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Cowtown – The Sprawling City

My family likes Calgary. We lived there for two years and loved it, enjoying it’s proximity to the mountains, a fantastic river corridor through the city and it’s vibrant, sometimes alternative communities. But Calgary is a sprawling city, ever increasing it’s city limits like a belt on it’s last hole, it barely contains the bulging waistline of a growing population.

I recently returned from a quick trip to Calgary, visiting friends who live in a cute modest house in the suburbs, on a quiet street where the kids can play on their bikes or with hockey sticks without fear of high speed traffic.  They know their neighbors names, and all the kids on the street. Its a little community looking out for each other. Sounds ideal doesn’t it?  The American Dream, replayed in a city nestled against the Canadian Rockies. I loved their home and their community, and if it were a bit more affordable, we would consider moving there ourselves.

The reality of the image is a little darker, with long commutes to work, high mortgages on expensive house and land packages, double digit economic growth forcing potential home buyers to look further and further afield for their dream home. Parts of downtown are rough, in a recent article, Lisa Rochon of The Globe and Mail stated…

Suburbs are not only unsustainable, they suck the life out of the downtown.

And a downtown abandoned by the middle class replicates the Detroit syndrome: crime, 24-hour prostitution and drug-dealing in areas where people no longer want to live. Walk around Calgary — dare to abandon your car — in order to appreciate how mean the streets have become. The city is defined by urban parsimony.

Instead of parks or courtyards designed to allow people to bask in the big Alberta sun, there is a formidable system of one-way streets and towers that come down hard to the edge of the street.

Source: globeandmail.com: Time to get tough on Cowtown


So what’s happened to downtown Calgary? Successful business mixed with short sighted planning drove the city core to become an economic and business precinct, rather than a mixed urban environment with significant residential apartment and townhouse stock. Homelessness is an issue, with close to 3,000 people seeking refuge from the winter nights in 43 shelters downtown. This is nearly 10% of the 30,000 total people who call downtown their home. Crime is a serious problem, with over half of all reported personal and property crimes occurring downtown. 

Areas surrounding the downtown core have recently seen some medium density development, but for the city to become a safe, sustainable place to live, inner city housing stocks must be introduced to the market. The population is growing at around 100 people per day, many of these people are professionals moving to Alberta to join in the oil fueled race.  The new housing being built on the outskirts of the city is a long way from downtown, up to an hour each way. Could the city bring residents back to downtown? What would it take? 

The above mentioned article doesn’t provide answers to this, but states that new construction and revitalization is occurring, and admittedly the skyline is crowded with cranes, but most of these are further office buildings, and the majority of the workers will live in the suburbs. 

Fifteen new single-family homes a day begin construction in Calgary, a city that adds nearly 100 people daily to its ranks. The rest of the country sits in awe of Calgary’s explosive expansion — some in envy, others in horror. Affluence and tax receipts from an economic boom are coveted, but not the headaches of traffic gridlock, labor shortages and astronomical housing prices.

Source: The Calgary Sun – Sprawl systems go in million-man club

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This city exists because of oil, not just the proximity to local oil reserves and the Athabasca Oil Sand Fields, but the whole premise of a city of over a million residents on the edge of the Canadian Rocky Mountains seems absurd without oil. Almost all of the consumed goods arrive by truck or plane, some of them having traveled thousands of miles. Transport in the city is difficult without a car, even a trip to the local shops is best undertaken with a car, or be prepared for some long walks.

We can’t reverse the fact that this city, (and hundreds of other like it around the world) exists, but we can take these signs as a warning and look to other cities for guidance on how to revitalize the inner core to encourage residents to make their home there, to reduce crime, to make the streets safe to walk at night, to bring life back in to the city.

In boom time, the tendency is for Calgary to go on automatic pilot and build towers. In order to accommodate a flood of people wanting to work and live in the downtown, the projection is for more than 100 30-storey condominium towers and about 20 new 30-storey office towers by 2025. But too many towers will further depersonalize the city Centre. Without credible alternatives to the suburbs, such as low-scale developments animated by new public space, cafés and retail, Calgary’s downtown will die a slow, heart-stopping death.

Source: globeandmail.com: Time to get tough on Cowtown

“A slow heart-stopping death” is a far cry from the boom that is happening right now, money and prosperity are the drivers in the extreme city growth. Slowly but surely urban consolidation will occur, hopefully soon, hopefully these big corporations that are making good profits will see value in redefining the city. Is it possible that truly sustainable change could occur in a city like Calgary? Could a green revitalization transform how the city lives, travels, works and plays?

The city has a personality, it proved it in the 1988 Winter Olympics and again every year with The Stampede.  This is the heart of the city, this is what needs to be resurrected from the urban decay that is hard not to miss. All around the world people have realized that communities make most cities what they are, not the buildings, the iconic towers or skyscrapers, but the people on the street, the life on the street. Calgary needs to take it’s future into its own hands and listen to the ideas of the community.

 

Mike Thomas

Mike Thomas P.Eng. ENV SP, is the author of UrbanWorkbench.com and Director of Engineering at the City of Revelstoke in the Interior of British Columbia, Canada. If I post something here that you find helpful as you navigate the world of engineering, planning and building communities, that’s wonderful. But when push comes to shove: This is my personal blog. The views expressed on these pages are mine alone and not those of my employer.

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