Calgary is a sprawlin’

By Dominik Matusik

The results of the 2011 Canadian census should come as no surprise to anybody who is even remotely familiar with the nation’s demographics in recent years. The west is booming while growth in the east has slowed. The maritime provinces have rebounded slightly. More and more people are choosing to live in cities as opposed to rural areas. The last point is one that has not been brought up nearly as much as the west east divide. It is not entirely accurate, however. It isn’t cities that are growing particularly quickly, it’s suburbia.

Calgary residents in particular will be keenly familiar with the debate surrounding (sub)urban sprawl. While sprawl certainly wasn’t invented by Alberta and remains just as prominent a feature of edge cities in the Greater Toronto Area, Calgary is unique for a number of reasons. For one, the city’s suburbs are growing much more rapidly than the majority of the country (certain communities, particularly in the northwest, reported increases in excess of 200 per cent). Secondly, there is significantly less infrastructure, especially in terms of transportation, in greater Calgary than in the respective metro areas of Toronto and Vancouver — this means Calgary is not only growing at a faster rate, it’s also poorly equipped to handle it. Lastly, Calgary doesn’t have a true metropolitan area and most of the population of “greater Calgary” is located within its municipal boundaries, unlike the urban areas of Toronto or Vancouver which are each made up of dozens of smaller municipalities.

It’s quite clear that the development policies that are currently in place will not lead to a city that is sustainable in terms of environment, transportation or culture. Calgary is likely the most “American” city in the whole of Canada. It has a central business district, fairly limited high-density inner city and acres of suburbia in every direction. It spends more per capita on transit than any major city in Canada, yet the service is far below its potential due to sprawling communities. Often-travelled roads are likely to become more and more congested as the city continues to grow out and rely on an individualistic car culture. The unique model of boom-bust (but mostly boom) growth has also hindered the development of a new Calgarian identity; each new community looks identical to the last and is, quite frankly, not very aesthetically pleasing.

The solution doesn’t have to be extreme. Of course Calgary will never have the density of New York City or the efficient use of space and mass transit as most European cities. However, there are basic changes to the city’s development policies that can be made: focusing on apartment buildings and high-rises around ctrain stations and in the inner city, as Mayor Naheed Nenshi has hinted at; less development on the absolute fringes and more focus on making existing communities denser and more transit-friendly; more cycling trails and roads with bike lanes; less selling off of large tracts of land for developers to turn into more costly sprawl. These are entirely and, in fact, pragmatically necessary solutions if the city intends to be sustainable in the future.

Sprawl is expensive, inconvenient and ugly. It is a prime example of us living beyond our means — a $400,000 mortgage and two or more family cars are the norm. Most people living in the city understand the problems associated with Calgary’s current model and are willing to adapt. Pitchfork not-in-my-backyardism is a minority opinion. There is a will to change and a demand for a higher-density and a more cohesive city. It doesn’t have to be a politically volatile issue and the fact that decision-making in Calgary is centralized within one municipality makes it even easier. I hope that this view will prevail among our elected officials, because a radical shift in policy is absolutely necessary if Calgary wishes to be globally competitive 30 years down the line.

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