Let's grow sensibly

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In the lead up to City Council’s debates about housing affordability this fall, Calgary’s Future is sharing community perspectives on Calgary’s housing affordability crisis. Housing affordability impacts everyone. We’re sharing these stories to show Council that we will not accept inaction on housing affordability. Today’s entry is authored by Calgarians for Sensible Growth.



Since 2014, Calgarians for Sensible Growth have been advocating for a City budget that would 

  • eliminate the sprawl subsidy
  • reallocate the money to the communities we already have.


Suburban sprawl has put Calgarians in a bind. We simply can’t afford it.


Sprawl will cost Calgary an extra $16 billion compared to community-friendly redevelopment. This is equivalent to a $500 tax increase for the average home every year for the next sixty years.


Some of that $16 billion goes straight into the price for new suburban homes – making our city even less affordable than it already is. As for the rest of the $16 billion, City Hall has decided that we, the taxpayers, should foot the bill – a multi-million dollar subsidy for each of those sixty years and beyond.


The sprawl subsidy comes in the form of higher taxes, depletion of the City’s rainy-day funds, and even more public debt for us to pay off. 


The main problem is transportation. The sprawl subsidy eats up tens of millions of dollars for each new road or LRT extension to service sprawl. In the case of roads, the subsidy is over 40% of the cost. For LRT extensions, taxpayers pay for everything.


Those who want more sprawl want you to believe that the suburban fringe will eventually pay back the subsidy through property taxes and other taxes and fees. Sadly, that won’t happen. Strong Towns, an independent advocate for financial resilience, found that sprawl is like a Ponzi scheme – the more money you pour in, the less you get back. The most worrisome aspect is that it starves existing communities of public investment.


Grasping at straws, sprawl activists argue instead that we’ve always lost money subsidizing sprawl so we might as well keep on doing it. Even if old-time sprawl was a money-loser, today’s sprawl is dramatically different. Simply put, the farther a city spreads out, the more expensive it becomes to build roads, transit, water and sewer lines, and other infrastructure. It’s the reverse of the economies of scale that a city gets from investing within its existing footprint.


Having lost on fiscal prudence, sprawl activists change horses, riding into the sprawl battle with the argument that sprawl is good because that’s what the market wants. Leaving aside that sprawl has pretty much been the only choice, sprawl activists forget that market forces don’t need subsidies – unless, of course, sprawl is really just a welfare scheme to bail out speculators who own land on the fringe.

80% of Calgarians live in the established areas (built out before 2006)

However, being against sprawl isn’t good enough. As you might have guessed, we’re in favour of something more important: Investing in the Calgary we already have – the Established Area (communities built out before 2006) and, where needed, any new subdivisions already in place.


While City Hall has done a great job encouraging sprawl, the Established Area has been neglected. Our communities are being hollowed out, making it impossible to maintain neighbourhood schools and local shops and services.


We must reverse that neglect. Calgary already has serviced land on the fringe to accommodate 54% of population growth to 2069/79. Other lands are in the queue that would take sprawl’s share of growth to 70%.

Sprawl population expansion chart

In the Municipal Development Plan, the Established Area was promised 50% of future population growth. Unless the sprawl subsidy ends, the City won’t keep that promise.  In fact, based on current trends, 50% of Calgary’s population, not just population growth will, by 2079, be out in the sprawl.

What does the Established Area need?

Calgarians deserve better. In addition to maintaining local schools and services, we need: 

  • lower property taxes
  • $7.7 billion to fix aging infrastructure
  • more affordable housing in the Established Area, focusing on families, low-income households, renters, and cooperative and co-housing
  • more support to reduce our energy costs and greenhouse gas emissions, especially through home renovation, transit, and walking and wheeling
  • and, ultimately, a more prosperous and livable city


We are building a business case for investing in the Established Area. It will include eliminating the sprawl subsidy and a plan for how tax dollars can benefit the communities we live in.


Over the next couple months, we will talk with Calgarians about what that business case should be. In the fall, we will take the business case to City Council and recommend inclusion of the business case in the City budget.


Calgarians for Sensible Growth
[email protected]


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