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Calgary planning: Mistakes and missed opportunities – Final Edition

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There are some mistakes made in every city in North America that came of age in the middle of the 20th century. Things like segregated land-use and zoning, the design of suburban communities and abandoning transit in favour of auto-oriented development.

Over the past several months I have had conversations with Art Froese (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.

Missed opportunity with 1995’s Go Plan

Mini downtowns (mix of residential, retail, restaurants, entertainment, recreation, small office) were proposed in the mid-90s for land next to new LRT stations. This is where several new big box retail centers exist today. 

Think of how our suburbs would look today if Crowfoot, Shawnessy and Signal Hill/West Hills (no LRT, but identified as a mini downtown site in Go Plan, Calgary’s 1995 Transportation Plan) had been developed as mixed-use, mid-rise town centers like what’s being developed today at University District, West District and Currie. 

Imagine shops and cinemas with residential above. Streets with small office buildings and hotels.  A main street with patios instead of a mind-numbing maze of twists and turns and a sea of parking.  Imagine the views of the mountains from your 10th floor balcony or roof-top patio.  What if LRT came right through your urban village, just like Kensington.  

RELATED: MMI-Part 5 – Social housing concentration

MMI-Part 4 – Roads and LRT network

This could have happened; instead we got the big box blahs!  Why? How did this happen?  Why did the Go Plan become No Plan?

Calgary planning – Last Words

“If we have made any one overriding mistake in North America, it is that we have too many rules, in everything from planning to traffic, parking to building design. We have a quagmire of rules,” says Barry Lester.

“Perhaps Calgary’s biggest mistake was letting urban planners and the professional design community take over our lives. European cities were built before any of these professions really existed and the lack of them didn’t hurt Europe a bit.”

(FYI: Lester wrote these comments as he was enjoying a vacation in Italy.)

Richard Parker is the longest standing planner in the city’s history. He started with the city in 1974 and since his retirement in 2003 he has continued to consult and teach. In 2017, he established the Richard Parker Professorship in Growth Management and Change at the University of Calgary. 

Even he wonders sometimes “if long range planning is a waste of time,” but then he points out everybody learns from their mistakes. 

“We are now building suburbs at a much higher density, with a mix of housing types from singles, to row housing to low and mid-rise multifamily.  New communities like Seton and Livingston have main streets and a mix of residential, retail, restaurants and recreational facilities. They also have employment centres that allow people to live and work nearby. They are more walkable and transit oriented.”  

He looks at how the Green Line is being routed so it will better connect with the communities it serves and not be in the middle of a major highway.