Calgary's Growth Revisited: Greg Morrow (Richard Parker Chair, UofC)

In 2015, Greg Morrow was appointed the inaugural Richard Parker Professor in Metropolitan Growth + Change at the University of Calgary (Parker was a planner with the City of Calgary for 30 years, including 15 years as the Head of the Planning Department). The Parker Professorship was established to address current community environment and social issues related to metropolitan growth. This five-year position, co-located in the Haskayne School of Business and the Faculty of Environmental Design, at the University of Calgary, sits at the crossroads of urban design and planning, and real estate development.

As a member of Morrow’s Advisory Committee, I can attest to some lively debates about the good, the bad and the ugly of Calgary’s infill and new developments over the past year.  Morrow, who grew up in Cloyne, Ontario (population 70) has some interesting views on how Calgary should manage urban growth in the 21st century.

Greg Morrow, Richard Parker Professorship in Metropolitan Growth and Change, Haskayne School of Business and Faculty of Environmental Design

Greg Morrow, Richard Parker Professorship in Metropolitan Growth and Change, Haskayne School of Business and Faculty of Environmental Design

Q: How is your thinking different than most urban planners? 

A: I think I depart from most planners when I say the path to good planning lies more in good negotiation and judgment than in more regulations and rules. We should not be slaves to process, policy and technical details. These are important but not a substitute for good judgment.

 I also don't believe we can or should pre-plan every square metre of a city. Instead, let's focus on where we want to direct growth (major corridors, LRT stations, big under-utilized areas).

I think we're also too prescriptive in our land use bylaw; we need a simpler, more flexible bylaw with more emphasis on being outcome-oriented.

Martin Expo Town Center, in Los Angeles a redevelopment of a car dealership into a mixed-use TOD or transit-oriented development (being developed by the family that has owned the dealership for 40 years). Unlike many TOD developments which are predominately housing or office, this is a genuine mixed-use project with 150,000 sf of office, a 35,000 sf grocery store, 18,000 sf of restaurants, 46,000 sf of general retail, generous public plazas, and 516 units of housing, 20% of which are affordable units (below market-rate). This is the kind of development Calgary needs around LRT stations.

Martin Expo Town Center, in Los Angeles a redevelopment of a car dealership into a mixed-use TOD or transit-oriented development (being developed by the family that has owned the dealership for 40 years). Unlike many TOD developments which are predominately housing or office, this is a genuine mixed-use project with 150,000 sf of office, a 35,000 sf grocery store, 18,000 sf of restaurants, 46,000 sf of general retail, generous public plazas, and 516 units of housing, 20% of which are affordable units (below market-rate). This is the kind of development Calgary needs around LRT stations.

Q: What cities might Calgary learn from?

A: We can and must innovate locally, but Calgary should be willing to look to best practices from other North American cities to see how they can be adapted to our context. We don’t have to reinvent the wheel every time. There are great ideas from a lot of cities so we can pick and choose, while still creating our own unique city.

We can turn under-used areas into great places quickly and cheaply, like New York did with its Madison Square. We can move towards more market-based parking solutions, like Seattle. We can apply best practices transitioning from single detached to mid-rise buildings along key roads like Toronto’s mid-rise standards. We can keep parking revenue local to help fund streetscape improvements like Pasadena.

Toronto's mid-rise standards is an example of a best practice that Calgary could adopt. 

Toronto's mid-rise standards is an example of a best practice that Calgary could adopt. 

Link: The rise of the mid-rise!

Q: What do you think about Calgary's strong NIMBY culture?

A: We need to better explain the rationale for change - reduce congestion, lower water/energy use, improve health outcomes, create communities rich in amenities close to home and lower infrastructure costs to name a few.

NIMBYism is a symptom of the disconnect between City policy and what people personally know and value. Calgary’s culture is changing as people from across the world enrich our city; let’s see the value and opportunities this change presents rather than perceive all change as negative.  

The fact is, cities are always evolving. Planning can’t stop change but it can help shape change to maximize the good and minimize the bad. But we need a stronger commitment to genuine civic engagement and collaboration as opposed to token open houses held after decisions have already been made. This will build trust and understanding between communities, City administration and the development industry.

Link: Why NIMBYs speak louder than YIMBYs?

Q: What is your thinking on secondary suites?

 A: It is way overblown in Calgary. It reflects our anxieties and fears of imaginary threats, mostly about renters. But most of us have been renters at one point in our lives!

My dad and his mom lived in a suite with his grandparents in Toronto. We should not prevent caring for elderly parents, cultural traditions of multi-generational living - or helping young people become homeowners with a mortgage helper.

We know from cities where suites are allowed that (a) there aren't many created (most homeowners don't want to), (b) they are sprinkled throughout the city (i.e. not concentrated on a single block) and (c) they actually raise, not lower property values.

A common sense solution is to conditionally permit them and if owners don't fulfill the conditions, they lose their permit. 

Q: What would you like to see Calgary developers do differently? 

A: I would like our new communities to be more fiscally sustainable, complete communities. I don’t think we truly appreciate the long-term fiscal liabilities the infrastructure in these new communities will be once they have reached the end of their life cycle. To create communities that can generate enough revenue to sustain themselves, we need a greater mix of uses, more amenities within walking distance of home and more transit accessibility in new communities.  

New communities must be designed to be adaptable to change over time. And, we need developers and City administration to be more innovative and open to change.

LA doesn't have the amount of vacant land that Calgary does, but one interesting large-scale land development is Playa Vista, developed on the former site of Howard Hughes Airport (the project was bought by Calgary's Brookfield Residential). A master planned community, it has been developing over time since 2002, demonstrating that a long-term commitment and phased build-out can create exceptional long-term value (as opposed to trying to build the entire community as quickly as possible, and claiming there is no market for density). This allows the developer to build at higher densities than a shorter build out would allow (since the market would not be there for higher densities). It's organized into blocks, with an emphasis on a high quality public realm, with one-third of the area set aside as a wetland preserve. It has a range of architecture, from traditional to contemporary and a mix of apartments, single family, retail, and office -- a genuine complete community. It's also an ethnically diverse community. Its amenities has attracted several tech companies to locate there (Microsoft, Facebook, Electronic Arts, Belkin). This is the kind of complete community Calgary's new communities should aspire to.

LA doesn't have the amount of vacant land that Calgary does, but one interesting large-scale land development is Playa Vista, developed on the former site of Howard Hughes Airport (the project was bought by Calgary's Brookfield Residential). A master planned community, it has been developing over time since 2002, demonstrating that a long-term commitment and phased build-out can create exceptional long-term value (as opposed to trying to build the entire community as quickly as possible, and claiming there is no market for density). This allows the developer to build at higher densities than a shorter build out would allow (since the market would not be there for higher densities). It's organized into blocks, with an emphasis on a high quality public realm, with one-third of the area set aside as a wetland preserve. It has a range of architecture, from traditional to contemporary and a mix of apartments, single family, retail, and office -- a genuine complete community. It's also an ethnically diverse community. Its amenities has attracted several tech companies to locate there (Microsoft, Facebook, Electronic Arts, Belkin). This is the kind of complete community Calgary's new communities should aspire to.

Q: Are you optimistic or pessimistic about Calgary's evolution into a vibrant 21st century city?

A: I’m optimistic. The annual Calgary’s Best Neighbourhoods Survey tells us the most desired characteristic Calgarians want is a walkable community with local amenities. Let’s give people what they want, places that accommodate driving, but not mandate it. That doesn’t mean they’ll be like downtown – not at all – just better designed with more local amenities.

Good city building is about giving people lifestyle choices. We need a greater diversity of housing choices in Calgary. I see this as the key to creating more vibrant communities.

Q: What projects in Calgary do you think are examples of good 21st century urban development?

 A: There are a lot of thoughtful projects in Calgary underway or on their way – East Village, Currie Barracks, Stadium Shopping Centre; the redevelopment plans for Northland and Deerfoot Malls.  I also like how the Beltline is evolving into one of North America’s finest urban villages next to a Central Business District.

 What these have in common is an emphasis on creating interesting, human-scaled places.

East Village's community garden was a popular meeting spot for newcomers to East Village this summer, helping to foster a sense of community.

East Village's community garden was a popular meeting spot for newcomers to East Village this summer, helping to foster a sense of community.

Q: Where do you live in Calgary and why did you choose to live there?

A: I live in Parkhill/Stanley Park. We chose to live here because it was on the LRT (we have one car), close to downtown and has a great park (Stanley Park, with its swimming, tennis, playgrounds, skating, tobogganing). We have twin five-year-old girls so we can walk and bike along the fantastic Riverwalk system to the shops, restaurants, and amenities in Mission. We have a 2,000-sf mid-century single detached home that cost about the same as a house in the suburbs, but without sacrificing proximity to amenities.

Q: What do you hope to accomplish as the Richard Parker Professor? 

A: My team (myself, 2 postdoctoral scholars, and a team of research assistants) have 3 goals: (1) to help make the University of Calgary a world leader in research on how metropolitan regions grow and change, (2) to develop new courses that bring planning, architecture and business students together to understand that good placemaking is good business and (3) to help inform and influence the debate and decisions re: Calgary’s growth by illustrating the benefits of growing smarter.

Last Word

In addition to being a professor at the University of Calgary, Morrow is also a volunteer member of Calgary’s Planning Commission where he is already challenging administration, developers and planning consultants to rethink how Calgary builds new communities and reshapes established ones. 

It will be interesting to see if Morrow can adapt his academic-based vision to the realities of Calgary’s economy, market and policies and provide constructive input into how Calgary evolves.  

Richard White can be reached at richardlw@shaw.ca Follow him on twitter @everydaytourist and read his blogs at everydaytourist.ca

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