In the heart of the East Village in the iconic Simmons building, Calgary’s newly-hired urban planner, Rollin Stanley, recently evangelized against the evils of urban sprawl.
“Calgary needs to take what it’s built and super-size it,” Stanley told an audience of planners and business people on Oct. 10.
“We need to increase the densities in many of Calgary’s business and residential corridors in order to get people to redevelop the surrounding utilities and services and make land-usage more efficient.”
Stanley was enthusiastic about working with the University of Calgary and it’s four-dimensional (4D) computer modelling lab called ‘The Cave,’ a cube-shaped virtual reality space also known as the ‘research holodeck.’
Just like a hard-core player of the old-school computer game, Sim City, Stanley wants to create a virtual Calgary in that lab and re-organize how its land is being utilized.
“I’m working with the University of Calgary, and I want to model up all the nodes and corridors in Calgary in that lab and go in there with Calgary’s communities and say, ‘this is what we can create today.’”
Stanley referred to businesses and residential areas in Calgary as ‘boxes’ that may require some redevelopment, in order to make better use of the land.
“These are the boxes that we can create in this lab. Now let’s play with those boxes. But they’re not just boxes, it’s what’s in the box that counts,” he said.
Stanley’s justification for his love of densification stems from a chart he displayed, in which the assessed dollar-value per acre of land in the city is laid out.
Not surprisingly, the assessed value of downtown Calgary is more than $120 million per-acre, versus the $3 million per-acre valuation for single-family detached housing in the suburbs.
For Stanley, it’s all about the dollars and cents, and he wants to increase overall land valuation in Calgary, by building up, not farther out.
“When we start to think about how we use our land in terms of dollars and cents, it becomes important,” he said.
Not everyone is sold on this gospel, however.
Calgary Ward 10 Ald. Andre Chabot describes Stanley’s attitude as “over-zealous.”
“He has high hopes and some very clear objectives but I don’t think I necessarily support his enthusiasm for densification.”
Chabot said that urban sprawl is an issue with many other cities but not necessarily with Calgary, because of the desires and origins of the people who come to live here.
“The big, green, wide-open spaces that Calgary has are extremely sought after by the people who come to live here,” he said.
“Many of the people who come to live here, come from extremely dense areas like in Europe and Asia and they find a sense of comfort in Calgary because they don’t have the same limitations from a space perspective.”
Chabot said that these wide open spaces would most certainly interfere with Stanley’s urban planning initiatives but these spaces contribute to Calgary’s overall quality of life.
“We’ve got Fish Creek Park, Edworthy Park, Elliston Park, and almost every community has a park like. That space positively contributes to our quality of life,” says Chabot.
“You can’t have wide-open spaces like Calgary has and maintain a certain level of density.”
Chabot is more concerned with sustainable development, rather than urban sprawl, and he points to a newly minted concept, ‘rurban’ sprawl.
Rurban, as defined by the Financial Dictionary, and first coined by the French philosopher Henri Lefebvre in the 1970s, is described as a large area of land containing an estate-sized house which is located beyond the boundaries of the suburbs in any given city.
Chabot also explained that a housing development that allows for one or more acres of land so close to the city is a waste and needs to be curtailed.
“You wanna talk about unsustainable development? Then we’ll talk about these ‘rurban’ areas with one-acre and five-acre parcels and trying to sustain that,” said Chabot.
Calgary’s services such as fire, police and EMS require a certain population density in order to financially sustain those services for the entire city’s population.
And although Chabot disagrees that a certain amount of high-density, multi-family housing is needed, when that population density gets too low, then the land usage needs to re-assessed.
“If that type of land is developed at an extremely low population density, then the city of Calgary needs to be compensated somehow to accommodate that low of a density,” he said.
“If we look at what Rollin wants – more density, more multi-family housing – not everyone wants that and we don’t want to saturate the market. We need to have a mix of everything in order to accommodate the greatest number of people here.”