Does Edmonton have a problem with urban sprawl? Or has its exponential growth been managed responsibly over the past decade?

Thanks to social media and grassroots initiatives like Zombie Wall, these questions have become issues in the municipal election.

David Gordon has just completed a study that ranks Edmonton as the second-fastest growing region in Canada between 2006 and 2011 — only Calgary expanded faster during that same period.

Gordon is the director of the School of Urban and Regional Planning at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario.

In Edmonton’s case, Gordon found that 93 per cent of that growth occurred in suburban neighbourhoods or in low-density rural areas where more than 50 per cent of residents commute into the city.

Gordon says that type of growth takes a toll on the financial, environmental and social aspects of a city.

“It’s heavily subsidized,” he said.

“It’s expensive to run the pipes way out and all the new roads that are needed, it’s not sustainable environmentally, and finally, they aren’t particularly sustainable socially because if you are too poor, too young, too old to own a car these neighbourhoods are very, very difficult.”

Cost vs. revenues

Some experts are urging municipalities to figure out the true costs of developing new neighbourhoods to get people to think more critically about the issue.

Joe Minicozzi, an architect and urban planning expert with Urban3, a consulting firm based in Asheville, N.C., believes cities should compare that figure with the cost of developing infill.

When Minicozzi studied a 30-acre, 357-unit subdivision in Florida, he found that the area would take 42 years to break even on the costs of developing and maintaining city infrastructure.

The number for the same number of units downtown? Three years to break even; with $33 million in revenues from property taxes and fees after 20 years.

Minicozzi believes the communities can use these numbers to determine whether these costs are worth it.

“As long as people are conscious about the subsidy, they’re having an adult conversation about the transparency about the numbers, let the community have a conversation about it,” Minicozzi says.

In 2011, Edmonton prepared a report called the “Cost and Revenues of New Areas” that took a wider look at the issue.

The report compared costs of building, maintaining and replacing infrastructure like fire halls, police stations, libraries -- developers pay for sewers and road in new neighbourhoods before the city takes over the maintenance after two years -- with the revenues from property taxes and user fees in 17 neighbourhoods.

The result was that on average, the city spent $1.36 for each dollar earned in revenue. Over 30 years, that cost added up to about $34 million per neighbourhood.

The latest area approved for southwest Edmonton will accommodate 50,000 people over the next 50 years is estimated to cost $250 million more than it will make.

The mayoral candidates are split on whether growth on the city outside limits should be curbed in favour of more infill.

Karen Leibovici doesn’t believe the city has a problem with sprawl and says that if Edmonton doesn’t offer suburban housing, people will move to places like Sherwood Park, Leduc and St. Albert.

Her opponent Kerry Diotte opposes the city’s latest attempt to annex additional land but doesn’t believe the city has a problem with uncurbed growth.

He thinks there should be balance between development in new and mature neighbourhoods.

Don Iveson believes that the city should do more to encourage infill and has said that the proposed development on the City Centre Airport lands could turn into the Edmonton version of the hip New York borough of Brooklyn.

With files from the CBC's Tim Adams