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A new look at old neighbourhoods

In addition to the Twist and Woodstock, a lot of great neighbourhoods were created in the 1960s. Today, Calgary’s middle-ring suburbs – those developed between 1950 and the early 1970s – face some serious challenges, but, at the same time, some unique opportunities.

“These neighbourhoods are in a good location, fairly close to downtown, and feature large lots with single-family, detached bungalows and split levels,” said Francisco Alaniz Uribe, an assistant professor in the faculty of environmental design at the University of Calgary. Uribe co-authored a study on the city’s middle-ring communities with his colleague Beverly A. Sandalack, professor and associate dean with the faculty of environmental design.

Designed mostly as single-use, low-density residential areas, these communities may have one or two schools and limited access to retail services, with perhaps some small commercial nodes at the fringes. While this structure might have worked well in its time, it poses problems for an aging population.

“For an older person living alone who can no longer manage on their own, the lack of seniors’ housing and nearby retail services may force them to leave their friends and move to another neighbourhood,” said Uribe.

“Certain people will resist change no matter what, but I see a good attitude in many communities where people understand that a change is needed and that it’s something they can work with.” – Francisco Alaniz Uribe, University of Calgary faculty of environmental design

Meanwhile, buyers have demolished some houses and used the ample lots to erect larger, more expensive homes.

Because the higher prices appealed mostly to professional couples with no children, this has led to decreased school enrollment, school closures and a real change to the fabric of the community.

Thus, the challenge became how to increase the mix of uses and bring in more forms of housing, including apartments, seniors’ residences and secondary suites.

“Redevelopment can scare some current residents and spark opposition to change,” said Uribe. “This often stems from a lack of information or a flawed consultation process.”

Given the importance of redevelopment for these communities, addressing those barriers is critical.

“There is an enormous amount of public consultation involved in redevelopment, and that’s a good thing,” said Guy Huntingford, CEO of BILD Calgary Region.

“The problem is that some people don’t realize what all is involved, and the really strict rules and requirements set forth by the City of Calgary. A lot of education is needed to get everyone on the same playing field.”

Aging infrastructure is another hurdle on the road to redevelopment.

“A builder or developer might buy a few older bungalows in a row and knock them down to put up six townhomes, only to realize that the underground services won’t support the new construction,” said Huntingford.

Since the cost of correcting the problem can be prohibitive, land often becomes sterilized. In response, the City is looking at mapping what exists below ground to give developers the whole picture in advance.

It’s a long, expensive process, and it’s still unclear who will pay for it, but it may be a step in the right direction.

Though redevelopment has its challenges, Uribe is optimistic about the outcomes.

“Certain people will resist change no matter what, but I see a good attitude in many communities where people understand that a change is needed and that it’s something they can work with,” he said.

“Middle-ring residents just want to be more involved and be listened to. It’s the same story with developers, where some want to focus on building low-risk projects, while others are willing to try new things and engage the community.

“As with any good partnership, you need to work with someone who is willing to work with you. Change creates issues, but it also provides opportunities, and I just hope the conversation will include a balance of both.”