Decoding Density

What density means, what’s “ideal,” and who decides.

At midnight on March 1, 2018, the Calgary Regional Partnership disbanded to make way for the Calgary Metropolitan Region Board (CMRB). The changeover has sparked conversations about urban density and how it should be determined. Why?

Well, what do we mean by density?
Density is a general term that defines how many people live in a given area. It’s sometimes measured by population and sometimes by housing units. Calgary has a population of 1.15 million and a relatively low population density of 1,329 people/ For comparison, Vancouver, Canada’s highest-density city, has 5,493 people/, and Montreal has 4,662 people/ 

The measure of density in Calgary can be misleading, however. Not many cities have as many large tracts of non-residential land within city limits as Calgary does, including the airport and light industrial land.

Is higher or lower density better?
Both…and neither. Proponents of high-density targets point to the health, social, and environmental benefits associated with this type of population distribution:

  • Easy access to amenities.
  • Safer streets and vibrant community life.
  • Health benefits associated with a reduced reliance on cars.
  • Efficient use of infrastructure.
  • A variety of housing types.

However, not everyone shares the same opinion about what constitutes a desirable community. For example, market demand (particularly in Calgary) remains higher for single-family houses than for high-density condos/multi-family dwellings. 

And it’s not just a matter of preference. Setting and enforcing high-density targets has been shown to affect housing affordability, when these targets are achieved at the expense of outward expansion:

  • Restrictive greenfield land policies drive up the price of housing.
  • Limits on new housing product in a growing city can cause supply shortages in the market.
  • Adding housing to dense areas is more logistically difficult and expensive than building in low-density and greenfield areas. 

So, is aiming for middle ground the best solution?
Possibly. Planners have pitched the idea of “gentle density,” a way of creating more density in established communities by building structures like attached houses and rowhouses. Compared to a large condo tower, such developments have minimal impact on the community.  

While gentle density seems like a good solution for some communities, defining an ideal density for a large area is extremely difficult. Researchers have certainly tried. One study on British cities even defined an “ideal” density of more than 32 homes per hectare, but the study focused exclusively on managing obesity, and not on affordability or quality of life. 

Some planners and urban thinkers believe an ideal density exists. Because it’s neither too high nor too low, this optimal density is sometimes called “Goldilocks density,” 

“Goldilocks density: Dense enough to support vibrant main streets with retail and services for local needs, but not too high that people can't take the stairs in a pinch. Dense enough to support bike and transit infrastructure, but not so dense to need subways and huge underground parking garages.”

- Lloyd Alter, Editor of Design for TreeHugger, Adjunct Professor of sustainable design at Ryerson University School of Interior Design'

Of course, this sounds wonderful, but like the perfect temperature for porridge in the fable, “ideal” density is a subjective determination. Not every city – or every citizen – has the same needs, resources, goals, or living expectations. 

A 2016 American study by urban economist Issi Romem sheds light on why it’s so difficult to get density “just right.” He looks at the complex balance cities must strike when trying to determine whether to pursue outward expansion or inner densification.

Romem breaks this planning challenge into a land use “trilemma,” in which growing cities can successfully pursue only two points of the triangle at once. The process always requires trade off. 

What does all this have to do with the CMRB?
First, it’s important to understand what the CMRB does. 

The CMRB is one of two growth management boards mandated by the Government of Alberta through the Municipal Government Act. It was created to make decisions about future growth in the Calgary region. 

The CMRB encompasses the Calgary region, which includes: 

  • Rocky View County
  • Airdrie
  • Calgary
  • Chestermere
  • Cochrane
  • MD of Foothills
  • High River
  • Okotoks
  • Strathmore
  • Wheatland County

Over the next three years, the CMRB will prepare a Calgary Metropolitan Region Growth Plan. It will provide a framework for land use planning in the Calgary region. With a focus on “responsible growth” and “sustainable development,” the Growth Plan will guide everything from infrastructure planning and transportation to density targets for new and redeveloping areas. 

Why is this causing so much conversation?
Once adopted, the CMRB’s Growth Plan will prevail over the statutory plans of participating municipalities. 

In practical terms, this means Calgary’s Municipal Development Plan – a massive document that guides all growth in this city – will have to align its goals with those of the Region Growth Plan. So will the statutory plans of all other participating members.

  • The statutory plans of participating municipalities must align with the Region Growth Plan.
  • Municipalities must submit their plans to the CMRB for approval.
  • The CMRB can stop municipal actions that are in conflict with the Region Growth Plan.

While this agreement ensures the region will develop in a consistent manner, some municipalities are balking at the idea of “one size fits all” density requirements. 

The Cochrane conversation.
In Cochrane, where the population is projected to double over the next 20 years, the current density requirement is 8 to 10 units per hectare – the same as in Calgary. But the town is concerned that the Growth Plan may set those targets higher, with negative consequences for Cochrane’s character, affordability, and livability.

In February 2018, the council agreed unanimously to discuss a lower-density residential category as part of an upcoming review of the Cochrane land use bylaw. The decision followed intense town council debate about this issue, sparked by the prospect of new, government-enforced CMRB density targets. 

“What we really need to look at as a community is how do we make sure there’s a space for everyone in our community at all stages of their life.” 

-Tara McFadden, Cochrane Town Councillor in the Cochrane Times

Some councillors have argued in favour of lowering the town’s density targets significantly to retain the area’s social character. Others are calling for a larger conversation that takes into account factors like sustainability and housing supply (the points of Romem’s trilemma are in evidence here).

This has led to a larger discussion about community needs, housing styles, and providing options for citizens at different stages of life. Most agree that enforcing a Cochrane-wide “blanket density” requirement is undesirable because different areas have different needs and capacities.

Now what?
The Cochrane example shows how difficult it is to apply a one-size-fits-all density requirement, even to the different communities in a small town. No wonder policy makers, planners, and developers are following the CMRB’s efforts with interest – it will be a challenge to set an appropriate target for an entire, fast-growing metropolitan region. 

What are Calgary’s most and least dense areas? This interactive map from the Calgary Herald, although from 2014, sheds light on Calgary’s population by community. You may be surprised.

March 20th, 2018
Updated: April 12th, 2018

The newly formed CMRB will be setting density targets for the Calgary region, and that’s causing conversations.