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Citizen coalition surveys candidates on Calgary development issues

Lisa Poole said the debate over Calgary’s Guide for Local Area Planning (aka Guidebook for Great Communities) was a sort of primer for the upcoming municipal election.

It brought together a lot of different development issues facing Calgary and it generated a lot of interest, she said.

“I think what it has helped people realize is that those issues do matter,” Poole told LiveWire Calgary.

The Guide debate lasted for weeks and resulted in changes to the original draft of the document. It was intended as a roadmap for the city’s local area planning process. Ultimately, it was scuppered as an official document and council received it as information.

Poole is a representative for a grassroots citizen group concerned about development in Calgary. Members of this group were a part of the opposition to the Guide, including the local newspaper advertising and the door hanger campaign.

They’ve put out a three-question survey to Calgary municipal candidates to get their thoughts on city development issues.

Poole said initially they’d thought about filing as a third-party advertiser under the Local Elections Authorities Act, but the group didn’t want to raise money and support candidates.

Instead, they wanted to raise awareness of candidates’ positions on neighbourhood development.

“A candidate’s position on those issues matter as well, because they can have such an impact on the city and people’s neighborhoods and on people’s homes,” Poole said.

They’ve received responses so far from 40 candidates. They sent it to as many candidates as they could find an email address.

The responses

Poole said she didn’t want to single any candidate out. The responses, however, show a clear divide in understanding of planning issues in Calgary.

“I think what I’m pleasantly surprised to see is how informed a lot of the candidates are,” Poole said.

“I mean, some of them aren’t. And not to point fingers at anybody, but that’s even helpful to sort of get a sense of who’s done their homework and who’s been following the issues.”

Gurbir Nijjar, who’s running in Ward 3, was one of the respondents to the survey. He said he responded to the questions with his current understanding of the issues and using his background in planning and development with Rocky View County.

He said development issues are important to Calgarians and he’s hearing that at the door.

“A lot of people have said to me throughout my door marketing that urban sprawl and controlling it, understanding the challenges that do come with sprawl,” Nijjar said.

There are pros and cons to development on the city’s fringe, but Nijjar said the city needs to move closer to its 50/50 target for urban/suburban development.

“If we sprawl out of control it’s going to be a challenge to deliver services to all the residents as Calgary continues to grow,” he said.

Candidates get a lot of surveys: Branagan

Ward 11 candidate Kourtney Branagan received the survey but didn’t respond. Branagan said she didn’t get the clarity she wanted on how the responses would be used.

She said candidates get numerous survey requests (Nijjar confirmed, too). Most are clear about where it will be collected and posted, along with the group’s mandate.

“The reason I didn’t respond is I don’t actually know where that information is going and where it’s going to land,” Branagan said.

Still, she recognizes the importance of development issues in Calgary. Branagan said the question hit on some of the hot buttons development issues around growth and change.

She wasn’t certain there was room for context in the questions.

“It was very much asking, in my opinion, for black and white answers to some of the bigger challenges that Calgary is facing,” she said.

“And I really felt like they were pigeonholing candidates into either being for or against.”

Branagan said she’s hearing development discussion at the doorsteps and in ward gatherings during the campaign.  She said the conversation is about neighbourhoods, but also about a citywide strategy.

‘Honest’ conversation is needed

Both candidates – and Poole – agreed that public engagement is critical as Calgary moves the development conversation forward.

Nijjar said he hears about the Harvest Hills golf course development regularly. He said he hears the public engagement wasn’t adequate.

“People felt that the city already knew what they wanted to do, and the ship had already sailed,” he said.

He said the city must meaningfully engage with citizens and take that feedback to heart.

“Whenever you’re going through a land use change, or building process, you need to have adequate public engagement with residents to gain that feedback and make that project successful,” he said.

Poole said a lot of people feel that decisions are made before the public can have input. Many think the engagement is an obligatory exercise.  The citizens she talks with want to see the input from the concept stage right through to complete.

“Like, genuine, authentic meaningful involvement, especially for decisions where people will be directly impacted,” she said.

Branagan said the public engagement aspect isn’t one she’s heard as much at the doors.

She said there’s an underlying sentiment that it’s part of the overall Calgary development conversation.

“I believe Calgarians are invested in a better outcome or a better strategy to service our city,” Branagan said.

“It’s not always outright said. But the implication is there that people want to participate.”

The responses will be posted and shared on social media and with community associations, Poole said. The group believes it’s important Calgarians know where candidates stand on development issues.

“It’s really just to generate a conversation and to try to highlight the importance of these development and planning issues,” Poole said.