Climate criminal, sprawling city, cowboy town – Calgary is not exactly known for walkability or human scale design. In the 70s, its oil and gas industries sent the city’s economy skyrocketing, bringing with them well-paid jobs, continual population growth and houses that sprawled. Some 87% of Calgarians live in the suburbs today. Driving through a generous 8-lane ‘avenue’, only about 15 minutes southwest of the city centre, it is a bizarre sight – even the blocks surrounding a train station lay relatively flat, with a couple of 3-storey retirement villages, a shopping centre and a Park and Ride carpark. 15 minutes on the train would get me to the heart of downtown for CAD$3.25.
In some aspects, this is the kind of utopia that many Australian communities aspire to: live in detached houses with large backyards, have plenty of street/mall parking and no traffic jam, while being close to the city centre and amenities. I was born a ‘masterplanned neighbourhood baby’ in a dense part of Seoul, grew up in a Christchurch suburb and moved up and down the inner-outer suburb spectrum in the US, Vietnam and Australia. I admit that as I age, I appreciate the quiet and greenery of my current suburb somewhere in the middle of that spectrum, which I would have abhorred even three years ago. Inner-city living – despite many proven health and happiness advantages – isn’t everybody’s cup of tea, especially in cities like Calgary where there is plenty of land, cheap fuel and not enough amenities in the city centre to allure residents.
But Calgary is changing. This is a city slowly shifting that deeply embedded suburban culture that spans across Canada. From political directions to community actions, and from large precincts developments to small benches, I was in Calgary to witness who is playing what roles. (see map: change in population)
Political leadership to fight sprawl
Calgarians for a long time didn’t have many lifestyle choices: live in a house in the suburbs, or live in a house in the suburbs. Now faced with a fast-growing population, the new Mayor Naheed Nenshi wants to shift the citizens’ mindset and support growth that creates ‘a financially, environmentally, and socially sustainable future’. In this article, he explains a new off-site levy bylaw to discontinue the subsidy of the cost of off-site infrastructure and encourage denser living.
One large development project taking place in the city centre is East Village (EV) led by Calgary Municipal Land Corporation (CMLC), an arms-length subsidiary of City of Calgary (City). CMLC was created in 2007 to lead the City’s urban renewal projects, following reports of corruption involving developments. Established as the city’s first neighbourhood in the 1900s, East Village for decades suffered from disinvestment and a high level of crime, but now is undergoing a major change. The government bought back 70% of the land over time and claims ‘since 2007, CMLC’s commitment of $357 million into infrastructure and development programs has so far attracted $2.7 billion of planned development expected to deliver $801 million of Community Revitalization Levy (CRL) for the City of Calgary, our sole shareholder’. I spoke with the staff at the EV Experience & Sales Centre about what kind of a community they are trying to create. The staff say the condos are likely to attract professionals, families and empty nesters downsizing. Currently there is no supermarket, insufficient critical mass to support a new school, or things to do generally in the neighbourhood. But 40km-long cycle and walking paths along the stunning Bow River connect suburbs northwest to southeast, and the City Hall C-Train Station is a few minutes away. Perhaps not a big deal in cities like Sydney, but there is even a high-rise apartment block without carparking (and is selling for less than those with, at c200K for a one bed). This neighbourhood may just start a new trend — people choosing not to own cars.
The existing social network
As is the challenge with many large redevelopments, East Village is at risk of displacing existing marginalised communities. They include residents in senior housing, affordable housing and Calgary Drop-In & Rehab Centre, the largest homeless services centre in North America that serves a thousand people a month. These existing buildings will stay untouched by the renewal, however, I anticipate the kind of a place East Village is envisioned to be are more likely to serve the new demographic, as rendered in promotional photographs that feature condos with rooftop gardens, markets and artisanal breads. No physical displacement doesn’t mean no impact. How does the renewal improve the lives of the marginalised people? Studio Bell, a new national music centre, just opened its doors and the CAD$245-million New Central Library is under construction. Who are the new amenities for?
In the city centre there are already existing networks of homeless communities. The Mustard Seed, a homeless services provider, offers basic services, housing, employment and spiritual care. I visited one of the sites they own a few blocks from East Village, where Bill Nixon, Director of Community and Spiritual Care, and Boris Lesar, Clinical Director, shared their mission, successes and challenges. The 12-storey building doesn’t look too different from other apartments from the outside, but the inside is designed as a one-stop support centre. On the ground and first levels are computer training labs; employment services; spiritual services; carers, counsellors, psychologists and doctors on shifts in private rooms; a communal kitchen where residents can cook, share and freeze meals; and recreational spaces. A pharmacy is moving in soon. The upper levels are ‘sober’ apartments with a communal space on each floor. The idea is to provide wrap-around support for the residents many of whom fled from bad situations and suffer from trauma. The social network is a significant factor that determines well-being – the resident’s relationships with the carers as well as other residents provide the safety net to focus on other issues. Boris is passionate about training young university graduates to be compassionate and empathetic, and cites a study that shows homeless people don’t feel welcome in hospitals. (I found one such study here)
Community values in the public realm
The locals tell me there is no other neighbourhood better known for social cohesion than Sunnyside/Kensington. There lives a community that is self-organised and active – they stood against a new train line splitting up the neighbourhood, have several SPIN farms (Small Plot Intensive) where local produce is traded or sold, and dot the streets with pieces of handmade book shares and benches. The 40m x 160m blocks mostly have a mix of 3-storey flats and small detached houses. Without garages dominating the street fronts, coherent, diverse and interesting streetscape is formed with front porches, gardens and balconies. This kind of public realm, where it is evident that the community is emotionally invested in the neighbourhood they live in, doesn’t just happen out of nowhere. There are local champions leading the movement.
Alla Guelber, a local resident and a community organiser, takes me on a walking tour where my questions all point in a similar direction centred on motivation and logistics. How did this movement take off particularly in this neighbourhood? How is the City of Calgary letting go of the control over the public realm? A set of movable tables and chairs placed on the footpath (and not chained!) look simple, but there must have been a step-by-step trial through which the permission to do so was negotiated. Will they be left overnight? Who will be responsible for safety issues? Will the furniture be certified by a qualified person? In this neighbourhood, ordinary citizens are leading change via small pilot projects, and showing the rest of the city what a welcoming, walkable and green neighbourhood can look and feel like. As the signs for gentrification start to emerge here, it is the locals like Alla – who organise Jane’s Walks, cultivate underutilised lands and identify opportunities – who will help protect the place’s social heritage.
The outer suburbs with large plots, double/triple garages and massive roads will never have the character of Sunnyside or East Village. They will continue to be more exclusive than the inner suburbs of Calgary that now have the opportunity to densify and be inclusive of the existing communities as well new ones. Some people will always prefer to have more space and privacy than to be part of a tight-knit community, and that should be a choice left for the individuals to make at appropriate environmental costs; some will make different choices at different stages of life. The demise of suburban living however, is when it is designed as a bubble in which the residents become or choose to become oblivious to the pain and sufferings of fellow denizens who share the city, and the planet.
Many thanks to these organisations:
This blog post was made possible by Westpac Social Change Fellowship, during which Julia Suh is visiting 15 cities to learn from their governments, social enterprises, consultants, academics and community organisers about how they are addressing inequality via design and management of the public realm and bringing about positive change.