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OPINION: Guidebook for Great Communities: Great for Who?

The City of Calgary has recently completed a new document titled The Guidebook for Great Communities, with the subtitle of “creating great communities for everyone.” 

The document is 131 pages. That’s hardly what I would call a guidebook.  When I think of a guidebook, I think of guidelines – something like the 10 commandments. Not a book. Perhaps more like a pamphlet. 

Turns out the Guidebook is not just guidelines for future development, but in fact will become yet another lengthy legal document guiding development in our city. 

The push is on to delay the approval of the Guidebook for Great Communities. Read more here.

The name is misleading for sure.  I’ve been aware of the document for a long time but always assumed it was a non-statutory (my bad), plain-English document meant to help community groups and the public-at-large better understand how Calgary communities will evolve in the future.

More bureaucracy?

The devil is in the details when it comes to city building. The more detailed the document, the more people will think it’s the devil’s work. Largely because everyone has a different idea of what makes a great community. 

Some will think it’s a walkable community with lots of amenities and a diversity of housing types. Others will think it an estate community with only large single-family homes where you drive to your everyday amenities.  Some will want to live in the City Centre, others at the edge of the city. 

There’s no one guidebook that will make everyone happy. The city already has the Municipal Development Plan (which was recently updated). It has all of the same content and is a statutory document. There are also local and area development plans.

I believe this handbook is just more red tape. More bureaucracy. 

I question why the City of Calgary would want to add another document to the planning process.  The average Calgarian isn’t going to read or understand the Guidebook, so what was the purpose? The NIMBYs will hate the document because it wants to add density to every Calgary neighbourhood and YIMBYs will love it because it promotes more density.  There is no planning document that will be embraced by everyone. It will always be too much for some and not enough for others. 

No matter how hard you try to create a document that will anticipate everyone’s wants, needs and concerns, a group of people are going to be unhappy and protest and appeal any new development they don’t like.

Let the protesting begin…

Given I have been a big supporter of adding more diversity and density to our neighbourhoods, I was surprised when I got an email from a Facebook Group called “Calgarians for Great Communities.”

They’re up in arms over the Guidebook’s purported promotion of more densification in every community. They asked me what I think of the document. After reviewing the comments on their site, their big concern is city planners and politicians are trying to eliminate single-detached homes in established neighbourhoods. This is where most of them live. 

FYI: I expect this is the same group who purchased the entire front page of Calgary Herald on Monday, March 15, to share their concerns – lack of meaningful consultation, zoning issues, community development plans and one-size-fit-all approach and councillors need to listen.

Single-family detached dwellings are allowed in all of the neighbourhood local intensity categories. SCREENSHOT/GUIDEBOOK

I don’t believe that’s true. The guidebook is about creating numerous different communities that will appeal to different people. Calgary is home to 200+ different communities today, each appealing to the needs and wants of different Calgarians.

The group also claims there was limited community engagement. In fact, the document has been in the public domain in various drafts for several years now. 

Peers Say…

I sent it to a couple of urban development colleagues in other cities to see what they thought.

After spending 20 minutes reviewing the document one said “someone has spent a lot of money to create another guidebook of general urban development common sense. It will not help some neighbour get past not wanting more density beside their home.” 

Another said, “it appears to be a rather daunting read, I wonder who will read and understand it, let alone buy into what the objectives are.” 

I loved the comment from one reviewer who said “the document reads like an elementary academic planning and urban design manual disconnected from Calgary’s landscape, its economy, its demographics and its values. As such it could be applicable to any city.” 

Druh Says…

I found Councillor Druh Farrell’s blog helpful. In it, she says “It is important to keep in mind that the Guidebook makes no changes to your community on its own. The Guidebook is designed to work in conjunction with a new Local Area Plan/Area Redevelopment Plan. The Guidebook sets the stage for what communities need to be complete, but it is the Local Area Plan that guides redevelopment in your community specifically.” 

So really nothing has changed?  Does this document then create more confusion and more bureaucracy?

But I’m still a bit confused as she also says, “This policy document will serve, exactly as the name says, as a guide to building great communities.”

When I read “guide” I think of something that is open-ended, non-binding, more of a suggestion something that is a policy or statutory in nature. 

Potential Guidelines

Personally, I think few guidelines might have been better than a guidebook.  Here are my four suggested guidelines:

  • Calgary will encourage the diversification of all Calgary’s neighbourhoods in a strategic manner that better utilizes existing infrastructure, amenities and services.
  • Diversification includes a variety of housing types and densities, a mix of residential, commercial and institutional uses, better public spaces and increased mobility options (walking, cycling, transit and roads).
  • The City will engage the community on major new developments (pick a dollar value, or total square feet of development), however the engagement period will be limited to six months.  And there will be no appeal process once a decision has been made.
  • The City will try to balance community needs with city-wide needs, but ultimately city-wide needs will trump those of the community.

In fact, on page 126 of the guidebook you can the eight goals for creating great communities. I’m thinking they could be the guidelines and scrap the book. 

Goals for Great Communities

  1. Promote housing options that are varied, inclusive and affordable.
  2. Provide opportunities to access goods, services and amenities close by.
  3. Offer opportunities to gather and participate in civic, arts, cultural and entertainment activities, in both public and private spaces.
  4. Provide varied and inclusive spaces and facilities for recreation, play and outdoor activities close by.
  5. Provide spaces that foster a sense of place and are designed for everyone.
  6. Ensure natural areas, biodiversity and ecological functions are protected, restored and enjoyed.
  7. Enable and support prosperity through diverse economic opportunities at a variety of scales.
  8. Support the use of existing streets, services and buildings to reduce the need for new infrastructure.

Last Word

The Guidebook for Great Communities tries too hard to be all things to all people. In the process, it doesn’t help anyone understand the City’s vision for creating a diversity of great communities to live, work and play.  Certainly not the average Calgarian.

I remember one of my university professors telling me “the challenge is to write about something complex, in a clear and concise manner.” 

When it comes to writing planning documents, less is more. Or, dare I say, the less dense the document, the better.

Full Disclosure: I have lived in an infill in West Hillhurst which has been one of the most active infill communities in the city for 25+ years. And one of the things I have observed is that the diversification and densification of a community happens over many decades, it is not something that happens overnight.  I have seen the benefits of the changes, new playgrounds, more families, schools that are full and more shops and services – sure there is more traffic and parking issues, but it really isn’t a big problem for me. 

  • White has been been a champion of Calgary communities for 30+ years. He has served on the City of Calgary’s Planning Commission, as well as numerous city boards and committees. He has written extensively on urban issues and design, as a columnist for CBC Calgary, Calgary Herald, Condo Living and Galleries West magazines, as well as LiveWire Calgary.