Why one Calgary developer says urban sprawl might solve some tax and housing problems

A Calgary developer says growth on the city's edge isn't always a bad thing, especially since those communities are changing and becoming more sustainable.

Josh White argues growing out rather than up is required for a 'functional market place'

This developer wants Calgary to rethink its position on density and urban sprawl. (CBC)

A Calgary developer says growth on the city's edge isn't always a bad thing, especially since those communities are changing and becoming more sustainable and population growth is outpacing inner-city densification.

Josh White is a private developer, the general manager of development at Dream Unlimited and a member of BILD — the Building Industry Land Development industry association.

He recently made his case to city council that the city should leave all options on the table when it comes to managing growth, including building out rather than up.

White explained what he hoped council would take away, talking with the Calgary Eyeopener on Monday.

This conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity. You can watch the complete interview below.

Q: What was your message to city council?

A: City council has been going through a process called growth strategy to determine when and where we open new community growth.

Going back 10 years ago, there was the imagineCalgary progress, that was talking about why we need to think about growing our city differently.

Then there was the municipal development plan in about 2008/2009. Then the sprawl subsidy is about how we go about paying for new development.

In the rubric of the municipal development plan there is a target about the amount of growth we can expect in new communities and the amount of growth we can expect in redevelopment.

In the next 20 years or so, the split that the city expects, an aspirational target, is something like two-thirds of new development happening in suburbs and up to one-third happening through redevelopment.

Of that two-thirds, when and where do we grow? The key question is, how much land do we need to service that demand?

There are two elements here. There is the capital side, the hard infrastructure. The pipes, roads, things that are required to serve new subdivisions that cost money.

That question was largely answered four or five years ago, with the sprawl subsidy conversation. How much do developers pay through levies versus other mechanisms to pay for growth? Essentially, developers would be responsible for paying for all those capital costs.

A lot of the conversation now is, are these communities paying for themselves? Are they a net positive or net negative on our tax base?

In the old days, you had maximum densities for the amount of homes you could have. Now you have minimums. The communities developed in the 1980s and 1990s, a lot of curvy roads, disconnected cul-de-sacs. Not the most efficient way to run, for example, transit service.

Now we are developing our suburbs very differently, so the burden on the tax payer should be less going forward, not more.

Developer Josh White recently made his case to city council that the city should leave all options on the table when it comes to managing growth, including building out rather than up. (Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press)

Q: What is motivating your arguments?

A: It is simply a matter of having what we believe would be a functional market place.

Some people say maybe we just stop suburban development or growth at the edge, but we need to think about what that would actually mean.

The city could stop greenfield development, but we don't operate in a vacuum. We have outlying communities. There is a lot of demand for housing that is single-family or single-detached or ground-oriented housing.

If we stop that sort of development, we would imagine a lot of that growth would happen on our fringes in communities like Cochrane and Airdrie. We wouldn't gain any of the tax base but we would have a lot of those residents coming into the city using our services.

Another scenario is, imagine if all greenfield development both in Calgary and our outlying communities happen.

In Calgary every year we have demand for something like 7,000 to 10,000 new housing units. Could we accommodate that all within the existing boundary of the city? It's a difficult thing to imagine.

The East Village development is a huge undertaking, there's a lot of money going into redevelopment of that area. The total housing demand for the city would be soaked up within eight months in the East Village.

You'd have to build an East Village every eight months to service the housing demand for the city.

We naturally have to disperse that growth. We require developing on the urban fringes to meet that high demand for housing.

Q: What was city council's reaction to your case?

A: I think city council by and large agreed.

We can expect good demand going forward. The economy generally is picking up. The housing market is relatively strong. We have strong international migration to the city, we have improving net migration into the city inter-provincially and we continue to have a baby boom because of demographic factors.

We need a sufficient amount of land available for a community to develop to have a functional marketplace.

The calculation is quite simple. You have total demand, the number of units you can expect to absorb in each community per year. That gives you roughly the number of communities you need active at any given time to serve the market.

I think council and city administration has been receptive to that message, and there is movement to think about opening more areas for greenfield growth.

Calgary developer lobbies council for more urban sprawl

4 years ago
Duration 9:05
Calgary developer lobbies council for more urban sprawl

Calgary: The Road Ahead is CBC Calgary's special focus on our city as it passes through the crucible of the downturn: the challenges we face, and the possible solutions as we explore what kind of Calgary we want to create. Have an idea? Email us at

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With files from the Calgary Eyeopener


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