More than 2,000 Calgary-area organizations and businesses were recently mapped out in a grassroots effort to begin understanding the impact of the region’s active economy.
It’s a part of a new movement by a community group called The ActiveCITY Collective to explore how physical activity drives economic and social benefit across Calgary – and in other cities around the world.
They’re hoping their initial volley – a white paper published earlier this week – kickstarts a broader conversation on how cities and regions could coalesce around the idea of an active economy.
The group is hosting a nearly sold-out ActiveCITY Summit Sept. 18 with more than 20 speakers, panelists and moderators from a wide range of areas connected to both sport and community activity.
ActiveCITY seeds planted during Calgary Olympic debate
Opposing sides jockeyed for turf in Calgary’s often-heated 2019 Olympics conversation, with each sides’ arguments grounded in economics, fiscal responsibility and civic pride.
From those “fragmentation issues” sprouted an examination of that process and some of its flaws.
“And what we saw happening with 2026 was this traditional, historical, top-down hierarchical model that you that you’ve seen for decades,” said Dr. David Finch, professor at Mount Royal University (MRU), director of the Institute for Innovation and Entrepreneurship and one of the lead researchers on the project.
“Instead of an organic, grassroots engagement that, in fact, turned it as a proposal for the city as opposed to a proposal perceived from a relatively small percentage of interested parties.”
Finch said he and fellow MRU professor Dr. David Legg from the Department of Health and Physical Education, Jason Ribeiro, director of strategy with Calgary Economic Development and chair of ActiveCITY’s public engagement and University of Calgary economist Trevor Tombe chipped away at this for some time before realizing that the system was broken.
What they noticed, not just with the Olympic bid, or fieldhouse conversation or the cycle track is that discussion was fragmented. Then there was a post-Olympic op-ed piece co-penned with Tombe.
“And that led to a bigger question around all the stakeholders involved in in the active economy,” said Finch.
“Is there an opportunity for collaboration? Because right now, as even a small single group, we are fragmented all over the place.”
‘They just yearned for that opportunity to interact, to converse.’
Legg recalled an event he and Finch hosted that brought together a wide cast of members from the active economy. They were from every corner: The skateboarding community, the e-sports community, the high-performance sport community and more.
He said they received an overwhelming response to the discussion. What struck him was that they assumed many of the players in the room knew each other, even just each others’ names. But they didn’t.
“They were so excited and happy to connect, and to talk about economies of scale and opportunities for connecting. That, I think, that was the spark for me anyways. That really said, ‘we’re onto something here.’” Legg recalled.
“There’s an opportunity here for us, as non-partisan people to just bring interested individuals together to see what we can see what we can accomplish and what we can do to do as a group.”
Part of that conversation revolves around Calgary’s identity, said Ribeiro.
“What’s unique to me about Calgary is not just this period of transition, but this fight for identity,” said Ribeiro.
“This, you know, tension between trying to go back to what we were, what we thought we were, to potentially making inroads into what we could be or can be.”
The opportunity to examine it from an academic lens really appealed to Ribeiro, and then be able to present the information to Calgarians in a meaningful way.
The initial active economy research
It started with a question: Where’s Calgary globally, and relatively, to other major urban centres when it comes to this concept of an active city.
Finch said they’ve spent time “unpacking it and connecting it,” but he said there’s little context around it.
One of the projects done by Legg and his students was to create a model scorecard for an active city. It was meant to use real data to rank cities.
“It was all over the map,” Finch said.
You’re measuring everything from professional sports to regional pathway infrastructure to field accessibility.
That’s what attracted Tombe to the project. He said beyond sport, he was interested in the broader impact of an active city and how it could affect city decision making.
“I think it’s really something that might help guide a better process for making what are sometimes difficult but important, valuable decisions,” he said.
Tombe said pure dollars and cents are only one lens to judge a project on. He said the intangible, non-economic benefits are difficult to not only determine, but then get a value buy-in from citizens.
“And that was part of where I think the Olympic debate went wrong. It was viewed for many narrowly as a business decision. Will we make a profit?” Tombe said.
“But that’s such a narrow way to look at the question. So, the real value of the ActiveCITY project, I think, will add is to take a holistic approach to this question and to highlight many benefits. And of course, like any decision there are many trade offs. Some of those benefits will be quantifiable, some will not be.
“But that doesn’t make them any less valuable.”
Creative economy parallels – and the local expertise
The ActiveCITY group took the basic framework for their initial research from the creative economy, which emerged back in 2001.
In 2014, Calgary Arts Development (CAD) undertook a similar examination of Calgary’s creative economy and how far it reached.
Patti Pon, President and CEO of CAD, said it was a lengthy process that yielded a real understanding of how Calgarians viewed the creative economy. And how they understood it.
Pon sees parallels in ActiveCITY and their work on the active economy.
“That fragmentation piece, I think is a is a real challenge for us in the creative economy. And it will be for the active economy,” Pon said.
“When you look at that (ActiveCITY) systems map, you can see how far reaching it is. That being said, I think, the fact that we could invite all of these fragmented communities or disciplines or however you want to define it, under a tent of living a creative life was huge.”
Earlier this summer, CAD released a report done for them by the Conference Board of Canada showing their contributions to Calgary’s economy.
Roughly 24,000 people work in creative industries in Calgary, earning $1.6 billion and contributing $2.1 billion to the city’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP).
While Calgary does well, they still lag behind Montreal, Vancouver and Toronto when benchmarked against 11 other Canadian cities. Pon said a unified strategy their working on with all their stake holders is going to help the industry reach its potential.
The advice she has for the ActiveCITY group though, is to make sure it’s community driven. Pon said there needs to be a humility entering this conversation.
“I really believe community consultation is important. You should only talk about things that actually matter to Calgarians. So, just because you think it’s really important, doesn’t mean everybody else does. And that’s a hard pill to swallow sometimes,” Pon said.
Measuring well being in the active economy
Most economic value is measured in dollars and cents, rarely in quality of life. But Ribeiro said measures of GDP and the like are becoming a little archaic and that trend of using them appears to be reversing.
He pointed to New Zealand’s recent budget, he called the wellness budget, that recognized not only traditional economic values, but quality of life.
“If you if you haven’t found the policies or the frameworks that allow you to do both, you’re missing a whole chunk of the conversation,” he said.
“And actually, the policies that you implement, won’t actually be as effective. Because if it’s helping my bottom line over here, but taking away from my quality of life over here, well, you’re not that much better off anyways.”
Tombe said there’s a mounting body of research showing a link between activity and positive economic outcomes.
“Highlighting what those dimensions are will improve even how we think about the economic impacts of sport,” he said, noting that current economic impact studies don’t measure the positive benefit of these things.
“They just add up all the spending, basically times it by two and call it a day. That’s not the right way to think about these things.”
Legg said it comes down to political expediency, politicians – and their followers – need to see action today and don’t want to play the long game. They can’t take credit for a positive outcome.
“And so the drivers from the political perspective, perhaps don’t buy into it, because it doesn’t allow them to see the returns as quickly as they would like,” he said.
Horizontal versus vertical economy
The economic value can’t just be measured in a silo either – Finch called that the vertical economy. What they recognized from both the creative economy framework and their mapping of the active economy is that this stretches across all industries – not just those specific to sport. It’s a horizontal economy. That added layers of complexity to their examination because they needed to see how activity impacted all industries.
Pon ran into the same challenge in their conversation about the creative economy. She said she was often told by people, “Oh, I’m not even the slightest bit creative.”
“And then I discover that you are an engineer, who plays in a band, who works with some amazing technology trying to innovate energy alternatives, or you’re a book club lover, and you go and book club, or you create your own song list on Spotify constantly, or your kids take music. And it’s like, well, you know, you live a pretty creative life,” Pon said.
Legg said that’s what they’ve found as well. Whether it’s professional sports teams or the local horseshoe club, the cycle track or the evening jog on the pathway – there’s an impact. Extended beyond that are groups involved in
“Where there’s a challenge is making sure that it’s not just the people that are already in the know, that it’s not the regular suspects, the usual suspects,” said Legg.
“So that has been tricky and trying to reach out to communities that perhaps we don’t, quote, unquote, normally interact with.”
White paper and next steps
The group, along with fellow researcher Norm O’Reilly from the University of Guelph, released a white paper outlining their initial findings.
Legg said it’s just the beginning of a long, evolving conversation. They still want to identify a benchmark – or get closer to one – so conversations in this area can be driven by data – not opinion.
They have the 565 target, which is to reach five per cent of Calgarians or roughly 65,000 people, in their community engagement, Legg said.
“That makes it four times larger than the largest public engagement in the city’s history. And we’ve stratified every aspect of the city so it has to be representative,” he said.
From there, they’ll take the data to begin formulating their ‘scorecard’ for measuring active cities and then look at the dollars and cents.
“There’s no current measurement model that says this scores 98, and that scores of 62. Lack of that, you just fall back on opinions, and opinions are a terrible way to make a decision. Or sound bites, which is even worse,” Finch said.
“And so, what we want to do is create a framework that allows us to have a more sophisticated conversation as a community.”