cost way less. While it is very difficult to compare the two items, both are nutritious and can meet the needs of a growing City… however it is noted that the City has purchased a lot of pumpkins lately! To extend this allegory, the MDP plan is calling for the City to meet half of all growth by 2076 within established communities. That means buying equal amounts of apples and pumpkins, a radical departure from the City’s current purchase practices of 9 pumpkins to each bushel of apples.

A lot of information has become available prior to Council’s budget discussions, reports by the City, greenfield lobbyists, organized homebuilder groups and independent groups all add to the discussion and interpretation of data. While everyone agrees that unlimited sprawl isn’t the answer, shifting the focus and spending away from greenfield development has been difficult and met with significant outcry. Finding a balance is mandated within the MDP, and subsequent documents, but the mechanisms to achieve the balance are not yet in place. The discussions and the work needed are only beginning, and it is fascinating to watch and participate.


If you wish to learn more about growth management and the complexity of redevelopment vs. new development, there are many new publications and resources available that highlight the issues:

The City of Calgary:

  • Developed Areas Growth & Change 2014 (draft) – The City’s first look at Established Community growth potential, this document gives high level targets and estimates of land available for increased density. This document will certainly inspire Communities to start asking important questions about the population burdens each is anticipated to carry, driving choices about where density is appropriate and how Communities wish to direct and control development in their areas.
  • Calgary Snapshots 2014 –  A high-level view of information from Calgary Census, and several other reports on population, growth and land supply.
  • City of Calgary’s page on Understanding Growth Management

Calgarians for Sensible Growth’s report: Financially Responsible Funding for New Subdivisions – An independent viewpoint on development in greenspace and established communities highlighting the need to utilize existing established community infrastructure as a cost effective way to achieve Calgary’s growth targets. This document discusses the application of the City’s new Framework for Growth and Change matrix for evaluating development (both new and in established areas).

Brent Toderian – Re-defining the D-Word: ‘Density Done Well’ in Vancouver