City manager Jeff Fielding sees his role in Calgary as a chance to build something. Photo by Adrian Shellard/For CREB®Now.

We’ve all heard that Rome wasn’t built in a day. Neither was Calgary, which continues to undergo an urban renaissance. Over the next five days, CREB®Now will present a series where it has sat down with five influencers who have helped develop the city as we know it today

The man with the plan

In Grade 12, a university professor spoke to Jeff Fielding’s class about cities and how they are planned.

“I had no idea what I wanted to be at the time,” said the man appointed city manager just over a year ago to lead Calgary’s 15,000 municipal employees.

“He (the university professor) was so passionate about what he was doing and what the future held for cities that I thought, ‘wow, I have to get into that.’”

So began Fielding’s graduate and undergraduate studies in urban geography and urban planning, along with five years of summer employment as a meter man.

That summer experience – starting as an 18-year-old, walking through the neighbourhoods of his hometown of Kitchener, Ont., and talking to people in communities of the rich and the poor – informed his view of what public service and community growth could look like.

“I was the face of the city to them and they wanted to know what was happening,” said Fielding.

Known as a collaborator and financial conservative, Fielding expresses excitement at the opportunity to establish a legacy in one of the fastest growing cities in North America.

“You don’t get that chance very often,” he said. “I can make a difference and I feel at home here. I am intuitively in sync with what the city is doing.”

Fielding added it’s not hard to understand people’s aspirations in Calgary. And, as the city’s top bureaucrat, that includes having a good relationship with, and understanding of, the development industry.

“They want to build a good city,” he said.

The city manager added of the sometimes acrimonious debate prior to his arrival, between the municipality and the residential home community over inner city densification versus suburban expansion: “We got fighting with the development industry needlessly and we have put that on a different footing.”

Densification has increased under the guidelines of the municipal development plan, and more people are living the urban lifestyle in inner city neighbourhoods.

That said, Fielding believes residents will still seek suburban living, particularly when homes there are more affordable.

The discussion going forward will centre on how the city’s continued costs of growth will be paid for, he added.

Fielding isn’t an Alberta newbie. While his planning career began out east, he also has extensive experience in Grande Prairie, Edmonton and Winnipeg.

In the late 1990s, he became manager in Calgary’s development and building approval department, also serving as acting executive officer responsible for parks and recreation, protective services and community and social services.

Promotion to city manager meant a return to his hometown of Kitchener, then London, Ont., and finally Burlington, Ont.

With the retirement of Calgary’s city manager, Fielding took the chance to return to Alberta.

He sees his role here as a chance to build something, as opposed to tough years in London where his main job was managing a consistently constrained budget.

Fielding cites a recently held forum for top administrators where, “I was proud to show them Calgary,” including a tour of Quarry Park (a new live/work/play community in the southeast, where companies like Imperial Oil have relocated from the downtown).

Fielding quotes eminent urban activist Jane Jacobs, who believed Calgary would be the only city in the world to grow “from adolescence to adulthood” in a lifetime.

Its population doubled in the last 30 years and is expected to double again in the next 30. The latest census figures, for example, show despite current economic challenges, Calgary gained almost 36,000 new residents between April 2014 and April 2015.

Fielding believes even if the city reverts to half of its annual population gains, ”that is phenomenal growth.”

And while Calgary continues to invest in important public infrastructure (such as the new $250-million Central Library, $168-million National Music Centre and four new recreation centres), the challenge going forward will be for the province to step up and recognize the importance of its cities, by investing in long-term development, he said.

In the meantime, armed with a lot more information than the teenaged civic employee did, Fielding walks or bikes to work every day from his inner city condo — stopping to talk to Calgarians along the way.