Are we too downtown-centric?

Interesting discussion this morning at the Manning Centre in Calgary regarding city building. David Seymour, Senior Fellow at the Manning Foundation interviewed me about the key issues facing municipal policy, planning and development with Calgary as the case study. Below are some of the ideas and issues some introduced by myself others by the audience.

The key idea that came out of the discussion in my mind was how can we make/keep our city "affordable, attractive and accessible" for the many different publics that call Calgary home today and will call it home in the future. And in fact if I had to pick one it would be “housing affordability” is top of mind for all Calgarians and for that matter probably 95% of Canadians (for some high net-worth people affordability isn’t an issue). The problem is the more successful a city or a neighbourhood is the less affordable it becomes.

Is Calgary too downtown centric? At best 20% of Calgarians work downtown and 10% will live downtown. More and more people have no need to go downtown on a regular basis! Even in Vancouver, less than 5% of the metro residential population lives Downtown - Toronto about 7%. In Calgary depending on where you draw the boundaries, between 50,000 to 70,000 live in the City Center, which are about 4 to 6 % of metro population. Downtown is not for everyone! Most Calgarians don't work or play downtown so why would they want to live there?

Need to recognize Calgary is in fact several cities of 250,000 people each with their own character and charm. The Airport City in the NE, the Learning City in the NW, and the Corporate City in the centre are the obvious ones. There is also an emerging SE City with Quarry Park and SETON as the employment hubs. Aspen Woods area in SW is quickly becoming Calgary's new Mount Royal of the early 21st century. Need to think how we can make each of these city's self-sufficient places when it comes to "live, work and play."

Will Calgary's Airport City, takeover from the Downtown as the city's largest economic engine in the future? Transportation and logistics is Calgary's second largest employer? Recently the NE passed the downtown with respect to number of hotel rooms. The NE is home to several mega building projects that are on par with downtown office buildings. The current airport expansion is the largest and most expensive development project in Calgary's history. Over 50,000 people use the airport every day (staff and users) about a third of the Downtown's. Mississauga, Richmond and Calgary's NE are Canada's three largest airport hubs - only Calgary’s is not an independent city?

How can we create TOD villages that have live, work and play elements in almost equal terms? Need to focus recreation and entertainment uses at TOD sites as much as residential and office. Why are we not planning for TOD villages in the NE, the focus seems to be on NW, West and South leg TOD sites?

Can we really expect to have a 50/50 split in between suburban and established community develop in the future, as Calgary’s Plan It envisions. This would mean that if 20,000 people move to Calgary in 2025 that 10,000 of them would have to live in established neighbourhood developments. To accomplish this we would have to create one new East Village every year, or have 10 East Village-like developments under construction at any given time. Projects like these take 10 to 15 years before we see any construction. So we would have to have 10 in the planning stages today for 2025? We are lucky if we can manage 2 or 3 major urban projects at a time. While there is some low hanging fruit for established community urban development e.g. old shopping centres like Stadium or Brentwood, the assemblage of large areas of land for urban village-type development will take years before the planning can even start.

Is spending billions of dollars on new LRT lines that are busy for 1.5 hours in the morning and evening the best use of OUR money? What if we were to spend the money on building schools in every community and that children were required to walk to the school in their community? Perhaps a "Schools First" policy should be explored? Would we need more transit or roads if we got the school buses and parents driving kids to school off the road (4 trips/day)? Should we start to foster a generation of children who know how to walk places, know the neighbouring kids and can think and act for themselves? We know that behaviours developed in childhood become life-long habits.

Can we create a more effective and efficient school system? What if all new schools were container schools that allow for them to expand and contract with community needs? Could the schools be converted to seniors / affordable housing in the future as the community ages? Could schools have residential development above them rather than being single-story buildings and single-use blocks. School blocks should be the community gathering place 18/7, with gym, library, classrooms and playing fields use weekdays, evenings and weekends by the community.

Can urban housing ever be affordable for average families in Calgary? Downtown inner-city communities close to Downtown are not in demand because of their walkability, but because of their accessibility to Downtown for high net-worth individuals, the majority of who work downtown. These communities are very attractive places to live because they offer great access to Downtown by car, as much as by walking, cycling and transit. Living in the inner-city offers many different options when it comes to accessing amenities, it is not just the “walkability score.”

There was even a quick discussion of whether Downtown's are even needed in every city. Is there a new 21st century model of a decentralized city? Should the new city building model look at creating “live, work, play” hubs strategically throughout the city based on the geographic assets and economic engines of the city rather than trying to create a single vibrant downtown. Calgary is unique to have such a large concentrated high paying downtown workforce.

Thanks for reading. Appreciate getting your thoughts and feedback. I think we all want the same thing i.e. to create a better city for everyone to live, work and play! We just need to recognize that there is no one solution - we all want different things. That's why we need to foster different communities that meet current and future needs.