Bold Ambition, Sacred Cows and a Place to Belong: The Prospects for a Sustainable Downtown Calgary


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Kudos to the City of Calgary for releasing its Roadmap to Reinvention of the greater downtown this past year. It envisions more people living downtown, an overall thrust toward a greener core, and a recognition that equity, inclusion and affordability will be keys to success. We believe success requires bold ambition. Everything should be on the table — no sacred cows.

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We also believe a sustainability lens has much to offer in charting a path forward. Sustainability is a wholistic concept integrating social, economic and environmental processes.

The interventions we propose are grounded in sustainability principles and in observations of challenges common to cities everywhere in a climate constrained world. Our proposals are informed by 25 years of tracking progress in Calgary through Sustainable Calgary’s State of Our City (SOOC) reports; the findings of the national Neighbourhood Change Research Partnership; research on transportation, housing, urban agriculture and urban planning; and numerous exploratory design interventions Sustainable Calgary has undertaken in collaboration with neighbourhoods throughout the city.

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We know from multiple sources that Calgary is one of the most unequal cities in Canada — wealth and income are highly concentrated and increasingly spatially polarized. Calgary has larger carbon and ecological footprints than any other city in Canada, and has one of the least energy efficient building stocks in North America. We also know Calgarians possess a strong sense of community and that the city is rapidly diversifying, with new energy, skills and leaders ready to create a more inclusive and dynamic city.

The weight of evidence also suggests that our new economy will not deliver the affluence of fossil fuel’s heyday. Calgary’s ecological footprint is so large that if everybody on earth achieved the same affluence, three to four more planets would be required — a biophysical impossibility. Importantly, a high quality of life does not require this level of consumption.

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We need to reinvent downtown as a place that delivers a high quality of life for all citizens at a much lower rate of consumption, with much more efficient utilization of energy and raw materials.

These are some of most ambitious and rewarding measures we could take:

Downtown reinvention must tackle inequity in all its forms. It is abundantly clear that Calgarians are needlessly suffering and increasingly isolated. Study after study demonstrates that living with problems such as homelessness and addiction is more expensive than solving them. We have a moral obligation, as well as an economic imperative, to tackle these problems. Helsinki, Finland’s, approach to homelessness is a good example we can learn from.

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One thing the crash of the downtown office market tells us is that blind faith in the market can lead to colossal failure. Calgary has less non-market housing than almost any city in North America. We have tremendous untapped potential to balance market housing with proven non-market affordable housing models, including co-operative housing and co-housing. Calgary’s own Sunnyhill Housing Co-op is one of several successful homegrown examples. One of the most promising mechanisms for funding affordable housing is land value capture. In return for the public infrastructure investment, a portion of the resultant increased land value accrues to the city as a return on its investment. We recommend the city investigate successful models employed by other cities and adapt them to establish a not-for profit community land trust-based housing program for the greater downtown. Perennially voted most-livable city in the world, Vienna is a great example of what is possible with non-market housing, and Burlington, Vt., has decades of success with the community land trust model.

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Downtown Calgary should be safe, active and family-friendly. Sustainable Calgary’s research demonstrates that giving people the option to live car free would attract people to live and recreate downtown, promote healthy active lifestyles, tackle climate change, allow the LRT to flow more freely and free up household income currently spent on expensive car ownership. Car-free living could be enhanced with the resurrection of a modified heritage Beltline streetcar connecting greater downtown with immediately adjacent neighbourhoods. The pedestrianization of Paris, the growing car-free centre of Oslo, Copenhagen’s Stroget district and the super blocks of Barcelona are all evidence that this is the future. So between now and 2032, let’s create a car-free downtown. Start with 8th and 3rd avenues and open streets to pedestrians and active modes one street and avenue at a time. The proposed 11th street underpass is a perfect example of where we should be moving.

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The Plus-15 is many things, but it is not public space. We recommend a rigorous re-evaluation of the system. Elimination may make sense, scaling back likely does, but more public investment in it likely does not. Instead, spend public dollars and leverage land-use policy to bring the street to life. We can create a lively downtown social scene with vibrant street life, revitalized sidewalk-facing businesses, and shops and restaurants open in the evening. Cincinnati’s dismantling of its skywalk system has shown how this can be done.

Rather than subsidizing big national and global property corporations, we advocate prioritizing the greening of downtown, creating tree-lined boulevards and neighbourhood streets, enhancing active modes of transportation, and expanding the diversity of pocket and linear parks and community gardens. Montreal does this well. Take a page from the successful East Village experience — build it and residents and real estate investment will come.

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And the granddaddy of all sacred cows — The Calgary Stampede. Should it be moved out of downtown? Does it still make sense for the Stampede or the city to appropriate so much valuable real estate for a 10-day annual event? Would the future of both the Stampede and downtown be brighter in partnership with Spruce Meadows to the south?

Many Calgarians argue for the removal of the CP line from downtown. In our opinion, this infrastructure can be leveraged for change. We believe the proposition of living in a green, car-free downtown with a direct rail route to the airport, rapid connection to Red Deer and Edmonton, and regular train service to Canmore and the mountain parks would be very attractive to prospective downtown residents. The rail lines could be elevated with shops and restaurants below, activating the space and generating revenue for the city, as Berlin has long done.

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We’ll be the first to acknowledge that these proposals challenge some of Calgary’s most sacred cows. They may seem overly ambitious and perhaps even unfeasible to some, but they are also common suggestions in responses to our social media call for big ideas in preparation for this column and they have, in fact, been successfully implemented elsewhere.

We are convinced these measures would enhance the quality of life of Calgarians, aid the marginalized, reinvigorate the downtown, respond to the existential threat of climate change, align with the goals of the Greater Downtown Plan and the Climate Strategy, and ultimately leave more money in citizens’ pockets.

The success of The East Village, The Riverwalk and the Public Library provide inspiration to the reinvention of downtown and demonstrate the capacity of the city to deliver. We urge council to be not only prudent but bold. Now is the time to chart a new, sustainable course for greater downtown Calgary.

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Dr. Byron Miller, a Professor of Geography and Coordinator of the Urban Studies Program at the University of Calgary, is co-editor of The Routledge Handbook on Spaces of Urban Politics. Dr. Noel Keough, co-founder of the Sustainable Calgary Society, is author of the book, Sustainability Matters: Prospects of a Just Transition in Calgary, Canada’s Petro-City, which was released in 2021.

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