City-building is never easy, and Albertaâ€™s largest urban centre is a good example why. Despite the efforts of a growing number of people, sprawl in Calgary ranks amongst the worst in Canada.
According to some, fully 95 percent of population growth in this city of 1.2 million happens in the â€™burbs, which already occupy vast swaths of land surrounding the downtown core. Calgary is one of those nose-to-the-grindstone cities that empty out at night after workers return home to the hinterland.
On the other hand, this is also the municipality that elected Naheed Nenshi its mayor, a politician as dedicated as any in Canada to urbanism. It is also the city that commissioned Spanish architect/engineer Santiago Calatrava to design a footbridge across the Bow River. The Peace Bridge caused outrage when it was announced; most critics were unable to get beyond the $25-million pricetag.
But Calatrava, whose Toronto work includes the Galleria at Brookfield Place and the Mimico Creek Bridge, is arguably the best bridge designer in the world. His projects garner an international audience regardless of where theyâ€™re located. Local anger notwithstanding, Calatravaâ€™s beautiful bridge brought Calgary to the attention of many whoâ€™d never heard of it, let alone visited.
Today, of course, the colourful structure is one of the most popular in town. Calgarians cross it in droves; they stare, smile and take endless pictures. Wedding parties show up to have photographs taken. A year after it opened, it has become a hugely popular destination.
But as its champion, Calgary Councillor Druh Farrell, likes to say, the scars inflicted during the planning and construction of the project match the cross-bracing of the bridge.
â€œIt was hell,â€ Farrell recalls. â€œIâ€™d never want to go through that again.â€
She was accompanied to the opening a year ago by four burly men, just in case. As Nenshi asked a plannersâ€™ conference this week, â€œWhy do we make it so hard to do good stuff?â€
He wasnâ€™t talking about the bridge, but Garrison Woods, a neighbourhood built in recent years on a former military base in Calgaryâ€™s east end. With narrow streets, street-level shopping and apartments above, this looks â€” and functions â€” like an older part of town. It has a 19th-century scale and sense of connection.
A proud City of Calgary featured Garrison Woods on the cover of a recent planning document. The irony, Nenshi pointed out, is that the neighbourhood everyone loves broke â€œevery single ruleâ€ in the planning book. Getting it done took more than a decade as the city fought its own requirements every step of the way.
At the same time, developers continue the discredited and ruinous â€œmultiplication by subdivisionâ€ approach that has turned the outer reaches of Calgary into endless tracts of cookie-cutter housing.
It was no surprise, then, that Nenshi and Calgaryâ€™s biggest homebuilders group have just ended a nasty spat during which the mayor kicked the association off all city hall advisory committees and demanded an apology. Developers had accused Nenshi of imposing a suburban building freeze; something he, sadly, denied.
â€œWhy do we persist in building stuff people donâ€™t want and that doesnâ€™t work?â€ Nenshi asked planners.
Saskatoon needs to answer that question as well.