Calgary: Urban Forest vs Tree Abuse?

By Richard White, September 6, 2014 (An edit version of this blog was published in the Calgary Herald, titled "From bald prairie to urban forest," on September 6, 2014)

Recently, Toronto-based Lamb Development Corp. announced it would be creating orchard between the two condo towers on 12th Avenue next to Stampede.  I thought this was a strange idea being Calgary is not know as fruit belt by any stretch of the imagination. But after a little digging I learned that since 2009, the City of Calgary has been planting fruit trees and shrubs as part of a pilot community research orchard program.  The three pilot orchards are in Hillhurst-Sunnyside (50 trees), Baker Park (100+ trees) and Ralph Klein Park (no number given on city of Calgary website).  The first two focus mostly on apple trees, while the later will consist of a variety of pear trees.

The City of Calgary recommends two varieties of apple trees - Prairie Sun and Prairie Sensation, both are about six feet tall and produce about 20 lbs. of apples when mature.  The two varieties of pears recommended are “Ure” and “Early Gold.” The “Capilano” apricot is also recommended, as are several varieties of cherries.  Fruit bearing shrubs include the “Hinnomaki Red” gooseberry, American Hazelnuts, Honeyberries or Haskaps. 

A quick check of Calgary greenhouse and landscape websites confirmed that indeed, several other varieties of fruit trees would grow well in Calgary. In fact, I forgot but when we moved into our house in West Hillhurst (aka Grand Trunk) in there were two mature apple trees in the neighbour’s backyard that produced a massive amount of apples.  They removed the trees a few years later as the apples quickly drop to the ground, became very mushy very quickly, becoming “wasp magnets. They weren’t much good except for applesauce, which we ate a lot of that summer.

At this time, the City has no plans to create more community orchards, but interested individuals should contact their community association if they are interested. The city might consider facilitating an orchard in your community – could be in a pocket park, community garden or along the boulevard near your home.  The City even has an “orchard steward” program i.e. someone who takes an active role in caring for and maintaining an orchard by pruning, monitoring health and harvesting the fruit.

Silver Springs experimental orchard.

Apple tree on the front lawn of a century old home in Inglewood. 

Treeless Prairie

While digging I also found out a lot more about Calgary’s urban forest. Indeed, Calgary’s urban forest is a remarkable achievement given the City’s climate doesn’t naturally support trees.  It is estimated that 3% of trees in Calgary’s urban forest die annually.

Early photographs of Calgary show a treeless prairie landscape, however in the 1890s William Pearce, envisioned Calgary as a “city of trees,” developing an experimental farm with an irrigation system so he could grow more types of trees.  His home and farm is now known as Pearce Estates Park, located at the far east end of Inglewood where the Bow River turns south.

He also encouraged Calgarians to improve the appearance of the City by planting trees around their homes. And, in 1899, the City Council passed not only the first tree protection bylaws, but also started promoting tree planting.

Calgary before trees.

Mount Royal before trees.

Over $400M 

Today, Calgary boasts 445,000 trees in our groomed parks and boulevards, worth an estimated $400 million. The value of individual trees ranges from $300 to $33,000.  The most valuable trees are a pair of American Elms in Rideau Park.

In our natural areas, there are several million more trees – Weaslehead Flats alone having an estimated 3 million trees.

North Glenmore Park forest

This Bur Oak is a heritage tree on Crescent Road was planted in 1937.

Heritage Elm tree in the middle of a Stampede PARKing lot. 

The Sunnyside urban forest didn't exist 100 years ago. 

Collaborating with citizens

One of the key tree management tools of the City today is to collaborate and engage with citizens to enhance our urban forest with community awareness and education, tools and shared stewardship opportunities.   For example, the “Symbolic Tree Program” which allows you to commemorate a birthday, wedding, anniversary or any other day by planting a tree in a city park.

The BP BirthPlace Forest which between 2001 to 2009, planted trees over 50,000 trees at nine sites across the city to reflect the children born in the city each year.

The City also has a Planting Incentive Program (PIP) where the City will match 50% of the cost of a new tree to be planted on City-owned residential property. Choose the species of tree from the city’s approved tree list and once approved the City will does all the rest.

Silver Springs BP Birthplace Forest 

Calgary Tree Fun Facts

Urban trees are important not just for the aesthetics, shade and privacy, but they also help make Calgary the “cleanest city in the world” (2013 Mercer Global Financial and HR Consulting ranking). It was estimated that Calgary’s urban forest removes a total of 502 tons of pollutants each year, with an estimated value of almost $3 million (US Forest Service Urban Forest Effect Model: Calgary Study 1998).

Each year, the City removes 500 to 800 pioneer poplar trees i.e. those planted 75 to 100 years ago to as these trees are at the end of their lifespan and it allows opportunities for other trees to grow

One of the fun things to do when walking around inner-city communities is to play “Guest the cost of that tree!”  On almost every block there are one or more signs at each infill site indicating the value of the city trees on the lot.  The builder is responsible for protecting all city trees and if that isn’t possible they have to pay the city the amount posted to replace the trees.

In 1913, William Reader, Parks and Cemetery superintendent unsuccessfully (surprise, surprise) experimented with growing palm trees in pots in the summer in Central Memorial Park as well as around City Hall.  

Olympic Plaza trees

 Last Word

Sometimes I think Calgarians are in denial that we live in winter city.  I am often reminded of this when I pass by the struggling oak tree planted by the City in Grand Trunk Park across the street from my house. It, like many of the thousands of oak trees planted by the City; struggle to grow in a place not meant for trees - certainly not oak trees.  Could this be “tree abuse?”  In fact, some might say creating an urban forest in Calgary is “disturbing its natural ecosystem.”

This oak tree has been struggling to grow in West Hillhurst's Grand Trunk Park for over 10 years. It looks more like a sculptural piece than a tree. 

The streets of every inner city community in Calgary were strewn with fallen branches after the September 8 and 9th snow storm. Another reminder that we not only live on the treeless prairies, but on the edge of the Rockies.  

The streets of every inner city community in Calgary were strewn with fallen branches after the September 8 and 9th snow storm. Another reminder that we not only live on the treeless prairies, but on the edge of the Rockies.  

Stephen Avenue Trees? Sculptures? 

Urban forest provide a canopy over the street winter and summer.

Today, Calgary’s tree canopy is estimated to cover 7% of its over land mass. The goal is to increase this by 1% per decade to a 20% canopy.

In the summer, for those Calgarians living in established communities it is hard to imagine Calgary was a barren, treeless prairie landscape.  Yes, Mount Royal was a treeless hill less than 100 years ago!

To learn more about the City of Calgary’s Parks Urban Forest Strategic Plan, read the document at:

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Do we all need to go back to kindergarten?

By Richard White, March 6, 2014

Learning to share is a key lesson we are all supposed to learn in kindergarten.  Did many of us miss it? Do some of us need a “do over?”  Specifically, why can’t we learn to share the parking in front of our houses?  Seems to me every day the number of free parking spots in Calgary’s inner city communities dwindles. 

I pride myself in being able to find a 2-hr parking spot wherever I go – downtown, Beltline and inner city - whenever.  Yes sometimes I have to walk five or ten minutes, but I don’t mind as often I discover something interesting flaneuring along the way and it’s just good active living. 

My “tipping point” was arriving recently at Bodhi Tree yoga on 14th St. and 8th Ave NW and finding six, 2-hour parking stalls on 8th Avenue have now become permit only.   The parking spaces are located at the side of a corner house so the homeowner already has street parking in-front on 15th Street. Why do the home owners need six more on 8th Avenue?

Over the past 10 years, I have watched as gradually most of the street parking in the area has become paid or permit parking.  First it was the residents along 15th and 16th Street that converted their street parking from 2-hour parking to permit. Then the seniors’ home on 8th Street converted their 15th Street parking in permit parking, followed by the Calgary Parking Authority creating paid parking around the old Grace Hospital and Hillhurst School.  I wouldn’t mind if the permit parking spots were used, but they sit empty most of the time.  That is just selfish.

This is the corner where the 8th Ave street parking has been converted from 2-hour to permit.  These two cars are parked illegally, I expect they didn't realize the signage had changed.  

This is the corner where the 8th Ave street parking has been converted from 2-hour to permit.  These two cars are parked illegally, I expect they didn't realize the signage had changed. 

This is the Seniors' complex that had the 15th street parking changed from 2-hour, to no parking except for the one handicapped parking spot which makes sense. 

This is the Seniors' complex that had the 15th street parking changed from 2-hour, to no parking except for the one handicapped parking spot which makes sense. 

Though there is some off-street visitor parking for restaurant, yoga studio, and various offices in the 8th Ave/14th St condo complex, it is very awkward to get in and out of given the access is directly off the busy 14th Street.

For inner-city communities to thrive and become more walkable, we need to encourage more everyday amenities like cafes, pubs, restaurants, hair salons, dry cleaners, yoga studios, florist, daycares and medical offices to locate in these communities.  We also must recognize small businesses can’t survive on walk-in, transit and cycling traffic only; there needs to be some street parking for those who arrive by car.  To ask small businesses to provide parking on site, or cash-in-lieu is not realistic or affordable.  We need to learn to share the abundant street parking that already exists which, for much of the time sits empty day and night, weekdays and weekends. 

Why are we so selfish that we want to reserve the parking in front of our house for just our private use?  In kindergarten we are supposed to learn how to share. Perhaps we all need to go back for a refresher class, “Sharing 101.”

It is not just me who feels this way.  A colleague shared with me a story last week, about her Mount Pleasant neighbours who successfully lobbied to have their street parking changed to permit only.  She had no say in the change; if the majority wants to have permit parking then they get permit parking. 

The back story to this is a 4th Street NW restaurant on the corner that had become very popular for its good food and live music resulting in more cars parking on their street and staying longer. Is this another case of NIMBYism? Yes we want to have more community amenities, just not next to ME!

This is the Mount Pleasant street which will be limited to permit parking only.  As you can see there is lots of room to share the street parking.  Yes maybe you won't get the spot right in front of your house - the walk will do you good (or maybe you can clean out the garage in the alley and use it to park your car rather than store your junk).

And yes, I do practice what I preach.  We have a mid-block, busy day care (with no street parking) across the street from our home where 50 or so parents arrive twice a day, every weekday to drop off and pick up their kids. As we live on a cul-de-sac, it means everyone has to turn around mid-block to get out.  Yes, some days it is gridlock on our little street (and knock on wood, to our knowledge there has never been an accident in over 20 years). We even have some parents who drop off their kids, park all day and cycle into work.

The funky daycare fence is on the right and the row of staff cars parked along the street is upper left.  Note there is no parking in front of the daycare to allow for drop-off during the day. 

Starting about 7 am and 4 pm the cars arrive for the Daycare Ballet. You can see the white truck is parked on the berm of the park, the white SUV is backing into the spot in front of the daycare. While another SUV is parking in front of our house. 

Here you can seethe  red car blocking the lane and two cars edging past each other.  All the while there are parents with kids crossing the street and alley.  It is chaos sometimes, but just for a few hours and then the ballet is over.    Personally, I love to watch the parents pick-up the kids, often in the summer they will run to the playground and play before going home.  One day had over 20 parents and kids playing tag in the park, some were neighbour kids some from the daycare, it didn't matter we just all had fun.  Community is about sharing, the good, the bad and the ugly. 

Here you can seethe  red car blocking the lane and two cars edging past each other.  All the while there are parents with kids crossing the street and alley.  It is chaos sometimes, but just for a few hours and then the ballet is over.  Personally, I love to watch the parents pick-up the kids, often in the summer they will run to the playground and play before going home.  One day had over 20 parents and kids playing tag in the park, some were neighbour kids some from the daycare, it didn't matter we just all had fun.  Community is about sharing, the good, the bad and the ugly. 

Luckily, as we have a park across the street (meaning fewer houses) this allows for extra parking and turning around space.  We have chatted with the neighbours and while all are frustrated sometimes with the traffic and parking, we have decided (so far) to share the road and parking – no 2-hour limit, no permit parking only.

In some cases it is not just about “foreigners” parking in front of your house that gets people upset, I have heard about streets where it gets nasty if a neighbour parks in front of your house instead of theirs.  For a fun and informative blog on this issue, check out “Who parked in my spot?”

Last Word

Why can’t we all learn to just get along?  Seems like everywhere I turn our society is become more divisive and nasty - “inner city vs. suburb needs,” “cyclists vs. drivers,” “developers vs. neighbours,” “city vs. provincial leaders” “provincial vs. federal government leaders” - need I go on?  Is this the net result of the “what’s in it for me?” culture that has been fostered for several generations?  I say “everyone back to kindergarten!”

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Calgary leads Vancouver in condo design?

By Richard White, January 10, 2014 

Calgary’s first high-rise condos were built at the end of the ‘70s early “80s boom.  Eau Claire 500 was built along the Bow River before there was the Eau Market, the Eau Claire Y and the Bow River Promenade.  The Estate was built as part of the Ranchmen’s Club’s extensive renovations in 1982. 

In many ways The Estate is the model for current condo development with its street level townhouses integrated into the design. Today townhouses at street level are the norm, but in the late ‘70s new townhouses in the Beltline were quite unusual.  

Could it be that Calgary was the inspiration for Vancouver’s plethora of townhouse podium with high-rises tower above that were built starting in the ‘90s? 

Calgary's Estate condo on 13th Avenue which was Calgary's millionaire's row in the early 20th century. 

Highrise condos with street level town homes was innovative in the '80s.

Calgary's historic Ranchmen's Club was established in 1914.


It is perhaps ironic that The Estate was designed by Vancouver architect David Tom who is now a partner in one of Vancouver’s most influential architectural firms BingThom Architects. In 2007, they were the architects for the SAIT Master Plan and in 2009, the architects for the new SAIT parkade which is an amazing work of art and architecture.

The proposed condo tower at 26 floors was way in excess of the ‘80s zoning height limit of 17 floors. The design also called for no balconies, which was also precedent setting urban design for the time.  The city agreed to transfer the density (floors) that would be allowed above the Ranchmen’s Club site if it were to torn down to the land to the west for the condo.  The city also accepted the lack of balconies; given the design included internal climate-controlled conservatories and the street level town homes along 13th Avenue SW. 

In 2014, the Ranchmen’s will be celebrating its 100 anniversary in its R.E. Donnell designed three story Renaissance Revival brick and terra cotta building.  The interior features extensive highly detailed dark woodwork that creates an immediate sense of history, character and charm.  The club is a reminder that Calgary’s original economic engine was ranching, not oil and gas.  Together with the historic Lougheed House and gardens across the street, this area is a hidden gem of Calgary’s history.  

The Estate reflects both the past and the present.  There is a sense of timelessness in the extensive use of brick as the main exterior material.  Yet, without balconies and any other ornamentation the design reflects modern minimalism.  However, it avoided the boxy look of most late 20th century high-rises by placing the tower on a diagonal to the street to create visual interest and maximize the views for each apartment. 

This blog first appeared in Condo Living Magazine, February, 2014. 

The entrance to the Estate is inviting and intimate. 

Designed without protruding balconies gives the Estate a clean modern sense of place, yet the facade pallet is harmonious with the historic design of the Ranchmen's Club. 

The Estate and Ranchmen's Club from the gardens of the Lougheed Mansion across the street. 

Integration critical to new community vitality

Note: This blog was originally published in the Calgary Herald's Neighbours, January 30, 2014.

By Richard White, January 31, 2014

While there is much talk about the importance of densifying Calgary’s older residential communities (i.e. those built from 1950 to 1990), in reality, it makes good sense to create more housing on the edges of the city given that is where most of the new jobs located.  If we want to reduce the length of commutes for Calgarians and encourage them to walk or cycle to work, the best way to do that is to integrate –not segregate - residential and commercial development.

This concept harkens back to the early ‘90s, long before Imagine Calgary, when the City approved the “Go Plan” which focused on the planning and policy initiatives that would entice Calgarians to live closer to where they work as a means of enhancing the city’s mobility.  The idea at that time was to create mini-downtowns in the suburbs so people could “live, work and play” in their immediate area, rather than having to commute across town or to the downtown. 

Until recently, most of Calgary’s residential development was on the west side while the vast majority of the commercial development (industrial, warehouse and offices) was on the east side, meaning most Calgarians had to drive across the city to get to and from work every day.  However, with the creation of new communities like Cityscape, Walden, Seton and Legacy on the east side, more and more Calgarians can “live, work and play” without having to drive across the city or downtown.

New Suburban Home Design 

Early in 2013, the City approved a new master-planned community in Calgary’s far northeast called “Cityscape.” Already homes are being built and the new community is taking shape.  While there was controversy over its name, given it is so far from the “city,” developer Mattamy successfully argued the community name is appropriate given the “cityscape” vista the land offered.

Cityscape unlike suburban communities of the past has narrower lots, more variety of housing types, better connectivity with pathways and parks and retail centers.  Mattamy alone will be offering Village homes (small condos), Townhomes (the hottest housing type in the city these days), Laned homes (rear lane garage) and single-family homes (SFH).  And even the SFH are different from traditional suburban homes with front double car garages that are less protruding, allowing for a more attractive porches and a streetscape that isn’t dominated by big double garage.

When fully built out Cityscape will consist of 4,000 homes and a population of over 12,000 (similar to East Village) all within a few blocks of the 115-acre natural preserve encircled by a 2.5-kilometer pathway, with lookouts and nature interpretive areas at key places.  It will definitely enhance Calgary’s reputation as the “City of Parks and Pathways!”

An example of new community with home designed to fit on narrow lots, recessed garages and smaller front lawns and driveways. 

Integration of Commercial and Residential Development 

The development of StoneGate Landing, by WAM Development Group, on 1,100 acres north of 128th Ave and west of Metis Trail (next to Cityscape) is the suburban equivalent of a small downtown with its 10 million square feet of industrial space (the equivalent of 5 Bow Towers), 1.5 million square feet of retail space (the equivalent of Chinook Centre) and 2 million square feet of office and hotel space. 

StoneGate Landing is just one of several mega land development projects currently under construction north the Calgary International Airport and east of Deerfoot.  It is any wonder there is a strong market for housing in what could be called Calgary’s NNE neighborhood i.e. north of downtown, north of the airport and east of Deerfoot Trail.

If Calgary sticks to its current position of no more annexation, Cityscape, StoneGate Landing and other major land developments in the City’s far northeast could easily become a city within a city.  Cityscape and StoneGate Landing provide Calgarians with the opportunity to “live, work and play” in the new suburbs. Imagine living in Calgary and not having to use the increasingly gridlocked Deerfoot, Crowfoot or Glenmore Trails or ride the overcrowded LRT.


Calgary is quickly being fragmented into distinct smaller cities based on different economic engines.  The northwest is becoming the “Learning City” with SAIT, the University of Calgary and Foothills / Children’s Hospitals being its economic engines.  The southeast is evolving into a “Distribution City” with all of its warehouses and distribution buildings.  The billion-dollar expansion of Calgary’s International Airport with all of its neighbouring developments is quickly becoming our “Airport City.” The southwest is "Execuville" as it is home to most of Calgary's downtown corporate executives and exclusive communities.

It will be interesting to see how Calgary and other cities around the world evolve over the next 25 years at they adapt to the ever changing economic realities that dictate city development. Indeed, life is just a continuous series of adaptations.

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