Urban sprawl is not the answer to affordable housing

Expected growth in Calgary has got us thinking about vibrant, affordable and inclusive communities

22 September 2022

Overhead image of residential neighbourhood in Calgary.

Did you know that Calgary is the same size as New York City, but with one-sixth the population? Urban sprawl is something that city planners have been grappling with for a long time, but over the past few of months the news has been buzzing about the City of Calgary’s approval of five new communities in the outskirts of the city, in addition to the 39 that have already been approved.

Planners are saying the City is growing and we will need 44,000 new homes by 2026. So, what’s a city to do – especially, when there’s a need for more than 80,000 affordable homes too?

Housing developers and some Councillors argue that building outward is the way to keep new housing costs down. Experts and advocates think that addressing growth with more density is a more sustainable option. While it’s been well established that sprawl contributes to climate change, here’s why it’s important when discussing poverty.

Living deep in Calgary’s suburbs may not be as affordable for those living on lower incomes as some would have you believe. In Calgary, 92% of neighbourhoods, covering 183 square kilometres, built between 2001 and 2021 fall into the category of having “few nearby services and a strong reliance on cars,” according to the data in this visualization. According to the City of Calgary’s Equity Index, 73% of Calgarians are not even within walking distance of a healthy food store. Our city is dependent on cars and car ownership is a barrier for many especially when fuel costs are factored in.

"In our sprawling city, people are moving further and further out to find housing they can afford, and with transportation getting more expensive (gas prices rose 33% in 2021, new vehicles more than 7%), living deep in Calgary’s suburbs isn’t as affordable as it seems."

2021 Poverty Snapshot

Beyond affordability for those trying to get around in communities with fewer amenities, there is also the issue of costs to the City. The costs of new community development have been widely studied, most recently by the cities of Ottawa and Halifax. The former showed that it costs $465 per capita each year, over and above taxes and other fees, to pay for new subdivisions. However, making already developed areas more dense with infills and small apartment buildings adds $606 per capita to city finances.

Cities like Hamilton say there is a better way. A grassroots initiative led by its citizens has forced their municipal planners to rethink development and it has sparked other Ontario municipalities to question their expansion plans. In fact, one counsellor from neighbouring Halton advocated for limiting the town’s boundary to preserve agricultural land for food security.

Sprawl does not have to be inevitable and it’s not the only solution. We all have a role to play in making our community vibrant, inclusive and affordable.


In Calgary, more than 80,000 households are in need to affordable housing

Access to affordable and appropriate housing decreases the likelihood that families and individuals will fall into or remain in poverty. Solving the affordable housing crisis is possible.