Calgary has to do something to stop urban sprawl. We have to find a way to encourage more Calgarians to live in communities that already exist, rather then continue our rather relentless suburban march outward to Okotoks, Strathmore, Airdre and Cochrane.
The City’s economists estimate that from 2009 to 2069, Calgary will add 1.3 million people. That's a doubling. So where will we put everyone?
Calgary’s Municipal Development Plan (MDP) has set a very ambitious target that 50% of all population growth from 2009 until 2069 will be in older established communities called the Developed Area.
It is the blueprint for Calgary’s future.
Yikes, that means adding 650,000 to our existing neighbourhoods - if we achieve the 1.3 million population increase.
A noble goal.
But in reality, it'll be very difficult, if not impossible to convince Calgarians to move into inner-city communities for various reasons.
To accommodate 650,000 new people via infill, new build, rebuild and other projects in our established communities, we'd need to add about 10,000 people to those communities per year. That is like adding one East Village every year, for the next 50 years somewhere in our City Centre or the older suburbs.
When you understand how the differential death/birth rates, demographics, household sizes, land assembly and approval times, all significantly favour population growth in suburbs you being to appreciate the City has set itself a Herculean task!
We all have skin in this game. The MDP is our roadmap for shaping the kind of city we want to live in. It affects roads and transit planning and residential property taxes.
It impacts our collective carbon and economic footprint.
It's a plan we need to understand in detail as it will mean many of us will have to change the way we live!
EASIER SAID THAN DONE
Calgary's MDP was adopted back in 2009.
That was a time of a different reality for our city - pre downturn - but still, it's the vision we are using as we move forward.
The City’s mid-term target is for 33% of all of Calgary’s population growth between 2009 and 2039, to be in established communities and 50% by 2069.
To give you an idea of the radical change this would be, from 2006-2016, about 91% of Calgary's growth was in suburbs, and only 9% or so was in developed communities.
To go from 9% population growth in the Developed Areas to 50% is going to mean a paradigm shift in how the City, developers and Calgarians live. The City would need to devote considerably more time and tax dollars to making the inner-city communities a more attractive and affordable place to “live, work and play” than it has ever done before.
This will mean new mid-rise condos along major transit routes and the conversion of old shopping centre, church and school sites into mixed-use, multi-building developments in every inner-city community.
Think Stadium Shopping Centre, Kensington Legion or Westbrook Village on the old Ernest Manning High School site happening in almost every inner-city community.
This will mean huge investments in things like inner-city Bus Rapid Transit, bike lanes, public spaces, park and recreational facility upgrades. It will also mean finding land, conducting complex public engagement and approvals and completing infrastructure upgrades to build 250,000+ new homes – singles, duplexes, row housing and low, mid and high-rise buildings in every established community.
How this will happen and can this mega makeover happen is complicated. There are a bunch of numbers and indicators that really question if the city has created a target that is impossible to achieve.
Back to that 9% number and how our growth has always been and still is mostly in suburbs. Right now, despite thousands of new infill homes, multifamily builds, and hundreds of new condo buildings, developed neighbourhoods account for a very small bit of Calgary's growth.
How's this possible? Get ready for some math.
It probably shouldn’t surprise anyone, but the older suburbs are where the older Calgarians live. A quick check of the City of Calgary’s community profiles showed that in Lake Bonavista 22% of the population is over 65, Acadia 17%, Silver Springs 17% and Lakeview 20%. Whereas new communities like Aspen Woods, Bridlewood, Evanston and Auburn Bay have 5% of less of their population over 65.
So, you'll find more grey hair, like mine, in the middle ring suburbs (communities built between 1950 - 2000).
On average the City of Calgary forecasts about 7,500 deaths each year, unfortunately the City doesn’t track deaths by community. However, it is fair to say that significantly more deaths occur in the developed areas than the developing one.
Similarly, there is a significant difference in the birth rates in Calgary’s established communities vs new ones. Again the City doesn’t track how Calgary’s annual 17,000 births are distributed throughout the city. But a review of the City’s community profiles shows there are significantly more young children in the new communities at the edge of the city than there are in older communities.
In addition, established communities are more likely to have older teens and young adults who will be moving out of the house, which will further decreased their population over the next 25+ years.
Simply put, the older suburbs don’t stand chance against the new suburbs when it comes to their population growth vs new suburbs given their low birth and high death rates.
This is not a fair fight!
The City admits this is an issue.
Their Municipal Development Plan / Calgary Transportation Plan 2018 Monitoring Progress Report states, “to meet the 33 per cent growth share of the Developed Area for the 2006-2039 period, approximately 47 percent of the growth will need to be captured annually in the Developed Areas over the next 20 years.
LAND, LAND AND MORE LAND.
Then there's this.... most land in established communities is, by definition, developed – already built on. So, how does the City expect developers to go about amassing sufficient land in these areas to build the 250,000 or so new homes that will be needed to accommodate the 650,000 more people the city expects to live there by 2069.
The City and developers are going to face a hard time approving inner-city projects in established communities given the increasing complications of community engagement and infrastructure upgrades needed.
But let's say we do build up, that also presents financial problems.
WHEN FREE ISN'T FREE
People often assume infill projects are free for the city, as they don’t need any new roads, transit, schools, police and fire stations etc. This is not true.
More people create more pressure on old infrastructure. Which comes with a cost.
For example, the city is spending $44 million to replace aging on infrastructure upgrades along the 17th Avenue SW to make it more attractive for future business and residential development. In Forest Lawn, to accommodate future development the City is investing $96 million in BRT to connect the communities along International Avenue (17th Ave SE) to the City Centre, as well as create a more pedestrian friendly experience.
And then is East Village, where the City has invested mega millions in new infrastructure, a well as new library, museum, public art, community garden, dog park and redevelopment of St. Patrick’s Island Park.
If we are going to accommodate up to 650,000 more people living in inner-city communities they are going to want more amenities equivalent the new suburbs – iconic recreation centres. Smacking down 10 thousand new people next to an older smaller library, or with a less developed park or community centre, is going to increase demands for better 'stuff'.
But even if there is a commitment to redeveloping older neighbourhoods, and we come up with the money, it is the 'cost' of the actual 'house' itself, which will make the target of up to 650,000 more people in established communities difficult.
Most Calgarians today simply can’t afford the cost of homes in established communities.
Think of it this way. In the 'burbs' a modern single family home can, lock stock and barrel, easily cost $500,000. In developed communities, especially the inner city a lot, just the lot, can cost $500,000.
Yes, we could try to focus on condos replacing single family homes in redeveloping older neighbourhoods, but the cost of a condo can be twice as much in the City Center vs. one in the suburbs, especially if you are looking at a concrete building with underground parking.
And it is going to take a huge shift in thinking to get Calgary families to adopt condo living as their preferred way of living.
Until the City and developers can find a way to build more affordable high-density infill housing, Calgarians will continue to gravitate to living in the city’s new suburbs or even in edge cities like Airdrie and Cochrane.
Progress Is Being Made
More and more niche infill developers are building small row housing projects or small condo complexes to replace two or three small mid-century homes in inner-city communities as a means of providing more affordable housing in established neighbourhoods.
We are heading in the right direction.
Many of our inner-city communities are bustling with new infill projects and the City Centre is full of cranes building new highrise residential towers. In fact, the 2018 census showed a significant increase the population of the City Centre and the inner-city communities around it.
However, there was a decline in the older suburbs between the inner-city ring and the new suburbs that offset most of the growth near the city centre.
The evolution of the mid to late 20thcentury communities from almost exclusively single-family residential neighbourhoods to a mix of housing types will take more than two generations i.e. 60 years.
Communities like West Hillhurst, Bridgeland and Altadore have been experiencing infill development for over 30 years and only recently have their populations begun to grow beyond what they were in the 60s.
We have a long, long way to go, and a lot to think about, and a plan that needs to be more realistic to early be helpful.
Linking Vision With Reality
Rhetoric or aspirational thinking that is not based in reality is a dangerous thing. While it can inspire, inform, encourage and energize people, it can also have the opposite effect. Rhetoric (which there is no shortage in our culture), that falls flat time and again, will jade the community and ultimate lose its power to motivate change.
We must be careful of not setting impossible targets in the name of 'doing something' about sprawl, environmentalism, and economic development.
The intent of the MDP is good, there are lots of good ideas and policies but the targets need to be achievable.
We need to rethink the target of 33% of all Calgary’s population growth between 2009 and 2039, to be in established communities and 50% by 2069.
A better target would be to achieve continuous improvement from the 90/10 new vs. old community split with perhaps getting to a 50/50 split by the year 2069.
Or perhaps to establish different goals for the City Centre and older inner-city communities vs. the mid to late 20th century and early 21st century communities recognizing each have their own inherent opportunities for and barriers to diversification and densification.
Good plans are not static, they adapting to new information, opportunities and realities as they become apparent. In a discussion with the City staff, I learned the City is indeed planning a review and updating of both the Municipal Development Plan and Calgary Transportation Plan early in 2019.
And YES there will be an opportunity for community engagement. So, put on your thinking caps and let the City know how we can realistically better manage our City’s growth to slow down urban sprawl.
Let’s work together to make our city better….
Note: An edited version of this blog was published by CBC Calgary as part of its Road Ahead feature. Link: Can Calgary really cram 650,000 more people into existing communities?