March 4, 2020

Neighbourhood planners kickstart a conversation about Calgary’s urban sprawl

Urban Lab hopes new guidelines have muscle

When Calgary city council met today, one of the hot-button topics on the agenda focused on urban development and the 14 new suburban communities on the books.

Francisco Alaniz Uribe is a critic of urban sprawl. The co-director of the Urban Lab at the University of Calgary, Alaniz Uribe has worked with city council on various research projects and been a tireless champion of “growing our city in a compact way.”

“You need to force the market to look inwards,” says the assistant professor in the School of Architecture, Planning and Landscape (SAPL), who came here as a master’s student from Monterrey, Mexico in 2004. “We have to stop looking outwards, which is cheaper, easier, and offers a proven economic model for developers who won’t take that risk. As long as the rules are more conducive to a low-risk investment in the outskirts, that’s where our growth will be.”

Calgary's uncontrolled sprawl

Calgary has a geographical footprint the same size as New York City, but less than one-sixth the population. So it’s no surprise that experts such as Alaniz Uribe, MEDes’09, worry about Calgary’s car culture and what critics say is uncontrolled sprawl.

The Urban Lab is a research group looking at urban design, community planning, and urban development issues. Established in 2000, the Urban Lab is an ongoing experiment in education, research and outreach, and is an example of university-community collaboration involving faculty, students, alumni and the public. Says Alaniz Uribe:

Unlike other cities that are forced to be creative by forces of nature — like oceans or mountains — Calgary doesn’t have those limits.

Alaniz Uribe is taking a group of students to Zurich this spring to examine a Swiss city that “doesn’t have our space ... their mountains have forced them to be creative.” 

Guidebook encourages shift in thinking

Although Alaniz Uribe would like to see more density in the inner city, mirroring “good density” neighbourhoods such as Hillhurst/Sunnyside, he is hopeful that the city’s new Guidebook for Great Communities will help lead today’s discussion, before it is expected to go to council on April 27 to be considered for adoption.

In many ways, this 150-page document is a long-term vision for how Calgary will grow and develop. From equitable housing options and conserving heritage communities to parking policies and low-carbon energy feasibility assessments — this guidebook is not meant to be viewed as a handy stamp of approval for a specific project but merely a guide to the development of local area plans.

“Think of it as a toolkit,” adds city senior planner Kate van Fraassen, MEDes’12, “that citizens and local communities can use as their framework when they’re in the area plan process. Right now The Heritage and Westbrook Communities are using the guidebook to develop a plan for how their communities can grow, develop and remain vibrant for now and in the future.”

Vibrant now and in the future

Alaniz Uribe is also hoping this guidebook is the right document to spark a smart growth conversation. Ninety per cent of those who are buying homes in Calgary are finding them on the fringes of our city. The challenge, he says, is to help 50 per cent of those homebuyers to find a residence in an existing “built-up” area.

“We can do some retrofitting,” he adds, “in fact, I think that’s what this guidebook is trying to do — provide strategies to retrofit other communities so that we don’t have to continue to go outside the current boundaries. I hope it’s used that way.”

How do we revert a mindset and ease the push ever further into the suburbs? he wonders. “Is it through economic incentives, different tax strategies, other guidelines and policies, a better transit system, a shift in a collective mindset?  

Toward a range of strategies

“Yes, there may be some parking issues and perhaps an increase in petty crime,” he adds, “but that’s not because bad people are moving in to a neighbourhood. It’s because every time you have more people, you get more of everything.

The flip side is you get more coffee shops, more transit options, more grocery stores, maybe more schools, a movie theatre, bike paths.

“I think everybody, not just developers, should be part of the conversation that city council is having,” he adds. “We all need to be involved in the design of our city.”

SAPL's Master of Planning students collaborate with community-based organizations in comprehensive urban planning projects. If your community is interested in participating, learn more about CITIZENS + STUDENTS.