Our very own fiscal cliff

Calgary’s growth management strategy under siege

South of the border there is much gnashing of teeth over the impending “fiscal cliff” on which the United States economy teeters. Meanwhile, here in Calgary, a proposed plan to avoid our very own fiscal cliff — a tsunami of infrastructure spending and maintenance that will bury us if we continue business as usual — is under siege.

On December 3, in a legislative showdown to determine if we will pull up short of the metaphorical cliff or continue galloping toward it, council will consider a proposal put forth by developers to neuter the city’s growth management strategy.

This story begins a long time ago, as recounted in great detail by local historian Max Foran in Expansive Discourses: Urban Sprawl in Calgary, 1945-1978. In the 1950s, the City of Calgary essentially handed the responsibility for residential planning to the private development industry. Since that time, developers have delivered the suburban, sprawling, car-worshipping and fiscally unsustainable city we have today.

There have been attempts to turn the tide, most notably in the 1980s when city planners presented a new vision of a more sustainable, walkable city that would tame the automobile. That didn’t work out so well for many of the planners. They were unceremoniously run out of town by then-mayor Ralph Klein and a chill settled over city planning for years.

It wasn’t until January 2005 that the city recovered from that trauma and, with the leadership of aldermen such as Joe Ceci, embarked on an unprecedented citizen engagement to chart a new course. That effort culminated in 2006 at the World Urban Forum in Vancouver, where then-mayor Dave Bronconnier unveiled the imagineCalgary 100-year vision.

Eighteen-thousand Calgarians had a hand in crafting that vision. The citizen panel that led the process included Naheed Nenshi and Brian Pincott, who later became mayor and alderman, respectively, as well as the CEOs of both the United Way and Glenbow Museum. In July 2006 at a special hearing of city council, dozens of organizations presented letters of support for the document, including Sustainable Calgary, Calgary Economic Development and the Calgary Region Homebuilders Association.

Between 2007 and 2009, with the participation of thousands of citizens, and the unanimous endorsement of council, a 60-year road map on how to achieve the imagineCalgary vision was given legal weight in the Municipal Development Plan (MDP) and the Calgary Transportation Plan. Change is sometimes excruciatingly slow, but the planning process plods along. In December 2011, council endorsed the continued development of a growth management strategy that would give teeth to the MDP.

The strategy establishes criteria for deciding where new residential development should occur. The point is to grow the city in places where providing infrastructure — transit, roads, water and sewer, and emergency services — is least costly. In the old system we said yes to developments with little concern for the long-term cost to taxpayers, or the impending fiscal cliff.

ImagineCalgary, the MDP and the growth management strategy represent the long road to fiscal prudence and sustainability for our city. The problem is that the road to fiscal prudence diverges from that of profit maximization for the development industry, and they are not amused.

The industry refused to endorse the imagineCalgary vision, they challenged the MDP process every step of the way and, in the final analysis, diluted the plan during a closed-door 11th hour deal with mayor Bronconnier. In the winter of 2011 they were successful in lobbying council to institute a 40 per cent taxpayer subsidy of infrastructure costs for greenfield suburban development — over $80,000 per hectare — rather than absorbing all the costs themselves. Prior to this, the city was on the hook for 55 per cent of suburban infrastructure costs.

On December 3, council will consider another proposal from developers — this time that they will pay the cost of drawing up Area Structure Plans (ASP). This is the first of a series of statutory planning stages that culminates in the building of a new community. It sounds like a generous offer, but the industry’s motivation is anything but altruistic. The existence of an ASP allows the developer to move forward to a stage of the development process where they are in the driver’s seat. In effect, developers want to position themselves, with ASP in hand, to jump the land development priorities queue that the growth management strategy will establish.

It is sad but true that over the past decade of a renaissance in city planning, the development industry has been consistently obstructionist. They appear offended by the notion of citizens having a place at the table when decisions are being made about the design of the neighbourhoods and communities where we will raise our families. They have profited handsomely from the back-room, closed-door development process and they are loathe to see it change.

But a new day has dawned for the planning of our city and it includes citizens. Our mayor was elected on a promise of more openness at city hall. Over the past decade, thousands of citizens have responded, in good faith, to the city’s invitation to participate in various planning processes.

Election season will soon be upon us. Aldermen are already hard at work soliciting the development industry — their major donors — for money to help them contest elections. This is all quite legal, but easily abused.

I would suggest that to balance the playing field, aldermen need a gentle reminder about whom they work for as they consider this crucial decision. We place our trust in them to represent the common good, rather than a small but powerful private interest group.

Comments: 16

Just Jonathan wrote:

Well written!

on Nov 29th, 2012 at 12:42pm Report Abuse

paulhughes wrote:

imagineCalgary languishes in a landscape of bureaucracy. http://paulin8.blogspot.ca/2011/05/imaginecalgary-lost-in-bureaucrazy.html

on Nov 29th, 2012 at 2:02pm Report Abuse

GregGinYYC wrote:

Very interesting article, Noel.

I'm looking on calgary.ca to see how the ASP proposal will be presented to the City, but nothing is obvious to me in the Council Agenda for December 3rd. Do you know how and when this will be reviewed?

on Dec 2nd, 2012 at 9:59am Report Abuse

GregGinYYC wrote:

Ah - those clever Civic Camp folks are all over this! Yes this is on Council's Agenda and here's a very interesting back and forth between Civic Camp and Alderman Shane Keating.


on Dec 2nd, 2012 at 11:04am Report Abuse

Clairvoyant wrote:

"... aldermen need a gentle reminder about whom they work for ..." Yes, and it is not just the cabal of Civic Camp and fellow travellers, it is not just the central planners at the universities and in the administration. The "employers" are the citizens of Calgary, but input is not welcome, and is ignored if it is not in agreement with the prejudices of the cognescenti. The process of citizen engagement is a farce: real engagement would be akin to the ERCB hearing process: those proposing would be compelled to ANSWER questions, to be cross-examined, by the affected members of the public. Just imagine, Nenshi & Farrell & Lowe and the city department heads being cross-examined in public, by the public, on the budget? On the 10th Street bicycle path? On the Airport Tunnel? On the destruction of existing neighbourhoods via approval of projects for densification? That would be public participation. That would be democracy.

I do not know if " ... the development industry has been consistently obstructionist ..." But the development industry is far more democratic, and far more accountable than City Council and Civic Camp. How is that possible. Simple: to stay in business, the developers have to sell what they produce, and the purchases are voluntary. If I want a high rise condo, I buy a high rise condo: if I want a single family home I buy a single family home. If I don't like the price, I negotiate, or I buy from somebody else, or I don't buy. The development industry cannot force me to buy what they build, so maybe, if the development industry is obstructionist to the grand delusions of the central planners, maybe it's because the development industry knows what free citizens actually want to buy. City Council, Civic Camp, and the civil servants are under no such constraint: prejudiced in favour of densification, they impose plans and bylaws that remove choice from the citizens, they increase tax to pay for their utopian delusions, and the citizen, no longer free, has no choice.

Council and Civic Camp and the academics all know that give choice, most citizens do not make the choices that this cabal desires. Put Plan It to a real referendum: put the budget to a real referendum. But you won't, because they would be soundly defeated.

on Dec 2nd, 2012 at 11:40am Report Abuse

GregGinYYC wrote:

"If I don't like the price, I negotiate, or I buy from somebody else, or I don't buy"

According to the article, 40% of the infrastructure for that house in suburbia is paid by me, the taxpayer. Sounds like a subsidy, not democracy.

on Dec 2nd, 2012 at 12:44pm Report Abuse

RedScourge wrote:

Let me guess - these 18,000 planners and their thousand year vision for the future didn't entirely come to fruition, they're way over budget and going broke, and claiming that if they don't get their way, all their expensive, pretentious, elitist planning which was tried and failed, will all be for nothing.

Did I estimate it about right?

It's almost as if Ralph Klein knew this bullshit was going to happen before it did, but how could he, he's not one of the annointed planners? Maybe Klein wasn't so stupid and evil after all, huh?

on Dec 3rd, 2012 at 10:37am Report Abuse

rube wrote:

Nenshi's thoughts on PlanIt, CivicCamp, the airport tunnel, bike lanes and all that were well known and explicitly stated while he was campaigning. And then he won the election.

Farrell's views on densification, and public events and street fairs, and pedestrian bridges, were all well known when she was campaigning. And then she won the election.

I guess it was inevitable, though, what with the well-known economic and political might of intellectuals, and their pretentious, elitist bicycles.

But a quick note on democracy: Being profit-driven doesn't make you democratic. Yes, developers have to give some of the people what they want. But only enough of the people to remain profitable, without any concern for the needs of the rest of the population, or long-term sustainable growth, or anything outside their immediate profitability, really. And when their ability to give that subset of people what they want is based on massive subsidies that distort the market and significantly hamper the finances of the city at large, it's a joke to call it "accountable."

on Dec 3rd, 2012 at 12:35pm Report Abuse

Clairvoyant wrote:

"... massive subsidies ..." for East Village? for West Village? for University City? who paid for the LRT that makes Uni City land valuable? ... RioCan? who subsidizes LRT fares that make the tiny cement cubicles of Uni City "a good deal"? ... RioCan?
Why could Calgary afford to build suburbs with single family homes on wide lots a half century ago? But Calgary cannot afford to do the same today?
" ... to give some of the people what they want ... without any concern for the needs of the rest of the population ..." The problem with this argument is that "some of the people" is an awfully big "some", with homes with a yard, especially single family homes, being the top housing preference.
" ... long-term sustainable growth ..." If people don't want what is available in the city, it isn't sustainable ... if you doubt that, look at the greater Detroit area.

on Dec 3rd, 2012 at 9:36pm Report Abuse

Ron wrote:

I generally agree with Clairvoyant's argument, but the needle that punctures its balloon is the comment about Detroit. ABSOLUTELY no correlation between Detroit, which went in the economic tank when the U.S. auto industry imploded, and Calgary, where an excessively influential minority, the development industry, has had city council as its catamite for several decades.

on Dec 4th, 2012 at 10:20am Report Abuse

Nkeough wrote:

Interesting discussion.

With regard the comment on '18000 planners'. These were not 18000 planners they were citizens of Calgary.

Noe. to head off the usual comment by clairvoyant about my being in the 'academic elite" I was one of those 18000 learning about these issues by digging in as a concerned citizens, educating myself and contributing to the debate and the shaping of the future of my city. I subsequently decided to pursue these interests in my education and eventually found myself bringing my citizen understanding of my city to academia.

With regard to the Clarivoyant comment about how in the past we seemed to be able to afford suburban development - the chickens are coming home to roost. We could never afford it, but only now is the maintenance bill of unsustainable car-dependent suburbia. coming in.

on Dec 4th, 2012 at 4:22pm Report Abuse

SalishSea wrote:

Excellent piece! Citizen participation crucial because seems that cities with well planned density are big part of solving global warming.

“Carbon Zero: Imagining Cities that can save the planet.” Published Nov 2012 —currently being highlighted chapter by chapter on Grist. http://grist.org/cities/move-a-little-closer-please-carbon-zero-chapter-3/

WHICH brings to mind our tax supported CBC coverage of Doha-- practically non-existent—never mind interviews by a journalist covering it in person?

So try this segment on Democracy NOW-- interview with the wonderful student who addressed Durban last year.. http://m.democracynow.org/stories/13300

And to think that Peter Kent represents Canada there....“...It was Kent who had a hand in blocking opposition members from attending a climate conference in Durban, South Africa a year ago. He then, quite incredibly, stood in the Commons and chastised NDP environment critic Megan Leslie for not being there. That was what prompted an incensed Justin Trudeau to jump to his feet during question period and call the minister a piece of excrement.”

Should Peter Kent still be in the broadcasters’ hall of fame?

on Dec 6th, 2012 at 12:26pm Report Abuse

officematt2002 wrote:

Ron, Detroit was well on its way before the auto bailout of 2009. Ever heard of the Great White Flight? Ever listened to Gordon Lightfoot's "Black Day in July"?

on Dec 10th, 2012 at 9:21pm Report Abuse

Ron wrote:

officematt, you DO love to make a big deal out of a matter that is quite irrelevant to the subject at hand. But, F.Y.I., I was born in Windsor. I have a large number of U.S. relatives and friends, many of whom still live in or near Detroit.
In July 1967, I sat in Dieppe Park and watched the U.S. Army helicopters shining their searchlights over Detroit, listened to the guns, sirens, explosions, etc., watched the big red neon Robin Hood wink out in a crash of glass and metal. I may know more about those riots than Gord, because, unlike him, I was actually there.
But Detroit was a pretty cool place to visit all the time I lived in the area. No. The collapse of the auto industry began and peaked LONG before 2009. It began in the '70's, when Toyota and Datsun (now Nissan for those young ones out there) et al. built cars that were far superior to the JUNK the "Big 3" built. - I helped build a lot of that junk in Windsor's Chrysler #3 Assembly Plant.
In 1984, when the Tigers won the World Series, some Detroiters sat on their porches and shot at the tires of Japanese cars that drove by because, already by then, thousands had lost their auto industry jobs.
It wasn't Detroit that was wrong, save perhaps in letting almost all of its economic eggs be in one basket - the auto industry. It was the arrogance of that industry, and its hidebound refusal for many years to change its ways, that destroyed Detroit.
And "Great White Flight" - what rubbish. Could say the same thing about native Albertans who left Calgary and Edmonton for Red Neck (oops! That's Red Deer) because they felt too many of us "Eastern bums and scums" were infiltrating their sacred territory. - I could never figure out if I was a "bum" or a "scum," so I just called myself a "slum."

on Dec 11th, 2012 at 12:10am Report Abuse

Agent666 wrote:

Bear in mind that Nenshi, Farrell Carra, et al., and all who came before them (Klein, Duerr, Bronco) were basically bought into office with the campaign donations of developers, contractors, and unions. These donors always expect--and get--something in return. This means porkbarrel projects, run-amok development, and labour largesse. Unless business and union donations are completely forbidden, and individual donations capped at a small number (say, $100), this will go on and on. Banning corporate and union donations was done at the Federal level, so why not for local campaigns?

And Canadians alarmed at traffic, urban sprawl, bulging landfills, overtaxed local water supplies, ugly densification, and demand rising to meet supply for transit need to take a hard look at what is driving all of this--population growth, the bulk of which comes from deliberate changes to immigration policy over two decades ago. Every year, since the late 1980s, the Federal Government bulk-imports OVER HALF A MILLION people into Canadian cities: over 250,000 permanent immigrants, plus 300,000-odd 'temporary' migrants. There is no other reason for this than the sustained lobbying of banks, REITs, developers, and other real estate-financial interests. It's been said that endless growth is the ideology of the cancer cell, and that's the Kool-Aid business lobbies have been feeding us. And, without addressing campaign funding and immigration, trying to 'do something' about urban issues like infrastructure costs and sprawl is a pointless venture.

on Dec 25th, 2012 at 8:34pm Report Abuse

Agent666 wrote:

"According to the article, 40% of the infrastructure for that house in suburbia is paid by me, the taxpayer."

This goes for infill development, too. Do you think developers pay for new water and sewer lines, roadwork and sidewalk repairs, when they plop one of their firetrap duplex infills on a street? Will the Developers of University City pay for the specialized firefighting equipment which will now be needed in what was a low-rise community? Do developers of condos, infills, and apartments pay for the upgrades to sewage and water treatment, plus transit and roads that the thousands of people pouring into their developments will require? Not to mention hiring more cops, firefighters, building more rec facilities, etc. And will the infill developers and other firms cover the costs of looking for new landfill space, since HALF of the non-recyclable waste filling landfills is construction scrap? Of course not.

Whether brownfield, greenfield, or infilling, ALL development is massively subsidized. And endless population growth, regardless of how 'dense and green' it purports to be, is simply unsustainable. Southern Alberta's water supply can NOT accommodate more population growth, period. And the densification push, from civic politicians receiving large campaign donations from infill and condo developers, is leaving Calgary and other Canadian cities with a dangerously large glut of high-density properties--something which threatens the stability of the Canadian economy. China, where most of the condo investors are from, already is seeing the bubble burst:


on Dec 25th, 2012 at 8:47pm Report Abuse

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