Brad Armstrong is a Registered Professional Planner and Vice President for Qualico Communities. Leo Broks is a Professional Engineer and Founder of Al-Terra Engineering. Jodie Wacko is a Registered Professional Planner and Chief Operating Officer for Cantiro.
Earlier this year, the Urban Development Institute identified a top advocacy priority for community building in the Edmonton metropolitan region – to curb public infrastructure sprawl. This term raised some eyebrows, with many asking, “What exactly is public sprawl?”
Public sprawl refers to the ever-growing financial, physical and design-related requirements for public infrastructure in the development of new communities and the redevelopment of existing ones. 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roads, paths, pipes, ponds, parks, lights and laneways are critical to well-functioning neighbourhoods, excessive and out-of-date requirements contribute to the shape our communities take and directly impact the cost of new homes.
This pattern of development also drives up the maintenance and repair costs for municipalities overall which negatively affects property taxes over time – after all, unnecessarily wide roadways to plow in the winter means more trucks, salt, storage and human labour year-round. The over-engineering of our public realm also runs contrary to efficient design principles and conflicts with stated climate change goals as more public lands are consumed unnecessarily.
Despite increased densification pressures and better private sector 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. Whether this is about managing risk or a resistance to innovate, the outcome is the same – increasingly space-efficient privately-owned sites flanked by expanding public ones. 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.