Experts talk plans for a denser, more walkable Calgary

Bumper to bumper traffic heading downtown

If North America is the kingdom of the car, Calgary could very well serve as the capital of that kingdom. At 700 square kilometres, Calgary is almost the same size as the city of New York, N.Y., but is only home to one-tenth of their population.

When any population grows, transit, roads and amenities must grow with it. Calgary is a city connected by roaring freeways and a transit system that stretches from the core deep into the ever-expanding edges of the city. Hour-long commutes are commonplace and transit is at capacity during peak hours.

“This is for real,” says Coun. Evan Woolley of Calgary’s traffic and development woes.

“There are thousands and thousands of people moving into single neighbourhoods now, but we cannot fit any more cars on the road into downtown. It’s impossible.”

The councillor for Ward 8 says the key to addressing these and other issues is working to build a denser city. Woolley says the model of growth that propelled Calgary’s expansion in the ’80s is a model that’s no longer affordable or sustainable.

Car-centric model “a thing of the past”

Produced by: Pauline Zulueta

“We have got to be creative and forward-looking in how we build the city that we built and living in a car-centric suburban dream is a thing of the past,” Woolley says.

“Given the costs of growth and the costs to operate a city of this size, it’s not possible under our current model. And the opportunities we have, I think, are to build a more dense city.”

So instead of focusing on outward growth, he says he and some of his colleagues on city council are working to implement strategies for re-densification, particularly along nodes, corridors, and transit areas.

“Don’t get me wrong, we will continue to build suburban neighborhoods. We have got to. We have 30,000 people moving to this city every year. But I think the biggest opportunity is along nodes and corridors,” Woolley says.

Deliberate density

Lance Robinson, a sessional instructor in the faculty of environmental design at the University of Calgary, agrees with Woolley’s assertion that density is key.

“The density issue Calgary is facing is: Do we continue to expand north, southeast and west into the suburbs farther and farther and farther?” Robinson says.

“Will Airdrie become part of Calgary? Is Cochrane soon to become a neighbourhood not a city? Or do we look at the inner-city and say East Village, the Beltline, Sunalta, [and ask if we] can we increase density in these neighbourhoods by building multi-family residences?”

Robinson says the key to building a more sustainable Calgary lies in co-operation between developers and planners, as well as in the participation of everyday Calgarians.

“Calgary does have sprawl problem, but it can’t just be developers against the city to solve that. To solve that, it has to be Calgarians looking at it,” Robinson says.

A vibrant inner-city

Produced by: Pauline Zulueta

Robinson says the decay of inner-city is an issue faced by many planners and developers, but allocating more resources to inner-city development can help prevent this decay.

“If you have people moving away from the downtown, you have large areas of the city which become less desirable and more abandoned and not focused on as much,” Robinson says.

Without a variety of residential communities in and around downtown, city cores — Calgary included — empty out at the end of the workday.

Robinson says drawing people to the inner city creates a feedback loop of sorts. When city cores have resident communities, the entire area is enlivened, creating a more “fun and vibrant place to be.”

Walkability is important

Richard Parker, former head planner with the City of Calgary, says walkability is key to reducing Calgary’s “urban footprint.”

“The more you spread out, the more challenge it is for providing things like . . . building utilities. And the fact of the matter is: the lower the density-build, the more difficult it is to provide things like efficient public transit service,” Parker says.

“Low-density form of development [and] spreading out very much encourages use of the automobile, and that’s one of the key things. If you want to get away from reliance on the automobile, urban sprawl does not help you.”

Parker says building neighbourhoods like Calgary’s Garrison Woods, where all amenities are within walking distance instead of driving distance, helps create a community less dependent on the car.

“There’s a huge amount of land area devoted to the automobile. Probably getting close to 30 to 40 per cent of the land area is devoted to the automobile in large parts of the city,” Parker says.

“If you can reduce that amount of land area, you can plan more efficiently.”

Including all options

Trent Edwards, chief operating officer for Brookfield Residential in Alberta, says that he too believes increasing inner-city density is important. But he wants to make sure Calgarians have affordable options for every lifestyle.

“We just can’t force everyone to a different way of life than what they’re looking for. We can’t force them to live in apartments if that’s not what they’re looking for,” Edwards says.

Edwards says that while he and his organization are committed to creating a denser Calgary when possible, he would like developers to be free to build outwards as well.

“We have to build in the inner-city but we’re not taking the foot off the gas out of the city as well. We’ve obviously got lots of land to play with, but obviously you don’t want to use it all up.”

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