The growth machine

Second thoughts on Calgary’s boom

This month, the first of what will be a treasure trove of data from the 2011 census was released by Statistics Canada. To nobody’s surprise, Calgary is growing, and fast! The news coverage was triumphalist, we’re-better-than-you-are kind of stuff. Perhaps that would be warranted if the end goal is to grow fast and get big.

In fact, many years ago sociologist Harvey Moloch coined the phrase “growth machine” to describe what goes on in cities. As Moloch explained it, developers, businessmen and politicians literally treat a city as a giant machine designed to manufacture wealth and enhance their political and economic power all while extolling the supposed benefits of growth — improved quality of life and well-being for all citizens. Growth becomes a surrogate for all that is virtuous.

Alongside the census story were a number of other stories that haven’t gotten much play, but do make a strong case that we are, in fact, cogs in a growth machine and it is not delivering the goods.

Exhibit one: The number of homeless counted in 2012 is seven times what it was in 1992. Yes, the count shows a decrease of 11.4 per cent since 2008, but even that decrease is questionable given the move of the count from June to a bitterly cold January day. In the wake of the census data, The Homeless Foundation warns against coming to Calgary if you do not have secure accommodation.

Exhibit two: Poverty Costs, a report released by Vibrant Communities Calgary, reveals a number of startling statistics. Almost 400,000 Albertans are living in poverty; Alberta has a higher debt-to-income ratio than the Canadian average; and the province has the highest gap between rich and poor in all of Canada. The report finds that even from a financial perspective, tolerating poverty is a bad idea. The cost to our economy in health care, crime and lost economic productivity is between $7 billion and $9.5 billion annually.

Exhibit three: In his insightful new book Follow the Money, Kevin Taft challenges conventional wisdom that the Alberta boom is good for everyone and that public spending is out of control. Taft shows us that the “stunning wealth” generated by Alberta’s economy has been unequally distributed. Since the early 1990s, health, K-12 education and post-secondary spending have grown 28.6, 2.4 and 27.9 per cent respectively. And our collective nest egg, the Heritage Fund, is down 35 per cent. Meanwhile, corporate profits are up a whopping 317 per cent. With our provincial growth machine in high gear we have seen negligible or modest growth in public services, shocking shrinkage of our rainy day fund and skyrocketing corporate profits.

Exhibit four: Research by non-partisan, public advocacy group CivicCamp’s Governance, Finance and Infrastructure Group shows that suburban sprawl will cost Calgary taxpayers $400 million over the next five years ­— that’s the difference between what developers pay and what it actually costs to service new subdivisions.

Rapid population growth in our city certainly enriches developers and road builders, but it makes it even more difficult to curb sprawling suburban development. When a city is growing as fast as Calgary (108,000 new Calgarians since 2006), it is much easier to plow under open farmland and throw up thousands of cookie-cutter homes than to accommodate newcomers on vacant lands inside the existing city footprint. In Calgary we do more of the former than anywhere else in Canada and we have gotten pretty good at it. But in the long run, as the city’s own report, Implications of Alternative Growth Patterns on Infrastructure Costs, makes clear, this kind of development offloads most of the costs onto future generations.

Unfortunate circumstances you say — what control do we have over the global economy? As it turns out, quite a bit. Tarsands development is driving our growth and not a drop of tarsands can be exploited without government offering a lease to allow it. But our government has been adamant that the market should decide how fast we grow. That model of growth has promoted increased poverty, a concentration of wealth among the very few and an unsustainable, sprawling model of how our city grows.

So here’s a proposal. A moratorium on tarsands development until we can determine the full costs and benefits — is rapid growth improving our quality of life or making us worse off? And, a new deal on royalties so that more of that 317 per cent of corporate profit is shared fairly with all Albertans.

We all know that at a personal level, decisions made in haste or with only short–term goals in mind are often bad decisions that we come to regret. The same goes for our economy. Let’s ease off on the gas peddle and get some breathing room for a sober second thought on the sustainability of growth.

Geoff Ghitter teaches urban studies at the University of Calgary. He can be reached at Noel Keough is an assistant professor in the faculty of environmental design at the university, and is co-founder of Sustainable Calgary Society. He can be reached at


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