Does Calgary have too many neighbourhoods?

Calgary has 185 neighbourhoods and counting. But can we afford all of these neighbourhoods, each with their own Community Association and Community Centre? Many of which are chronically struggling for volunteers and funding. Is there an opportunity to merge some of the neighbourhoods to create more logical, viable and vibrant communities?

I'm torn. So I checked with Jane Jacobs the grandmother of modern urban thinking and harry Hiller, urban sociologist at the University of Calgary. Hiller thinks neighbourhoods are possibly irrelevant in the modern world. Jane thinks bigger is better. 

Let the debate begin...

 Calgary has 185 neighbourhoods and counting. Traditionally, the City has been divided into four quadrants, however, in reality there are at least eight different districts.

Calgary has 185 neighbourhoods and counting. Traditionally, the City has been divided into four quadrants, however, in reality there are at least eight different districts.

Small town = Small Minded?

Creating great neighbourhoods is critical to our City’s present and future prosperity as they attract young people to want to live here. It is young people with new ideas and new energy who are the future of any city. A good neighbourhood fosters social connectedness, economic diversity, well-being and civic pride.

One of Calgary’s urban living advantages since the ‘60s has been how it has fostered small town neighbourhoods of about five to ten thousand people. From the new Legacy in the far south, to Cliff Bungalow in the core – our city has kept our communities relatively small even as it grew from 250,000 to over one million.

These small town-like neighbourhoods of about 10,000 people made it easy for hundreds of thousands of Canadians who moved here mostly from small towns to assimilate into the big city. It also psychologically makes us feel more connected to people around us. On a personal level, I know I have come to love my neighbourhood – West Hillhurst - because of its idiosyncrasies. 

However, Jane Jacobs, the legendary writer on cities and urban design, always maintained that small communities are a sentimental longing for the past. AND that we should be fostering larger more urban districts of 50,000+ citizens. She even suggests that small-town size neighbourhoods foster NIMBYism. Something we all know Calgary is plagued with.

Jacob's argued that bigger neighbourhoods are better. And as our city continues to grow, the temptation to create 'bigger' neighbourhoods looms.

Certainly there would be a cost saving in duplicated resources, and larger communities might hold more sway with city council and developers. But I think good things come from small neighbourhoods. 

  The recreation centre and park in the foreground is in West Hillhurst, while the Queen Elizabeth School and fields across the street is in Hillhurst. Does this matter? (photo credit: Ross Aitken Re/Max Real Estate Central)

The recreation centre and park in the foreground is in West Hillhurst, while the Queen Elizabeth School and fields across the street is in Hillhurst. Does this matter? (photo credit: Ross Aitken Re/Max Real Estate Central)

Jane’s Logic

In 1960, Jacobs wrote the definitive book on creating great neighbourhoods – “Death and Life of Great American Cities.” Note: I have been re-reading this book over the summer.

It has become the bible for many of today’s urbanists – planners, politicians, architects and other urban influencers. You’d think someone who fought to preserve mid-century neighbourhood life, would love small neighbourhoods. But, you'd be wrong. Here’s what she said in her chapter “The Uses Of City Neighborhoods”

Neighborhood is a word that has come to sound like a Valentine. As a sentimental concept, ‘neighborhood’ is harmful to planning. It leads to attempts at warping city life into imitations of town or suburban life. Sentimentality plays with the sweet intentions in place of good sense.”

Well, Calgary certainly has suburban life – imitation or not. And we've even tried to create a vision of 19th century 'towns' – think Mackenzie Town.

Later she says: “In its pure form the ideal is a neighborhood composed of about 7,000 persons, a unit supposedly of sufficient size to populate an elementary school and to support convenience shopping and a community center.”

But, then Jacobs goes on to say the focus should be on creating districts of about 50,000 to 100,000 people.  This, she argues, would create a critical body of voters which could in turn influence politicians.

Ironically, this fits nicely with Calgary’s 14 Wards, with populations ranging from 70,000 to 105,000, each with their own schools, major park, library, recreation centre and shopping mall. But, it's probably fair to say most of us don't identify with our Ward. We are still stuck on community.

And maybe there is something to this. Maybe it is time to stop thinking of our neighbourhoods as pristine little imagined communities. Maybe we need to relax a bit when it comes to our community associations trying to gobble up resources so we can each have our very own little library or pool, school or soccer pitch, dog park or city contribution to some cultural event.

I have to admit Jane’s logic makes more sense now than perhaps it did in the ‘60s. Today, urban living means a home in one part of the city, while working in another and playing in yet another. We are just as connected with someone on the other side of the city, as we are someone on the other side of the street.

Most kids don’t grow up in their neighbourhood anymore– their daycare, schools and extra-curricular activities are rarely in their ‘hood. Recreation centers, libraries and churches are mega regional facilities that attract people from all over the quadrant.  Few walk to the library, playing field or recreation centre anymore.

Knowing this, should we plan our cities differently?

  Calgary's Ward system corresponds nicely with Jane Jacob's suggestions that a city should be divided into districts of about 50,000 to 100,000 people.

Calgary's Ward system corresponds nicely with Jane Jacob's suggestions that a city should be divided into districts of about 50,000 to 100,000 people.

  Interestingly, Paris is divided into 20 neighbourhoods, each with about 100,000 people.

Interestingly, Paris is divided into 20 neighbourhoods, each with about 100,000 people.

CALGARIANS LOVE THEIR NEIGHBOURHOODS

Humans have lived in small towns for millenniums. We like it when we see people we recognize at the dog park, playground or at the store. Even if we don’t know their name we will say “Hi” if we see a person frequently enough. Living in small neighbourhoods is in our DNA.

I don’t have any empirical data but based on my 35+ years of living in Calgary, I believe most Calgarians like living in their small town-like neighbourhoods. Living in West Hillhurst for over 25 years, I have come to enjoy the diversity of my community and I expect that is true for most of Calgarians.

  From Avenue Magazine's 2018 ranking of Calgary neighbourhoods.

From Avenue Magazine's 2018 ranking of Calgary neighbourhoods.

  Avenue Magazine's top five neighbourhoods.

Avenue Magazine's top five neighbourhoods.

Why I love West Hillhurst….

West Hillhurst was originally part of the massive 146,000-hectare Cochrane Ranch owned by the Riley family. Over the years the land has had names like Grand Trunk, Upper Hillhurst, Westmount, Parkdale Annex and Happyland.

Today it is home to 6,500 people, with the heart of the neighbourhood being West Hillhurst Park and recreation centre. It may not have all of the bells and whistles of the new mega million-dollar recreation centers on the outskirts of the City but it is works just fine.

I love that West Hillhurst is more than just a sea of luxury infill homes. Even though there has seemingly been a new infill being built on every other block for 25+ years, there are still lots of tiny cottage homes and single-story mid-century homes. I love how the past and present intermingles.

It's a bit of a jumble – schools, parks, homeless shelters, affordable housing, an abortion clinic, an ENMAX transformer, senior centres, a Lion's club, churches, a river, roads, rec centres, playgrounds, shops, and a hundred other 'things'. All of which form 'community'.

I love the social cohesion that exists in my neighbourhood - how people of all ages and backgrounds mix. I doubt West Hillhurst is unique, I expect all of Calgary’s 185 communities have their own charm and appeal.

In a big city you need a spectrum of communities that will appeal to the diversity of lifestyles from highrise living to estate homes, from co-op housing to affordable housing. A city’s richness come from the diversity of its neighbourhoods. Calgary is blessed with such!

But, it may be time for some of this wonderful uniqueness, to merge.

  This early 20th century map indicates that there were several neighbourhoods in what is now Hillurst and West Hillhurst.

This early 20th century map indicates that there were several neighbourhoods in what is now Hillurst and West Hillhurst.

NEIGHBOURHOODS MUST EVOLVE

Today West Hillhurst is divided east and west by the Crowchild Trail Divide (most people think the west side is actually Parkdale).  Most people think West Hillhurst ends at Crowchild Trail and Parkdale starts on the west side of Crowchild Trail, but in fact it doesn’t start until 29th St. in fact there is are three churches that are named Parkdale but are actually in West Hillhurst.  Crowchild trail is a natural boundary / barrier between those who live on one side and those on the other of Crowchild trail.  

I will probably be tarred and feathered for saying this but perhaps it is time to re-evaluate our boundaries. They are only imaginary anyway.

Should West Hillhurst and Parkdale amalgamate? Or should West Hillhurst become part of larger Hillhurst/Sunnyside community. Maybe we should even think bigger and create a North Hill community that would combine Hillhurst/Sunnyside, West Hillhurst, Parkdale, St. Andrew’s Heights, Briar Hill and Hounsfield Heights. Should Sunalta be part of the Beltline? Should Renfrew be part of Bridgeland/Riverside? Should East Village, Downtown Commercial, Eau Claire, Chinatown and Downtown West become one downtown neighbourhood?

Many inner-city community boundaries don’t make any sense anymore. Most of them were established based on city and homebuilders’ subdivisions that are 50 years out-of-date. We just don't live that way anymore. We use our city differently.

Indeed, amalgamations have already worked for some neighbourhoods. In 2004, the communities of Connaught and Victoria Park (two of Calgary’s oldest neighbourhoods) merged to become the Beltline.

This has allowed for better planning and development. Now unified, the city was able to devised a “Blueprint for the Beltline” that charted a much more practical vision for the area. A better use of land and limited resources.

The Northern Hills Community Association is another example of where six ‘90s suburb neighbourhoods - Harvest Hills, Coventry Hills, Country Hills Estates, Panorama Hills Estates, Country Hills and Panorama Hills have come to think of themselves as one big community. Even while they keep their names, they've found collective action can bind them to each other. Thus, their recent 850m mural project - the longest in Canada.

So, perhaps it's time to stop playing the Freudian civic game of, 'who has the biggest YMCA', and start thinking about how we can better share our shiny new civic toys within the content of macro neighbourhoods. Certainly the folks at city hall, trapped in seemingly endless rounds of 'consultation' on every darn project with a near endless list of concerned citizens from 'the local neighbourhood' might, just might, find it easier to get stuff done if they had to deal with fewer folks.

Yet I think we must temper this ambition.

SIZE MATTERS?

While Jacobs thinks fostering small town living “warps” cities, I beg to differ.

I don’t think wanting to live in a small town is “a sentimental longing for the past,” but rather an intrinsic part of human happiness and well-being. So, do researchers from McGill and the Vancouver School of Economics who published a paper in May 2018, documenting that Canadians who live in small towns are happier than those living in big cities. 

Lucky for Calgarians, despite the endless sprawl, we all continue live in small towns. Perhaps that's why we are generally happy and satisfied with our quality of life.  A 2015, Stats Can study found Calgarians’ life satisfaction is higher than Vancouver’s or Toronto’s. A 2017 City of Calgary Citizen Satisfaction survey found 85% of us rated our quality of life a good. Obviously, Calgary is doing something right. Whether it's an itty bitty place like Mission, or a bigger lake-community in the south. Vive la difference!

What's critical is fostering a sense of community, a sense of belonging and personal happiness.

Perhaps we don’t need all 185 neighbourhoods. Perhaps there should be some amalgamations, but for the most part Calgary has been, and will continue to be, well served by fostering a sense of small-town living in an ever-bigger city. 

  This map was posted on Twitter recently, indicating that Inglewood Ramsay was once 12 different neighbourhoods.

This map was posted on Twitter recently, indicating that Inglewood Ramsay was once 12 different neighbourhoods.

Last Word

I asked Dr. Harry H. Hiller, professor of sociology at the University of Calgary, a macro sociologist and urban sociologist if he thought Calgary has too many neighbourhoods.  He responded with:

The most important thing to know is the distinction between community of place vs. community of interest.  We often assume that community is a geographic or place based phenomenon.  While that is true, it is also a phenomenon that people create community based on mutual interests where place is irrelevant.  

We build subdivisions using principles such as walkability and community associations because we assume that people create community based on proximity of residence.  But that is no longer true.  People now may drive all over a city to find people with similar interests to their own.  This is also heightened by the creation now of digital communities where geographic proximity is totally irrelevant.  

One of my best examples of this was the old notion that every subdivision had to keep a double lot for the establishment of a local church that may have serviced 200-500 people.  Now that is not done any more as mega-churches have been created that people travel from all over to attend (e.g. Centre Street church), or people may choose to attend a church or model railroading club or lodge that services a quadrant of a city or just the city as a whole.  Community then occurs based on common interests and is not related to a local sense of community.  

We have a friend in Calgary who has become quite fascinated by a church in Dallas which I looked up and I discovered that they tell people that they can become an e-member.  So community might be local or city-wide but it can also be virtual.  

The ultimate point is that community based on place requires a much broader interpretation and geographic location might even be totally irrelevant.

Note: An edited version of this blog was published by CBC Calgary news as part of their "Road Ahead" feature. on Saturday, Sept 8, 2018.  

If you like this blog, you will like these links:

West Hillhurst: Portrait Of My Neighbourhood

Calgary's Million Dollar Neighbourhoods

Altadore: A Model 21st C Neighbourhood?