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Calgary planning: Mistakes and missed opportunities

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Editor’s note: Richard White’s series on Calgary planning will appear every Monday morning over the summer at livewirecalgary.com


We all make mistakes.  Fortunately, for most of us, we don’t have to live with them for 50+ years.

Indeed, Calgary’s politicians, planners, engineers and developers have made some mistakes. There have been missed opportunities over the past 50 or so years.  And they have also made some great decisions, otherwise we wouldn’t be the fourth most livable city in the world, would we?

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There are some mistakes made by every city in North America that came of age in the middle of the 20th Century. Things like segregated land-use and zoning (i.e. building residential here and industrial there), the design of suburban communities and abandoning transit in favour of auto-oriented development.  

So what oversights have Calgary’s city builders made and what lessons have we learned?

Over the past several months I have had conversations with Art Froese (Calgary Planning Director 1983 to 1988), Bob Holmes (Planning Commissioner, 1988 to 2001), Richard Parker (City planner from 1974 to 2003, Director of Planning from 1988 to 2003) and Barry Lester (private sector engineer in Calgary since 1978), as well as several other architects, engineers, planners and developers who have played a role in shaping our city. 

Hindsight is always 20/20. But it was pretty unanimous Calgary’s major city building mistakes or missed opportunities were:

  • Too downtown-centric. 
  • Integration of University of Calgary, Foothills Medical Centre Alberta Children’s Hospital
  • Social housing/services
  • Failed urban renewal decisions in ‘60s, ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s.
  • Poor road and LRT design. 
  • Go-Plan implementation.

Week 1: Calgary planning: Too downtown-centric / Calgary municipal railway

Richard Parker admits “While the creation of a Calgary as a unicity as the result of the annexation of neighbouring small towns has served it well for the past 50+ years, it also resulted in the city becoming too downtown-centric.  Back in early ‘90s, with the Go Plan, we began planning for mini-downtowns in strategic locations across the city.”

With the right vision, Calgary planning and policies, both Bowness (annexed in 1964) and Forest Lawn (annexed in 1961) could have become vibrant mixed-use town centres serving the west and east sides of the city respectively, said Art Froese.

“Bowness in particular had all the ingredients for evolving into a vibrant urban village, with its established Main Street, access to the Bow River, Bowness Park and even its own trolley line, the precursor to the LRT, ” said Froese.

ADDITIONAL READ: Designing Calgary’s Historic Streetcar Map – Saadiq Mohiuddin

The decision to abandon Calgary’s extensive trolley system that traversed the entire city at the one time in 1950 was one of the mistakes several people identified.  One can only wonder how Bowness, Marda Loop and other inner-city neighbourhoods would have evolved differently in the latter half of the 20th Century if the street car system had been kept. 

Parker noted that today’s planners and politicians are surprised to learn how extensive Calgary’s street car system was for a city its size (in 1951, Calgary’s population was only 139,000). 

If we had of kept the system we could be the envy of North America today as the street cars are enjoying a revival as a catalyst for inner-city urban renewal.

  • Next week, Richard’s piece will look at the integration of the Foothills Medical Centre and the University of Calgary area