Land-use planning—and understanding density—helps realize a promising future for communities in times of uncertainty
In my former role as mayor of Cochrane, Alberta, and my current role as an urban planner, I understand the struggles of a municipality with competing priorities. Do we put in a new pool, expand transit, construct a new police station, or install a much-needed traffic interchange? It’s not easy balancing the desires of the community with the needs of the municipality, and too often the revenues projected over a 10-year period are well below the cost of new amenities and services.
Usually, an engineering exercise establishes a municipality’s asset management plan, which often leaves very little budget to resolve this problem for the council. In response, municipalities often try to trim existing services, propose modest tax increases, and/or reprioritize already thin front-line resources so they can meet their strategic goals and public demands. I can see why it happens, and now there is a tool that can help.
To support municipalities in planning, Stantec has developed a Community Lifecycle Infrastructure Costing (CLIC) tool that takes a broad range of inputs based on the existing built form of a municipality and produces outputs that illustrate the true costs of development. With this information, we can project different development typologies and their revenue or cost contribution to the municipality. Taking it a step further, these development scenarios can then be shown through virtual rendering to demonstrate potential future growth patterns and illustrate the resulting look and feel of the community in each scenario. It allows everyone to envision what proposed changes to their community could really mean to them.
Why is this approach important?
Hearing about proposed land-use changes often means very little to the average citizen. However, describing the day-to-day lifestyle impact of this change will often resonate with them. It can also help the public understand why the council makes certain decisions on land use and how those decisions impact available funds for the amenities currently sitting on a municipality’s wish list.
The problem with the traditional approach to asset management is that it excludes land-use planning, which is a municipality’s biggest fiscal policy lever. In Alberta, a municipality’s largest source of revenue comes from property taxes. Different land uses yield varying levels of assessment depending on density requirements and type of use. In general terms, the higher the density of a given land use, the higher the municipal revenues due to the increased efficiency of delivering public goods and services to these areas.
While it may be tempting to simply increase density requirements to increase tax revenue, this doesn’t work for all municipalities. In many larger centers, increased density has been connected to vibrancy, walkability, and increased public safety. However, in smaller municipalities, this argument doesn’t always apply. Residents choose a community because of the lifestyle it offers, and an introduction of higher density is often met with public resistance due to concerns of losing the look and feel they are comfortable with.
There are two sides to an assessment base—residential and non-residential—and any successful community requires a balance between the two. A municipality may attempt to solely focus on increasing non-residential uses to achieve a higher tax base. In reality, the two depend on each other to survive. When looking to close the fiscal gap on infrastructure, equal attention should be dedicated to examining the residential side of the equation.
The truth is, it’s not solely a numbers game. Municipalities must be able to clearly explain the connection between the community infrastructure needs and the type of land-use mix required to pay for it. Comparable data from other like-sized communities isn’t good enough; there are many variables and unique characteristics in each community. Hence the struggle with an overly generalized urban theory. For land use to be an effective fiscal tool, municipalities need to anchor these ideas into quantifiable and verifiable metrics to clearly illustrate their land-use choices.
What excites me most about the CLIC tool is that it better informs the planning process and makes it more accessible to the public. I know what it’s like to recommend development scenarios to members of council, and I also know what it’s like to then take those recommendations to the public. The CLIC tool allows us to speak a language that everyone understands. I’m looking forward to helping municipalities plan more proactively, be more fiscally sustainable, and most importantly, shape the community their residents love to call home.
About the Author
Truper McBride is the planning discipline leader for Stantec’s Calgary offices. His experience has given him unique insights into planning issues facing the Calgary region and he is passionate about working with municipalities to plan for the future.More Content by Truper McBride