The Scale of Two Cities

Edmonton and Manhattan

It’s no secret that Edmonton has a reputation for low density development.  There is a lot of contemporary debate surrounding urban sprawl here, with disagreement over the degree to which it’s a real or perceived problem.

Conversations on sprawl always tend to to gravitate toward a direct comparison of the size and density of two cities. Given the immense proportions cities can take, perhaps only relative differences render their true scale tangible.  Just as two shades of a colour reveal their difference more strongly side-by-side, two cities similarly describe their physical attributes.

manhattanIn this ongoing conversation on cities, none seems to serve as a barometer for urban comparison more than New York, and particularly the borough of Manhattan.  It is a paragon of urbanity in many ways, but is often cited in comparisons for its high density.

Conversations like this typically resemble a claim like “City X is 10 times as big as New York with 1/10th the population”.  In Vancouver the West End is its densest neighbourhood and it’s not uncommon hear the exclaimation: “The West End is the densest neighbourhood in North America, denser than Manhattan.”  The myth of the West End’s density has been demonstrated to be untrue, but shows the way Manhattan or New York serves as a superlative in density conversations.

Comparison of Edmonton and New York has been made before, but a different understanding is had with visual proportion.  The conclusion may be obvious but still of visual interest.

Roughly, Edmonton could fit Manhattan inside itself over eleven times and at the same density would contain 18.4 million people.

Edmonton and Phoenix

phoenixIn stark contrast to Manhattan and with greater similarity to Edmonton, Phoenix Arizona illustrates a different end of a density spectrum.  Less cited for its urban qualities, Phoenix and its metro area are well known to many Albertans as a retirement destination, a winter escape, and a golf holiday.

Since 1990 Phoenix has experienced explosive growth, going from a population just under 1 million to just under 1.6 million in 2009.  One of the hardest hit cities by the crash of the American housing market, its population retreated over 100,000 people to where it sits today at roughly 1.5 million.  Without accounting for pre-crash numbers, in 20 years Phoenix has added a phenomenal 50% to its population since 1990.  Its rate of growth over the period far exceeded the national average to be one of the top two fastest growing metros in America.

Weather and climate aside, Edmonton and Phoenix share many urban characteristics.  While Edmonton has a greater population density they are not in completely different ballparks.  Edmonton like its counterpart is one of the fastest growing cities in Canada.  Both cities lack an urban growth boundary, and have accommodated high rates of growth by rezoning agricultural land on the perimeter.

If you line the south edge of Phoenix up with the south edge of Edmonton, it’s boundary would extend well past Morinville.

So What?

People will criticize a comparison between Edmonton and Manhattan as apples to oranges and unfair.  They are correct.  Edmonton is not Manhattan and most Edmontonians would never desire it to be.

What Manhattan demonstrates is how a small island constrained to growth has highly optimized its land use and became a world economic and cultural powerhouse, containing a highly dense population who pay exorbitant housing prices out of a desire to live and work there.  Amazingly, Manhattan’s population steadily decreased for a century – in 1910 it contained 2.3+ million people.  Today it’s at roughly 1.6 million and started to increase again only in the new millenium.

Phoenix on the other hand is a much closer approximation of the scale Edmonton would come to realize should it continue its current style and pace of growth.  This pattern has impacted the economic resiliency of Phoenix,  and fear looms over impending environmental limits.  While Edmonton has its plan to densify it continues to propose annexation and approve development at low density on the urban perimeter.

It has been said that there is no good design without constraint. Is it time for Edmonton to embrace constraint, stop growing out, and start growing up?


  1. Do these numbers/graphics reflect the new Leduc annexation?

  2. Whoops. Obviously I should’ve clicked through the link. I’d be interested to see the graphics incorporating the proposed new boundaries!

  3. It’s only a matter of time till Red Deer is the center hub of a mega city connecting Calgary and Edmonton.

  4. Scott, Graphics would be easy to do if it was provided in an easy format to use in the city’s open data catalogue. It’s a good thing that they have the catalogue, but it’s still evolving in terms of providing a lot of great and easy to manipulate geodata.

  5. I appreciate the conversation such topics can bring and am a strong supporter of Edmonton to build up more than it currently does; really, there is far too much underutilized space within the built up urban fabric.

    However, as you briefly mentioned, your cities of comparison are a bit unfair. Not only is Manhattan an absurd comparison to Edmonton, but so is Phoenix (although less so). But my problem doesn’t lie with comparing New York to Edmonton or Phoenix to Edmonton. Compare all you want.

    What I don’t get is why you’d use arbitrary boundaries which don’t create a proper comparison anyways. The New York one is more obvious, you chose not even the entire city proper, but a mere borough of it (Queens and Brooklyn are far larger and less than double the population of Manhattan). You also chose the centre of one of the world’s most important hubs, which is geographically constrained onto a tiny island. If Manhattan didn’t constrain the heart of New York’s size, you’d probably end up with a centre more resembling London or Tokyo or Chicago.

    But getting back to topic, you can’t really compare city proper to city proper without having to deal with the undoubtedly arbitrary nature of city propers. Edmonton is somewhat unique amongst North American cities (the other Prairie cities – Calgary and Winnipeg, are in the same boat) in that most of the metropolitan area is contained within a single, primary city. In most other cities, such as New York City, suburban areas are wholly independent “cities” from the primary city. But that doesn’t make White Plains any less contiguous with New York than Queens. It’s all apart of the same interconnected region.

    Just like you could technically say Vancouver is smaller than Edmonton, with a mere 600,000 people. But we all know Vancouver is just the heart of a much larger region, home to 2.3 million inhabitants. Burnaby is pretty much Vancouver in the grand scheme of things, even if the two are technically independent.

    The only way to truly do apples to apples comparisons is to compare entire metropolitan regions, that include a primary city’s entire sphere of influence (with some exceptions). Otherwise, you lend yourself to the arbitrary city propers, which vary greatly in how much of a region they take up. Vancouver takes less of the Lower Mainland cake than Edmonton does from our metropolitan area.

    Even Phoenix, which admittedly does contain a fair amount of the region’s suburbs within the city proper, would not be a fair comparison. You’d be missing over half of Phoenix’s metro population (which is around 4 million, not 1.5). Scottsdale, Mesa, Tempe, et al.

    And while New York is often held up on an urbanist pedestal for its density, much of that density leaves very fast after you leave the inner boroughs of Manhattan, the Bronx, and Brooklyn. New York’s Tri-State Area just sprawls and sprawls endlessly, taking up far more room than Edmonton’s tightly packed tract housing (although New York’s suburbs do look more idyllic and less plastic, I will give them that). As well, at least Edmonton’s suburbs take on a decent amount of multifamily, like other Canadian cities (with Toronto and Vancouver being the primates of this field). You can’t say the same really for most American cities.

    Although Edmonton does have a lot of work to do on the urban form, I do think that we often forget that we aren’t the absolute worst at everything. I’d take Edmonton’s sprawl over Phoenix’s or New York’s any day, personally. I do think we can do better though, and work towards better rail integration and more high rise development. Toronto and Vancouver’s suburbs can be a realistic model for this city. Ideally, something akin to how the Dutch plan their new suburbs would be awesome, but that’s more of a pipe dream, I think, at least for now.

  6. Hi Tyler,

    Thanks for the comment.

    I agree with your thoughts: Manhattan is an absurd comparison to Edmonton, and an apples to apples comparison would be better by using metro region. That type of comparison has been made before and you might enjoy Nezroy’s evaluation of just this:

    As in the link above, my opinion is that there are always going to be holes for people to pick in these types of comparisons, and as I alluded making a fair comparison was not what I was trying to achieve.

    What I am trying to achieve is communicating the scale of Edmonton and to do it in a way that makes it visual and as tangible as possible.

    Given the small geographic size of Manhattan, its high density, and its place as one of the densest areas of North America, it serves as a good unit of measure. I personally have made it from the north end of Central Park to the Financial District on foot in the same day – the scale of it is easy to personally experience and makes it tangible and comprehensible. Using the New York metro region is amorphous and less comprehensible. To say that Edmonton is could contain X number of New York metro regions wouldn’t mean as much to most people, it’s more difficult to spatially grasp.

    The choice of Phoenix is much more arbitrary – I could have just as easily chosen Atlanta or Houston (which I did look at). Phoenix was most compelling given that it (not including metro region) used to be close to the same population as Edmonton relatively not too long ago. It too was one of the fastest growing cities (as Edmonton is today), and is now about double the population of Edmonton with comparable density. Given Albertan’s penchants for Phoenix as a retirement destination and winter escape, it is also more recognizable. Overall it was the MOST easily illustrative and comprehensible of the scale Edmonton could realize one day.

    So just to conclude and re-iterate my intention was not to make an apples to apples ‘fair’ comparison of cities; it was to describe the scale of Edmonton currently and the scale it could take in the future without a change to the development status quo. I chose the cities (or portions) that for me made an understanding of the scale most comprehensible, and added my editorial opinion on benefits to densifying versus risks inherent in the status quo.

    My intent is not to describe how Manhattan is alike, but to situate its scale in a local context to describe Edmonton. Phoenix does share some similarity which I discussed, but the general intent shares the same purpose.

  7. Hi Jason, thanks for your reply.

    Yeah, I did like that link to Nezroy’s blog. Thanks for that, a lot of valid points there.

    You’re right that all comparisons will have holes in them. I do think that comparing metropolitan areas or even urban areas is a bit more fair than arbitrary city proper comparisons.

    But I appreciate your explanation; I now understand better where you’re coming from and the type of comparison you were trying to make, which is a very valid comparison. You’re right, Manhattan is more tangible and human scaled, good point.

    I do find the Phoenix comparison interesting. I think Edmonton is leaps and bounds more urban than Phoenix and they are overall very different cities, but they do share some key things in common. Most of them, of course, are related to growth, as you mentioned.

    Both Phoenix and Edmonton are incredibly young cities. They were hardly specks on a map before World War II. They’ve both had huge population surges in the past and present, but the scale is off. Phoenix blossomed into a region of similar population to Montreal (without the importance and stature a city such as Montreal carries) while Edmonton has a population more akin to Indianapolis or Austin (but with a higher stature within the Canadian context).

    Anyways, I think the thing that articles such as yours prove is that there is a shifting tide among Edmontonians toward that of a more sustainable, dense city. Edmonton as it currently stands is at a decent scale. Traffic isn’t terrible, thereby allowing one to easily criss-cross the city/region with relative ease compared to other cities. But you’re right, if we continue sprawling like we have for the last 30-50 years, the situation one day could become very dire.

    Luckily, Edmonton has had a remarkable turnaround in the past 15 years, due largely to that shifting tide I mentioned previously. We still aren’t where I’d like this city to be, but more and more people are asking more of their Edmonton. More vinyl shacks aren’t the only way to go. We’re waking up, slowly, to other possibilities. Prioritizing LRT expansion, creating new landmarks such as the AGA, growing attendance in festivals, plans to make Edmonton more winter-friendly, and revitalization of many inner ring neighbourhoods such as Alberta Ave and Westmount prove this.

    I have high hopes for this city. I don’t think we’ll ever become a Phoenix. The mentality for a Phoenix just doesn’t exist anymore, even in Phoenix.

  8. yup, i can’t wait to see what our downtown will look like in 20 years. i’m hopeful we can get as many people as possible living in the core and Oliver,, and at least SLOW the urban sprawl to the point where we don’t need to annex every couple of decades.

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