Towards better planning and more compact cities

The development adopted by the communities since the 50s was based on using a lot of resources and land. Before the car and single-family detached home model, which lead to urban sprawl, cities were generally quite compact, with the ensuing benefits. But the possibility of traveling long distances quickly has changed the cities’ fabric. The agglomeration of Quebec City, which has seen its urban area grow by 248% between 1971 and 2001 while its population increased by only 42%, is a good example of such transformation [1]. Stretching the boundaries of urban development is often done at the expense of the environment and agriculture, an acute problem still today, as evidenced by the approval by the Commission de protection du territoire agricole to rezone, between 2001 and 2009, 7594 hectares of agricultural land [2] while thousands of hectares of non-agricultural land were available for urbanization.

Low-density residential neighborhood in the agglomeration of Quebec City – Source: APEL St-Charles

Apart from destroying these lands, the urban sprawl has a large number of negative consequences such as the following:

  • GHG emissions (due to automobile travel);
  • Impacts on the environment, air and water;
  • Health issues;
  • Iniquity in accessibility and bearing of negative impacts;
  • Maintenance costs of infrastructures.

Limit urbanization

Conversely, a more compact urban development provides many benefits if it is well planned. Establishing an urban perimeter that geographically limits development to a predetermined area is an effective way to counter sprawl and end an obsolete development model. Curbing the area available for urbanization needs careful planning and a balanced approach, particularly when the city faces the opposite trends of a growing population and a decreasing average household size, a common occurence in Quebec.

Development and land use planning

In Quebec, planning is the responsability of both the municipalities and the regional county municipalities (RCM). RCMs are responsible for the land-use and development plan that prescribes which areas of the land must be developed, and under which guidelines. Local municipalities, in accordance with these guidelines, must then adopt their own master plan, which that sets out their vision and defines specific land uses and density zones. At this stage, a municipality intent on efficiently curbing the sprawling urbanization trend it is experiencing can identify areas that must be strengthened in priority and demonstrate how it can be accomplished. There exists various misused and/or underused sectors or lots in every city that could benefit from urban renewal projects:

  • Greyfields (vacant sites or abandoned buildings);
  • Brownfields (contaminated land in particular, for which gas stations are a common occurrence);
  • Large parking lots and under-used commercial or industrial lots;
  • Very low-density neighborhoods.

Model of Hammarby neighborhood in Stockholm, Sweden – Source: Vivre en Ville

Municipalities can hugely benefit from being creative and proactive in their urban consolidation strategy and projects, and this creativity does not have to manifest itself only through the bylaws. Municipalities can for example implement programs of financial and/or fiscal incentives intended to redirect and better manage development in some parts of the city.


  1. [1] Communauté métropolitaine de Québec, 2006. Schéma d’aménagement et de développement, chapter 3 (PDF – in French)
  2. [2] Commission de protection du territoire agricole du Québec. Rapport annuel de gestion 2009-2010.

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