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Urban Sprawl Discussion


You encounter the coolest people on the doorstep while campaigning.

On a recent day I met a bright, passionate woman who challenged me on urban sprawl. She wanted to know if I’d take a “principled stand” on the issue.

We talked for about 20 minutes. But I left feeling a bit uneasy about our conversation. So I wrote her a follow-up email. Here it is, below. I’ll call her Mary, for anonymity sake.

Dear Mary,

I’ve been thinking a lot about our conversation after meeting you at your doorstep.

You asked me, essentially, if I’d be willing to take a principled stand as a city councillor. The context of our conversation centered mostly on urban growth and urban sprawl.

The question made me remember a conversation from years ago with a city councillor. He argued that politicians should never, ever violate their principles.

He was also one of the most stridently ideological politicians I ever covered as a reporter.

So, that word, principles, gives me pause, because it suggests a rigid, dualistic worldview — black and white, right and wrong, good and evil, left and right.

My argument to you was that the most effective councillors are diplomatic consensus builders. In other words, they bend on issues. They support initiatives if the benefits exceed the costs — even if they are not perfectly aligned with the ideal.

In my experience, that type of councillor is the most influential with his/her colleagues. They don’t always make communities or advocacy groups happy, but they live to fight another day.

The ever-principled or ideological politician tends to be a lone-wolf and tends to alienate the rest of council. Yes, they articulate a precise position on an issue and take a public stand. It’s just that they tend to stand alone on city council.

I like to think I’m a principled man. But I speak more often of values — values like honesty, vulnerability, humility and service to community.

We could discuss and I suspect debate the meaning and relative merits of principles versus values until the cow’s come home.

My answer to your question, though, is that I am not stridently ideological. As a decision maker — if I’m elected — my hope would be to weigh the best evidence and make a decision most beneficial for Ward 6 and city.

So let’s look at urban sprawl. A principled decision would be to either oppose or support a new subdivision on the outskirts. If you believe in the free market, you support it. If you adhere to principles of Smart Growth, you oppose the new subdivision.

I realize that is an over-simplification of both sides. But let’s move on and ask some questions.

What happens to housing prices in Edmonton if the city allows no more growth on the edges? Do they rise as demand outstrips supply? Does the public have a right to choose between an infill development or a new house in a new subdivision?

What happens if Edmonton restricts growth? Do outlying communities swell in size as a result? If so, what are the implications for Edmonton’s civic budget, given that many of these folks will still use city infrastructure?

Now, what is the impact of approving a new suburban subdivision on Edmonton’s civic budget? Might the taxes from a new subdivision pay for the required infrastructure — and then some?

What are the costs of a new subdivision to the core communities in Ward 6, especially their public schools? What are the implications of additional demand for snow clearing, transit, parks, policing, fire response, recreation and myriad other civic services?

My point? These decisions are extremely complex. Councillors with a rigid ideology have it easier in many ways. They can vote yes or no depending on how the issue meets or violates their political views.

The best councillors, in my opinion, struggle. They demand the best information possible and then weigh it to reach a decision.

While I am deeply concerned about the fiscal sustainability of adding neighbourhoods to Edmonton’s edges, I’d also be concerned about displacing homebuyers to bedroom communities. Not sure that would be a win. Maybe it would be, but I’d want to see the evidence for and against before deciding.

My apology for the long answer. I thought you deserved it. I’d love to get your support in the October 21st civic election.

But I also realize another candidate might better fit your needs. I hope, at least, this email demonstrates my willingness to listen and talk through issues facing Edmonton now and in future.

Best wishes,

Scott McKeen

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