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Commuters wearing protective masks ride their bicycles in Bogota, Colombia, on March 16, 2020.Fernando Vergara/The Associated Press

Christopher Alexander is president of RE/MAX Canada.

Yes, Canada needs more housing inventory – that is obvious to most. But the solution is not just about boosting supply.

Rather, we need purposeful inventory: the right type of housing, in the right areas, with access to the right mix of transportation and, most importantly, with liveability at its core. This should be prioritized in all cities across the country, but especially in smaller markets that are on the cusp of fast growth.

In fact, urban planners will tell you that this approach has been in practice for decades with frameworks such as the 15-minute city or 15-minute neighbourhood.

In the past couple of months, this urban planning concept has taken over headlines and sparked fierce debate. It holds that all essential services and amenities such as housing, schools, health care, parks and work should be located within a 15-minute walk or bike ride. This is the key to tackling the housing and affordability crisis in Canada.

In 2017, the National Housing Strategy set out to “create liveable communities where families thrive, children learn and grow, and their parents have the stability and opportunities they need to succeed.” But now that we have surpassed the halfway point of that 10-year, $55-billion strategy, how much headway have we actually made toward making this promise a reality?

Thus far, the NHS has succeeded in creating and repairing 213,733 units. In comparison, Canada’s population grew by more than one million in 2022. With demand that is perpetually outpacing supply, many find themselves at a fork in the road where difficult choices must be made, but what is the reality of the choices that Canadians are being provided?

Decisions such as the Ontario government’s move to build developments on the Greenbelt are piecemeal solutions that fail to address the real problem. We know that building on wetlands eliminates a natural climate mitigator, which can lead to flooding and homes that are uninsurable, unliveable and nothing more than empty inventory in the long-term. Moreover, building homes farther and farther out, contributing to urban sprawl, is not the solution.

A recent study by TomTom revealed that Canadians spent approximately 144 hours in rush-hour traffic across the country in 2022. Despite suburbia offering pockets of affordability and promising improved liveability, this perceived appeal quickly becomes diluted with commute times. In fact, according to a 2023 Leger survey commissioned by RE/MAX Canada, about one in four Canadians believes that reducing commute time to 15 minutes or less would improve their quality of life.

The question now becomes: How do we build more homes, while simultaneously fostering communities that amplify liveability?

While it’s never too late for any municipality, regardless of its size, to adopt the pragmatic strategy of the 15-minute city, there is more impetus to do so on the less populous ones. It is an opportunity present for smaller markets in the throes of expansion to avoid the mistakes of their larger neighbouring city centres. And we should look to existing cities that have gone down this path.

At its most basic level, the 15-minute neighbourhood can reduce carbon emissions, promote social cohesion and even improve public health. These are all benefits that are already being enjoyed by cities such as Paris, Copenhagen and Melbourne.

Meanwhile, cities such as Helsinki have captured the spirit of this framework and even surpassed it, by ensuring that each neighbourhood has a balance of market housing, mixed-income housing and subsidized housing. This offers residents access to a culturally and socio-economically diverse, vibrant community where small businesses and people thrive.

Closer to home, it’s clear that the measures and initiatives adopted by the municipal, provincial and federal governments in Canada have not been enough.

Real estate has historically given homeowners great long-term returns that they have been able to pass down to future generations. This is one of the reasons Canadians still believe it is one of the best investments they could make. However, a home is more than a commodity – it is also a dwelling anchored by the promise that it will enhance and improve our individual and collective quality of life.

In truth, if we want to make strides toward sustainable, long-term affordability and liveability, we must use existing land more pragmatically and create cities, towns and neighbourhoods that offer a mix of housing types with a vision for quality of life at the forefront.

Podcast: Should all Canadian cities be 15-minute cities?

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