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:
|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.
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...
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.
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|
|Golden Horseshoe Core||642.5/km²||10097km²||61%|
|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).
In 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.
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.