Calgary’s urban sprawl

By Salimah Kassamali

Perhaps you are a fan of the suburbs. You appreciate living close to nature with a large private backyard for your kids to play in and a huge patio for barbecues. And perhaps you realize that not many nations outside of Canada and the United States can offer so much living space for such an affordable cost. As many move to Canada to pursue such opportunities, not only are they realizing that the suburbs can be a lonely place, but that the lifestyle is neither environmentally nor economically sustainable as populations continue to soar and energy resources decline.

For many immigrant families who moved to Calgary in the new millennia, the burgeoning oil industry opened the door for Anuj Baxi and his family to settle in Canada. Baxi’s family emigrated from India to Oman and then from Oman to Calgary in 2001 to gain access to the better education and lifestyle opportunities that the West offers. He is now a student at the University of Calgary hoping to pursue a career in law. His family was drawn to Canada in search of the “American Dream” — the same vision that attracted millions of immigrants from the crowded streets of Europe to North America in the early 20th century.

“The major factor driving it is the lifestyle. We are all familiar watching TV shows even from the ’90s and ’80s where you have the typical suburban family with the big house, perhaps a couple of cars and a dog and a backyard. And that is a powerful image for a lot of people,” says Baxi.

For most people living in India, Europe or even the Middle East, living with such ample space is no longer feasible. They live in apartments and that continues to be the norm. The average North American house is 2,000 square feet, about 20 times the size of an average dwelling in India. Not surprisingly, this corresponds to Canadians using 14 times more energy per capita than Indians.

Many people often wish to leave the suffocating communities in developing megacities around the world, but suburban communities in Canada are not necessarily the most ideal alternative. At the opposite end of the spectrum, suburban living can be lonely and isolating. Suburban design can serve to break down community bonds and this has led scholars and policy makers to ask whether there can be such a thing as too much space and if suburban living is really what people want.

The origins of the suburbs can be traced back to the industrial revolution. As inner-city living conditions became unacceptable in Europe there was a growing desire by wealthy elites for new living space. Thus began the evolution of Ebenezer Howard’s Garden City. In the dawn of the 20th century, Howard published Garden Cities of Tomorrow, initiating an idea of a utopian city where people live close to nature. His proposal instigated the creation of pre-planned suburban towns surrounded by a belt of agriculture land — a paradigm of development that planners and developers try to emulate in Calgary today.

This notion of the suburban ideal took on strength in the 1950s after the Second World War when population explosions in Canada and the United States came about due to people immigrating to the of “land of opportunity” where property was of abundance and easy to obtain.

Max Foran, a professor of Canadian studies in the faculty of communication and culture at the University of Calgary, has devoted much of his current research to the history of suburban growth in Calgary.

“The idea of owning a property with a house on it was quite North American. When you’ve got a lack of pressure on land and attraction for single ownership it was quite intoxicating to people in the ’50s. You’re separated from your neighbours and there is a sense of privacy, of containment that you can’t get in townhouses and apartments,” says Foran. And as we continue into the 21st century, North Americans want more space, more stuff and a higher standard of living.

Foran’s most recent book, Expansive Discourses: Urban Sprawl in Calgary 1945–1978, published in 2009, sheds a great deal of light on the history of Calgary’s urban planning. In this book he explains how the growth of suburbia came about not only because of consumer demand, but also because of the Central Mortgage and Housing Corporation, developers, the City of Calgary and the province.

The CMHC played a powerful role because they controlled the flow of money. Developers and the City had to approach the CMHC with respect to the availability of lending money. CMHC geared lending policies towards higher income bracket housing leading to a lack of affordable housing in the 1950s and to a large number of single-family dwellings.

Developers have played an equally important role in the way Calgary developed because, historically, they have always been a very powerful force in Calgary. Incorporated in Alberta in December 1958, the Urban Development Institute became a major player in negotiating developer agreements and they helped define the rules, operations and responsibilities of the City and the developer.

Richard Parker was head of the Planning Department at the City of Calgary and, like many of his colleagues, was recruited to work for consultants after years of public service.
“Calgary is very much a free-enterprise organization and society. The degree of government involvement is less than in other cities. There has been a close working relationship between the people operating the City and developers,” says Parker.

There has also been a working relationship with developers for more than 50 years called the Development Agreement.

“The Development Agreement with the Urban Development Institute on behalf of the City meant that we treated every developer the same. Those two combinations have lead to some of the challenges of monotony boxes about Calgary,” says Parker. According to Parker, policy has been entrenched in such a way that developers subdivide the parcels into equal portions so that they can maximize market profit.

“Traditionally, in Calgary we’ve had large developers who can assemble large parts of land where they can do master plan communities,” says Parker. Developers were slowly granted a greater level of control as they were often forced to absorb costs of the utilities such as sanitary sewer and water services for all properties within the subdivisions. Bigger developers were therefore more efficient and smaller developers were not able to survive in such a market.

Calgary has also developed by absorbing peripheral cities along its borders as compared to cities like Vancouver or Toronto. Fringe communities were discouraged and there was a trend towards a “uni-city” idea because it was thought that including peripheral growths along the city made operating more expensive.The City therefore undertook large-scale annexations in the 1950s and 1960s of communities such as Forest Lawn, Montgomery and Bowness to make growth more inclusive.

The McNally Commission in December 1954 was developed to allow for controlled planning strategies so that outlying areas of Calgary could be annexed in large chunks. It also made the uni-city idea more feasible, thereby preventing other cities from growing on the fringes.

The growth of suburbia was also, in part, made possible due to Calgary’s location. Building on undeveloped land, also called greenfield land, is easy because there are few physical barriers around Calgary. It’s easy to build on a farmer’s field. And while municipal and provincial plans call for the protection of natural features such as river valleys, there has been no move to protect rural land around the city either for its own sake or as a means of urban containment.

“In Calgary, we don’t have many obstacles such as natural or physical obstacles to grow our city. Vancouver, for example, has the ocean, and you can’t grow over the mountains. We have pretty much an open field, aside from the native reserves. That area would be the only boundary we have. In a way we are just consuming land that could otherwise be used for preservation of natural habitat or agricultural practices,” says Francisco Alaniz Uribe, adjunct associate professor in the faculty of environmental design.

“One thing that happens around Calgary is that we have rich soil, one of the best soils in the prairies. If you develop over that you’ve just lost it,” says Uribe. Promotion of higher population densities is low compared to Vancouver and Toronto and only 22 per cent of the populace resides in the downtown and adjacent inner-city communities.

More than anything else, the price-point makes suburban living attractive. Housing in these areas grew through economies of scale and large housing remains ever so affordable today.
“Greenfield development in Calgary is fairly cheap in terms of the cost of land,” says Uribe who adds that cheap land allows single-family homes to be fairly accessible especially on the fringes of the city.

The most expensive part of developing suburbs is setting up and maintaining new infrastructure. This includes water, sewer and storm pipelines as well as roads. Through one of the development agreements they ascertained that the developers would maintain the infrastructure for two years and hand down responsibility to the City, and therefore taxpayers.

“The maintenance of the infrastructure in the long run is done by the City. And therefore it becomes expensive to keep especially when you already have other areas of the city with infrastructure where re-development is a better option in terms of cost-efficiency,” says Uribe.

The other economic problem is, of course, transportation. Traveling to and from home to work and to other amenities becomes very expensive in the long run.
“In a way it is not sustainable economically for [the citizens],” he says.

Many suburban areas of Calgary such as Edgemont seem to fall short of Howard’s Garden City. The suburbs today can be characterized by mostly single-family homes surrounded by other very similar plots. There are zoning patterns that separate residential and commercial developments, with shopping malls and strip malls rather than a classic downtown shopping district. Rather than grid patterns there are more complicated road networks that make walking difficult.

For Baxi, he appreciates living in close proximity to nature and private walking paths in Edgemont. He also appreciates the generous size of housing and private amenities such as tennis courts within his community. However, he recognizes the limitations of that kind of lifestyle.

“Having a lot of space is a two-edged sword. The downside is that everybody has a lot of privacy but then you reach a point where everyone is so private and insular that they don’t have a motivation to interact with the people around them. This is a typical scenario in Edgemont. You can walk out on the street most of the day and there is nobody there,” says Baxi.

This is a testament to the social costs to suburban life. Community zoning serves to disconnect people and place. People end up spending more time at home and less time with neighbours.
Before moving to the suburbs, Baxi describes his time living in a temporary apartment in Brentwood where he felt part of an integrated community. Unlike Edgemont, he was often exposed to a great diversity of people and families. The benefit to living in the apartment was that there were more opportunities to develop closer relationships with his neighbours.

“You don’t have the diversity in these [suburban] neighbourhoods. You sometimes end up having a segregation of social groups,” says Uribe. Suburban development is often directed at middle or upper-middle class families, making suburban development very homogeneous. And although this cannot be strictly associated with suburban development, it can be indirectly associated with the way it is designed.

Less obvious, are the indirect effects on health of those living in the suburbs. Uribe gives walkability as an example.

“The pattern of how suburban development has been developing is that they start to lose a lot of the qualities that older neighbourhoods have in terms of places you could walk.” There are some suburbs that don’t have sidewalks or just on one side of the street making it more difficult to walk.

“What we have discovered is that less walkable neighbourhoods tend to support less physical activity,” asserts Uribe. “We are still developing this research but the hypothesis behind it is that suburban development is not very supportive of physical activity and therefore has an effect on societies in terms of public health.”

We must come to terms with the fact that there are major flaws with the American Dream. As the world faces energy shortages and continuous population growth, wasteful living will cease to be an option. In Calgary it has also proved to be a costly endeavour to the environment and taxpayers alike. Citizens such as Baxi are also talking about the pitfalls of suburban design. Many Calgarians care about their city and while we may have erred in some ways of design, we still have the capacity and the power to change it.

This article is the first in a three part series and the first half of an article written as part of the Gauntlet’s summer longform project. Check in next week when we look at how city planners and developers hope to solve the issue of urban sprawl.