Annexation is leading to sprawl and land fragmentation throughout Alberta, and it’s not just the big cities that are to blame.

“Most of the annexation of land happens in small and mid-size municipalities, or even smaller ones, like villages and towns and such. That is the case across Alberta, but we hear more about Calgary and Edmonton because they’re big and media picks up on them,” said Sandeep Agrawal, professor at the School of Urban and Regional Planning at the University of Alberta.

Cities eat up land for residential and business developments to accommodate growing populations, but if you look outside of Edmonton and Calgary, “most of the land remains undeveloped for a very long time,” Agrawal said.

“And in many instances, it has become sterile as a farmland, because now it has been annexed. And there’s always some kind of speculation happening as to what may happen to it.”

In an article in Land Use Policy journal, Agrawal and his coauthors assessed the motivations and land use outcomes of municipal annexations in Alberta. Towns and villages often annex land in anticipation of large-scale developments or diversifying their revenue streams. But as years go by, many of those projects never materialize.

The Village of Chipman annexed 14 sections of land in 2010 to make room for a proposed residential development that could house up to 10,000 people. When the expected construction of bitumen upgraders in the county fell through, so did the new houses. By 2017, only three homes had been built on the 810 hectares of newly acquired land.

Province-wide, two-thirds of land annexed between 1995 and 2010 was left undeveloped. The land that was developed, mostly greenfield, tended to be distant from the core of the community, with this pattern of sprawl being more common in smaller communities than large municipalities.

In counties surrounding major cities like Calgary, land acquisition and development follows a pattern Agrawal described as “strategic buffering.”

“(An) Urban municipality can go in, and they can annex land before anyone else does. And rural (municipalities) do the same. To preserve their boundaries, they would go and put some kind of country style housing or what have you right at the edge. Because once that is done, then rural municipalities can say, ‘Hey, it’s already developed and we’re getting revenue out of it.’

This tension between urban and rural areas, the race to stake a claim on developable land, is part of the reason annexation is leading to sprawl throughout Alberta.

Development is inevitable, said Sasha Tsenkova, a professor at theUniversity of Calgary’s School of Architecture, Planning, and Landscape. The important question is how do we want to build to respond to growth pressures.

“Because whatever is being developed right now, is going to be around and going to shape these communities for decades to come, not to mention a century,” Tsenkova said.

“We’re a suburban nation. But when we looked at real data to see the patterns of development, we talk a lot about smart growth and sustainability and yet we continue to do more of the same, and that is suburban growth expansion.”

It’s a pattern that is not necessarily sustainable, whether you look at it in terms of economics, environmental costs, or the social costs for people who live in these communities.

Large-scale developments in satellite communities may provide houses at a cheaper price than in Calgary but lack the density to sustain more than basic amenities. Without the numbers to sustain a community centre, a medical clinic, or retail, “it creates a different way of life, kind of a rural-urban compromise.”

A compromise that many people make, despite the economic, environmental, and social costs, such as isolation and the hours lost in daily commutes.

“The attractiveness of a small town, of small-town living, it’s about a character of a place. It’s about diversity. It’s about being able to connect and walk to the school, walk to the park. It’s not about people being segregated on the basis of cars,” Tsenkova said.

It’s a never-ending story for counties in Calgary’s orbit, and one that speaks to the “lack of coherent regional planning.” Though Calgary may establish density requirements or mandate more environmentally friendly builds, developers can cross the county line and avoid those restrictions, bringing with them the burden of infrastructure and transportation investment.

“A lot of a lot of these costs are really hard costs, and municipal budgets are spent on roads as opposed to being spent on people.”

With the awareness of how these patterns of development contribute to pollution and water shortages, to name only a few of the unappealing byproducts of sprawl, and the reality of thousands moving to the region each year, it’s no longer a question of being “pro-growth or anti-development,” Tsenkova said.

“It is about how we actually implement these ideas and create a built environment where indeed we create communities that are more diverse and are capitalizing on ways to recycle urban land, to recycle infrastructure, to just use the legacy of the past.

“We abandoned historic buildings and places and continue to grow further out. And that is not really a recipe for creating a great place to live and work.”

By Brett McKay, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Original Published on Dec 24, 2023 at 10:07

This item reprinted with permission from   St. Albert Gazette   St. Albert, Alberta

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