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

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 as her belongings floated down to the street. Everything in her basement, and the first floor of her home, had to be thrown into a trash heap in her front yard.

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 HoustonYou can continue to build houses where engineers and hydrologists have declared high-risk areas for flooding.

Most jurisdictions do not hold home-builders financially responsible for flooding for any length of time. In Alberta, the window of liability is one yearAt that point, homeowners are at risk. Research shows that floods and other disasters can lead to flooding. development of new housing does not slow but intensifiesDevelopers buy flooded properties to replace their lost value and as the memory of flooding fades, they are sold. become lucrative investments.

The residents’ point of view

Residents I spoke to viewed developers as myopic capitalists who prioritize safety over profit. 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 were happy that the developers had placed the houses near 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.

More 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, ineffectual, 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 respected the private property rights of private property and disapproved of 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. Many Calgarians, however, did not see it that way. They did not believe the government should infringe private property rights.

Profits are better than precaution

Calgary, like many other cities, continues its development new housing close to rivers. Riverstone and Quarry parks are new neighborhoods that offer housing, which is marketed for its picturesque living and 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. Citizen activism is not always successful in influencing government development decisions. even whenThere is relative consensus. However, there is not a consensus on the issue of restricting development near rivers. This may make it difficult to mobilize residents.

My personal opinion is that municipalities should resist the moneyed development of home-building interests and restrict growth near rivers. Instead, green space should 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 flooding in 1993/95 and the possibility of future flooding, Nijmegen in the Netherlands gave more space to Waal River during periods when it was high by moving a dam and digging a new 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 adjacent to waterways. It also provides recreational and aesthetic value. 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.However, there are varying degrees of success and consistency.

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 to getting out of a hole.


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