Calgary leader in addressing urban issues?

In May Huffington Post published a list of ten cities that are frequently mentioned as innovators in addressing urban life issues – specifically, environmental, social, transportation and urban design. While there were no real surprises in the list of cities identified and what they have accomplished or were attempting to accomplish, I was immediately struck that Calgary could and should be on the list. Yet again, Calgary flies under the radar of the international news media for the incredible work the public and private sectors have done to create a city with one of the highest standards of urban living in the world.

What Other Cities Are Doing?

Vancouver makes the list for its work in creating policies that allow more families to live in the city centre, its mandatory composting program and supervised safe injection site.  Stockholm is praised for its “Walkable City” plan that focuses on making all streets pedestrians and cycling-friendly and “Vision Zero” plan to reduce road deaths.

New York City’s $20 billion plan to defend the city against future storms was on the list. Reykjavik’s unique geology allows for its use geothermal heating to produce electricity and heat 95% of its buildings. Berlin’s claim to fame is its ability to repurpose old buildings like power plants into nightclubs and the Nazis Tempelhof Airport into a giant public park.

Singapore has introduced free subway fares to riders who leave the system before 7:45 am as a means of unclogging both street and transit traffic during peak commuter hours.  Hong Kong has created a very handy service where airline passengers check their bag sat a designated station along the Airport Express subway line and it gets taken right to the plane.

Paris’ tentative plan will give the City first right of refusal on 8,000 new apartments being built which they plan to turning into subsidized housing to help eliminate gentrification of communities helps it make the top 10 list.

Copenhagen is noted for its plan to be completely carbon neutral by 2025 through the use of wind power, biomass fuel and other alternate energies.  San Francisco’s DataSF project collects comprehensive data for use by citizens and businesses to foster a better quality of life and increase accountability. For example, Yelp uses the data to give its users information on restaurants’ latest health inspections as a means of reducing food bourne illnesses.

While these are all commendable projects and some are innovative, when it comes to innovative urban living initiatives, Calgary is providing as much leadership as any of these cities. Don’t believe me? Read on!  

Calgary’s Environment Leadership

Not only is Calgary is currently ranked at the cleanest city in the world (and has consistently ranked in the top three for many years) of Mercer Global Financial and HR Consulting “world’s cleanest city.” The ranking is based on water availability and drinkability, waste removal, quality of sewage systems, air pollution and traffic congestions.  The $430-million Pine Creek Wastewater Treatment Centre is one of the most technologically advanced and environmentally-friendly wastewater treatment plants in the world.

When it comes to responding to perils of Mother Nature, Calgary’s Emergency Management System shares data from 32 partner organizations from the police to Calgary Board of Education, as well as draws information from social media sites.  The system has been praised as the best in the world and was instrumental in the highly successful response to Calgary’s great flood of 2013.

Did you know Grow Calgary has an 11-acre farm just west of Canada Olympic Park, where a group of volunteers manages Canada’s largest urban farm - all of the fresh produce being donated to the Calgary Interfaith Food Bank?

Grow Calgary farm within the city limits. (photo credit: paulin8@blogspot.com)

Grow Calgary farm within the city limits. (photo credit: paulin8@blogspot.com)

Pine Creek Water Treatment Plant (photo credit: City of Calgary)

Calgary’s Urban Design Leadership

Calgary is arguably the “Infill Capital of North America.”  When it comes to redevelopment of established communities, Calgary boasts several mixed-use urban villages – Currie Barracks, East Village, Quarry Park, SETON, University District and West District.  What other city builds Transit-Oriented Development before the transit has been built – SETON and Quarry Park? Our downtown is surrounded by vibrant urban communities experiencing a renaissance due to dozens of infill condo developments. And thousands of  new “family friendly” homes being built in ALL of our inner-city neighborhoods. 

Green spaces have been identified as critical to healthy urban living.  Calgary boasts over not only 5,000 parks, two being the among the largest in the world (Fish Creek and Nose Hill), as well as one of the world’s longest urban pathway systems that is quickly closing in on being 1,000 km. 

The Calgary Parks Foundation is working on the 138 km Rotary/Mattamy Greenway project that will create a network of parks and pathways around the perimeter of the city connecting over 100 communities.

Our City Centre has recently completed or in the process of completing at least six new or renovated parks and plazas including the St. Patrick’s Island mega makeover.

Map of the Rotary Mattamy Greenway.

Map of the Rotary Mattamy Greenway.

Calgary’s Transportation Leadership

Calgary was an early adopter of “Light Rapid Transit” in 1981 and in 2001, was the first public transit system to claim all of its electricity from emission-free wind power.  Today, Calgary’s LRT ridership is the third highest in North America, behind Toronto and Guadalajara, both cities having w a population five times that of Calgary and ahead of cities like Vancouver and Portland twice our size.

The Pembina Institute report “Fast Cities: A comparison of rapid transit in major Canadian Cities” (2014) states Calgary leads Canada in rapid transit infrastructure per capita (53km/million citizens) and has, over the past decade built the most rapid transit 22 km. 

For decades, Calgary has implemented some of the most restrictive downtown parking bylaws in North America, including allowing developers to build only 50% of the estimated required parking for new office buildings.  As a result, 60% of downtown commuters use transit, an impressively high percentage and one unheard of in North America except for places like Manhattan. Further to that, City Council recently unanimously approved Canada’s first condo with no parking – N3 in East Village. 

In my mind, Calgary is one of the most pedestrian and cycling-friendly cities in the world. Where else do drivers routinely stop so pedestrians and cyclists can safely cross the street?  I am constantly reminded of this when visiting other cities.

Cars routinely stop to let cyclists and pedestrians cross the road in Calgary. 

Cars routinely stop to let cyclists and pedestrians cross the road in Calgary. 

N3 condo in Calgary's East Village will have no parking stalls for residents. 

N3 condo in Calgary's East Village will have no parking stalls for residents. 

Last Word

Calgary doesn’t get the respect it deserves from the international media and planning communities with respect to the numerous, significant, successful and innovative urban living initiatives recently or currently being implemented by both the private and public sectors. Sure, we have our problems and our urban sense of place isn’t for everyone.

But when push comes to shove, Calgary is at the top of most quality of urban living lists and should have been included in the “top 10 cities shaping the future of urban living.”

This blog was published in the Calgary Herald's New Condos section on June 27th titled "Calgary a top-ten city." 

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