28 October 2013

Calgary—sprawl or planning?

During the recent Calgary election campaign, two visions of the city's future development vied for attention. One, presented by Calgary's mayor, Naheed Nenshi, was about planning growth to ensure a sustainable city. The other, presented by a group of home builders and their hired gun, Preston Manning of the Manning Institute, was about leaving growth to the dictates of the market.

The latter was justified by choice. We all support choice, so this is a tempting approach (although, as the mayor pointed out, the choice isn't entirely a fair one as developers are not paying the full costs of new suburbs leading to a "sprawl subsidy"). But there is a big problem with relying on the market—it lies. If doesn't tell us the full cost of choices and therefore can lead to bad decisions.

Consider, for example, the cost of driving a car. The market tells us this includes depreciation, insurance, maintenance and gas. But, in fact, the real cost is much higher. It includes what economists call "externalities"—the cost of building and maintaining roads, the cost of policing those roads, the cost to Medicare of accidents, the many costs of pollution, etc. These are not abstractions, they are real costs, but the market ignores them. We will pay them, of course, but not in direct relation to driving a car. As a result we make bad decisions not only about transportation but about how we build our cities.

Similarly, when you buy a house in the deepest suburbs, the market doesn't include the costs of sprawl—more roads to be built and maintained, more snow removal, more sewer and water lines, more pollution, etc., all of which would be reduced if we built a more compact city. We might recognize this, realizing we will have to pay these additional costs in the long run; nonetheless, we can do little about them acting on our own.

And this illustrates a second big problem with the market. It isolates us. Acting alone we can do little about the big picture so we are coerced into making our decisions based only on our own narrow interests.

How do we overcome this isolation? We, all 1.1 million Calgarians, cannot sit down around a big table and discuss it. We can, however, elect representatives to do exactly that. It's called democracy. Elected representatives—city councillors—can hear all the views about how best to develop the city, including the views of experts—urban planners—people whose profession is studying the growth of cities. Combining the views of citizens and experts, city councils can develop a plan which best assures a financially and environmentally efficient city.

This is exactly what the City of Calgary did with Plan It Calgary. Engaging thousands of Calgarians and city planners and commissioning extensive research, the City developed a vision for a long-term pattern of development grounded in the values of SMART growth and sustainability principles for land use and mobility.

Home builders didn't much like it and unfortunately the City modified it to meet many of their concerns. Such is the power of the development industry in municipal politics. Nonetheless, much of the plan survives. Some good sense at least will be brought to the future of our city.

Citizens combining their thoughts and aspirations, and soliciting the advice of experts, is after all just good sense. Leaving the future of the city to the randomness of the market is a recipe for bad decisions and sprawl, the enemy of a vital and efficient city.

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