Perspective spawns insights from readers
Who says nobody reads the newspaper anymore? If the response to my recent series on the City of Calgary’s Plan It proposal is any indication, many people are not only reading the paper, they’re reading it carefully.
During the past month, I have had numerous e-mails from everyone from planners, university professors, developers and community association groups, to an alderman and citizens at large.
Some congratulated me, while others questioned what “planet” was I on.
All of the comments were informed and insightful. It is encouraging to know that Calgarians are passionate about the future of their city.
In this followup column to my series, I want to share some of their insights, and also make some corrections and clarifications on information I previously shared.
The city’s perspective
First off, after meeting city planners Pat Gordon and Mary Axworthy — both of whom have been championing Plan It from the city’s side — I have to make some corrections.
First, the city will continue to annex land to meet the market demand for single-family housing during the next 60 to 70 years.
There is no change to the existing policy to have a five-year supply of serviced land ready for residential development, a 15-year supply of land with approved plans for such development, and a 30-year supply of land for future residential development.
They also informed me administration must prepare a comprehensive report for council every three years to determine how city hall is doing relative to key benchmarks, as well as make recommendations for updating Plan It to address current market conditions and
integrate new information.
Gordon and Axworthy also expressed that Plan It has been a positive catalyst for debate — both internally and externally — regarding Calgary’s future.
They noted that the document has been significantly revised based on input from the private sector and the public.
One of the key achievements from their perspective was the alignment of thinking between planners and the transportation engineers within city hall.
When projects proposed more density, for the past several years they were often opposed or delayed by the inability to reconcile increased density with the impact on road or transit capacity.
The three key messages from city hall regarding Plan It are:
Single-family homes will still be the dominant housing form in Calgary, which currently has a 10-year planned suburban land supply available to accommodate 185,000 people in single-family and semi-detached homes.
Private automobiles will continue to be the principal means of transportation, but a fundamental shift is needed in the coming decades.
The Calgary Transportation Plan proposes to increase the choices people have for moving around the city more quickly and easily. This will help reduce the impact of future population growth on transportation infrastructure.
Every aspect of Plan It is aimed at making the best possible use of public resources to maintain economic, environmental and social well-being for all Calgarians.
I have also been invited to meet with several of Calgary’s leading private sector planners and developers — who have extensive experience working not only in Calgary, but across Western Canada.
I was amazed at the thousands of hours (probably amounting to nearly a million dollars) these firms have invested looking at the Plan It document trying to find win-win solutions.
One of the most interesting bits of information the private sector planners shared with me was the report of David Baxter, executive director of the Urban Futures Institute.
Commissioned by the city, the report outlines the demographic changes he predicted will occur in Calgary during the next 60 to 70 years and how this would affect the housing market.
This report is the backbone of the Plan It document and it is based on how Vancouver and Toronto evolved as they grew from one million to more than two million people.
Many of the people I talked to question the validity of the report, given that Vancouver and Toronto have different growth opportunities than Calgary.
Vancouver’s growth is restricted because of the ocean and mountains, resulting in only 25 to 30 per cent of the land around it being available for development, which leads to a much more dense development pattern.
In Toronto, only 50 per cent of the land around the city centre is developable due to Lake Ontario.
In Calgary’s case, 90 per cent of the land around the city centre is available for development.
It was also pointed out Vancouver and Toronto evolved from one million to two million in the middle of the 20th century, while Calgary will be doing so in the middle of the 21st century.
It a safe bet Calgary will not evolve the same way as Vancouver or Toronto and as such, we should not be using them as the sole model for Calgary’s growth.
Another assumption in Baxter’s report and Plan It is that baby boomers will retire in large numbers to smaller homes in the inner city communities.
In the November 2008 issue of Canadian Real Estate Magazine, Boom Bust Echo author David Foote indicated boomers will hold on to their houses until into their 70s.
Such people want space for their grandchildren to visit and they now have time to do such things as gardening on their property.
He also indicates that boomers who do move into downtown condos will want larger units, not the 800-to 1,200-square-foot ones that create higher density.
In addition, boomers living downtown will only be part-time residents, often being away at their second home or travelling.
Former city planning commissioner Bob Holmes, a senior executive with more than 30 years of experience in city planning and development, points out that besides having two of the largest urban parks in the world, Calgary also has an international airport and a large water reservoir within its city limits.
Such things significantly increase Calgary’s footprint compared to cities like Edmonton, Vancouver or Toronto.
He agrees that comparisons with other cities distract from a made-for-Calgary solution.
He also pointed out the 1995 Transportation Plan and 1998 Municipal Development Plan already call for the kind of density and development Plan It is proposing — and were already producing the intended results, particularly with multi-family housing development.
In an e-mail, Holmes says: “City planners have traditionally turned to drafting bylaws and detailed regulations as the principal means of implementing policies. This can create an adversarial relationship, particularly when the private sector is taking all the risk.
“The result is more bureaucracy and delays. Simple projects that comply will proceed.
“But complex redevelopment projects in established and innercity neighbourhoods get delayed and miss the market cycle e.g. Bridges, East Village and Beltline condo projects.
“Regulations cannot create a market, and it’s market demand that creates development. Prescriptive regulations produce mediocrity and prolonged negotiations that result in increased cost and missed opportunities.
“The interpretation of public policy will need to be more predictable. Planning approval processes will need to become more capable of dealing with complex projects.
“Municipalities will need to learn to work more in partnership with the private sector to accomplish shared goals. “
He and many others expressed concerns about city hall creating specific 30 and 60-year targets without even testing if they can be achieved with a best-case scenario.
There are major concerns the new plan will result in much longer approval times because new local area plans for every community will have to negotiate with each community.
It is going to be difficult to reconcile the goal of Plan It to “preserve, protect and maintain existing communities” while encouraging densification at the edges of these communities.
In the future, municipalities like Calgary’s will need to adopt a broader range of more sophisticated strategies for implementing development policies. There needs to be a better understanding of how demographics and the market influence development.
The public’s perspective
One of the most common comments I received from the public was that we must increase Calgary density — and that developers were at fault for lobbying for more single-family housing development. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Everyone, including developers, wants to see Calgary become a denser, more compact city. In fact, this is already happening, though maybe not fast enough for some.
The issue is: do we need a plan with prescriptive policies to make it happen, or will natural forces, such as housing costs, fuel costs, commute times and demographic changes, make it happen naturally during the next 60 to 70 years?
Many people I talked to felt that the next 10 years were far more important in Calgary’s evolution and should be our focus.
One of the more interesting responses I received was from Harry Hiller, an urban sociologist at the University of Calgary.
“Historically, Calgary’s growth was primarily from rural communities of the West where having a house with grass on all four sides was akin to the agricultural experience of living with lots of space on the farm or small town,” he says. “Furthermore, Calgary’s migration has been primarily of young adults, who then become young parents and then want to have single-family homes to raise their children.
“As a result, we should not be surprised Calgarians today, and in the future, will continue to show a bias for single-family homes.”
He requested I remind Calgarians that “we have already made a major shift away from singledetached sprawl over the last 20 years — compare Charleswood with Rocky Ridge.
“This has happened for various reasons, including the increase in Asian and big city migrants to Calgary who are used to living in higher density communities.
“As well, there’s been a major shift in the public’s perception of high-density living by North America’s middle class.
“In the past, high-density living was usually associated with poverty, low income and the inability to afford a mortgage. Today, condo ownership is seen as a very desirable lifestyle and a good investment for middle-class young professionals and empty nesters.”
Hiller’s research indicates there has been a slow cultural shift toward acceptance of higher density living in Calgary during the past 40 years — and no one forced it to happen.
While the revised plan is better organized and written, there are still fundamental differences between the perspectives of city hall, different segments of the public, and the developers.
City hall strongly believes that policy should direct development during the next 60 years, while the private sector strongly believes market forces — in other words, public demand — should shape the evolution of our city.
The public sits in two camps. Some want city hall to create policies that will result in more density (but not in my neighbourhood), while others want to maintain the status quo. In the end, it is still very confusing for the average Calgarian to figure out what “planet” the planners, politicians and developers are on.
If Men are from Mars and Women are from Venus, then maybe Planners are from Mercury, Politicians are from Jupiter and Developers are from Saturn.
I hope somehow we can all get back to working together on planet Earth as this debate is costing us millions of dollars.
The city will continue to annex land to meet demand for single-family housing during the next 60 to 70 years.
Author David Foote says aging boomers will be foregoing the 800-to 1,200-square-foot condos in favour of a more spacious units, such as this 6,286-squarefoot, two-level variety in southwest Calgary.