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Opinion: Calgary’s urban planning successes – Part 1

In 2019, I identified some of Calgary’s biggest urban planning mistakes and missed opportunities over the past 50 years.

To be fair, in 2020, I will highlight some of Calgary’s best urban planning decisions made in the last half of the 20th Century. And I’ll do this by profiling one success story each month.

It seems appropriate to start from the ground level of how we got to where we are today.

Uni-City Advantage

Back in 1954, Calgary and Edmonton City Councils were struggling with how best to manage their city’s future growth.  At the time, Calgary’s population was 170,000 and Bowness, Montgomery and Forest Lawn were all independent towns.

So, the Province initiated a Royal Commission led by George McNally, a retired Deputy Minister of Education with the goal being to determine the best governance model to manage the future growth of both cities.

After two years of research and consultation, McNally concluded: (a) It is unjust and inequitable that wide variations in the tax base should exist among the local governing bodies that comprise a metropolitan area where that area is, in fact, one economic and social unit; and (b) A metropolitan area which is, in fact, one economic and social unit can ordinarily be more efficiently and effectively governed by one central municipal authority than by a multiplicity of local governing bodies.

The McNally Report stated the best form of governance for Calgary would be achieved through one central municipal authority, with Bowness, Montgomery and Forest Lawn, as well as other surrounding lands, being annexed over a seven-year period.  

Mid-Century Annexation

Forest Lawn and Midnapore subsequently were annexed in 1961, Montgomery in 1963 and Bowness in 1964.  So, by 1964, Calgary’s population had grown to 280,000 and the city had grown from 130 square kilometers to 407 square kilometers.  FYI: Edmonton decided not to proceed with McNally’s recommended annexations.

Calgary continued to annex land at the city’s edge for the next 50 years, including the town of Beddington in 1975 and more recently, the town of Shepard in 2007.  As a result, Calgary grew to a whopping 825 square kilometers encompassing 200+ neighbourhoods.

While Bowness, Midnapore, Montgomery and Bowness were allowed to keep their name, they became part of what is today one of the largest uni-cities in North America governed by a single mayor and council. 

For the past 50+ years Calgary’s growth has been more or less continuous, from the city centre.  While a few edge towns and cities surround Calgary – Airdrie, Okotoks, Cochrane, Chestermere and Strathmore – Calgary’s growth has not been fragmented like most North American cities.  

Vancouver: 21 different municipalities

Take Metro Vancouver for example. It consists of 21 different municipalities, each with its own mayor, council and administration.  Each has its own planning, parks, recreation, social and emergency departments.  They all compete with each other for economic development and tourists.  The planning and management of regional roads, water, sewer and transit becomes much more difficult when you have to get several jurisdictions to work together. 

In contrast, Calgary’s uni-city planning model fostered the creation of a single attractive downtown that has been the city’s economic engine for the past 50 years.  It’s home to one of the top 10 largest concentrations of office towers in North America.

Today, Calgary’s downtown has more office space than Houston, Dallas or Denver as their downtown has to compete with edge cities for major corporate head offices.  FYI: Their downtown office vacancy rates are currently 27, 26 and 17 per cent, respectively (source: Cushman & Wakefield).

In the early 1950s, Edmonton, Ottawa, Winnipeg, London and Hamilton, all had populations larger than Calgary’s, with thriving downtowns.  Today, Calgary’s population has surpassed all of them. In spite of Calgary’s economic downturn, our downtown is thriving in comparison to these cities. 

The Last Word

Complain as we might, on a per capita basis, Calgarians enjoy some of the best parks, pathways, recreational, cultural and library facilities, road and LRT networks in North America. 

Calgarians also enjoy some of the shortest commute times in North America and recently was ranked the best city in the world to drive. Yes, I know that is hard to believe when you’re sitting in traffic on Deerfoot, Glenmore or Crowchild Trails.

Calgary is consistently ranked as one of the best places in the world to live.  It’s in part due to Calgary’s unicity model of governance that integrates the operations into one large city, rather than duplicating and fragmenting them across several cities, towns and villages. 

Yes, the unicity model has its disadvantages as it creates a political monopoly. But overall, it has served Calgary well over the past 50 years.