News / Calgary

Calgary shaky along new metropolitan path, while Edmonton stays the course: report

As Alberta’s two largest cities breach the million-resident mark, Calgary is taking a tentative first step towards metropolises like Toronto and Vancouver while Edmonton’s approach to growth remains fundamentally unchanged since the 1950s, according to a new research paper.

The shift in Calgary’s approach mirrors changes that took place in Vancouver in the late 1960s and in Toronto in the 1980s, according to the report, titled “Alberta Cities at the Crossroads” and published Thursday by the University of Calgary’s School of Public Policy.

Author Zack Taylor describes Calgary’s new regime as one of “sustainability-oriented intensification” that puts an emphasis on infill development, mass transit, and higher-density housing.

That’s a departure from the “efficiency-oriented expansion regime” of decades past, in which the city annexed land, serviced it, and encouraged developers to build single-family homes in suburban communities.

“This has been an incredibly efficient way of accommodating population growth for decades,” Taylor said in an interview, adding that the approach begins to lose its effectiveness as cities grow past a certain size and start experiencing congestion problems and mounting infrastructure costs.

Calgary has only “very recently” moved in a new direction, Taylor writes, as “city council has embraced intensification … over the objections of developers and rural municipalities.”

But, he added, the status quo is “deeply entrenched,” as suburban developers remain resistant to changing their already profitable business models and surrounding municipalities see little incentive to cooperate with the city’s growth plans.

While Vancouver achieved inter-municipal cooperation through decades of negotiation and Toronto through the strong arm of the provincial government, Taylor said Calgary has relied largely on using its bulk ownership of water licences as a “bargaining chip” in dealing with its neighbours.

“Indeed, it appears Calgary’s control over water supply is the only glue holding the (Calgary Regional) Partnership together,” he writes.

A third factor, Taylor added, is “inconsistent political support” from city council, itself. Despite adopting intensification principles in its growth plan, he noted that council has repeatedly rejected high-density developments due to opposition from nearby residents and “consistently opposed” the broad legalization of secondary suites.

As such, Taylor writes, “it remains to be seen whether the attempt to establish a new policy regime will become entrenched or, due to resistance from influential actors, collapse.”

Edmonton, by contrast, remains the “outlier” of the four cities in the report.

“Edmonton has maintained a consistent urban development policy regime throughout the postwar period,” Taylor writes. “Growth is expected to occur primarily through fully serviced suburban expansion.”