Mixed Feelings on Mixed-Use

Mixed-use developments are usually considered good urban planning, but is there a downside?

Many urban planners advocate for mixed-use developments that combine residential and commercial spaces. That’s because this type of project supports urban densification, which is considered beneficial for cities and their residents. Mixed-use developments are said to provide:

  • easy access to amenities;
  • safer streets and a vibrant community;
  • a reduced reliance on cars;
  • efficient use of infrastructure;
  • a variety of housing types.

Clearly, mixed-use developments solve a lot of urban problems. But do they create others? 

According to a Regina Leader-Post story published in June 2018, these types of developments can have unintended negative consequences. Authors Murtaza Haider and Stephen Moranis say there is a disconnect between evidence and public policy when it comes to mixed-use development. When these developments are placed in urban zones where the cost of land is high, they can negatively impact housing affordability. In Canada, houses tend to cost more in mixed-use neighbourhoods than in other parts of cities.  

By increasing density, these developments can also make residents less happy. In fact, Canadian researchers have found that the population density in Canada’s least happy communities is eight times higher than in its happiest communities. 

 “Researchers at McGill University and the University of British Columbia found that higher density living meant less happiness…Interestingly, the two salient characteristics of happy communities were shorter commute times and affordable housing.”

- Murtaza Haider, associate professor at Ryerson University and Stephen Moranis, real estate industry expert, in Mixed-Use Developments Make Housing Affordability Worse – and Residents More Miserable

The evidence-public policy disconnect Haider and Moranis describe is leading to decisions that could make the affordable housing situation worse. Research published in the Journal of the American Planning Association suggests that mixed-use neighbourhoods in Toronto are generally less affordable than in non-mixed-use zones. Yet government regulations, including the Growth Plan for the Greater Golden Horseshoe in Ontario (the area west of Lake Ontario, which includes the city of Toronto and is the most densely populated region in Canada), continue to promote mixed-use land developments. 

The disconnect also affects decisions intended to improve affordable housing. Affordable housing interventions are typically applied in urban, inner city areas – but in these urban zones, land prices are higher than in outer zones. Studies show that housing affordability is significantly worse in the urban centres of Montreal and Vancouver than in the cities’ outer zones. In Calgary, the situation is similar – 80% of Calgarians can’t afford to live near downtown. So, what’s the result when affordable housing interventions are placed in urban areas with high land costs? Less affordable housing per dollar. 

Federal policy makers and provincial governments are taking major steps to address the problem of affordable housing in Canada, including:

  • A $40 billion federal plan to cut homelessness by 50% over 10 years;
  • A National Housing Strategy that will build 100,000 new affordable housing units;
  • Additional land transfer taxes on foreign buyers in B.C. and Ontario to curb the demand for housing.

Haider and Moranis believe that in order to have long-term benefits, these strategies must be combined with a strategy that addresses housing supply issues.

The debate about densification and affordable housing is an ongoing discussion in Calgary. Is there a just-right, Goldilocks density that would offer benefits without drawbacks? What would a focus on mixed-use developments mean for a city like Calgary, where demand for single-family houses is still strong? 

To address these questions, it’s important to understand how development decisions are made in our city. The best place to start is with From Dirt to Door, a friendly, comprehensive Smarter Growth Initiative primer on the development process.  

June 26th, 2018

Examining the unintended negative consequences of mixed-use development.