Viewpoint (August 01, 2004)

In the past few weeks, Calgary saw the arrival of its profitable Stampede, a celebration so successful that the city has been expanding its fairgrounds, thus pushing neighourhoods farther out into the suburbs. As Calgarians were recovering from parties and rodeos, Edmontonians were rebuilding their damaged city from unusually heavy rains and hail the size of golf balls. There is an almost religious undercurrent to the situation of these two cities. Images of rampant debauchery in Calgary included buxom cowgirls pouring tequila down the throats of cowboys. Hailstorms and flooding in Edmonton provided great news footage as thousands of shoppers were evacuated from the West Edmonton Mall. The contrast between Alberta’s two cities couldn’t be more apparent. With roughly the same populations, Edmonton and Calgary are competing cities in close proximity to each other. Concerted efforts should be made to ensure that they develop in tandem. While Calgary receives provincial money for new schools and hospitals, very little public investment flows toward new construction in Edmonton. Despite the differences between the two cities, it is important to consider how they can become more important anchors for regional economic development.

Although there have been some exciting changes to the Calgary architectural scene, it may take a while before the city recognizes the importance of anti-sprawl initiatives addressing appropriate land-use and environmental policies. Mayor Dave Bronconnier recently attended a dinner sponsored by the Calgary Region Home Builders’ Association (CRHBA) where he announced that smart growth initiatives were one of his priorities. While congratulating the construction community for promoting construction downtown, he was quoted in the Calgary Sun, praising it for “pushing out the boundaries of the city.” Announcing his plans to annex 83 km2 of land on the city’s east and west flanks as part of a long-term vision, he added that “the 83 kilometres is a 30-year supply of land, but we need to look further–40, 50, even 100 years down the road. We must move to the east, which is wide open with flat land ready for development.” Despite the assurance that the city is looking to ever expand its growth boundary, the development community is still pressuring the Mayor to relax development guidelines. Judging by the new commercial towers in the downtown core, it is quite clear that Calgary has experienced strong economic growth over the past decade, with an annual growth rate around 5 per cent, a rate that has been greater than either Canada or Alberta. From these results, it seems doubtful that anybody is cramping the developers’ style. Yet, despite examples of successful development within more established areas of the city, a recent Calgary Transit Report reports that “over 90 per cent of the population and employment growth has been, and will continue to be in Calgary’s suburban communities and employment areas.”

Rather than investing in a high-speed passenger rail link that would bring Calgary and Edmonton closer together, the province recently announced that it is considering the construction of a new multi-billion dollar railway from Edmonton to Fort McMurray in order to move heavy equipment directly into the oil sands. Meanwhile, Calgary is moving along with its new LRT initiative to encourage transit-oriented development designed to stem the inexorable sprawl. This is a hopeful and exciting initiative. However, given the propensity to meet the market demands of the status quo, and the lack of initiative and political will by the provincial government to strengthen urban development guidelines with respect the Calgary-Edmonton dynamic, it seems unlikely that Albertan sprawl will be reined in any time soon. Ian Chodikoff [email protected]

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