Jason Chin sighs as he surveys what looks like a container ship docked just steps from his living room.
The two-storey, black steel wall standing before him belongs to a new "skinny house" set on a standard, 60-foot wide residential lot that's been split in half to fit two houses where once there was one. But the new house flanking Mr. Chin's three-bedroom, 1960s-home is plopped just five feet – half the distance he used to enjoy – from his own outer wall.
"If I wanted to live beside one of these, I could have moved out to the [new] suburbs," Mr. Chin said. "We didn't want to be so close to our neighbours that we could stick our hands out and basically shake hands."
Darren Jacknisky is standing nearby. And like Mr. Chin, he hates it, too.
Mr. Jacknisky owns a house blocks from Mr. Chin's, in the similarly affluent and similarly 1960s-era Edmonton suburb of Westbrook Estates. And in 2015, after Edmonton's city council approved lot splitting to incentivize density, reversing its long-standing policy, he led a campaign that saw about 75 per cent of Westbrook property owners sign restrictive covenants on their titles that banned such splits.
In the years since, a half dozen other Edmonton communities have followed Mr. Jackinsky's lead, gaining signatures from a large majority of their residents. Further south, in Calgary, a few communities have also signed restrictive covenants, making Alberta stand out as a province where residents are using property laws against their own governments to restrict subdivision.
Though Edmonton's city planners have suggested that property values might fall in response, Mr. Jacknisky says houses in Westbrook with the restrictions still sell in a day, in bidding wars.
Michael Walters, the municipal councillor representing Landsdowne – Mr. Jacknisky and Mr. Chin's district – has argued that the city is picking "little fights" to increase density. Another, Michael Oshry has upped the ante, proposing a subclass of higher property taxes on homes with restrictive covenants.
With his new neighbour's "Trump Wall" looming behind him, Mr. Chin notes that Landsdowne owners have not adopted restrictive covenants, yet, but might be swayed if more lots are split.
"It's too late for you," Mr. Jacknisky interjects.
Planners have come to see Canada's "first suburbs" – those 1950s and 60s-era planned communities that hug the borders of large cities – as prime candidates in an effort to reverse car dependency and add urban density. But many of first suburb residents are resisting. Some see Edmonton's restrictive covenants as a glimpse at just how raw battles for and against rebuilding could become.
David Gordon, a professor and expert on suburban history at Queen's University, Kingston, says Canada's first suburbs were built after the Second World War, when the car was king and the Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation started insuring 25-year mortgages. This allowed more buyers into the market and developers responded with small, more affordable houses that were outsized by their suburban lots, and they sold them to Baby Boomer families in the fifties, sixties and seventies.
Today, this housing is nearing the end of its lifespan, but is surrounded by lush, mature vegetation – conspicuously different from the swathes of raw, modern McMansions swarming the outer fringes. And in an age when car dependency and commuterism has become less desirable, these first suburbs are a short drive, bus trip or bike ride from downtown. "It's not surprising that the original postwar suburbs are looking like infill candidates because of these small houses on these large lots," Mr. Gordon said.
An even stronger reason planners and developers covet first suburbs is who lives in them – or, more precisely, who doesn't. In Edmonton, data shows neighbourhoods like Westbrook Estates are bleeding population year by year, while the number of people per house is falling and the average resident's age is rising. Indeed, the recent federal census showed Edmonton's inner ring to be a net population loser.
Finding ways to bring people back to these neighbourhoods is all about reinvigorating the infrastructure; the sewers, sidewalks, schools, transit stops and roads the city has already built there, said Peter Ohm, the Edmonton's chief of planning. But Mr. Ohm is aware of the citizen push-back, and earlier this year he and his office proposed what some call "Infill 2.0" – a plan that would see most new density in these areas to be concentrated along main roads and near transit nodes.
Still, Mr. Ohm says some of the conflict is inevitable. "Edmonton's a relatively young city, and a lot of the [first suburb] parts are still original, so they haven't gone through that transformation," he said. "When change begins in that part of the city, it's tough for them to take on. We're finding people living in the newer suburbs are getting more used to the concept of density than some of the folks that live in the core neighbourhoods."
Roberto Noce, a former city councillor who now practices real estate law in Edmonton, says the covenants are canaries in a coal mine for a system in need of a rethink. "The desire speaks volumes about the public process that was followed with respect to the development of these skinny lots in mature neighbourhoods," Mr. Noce said. "It would probably be in the interest of the politicians to revisit this issue."
Eran Kaplinksy, an associate professor at the University of Alberta who studies property law, says the rules in Alberta do not give property owners near subdivided lots a voice. And, Mr. Kaplinksy adds, the use of restrictive covenants does not surprise him, given the city was built around a covenant the Hudson's Bay Company used to limit development in what is now the city's core.
Those at the top are nonetheless taking the long view.
Since Don Iveson became Edmonton mayor in 2013, many within council and the city's administration have talked of taking on a "transformative agenda" in response to the city's breathless growth, which sees it nearing one million residents today and forecast to top two million by 2044. That agenda has, for the first time, recast suburban developments as unsustainably expensive and highlighted redevelopment of core areas as the way forward.
While Mr. Iveson was not mayor in 2008, when Edmonton chose to curb sprawl by setting a target that at least 25 per cent of all new residential development would be based in existing neighbourhoods, rather than on the fringes (those targets have so far not been met), he was a councillor and supported it.
"I wouldn't give up that easily," he said. "I think there is an appetite [for densifying]. We see that in Edmonton where fast growth has meant more than a doubling of our population downtown. Yes, that pales in comparison to growth in other parts of the city, but urbanism is starting to take hold in the core of the city and, fortunately, we have quite a bit of area next to downtown to continue to accommodate that high density growth."
Edmonton is introducing new bylaws for lot splitting in July. These further scale back the consultation process for creating skinny homes, allow them to be slightly taller and less in keeping with a block's aesthetic. They also push designers to build in more privacy – by making sure the news home's windows and any balconies or decks do not allow peeping-Tom views into mature homes or amenity areas beside them.
The race to penetrate Edmonton's first suburbs and replace the housing stock with denser, more modern offerings is so heated these days that one developer is offering a house for free on Kijiji to anyone who will take it off its large, tree-lined lot and allow him to build skinny homes.
Fighting this race is not about NIMBYism, says Kim Ruff, the president of the Westbrook Community League, a signatory of a restrictive covenant and a neighbour to Mr. Jacknisky. Instead, Ms. Ruff says it's about allowing residents to decide how their individual communities look, feel and are redeveloped, rather than applying a one-size fits all approach from on high.
Ms. Ruff said Westbrook residents told the Community League in 2015 that they supported adding density using garage suites and laneway housing, but not with skinny homes. Ms. Ruff personally supports adding it on the edges of the community as well, along major roads and near transit, but not within the neighbourhood itself.
Part of her reasoning is that the skinny homes being built do not hit most of the city's targets for affordability, attracting new owners with children for the schools or feeding into transit. Indeed, she and Mr. Jacknisky both note the city is actually contemplating cancelling the neighbourhood's lone bus route. "It's just the net gain is so small for what they're actually trying to do," Ms. Ruff said. "Those who don't benefit are the people directly beside them."
It's a point Mr. Chin agrees with, too. As he stands beside a new skinny home that he thinks will sell for more than $800,000 but only increase the population fractionally, if at all, he said he's not sure it's all worth it.
"As a city, if you can guarantee me two families of five each or four each will move here, then yeah, you have an argument," he said. "But they can't guarantee me that it's not going to two singles, or two singles with a child. That's five. When you could have had five in the same house."