Students lobby around Plan It

With the help of social media, the University of Calgary’s Urban Calgary Students’ Association is aiming to get students’ voices heard in the debate on the city’s ambitious urban plan. After a long hearing, the city council voted to pass the plan in its first reading.

Plan It, the proposed guide to Calgary’s growth over the next 60 years, would stop the annexation of rural land, create a primary cycling network, focus on high-density growth and improve Calgary’s transit system, if approved. Developers and several aldermen are concerned with the plan’s call to decrease car usage and single-family housing.

UCSA, the official student club for urban studies students, is following the debate closely. UCSA vice-president communications Derek Pomreinke presented at the city’s hearing in late June. He warned the city would be unsustainable in the future and voiced concerns that a new vision for the city’s development is needed.

Plan It has implications for U of C students, since the plan would label the area around the university, Banff Trail and Foothills Hospital a “major activity centre” — an area of high employment and residential concentration, meaning the university would become an important regional centre, with more students living in transit-oriented development buildings in Brentwood. However, if it’s not done right, it could lead to problems, Pomreinke warned.

“Unless affordable or subsidized housing is specifically mandated, Brentwood will see prices for its apartments and condos rise too high for them to be ideally used as student housing,” said Pomreinke. “In that respect, I think secondary suites in basements and garages in the surrounding neighbourhood would go a long way to helping to house the students.”

He also pointed to the need for further transit-oriented development around the communities of Lions Park and Dalhousie as the C-Train continues to grow in importance as a primary mode of transportation.

Better Calgary Campaign’s Naheed Nenshi agreed with Pomreinke, noting students are amongst the biggest proponents of Plan It.

He explained his research shows that people in their 20s and 30s pick the cities they live in based on urbanity, with a great feel and vibe, not on where they want to raise their children. A non-profit business instructor at Mount Royal College, he voiced concern for MRC students struggling with housing and transit. Parking prices recently went up at MRC and the planned western C-Train expansion won’t provide service to the MRC campus.

“The provision of more types of housing should ease the rental market in the city somewhat,” said Nenshi. “Even though we’re not getting the LRT, the classification of MRC as a ‘major activity centre’ should lead to much better transit service, including two bus rapid transit lines over time.”

Nenshi said social media has been a driving factor behind why people are paying more attention to Plan It than in the past.

“I only just got on [social networking site] Twitter myself as part of the Plan It debate, and I think it has really engaged people,” explained Nenshi. “Folks who could not come to council followed the play-by-play on Twitter, and the CivicCamp group actually used Twitter to help schedule speakers and tell them when to come to Council, so they didn’t have to sit there all day.”

CivicCamp spokesperson and sustainability activist and writer Chris Turner explained CivicCamp blogs, Twitter and Google Groups have allowed for more input from the public, while better enabling citizens to keep track of the debate and ask questions of the aldermen or speakers online than compared to traditional media.

“The Herald’s story on the hearings, for example, used me specifically as the rep for all the ‘Pro’ arguments, even though those in favour made their case from dozens of points of view and with a wide range of evidence,” he said. “The ‘debate,’ meanwhile, was mainly reduced to a one-liner from Ric McIver.”

Pomreinke seconded Turner’s comments, noting students don’t get involved in municipal politics due to studies and a fear of being ignored due to their “student status,” but with online media, that’s changing.

“Social media allows for a more guerilla style of information and news sharing that’s something more real than a newspaper or TV broadcast could ever be,” said Pomreinke.

The city council voted on an omnibus motion to refer 76 amendments to city administration, who will have to prepare a report on these amendments by December.

Ward 6 Alderman Joe Connelly brought forward a motion Monday for the measures prescribed in the Plan It document to be removed and re-developed again in the implementation phase, but Mayor Dave Bronconnier recommended Connelly submit his motion to administration for consideration.

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