The Sprawling City

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Most Canadians are aware of Calgary’s status. For those who are not, it is quite simply booming in every sense of the word. Booming may even be an understatement, as very rarely has the city seen expansion at such epic proportions. The population grew by almost 36,000 in the past year, a number only surpassed during the 1980s boom years, and the city has been growing almost as rapidly for over a decade. The boom has brought both many positive and negative changes to the urban and social fabric of the city, including labour shortages, expanded cultural institutions, a growing homeless problem, large reinvestment in the inner city and countless other examples. What is most obvious, however, is the sprawl.

The first image most see of Calgary, whether they arrive by air or road, is a sprawling sea of single family houses neatly laid across the bare prairie or perched on yellow foothills. While there is obviously much more to the city than this, the sprawl defines Calgary more than most Calgarians would like to admit. Areas of the city that were farmland only six years ago, when I moved to Ottawa, are now fully-developed subdivisions. Signs dot the major roads at the urban fringe directing commuters towards these “new communities.” The phrase itself seems to be a misnomer, since there aren’t many community-like features found in these developments. Confusing street patterns, a lack of trees, snub-nose houses and, of course, neighbourhood “themes” are what stand out most in suburban Calgary. Names like Sherwood, Tuscany, Martha’s Vineyard and the Hamptons attempt to create a sense of place, but aside from the most superficial differences, the character of different subdivisions is almost identical.

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Of course, some may argue that this style of development is not what is truly worrying. After all, Calgary’s new subdivisions are relatively dense and they are contiguous with established areas. This, however, is not the case once you leave Calgary city limits and enter the fast growing municipal districts of Rocky View and Foothills. To distance themselves from the development patterns in the city and retain their rural character, these areas only permit residential development on lots two acres or larger. For a some time, this by and large worked, with only a handful of so-called “acreage” subdivisions outside of city limits. The boom years, however, have brought massive amounts of development to these areas. What used to be farm fields are now huge swaths of McMansion-style housing on two acre lots. Paradoxically, these areas are too dense to be considered rural and yet too sparse to be considered suburban.

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This exurban sprawl has worrying implications. Aside from social and environmental concerns, the cost of maintening and servicing these new developments are simply not recovered through taxation. To compensate, larger developments have been permitted, such as the elite community of Elbow Valley west of Calgary. This development, along with similar ones to the south, has essentially extended the urban footprint outside of city limits. In an effort to further boost tax revenue, a mega-development containing retail, gaming facilities and a racetrack has been proposed on virgin farmland north of the city, though at this point in time it has not been approved.

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Of course, the situation on Calgary’s urban fringe is not all negative. A combination of municipal policy and rising land prices have forced suburban densities higher. As a result, condo projects have largely replaced the so called “starter home”—small, detached single-family houses geared to first-time homebuyers—and become a major portion of new construction. Until recently, official policy regarding suburban densities demanded an average of seven units per acre in new developments. While higher than most existing areas, this represented an effective cap that could not be exceeded. Recent legislation however has implemented this as a minimum density level for new construction, with no specified maximum. In a surprising move, developers followed suit, with a proposed development in the southeast of the city averaging twelve units per acre and containing significant multi-family components. Similar plans—albeit on a smaller scale—being made for other suburban sites. While it is too early to know what will come of this, there is no doubt the momentum is slowly shifting away from the status quo.

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The Northwest LRT extension

One other aspect that deserves mention is the current expansion of Calgary’s light rail system, known locally as the C-Train or LRT. This system, which is one of the most successful in North America, with a daily ridership of more than 250,000 (twice that of Portland and five times as much as St. Louis), is in the process of being expanded to the edges of the city. Currently, extensions are underway in the northwest and northeast quadrants of the city, with a southern extension recently completed. Another two lines are also in the planning stages. It can be argued that extending the C-Train to the outer edges of the city only promotes further sprawl, but the presence of transit stations opens the possibility for high-density transit-oriented development, which has been embraced by city planners.

Next week, I’ll take a look at the boom from another perspective: large-scale reinvestment in the inner city.

This entry was written by Nick Wellington , posted on Thursday January 18 2007at 12:01 am , filed under Canada, Society and Culture, Transportation and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink . Post a comment below or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

10 Responses to “The Sprawling City”

  • Siqi says:

    Great article! and a good crash course on the Calgary situation. Last year I saw Gary Burns’s Radiant City, about a Calgarian family’s move to one of the said subdivisions. The film has its problems but does a decent job of exposing suburban Calgary’s deeper flaws, although the criticism is more on people’s attitudes.

    Just curious, ’cause this doesn’t seem to get dealt with too much anywhere: statistical density aside, are there real fundamental changes in the form of the built environment? Radiant City showed how developers went around the density requirement, threw all the multi-family stuff way out on the periphery, built the usual cul-de-sacs etc., effectively achieving the same sort of demographic and use segregation and car dependence. Are the denser projects going up right now the same old?

    They also brought Andre Duany on for a second. He proposed rectifying the existing situation by building on the front lawn. This sort of political no-go aside, I wonder if there is any active “buzz” in the design community over there, or whether Calgary has its own brand of grass-rootsy public space activism.

    Looking forward to the rest of the articles. Calgary’s problem is every North American city’s problem, just magnified.

  • Christopher DeWolf says:

    Actually, I would say that Calgary’s sprawl problem is less severe than most American cities, simply because it has such a successful public transit system (several times more ridership than much larger cities such as St. Louis, Denver, even Portland) and more political tools to shape development. Calgary is also a “unicity,” which means that virtually all of the metropolitan area is within the city proper and almost all development is contiguous, meaning there is no leapfrog development.

    That said, the only benefit of increasing the density from seven units per acre to twelve is reduced cost in providing city services. From a design perspective, everything is the same, especially the street patterns, which are still loopy and completely car-oriented.

    The bright side to Calgary’s boom is what Nick will explore next week: the densification of the inner city, which is being completely transformed by new highrise condo development almost like a mini-Vancouver. In fact, the boom seems to have sparked a naissance of public awareness in urban issues: when I lived in Calgary, nobody was aware of pedestrian-oriented design, streetscapes, the public realm, etc. Now it’s being discussed like never before. City planners have also become more activist and gained new powers (in fact, Calgary’s planning process has been remodeled after Vancouver). Some very high-quality master plans for inner-city neighbourhoods have been produced. One neighbourhood, the Beltline, will see its density triple over the next decade with new infill development.

  • Nick Wellington says:

    Siqi – You are correct, increasing the density has no real fundamental change in the structure of suburban neighbourhoods. Although as Chris said, it reduces costs to the city for servicing, which will allow for increased funding for transit et al. Interestingly enough, Ottawa mandates a grid or modified grid in all new subdivisions, yet they remain almost as car oriented. I think we will start to see things improve gradually though, if only because people realize what they are missing with the current reinvestment in the inner city.

    And yes, from a planning perspective Calgary’s sprawl situation is much less severe then almost every American city. But for a variety of factors, primarily being the young age of the city and the density of spawl it is much more noticeable (tightly packed houses require grading of land, whereas many Eastern US suburbs hide under the trees).

  • NT says:

    Radiant City — that was at the Toronto Film Festival right? How might I go about getting a copy of that film?

  • […] The Sprawling City From Nick Wellington ’s great photoessay on Calgary at urbanphoto, The Sprawling City. The boom has brought both many positive and negative changes to the urban and social fabric of the city, including labour shortages, expanded cultural institutions, a growing homeless problem, large reinvestment in the inner city and countless other examples. What is most obvious, however, is the sprawl. […]

  • I blogged this because Nick sums it up well, the positives and negatives. I left Calgary for Montreal in 2004, and recently had to move back here temporarily to start a new job. I was warned about but not prepared for the rapid changes: rents and housing prices had doubled, the ease of travel from one end of the city to the other, which was always a selling point for the quality of life here, was replaced with a gridlock of congestion like any other big city.

    Some of the good changes: seeing more diversity in the mix of people here, some life in the downtown, and more cultural events.

    But people here are still too much in love with their SUVs, shopping malls and McMansions, and there aren’t enough places to get a decent zaatar.

    When I had to leave, my Montreal friends said, “Go. We hear that life is better there.” My response, “It depends on what you want from life.”

  • Christopher DeWolf says:

    Although, to be entirely fair, it’s hard to get a decent bowl of tong shui in Montreal.

    Calgary is way more diverse than it used to be. Sure, there have always been large Chinese and Punjabi communities, but now you hear many more languages on the streets—a whole Korean community has emerged since I left, and there are way more Somalis—and the citizenry is visibly less white.

    It’s definitely not as cosmopolitan or as culturally sophisticated as Montreal, though. But on the whole what pleases me about Calgary is that it seems to be getting better, not worse. There’s a lot more sprawl than in 1993, but a lot more of everything else, too.

  • Siqi says:

    NT–Radiant City should be available from the National Film Board (since it is a Canadian film). Try nfb.ca and you can probably find out whether/where you can order it.

    It’s an interesting film, and probably among Canada’s top ten this year.

  • Nick Wellington says:

    Indeed Chris. Which is something I hope to show in my next article.

    Calgary is somewhat of an anomaly, in that it gets better in many aspects, as it gets worse in others. For example, Ottawa contains far more urban neighbourhoods, yet has fewer ethnic enclaves (and restaurants). Calgary is almost a study in extremes. I had to go to a Southwest strip mall to go to a vegetarian chinese restaurant, anywhere similar (But not as good) in Ottawa (or Montreal or Toronto for that matter) would be downtown.

  • Eric Bowers says:

    One fun fact: in the 1990s, Kansas City’s metro population grew 12%, while the developed land area increased by about 40%.