Calgary is changing, whether you like it or not. There’s a new cycling strategy (this one is actually being implemented), a new chief planner who’s hopped up on creating a more sustainable city (with a planning document to back him up) and a mayor who’s determined to change the way the city operates (plus a new hire to put that plan in place). Meet three city workers who are going to have a major impact on the way Calgary works, grows and travels.
When Mayor Naheed Nenshi took office in the fall of 2010, he said he wanted to change the way Calgary works, under a guiding mantle he calls “Transforming Government.” Now, Beth Gignac has been promoted to the position of key transformer, with the task of implementing that vision.
Gignac is the outgoing Arts and Culture manager for the city, a position for which she was recruited from the City of Mississauga in 2006. From the new Transforming Government office in the City Hall atrium, she will lead a three-person team on what she believes is a revolutionary mission to change municipal government’s relationship with Calgarians.
Gignac explains that the bureaucracy’s job is to determine what Calgarians need and make recommendations about future policy and legislation to elected politicians based on those public needs. She says that to decide what the recommendations should be, city staff often meet with stakeholders with conflicting interests and use written guidelines to hash out a few ideas everyone at the table can agree on.
After years of operating this way, administration has become rigid and has lost sight of the public it serves. The mayor has an eye to shifting government from a stuffy bureaucratic process to one of citizen-centred democracy. Gignac’s task is to define that broad idea and put it into practice.
Nenshi’s office has already started the process, trying to do things differently since he was elected.
In preparation for cuts required in last year’s budget, each municipal department was asked to examine their funding from the perspective of zero-based budgeting, essentially requiring staff to write their budgets from scratch and find ways to trim the fat along the way. They managed to cut $140 million from city spending.
Community meetings, online questionnaires and phone surveys conducted by the city resulted in input from over 20,000 citizens to determine what precisely the spending should be on.
City Hall has also posted video of all council meetings online, and publishes the mayor’s expenses every month along with a list of everyone he meets in his office (well, everyone who’s not staff, a city employee, media or government); efforts motivated by a pledge to make Calgary’s government more transparent.
Changing the way 13,000 city employees work will take a bit more effort. Gignac admits she expects resistance, but will use it to her advantage.
“Resistance is going to inform us as a group of where those areas of concern and rigidity are that we’re going to need to examine very closely and very carefully,” she says. “Some of the things that we do we do as a result of the province telling us that we have to do these things. Where we can change our mindset and where we can change the way in which we operate is really, I think, where the opportunities are.”
In “quite an open and rigorous series of conversations” with city staff running from the fall to around February 2013, Gignac and her team plan to learn what her colleagues believe citizen-centred means, and how it’s going to work on a practical level. She then hopes to develop a set of ideas to transform the culture of city administration in time for budget talks in 2014.
She says Calgarians will be able to feel the difference in the new government culture, something that will go beyond conducting more online surveys.
“I would look for things like TED-type series, maybe specially themed PK [PechaKucka, a lecture series] opportunities, lots of social media, blogging, tweeting,” says Gignac.
“I’ve really been very firmly committed my entire working career in government about exactly this kind of a model,” she says. “The way in which people expect to have service, receive services, what services people want is changing at a very rapid pace.... This is just a great way for us to share and tell that story and really have that conversation with Calgarians to say ‘Okay folks, where would you like us to be?’.... No other cities in Canada are really undertaking this kind of work and this kind of puts us in, I’m hoping, in and amongst those communities and organizations that are leading the conversation, like Google. I’d like for us to be like Google.”
Back in 2006, Calgary accomplished something that many North American cities can’t, creating a blueprint for sustainable urban growth called imagineCalgary. Even more remarkable was the input from 18,000 Calgarians that helped to shape the plan. It’s one of the reasons why Calgary’s new chief planner, Rollin Stanley, is happy to be here.
“That is something that just would have been impossible to have happened on the outskirts of Washington, D.C.,” he says. “Which was an issue. There we were dealing with a plan that was 40-some odd years old. I was told, ‘don’t even try to change that.’”
Once (hilariously) described by the Washington Post as the “brash bad boy of Washington Regional Planning,” Stanley’s task is to take Calgary’s forward-thinking urban plan and put it into action. “Because all that (planning) has happened already, it narrows down what we’re trying to achieve,” he says. “As opposed to describing the vision and then how to get there, half of it’s already done, or a portion of it is already done and now we’ve got to come up with: ‘okay, let’s discuss how that happens. And let’s show examples of what that looks like.’”
The outspoken planner seems to have learned some lessons over the years, particularly when it comes to engaging the public. His description in the Post was the result of a penchant for knocking down opponents without much decorum. Newly arrived in Calgary, he appears to be more conciliatory (at least for now).
His plan is to create 3D models of areas of the city so that he can show residents and developers what the area looks like and what it could look like as the city grows and density increases. Stanley thinks that if you can show people what you’re talking about, people will have an easier time accepting change. “We can work with the communities and the property owners to really come up and show great examples of what those could be, should people wish to redevelop and should the neighbourhood wish to have additional services that they can walk to,” he says.
It’s one of the reasons why he recently made a presentation to developers titled “We’re not Mississauga,” which featured photos of geographically obscure big box stores with sprawling parking lots. There was also a section showing what happens when a big box store, which doesn’t own its building, closes. “I talked about how in a town in Indiana, I can show where Wal-Mart was every 10 years for the last 40 years because every 10 years they’d move when somebody built a new mall, and the city is saddled with unproductive properties that can’t be sold, with nothing on them except an abandoned store,” says Stanley.
“If they move out, what’s the adaptability of that building?”
Although he’s been labelled a kind of urban density zealot in the past, Stanley is a more practical planner, realizing the state of things and attempting to shift towards more sustainable models. If the Wal-Marts of the world want to do business in Calgary, they’re going to have to shift their business models to accommodate the city, rather than the other way around. “Wal-Mart now has the market saturated, as do other big boxes,” he says. “They have to move into the cities and any place where they are made to do things different, they do it.’
His vision is to create urban centres, even in the outer suburbs, creating commercial developments that mimic the vibrancy of an inner-city shopping district.
It might all be enough to give a Calgary-based developer a hernia, but Stanley is diplomatic when asked how his presentation was received. “I think there was some people who were concerned that it meant their business model might change a bit,” he says.
Stanley’s challenge is to accept that people are going to drive and live in the suburbs, but to try and build better suburbs and design the city so that people drive less and for shorter distances.
“It is what it is and there are a lot of people who like that lifestyle, so it’s something that has to be provided for,” he says. “But you hope as time moves on there will become more of a balance. I think that will happen as land becomes scarcer, costs become higher and traffic gets a little busier and people say ‘you know what? Maybe I should live a little closer in.’”
Tucson, Arizona native Tom Thivener is the man who is going to turn Calgary into a first-rate cycling city. After only five weeks in the job, and in the city, he’s had to hit the ground running. Supporters are excited about his potential to do as much for cycling in Calgary as he did in Tucson.
Thivener managed that city’s cycling program for five years, increasing the number of bike commuters to three per cent of the population — the sixth highest rate among U.S. cities. In October 2010, Tucson was also named the “Best Town for Road Biking” by Outdoor Magazine. He says his hometown shared some qualities with Calgary in regards to bike infrastructure, which may make it easy to apply some of the same tricks here.
Conditions for cycling in Calgary are a mix. Thivener says the city has ample off-street pathways, such as the 40-year-old river pathway network, but relatively little devoted to bikes on city roads. Plans to correct that began before Thivener got the job. This summer, Calgary will have more on-street bike lanes — including several in the downtown core — bike storage facilities, lanes and pathways connected to major transit hubs such as C-Train stations. Eventually there will be a public bike-share program.
Thivener says new infrastructure will be paramount, but a key to the success of Calgary’s $28-million Cycling Strategy is education.
“In Tucson, we used every avenue we could. We had public service ads on TV, like 30-second spots. Those can be very beneficial to do. We also had little booklets created and passed out, like the ‘Share The Road’ guide... I could see that being very handy here. Having pamphlets out, getting things out on the website, getting the word out to the other advocacy groups. I think everything’s in play for educating Calgarians,” says Thivener.
The intention is to break down both the structural and mental barriers that prevent potential cyclists from riding in Calgary. A 2009 survey conducted by the city found the majority of people who don’t cycle, or do so only occasionally, are intimidated by the prospect of sharing the road with motorists. This fear was found to be an even bigger deterrent than winter weather.
“You need reliable, safe, predictable bikeways,” says Thivener. “The others are just mental barriers.... Stuff like the winter fear will fade away once we get the dedicated infrastructure and implement the different steps of the strategy. We know when you get a big storm it might drive people to the C-Train, but that’s what it’s for. It’s about having options.”
Since moving here, Thivener has spent his spare time exploring the city by bike, trying to understand the conditions for cycling unique to different parts of town. He’s always been passionate about cycling.
“I’d always had a strong passion for being able to use my bike in Tucson growing up,” he says. “If I needed to get a slice of pizza or go to the baseball card shop, go to the arcade... you can’t just walk there, it’s too far and the bus connections were terrible in suburbia. The bike was my freedom. It’s always struck me what a useful tool a bicycle is, so when I had the opportunity to do that as a career, of course I jumped at it.”
The City of Calgary caught a bit of flak for hiring someone from 2,000 kilometres away, but Thivener is no stranger to Canada. Before getting his graduate degree in urban planning at the University of Arizona, he lived in Vancouver and studied at Simon Fraser University. He also cycled extensively through Western Canada. He says he was excited about bringing his expertise to Calgary because “it was great to see you had a vibrant downtown, and mass transit, the C-Train, and some exciting things going on, so I knew that Calgary would be an exciting place to live."