Guest Blog: Marissa Toohey
I grew up in Australia’s biggest city, Sydney, well known for its surf culture and miles of coastline. A few years ago, I set my sights on North America and was fortunate enough to find my way to Calgary in October 2012. I had heard it was a city with bright job prospects, lower taxes than other Canadian cities, a welcoming community and a lovable mayor. And, of course, cowboys. I have to admit I was nervous about winter weather though, having watched the airport scene of the Cool Runnings movie too many times before my arrival.
These days, I spend my free time playing hockey and skiing the Rocky Mountains, rather than going to the beach or firing up the barbie. In chatting with Calgary’s Everyday Tourist, we thought it would be interesting for me to compare the two cities from a Sydneysider’s perspective.
To provide some context, Sydney was founded by the British in 1788 and it attracted a significant number of immigrants. Today, Sydney is one of the most multicultural cities in the world, with around 4.8 million residents spread across an area about 12,368 square kilometers. It is divided into over 30 local government areas with elected councils responsible for functions delegated by the state government.
Calgary’s history, on the other hand, as a city begins in about 1875 or one hundred years later. It is a city of 1.2 million and covers an area of 825 square kilometers for the city proper and if you add in some of the satellite cities and towns it is an additional 704 square kilometers. Calgary is famous for its rivers, parks and access to the Rocky Mountains.
Parks & Recreation
In Sydney, the weather is always warm and the landscape is dominated by waterways and bushland making for an incredible selection of natural attractions - some iconic ones being Hyde Park, The Royal Botanic Gardens, Sydney Harbour and the Bondi to Coogee Coastal Walk. Local councils maintain a multitude of free public beaches and rock pools, while volunteer lifeguards keep swimmers safe.
The innercity offers some excellent play areas too, such as the Darling Quarter community with its climbing ropes, swings, slides, and a flying fox (zip line). It’s surrounded by hip restaurants, wine bars and often has festivals and outdoor movies, making it a great area for the entire family to enjoy day or night.
Similarly, Calgary has many natural attractions including the world famous Rocky Mountain playground. I love the city’s great urban outdoors - Fish Creek Provincial Park, the pathways along the Bow and Elbow rivers, Canada Olympic Park, as well as the many outdoor ice rinks throughout the city in winter. I still can’t get enough skating at Prince’s Island surrounded by fairy lights and listening to friendly tunes.
In the summer, my favourite thing to do is float lazily down the Bow River. In fact, just getting outdoors any time of year is a treat because you can see the environment adapting with the change of seasons.
There are many examples in Sydney where art installations have transformed underused areas and attracted more people. The City of Sydney is implementing a laneway regeneration program, investing in infrastructure that turns hidden laneways into pedestrian thoroughfares, while using public art displays to create more welcoming spaces.
One of the more interesting projects is the new paving, lighting and stunning permanent birdcage art installation (it plays the songs of 50 birds once heard in central Sydney) in downtown’s Angel Place laneway. Today, an average of 4,000 visitors pass through the laneway every day, double the number from 2007.
Calgary’s also has some great public art pieces. I love the Chinook Arc, Promenade (next to the Drop-In Centre), and Wonderland at The Bow. But for me,
the real standouts - from a creative city perspective - have been Calgary’s temporary installations and unique festivals. Wreck City last year transformed an entire residential block into a massive work of art before it was demolished. Exploring dramatically transformed homes was a lot of fun. Beakerhead, an event where citizens interact with a smash up of art, science and engineering over the space of a week in September feels distinctly Calgarian.
When it comes to great architecture, Sydney has its Opera House and the Coathanger Bridge (named because of its arch-shaped design). Not to be outdone, Calgary has the Peace Bridge and The Bow. Sydney has the Opera House, Calgary has the Saddledome. Both cities have strong central business districts dominated by office tower and corporate headquarters architecture.
Sydney has one of the longest reported commute times in the western world, with residents navigating a dizzying system of highways, tolled freeways, main streets, laneways and a growing cycle network. The 3-kilometre drive across the City Centre in peak traffic can take up to an hour and driving in Sydney often costs a considerable amount of money in tolls at the Harbour Bridge, Harbour Tunnel, the Eastern Distributor and several other freeways. The alternative to driving is utilizing an extensive public transit system made up of ferries, light rail, buses and trains that extend to the outer suburbs. A free inner-city shuttle circuit connects visitors to tourist attractions.
In contrast, Calgary’s clever downtown grid of roads and the ring road that connects the outer suburbs are extremely easy to navigate. The fact that many roads are numbered rather than named makes it foolproof to find your way around.
Best of all, the roads are free too. The fare-free C-Train zone downtown is brilliant. As a young city, Calgary’s public transit system still has a lot of room to grow and City Council and administration have the opportunity to learn from other cities and to implement new infrastructure in ways that are conscious of future growth.
I believe better transportation to and from the airport as well as easier connections to more tourist attractions would help in attracting some of Banff’s visitors to stay in the city as well. My brother has visited from Australia three times in the last 15 months to ski and hike the Rockies and to eat, shop and relax in Calgary. Unfortunately, he had to drive to destinations like Canada Olympic Park, Heritage Historical Park and CrossIron Mills shopping centre because of limited transit. But he happily explores the innercity by foot and has discovered some lovely little art galleries around Inglewood that even I wasn’t aware of.
Residential architecture in Sydney has evolved over many years evidenced by the variation in styles along innercity and suburban streets. A lot of Sydneysiders live in heritage housing styles such as terrace houses, workers’ cottages and federation homes. After World War II, the “Great Australian Dream” of home ownership produced a sprawl of detached homes, often with wide verandas and swimming pools in the backyard. High-rise and mid-rise buildings were erected in transit hubs during the following years to increase density.
Nowadays, it’s common for residents to buy an old home or land in a more affordable area in order to build a new oversized “McMansion” that doesn’t quite fit with its surroundings. Yet, the co-existence of conflicting styles adds to the character of many neighbourhoods. It is very similar to what is happening in many of Calgary’s older communities.
These days, Sydney’s housing prices are among the most expensive in the world, with the median house price around $850,000 (Canadian and Australian dollars are currently at par with each other). That will get you a detached home around 1,200 square feet 30 km from the City Centre or a small two-bedroom inner-city apartment with no view and no parking. The average rent for a small one-bedroom, apartment is around $2,000 a month. With the cost of living in Sydney, it’s not surprising that many people share accommodation or are long-term renters with no plans to ever own a home.
The variety in Calgary’s housing stock both in the innercity and suburbs is impressive, with row houses, laneway housing and mid-rise condominium developments on the rise. The former Calgary suburban trend of building tidy rows of beige homes seems to be shifting as many new communities are featuring bright colours and walkable amenities. The city is also increasing density with infills, resulting in new homes being built alongside older homes in existing communities.
The relatively reasonable cost of living in Calgary was one of the things that attracted me to the city but with the average house price now approaching $500,000 and monthly rent over $1,200 for a decent sized apartment, the landscape is quickly changing. Fortunately, community leaders (private and public) seem focused on improving the mix of housing and affordability for all citizens, with several innovative home ownership programs.
While Sydney has diverse cultural, recreational and creative offerings, the commute times and cost of living detract from its many upsides.
If you’re not afraid of living with arctic temperatures for a few weeks, it is hard to beat Calgary’s lifestyle and employment opportunities even with the downturn in the energy sector. I had no job when I landed in Calgary, but within a week I had secured a great position.
I could live anywhere. I choose Calgary. The city is doing a good job of attracting people here for work and play. But one of the challenges I now face is staying here, as it is not easy to renew a visa.
Calgary has the advantage of being young enough to learn from the mistakes made by cities like Sydney. And, with its ambitious and infectious energy, I am confident Calgary will only get better and better as it grows up. I can’t wait to explore the new St. Patrick’s Park this summer.
While the grass is greener longer in Sydney, the sky is bluer in Calgary.
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Editor's Note: Marissa Toohey is currently the Communications Manager at Attainable Homes, in Calgary, Alberta. She has travelled extensively around Asia Pacific, Europe, and North America and her career includes a stint in Vietnam working for Habitat for Humanity International. She loves to live, work and play in Calgary, not necessarily in that order.