Can you identify the long term costs of sprawled development?
Three BC-based planners certainly think so and they’ve contributed to the creation of a free online tool to help communities of all sizes do the same.
“I feel like it’s the tool planners have been waiting for,” said project lead Narissa Chadwick, playfully referring to the tool she helped create.
“We have all of this great language in Official Community Plans about what communities want their cities to look like,” she says. “But that vision frequently doesn’t get built because it often comes down to only looking at immediate financial impacts. This tool enables communities to identify, at a high level, the long term costs of development decisions.”
The online tool that Chadwick is talking about is the Community Lifecycle Infrastructure Costing (CLIC) tool developed by BC’s Ministry of Community, Sport and Cultural Development (“the Ministry”). As Senior Planner with the Ministry, Chadwick spent the last four years partnering with fellow planners Tiina Schaeffer (City of Prince George) and Lourette Swanepoel (Stantec Consulting) and others to develop the tool. The three were recognized earlier this year both provincially and nationally for their efforts with CLIC, with an award from the Planning Institute of BC in May 2016 and another from the Canadian Institute of Planners in July.
As a transportation planner who often feels like I’m trying to MacGyver good mobility solutions around yesterday’s poor land use decisions, I was eager to learn more about CLIC.
Could it help make a compelling case for density and diversity? Could it help community leaders make the right development choices?
But doesn’t everyone think urban density is good?
Using city space prudently seems like it should be a pretty easy lesson to teach:
- Spread new housing over a larger area, you’ll need much more infrastructure to serve the people who will live there than if the housing was closer together. You’ll need more of everything to cover the extra distance between the people if they’re spread out. Water pipe, sewer pipe, electrical wire, road, sidewalks, bus routes, bike lanes, gas lines, street trees, boulevard, you name it.
- The flip side is also true: fit that new housing into places where the pipes, wires, sidewalks and bus routes already exist–and where jobs and shopping are already nearby–and you build a more cost effective (and healthier) community. While eventually you might need to pay for more capacity for your pipes and transit, your overall investment over time will be less than the other scenarios.
Today’s decisions not only impact infrastructure costs now but in the future. Says Chadwick, “Developers often cover costs of initial infrastructure but it’s the community who will keep paying for its upkeep and replacement over the long term.”
Like I said, the impact of density, diversity and space on long term costs seems like it should be pretty intuitive. However, leaving it to intuition can be part of the issue. Asked by elected officials to show the black and white numbers behind “density and mixed use are good” assertions, planners are often left with little to come back with but “uh, trust us.”
Coming up with the long term cost comparisons to satisfy certain “just the cold hard facts” council members can get even more difficult when a municipality’s finance, engineering and planning staff are often in separate departments, each feverishly trying to get their own pieces of community pie delivered.
Enter a tool like CLIC (pronounced “click”). Precisely what makes it useful is that it delivers the long term hard numbers. THIS is how much more all that extra sidewalk, pipe and wire will cost you in this more sprawling scenario vs. this other one.
As a fringe benefit, CLIC also provides a reason for different departments to come together to populate the tool. This in turn can have long term benefits by building new relationships and cohesion between city departments and their staff.
So what is CLIC and how does it work?
Developed over a four year period, the process that led to CLIC started when BC’s Ministry of Community, Sport and Cultural Development (the Ministry) conducted research that found there were few tools already available that put a price tag on the long term “cost of sprawl.”
After recognizing the value of piloting an infrastructure costing tool developed by the Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation with three B.C. communities, the Ministry partnered with Stantec to develop an initial version of CLIC. This was then further refined through an advisory committee and a pilot group of six communities.
Much thanks to Narissa Chadwick and her partners for enabling me to use the following CLIC screenshots from their Planning Institute of BC June 2016 conference presentation, as well as Tiina Schaeffer for updates to some of the images.
The City of Prince George was one of the six pilot communities that moved the furthest ahead with the tool and Schaeffer from the City has continued to work with the Ministry’s Chadwick and Stantec’s Swanepoel to improve it.
What makes CLIC so available for all to use is that it is essentially an Excel file with an interface that is clear and simple to understand. (You can download it and try it for yourself here).
When the program opens, users see a dashboard that takes them through the required series of steps, as shown below.
The first step in the tool is to define the type of development scenarios you are looking to analyze. CLIC enables you to come up with your own scenarios or you can use a number of pre-defined ones as shown below.
The next steps involve putting in cost information specific to your community: how much does it cost to deliver particular types of municipal services for your area? What are the specific characteristics of the developments you’re examining? Will a developer be paying for a portion of the costs?
Again, CLIC comes pre-loaded with a set of standard values for these items and enables users to adjust based on information that typically would come from their public works, engineering, planning and finance departments.
Finally, once variables have been adjusted as you like, the long term costs emerge. As one would expect, CLIC shows the public costs of the proposed developments as well as long term impacts on city revenues.
However, it also shows what the long term cost impact would be for the residents themselves in terms of transportation, heating, as well as traffic crashes, air pollution and climate change.
So, all told, CLIC can provide the hard numbers to back up the “land use density and diversity is good” assertions.
Taking CLIC Further
Over the past year, Chadwick and her partners have had the opportunity to spread the word about CLIC not only through provincial and national planning organizations but through local government associations like the Federation of Canadian Municipalities, the Government Finance Officers of BC, the Association of Professional Engineers and Geoscientists, and the Local Government Management Association of BC.
When I ask Chadwick about what has surprised her the most about her project, she says that she has been overwhelmed by the encouragement shown by the peers who have seen it. “The engineers, financial officers and planners who get what this tool does are so excited and supportive,” she says. “I feel like we’ve been able to advance a tool that truly helps them in their work and which provides them with a financial perspective that was previously lacking.”
In terms of challenges, Chadwick notes that the biggest obstacle local governments have encountered with using the tool is finding the staff time to set it up. (It takes about two weeks of dedicated time with a team involving key planning, engineering, finance and operations staff to set up CLIC for a specific community if not using the generic data).
“Municipal staff in each of the departments are busy and have their own specific tasks. It can be hard to engage in an integrated process when staff have all of their day to day work to do.”
However, she notes that there are other tangible benefits to those communities who do make time a priority. “I’ve seen the set up of CLIC break down municipal silos and act as an integration tool since it requires different departments to talk and work together. And once you’ve got it set up, you’re set.”
And to provide the long term justification to make good community decisions today, that time is likely very well spent.
Bonus Info: The Other Half of the Financial Equation
CLIC focuses on calculating the high level long term costs of different development scenarios to better inform decision makers. The other part of the equation includes financial tools that communities can put into place to finance change and encourage development that is more complete, sustainable and energy efficient.
Canadian policy and research network the Smart Prosperity Institute (formerly Sustainable Prosperity) has partnered with the Real Estate Foundation of BC to create a great summary of those tools. Called Creating Complete, Compact Energy-Efficient Communities in BC: How Fiscal Tools can be an Opportunity for Local Governments, it provides an overview of each type of tool (development cost charges, property taxes, transportation and parking pricing, and other fees).
It also describes the legislation that applies to different community types, examples of how different B.C. jurisdictions use the tool, and suggestions on how B.C. legislation could be changed to make them even more effective.
If you work with local governments in British Columbia or elsewhere, this guide is worth a look.