What is urban living and who really cares?

By Richard White, November 27, 2014 

80% of Canadians live in cities, but only a small part live urban,” reads one of the tweets in a recent tweeter debate by a few of us urban nerds.

This got me asking myself “what really is urban living anyway?”  Can you live in a city and not live “urban?”

I tweeted the author asking what his definition of urban living was, but got no answer.  Indeed, too often people – including urban designers planners, architects, engineers, politicians, developers and yes, even myself use terms that even we don’t really have a shared meaning of and/or doesn’t make a lot of sense to others.

I have often thought the term “urban sprawl” should more aptly be called “suburban sprawl” as what is being referred to is the sprawl of low-density predominantly residential development at the edge of a city, areas commonly thought of as suburbs. But, I digress; perhaps a topic for another time.

  Urban living is about diversity? Young and old? Bikes and pedestrians? Residents and retail?

Urban living is about diversity? Young and old? Bikes and pedestrians? Residents and retail?

  Is this urban living?

Is this urban living?

What is urban living?

I admit – not only did I not have a handy definition, I could not recall ever seeing one.  It begs a number of questions, including:

  •  Do you have to live in or near downtown to “live urban?”
  • Do you have to live in a community with a certain density to be considered urban living? 
  • Is urban living measured by the percent of time you walk vs. take transit vs. drive?
  •  Does urban living mean not having a car? Or, is it driving less than the Canadian average of 18,000 km/year?
  • Is urban living about the size of your house, condo and/or vehicle?
  • Is urban living about residing in communities with a diversity of commercial and residential buildings?  

I thought a Google search might help, but I struck out. Unable to find a nice clear and concise, definition I went “old school” and checked some dictionaries. They all just said something about “living in a city,” much too ambiguous to satisfy me.

  Urban living is about living on the streets?  Food carts in Portland's suburbs encourage street dining.  

Urban living is about living on the streets?  Food carts in Portland's suburbs encourage street dining.  

  Urban living in Calgary's West Hillhurst?

Urban living in Calgary's West Hillhurst?

 

Statistics Canada says…

 Not one to give up quickly, I turned to our government, specifically (and logically) Statistics Canada.  I found out that, in 2011, Statistics Canada redesignated urban areas with the new term "population centre" a new term was chosen in order to “better reflect the fact that urban vs. rural is not a strict division, but rather a continuum within which several distinct settlement patterns may exist (their words not mine).”

Stats Canada went further, identifying three distinct types of population centres: small (population 1,000 to 29,999), medium (population 30,000 to 99,999) and large (population 100,000 or greater).

They go on to say, “It also recognizes that a community may fit a strictly statistical definition of an urban area but may not be commonly thought of as "urban" because it has a smaller population. Or, functions socially and economically as a suburb of another urban area rather than as a self-contained urban entity. Or, is geographically remote from other urban communities.”  Have I lost you yet - it is getting very muddy for me!

For example, Airdrie, with its population of 42,564, is a medium size population centre, but it is socially and economically a suburb of Calgary.  On the other hand, Medicine Hat, with its population of 61,180 is also a medium size population centre, but because it is the largest population centre for a large geographical region, it could be thought of as “urban.” 

Despite its change in terminology, Statistics Canada’s current demographic definition of an urban area is “a population of at least 1,000 people where the density is no fewer than 400 persons per square km” (which would include all of Calgary’s 200+ communities).

Dig a little deeper and Statistics Canada defines low-density neighbourhoods as those where 67% or more of the housing stock is composed of single-family dwellings, semi-detached dwellings and/or mobile homes.  A medium-density neighbourhood is deemed one where the percentage of single-family, detached or mobile homes is between 33 and 67%, while high density is where these types of dwellings comprise less than 33% of the housing stock.

By this, Stats Canada identifies six high-density neighbourhoods in Calgary (they didn’t name them), by far the least of any of Canada’s major cities.  Perhaps the author of the tweet meant only those Calgarians living in Calgary’s six, high-density neighbourhoods are living urban?

  Urban living is about great public spaces, like this one in Strasbourg, France.

Urban living is about great public spaces, like this one in Strasbourg, France.

YYC Municipal Development Plan

Still not satisfied, I moved on. I wondered if the City of Calgary’s Municipal Development Plan has a definition of “urban living” or a related term in its glossary of terms. The best I could find were the following:

Intensity: A measure of the concentration of people and jobs within a given area calculated by totaling the number of people either living or working in a given area. 

Complete Community: A community that is fully developed and meets the needs of local residents through an entire lifetime. Complete communities include a full range of housing, commerce, recreational, institutional and public spaces. A complete community provides a physical and social environment where residents and visitors can live, learn, work and play. 

So, where does that leave me and others who are interested in a meaningful debate about how we work together to build a better city. What would be a useful definition of “urban living” that professionals and the public to agree upon as the on debate how best to “urbanize” Calgary continues?

  Brookfield's SETON mixed-use community on the southern edge of Calgary will offer many of the same urban experiences as living in Calgary's City Centre. 

Brookfield's SETON mixed-use community on the southern edge of Calgary will offer many of the same urban experiences as living in Calgary's City Centre. 

  Calgary's new suburbs are being as complete communities with both a density and diversity of residential dwellings (single-family, town homes and multi-family) that would make them a medium to high density community. It will take 15 to 20 years to achieve this; don't be too quick to judge!  

Calgary's new suburbs are being as complete communities with both a density and diversity of residential dwellings (single-family, town homes and multi-family) that would make them a medium to high density community. It will take 15 to 20 years to achieve this; don't be too quick to judge!  

Possible working definitions

One potential definition of “urban living” might be, “living in a place where you can comfortably walk, cycle or take public transit to 80% of your regular weekly activities (i.e. work, school, shop, medical entertainment and recreation).

As for The definition of “comfortable,” I leave up to the individual. For some, a comfortable walking distance might be 15 minutes; for others it might be 30 minutes. I know Calgarians who take the bus or even drive the two kilometers from Mission to work downtown, while others cycle 15+ km to work (and back). I myself used to walk 50 minutes to and from work downtown for 10+ years.  

A second possible “urban living” definition might be, “when you regularly use at least three of the four modes of transportation (walk, cycle, take transit and drive) to engage in your regular weekly activities.”

  High-rise living in Edmonton's downtown.

High-rise living in Edmonton's downtown.

  Downtown Calgary's West End.  Are condos just vertical suburban dwellings?

Downtown Calgary's West End.  Are condos just vertical suburban dwellings?

  Low-rise condos on a residential street in Mission.

Low-rise condos on a residential street in Mission.

Last Word

But really, does the average Calgarian even care if they a live urban or suburban? Thanks for indulging me.  I hazard a guess to say most don’t. And there’s nothing wrong with that. I highly suspect they just want to be able to get to their activities in a timely, affordable manner.

Yet for us urban nerds, we are always thinking about how can we build a better city for everybody, one that is more cost-efficient, environmentally-friendly, affordable, integrated and inclusive. It’s what turns our cranks!

By Richard White, December 4, 2014

Reader Comments:

GG writes: "Initially the definition was applied to the rural/city divide, and has since become a true city ‘divide’. It doesn’t seem to matter than many of these ‘urban inner-city communities’ were the suburbs of a few decades back, and the reasons that people built there and moved there are no different than those today.  By virtue of Calgary’s rapid growth, they are now close to the city center and have developed a ‘cachet’. This was not a result of great urban planning, foresight, or any attempt at smart growth. The densities in many of these communities are less than they are in the ‘reviled’ suburbs that are being built today. They were the product of development methods of the day, and schools and community centers were part of the package.  Families were one car or even no car, and transit was a common denominator. And today, it is all too common to see perfectly liveable houses bulldozed so that the affluent can enjoy a big house but be environmentally and developmentally superior by being an urban dweller, an inhabitant of the inner city."

CW writes: "A most excellent column. Certainly people do care very much about their urban living, yet our language completely fails to capture how we choose to situate ourselves in life. Why would that be? Everybody knows it's not good manners to talk openly about class, but a definition of urban living should take into the account the ability to insulate oneself from undesirable situations of class. Most people love the city they choose to live in, but they also wouldn't be caught dead in some parts of it."

If you like this blog, you might like:

Urban living is in its infancy in Calgary 

Don't be too quick to just the new suburbs?

Importance of comfort, convenience and privacy in urban living 

Urban cottages & Gentrification 

 

 

West District: An urban village in the 'burbs!

By Richard White, November 29, 2014

West District is a proposed new MAC (Major Activity Center) community on a 96-acre site that straddles the southwest communities of West Springs and Cougar Ridge by Truman Developments. The boundaries are north of 9th Ave., west of 77th Street, east of 85th Street and south of Old Coach Banff Road in the southwest.

 A MAC is a term from the City of Calgary’s Municipal Development Plan to describe an “urban centre for a sub-region of the city, which provides opportunities for people to work, live, shop, recreate, be entertained and meet their daily needs.”

West District is a unique infill MAC community, as the land surrounding it has already been developed for several years. Most new MACs are at the edge of the city with no surrounding communities.  As a result, Truman Development’s team of planners and urban designers have been able to respond to what currently exists, as well as what is missing for the West Springs and Cougar Ridge to become a vibrant live work play community.

They were also able to respond to the City’s guidelines for creating successful MACs, which were not in place or not possible given most of the previous developments in West Springs and Cougar Ridge were on small parcels of land with fragmented ownership making master-planning impossible.

Over the past year, Truman Development has embraced the City’s vision of creating a vibrant new mixed-use, mixed-density communities in consultation with the community.

  This image illustrates how West District (the block of land in the middle of the image) is surrounding by low density development.  West District is essentially a mega infill project.  The concentration of trees in the middle will become part of the new communities Central Park. 

This image illustrates how West District (the block of land in the middle of the image) is surrounding by low density development.  West District is essentially a mega infill project.  The concentration of trees in the middle will become part of the new communities Central Park. 

Community Engagement

One of the first things Truman did right was to engage the existing community from the start, not after they had developed a comprehensive plan.  Rather than the old open house format where developers would present their vision after it was completed and then defend it when the individuals in the community raised questions and concerns.

They decided to open what they called the EngageHub in the spring of 2014, a purpose built 2,000 square foot building where people could visit, learn more and weigh in on some of the ideas being considered for West District. Since opening, the EngageHub has been open to the community 130+ hours  (weekdays, weekends and evenings) for people to drop-in to see how the West District plans were evolving based on community input.  

  The pretty little EngageHub looks like a cafe. In reality it is the an open meeting place where the developers and the community can meet and discuss ideas, options and issues that will create a vibrant urban village that will be a win for the community, developer and the City.

The pretty little EngageHub looks like a cafe. In reality it is the an open meeting place where the developers and the community can meet and discuss ideas, options and issues that will create a vibrant urban village that will be a win for the community, developer and the City.

  The EngageHub is full of books that people can read and get ideas from about what they would like to see in an urban village.  For me urban development and placemaking is an art not a science. 

The EngageHub is full of books that people can read and get ideas from about what they would like to see in an urban village.  For me urban development and placemaking is an art not a science. 

Density Dilemma

As with almost every new development in Calgary the biggest issue is always density. Too often the developer is put in an awkward situation as the City is demanding more density, but the existing community doesn’t want it.

For example, West District’s density is envisioned to be 36 units/acre, which is 10 times the current density of the surrounding developments.  However, when you average the density of the existing communities with the addition of West District the overall MAC density would be 5.3 units/acre, which is less than the City’s current goal of 8 units/acre for new communities and not that different from the 3.1 units/acre that currently exists. 

Too often the public hears the term density and immediately thinks 20 storey highrise condos, but in fact the density for West District and other proposed MACs will be achieved with a mix of single-family, town/row housing and some low and mid-rise condo bulidings.  This allows for a diversity of housing options that will be attractive and affordable for first homebuyers, families, empty nesters and seniors housing.

Indeed, vibrant communities include people of all ages and backgrounds. Truman Developments is Attainable Homes Calgary’s biggest multi-family partner and they are keen to see a healthy mix of market housing with some more affordable units in West District.

  This is an example of the scale of the proposed condos with ground floor retail.  You can also begin to see the wide pedestrian friendly sidewalks and clear cross walks. 

This is an example of the scale of the proposed condos with ground floor retail.  You can also begin to see the wide pedestrian friendly sidewalks and clear cross walks. 

Central Park

Over the past seven months of community engagement one of the things Truman heard loud and clear was the need for a park to serve both existing and new residents. One of the community’s desires was to retain many of the existing and beloved Aspen Tree groves. As a result, the design team has developed large central park that balances passive natural areas with programmable activity areas, which will allow for year-round use.

West District Central Park

Traffic / Transit

Another key issue for existing residents when new developments are planned is the ability of roads and transit to handle the increased traffic.  While the West Leg of the LRT does provide improved transit service to the Calgary’s west-side communities, it is unfortunate that is it is surrounded by low-density communities rather than something like a West District. 

To capitalize on the City’s 1.4B investment in the West LRT, Truman Development is proposing a developer-funded express bus between West District and the 69th Street LRT Station, about four kilometers away. Kudos to Truman Development for taking this innovative initiative.

West District shuttle.jpg

Cost Effective Development

West District is an infill development and as such the area has already been serviced to urban standards for water and sewer, which means no addition costs for new infrastructure.   There is also a good network of existing major and arterial roads that will be further upgraded with the completion of the west leg of Stoney Trail.

In addition, West District will add an estimated $550M in new residential and business taxes over the next 50 years, which is significantly more than the $130M that would be generated by a typical low density suburban development. The additional half billions dollars can be used for new or enhanced parks, recreation centres, as wells as new buses or roads across the city – everyone benefits from mega infill developments like West District.

  One of the barriers to creating new urban villages in established neighbourhoods, especially on the west side of the city is the fragmented ownership.  It becomes very difficult to assembly the large tract of land needed to develop an integrated plan of mixed-uses. The opportunity to create a new community like West District on the city's west side is very limited.  

One of the barriers to creating new urban villages in established neighbourhoods, especially on the west side of the city is the fragmented ownership.  It becomes very difficult to assembly the large tract of land needed to develop an integrated plan of mixed-uses. The opportunity to create a new community like West District on the city's west side is very limited. 

  West District calls for low density residential on the south side next to single family homes, with low-rise condos and offices on the north side with a traditional grid street pattern which will server to create the Kensington-like community. 

West District calls for low density residential on the south side next to single family homes, with low-rise condos and offices on the north side with a traditional grid street pattern which will server to create the Kensington-like community. 

NUVO Kensington

In many ways, West District is like building a new Kensington community on the west side of the city.  In fact, the new condos in Kensington - Pixel, St. John’s, Lido and VEN – are very similar to what is being proposed for West District. There are also similarities between West District’s Central Park and Riley Park and West District’s main street and the mix of shops along Kensington Road and 10th Street.

  While it might take a few years for West District to have the urban patina of Kensington, the goal is to create a community that has a wonderful outdoor culture of patios, parks and pedestrians. (there are not pedestrians in this photo as it was taken very early on summer morning.)

While it might take a few years for West District to have the urban patina of Kensington, the goal is to create a community that has a wonderful outdoor culture of patios, parks and pedestrians. (there are not pedestrians in this photo as it was taken very early on summer morning.)

Last Word

One of the criticisms I often hear from new comers to Calgary, especially those from major urban centres is we don’t have enough walkable urban communities like Kensington, Beltline or Inglewood.

No plan is perfect, however, I am thinking the City should be fast tracking the approval of West District if we are serious about providing attractive, affordable and accessible housing for both existing and new Calgarians.

By Richard White, October 27, 2014

West District At A Glance

  • 7,000              residents
  • 3,500              dwelling units
  • 20%                detached/attached homes
  • 80%                4 to 8 floor condos
  • 10                    acres of park space
  • 500,000         sq. ft. or retail (small scale with urban grocery as anchor)
  • 1.2                   million sq. ft. of (office, medical, satellite education)
  • 5,200              workers 

If you like this blog, you might like:

Brookfield Residential: Working together to make Calgary better!

Calgary's MAC attack!

Integration critical to new community vitality

 

 

80% of Calgarians must live in the 'burbs.

"When it comes to house prices, here's how much location matters" was the title of a Maclean’s article in their November 17, 2014 edition. The story looked at how Canadian homebuyers in Vancouver, Toronto, Montreal and Calgary can save thousands of dollars by buying a home further away from downtown. You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to figure that out. Most Calgarians and I expect those in other cities figured that out a long time ago.

But it was interesting to see that in all the cities except Calgary, the savings increased with every 10 minutes further you lived from downtown. But in Calgary, the price dropped from an average of $665,500 10 minutes from downtown to $515,900 if you lived 20 minutes from downtown and stayed in the $500,000 to $550,000 range until you got 50 minutes away.  Calgary’s big ring of established communities with similar housing stock in the 20 to 40-minute commute range to downtown, making them very attractive to downtown professionals with their higher than average salaries, stock options and profit sharing. 

Majority of Calgarians simply can’t afford to live in established neighbourhoods.

Do the math and you quickly find out the majority of Calgarians can’t afford to live in the established neighbourhoods. A family income of $100,000 (Calgary’s median family income was $98,300 in 2012, Statistics Canada) will support a mortgage of only $300,000. I am told 3 times your gross income is a good benchmark for how much mortgage you can afford.  If we assume a generous down payment of say 20%, that means 50% of Calgarians can only afford a house or condo under $360,000.

A quick review of the City’s average home sales costs by community shows that in the southwest has no communities with an average selling price in the $360K range and there are only two in the northwest.   In the southeast, there would are three or four, while in the northeast almost all of its communities are close to the $360K mark. I realize that even with an average selling price over $360K in established neighbourhoods there will be many homes under that price, but most of them will be smaller and in need of renovations that will bring the price over the affordability of most Calgarians. 

So While the City of Calgary wants to encourage more Calgarians to live in the established neighbourhoods in the inner city west of the Deerfoot Divide, most Calgarians simply can’t afford the $500,000+ cost.  In fact, only 21% of Calgary’s households have an income over $150,000 which in turn would allow them to have mortgage of $450,000 which combined with say a $100,000 down payment would, get them a $550,000 house.  

If only 20% of Calgarians can afford to live in established communities, this means we have to accommodate 80% in the suburbs until we can find a way to build affordable housing for the average Calgarian in established communities. 

  A street of older mid-century homes in one of Calgary's established communities on 50 foot lots. Typically they sell for $500+ to developers who knock them down and build a two story infill that is 1,800+ sf and better meets the needs of a modern family. 

A street of older mid-century homes in one of Calgary's established communities on 50 foot lots. Typically they sell for $500+ to developers who knock them down and build a two story infill that is 1,800+ sf and better meets the needs of a modern family. 

  A typical street of new infill homes in an established community. Prices start at $700,000 for older infills with new ones starting at $900,000.  

A typical street of new infill homes in an established community. Prices start at $700,000 for older infills with new ones starting at $900,000.  

  A new duplex in the inner city starts at about $900,000 as they are about 200sf larger than detached infills. 

A new duplex in the inner city starts at about $900,000 as they are about 200sf larger than detached infills. 

  These two new infills on a 25 ft lot sell for $900,000 for 1,800 sf. A similar size house and lot in the 'burbs sells for about $450,000. 

These two new infills on a 25 ft lot sell for $900,000 for 1,800 sf. A similar size house and lot in the 'burbs sells for about $450,000. 

  New condos in established communities start at $300,000 for studio, $400,000 for one bedroom and $500,00+ for a two bedroom.  

New condos in established communities start at $300,000 for studio, $400,000 for one bedroom and $500,00+ for a two bedroom.  

Why are we always focused on downtown?

However, my biggest beef with this study - and most of these kinds of studies for that matter is they are only looking at the downtown commuters, which represents only 25% of Calgary’s commuters. For the majority of Calgarians, their decision where to buy a house isn’t governed by the commute to downtown, and that majority is getting larger every year.

The City’s most recent job growth numbers from 2006 to 2011 show that downtown job growth was only 11.5% of the new jobs in the city, while growth in the City’s industrial areas accounted for a whopping 77% of the job growth.  Is it any wonder there is a huge demand for homes and condos in the southeast and the northeast near the industrial and warehouse developments?  In the ‘90s GO Plan, the City’s goal was to get people to live closer to where they work.  That being the case, we need to build more communities near our industrial lands.

The majority of Calgarians don’t need to live near downtown.

Retired Calgarians can live anywhere; commuting time is not a factor.  Many retirees I know have a goal of not leaving the house until after 9 am and being home before 3 pm leaving the roads available for those who need them.   

For those working in and around the airport, the ability to live in the far northeast and northwest means minimal time on the Deerfoot and a shorter commute time.  Living east of the Deerfoot in the far southeast also results in a short, 10 to 20-minute commute for those who work there.

With only one leg of the LRT serving the NE and none the SE the quadrant, workers in our major industrial, transportation and distribution centres have limited transit access and so the majority must drive to work.

Unfortunately, the large tracks of land needed for industrial and warehouse operations don’t create the concentration of jobs in a small geographical area needed for effective rapid transit. Transit only works well for downtown, and a few other places like large employment centres (e.g. university, hospitals), but not for the majority of Calgary workers. 

Calgary’s urban planners and politicians must realize that today’s Calgary is as much a distribution warehouse city as it is an oil & gas downtown office city. Did you know that transportation & manufacturing (mostly east of Deerfoot) accounts for 125,000 jobs in the city, while oil & gas adds up to only 72,000?  The NE with growth of the Calgary International Airport has evolved into a major economic engine for the city and could in the future rival downtown. Did you know that there are more hotel rooms in the northeast than in downtown?

Why Calgarians love the burbs.

While many young urban singles are willing to live in a 500-square foot home and pay $450+ per square foot that won’t work for families.  A young family of four wants 2,000 square feet (the same 500 square feet/ person), which means they can not afford the $500,000+ an older established neighbourhood home, but the home doesn’t meet their needs.  As a result, the majority of young Calgary families are forced to go to the edge of the city where starter homes or larger condos can be had for $300,000 to $400,00 and don’t need any major renovations.

Did you know 67% of Calgary households have children and another 2.3% are multiple family homes? It is therefore not surprising 62% of Calgarians want a single-family home, 16% want a semi-detached home and only 22% desire a multi-family one (Calgary Growth Benchmark, 2014).  Currently, there are more multi-family homes being built than single or semi-detached. Obviously, since supply isn’t meeting demand, the cost of single and semi-detached homes will only increase, making them even less affordable.

I know some will ask, “Why does a family have to be raised in a single-family dwelling?” And, indeed some parents will choose a semi-detached or multi-family home but most desire a single-family home where the kids to run, play and make noise without disturbing the neighbours. As well multi-family buildings don’t meet the storage needs for an active family in a four-season city like Calgary.

  Suburban population growth from City of Calgary's "Suburban Residential Growth 2014 -2018 Report.

Suburban population growth from City of Calgary's "Suburban Residential Growth 2014 -2018 Report.

  Land Supply (City of Calgary, Suburban Residential Growth 2014 - 2018)

Land Supply (City of Calgary, Suburban Residential Growth 2014 - 2018)

  Residential Building Permit Applications, City of Calgary, Suburban Residential Growth 2014 - 2018 Report)

Residential Building Permit Applications, City of Calgary, Suburban Residential Growth 2014 - 2018 Report)

The BIG Question.

Should we be pushing families to live in multi-family housing in established neighbourhoods they can’t afford and aren’t any nearer to work? I fact, if we get more people to move into the established neighborhoods west of Deerfoot, we will be encouraging more people to drive to work, creating more traffic issues as there is no effective transit to their jobs in the far northeast and southeast. 

  Calgary needs more mixed-use, mixed density urban style development on the edges of the city like Brookfield Residential's SETON. 

Calgary needs more mixed-use, mixed density urban style development on the edges of the city like Brookfield Residential's SETON. 

  SETON happy hour.

SETON happy hour.

A Radical Idea.

Instead of trying to get more people to live in the established communities (where the existing community members don’t necessarily want more density and the majority of Calgarians can’t afford to live there anyway), we should focus on how we can improve the live/work/play opportunities in Calgary’s northeast and southeast quadrants of the city.

In the 20th century urban thinking was to separate housing from employment centers so most of the housing was west of the Macleod and Edmonton Trails and the jobs east. By the late 20th Century the Deerfoot became the dividing line between living and working.  In the 21st Century, we need to look at integration, not separation of live/work centres. We need to rethink the balance between inner city and suburban growth. We need to think of suburban growth as mega infilling projects. 

We need to think of Calgary differently, as a federation of five different economic zones - NW, NE, SE, SW and Inner City.  Each one needs to have its own growth management strategy (land use, transit, roads, recreation, retail) that capitalizes on each zone’s unique aspects as a place to live, work and play. 

By Richard White, November 26, 2014.

If you like this blog, you might like:

Intelligent infilling or Living in a bubble!

Is Calgary too downtown-centric?

Don't be too quick to judge...

Calgary's Learning City is blooming!


Olympic Cities: Calgary vs Salt Lake City

As Winter Olympic host cities Calgary (1988) and Salt Lake City (2002) share much in common. Both cities are young (Calgary’s median age is 36 while Salt Lake City’s (SLC) is 30), both have a population base of just over one million people, both are gateways to mountain recreational playgrounds and both have signature international festivals (Stampede vs Sundance Film Festival). 

At the same time, the DNA of each city is very different. Calgary is defined by its corporate oil & gas headquarters culture, while SLC is defined by its Mormon culture.  For a long time I have been intrigued by the idea of how the two cities would fare in a competition of urban living amenities.  Who would win the gold medal for the best public space, shopping, attractions, urban villages, transit, public art etc.? This spring on our 8,907 km road trip stayed in SLC for six days to check it out.

Salt Lake City’s Gold Medals

Convention Centre

While SLC’s Salt Palace (convention centre) opened back in 1996, it still looks very contemporary with its extensive use of glass and steel. It features a dramatic entrance with 110-foot transparent beacon towers.  Inside, the uplifting drama continues with bright and airy public areas with a lofty ceiling that features specially designed trusses by renowned roller coaster designer Kent Seko.

Nobody would call Calgary’s Telus Convention Centre a palace. And with only a third of the exhibition and meeting space of SLC’s Salt Palace, and architecture that is less than inspiring, Calgary is the loser here.

Aerial view of SLC Convention Centre in the heart of their downtown.

Library

SLC’s Central Library, designed by Canadian architect Moshe Safdie, opened in 2003 at a cost of $84 million ($127 million in 2014 dollars).  It is a five storey triangular building with a sweeping signature curved wall that shares much in common with Vancouver’s Centre Library, also designed by Safdie. Its rooftop garden offers great views of the city and the mountains. The Library, along with its neighbour the Leonardo Museum (the old library building has been converted into a fun and funky hands-on science discovery centre) has become a meeting place for people of all ages and backgrounds.

It will be interesting to see if Calgary’s new Central Library can be as successful in capturing both the public and the design community’s attention. With a budget of $245 million, I sure hope so. Who knows what will happen with our old library – maybe an Energy Museum?

SLC's dramatic downtown library and public plaza. 

Rendering for Calgary's new downtown library.

Art Gallery

A gold medal has to be awarded to SLC for its Utah Museum of Contemporary Art which is part of the 1979 Bicentennial Art Complex.  Admission is free with a suggested donation of $5, making it very accessible.  Though not a large gallery, the exhibitions we saw were imaginative and engaging.  It also doesn’t have a long history (established in 1931); it wasn’t until 1979 that it moved to its current downtown location from the Art Barn near the University of Utah.

Over the same period, Calgary has struggled to find a home for a contemporary art gallery. Let’s hope that Contemporary Calgary will be successful in its vision of converting the old Science Centre into a vibrant civic art gallery.

The Utah Museum of Contemporary Art is part of a major arts complex. Calgary's EPCOR Centre would be on par with SLC complex except for the art gallery component. 

LDS Temple Square Campus

SLC also takes the gold medal for the Temple Square campus, headquarters for the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-Day Saints.  The multi-block Campus is home to not only the Temple, but to the original church, an office headquarters, the Tabernacle (housing a 11,623 pipe organ) home of the Tabernacle Choir and the historic Lion and Beehive house. Just north of the Square is their library, the magnificent LDS Conference Centre with its 21,200 seats and the Family History Museum, the largest genealogical library in the world.  The campus is sea of peace, inspiration, beauty and tranquility in the middle of the city, a rarity in this day and age.

The closest thing Calgary has to match Temple Square is Stampede Park our city’s homage to our culture of ranching and agriculture. The BMO Roundup Centre, Saddledome (SLC has a downtown arena on par with Saddledome), Grandstand, Agrium Western Event Centre and Corral are no match for the architecture and atmosphere of Temple Square.  This might change however when the Stampede completes its expansion and enhancement plans.

The Temple is the centre piece of a multi-block campus of LDS buildings that is their corporate headquarters.  

LDS Conference Centre with its roof-top garden/plaza and 21,200  theatre seats is a hidden gem on the hill behind the main campus. 

Calgary’s Gold Medals

Public Spaces / Public Art

Calgary wins the gold for public spaces. SLC has nothing to match our amazing collection of parks, plazas and promenades – Olympic Plaza, Devonian Gardens, Stephen Avenue Walk, Prince’s Island, Riley Park, Fort Calgary Park, Central Memorial Park, East Village RiverWalk, Shaw Millennium Skate Park and Bow River pathway. 

A bocci ball match breaks out in the Hotchkiss Gardens as noon hour in downtown Calgary. (Photo credit: Jeff Trost).

  Downtown employees enjoy some sun and people watching along the Bow River Promenade and Prince's Island park.  

Downtown employees enjoy some sun and people watching along the Bow River Promenade and Prince's Island park. 

Other workers enjoy a run or walk at noon hour across the Peace Bridge designed by Santiago Calatrava. 

Street Life

When it comes to urban villages, SLC has nothing to match the urban vitality of Calgary’s Beltline, Bridgeland, Kensington, Inglewood, Mission and 17th Avenue with their contiguous mix of shops, cafes, restaurants and music venues.

  Dairy Lane has anchored West Hillhurst's Main Street for over 50 years.

Dairy Lane has anchored West Hillhurst's Main Street for over 50 years.

  Calgary's 17th Avenue aka Red Mile is a vibrant street with its mix of shops, restaurants, patios, pubs and lounges.

Calgary's 17th Avenue aka Red Mile is a vibrant street with its mix of shops, restaurants, patios, pubs and lounges.

  We did find one street (Broadway) with some pedestrian oriented shops in SLC. Loved the mid-century modern shops, our favourite was The Green Ant.

We did find one street (Broadway) with some pedestrian oriented shops in SLC. Loved the mid-century modern shops, our favourite was The Green Ant.

Skycrapers 

Calgary also wins gold for its Central Business District that combines not only its 35 million square feet of office space (with another 5 million under construction), but also how its offices, hotel, retail, cultural and historic districts are linked both at street level and with the world’s most extensive elevated walkway - +15. 

Norman Foster's Bow office tower viewed from Olympic Plaza.

Calgary's skyline is dominated by highrise office and condo towers.

Condos/Infills  

Calgary also wins gold for its plethora of new condos and new infill single family and duplex homes near its downtown. While SLC has some new condo and infill housing development it is nowhere near the scale of what is happening in Calgary’s inner city communities. The more I visit cities like Portland, Denver and SLC, the better appreciation I have for the incredible inner city revitalization happening in Calgary.  

Alura a new apartment across from the new Barb Scott Park with its Chinook Arc artwork.

Four new high-rise condos line Macleod Trail next to Stampede Park. 

Waterfront project consists of five buildings with 1,000 condo units. 

Dead Heats

When it comes to indoor shopping centres, SLC City Creek (yes, it does have creek running through it, and even a retractable roof) and Calgary’s Core are on par with each other, with its massive three-block skylight and Devonian Gardens.

The same could be said for the LRT systems. Although Calgary’s system carries a lot more passengers, SLC has a bigger and better free fare zone (buses are also free in their downtown).  The two cities are also tied when it comes to their respective downtown arena, performing arts centres, ballet and theatre groups.

Like Calgary, SLC also has both a Zoo and a heritage park located just a few kilometers from the downtown.

Harmon's grocery store in downtown SLC.

SLC's City Creek shopping centre does indeed have a creek running through it that meanders back outside.

  The Core shopping Centre links  three city blocks with its massive skylight.

The Core shopping Centre links  three city blocks with its massive skylight.

SLC's transit corridor. 

  Calgary's transit corridor.

Calgary's transit corridor.

SLC's capitol building sits on a hill with a magnificent view of the Salt Lake valley and mountains. 

  Eight Avenue Place is just one of dozens of office towers that dominate Calgary's downtown sense of place as a major corporate headquarters centre.   

Eight Avenue Place is just one of dozens of office towers that dominate Calgary's downtown sense of place as a major corporate headquarters centre.  

Post Mortem

For those snowbirds who drive down to Phoenix and Palm Springs to escape our winter, it would be well worth your time to plan a few days to explore SLC.  We highly recommend the free personal tour of Temple Square campus conducted by young missionaries. We got a wonderful insight into the Latter-Day Saints culture with no pressure to discuss our religious beliefs.

The LDS Church earns more than $7 billion a year in tithing and other donations. In 1996, Time magazine estimated the church’s assets exceeded $70 billion (banks, radio stations, Utah’s largest newspaper, farmland, and Brigham Young University). In fact, the Church built and owns the $2 billion City Creek Center shopping mall in SLC along with many of the office towers across from Temple Square.  The LDS Church is a unique corporation that creates a unique sense of place in downtown SLC, as does the oil and gas towers in Calgary. It is interesting to note there are more suits and ties in SLC than in YYC. 

Where to eat?

We'd highly recommend checking out Em's (271 North Centre Street, near the Capitol Building). We liked it so much we went two nights in a row and almost went a third night.  I loved the marinated pork chop in a maple mustard and bacon barbeque sauce ($19) and the housemade ricotta gnocchi tossed in basil pesto($9) and Brenda loved Potato Lasagna ($17) one night and the dried fruit stuffed Pork Tenderloin with roasted potatoes in a bacon sherry vinaigrette ($26). Don't get me started on the desserts. 

Ems
  Bread pudding with homemade ice cream.

Bread pudding with homemade ice cream.

Where to stay?

Our choice was the downtown Red Lion Hotel and we weren't disappointed.  Just off the interstate so easy access and yet still short walking distance to all of the downtown attractions, even a indie cafe across the street. The hotel has been recently renovated so everything was nice and new. 

  Great view of the Wasatch Mountain out the window of our Red Lion Hotel in downtown Salt Lake City. 

Great view of the Wasatch Mountain out the window of our Red Lion Hotel in downtown Salt Lake City. 

  Comfy bed with the best hotel reading light we have found.

Comfy bed with the best hotel reading light we have found.

If you like this blog, you might like: 

Calgary vs Denver: A tale of two thriving downtowns!

Downtown Fun: Spokane vs Calgary 

Boise vs Calgary: David vs Goliath 

An edited version of this blog appeared in the Calgary Herald's New Condos section on Saturday, September 27, with the title "Salk Lake City has Gold Medal amenities, but Calgary has Gold Medal public spaces and public art."

 

Calgary: Is the proposed First St. SE cycle track unsafe?

Guest Blog: Lawrence Braul, Chief Executive Officer, Trinity Place Foundation of Alberta

Calgary's Cycle Track discussion has prompted me to speak out on an issue that will have direct impact on the seniors who reside at 602 1 St. Street S.E. The Cycle Track is an unsafe design and represents a hazard to seniors living at Carter Place. The impact will also be felt by visitors and by service providers who regularly attend at this location.  

Any person using the loading zone will have to load and unload closer to moving vehicles and they will have to cross the Cycle Track to enter Carter Place. Can you imagine EMS, Fire department vehicles, Moving Vans, buses, Handi-Buses, visitors, and delivery vehicles all trying to use a three stall loading zone? Imagine the double parking, congestion, and frustration.

DESIGN MATTERS

The Transportation department has agreed that there is a significant risk of conflict at this location but they have not provided Trinity Place Foundation with a revision of the design that is more acceptable. They were opposed to moving the Cycle Track to the west side of the street. Why is an unsafe design being proposed?

STRATEGY MATTERS

The Mayor and Council needs to find other alternatives that will ease the conflict and develop a five year plan to enhance cycling in Calgary. The current strategy, and its latest “Pilot Project” approach, has resulted in suspicion and it does not effectively promote urban cycling. In fact, the opposite has occurred. Opponents of Cycle Tracks have been pitted against the advocates and this “win-lose” strategy is counter-productive to the important objective of promoting cycling in Calgary.  

SAFETY FIRST

The purpose of a Cycle Track is safety for cyclists and pedestrians. I had the privilege of getting very acquainted with the cycling infrastructure of Ottawa, Montreal and Quebec City in 2012. My son and I spent three days each in these wonderful cities and then cycled to our next destination, accumulating 1250 kms in total.

Ottawa has a very well-developed pathway system with no Cycle Track infrastructure but it is a very safe place to ride. When you cycle in Montreal, the “mecca” for urban cycling in North America, you need to navigate a route that is sometimes interrupted by a block or two of shared lanes. It is a system that seems to be evolving and slowly improving through the much larger downtown core of Montreal. Quebec City is a pathway system with a lot of shared lane infrastructure to link pathways. All three cities are beautiful examples of how to creatively include bicycles into an urban transportation system. These cities prove that there is more than one solution to developing cycling infrastructure.

BUILD ON THE SAFE INFRASTRUCTURE THAT EXISTS

As Ottawa and Quebec City demonstrate, the pathway system is a very effective method of moving cycle traffic. Calgary’s excellent system must be enhanced and improved, especially after the damage caused by the June 2013 flood. No other prairie city has the cycling infrastructure that Calgary has in place. Try cycling in Saskatoon, Winnipeg and Regina where there is virtually no bike infrastructure. Edmonton lags Calgary as well. We can build on what we have because it is a solid base.

EAST VILLAGE NEEDS TO BE CONNECTED TO A SAFE SYSTEM

I have spoken to a year round cyclist who uses different routes daily to get to his downtown worksite. He often uses 4th Street S.E. even if it is slightly "out of the way". He finds 4TH Street less intimidating on a bike. As the East Village densifies, more riders will want to connect to the east side of downtown, including the rapidly developing Victoria Park. The 4th Street S.E. corridor can accommodate a Cycle Track and it can link to 11th and 12th ave and Stampede Park and the pathway system on the Elbow River.  This alternative should be explored, even it if is a little further east than some would prefer. It is also the safer route for cyclists.

THE “GRAND SCHEME” VERSUS INCREMENTAL IMPROVEMENTS

I favour incremental improvements to cycling infrastructure over the next five years. This should include repairs and expansion of damaged cycling paths as the first priority. One North-South Cycle Track on 4th Street S.E. can be added as budget permits, giving cyclists’ two options to enter the downtown from the existing pathway system. East-West options need to be developed on 10th, 11th or 12th.

These common sense and affordable solutions can enhance the very good bike infrastructure that presently exists.

LAST WORD

Removing the cycle track on 1st Street S.E. from any further consideration also eliminates a serious risk of conflict and injury with pedestrians and seniors. Let's let safety and common sense prevail.

If you like this blog, you might like:

Drivers, cyclists and pedestrians need to learn to share.

Cycle Tracks Revisited: Everyone Benefits

Calgary: Canada's Bike Friendly City

 

Cycle Tracks Revisited: Everyone Benefits?

By Richard White, March 1, 2014

R.W. writes: "Richard..you have done a great job of opening the debate past the emotional rants of radicals of both side of the argument. First time I have seen a well assembled set of facts and related benefits associated with bikes."

My February 13 and 20th cycling blogs generated interesting comments from both the “bike addicts” and the “bike bashers.” I thought it would be good for me to check in with the City’s key bike people – Tom Thivener, Cycling Coordinator, Katherine Glowacz, Active Transportation Educator and Blanka Bracic, Cycle Track Project Manager to see if I could get a better handle on the issues. They happily took me up on my offer to meet and learn more about the City’s plans to encourage more Calgarians to access downtown by bike and at the same time better integrate cars, bikes and pedestrians travelling in our city centre.

Everybody Benefits!

One of the key ideas that came out of these meetings is that everyone at the City is confident we can indeed encourage more Calgarians to access downtown by bike. And that if more people choose to cycle downtown to work and play, everyone will benefit - drivers, cyclists and pedestrians!  

There is lots of good research from other cities and Calgary’s new 7th Street cycle track that says if we create a few key separate bike lanes, we should see at least a doubling of cyclists in our downtown.  Currently the number of fair weather downtown cyclists (April to October) is about 6,000 (this number drops by 70% in the winter to about 2,000 cyclist), so a doubling would see about 12,000 Calgarians accessing downtown by bike, rather than car or transit.  

That is not unrealistic given there are over 160,000 downtown workers, plus another 20,000 people per day (just a guess) accessing downtown for various reasons.  So 12,000 cyclists per day out of 180,000 is not unrealistic for the peak cycling month – about 6.6%.

Visually and functionally the 7th Street cycle track creates a much better integration of cars, bikes and pedestrians. 

Eight Avenue Place has 300 secure bike parking stalls and showers, along with a separate bike entrance from the street.  All new downtown office buildings are including bike parking as it gets them one LEED point and additional floor space that they can lease out.  Approximately 1,000 new bike parking stalls have been added to the downtown with the completion of Eight Avenue Place, The Bow and the Centennial Place office towers. 

More cyclists benefits drivers in three ways:

  • less cars on the road
  • better integration of cyclist and cars
  • more parking spots for cars

There is recent evidence from New York City that shows traffic speed for cars actually increased on roads with separate bike lanes, perhaps because there is no more weaving in and out of each other’s way. Did you know the 9.5 km of proposed cycle tracks is only 3% of the 296 km of total traffic lanes in the City Centre? That’s, roughly the same proportion as the 2.5% of Calgarians who choose to access the city centre by bike.

If you assume half the 6,000 new cyclists were driving and half taking transit, that means 3,000 less people looking for parking stalls and 3,000 more seats on buses and trains. Three thousand less people looking for parking doesn’t mean you free up 3,000 stalls, as there is a mix of all day and short stay parkers. 

I won’t bore you with the math but it should equate to about 1,800 stalls being freed up. More parking should make car commuters, retailers and restaurateurs happy. The Parking Authority is currently planning to add a couple of new parkades in the downtown, perhaps they would be better off investing in bike lanes for $25 million vs. $100 million for say two new 1,000 stall parkades.

While Centennial Parkade is perhaps one of the more attractive parkades in North America, it has not been a catalyst for street life despite being designed with sidewalk retail spaces.  The same can be said of most parkade blocks in our Downtown and those in other cities. 

I don’t know the math for the cost of purchasing and operating buses, suffice to say the 3,000 transit seats that would be freed up by more cyclists spread over several routes. While there may not be much saving in purchasing buses or operating costs, it would help ease the chronic overcrowding of buses and trains. Maybe Calgary Transit would like to kick in some funds for bike lanes, rather than buying more buses or streetcars.

From a pedestrian’s perspective, the separate bike lanes would mean less bikes jumping onto sidewalks to bypass cars and other obstacles.  We know that after the completion of the 7th Street cycle track the number of cyclist using the sidewalk dropped from 25% to less than 1%.  The redesigned corners and changes to traffic signals would also mean a more systematic sharing of the road at intersections to allow all three modes of traffic (cars, bikes and shoes) to take their turns crossing the street.

Looks to me like creating more bike lanes could be a win-win-win situation.

Safety in Numbers?

The other lesson I learned is that while many argue we need separate bike lanes so cyclists will feel safer; this may be a bit of a red herring.  Current information for Calgary shows that car/cyclist collisions have in fact decreased over the past 10 years, while the number of cyclists has increased.

One of the benefits of more cyclists on downtown streets is that drivers are becoming more aware of cyclists and learning to share the road with them. While cycling advocates point to better infrastructure as the key to safety, the best way to increase safety might simply be to have more cyclists on the road which makes them more visible and top of mind for drivers.

  This graph indicates that collisions involving cyclist on Calgary's roadways is decreasing as cycling increases in Calgary. 

This graph indicates that collisions involving cyclist on Calgary's roadways is decreasing as cycling increases in Calgary. 

Cycle tracks budget not out of line 

At the meeting, I was reminded the total budget for the cycling improvements city-wide is about 1.1% of the City’s transportation budget, which is less than the 1.3% of Calgarians city-wide who cycle to work. It then seem fair to me that we should invest at least 1.3% or our transportation budget in cycling improvements (city wide) and maybe more if there is some low hanging fruit.

There is strong information that investing in bike infrastructure and programs in the city centre will have the biggest immediate impact. Not only is this area where we see the most cyclists, but also the most pedestrians.

As mentioned before, the bike infrastructure that is being proposed benefits pedestrians and cars by creating a more orderly and predictable integration of all three modes of traffic.

One reader this week also reminded me that significant investments have been made in cycling infrastructure in recent years by the City and private sector in communities like Brentwood, Sundance, Strathcona, along the West LRT and near the University. 

And then there is the mega 138 Rotary/Mattamy Greenway that will circle the city, headed up by the Parks Foundation Calgary, but with significant City assistance that will benefit many of the suburban communities.   

Last Word 

In the early ‘90s when Calgary’s politicians and planners envisioned a change from a 60/40 car vs. transit split between cars and transit for downtown commuters, to a 50/50 split there were a lot of naysayers. Yet that vision has not only been met but transit now exceeds the car as the primary mode of commuting into the downtown.

Downtown Cordon count changes: 1996 / 2013

Occupants/day           1996          2013              % Change  

  • Vehicles*        418,551      385,245                  -8%
  • Transit**          117,987      248,390                  111%
  • Pedestrian      30,963          61,610                  99%
  • Bikes                5,254            11,441                 122%
  • Total             572,655     706,686                  23%

*cars and trucks / **buses and trains (16 hour day total, inbound and outbound)

 

Focus on Pedestrians & Cyclists?

Cycling and walking to work is also on the rise, both increasing by over 100% since 1996.  Did you know, Calgary is already one of the leading downtown bike commuter cities in North America? Our 6,000-commuter cyclist for 160,000 downtown workers is on par with Minneapolis (considered one of North America’s leading cycling cities) 6,670 commuters for its citywide 197,791 workers (Minneapolis Bicycle and Walking Commute Date, 2011 Update).

However, I think we can do better because Calgary boasts one of the most active inner-city infilling housing markets on the continent.  We have a young and highly educated workforce and a dense downtown that is still growing; these conditions are ideal for creating a strong year-round cycling and walking commuter population.  For the past 25 years, we have been focusing on improving transit I would suggest for the next 25 years we should be looking at how, we can increase walking and cycling to work and play in our inner city communities. 

I am thinking the new vision for Downtown should be a 35% car, 35% transit, 20% walking and 10% cycling modal split. If I was on Council I would vote for a phased-in implementation of the City Centre Cycle Track plan over the next five or six years; this would allow time to learn from each track what works and what doesn’t. However, we must stop this paralysis by analysis; this issue has been studied and discussed to death.

The investment of $20 million to improve cycling (with spin off benefits for pedestrians, drivers and transit users) in our increasingly congested city center is worth the experiment.  

After all, city building is just one big ongoing experiment!

The blue line is the new 7th Ave cycle track.

The green lines are the proposed new cycle tracks which have been chosen based on their direct connectivity to key places people want to go. It is also more effective to create cycle tracks on one way streets than two way streets.  It is interesting to note that just a few years ago planners were advocating for changing one-way street back to two-way streets, now it looks like we want to keep the one way streets and add bike lanes.  Urban planning is not an exact science.

The yellow line is the 8th Street Public Realm Plan which is separate project from the cycle tracks. 

The orange line is Stephen Avenue Walk which will require further study to determine if some cycling could be allowed.