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Calgary Downtown Association digging into data to find social disorder solutions

Enforcement is only part of the solution, CDA executive director Mark Garner said.

In Calgary Downtown Association (CDA) Executive Director Mark Garner’s Edison building office, there’s a map that’s been broken into a handful of downtown zones.

They’re sifting through several different datasets in these areas to compile zone-specific profiles. They’re looking at 311 state of repair calls, Calgary police call data, Plus-15 data, their foot traffic data and more.

They’re hoping to layer the data to get a clearer picture of where challenges exist in downtown Calgary and what resources might be needed to tackle them.

The map highlights buildings, parks, hotels – all areas where Calgarian may be inclined to visit or congregate. Breaking it down into zones allows them to gauge the fluctuations in social disorder and other “elevated behaviour” in very specific areas. They aren’t treating the downtown or Beltline as one homogenous locale.

“We take the data that would have been a dataset this big now it gets a little finer,” Garner said, outlining the  

“Then we’ll be able to put our resources into talking about the economic impacts based on geographic locations.”

Garner, who took on the executive director role last May, came into it understanding the challenges Calgary faced. Vacancy rates were at all-time highs, people were working from home leaving the downtown desolate – and with that dealing with a spike in social disorder.

Many officials have said the social disorder is driven by mental health, addictions and homelessness among vulnerable Calgarians.

Data takes the ideology out of the conversation   

Garner has experience dealing with social inequity issues from his eight years at the Downtown Yonge Business Improvement Area and the Toronto BIA.

He said cities across the country are all dealing with the same issues. The magnitude of the problem in some cities – like Toronto - is much greater, he said.

“Coming here and starting to have the same conversations around all these issues - like I guess I keep saying, ‘it's not as bad as y'all think,’” Garner said.

Still, many of the CDA’s member businesses are expressing concern. Garner said most business owners have concern for vulnerable Calgarians, hoping they can get support they need, but are also dealing with the social disorder.  

Where it’s having an impact is in traffic to businesses, Garner said. Access is a big issue.

Much of the social disorder downtown is on or near transit. Garner said there is open consumption of drugs; it breeds the perception of safety issues. If people aren’t comfortable taking transit, they aren’t going to make their way downtown, he said.

By collecting a variety of data, Garner said they can bring the economic impact into the discussion.

“We can understand the economics and where money is going, how it's being used, and making sure that we're getting the appropriate measured outcomes,” he said.

“Coming at this with data gets rid of the ideology, right, and just brings informed business decisions as to what we need to do. So, we're doing more of this localized data as part of this conversation.”

Public spaces that are safe for the public: Premier Danielle Smith

Premier Danielle Smith speaks to the Calgary Chamber of Commerce at the Westin Hotel on Friday, November 18, 2022. ARYN TOOMBS / FOR LIVEWIRE CALGARY

Last week, the province announced that it would deploy Alberta Sheriffs in a 15-week pilot project to shore up enforcement in Edmonton’s downtown.

It’s widely believed a similar announcement is set for Calgary.

On Thursday, Premier Danielle Smith said that we’ve clearly let the safety issues get out of hand in Alberta’s large and mid-sized cities.

“I think people are astonished at how dangerous it's become to drive the LRT, or how dangerous it's become to come out on the street at night after work,” she said.

“We have to have public spaces that are safe for the public.”

Though Smith wouldn’t confirm the sheriffs are coming to Calgary, she said police are often the first point of contact to convince someone to seek treatment.

Smith said their intention is to be a connection point to help overwhelmed police and transit.   

“We know… that residents know that we're serious, not only about addressing the public disorder, but about getting people off the streets and into care,” Premier Smith said.

Calgary Mayor Jyoti Gondek said they welcome the provincial government’s support, either in bodies or in funding. In a recent roundtable discussion with property owners, property managers, service providers and community groups, the mayor said overwhelmingly there was a desire for both long- and short-term solutions.

Long term, social supports are needed, the mayor said. In the short term, they have to focus on a group of repeat offenders.

“If it's a criminal intervention that's needed, provide that enforcement, let's deal with that group that's creating the greatest amount of disruption,” the mayor said.

“It is a finite number of people that are creating 90 per cent of the incident reports. That's what we heard. And that's the way that they would like to see us proceed. We can't do that without provincial support.”

Complex issue, mayor said

Mayor Gondek said that Calgary city council doesn’t believe that enforcement is the only way out. Housing, mental health, crisis and addiction support are needed to address the concerns long term.

“But there's absolutely a role for enforcement when things require intervention based on criminal activity,” she said.

Garner said enforcement is fine, but we’ve got to stop hoping for a panacea. The enforcement is only good if there are wraparound supports to help those involved. Otherwise, it’s just incarceration – essentially passing the buck to someone else.

“What's the point, because we will have clients that will go into the judicial system and the Crown is just going to release them back on bail,” Garner said.

“We've got to have the other wraparound solutions while we do enforcement.”

That’s the big driver behind the data collection effort, Garner said. They need to know where to focus their efforts and to engage partners that can provide the services.  It will help guide activations in certain areas, or interventions, if necessary.

Today’s Business Improvement Areas (BIAs) are now more than just a marketing and promotion arm for area entrepreneurs. That’s just an element, Garner said.  He used Maslow’s hierarchy as a way to describe the need to create a safe, inclusive and clean area before you can get to beautification, marketing, events and advocacy.

If people have a bad experience when they’re downtown, it may take years to get them back.

“We have to deal with this as a fundamental role of what the BIA will focus on. And it's not up to us to solve, it's not up to the city. It's a community issue,” he said.

“It's about community collaboration and partnership, and leveraging the data in a way that gets to more informed decisions with measured outcomes.”