Alberta Cities at the Crossroads: Urban Development Challenges and Opportunities in Historical and Comparative Perspective


  • Zack Taylor University of Western Ontario
  • Marcy Burchfield Neptis Foundation
  • Anna Kramer Neptis Foundation



Fuelled by the province’s booming energy sector, Alberta’s two largest cities have experienced unprecedented levels of growth. As a result, they face a choice about how to best accommodate their expanding populations — whether to grow out or grow up. For decades, Calgary and Edmonton accommodated almost all growth through the former, suburban expansion. Indeed, the postwar period was marked by a focus on contiguous outward growth to ensure housing affordability and the efficient use of infrastructure, a policy that was widely supported by both the public and the development industry. In Calgary, at least, this has started to change. Beginning in the late 1990s, the city shifted its focus to livability and sustainability, a move that saw policies introduced to promote urban intensification and greater transit use. While this shift has proven popular in many quarters, it also has its fair share of detractors, including many in the development industry. In Edmonton, a city where growth has been relatively slower and authority over urban development dispersed among several local governments, this policy shift has not occurred. Although it is too early to see clear results from this policy shift, a spatial analysis shows that the density of Calgary’s built-up urban area increased in the first decade of the 21st century. Relatively high-density suburban growth led Calgary to consume less land compared with the previous decade (2 ha per 100 new residents in 2001–2011 versus 6.5 ha in 1991–2001). This growth was accompanied by modest intensification in core areas, although the dwelling unit density of the urban area increased by more than the population density (18 per cent versus 14 per cent). Edmonton’s development is roughly similar: denser suburban growth has led to the more efficient consumption of rural land (3 ha per 100 new residents in the 2001–11 period versus 7 ha in 1991–2001). The built-up area has also intensified slightly, especially in areas near transit stations. By way of comparison, Vancouver with its long-standing urban containment policies, including the expansion limits represented by the Agricultural Land Reserve, grew mostly through intensification between 1991 and 2011. In Toronto, the second comparator city examined and one in which local growth management policies have existed since the 1980s, growth is now almost equally divided between intensification and suburban expansion. The analysis suggests that it is difficult to alter a deep-seated policy regime that promotes outward growth. What is more, high levels of intensification may not be enough to offset the effects of a new demographic reality: smaller average household size because of such factors as longer lifespans, delayed family formation, family planning and divorce. So even with a greater number of housing units, the population of the built-up area may still fall. Finally, if the emerging polycentric structures of Calgary and Edmonton are to be successfully supported, major investments in infrastructure are going to be required.






Research Papers