A more sustainable Plan It

Choosing Calgary’s development path

The future direction of Calgary’s land-growth pattern for the next 50 years is being debated at city hall. To build up or out is the question. A significantly more compact Calgary, resulting in enormous economic and environmental savings, clearly is the answer.

In the spirit of imagineCALGARY, the City of Calgary created Plan It Calgary to develop a long-term land-use and transportation plan for Calgary. Plan It Calgary has created three possible scenarios of how Calgary’s growth pattern can proceed.

The “dispersed scenario” sees the continuation of urban sprawl; Calgary currently has the dubious honour of having the largest ecological footprint of any large Canadian municipality. The most environmentally friendly scenario is the “compact scenario,” which would smartly build from within by increasing density. The “hybrid scenario” is somewhere in between.

In response to Plan It Calgary, powerful housing developers in Calgary have been organizing. Developers are the invisible elephant in city hall. An Industry Champions Committee (ICC) has been created in partnership with the Urban Development Institute and the Canadian Home Builders’ Association. As you can tell by the names of these three organizations, these guys never miss the playoffs. They continually bring home the cup.

The ICC would like to Plan It their own way with what they call the “integrated solution” in their report titled Joint Response: Towards a Sustainable City. According to the report, “the industry believes complete communities are already being developed and built.” It reads like complete denial. Though the population density of new communities has increased to six to eight units per acre from three to four units per acre, Sustainable Calgary (an organization that promotes sustainable community initiatives) recommends 14 to 20 units per acre.

The heart of the argument put forth by the ICC is that by building a more compact and sustainable city, we are putting Calgarians’ freedom of choice and quality of life in “peril.” A more compact city, though, will not reduce but increase choice for consumers. You would be able to choose to walk, bike, skate, take public transit or use your automobile to get where you want to go in a timely manner. Currently, in most residential communities, you have little choice but to drive. Experiencing road rage and spending endless time in traffic jams by yourself in your emissions-spewing car lowers your quality of life. Compare this to walking to your estination, getting exercise, talking to your neighbours on your way, smelling the flowers and enjoying the fresh air. Basic amenities need to be built closer to where you live, so you don’t have to travel so far in the first place.

The other main argument put forward against Plan It is cost. According to the ICC, consumers want single detached homes at an affordable price. The problem with this argument is that those who live in them are not paying the full cost of suburban homes. Instead, these costs are externalized to all city taxpayers for building expensive infrustructure, with overpasses and roads being the most obvious. It is estimated that continued suburban development will cost Calgary taxpayers $11.5 billion over the next 10 years. In addition, according to Dr. Noel Keough, assistant professor at the University of Calgary’s department of Environmental Design, Plan It’s compact scenario would save consumers $1.25 billion annually in vehicle costs. The savings from the compact scenario could be used to exponentially improve public transit.

In 1961, 57 per cent of housing stock in Vancouver was single detached homes. Now, it is 35 per cent, whereas in Calgary it is 61 per cent. Obviously, we can wean ourselves off single detached homes and survive.

The ICC assures Calgarians that the “industry has already responded to the market demand for environmentally sensitive amenities, energy conservation, and multi-family forms of housing.” For real? Do you see many eco houses in Calgary that minimize wasted space, are energy efficient, collect and re-use water, and produce their own sustainable wind, solar or geothermal energy? I don’t. High-end empty lifestyle condos and single detached mini-castles with a few Energy Star appliances in them seem to be the primary choices.

Out of all our emissions in Calgary, 25 per cent come from housing and 30 per cent from transportation. Under Plan It’s compact scenario, it is estimated that CO2 emissions from housing and transportation would decrease 25 per cent and 33 per cent respectively. Developers, though, stand in the way of Calgary achieving this.

What needs to be done to prevent this? The public disclosure of donations from developers to city councillors is a must, especially at public hearings at city hall. This includes donations from development corporations, their numbered businesses and individuals and family members of those who work for developers.

As we saw with smoking, the market is not going to solve the problem. Only legislation was able to ban smoking in bars and restaurants. Despite the uproar, the result was a resounding success for bars and non-smokers’ lungs. Likewise, minimum standards for housing units per acre and the energy efficiency of suburban housing developments need to be legislated and enforced by the city. Otherwise, developers will not voluntarily comply. High-density, multi-use, walkable communities with vastly more energy-efficient homes and accessible public transit have to become the norm.

Most importantly, your help is needed. On October 15, 2008 at 1:00 p.m. there is a Land Use, Planning and Transportation Standing Policy Committee meeting at city hall to set the direction of Calgary’s future growth. You can attend the meeting or contact your city councillor beforehand. Help put developers in their place to ensure that Calgary starts to Plan It better.

David Wilson rents in Sunnyside, but grew up in Parkland, a suburb in Calgary.

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