The “S” Word

Calgary is often called an example of urban sprawl. But is it that simple?

The Oxford dictionary describes “urban sprawl” as “the uncontrolled expansion of urban areas”. Calgary has never been the model of urban sprawl, according to the Oxford definition, despite our rapid growth. We’re a young city growing within planned borders to accommodate increasing population without losing valuable amenities like our parks and pathways.

However not everyone agrees with the Oxford Dictionary, and many characterize Calgary as a sprawling city. The notion of urban sprawl is a hot-button topic globally, and has many definitions. Let’s have a look at a few popular ideas about sprawl and see where Calgary falls on the spectrum.

A quick online search for the definitions of “urban sprawl” yields 359,000 results. Some are pretty general, like this one from Wikipedia:

“The expansion of human populations away from central urban areas into previously remote and rural areas, often resulting in communities reliant upon heavy automobile usage.”

It’s rather challenging to be a growing city and not add people to previously remote areas, and we do rely a lot on our cars, so perhaps we have that kind of urban sprawl. But it is planned, and not out of control. And, if that definition holds, then is Canmore’s existence the poster child of sprawl? Most people live there so they can jump in their car and drive to skiing, hiking and bike trails.

Sometimes the definition has more to do with the building type that sits on a given piece of land:

“High segregation between residential and commercial uses.”

Calgary probably scores in the lower range of that definition – while we do have segregation between residential and commercial uses, that gap is narrowing every day with new visions for complete communities (like Seton). And our built form includes significant industrial lands relative to any other Canadian city.

Keep in mind that only 25% of Calgarians head downtown to work. The majority of us work on other parts of town, so we aren’t so segregated from our work place. Our industrial areas accounted for 77% of job growth from 2006-2011, and we are seeing demand for communities to grow around our industrial lands in order to stay close to where we work, reducing segregation.

This map shows the industrial sectors inside our city that are slowly being populated with housing, wherever possible, to decrease the segregation:

Read the full City of Calgary Employment Areas Growth and Change 2013 here. 

Here’s another definition from researcher and author Robert Bullard:

"Random unplanned growth characterized by inadequate accessibility to essential land uses such as housing, jobs, and public services like schools, hospitals, and mass transit."

That sounds nothing like what we have in Calgary – which are neighbourhoods build on the periphery of the built form of the city, most with schools, shops, housing, some jobs and access to transit.

Moving on, now, to some clarification by an oft-cited sprawl expert, R.W. Burchell. He maintains that there are three characteristics of sprawl, versus one definition:

  1. Low-density development
  2. Leapfrog development
  3. Unlimited outward expansion

Let’s look at those one at a time.

Low density?

Yes, there is no question that as a city growing up in the age of the automobile and sprouting in the middle of nothing but land all around us, we managed to create low-density neighbourhoods. However, our overall density is not as low as it seems. Density is usually calculated by dividing the number of inhabitants by the square kilometres of a city’s footprint. At 825.29 square kilometres, and a population of roughly 1.2 million, our density is around 1,454 people per square kilometre.

Sound low? It’s too low, according to a report by The City of Calgary. “Calgary Snapshots” argues that we need to divide the number of inhabitants by the size of our built form. Our city limits include large tracts of empty land that is simply on hold for future development. So, doing the math again, our 1.2 million inhabitants actually reside in an area of around 477 square kilometres. So our density is 2,516 people per square kilometre. To put that in perspective, Rome has a density of 2,950 and Copenhagen’s is 1,850.

Not exactly low density, but room for improvement. We are getting there, and with new density requirements in our Municipal Development Plan, Calgary’s density will not qualify as “sprawl” for long, if it does currently. In fact, some new neighbourhoods have higher densities than our older neighbourhoods. Applewood Park, Taradale and Falconridge all have densities greater than Ramsay, West Hillhurst or Upper Mount Royal.

Leapfrog development?

Definitely not. Leapfrogging occurs when new developments spring up in a non-contiguous fashion – at a considerable distance from the existing urban area. Calgary’s planned expansion has created neighbourhoods adjacent to one another.

Unlimited outward expansion?

Again, definitely not. The City has no plans to annex more land, and our boundary is currently firm. The City also controls the release of new land for development with great restraint.

Finally, some definitions of urban sprawl take into account the rate at which the urban area increases in relation to population growth. Prior to 2001, we were guilty – our land consumption was 18% higher than our population growth. But since 2001, our population growth is 13% higher than our land consumption. Our addition of density to established neighbourhoods is increasing, too. In the past 5 years our established neighbourhoods increased their population for the first time in 12 years.

Urban sprawl has innumerable definitions, and always, negative connotations. Even Statistics Canada is hesitant to use the contentious terminology of urban sprawl. Instead, Statistics Canada utilizes the term urban expansion:

“A process by which the area of inhabited land within a Census Metropolitan Area (CMA) increases as its population grows or as peripheral municipalities become part of the CMA because of stronger economic and social ties with the urban core.”

The worst examples of sprawl in the United States have very little in common with Calgary, so we have to be aware of what we are talking about, exactly, when we jump on the “s word” bandwagon. In the U.S., suburbs are independent municipalities. Many Canadian suburbs are simply neighbourhoods within a city. Even in situations where separate governance structures exist, regional plans tend to prevail, like our own Calgary Regional Partnership (CRP), a collaborative network of 12 municipalities in the Calgary Region.

Our reputation for sprawl seems somewhat unfounded, and there is no question any sprawl we had has been curbed.

The City and the development industry are now creating walkable, complete communities where residents don’t have to travel by car to work or play. Our Municipal Development Plan calls for 33% of new population to be absorbed into established areas by the year 2039, and we are actually closer to that goal than we anticipated. In the past 5 years, more than 75% of building permits applications originated in our developed areas.

Finally, let’s always remember that a home purchase is most often dictated by affordability, and isn’t a conscious choice to pursue an unsustainable lifestyle. A huge component of curbing rapid expansion into undeveloped lands is to maintain affordability throughout an urban area. When we think about expansion, we need to take a closer look at all the factors that make us grow.  

February 10th, 2015
Updated: September 14th, 2017

Is Calgary a model of urban sprawl?