An old debate reignites as city council plots to wreck Regina

City Hall | Paul Dechene | July 29, 2021

When council passed Design Regina, our Official Community Plan, in 2013, they approved a vision for our city that favoured complete communities, walkable neighbourhoods and more efficient use of our infrastructure. To achieve all this, a cornerstone of the OCP is a commitment to build a denser city and turn away from the traditional pattern of development that sprawls to every horizon.

A motion coming to the Aug. 11 city council meeting could, if passed, spell a retreat from the OCP’s founding principles.

It’s being brought forward by three councillors — Ward 4’s Lori Bresciani, Ward 2’s Bob Hawkins and Ward 10’s Landon Mohl — and it’s called the Density Target for Market Choice of Housing Motion.

Kind of sounds like a bad translation of an 80s Japanese video game version of Monopoly.

The motion directs administration to analyze and report back on the implications of adjusting density targets and it uses a lot of language cribbed from Design Regina; stuff like, accommodating a mix of housing types and facilitating market choice.

But the movers haven’t been shy about their real intentions. In fact, the motion specifically demands density targets be considered that would “allow for market choice of housing such as larger single family homes or bungalow condo type” [emphasis mine].

And at a June 11 executive committee meeting that strayed into a discussion of the OCP’s density targets, Hawkins remarked, “The axiom, the mantra that urban sprawl is bad, that density is good, really needs another rethink. And it needs another rethink in an area like Regina. We’re not Vancouver. We’re not hemmed in by mountains. We do have a large supply of land.”

Bresciani, Hawkins and Mohl can perhaps be forgiven for not understanding the rationale behind Design Regina’s goal of 50 people/hectare density and 30 per cent infill development. It predates their terms on council. They weren’t part of the two-year long, public engagement process that went into setting those targets.

To refresh everyone’s memory on why it is that city planners in Regina and urbanists around the world have been telling local governments that “urban sprawl is bad” and “density is good”, we reached out to Richard Milgrom, a professor of city planning in the University of Manitoba’s Faculty of Architecture.

Milgrom says that we can’t just look at the amount of land we have available. The cost of building on that land has to be considered.

“We’re here in the middle of the prairies, look at all this land, we can see forever! What does it matter if we build another subdivision out there? But it isn’t just land, it’s also infrastructure. You’ve got to build the infrastructure to service that land. And the building of the infrastructure to service that land costs more per capita the lower the density is.”

Cities with costly, sprawling infrastructure must either charge higher property taxes or skimp on services. You can’t have low taxes, low density and excellent services. The math doesn’t work. You can’t make two plus two equal five.

Beyond the raw dollars sprawl ends up costing everyone, Milgrom says low density undermines other community goals as well.

“There’s an accessibility issue because transit becomes less viable the further out you go. And then you get into these circular arguments: It doesn’t make sense to provide transit to these low-density neighborhoods. Therefore, we need to drive. If we need to drive, we need three cars in every household. We need more parking for cars. It just sort of snowballs like that.”

And if fully realized, the Density Target for Market Choice of Housing Motion would also undermine our nascent Age-Friendly Regina commitment.

“My area of research is about aging, and I can tell you that car dependent suburbs are not good for people as they age,” says Milgrom. “There are fewer choices for them to be able to get around. I mean, my own father when he hit 80, he basically lost his driver’s license and became totally dependent on my mother for getting around because there were no other options. There’s a huge burden on caregivers and, of course, the mental health of older adults suffers.”

Underpinning all of this, as Milgrom explains, is that low housing density and urban sprawl require us to keep paying to maintain a culture of car dependency.

And that is hell for the environment.

Lower density and urban sprawl force people to drive more. There’s no way around that. That means Bresciani, Hawkins and Mohl’s motion is just another dumb re-entrenchment of automobile-focused urban design at the expense of the human-focus embodied in the best parts of Design Regina. This is a direct attack on our Energy & Sustainability Framework before it’s even written, and it absolutely threatens to sabotage local effort to reduce Regina’s carbon footprint.

The Density Target for Market Choice of Housing Motion looks like a boring motion. It sounds like a boring motion. But it’s not. It’s a crossroads. We can choose to build a city that’s focused on people, that strives to limit our impact on the environment and uses our resources wisely. Or we can take a hard right turn and loop back to the same dumb old city design that has saddled us with a massive infrastructure deficit and more parking lots than landmarks.

With three councillors already signed on to this motion and Ward 7’s Terina Shaw sounding very likely to support it, the Density Target for Market Choice of Housing Motion is only two votes from passing when it goes to council on Aug. 11.

And if it succeeds, this motion with the very dumb name and the even dumber ambitions will begin the unravelling of a decade of work that has gone into Design Regina.


The Battle We Already Lost

This isn’t the first time council has sabotaged the principles of Design Regina. The new zoning bylaw that emerged from the OCP in 2019 was to have not included R1 zoning. That’s the single-detached zone — that is, one house on its own lot — which is the most widespread zone type in Regina by a large margin. R1 zones were to be replaced with the RN (Residential Neighbourhood) zone which would have allowed duplexes among the single-detached houses and resulted in a very gradual density increase as neighbourhoods matured. But Reginans in affluent R1 neighbourhoods freaked the fuck out and Councillor Hawkins led the charge to preserve R1 in our zoning bylaw. It was a blow against the OCP’s sustainability principles and presaged today’s evil Density Target for Market Choice of Housing Motion.