Some big ideas we’d like to see take shape

Building a better city, one paragraph at a time

When compiling this list, we asked ourselves: what kind of city, province and country do we want? What ideas would help get us there? This list is by no means comprehensive, but intended to start a discussion about where we’re going and where we should go. Have you got your own big ideas? Let us hear them in the comments section.


Creating a high-speed rail link between Calgary and Edmonton has been on people’s minds since the ’70s, and yet there are no trains. Hell, there aren’t even slow trains. If the line was built using maglev technology, with a maximum speed of 300 kilometres per hour, the trip between Calgary and the capital would be reduced by over a third.

Reports suggest that the line could have huge economic benefits for the province, but the cost of constructing the line, the worries over the economic viability of the operation and the tricky question of buying the necessary land for the right-of-way, have all gotten in the way of the project moving forward. Estimates for the costs range from $5 billion to $24 billion (the aforementioned maglev being the most expensive option).

Obviously there are some serious questions here, but we’d still like to think that the long-dreamt-of line will one day become a reality, providing better transportation in what’s known as the Golden Corridor. Hopefully sooner rather than later.


Seriously, just legalize the damn things already. Need some more taxable income? Legalize it. Want to combat crime and starve criminal organizations of vast sums of money? Legalize it. Courts tied up and police overworked? Legalize it. Want to help addicts rather than punish them? Legalize it. Interested in new job creation? Legalize it. The list goes on and on.

This one is just so damn obvious. Everyone knows that the war on drugs is a failure, it costs millions of dollars a year, it ties up our criminal justice system and it disproportionately targets disadvantaged Canadians, including First Nations. Politicians the world over never have the guts to say we should legalize, or at least decriminalize, drugs when they’re in office, but there’s a large number of them that say so as soon as they retire. We’re saying the government should legalize all drugs, but legalizing marijuana would be a good start. It’s not as though it’s a dangerous substance like, say, booze.

So what’s the federal government doing? Implementing mandatory minimum sentencing and laying the groundwork for a rise in incarceration and the associated societal degradation that follows. That’s just irresponsible.


Sounds radical, doesn’t it? At a time when the whole world is concerned about emissions and global warming, we should consider alternatives to the car in a more concerted way. Getting more people riding transit is a good start and what better way to create that incentive than to take away a major disincentive? Of course, nothing’s free. The costs for operating transit would have to come from somewhere, most likely property taxes or a hike in the gas tax.

Some mid-size cities have implemented free transit, mostly in Europe, to some success. Implementing it in a larger city would be difficult, but not impossible. If you want to tackle traffic issues, parking issues and pollution issues, and give a leg up to those who can’t afford cars or transit passes, this is a no-brainer.


Sadly, it’s extremely difficult to operate in today’s economy without constant connection. So, should the city provide a service to its digital-age citizens? Yes. Fairly cheap to establish and maintain, with huge net benefits, a city-wide WiFi service, paid for like any other utility, would be a great equalizer and make Calgarians some of the most connected citizens on the globe. It’s a quality-of-life booster and a business efficiency measure all wrapped up into one.

Some cities in the states have city-wide (or close to city-wide) coverage, including Philadelphia and Minneapolis. In Canada, Fredericton has a city-wide system in place. Vancouver has been wrestling with the idea for years, but hasn’t yet implemented a plan. Calgary’s young population and penchant for all things digital makes us an ideal candidate for blanket coverage. Now, who to award the contract to...?


Take a cruise through the city and try to count the number of vacant or under-utilized buildings within its limits. It might surprise you. Now consider that the most common problem facing artists and arts and culture organizations is a lack of space.

The city should relax zoning regulations for cultural events, groups and individuals within the city, making it easier for them to utilize these buildings and help grow our cultural scene with little or no investment. The now-defunct artist studios in the East Village fish market were a great example of temporary cultural space in an otherwise abandoned building, but we need to go beyond that. The city should make it easy for productions, musicians, art markets and cultural performances to be staged in unlikely places. The organizations will have more space, the costs will be lowered and citizens will have more opportunities to take in our local scene in surprising places.


Our mental health system is a nightmare. It’s hard enough for people without mental illness to navigate its murky waters in order to help others find the help they need. Those without support are, well, screwed. There is a shortage of space in the limited psychiatric wards, there’s little followup and too often the solution is to medicate and then ignore.

According to the Canadian Mental Health Association, 20 per cent of Canadians will experience mental illness at some point in their lives. This is a huge number and exemplifies why we need more, and better, help. It also goes to show that the stigma attached to mental illness is problematic. We need frank and open conversations about mental health and we need the facilities, the practitioners and the access required to help those in mental distress.


This ties into the last idea, at least on one level. Many people who suffer from mental illness also struggle to maintain housing and employment. But that group isn’t the only one that needs help in this regard. The city has a policy on affordable housing, offering incentives to developers with a promise that our overheated rental and home ownership market will be able to accommodate those without the means to buy in. These incentives and the partnerships between the city and developers is not creating enough affordable housing. Providing a cheaper alternative should become a prerequisite of any large development deal.

Creating affordable housing should not be a cattle-penning exercise, putting up towers and herding poor people in. Housing works best when there is a mix of incomes and lifestyles, and the only way that’s going to happen is if the provincial, federal and municipal governments step up their game. The creation of the Affordable Housing Task Force by the province in 2007 was a good first step and its recommendations resulted in the creation of 3,615 units in Calgary as of September 2011. But that’s not enough. The cost of living in Calgary is rapidly outstripping the ability of anyone who doesn’t work in the oil and gas towers downtown to rent or own without breaking the bank. If we’re not going to consider rent controls, we need to get better at creating more affordable spaces.


Mayor Naheed Nenshi tried to make this happen, and managed to get a partial deal, off-loading some of the costs for constructing new infrastructure in far-flung suburbs to the developers who reap the financial rewards. In 2010, that subsidy has resulted in $1.5 billion of debt, half of the city’s total. Although it’s great that council passed the motion requiring developers to pay half the cost of extending that pricey infrastructure to the edges of the city, we think that the balance is still off. Taxpayers should not be subsidizing sprawl and we should not be building housing on the periphery that is artificially cheaper. And no, there is no contradiction with our call for more affordable housing. That need is required, with or without more expensive suburban homes.


Let’s not mince words. It’s absurd that Calgary, a city of over one million people, doesn’t have a collecting contemporary art museum. There have been efforts over the years to establish one, but the plan always seems to fall apart. The latest effort is by the Museum of Contemporary Art Calgary (formerly the Triangle), which signed a memorandum of understanding with the former standard bearer, the Institute of Modern and Contemporary Art. This is an effort that Calgarians and all three levels of government have to get behind.

World-class exhibitions are bypassing Calgary on a regular basis, and despite some excellent programming at places like the Glenbow (no, seriously), we are being starved of more impressive, innovative and historically significant work. A strong architectural presence in the inner-city showcasing big exhibitions and internationally recognized work is a much-needed notch in our cultural belt.


The provincial government recently released its land use plan for the Lower Athabasca Region. It is the first land use plan that is focused on the major watershed areas of Alberta. Although there is some good news in the plan, including setting aside an additional 16 per cent of the land base for conservation, it doesn’t go far enough. The government should create a binding document that is fierce in its protection of our water.

The next regional plan, which is open to public input until December 6, focuses on the South Saskatchewan region, which encompasses Calgary. With logging activity just west of the city in our own watershed, and with population pressures increasing, it’s imperative that the government comes up with strict and enforceable regulations around our water — in terms of use, habitat protection and, if need be, moratoriums on industrial activity in sensitive areas.

Is this list too serious for you? Check out Josiah Hughes’ heartfelt collection of petty ideas.



Comments: 10

sickgrrll wrote:

We should start with demanding efficient transit before advocating for making it free. Making a broken system free doesn't help anyone. More people would use transit if it didn't take 2 hours to get to a destination ten minutes away by car.

on Nov 22nd, 2012 at 11:11am Report Abuse

AP wrote:

Pennies for Culture - as written by Drew Anderson is another great idea. Although, I would like to re-title it Pennies for a City and its Citizens. Taxation of an extra penny on certain (if not all) items will certainly do a lot of the city.

on Nov 22nd, 2012 at 4:40pm Report Abuse

Rogerlg wrote:

What big idea would drive at least two, and maybe four, of those Big Ideas on your list?Why, that would be a carbon tax, of course.

I'm a big fan of carbon taxes, personally, but who cares? I'm just a balding guy in Calgary, with no letters behind my name. Like dozens of other Calgarians and Canadians, however, I've said my piece about climate change and carbon pricing in the anonymous 2 minute online survey at

on Nov 23rd, 2012 at 3:18pm Report Abuse

Ron wrote:

High-speed rail between Calgary & Edmonton has been mulled over for decades. It has not happened, and will not unless and until Alberta's population density emulates other places in the world (Japan, Germany, France) where such systems exist now. Talk about it is wastefully premature. Thought, time, money and effort should be turned to other projects of greater need.
Legalising drugs is not the panacea it may appear to be at first glance. Canada would face the U.S, which is maniacally averse to the idea and has nine times our population. We could end up importing its problem to ur streets, our neighbourhoods. Does anyone want that? I don't.
Free Transit. - Given Calgary's area, I doubt this could work unless the population density were to drastically increase. I've never seen a place with free transit, but it is considerably cheaper in European cities. But the cost of building transit systems is huge. Where would the money come from?
City-wide wifi: Again, low population density is the fly in the ointment. Fredericton as an example? How many times does Fredericton fit in Calgary? A dozen? More? Paid for how?
Cultural Zoning: Maybe in the next millennium. By then, Calgary might have a city council that is not a rubber stamp for the development/real estate complex.
Taking Mental Health seriously won't occur so long as it is easy to turn one's head and look away while blaming the victim. When employers realise how much profit they lose annually by creating many mental health problems through trying to treat human beings as machines, we may see a change here. But old "me decade" notions of down-sizing, re-engineering the corporation, out-sourcing, etc. will have to be cast into the dustbin first.
Affordable Housing: I Had A Dream. That, one day, the brain-dead electors of this province will catch on and cashier the bandits who have run the government here for at least 25 years too long and elect - ANYBODY else. With a finger-snap, this problem could be solved. Simply establishing a reasonable rent-control policy would be a great help.
Make developers pay: Ha! Some good hashish there man! If things weren't the same, they'd be different. Time to look at the payola, slush funds, "contributions" to alderman election funds, etc. When the same lot keeps getting re-elected year upon year, it is fairly obvious that the fix is in. What REALLY changed in the 2010 municipal election? Electors have choices. When they make the same one persistently and are persistently dissatisfied, what more need to be said?
Art Museum: It's readily apparent that Calgary is no threat to Berlin or Paris. Why this was not an issue in Calgary 50 years ago is a mystery. Maybe it's a city of straw-chewing red-necks after all?
Protect watersheds: Sack the current provincial "government." It has a long, sordid history of lots of talk, but very little action beyond self-service.

on Nov 27th, 2012 at 2:04am Report Abuse

officematt2002 wrote:

Overhauling the Election Act should be a number one item on any list in this Province. But since Alderman and MLAs have much to lose, there is zero interest.

on Nov 27th, 2012 at 3:50am Report Abuse

Eric04 wrote:

Some great ideas. legalizing drugs is maybe not always a great idea. it has not worked that successfully in other areas of the world eg. the netherlands.

on Nov 27th, 2012 at 4:11pm Report Abuse

officematt2002 wrote:

Please explain how it hasn't in the Netherlands, Eric. Did you not pay attention to what happened when the government there recently tried to shutter the coffee shops to foreigners? That didn't work so well...and the government was quick to admit they were wrong. Funny, that would never happen in Canada.

on Nov 27th, 2012 at 6:31pm Report Abuse

Ron wrote:

Re: officematt2002. I should explain that I have NO objection to legal marijuana. Its ban was idiocy in the 1st place. But would meth-heads, smack freaks or coked-up junkies increase or decrease if their chosen drug were legal? The finger-snap "solution" of warehousing them in prison is absurd, but can we rely upon governments to institute the social programs to moderate the excesses these people often reach?

on Nov 28th, 2012 at 2:08pm Report Abuse

jwilt wrote:

Maybe take a look at the evidence before implying that full decriminalization won't work. Portugal is a perfect example — it decriminalized all drugs in 2001. Here are some news reports about the effects.

"Portugal Decriminalized All Drugs Eleven Years Ago And The Results Are Staggering" (Business Insider International):

"Ten Years After Decriminalization, Drug Abuse Down by Half in Portugal" (Forbes):

"Drugs in Portugal: Did Decriminalization Work?" (TIME):,8599,1893946,00.html

"Drug decriminalization in Portugal decreases number of addicts" (GlobalPost):

on Nov 28th, 2012 at 2:51pm Report Abuse

Agent666 wrote:


How is this going to get paid for, with Redfraud's government drowning in red ink? And actual usage of such systems in more densely-populated areas (e.g., Texas) has been disappointing.


A good idea, really. But let's also dump costly and annoying tobacco taxation--which has fueled a massive black market--and nanny-state, neo-temperance booze control. And let's reconsider gun control. Prior to 1977 and Turdeau's Bill C-51, Canada actually had more liberal gun laws than the U.S. Federal Gun Control act: anyone could order guns from the Sears and Eaton's catalogues, and Canadians could buy MACHINE GUNS without permits. Yet the kinds of gangland public shootouts we have today were unheard of.


Logical, since all of the capital costs and most of the operating costs come out of taxes. But a better idea might be efficient, private, for-profit BRT and bus systems that are affordable and enjoyed by most car owners, like the system in Curitiba, Brazil. But this would mean doing away with both the Amalgamated Transit Union, and the hideously expensive LRT system.


How about breaking up the Telus-Rogers-Shaw-Bell tetropoly, and allowing real competition? Rural Wimax service is better and cheaper than what Calgarians and Edmontonians are stuck with.


How about an end to giving out the development permit free for alls that have left us with an overhang of China-style vacant condos? And allow Adverse Possession of vacated properties, for various uses--especially housing.


Lift the cap on med school enrollments and provide more scholarships for students who want to become mental health practitioners.


See CULTURAL ZONING. Also, sharply reduce immigration levels. One of the good things Jason Kenney did was axe Investor/Entrepreneur visas, which fueled a real estate bubble that priced Canadians out of their own cities.


How about putting them out of business? Prior to the 1950s, there was no development industry. Rather, the City parceled land and built the infrastructure, and people bought lots for homes and businesses. And infilling is just as costly as greenfield development, since sewers, water lines, etc. need to be upgraded, and facilities built and upgraded for population growth. Construction also contributes to HALF of the non-recyclable waste going to landfills. Ultimately, we need to freeze population growth, and that will mean major reductions in immigration levels. (The current 250,000+ annual 'target' was introduced by the Mulroney government, after real estate and financial sector lobbying.)


If you want it, pay for it with private money. Public funding should NOT go to these sorts of facilities, nor things like stadiums.


Unless there is a freeze on population growth--which means sharp reductions in the annual immigration intake--Southern Alberta's water supply is in jeopardy. The developers' wet dream of a 2M metro Calgary population is not possible. And agricultural, and industrial (e.g., tarsands) use is also a problem:

on Nov 29th, 2012 at 2:27am Report Abuse

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