Where would you put 600,000 people?

Expanding population requires planning wisdom

Charles Dickens’ classic A Tale of Two Cities starts with the iconic line: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” Though much less tumultuous than the events that frame Dickens’ novel, Calgary is today faced with the paradox of a resource boom making Calgary the country’s wealthiest city, and unwelcome development pressures that are threatening the sustainability of our city and its neighbourhoods.

The 2009 Municipal Development Plan, known as Plan It, forecast a doubling of Calgary’s population in the next 60 years — 1.2 million new Calgarians. The big question is where to put all of these newcomers. Plan It’s compromise is to put half of them on the edges of the city in new suburbs (greenfield development) and half of them in established communities.

At the edge of the city it’s relatively straightforward. City council has already approved area structure plans and community plans for hundreds of thousands of newcomers. Greenfield developers are well practiced at building suburbia.

Meanwhile, Plan It envisions most of the growth in established communities to occur along transportation corridors. Calgary has a long-standing Transit Oriented Design (TOD) policy that supports that vision, calling for more density, mixed-use development (homes, shops and offices), and improved public realms (plazas, wider sidewalks, bicycle infrastructure).

It makes sense, but the devil is in the details. When the plan becomes a reality in a particular community, that’s when the second-guessing starts. Everybody thinks it’s a good idea in somebody else’s community.

A good example of how this policy plays out is the community of Hillhurst-Sunnyside. In response to the TOD policy and in anticipation of development intensification, the city spent three years working with residents to remodel the Area Redevelopment Plan (ARP) to accommodate higher density urban development.

Very soon after the new ARP was accepted by council, and faster than almost anybody imagined, Hillhurst-Sunnyside is experiencing an extreme makeover. There are two eight-storey mixed-use condominium towers well under way. There are at least another 13 major projects at some stage of the development process — from first explorations with the community, to actually making their way through city hall approvals. These projects total over one million square feet (half the size of The Bow tower) and 843 dwellings (1,517 people) — an 18 per cent growth in the community’s population.

And the community is feeling the heat. One of the promises of the ARP-TOD was that redevelopment would come with aggressive public space enhancement — a key feature of the TOD policy. That promise has hit a glitch in recent months. Just as development is heating up, city hall lawyers have deemed the development levy envisioned to pay for public realm improvements unenforceable under the Municipal Government Act. Developers are balking at paying it and the city is scrambling to introduce an enforceable alternative.

At the same time, the old adage “give them an inch and they will take a mile” is evident in the development process. Most new development proposals start by maximizing the allowable square feet of space on a given piece of land. From there, almost invariably, developers make an argument for why they should get more.

Meanwhile, as development plans roll in, very little uptake is evident on all of the coulds, shoulds and if-you-feel-like-its of the ARP. Things like green building design, car-sharing programs to reduce auto density, and affordable units are conspicuously absent.

Plan It, and imagineCalgary before it, made an unassailable case of why we need to intensify development in existing communities, and Calgarians support the vision. If done well, intensification will make for better communities, but it could go sideways fast if the pace of development overwhelms city hall’s finite planning resources. But nobody wants that. With 600,000 new people coming to existing communities, these first makeovers, in places like Hillhurst-Sunnyside, have to get it right or else the Plan It strategy will be dead in the water.

One solution is for the city to assign and locate city planners in the community long term — not unlike the idea of a beat cop — to get to know the community, its residents and the development realities in intimate detail. Another solution is allocating more power to the people. In Hillhurst-Sunnyside, the innovative and wildly successful Bow to Bluff initiative demonstrated the capacity of citizens to engage the community in the planning process. So why not give communities a bigger role? Communities deserve to be at the table with the city and the developers every step of the way.

There is a lesser-known phrase in that opening sentence of A Tale of Two Cities: “it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness.” The city made a wise decision when it adopted Plan It. To not back up the decision with diligence, adequate resources and attention to detail would indeed be foolish.


Comments: 10

AP wrote:

The next question obvious question is that how many of those units in Hillhurst Sunnyside are affordable. How many single parents with daycare expenses will be able qualify, let alone purchase the $300K and higher asking prices for these new developments.

And how many of these developments and developers are supported by their local Alderman Druh Farrell?

The idea of community voice and engagement is very admirable and necesssary. But as it is in human nature, the only voices that will take part and be heard from the community will be the loudest naysayers who will want everyone moving in there to adhere to "their way of life" and uphold "their values". So while this idea could create inclusive and open community, there is the real danger that it could also become a very homogenized and exclusive community.

on Oct 18th, 2012 at 10:44am Report Abuse

Clairvoyant wrote:

For a community to be sustainable, to be robust, to be resilient, people have to WANT to live there. When the social engineers, the great central planners, destroy communities that people like living in, then the community becomes transient, and commitment to the community disappears, and with it sustainability, robustness, resilience.

Plan It destroys the existing communities. Plan It builds vertical gated communities, almost exclusively for singles and double-income-no-kids. The statement "Plan It, and imagineCalgary before it made an unassailable case of why we need to intensify development in existing communities, and Calgarians support the vision" is absolutely false. If Plan It was put to a real public debate, not just civil servant propaganda sessions, and put to a vote of the citizens of Calgary, a referendum, Plan It would be defeated.

Plan It's first megafailure is now visible, rising to the sky in Brentwood, a set of concrete boxes where families with kids will not live. For Noel, it seems 1500 new residents is Hillhurst-Sunnyside is a lot: Brentwood, a community of predominantly single family homes, will see in the one block between Charleswood & Brisebois, 7,000 new employees & residents. Public input was ignored, because the public gave the wrong answer. Engagement of the communities amounted to the City and the developer telling us what they were going to do to us.

It is not "the pressures of development that are threatening the sustainability of our city and its neighbourhoods." It is Plan It and the visionary, delusionary, planners that are the real threats.

The idea that "redevelopment would come with aggressive public space development" is laughable. In Brentwood, there would be a winding path through the existing park instead of a straight path ... WOW! And traffic lanes have been converted to bicycle lanes with increased congestion ... and as that white stuff, you know, the beach sand blowing in from California comes down, the bicyclists are fewer than the few that ride in the summer.

The live & work & play all in one community sounds so idyllic. Sort of like the old "company towns"? And it is disconnected from the way the careers of people working in the private sector progress: you don't even have to change employers: the latest big example, Imperial Oil ... today you work downtown in the core, tomorrow it's out at Quarry Park.

"Where would you put 600,000 people?" Not my choice, but as the planners make Calgary less & less hospitable to families & to people who want space, they will go will be Airdrie, Cochrane, Okotoks, Strathmore, Black Diamond, ...

on Oct 22nd, 2012 at 6:11pm Report Abuse

Agent666 wrote:

The developers' wet dream of dumping hundreds of thousands of additional people in the Calgary metro area has one big problem: WATER. Southern Alberta's water supply simply cannot accommodate this many more people, regardless of how densely they're crammed into third world-style tenement housing, or forced to cycle in the snow. This region's water supply is already dangerously overtaxed, and no amount of PlanIt, condo and infill developer-sponsored urban planning initiatives will fix this.

Annually, Canada accepts over HALF A MILLION people (280,000-odd permanent immigrants, plus over 300,000 'temporary' migrants who tend not to leave). Most of these people end up settling in major metro areas. And, like other people, they tend to prefer single family, detached homes and driving cars, to dense housing and mass transit, or bicycles. More people also means more garbage (HALF of non-recyclable waste is construction scrap), more sewage, and more water consumption.

Look at new communities in the Northeast, and elsewhere, and compare the demographics to inner city communities, and take the politically correct blinders off. This is not sustainable. And there is no reason for such a huge immigration intake, other than keeping the real estate bubble inflated. When the last bubble popped, in the late 1980s, the real estate-financial sector (banks, REITs, developers) successfully lobbied the Mulroney government for the current 250,000+ annual immigration 'target.' But unless immigration levels are reduced to sane levels, any talk of 'sustainability,' or freezing urban sprawl is hollow.

on Oct 25th, 2012 at 1am Report Abuse

Agent666 wrote:

"And how many of these developments and developers are supported by their local Alderman Druh Farrell?"

"Plan It's first megafailure is now visible, rising to the sky in Brentwood, a set of concrete boxes where families with kids will not live."

Infill and condo developers, like Knightsbridge Homes and the LaCaille Group donated $$$ to Shrew Ferrett's campaigns, and were rewarded with rubber-stamped development permits, and fire-sale prices on City-owned properties (e.g., Louise Station). Aldermen like Gian-Carlo Carra have also sparred with their constituents over massive redevelopment plans, desired by campaign donors. And don't forget that Geo Energy--which wants to infill Shawnee Slopes--was a major donor to Naheed Nenshi.

University City is dirty, on so many levels. The full extent of the development was never disclosed to area residents. RioCan actually started work on part of the development without getting permits first, but suffered no sanctions. And the undercapitalized project is little more than a money laundering opportunity for Chinese investors (one Federal agency is apparently sniffing around some of the money). With vacancies in DOWNTOWN condo complexes in the double digits, this is the future of the PlanIt condo bubble:


on Oct 25th, 2012 at 1:12am Report Abuse

Urban_avenger wrote:

blah blah blah blah...

Kill all the humans they are not "sustainable"

It would be better than actually sorting out the problems of economics and the allocation of resources.. localizing the food shed.. and having a more enlightened and pragmatic approach to city planning and economy that focuses on community and providing the necessities for life.


we arent going to mars here people get it together

on Oct 26th, 2012 at 12:56pm Report Abuse

Agent666 wrote:


Again, the Bow isn't getting any wetter, God isn't making any more arable land in Southern Alberta (and the GTA, Lower Mainland, etc.), and few people are drinking the New Urbanist 'smart growth' Kool-Aid, of being crammed into closet-sized tenements and riding bicycles. There is a limit to how much Southern Alberta's population can grow, and no amount of smart growther fantasizing by developers and the municipal politicians they bankroll will change this. Even the Alberta Government--hardly the most environmentally-sensitive entity--rejected Mike Holmes absurd Wind Walk ground water use proposal. Growth in the Okotoks, Rockyview, and Foothills areas will mean water coming out of the bow.

The only real solution is curtailing population growth, which essentially means freezing immigration. Immigration rates are NOT some natural phenomenon--they are deliberate Federal policy. Remember that the current quarter million plus annual 'target' was the work of intense lobbying by banks, REITs, and developers during the Mulroney years, when the last real estate bubble burst. This is not a problem that's solvable at the local level. Unless environmentalists grow backbones and fight for major reductions in immigration, the battle against sprawl is lost. And Southern Alberta's water supply can NOT accommodate further growth, PERIOD:


on Oct 26th, 2012 at 5:25pm Report Abuse

Urban_avenger wrote:

Im with ya on immigration.... Im with ya on the reality that the Bow River can only handle sooo much. But seriously the federal government and its corporate handlers are not going to curtail immigration. The resource and manufacturing industries require the labor and the world need someplace to put some people so Im sure the decision has been made internationally that Canada will be a bright and shining example of what the New World can look like.

As I stated this is a Economics issue. And we the people dont really matter. Its international politics and its international trade.... and that aint goin to stop so long as people want all their fancy things.

on Oct 27th, 2012 at 12:07am Report Abuse

Agent666 wrote:


The sector that really has been pushing heavy immigration is the real estate-financial lobby. They have actually lobbied, unsuccessfully, for upping the 'target' to 400k/a. But the fundamentals are already at the point in Canada that they were in the U.S., at the time of that country's real estate meltdown: about 30% of the economy is tied up to housing. Even economically, this isn't sustainable. And polls are showing a diminishing enthusiasm for immigration. Jason Kenney axed the Mulroney-era investor and entrepreneur visas, and this is already taking the steam out of the condo bubble. Permabears like me see big trouble around the corner.

PlanIt is basically the work of the condo and infill developers, who also bankrolled most of Council members' campaigns. The problems with the PlanIt 'vision' are twofold. First of all, people in established communities don't want massive densification of their neighborhoods, and things like the temper tantrums of Gian-Carlo Carra won't change this. Secondly, people in Calgary (both long-timers and immigrants) are not moving into tenement housing in droves. Vacancies in condos, even downtown, are running in the double digits, even as detached home inventories are piling up. By giving free-for-alls on development permits, local governments like Calgary's are helping to inflate a very dangerous bubble.

on Oct 27th, 2012 at 3:11pm Report Abuse

Ron wrote:

In a few more years, Calgary will suffer the same sort of problem that will affect Las Vegas, Nevada very soon: You can't have 1 million + people living in a desert, or even a semi-desert. No water means no life. The Palliser Report of 1858 will rise up to bite in the ass all those who have insisted it was wrong. Of course, continuing to dump 3 or more barrels of water into the ground to extract a barrel of oil does not help either. Very soon, people will discover that oil is good for many things, but you can't drink it. The wilfully blind always get made to see eventually. Let us hope it is not too late.

on Nov 4th, 2012 at 11:02pm Report Abuse

Agent666 wrote:


U of A ecologist David Schindler has written about this, and pointed out that so-called Dust Bowls are cyclical events. Historically, the last one was pretty mild, and we're due for another.

Calgary can't grow anymore, PERIOD. The U.S. Southwest is also grossly overpopulated. And the water situation in India (an overpopulated, nuclear-armed country) should give people sleepless nights:


The problem is that broaching the topics of population and immigration is now taboo. And corporate donations ensure that environmental groups avoid the topic. The sources of donations to the David Suzuki Foundation (banks, REITs, developers) and the Sierra Club case are prime examples:



on Nov 5th, 2012 at 6:09pm Report Abuse

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