City continues process of intensification, as communities adjust to higher-density living
For a long time, news stories about development in Calgary tended to paint a picture of a city growing out of control, with headlines like “Calgary battles urban sprawl” or “Calgary versus the car: the city that declared war on urban sprawl.”
Rylan Graham, an instructor in the University of Calgary’s Faculty of Environmental Design, says after the Second World War, much of the population growth in cities occurred on the urban-rural fringe.
“This is the form of growth that is often connected with the term urban sprawl,” he said. “Generally, planning has come to recognize the ills of urban sprawl – that it is unsustainable socially, economically and environmentally.”
He says negative effects can include the conversion of vast amounts of open space into development, and a reliance on private vehicles for transportation, which increases carbon emissions and affects people’s health as they walk less.
Expanding a city’s infrastructure ever-outwards also has economic costs for a municipality and its taxpayers.
Graham says the solution is changing policy to emphasize growth within the existing city footprint – known as intensification.
“This is happening in Calgary – that shift and line of thinking is happening at the policy level,” he said. “To point to a specific neighbourhood, Calgary’s East Village would be a good example. (It’s) a neighbourhood where infrastructure and services are in place, where people are able to commute through more environmentally friendly ways, (such as) walking, cycling, LRT.”
A major step along the way was Calgary City Council’s approval of a new Municipal Development Plan (MDP) and Calgary Transportation Plan in 2009.
Since that time, according to census data, changes have started to occur.
For example, before the new MDP was adopted, population growth in Calgary from 2001 to 2002 was heavily concentrated in new communities, which saw 24,363 new residents while existing communities only grew by 2,410 people.
But from 2013 to 2014 new communities added 22,281 residents and developed communities gained another 16,227.
Joe Mueller, manager of planning and policy services with the City of Calgary, says the goal of the MDP is broader than just addressing outward growth of the city.
“It’s about a city being able to provide its citizens with a wide range of choices,” he said. “From how you’d like to work or get around to what kind of residential life you’d like to have.”
He notes that this doesn’t mean the end of new communities and single-family homes in the suburbs for those Calgarians who prefer them.
“Humans generally are wary of change. What the City has really understood is that the conversation cannot be abstract – it has to be understandable to all of the participants in the conversation.” – Joe Mueller, City of Calgary manager of planning and policy services
“The MDP recognizes the different areas of the city, it recognizes new communities equally with the established or developed areas,” he said.
However, it does mean people in existing communities need to weigh the pros and cons of intensification.
“Humans generally are wary of change,” said Mueller. “What the City has really understood is that the conversation cannot be abstract – it has to be understandable to all of the participants in the conversation.”
He has been at meetings where residents were opposed to a planned six-storey, wood-frame, residential development in their neighbourhood – one of the new types of buildings allowed under changes to the building code.
At the same time, residents also lamented there were too few services in their neighbourhood and they would love to have a local cafe, bakery or pharmacy.
“They want their own little Kensington,” said Mueller. “(And while) a developer may be interested in building something that would house a cafe, it’s not going to be in a bungalow, (and) it’s not going to be in a two-storey building either.”
He says once residents see the bigger picture and connect the dots, “often people say, ‘I’d be willing to live with that. That’s a trade-off I’d being willing to make.’ ”
Meanwhile, the industry responsible for building Calgary’s housing says the city’s growth does not qualify as urban sprawl.
“I would argue that Calgary does not fall into that category,” said Guy Huntingford, CEO of BILD Calgary Region.
“Most large cities are a bunch of little boroughs or municipalities that tend to be more fractured. We’re very fortunate here because we’ve been able to grow contiguously, and so you don’t have development leapfrogging out into the middle of a field somewhere with miles in between.”
He says the MDP introduced a seismic shift by replacing rules setting out maximum density with ones for minimum density.
“People might drive through some of the older communities and say, ‘Look, it’s all spread out and there’s no density here. Why did they use all this land up?’ And there’s a reason,” said Huntingford. “It’s because the policy was that you could only build to a maximum density, and that’s what developers did. They couldn’t build anymore.”
He says the change in policy has allowed suburbs with higher density to emerge, “like Mahogany or Seton or Cornerstone or any of these new communities where you’ve got very interesting mixed-use facilities, all of which came about from density.”
Developers have heard concerns from some consumers worried they will lose the choice to buy the type of housing they prefer, Huntingford says, but these concerns are largely unwarranted.
“A lot of that is people who are not necessarily in the market, who are reading and speculating over what may or may not be,” he said. “The truth is, developers are still building what people want.”