'You have no choice. Not with me.' - Densification Series Part 1

Imagine waking up one morning.  You look out the window and all you see is a shipping container masquerading as an infill that has popped up next door to you!  You walk into your backyard and are greeted with a corrugated metal wall that towers 30 feet over you.  Your sunlight is gone, if there was any view that is now a memory and your neighbours peer down on you from their lofty McMansion.   Is it any wonder why residents would be upset when a house like this goes up next door? 

This is all because your Councillors and Mayor at Calgary City Hall are on a Densification crusade.  And they’ve been crusading since 2009, when the City of Calgary rolled out its 60-year comprehensive plan for development.

Densification strategy in Calgary is strictly ideologically driven, and at its core is an urban planning and transportation theory called “Smart Growth”, which wrongly gained popularity among planners and academics in the 1970s.

“Smart Growth” aims to curtail sprawl and automobile use by placing significant restrictions on land use beyond the “urban fringe” by building denser and more walkable communities along transit routes, with a theoretical and ideological mix of housing, businesses, schools and other institutions.

Unfortunately, Calgary doesn’t have an explicit “urban fringe” growth boundary (or greenbelt) and, as a result, this has resulted in a significant number of top-down controls that penalize mature communities.  Calgary’s 60-year comprehensive plan for development seeks to foster “a more compact, efficient use of land,” boost transit ridership and preserve the environment. It includes very detailed guidelines for areas zoned as industrial, established residential, new (higher-density) inner-city residential, public open spaces and so on. There is also an elaborate capital-budgeting process that schedules when neighbourhoods will be developed or redeveloped.  This has been made available to the public and the City of Calgary deems this sufficient notice of their “Smart Growth” densification intentions.

The densification crusade is the Plan’s cornerstone; requiring much more “compact” development in both developing and mature suburbs, with a special focus on cramming people into cheek-by-jowl in “stack and pack” high-rises around train stations in the urban core and first-ring suburbs.  The plan will pour huge sums into light rail, increase congestion, and limit parking to push us to give up our cars and take public transit, walk or bike to work and to any leisure activities. 

While all of this “sounds” good, the unfortunate and damning consequence of “Smart Growth” planning is the removal of individual choice for your housing needs and desires.  With “Smart Growth” there is no choice in what type of house or residence a home buyer may need or desire and there is no choice for residents in established communities being subjected to “Smart Growth” other than to swallow the high-density buildings being shoved down their throats.

This “Smart Growth” scheme will turn Calgary’s existing neighborhoods (many now dotted with historic and quaint post-war single-family homes) into mini-East Villages jammed with high-rises that have a singular tendency of only catering to tiny apartments.

“Smart Growth” has the very real potential and danger of Communities losing their identities as a great place to live.

“Smart Growth” has builders crippled because municipal growth boundaries, density requirements and vast amounts of red tape are frustrating their efforts to erect the very houses with yards that families so desperately want.  Single-family homes continue to remain the highest demanded residences that families and individuals want to buy.   

The mandate of City Council and City planner’s is not to dictate where and in what housing configuration Calgarians are required to live in.  Yet City Council “Smart Growth” mandated density requirements are forcing developers to put up houses on narrower and narrower lots or mix detached single-family houses with townhouses, even in far-flung suburbs.  The bottom line is that the majority of Calgarian home buyers don’t want this.

I have spoken with many residents concerned with the “Smart Growth” changing nature of their community that is being forced upon them.  And all of them have a similar message.  Densification needs to be done thoughtfully and collaboratively with the communities. And, in the end, any densification must be for the betterment of the community.  

It’s time to look after the needs of those already here, in established neighbourhoods, before thinking about implementing a City-driven “Smart Growth” strategy that only aims to grab the increased tax revenue generated by those moving into these new ill-conceived high-density monstrosities.  And even more important - stop calling the community residents NIMBY’ers.  Their concerns are rightfully justified.