Walk Hard

Urban Sprawl is not a new problem in Calgary. It increases as the city expands- quickly and sometimes inefficiently. Thanks to this, the average Calgarian may have trouble with seemingly simple tasks such as walking to the nearest grocery store. A typical student may find that Calgary Transit does not extend into their neighbourhood, forcing them to drive. A jogger or biker may find their most scenic routes require a lengthy trek through the endless flat parking lot of a big-box store. Urban sprawl isn’t going away anytime soon, but progress is being made to combat the problem.

The history of our expansion illuminates the urban sprawl we now face. During Calgary’s oil and development boom in the 1980s, the city stopped growing block-by-block and began expanding in large sections. The City of Calgary had less control over the expanding radius past inner-city downtown and transitioned from a city planning role towards a regulatory role. Independent developers filled the gap, designing the growing sections of our city with a flat and low-density suburban model. A decrease in population density increases reliance on cars, as efficient public transit becomes more costly and difficult.

These decades-old city planning decisions may have led to today’s sprawl problem, but what are the implications of this and what can be done about it?

The urban lab in the University of Calgary’s faculty of environmental design is conducting a variety of research projects on this topic. One study concerns Calgary’s social connectivity and urban form, analyzing the relationship between neighbourhood designs and social community ties. The second project, part of the Urban Alliance collaboration between the city and the U of C, looks at the shape and form of the neighbourhoods themselves. The studies consider the size of neighbourhood blocks, the presence and number of sidewalks, the number of places to walk to and congregate, along with the availability of corner stores and services. The findings suggested older neighbourhoods are more walkable with smaller blocks, greater variety in housing and residents and more opportunities for face-to-face connections. Newer neighbourhoods are more homogenous with similar types of people.

Places to meet for face-to-face encounters encourage diverse communities. Small neighbourhoods make up a city’s collective culture and identity. With newer neighbourhoods, the same demographic lives in a given area and individuals have no opportunities to interact with one another. There is no diversity in opinion and at the same time no opportunity for collective communication. Without interaction, culture stagnates and “community” becomes a word for demographic statistics rather than social bonding.

Another Urban Lab project known as Eco-EUFORIA (economic evaluation of using urban form to increase activity) is a large-scale collaboration between the faculties of medicine and kinesiology. The focus- physical activity and the environment- surveys all the neighbourhoods in Calgary. This public health study suggested that newer, suburban neighbourhood populations suffer a higher percentage of obesity, diabetes and respiratory problems. Suburban neighbourhoods also show an increased rate of serious traffic accidents, with their wide and winding streets, unpopulated roads and oft-ignored speed limits.

Projects like these indicate that Calgary’s most walkable areas are the inner city and neighbourhoods established prior to the development boom. These areas have a grid pattern, smaller block patterns, no cul-de-sacs, sidewalks on both sides of the street, narrow roads, trees and varied uses.

“This promotes walking as a means of transportation,” said research associate Francisco Alaniz Uribe, who works in the urban lab.

Newer neighbourhoods offer nowhere to walk to because big-box stores require cars to reach.

Uribe says Calgary is lagging behind in the integration of industrial, commercial and residential zones in our neighbourhoods. Because we have so sharply separated these sectors, there is a lack of local commercial properties in communities. New neighbourhoods have few corner stores and few apartment buildings that double as businesses on the main floor. If everything in our immediate surroundings is strictly residential, we need cars to get anywhere, says Uribe.

Noel Keough, one of the founders of the Sustainable Calgary Society, agrees with Uribe. SCS is a grassroots group focusing on citizen engagement and education started in 1996. With 2,000 contributing citizens they set up A Citizen’s Agenda, a 12 point list of policy and action goals to optimize the city’s sustainability over the next five years. One of their main points is to have community-oriented development and planning. By starting to mix the residential, commercial and industrial aspects of our city, lifestyles change.

This concept breaks down the chicken-and-egg debate of our car-centric city layout. Our streets are built for cars, and thus cars use them. But if people have more activities in a given area and places to walk to, then they will begin walking. This simple idea is hindered by the supremely difficult task of “changing the direction of the ship,” says Keough.

However, Uribe believes there is a slowly emerging shift back towards the old style of neighbourhood planning. There have been hints in the past five to 10 years of a return to walkable aesthetics like more sidewalks and the re-incorporation of alleyways, allowing for more green space and less paved driveways.

Unfortunately, while these early initiatives are undertaken with the right intentions, they are still occasionally not fully committed to. Keough pointed to new bike paths built near campus and around the city. The intersection of 24th Street and Crowchild Trail has a new bike path, but the intersection design itself still poses a visibility hazard for drivers, unable to see crossing bikers while turning. While the city is taking a step in the right direction, the initiatives are compromised because they are still catering predominantly to car convenience.

Another emerging city initiative is the idea of Station Area Planning, a deliberate attempt to densify areas around LRT stations. Beginning in Brentwood right now, the attempt has already met with resistance from residents.

“Everyone supports more sustainable neighbourhoods until the city asks to uproot their driveway,” Uribe said.

People fear that increased neighbourhood density will lead to increased traffic congestion, which is simply not true. Research has shown that SAP neighbourhoods are significantly less car-dependent and the more grid-like streets have fewer cars travelling on a specific strip of road at any given time, said Uribe.

Keough thinks Calgary is still fairly behind in terms of proactive city planning. He feels the city budget needs to significantly change to focus on improving existing infrastructure rather than expanding into greenfield land.

“If we continue in the same manner for the next 50 to 60 years, we would be subsidizing city infrastructure by $11 billion,” said Keough.

While suburbs are cheap for the individual, they are bad for citizens in the long run.

For something like the aforementioned Station Area Planning and other walkability design initiatives to work, the city planning department must explain to the public how it works.

“The most difficult part of this whole process is convincing the people what needs to be done,” said Uribe.

The challenge is in changing the mentality of citizens to get the ball rolling towards smarter, long-term plans being approved.

Keough cites various European cities such as Copenhagen, Denmark and Freiburg, Germany as examples of highly-walkable and sustainable cities. He feels that because most Calgarians haven’t seen the examples and initiatives taken in these cities, the mentality is not there- they cannot imagine what a better-designed Calgary could look like. This is why Keough is optimistic for this generation’s students.

“These students are the ones that can change the direction of the ship. There is no baggage for them of fighting against old ideas,” says Keough.

With recent coverage on Calgary’s downtown East Village redevelopment, along with the controversy surrounding the outcome of the Plan It Calgary proposal, it is clear that walkability and sustainability are much more prominent in public awareness. While it remains to be seen what will come of these development plans, there are signs of a gradual mentality shift.

“We understand more of the problems now. The hope is that we learn from that and modify the way we design neighbourhoods,” says Uribe.

Here’s hoping it continues this way, the faster the better.

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