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The Reality of Edmonton Urban Sprawl

I was listening in on the Edmonton City Council's public hearing regarding the proposed west and southeast LRT routes, when someone brought up that old bugaboo about Edmonton being quite possibly the worst major city in the world for urban density. You don't have to look far to find this claim... the first paragraph on Wikipedia will do the trick:

At 684 km², the City of Edmonton covers an area larger than Chicago, Philadelphia, Toronto, or Montreal. Edmonton has one of the lowest urban population densities in North America, about 9.4% that of New York City.

This claim has always bugged me; not because it's strictly untrue or even fundamentally invalid, but mainly because it's spiritually misleading. To show why, let's start with a naive comparison of city population density for some of the cities mentioned. This is easily determined by dividing each city's population by its area, using the numbers from Wikipedia:

City Density Area
Edmonton 1067.2/km² 684km²
Calgary 1360.2/km² 726km²
Toronto 3973.5/km² 630km²
Chicago 4707.3/km² 606km²
New York City 6887.1/km² 1214km²

This looks pretty bad; 27% of Toronto's density and only 15% of New York City's density. With numbers like that, we must all be living on acreages in the middle of downtown Edmonton! Of course, a quick look at a couple of maps will tell us why these numbers are not really that helpful for comparing density in these cities.

map of Chicago city limits map of Toronto city limits

We can see in the top two images (Chicago and Toronto respectively) that the city limits don't even come close to encompassing the actual urban population of those cities. Let's see how Edmonton compares...

map of Edmonton city limits

Hmm... those city limits seem to include quite a bit of farmland, and don't reflect the urban/suburban population distribution all that closely. You can see that the entire northeast quadrant is basically empty, not to mention the fringe of farmland around the west and south sides.

Further, you might notice the green strip of land and the river running through the heart of Edmonton. Heading on over to trusty Wikipedia, we find that between the river valley park system and local neighborhood parks, Edmonton has over 111km² of parkland. With a city area of 684km², this means more than 16% of the city area is being used for green space. In contrast, the famed Chicago Park District, the largest urban park system in the United States, is approximately 30km², or only 5% of its city area.

Edmonton river valley

A more enlightened approach might be to then compare the "metropolitan" area of Edmonton with those of other cities. Using metro numbers, we get a table that looks like:

Metro Density Area % metro pop outside city limits
Edmonton CMA 109.9/km² 9418km² 30%
Calgary CMA 224.1/km² 5083km² 13%
Toronto CMA 866.0/km² 5904km² 51%
Golden Horseshoe Core 642.5/km² 10097km² 61%
Chicago Metro 347.5/km² 28163km² 71%
New York City Metro 1092.0/km² 17405km² 56%

This seems like a perfectly valid idea, but it again falls short in implementation. The numbers used for the comparison for Canadian cities is the "Census Metropolitan Area (CMA)", a census apparatus defined by Statistics Canada. The numbers for the US cities are basically whatever Wikipedia came up with, and I'm sure the methodology doesn't line up 1 to 1. In fact, even between Canadian CMAs, comparisons are difficult. The Edmonton CMA is the largest CMA in Canada, and yet only 30% of this CMA's population lives outside the city limits of Edmonton (which is a refreshing number to help put our sprawl issues in perspective).

map of Golden Horseshoe areaIn contrast, the Toronto CMA doesn't even match the area known as the Greater Toronto Area, and arguably the more valid comparison would be the "Golden Horseshoe Core", which encompasses a total area equivalent to the Edmonton CMA. The Golden Horseshoe effectively supports the Toronto urban centre, and 61% of this population is "sprawled" outside of Toronto city limits. In fact, if we were to run the numbers on the extended Golden Horseshoe, which contains about 25% of Canada's population and which is arguably essential to the city of Toronto, we see density drop off to 256.7/km².

The point of all these numbers and comparisons isn't to prove anything specific, or to argue that Edmonton doesn't have more sprawl than it probably needs. It's simply to point out that a blind comparison of density stats tells us very little about the actual density and sprawl issues of any particular city. It also reminds us that the incredibly high population densities of metro centres like Toronto or New York are artifacts of huge populations spread across entire regions, without which the central cities would simply cease to function.

As a prairie city wrapped around a river, the issues Edmonton faces with sprawl are different than many of the cities we are often compared to. We have a strongly identified central core (well, two of them), a really good public transit system for a city of this size -- and if you don't believe this, stop comparing your city to New York or Toronto, and instead try to find a US city in the 750k range that can match Edmonton transit -- and a surprisingly consolidated set of suburbs. From a completely personal perspective, I've lived in cities 1/3 of the size of Edmonton with end-to-end commute times that are worse than anything I've encountered here.

Edmonton city hall

I certainly think Edmonton could use more density, and I'm glad to see that sprawl is a continuing concern. However, I also think that Edmonton is more dense than people realize, and that the overall situation is not as dire as some believe. It's nice to see that with our hyper-sensitivity to sprawl, it seems unlikely that it will ever be left to get truly out of hand.

On a final note, I think that one of the reasons the sprawl issue is both frustrating and exciting is because it means that the average Edmontonian is not content with simply living in a Houston or a Denver. We compare ourselves to cultural giants of cities; Toronto, Chicago, New York. We feel our transit system is inadequate because we don't have the London underground, or that our density is suspect because we don't have a New York skyline. I'm glad that we hold ourselves up to this incredibly high standard. I hope that we never stop striving to be a world-class place to live -- it's what I love about this city.


Anonymous said...

I am a resident of Northern Illinois, about 35 miles west of the farthest out suburb of Chicago (which just recently tripled its population). I am terribly concerned about what may happen to my quaint farming community, as I have seen what has happened to our neighbors to the east. I hope that the government takes immediate action by protecting the excellent farmland and natural areas before any more towns get consumed by the monster.

Anonymous said...

I think the author makes a valid point. Some research uses urban areas, which provides densities somewhat intermediate between using a city's boundaries or its CMA boundaries.

In any event all of this numerology glosses over the fact that these boundaries have a certain arbitrariness. Moreover, contrary to what evangelists tell us, sprawl (I'd rather call it suburbanization) lies much in the eyes of the beholder.

For example a city can have more parks, more parkland, larger school areas, huge industrial areas for refiners, lumber yards, cement factories, etc. Very often these commercial factors dictate the form of cities. Sometimes, cities have a monocentric pattern, but often cities such as Edmonton have distributed services. For example, over 90% of retail trade does not exist in its central business district (CBD). The CBD does not have industrial space, which the city locates primarily in the northwest and south east sectors, and has about 60% of office space. Often industrial sectors sprout up around airports (Nisku and the muni).

Anyway, this distribution eases transportation problems as people living in the suburbs can often reach work quickly and easily from both peripheral areas withing the city, but also from nearby municipalities/counties (St. Albert, Sherwood Park, Spruce Grove, Beaumont, Leduc, Strathcona county, etc.)

Finally, one comment perpetuates a myth that suburbanization uses up farm land. In the last 5 decades North America has lost about 50% of its farmland, not to urban areas, but rather through the phenomenon that farmers leave their farms and move to the cities, because they cannot compete with highly efficient conglomerates that now produce more food in much less space than farmers did decades ago.

Anonymous said...

Mcdedmonton is prob the most clued out unprogressive and unsustainable urban plan known to woman

Anonymous said...

I take your point. We should look at the "urbanized area" within a city's boundaries to determine population density. However, taking the "Greater Golden Horseshoe" to measure the Toronto area's population density would be absurd in the extreme. It would be an area of land that would have easily four or five times as much farm land as "urbanized area". The picture of Edmonton city limits indicates there is more "urban area" than farm land within city limits - and yes parkland within an "urbanized area" should be considered part of the "urban area".

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