While many urban planners are quick to criticize Calgary’s inner-city communities for their lack of walkability, I think some rethinking is in order.
Why? Because these communities were built in the ‘50s ‘60s and ‘70s when urban living and homebuyer expectations were very different from those today.
Also because the future of urban living could look at lot more like the mid-20th century with home delivery of almost all of our everyday needs.
One of the major criticisms of Calgary’s older communities is the lack of walkability to everyday amenities like grocery stores, cafes, drugstores, pubs, restaurants, boutiques and fitness studios.
However, back then “essentials” like milk, bread, eggs and butter were often delivered to the home.
And a corner convenience store also supplied other everyday essentials which often included cigarettes.
And then there was the Fuller Brush Man and Avon Lady….it was a VERY different time.
There was no need for organic grocery store or farmers markets - many city dwellers used their mid-century big backyards for their own garden; some even had family or friends living on nearby farms who’d share their big garden harvest.
Neighbours often shared the extra tomatoes, cukes and zucchini with those neighbours who didn’t have gardens.
No need for the fancy community garden so popular today.
However, the economics of food distribution, home delivery and corner stores changed dramatically in the ‘70s. There was also the introduction of the mega-store chain store mentality – grocery stores, drug stores and hardware stores were no longer small, independent neighbourhood stores.
Ironically, we seem to be returning to mid-century urban living with home delivery of not only of groceries, but almost anything you need. Is marijuana replacing cigarettes? Perhaps we should allow the new marijuana stores to become the new corner store offering all kinds of convenience items.
In the middle of the 20thcentury, meeting a friend for coffee didn’t mean going to a trendy café shelling out $4 for a coffee and $3 for a muffin, but rather going to someone’s home for homemade coffee (often instant) and home baked goods.
So, there was much less of a need for a neighbourhood café. In fact, even today’s neighbourhood cafés are less a place to meet friends and more a workspace given tiny condos are too small to “live, work and/or play.”
The same is true for the neighbourhood pub. When our inner city communities were built, meeting up for a beer or a drink meant going to someone’s home, often to the basement’s rumpus room that had a bar. Interestingly, there is a return to the basement rumpus room/bar, but now it is called the “media centre.”
A costly craft beer at a fancy pub with multiple TVs broadcasting sports from around the world didn’t exist when the focus was more local than global.
Going out to a restaurant for dinner was also not a common activity in the mid 20th century. Rather most families, it was something they did a few times a year, on very special occasions.
This is why there aren’t a lot of neighbourhood restaurants in our inner-city communities.
Playgrounds & Fitness
The big mid-century backyards were often used as the children’s playground - two swings, a slide and sand box (maybe even a tree fort in a real tree).
No need for those $250,000+ mega community playgrounds.
In the winter, someone on the block had a backyard ice rink that everyone used. There was an elementary school within a 5 to 10-minute walk that provided the neighbourhood playground equipment and playing fields. No need to duplicate school and community amenities.
Having a local fitness, cycling or yoga studio nearby was also not an issue 60 years ago. I don’t recall my parents or parents of my friends ever working out, doing yoga or wanting to cycle like a maniac to music. Similarly, the need for community fitness centres was non-existent, people were happy with an arena and curling rink nearby.
Besides, fitness for men 60 years ago was cutting the grass, gardening and doing odd jobs around the house. It was a time when the workshop was the man cave, a place where Dad could (and needed to) fix and build things.
It is what we now call “active living.”
And the same for women. The daily tasks, like cooking, cleaning, canning and laundry (which meant taking the clothes outside to dry) was all the fitness they needed. Hence the adage, “A women’s work is never done!” Especially when the average family was 6+ people.
Will the current interest in paying to going to a gym continue or will it be a generational fad? Will parents get tired of driving their kids all over the city for extracurricular activities?
Will our mega regional recreation centers become a thing of the past as people return to playing on the street, family walks and playing in the neighbourhood park?
Shopping wasn’t a hobby
There was no need for lots of clothing shops in the mid 20thcentury. Have you seen the tiny closets in those mid-century houses! Moms often sewed dresses for themselves and their daughters. There was less shopping for kid’s clothes “hand-me-downs” came from family and friends. Less of a need for consignment and for thrift stores as well.
Moms would also repair clothes (I wore a lot of pants with iron-on knee patches) and darn socks with holes in them rather than throw them out. Today’s online shopping is not that much different from the Eaton’s and Sears catalogue shopping in the 50s and 60s. What is old is new again?
Saving vs Spending?
Will the next generation realize they could save a lot of money by adopting the home entertainment culture of the ‘50s and ‘60s? By my calculations, a coffee a day cost about $150/month, drinks and/or dinner once a week could cost another $150/month per person, so by entertaining at home you could easily save $250/month which if applied to a mortgage would make inner-city living more affordable.
Community Garden vs Backyard Garden
Will the next generation wake up and realize they could have their own garden, thereby saving significant dollars on buying pricey organic food at the farmers’ market?
This is already starting to happen with Calgary’s plethora of community gardens (there are almost 200 community gardens in Calgary).
Death of the grocery store?
Is the mega grocery store destined for extinction, like the department store? soon to become extinct? Sylvain Charlebois, professor in food distribution and policy and associate dean at the College of Management and Economics, University of Guelph said back in 2014 that “the days of the typical grocery store are numbered.” Since then, online grocery store shopping in North America has grown significantly, US online grocery shopping is expected to grow from 7% of the market to 20% by 2025. Amazon’s takeover of Whole Foods in 2017 could well signal the beginning of the end for the mega grocery store.
Link: Death of grocery store
The same could be true for other bricks and mortar retailers. Department stores have been dying for decades, Sears being the latest victim. While some say the death of retail is premature. Warren Buffett says “that in 10 years, the retail industry will look nothing like it does today.” In May 2017, he sold all of his Walmart shares. Who would bet against Buffett, one of the most successful and respected investors in the world since the 1960s?
Will there be support for a traditional “main street” in the future? The City of Calgary’s planners are currently focused on how to create or enhance 24 traditional main streets in Calgary’s older communities. Many of Calgary’s new urban villages are planned around an urban grocery store as its anchor.
One has to wonder - are we planning for the future or the past?
Planners and politicians need to be futurists. They need to envision the future and build a city with a variety of different communities to meet the diverse and changing expectations of its citizens and market.
Have we replaced the sea of cookie-cutter single-family houses with cookie-cutter town homes and condos?
Will the master-planned communities being built today, meet the needs of Calgarians 20 years from now when they are fully built-out?
Calgary’s inner-city communities are in fact much loved by those who live there today - as they were 50+ years ago. They have not become rundown and undesirable communities like in some cities. They are an oasis for many Calgarians. Hence, the strong desire to preserve rather than develop them.
Too much of today’s city building is about imitation - planners, developers and politicians borrowing ideas from other cities without understanding the unique nature of their city.
Calgary is not Vancouver. Nor is it Toronto or Montreal. And we are VERY different from European and US cities.
Calgary’s inner-city communities may not require as much change as many planners think given the return to home delivery for food, clothing and other everyday needs. The UPS and FedEx trucks arrive on my street almost every day; often more than once. Our everyday needs are being delivered to us, rather than us walking, cycling or driving to pick them up.
Perhaps we should just let them evolve naturally based on economic, technological and market changes with a dash of good urban design.