Despite its bad reputation in city planning circles, sprawl is a good thing, according to Wendell Cox. Cox, the principal of a St. Louis-based international public policy firm and senior fellow at the Frontier Centre for Public Policy, has written a report on affordable housing in Saskatoon and how it compares with cities in Canada, the U.S., and overseas.
He says the only way for many people to afford housing and maintain a high standard of living is to develop more land. In an interview with the StarPhoenix, he explained why. This interview has been condensed and edited for publication.
Q: Is the answer as simple as just building more houses on the outskirts?
A: The answer to restoring housing affordability is to restore the competitive land market ... Housing historically in Canada, going back to World War II, has tended to run three or fewer times the household income. At this point, we're estimating Saskatoon is about 4.2, so it's about 30 per cent higher than it has been historically.
Q: The commuting time in Saskatoon is pretty good right now, something like 19 or 20 minutes. If you have more suburbs or development outside the city, you're going to potentially have more cars coming in. How do you balance that?
A: I am basically suggesting the critical issue is, how well do the people of Saskatoon live? The fact is, yes you have good commuting times. The question is, do we commute 25 minutes instead of 19 minutes and save $100,000? The answer becomes pretty clear. These are trade-offs families and households need to make; they're not trade-offs that need to be made at city hall.
Q: What role do you see in, instead of houses, building one apartment building near the city centre?
A: The fact is, some people like little cars and some people like big expensive cars. The same is true in respect to housing ... Families with kids are generally not happy living in 20-storey, 10-storey or even two-storey apartment buildings anywhere in the urban area. You cannot substitute an apartment for a house with a yard. They're not the same product. And I realize urban planners think they are. But I was looking at some data yesterday in the Toronto area ... If you look at who lives in those buildings, you find there are very few kids, and if you look at the last census you find most of the growth in kids occurs out in areas where there is detached housing.
Q: Is it possible to have a dense and affordable city?
A: If somehow the preferences of the households support that, that's fine. But no, it is not possible to have a planned dense city. You so interfere with the market that you increase land prices and force up poverty and force the standard of living down.
Q: If you were the mayor of Saskatoon, what would you want to do in terms of city policy to address this?
A: If I were in charge, I would basically be saying, 'Let us effectively make the affluence of households and the minimization of poverty the first principle of our urban planning policy.' Nothing else is more important.
See the full report at thestarphoenix.com.