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Why are homes still being built next to rivers? The solution is not agreed upon by flood-prone residents
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Why are homes still being built next to rivers? The solution is not agreed upon by flood-prone residents

A man wearing a mask and work gloves throws muddy debris into a pile next to a house.


Like many residents living near Calgary’s rivers, Irene’s house flooded in June 2013 when heavy rainfall melted the snowpack in the Rocky Mountains, inundating much of southern Alberta in what was, at the time, the costliest disaster in Canadian history.

Irene watched her belongings drift down the street. Everything in her basement and on the first floor of her house had to go.

Reflecting on this trauma and her home’s devastation, she said: “Developers get away with a lot of shit they shouldn’t get away with.” She recalled arguing years earlier with the developer about how close to the river it planned to build the houses, and wondered if it might have been worse had her home been built as close to the river as initially planned.

I was part a team studying housing, environmental views and hazards who interviewed residents of Calgary’s flood-affected neighbourhoods. Remarks like Irene’s were common.

Calgary and many more cities, including Montréal, Vancouver, Myrtle Beach HoustonContinue to build houses in areas that engineers and hydrologists have identified as high-risk for flooding.

Most jurisdictions do not hold home-builders financially responsible for flooding for very long. In Alberta, the window of liability is one yearAt that point, homeowners are at risk. Research has shown that flooding and other disasters are a major cause of property loss. development of new housing does not slow but intensifiesDevelopers purchase flood-prone properties and the memory of flooding fades. become lucrative investments.

The residents’ point of view

I met residents who saw developers as myopic capitalists who put profit ahead of safety. Scott told me that while developers are responsible for driving the hazard risk, “You can’t blame the developers, they are … there to make bucks, right? And if the city says you can build there then, bingo!… They make a pile.”

Surprisingly, residents did not complain that their homes were flooded. They did not blame developers for placing the houses too close to a potential hazard. They were more accepting of it.

A man wearing a mask and work gloves throws muddy debris into a pile next to a house.
Yahya Abougoush helps clean up his parents’ house in High River, Alta., on July 3, 2013.

Residents had two different ideas when asked about flood safety.

Better regulations

A large number of Calgarians support new government regulations that limit development in flood-prone areas in order to rein in developers.

Rachel said, “They can’t build where the city says they can’t…. It has to be government who says it can’t be done.”

Gary said he believes Calgary’s municipal government “lacks the balls” to stand up to developers and regulate floodplain development. When asked why that was, he said, “It’s about money” and the political influence that developers wield over city council. Residents saw the municipal government as weak, ineffective, and unwilling to stand up for developers.

Quite often, the same people who argued for better government regulations on floodplain development also insisted that government should provide home buyers with a disclosure of a home’s location in a flood-prone area, a move that the real estate industry has dubbed “idiotic” and one that would “kill the market.”

A gravel path and some strips of grass separate a row of homes from a river.
Riverstone is home to new homes. Bow River can be seen on the left.
(Timothy Haney), Author provided

Tasha wished she had been informed of the risk prior to buying her home, and told us, “I have lived here for 42 years and I have never heard of ‘flood fringe’ … maybe realtors should be more upfront about that.”

The flood fringe is the area adjacent to the river with measurable flood risk — usually greater than one per cent annual probability of flooding. Angela said any declaration must go beyond a simple disclosure and “explain what it means.” Many preferred this type of new regulation.

Buyer beware

Alberta is known for its beauty and warmth. right-wing populismOther participants pushed back against the new regulations and stated that individuals must take responsibility. They remained steadfast in their belief in the sanctity and propriety of private property rights, and expressed disapproval for government overreach. They felt that buyers must beware, often mentioning the need for “common sense.”

Caleb said, “I think people can live wherever they want, but I think they have to carry that risk.” Others called it “instinctual.”

Sociologists, like me, are often critical of “common sense,” looking at how such taken-for-granted knowledge is a culturally dependent and contextually specific product of socialization. However, many Calgarians didn’t see it that way and believed that the government shouldn’t infringe upon private property rights.

Profits are better than precaution

Calgary, like many other cities, continues its development new housing close to rivers. Riverstone and Quarry Park are new neighbourhoods that offer beautiful living spaces and easy river access.

In other areas, older houses near the river are being renovated. razed to make room for infills — usually two or more homes on an existing lot. These infill developments increase river-adjacent communities’ density, increasing the risk for residents.

Notable was also the lack of consensus among study participants. In the effort to influence government decisions regarding development, citizen activism tends not to produce mixed results. even whenThere is relative consensus. However, there is no consensus in the area of restricting development close to rivers. This could make it difficult for residents and businesses to mobilize.

My personal opinion is that municipal governments should resist moneyed developments and home-building interests. This means limiting growth near rivers. Green spaces should instead be preserved.

aerial view of a bend in a river with some elongated islands, several bridges and homes and business developments on each bank.
After floods in 1993/95, and facing future flooding because of climate change, Nijmegen in the Netherlands gave more space to Waal River during periods when it was high by moving a dam and dredging an additional channel.
(DaMatriX/Wikimedia), CC BY-SA

This approach is often called “room for the river,” and is particularly popular in northern and western Europe. This approach preserves the areas immediately adjacent to waterways. People are then moved away by buyouts if necessary. The development of new areas is limited. It has been used in North American cities, such as Norfolk, Va.Although with different degrees of consistency and success,

Climate change is causing a more volatile climate. This will undoubtedly lead to new flood events near rivers, and increasing flood losses. Society must do more to protect people and property from water hazards. This includes stopping new developments in the vicinity of these hazards. Stop digging is the first step towards getting out of a hole.


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