Sprawlcast: Plan It Calgary, 10 years later
We’re behind on key targets — including transit.
Sprawlcast is a collaboration between CJSW 90.9 FM and The Sprawl. It's a show for curious Calgarians who want more than the daily news grind. A full transcript of the episode is below. This Sprawlcast concludes S11: The Sprawl on Sprawl Edition.
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The short version
- City admin doesn't expect to meet its target of shifting 33% of population growth into established communities by 2039, and wants to revisit how this target is measured.
- City hall expects a new round of applications for suburban communities in 2020, and is looking at phasing out something called the Growth Management Overlay—a check on the infrastructure costs of suburban sprawl.
- City admin wants developers to start covering some of the operating costs in new neighbourhoods so Calgarians don't see these costs on their property tax bills.
- Over the last decade, the city built 6.5 km of cycle tracks downtown—but has added more than 400 km of roads.
- Walking and cycling increased from 14% of citywide mode share in 2012 to 18% in 2017.
- Transit service has stagnated and even gone backwards. Between 2012 and 2017, transit hours per capita declined. In 2018, Calgary had the same service hours per capita (2.2) as it did in 2005. The 60-year goal is 3.7.
- City hall is still building for a car-centric future—but relying on electric vehicles to meet climate targets.
The long version
JEREMY KLASZUS (HOST): We're going to begin at city hall, but we're going back in time—to 2009.
MAYOR NAHEED NENSHI: It's no joke to say this is the most important decision that city council has made in my time watching city council.
MARY AXWORTHY (CITY OF CALGARY): It's not just about density and how many units to the acre—it's about the kind of place that you're building.
RICK DONKERS (CALGARY HERALD): The controversial plan would see a denser and more pedestrian-friendly city over the next 60 years.
COUNCILLOR DRUH FARRELL: We've been squandering land as a city. That can't continue. We've identified that that's far too expensive.
RICK DONKERS: Plan It pits the development industry against sustainability advocates, but in the end, it's just a plan. How it is implemented will be decided by city councils, developers, and consumers over the next 60 years.
JEREMY: You just heard Rick Donkers' reporting for the Calgary Herald in 2009, talking about Plan It Calgary, the city's long-range growth blueprint. The plan looked at different possibilities for the city's future.
This is Mary Axworthy, who was the city's director of land use planning and policy at the time.
AXWORTHY: Our population is currently a million, and the projections that we had indicated that in 60 to 70 years, we'd double in size, to over two million people.
JEREMY: Up until that time, Calgary had mostly grown by spilling outward onto the prairie, where it's easy to grow.
But Plan It would change that.
AXWORTHY: We're endeavouring to accommodate 50 per cent of our future population growth in the developed parts of the city, as opposed to greenfield expansion.
JEREMY: The development industry was not overly happy with this plan. They argued that what Calgarians wanted was a single-family home and a big yard. Basically they were saying: Let's keep doing what we're doing. People like it; it's what people want; why would you mess with it? And they accused city hall of social engineering. The single-family home and the commute from the suburbs in your SUV—that's just normal. That's just what God intended.
But advocates of Plan It said, no, there's another way here. Here's how Nenshi put it, talking to the Calgary Herald:
MAYOR NENSHI (2009): The kind of system we're building now tilts the playing field towards the front-garage, single-family home, and there's nothing wrong with those houses. I live in one of those houses. But we make it much, much easier to build those at the expense of everything else. So, in fact, by allowing more choice within a broader framework, we're actually doing much less social engineering than we are today.
I don’t know of any plan that builds a six-lane freeway ringing around the city that is somehow anti-car.
JEREMY: In 2009 city council approved Plan It Calgary, and this created two separate plans: the Municipal Development Plan and the Calgary Transportation Plan, also known as the MDP and CTP.
In order to get this passed, city hall made some concessions to the development industry. They softened some of their density targets, for example.
In some ways, it was a bold plan: It did put restrictions on sprawl—at least on paper. Mayor Dave Bronconnier acknowledged that we can't keep sprawling the way we have been.
But in other ways, the plan was actually kind of tame. It envisioned a city where most people still drove; there would just be other choices in the mix—more walking, cycling, transit. And similarly, on housing, the single-family home would still be the most common form of housing, but there would be other options.
Mayor Dave Bronconnier called it more of an "evolution" than a "revolution." People were saying, it's anti-car, and Bronconnier countered that, hey, we're building a six-lane ring road around the city—you call that anti-car?
'We're never actually going to get there'
JEREMY: Okay, fast forward nine years to the summer of 2018. This was the summer when council approved 14 new communities. But a month before that, they got an update on how the Municipal Development Plan and the Calgary Transportation Plan were going. And while council was hitting some of its targets, it was falling short on some of the major ones.
Let's listen in now to some of council's discussion from June 2018. We'll hear Councillor Druh Farrell, followed by Councillor Jyoti Gondek, and then Mayor Nenshi.
COUNCILLOR DRUH FARRELL: Some of them we're actually improving—maybe slower than we had identified or wanted, but some, we are truly going in the wrong direction. Climate change and our greenhouse gas emissions are going in the wrong direction. We will never meet our targets.
COUNCILLOR JYOTI GONDEK: The fact that our whole economic reality changed in the midst of this plan means we need to revisit it. I don't think some of the targets will be met, simply because everything is different than we thought it would be.
I also think this council had some learnings—for lack of a better word—about settlement patterns of people. So if the majority of people that were coming into Calgary in specific years was from immigration, their settlement pattern is dramatically different than what the MDP contemplated, of being growth in the core. And that's not right or wrong; it just is.
MAYOR NENSHI: For many years, many of us, including me, have been talking about what I call the say-do gap: that we're very good at saying the right things in terms of what we're aiming towards, and we're not always good at making the daily decisions that actually get us there.
And if you read this report, well, you'll notice that there's a couple of very key areas where we're never going to get there on the current path. So we've set a goal, but we're never actually going to get there. That includes the 50-50 population split between developed and developing areas.
But for me, the most important one that I noticed is the transit goals. On the number of service hours per capita, we've actually been going down, and even though we are investing very significant amounts in transit, it's not going to get us to where we need to go.
Tweaking the plan in 2020
JEREMY: That brings us to today. In February, city admin put out an update on the MDP and CTP. They're proposing a series of tweaks to the plans to bring them into alignment with other city policies. Now this was originally supposed to be a big revisiting of these plans, complete with some new targets and policy.
But when city council made $60 million in cuts last summer (right before approving the arena deal), they cut this work back significantly, so the update is significantly less substantial than it was supposed to be. It's really more of a housekeeping job than anything.
But the update does lay out the cost of not meeting the MDP and CDP targets: $16.8 billion in capital costs over the next 60 years. If we can hit the targets, that's money that can be saved and invested elsewhere.
And so how are we doing versus the plan? Well, as you heard in that discussion from 2018, there is some good news, and also some not-so-good news. On the plus side, the city is already nearly meeting its density targets. The 60-year goal is 27 people per hectare, and we're already at 25 people per hectare.
But on the transportation front, things are not so rosy.
The targets may not be all that ambitious—most people will still drive everywhere, even in the best-case scenario—but they're still harder to hit. On the plus side, the mode share of walking and cycling trips has gone up, from 14 per cent to 18 per cent. But as you heard Nenshi reference, we've actually gone backwards on transit. The transit mode share has gone down—from 9 per cent to 8 per cent.
The city says that this is likely due to the recession and fewer people going into downtown. But the bottom line is that transit ridership has decreased, per-capita hours have gone down, funding has been cut, and it's all kind of coalesced into us moving backwards on transit.
In this update, there's an emphasis on technology and personal vehicles—specifically electric cars. Transit is almost kind of downplayed in here, and the car is dominant.
Revisiting the 50/50 growth split
I spoke with the City of Calgary's Chris Blaschuk about the plan update—he's overseeing this project, which they're calling Next 20—and I began by asking him about the 50-50 growth split between new and established neighbourhoods. If the current trends hold, the city won't hit its targets.
The plan aimed for 33 per cent of new population growth in established neighbourhoods by 2039. Right now that number is at 10 per cent, and the city's forecasts put it at 18 per cent for 2039.
Now city admin is recommending revisiting how that 50-50 split is measured.
CHRIS BLASCHUK: We're recommending revisiting it for a couple reasons. One challenge we've found is it's not capturing where we are having success very well, so, for instance, communities like the Beltline have increased in population 40 per cent since 2009. We are definitely seeing population increases in many parts of the inner city, the activity centres.
But the indicator is really just that overall spread, all the numbers, and see what happens. We're getting losses in population in areas that are just existing suburbs, where populations naturally decline after the community is building out—so that's taking away from some of the progress that's actually occurring.
Another challenge is just that it's always referring back to 2006 and measuring that start point. A lot of people misunderstand the indicator thing, because 50-50—at this point in time, how many people are moving in this particular year? It's definitely an up-and-down with the economic cycle and other factors in terms of where we're at at a given year. So what we think would be beneficial is maybe having a richer set of indicators, or an indicator with some targets for different areas, to really better flesh out where the progress is being made, or maybe perhaps not.
We’re getting losses in population in areas that are just existing suburbs, where populations naturally decline after the community is building out.
JEREMY: And looking at this—my impression reading through the document was that, oh, they're moving the goal posts because we're not going to hit the targets. Is that what this is—moving the goal posts so that it is more achievable?
BLASCHUK: We're not moving the goal posts yet. But one thing that we'll have to consider in terms of our goal posts and our core indicators in the plan is the Regional Growth Plan that's being worked on currently. So the Regional Growth Board was established in 2018, and one of their tasks was produce the Regional Growth Plan for Calgary—the entire region.
So what we don't know at this point but are, well, are hoping, will be one of the outcomes of the work is really establishing those regional growth targets, and what does Calgary's role in that region look like. We'll use that, and we're going to recommend as part of our findings when we take this to council committee in June. We need to take that information in and then really look at our targets and say, are we still on track to achieve that 50-50 intensification? Or, has something changed that we need to have a different target, whether it's more intensity or less?
JEREMY: And just to be clear, when you talk about regional, we're talking about Okotoks, Airdrie—all our neighbouring municipalities, is that right?
BLASCHUK: That's correct. So the Regional Board has several members. So, cities like Airdrie, Chestermere, Okotoks, Cochrane are members; the counties of Rocky View, Foothills, and Wheatland as well. And obviously places like the Tsuut'ina Nation, with their development potential, that all has to be taken into consideration. And so that plan is aiming to do that and provide that perspective for the region by the end of the year.
Still building a city for cars—but electric ones
JEREMY: Switching over to the transit side of this, one thing I noticed, it seems like there's a real emphasis on technology—changing technology, changing vehicles, electric vehicles, all that sort of stuff. And it seems there's more of an emphasis on that than transit. And why would you say that is? Number one, would you say that's a fair characterization, and if so, why that shift?
BLASCHUK: Yeah, I wouldn't say it's quite accurate. Transit continues to be highly emphasized in the plan, and we definitely want to get to a city that's more transit friendly, more walkable, easier to cycle around, and a lot of that occurs from achieving the intensities in the plan. So if you have lots of stores and shops and opportunities near you that are in walking distance, you'll just walk. Like, that's where a lot of the travel change occurs.
Where there—we do have some emphasis that's new that we're proposing is really on the climate aspect and focusing on a shift to... everybody essentially needs to have a zero-emission vehicle by 2050 if we really are to achieve the climate goals that the city's agreed to through the Climate Resilience Strategy, so that's 80 per cent of our 2005 emission levels by 2050.
The climate modelling work found that walk, cycle, transit city that we're trying to build through the Calgary Transportation Plan, and the MDP as well, gets about 15 megatons of emissions savings, cumulative, to 2050, where if we had everybody in an electric vehicle—or a zero-emission vehicle—by 2050, that's 60 megatons, so four times the impact. And we know through some of the core indicator monitoring, we're having challenges on funding the transit to a sufficient-enough level.
So really just due to the urgency on the climate change aspect and just the fact that vehicle fleets turn over—average vehicle is about 10 years old—to really make a dent and have meaningful impact on emissions, we needed to really emphasize that vehicle transition, but it certainly doesn't mean that we want less of a walkable, transit friendly city.
It's just building that city is a longer-term game, and we'll continue on that path while this transition occurs with vehicle fuel.
Certainty continues to be important to the development industry and in attracting capital investment to Calgary.
City revisiting cost sharing with developers
JEREMY: Right now, there are a lot of overlapping pieces of work happening at city hall when it comes to city growth. Maybe you've heard of the Guidebook for Great Communities. That's supposed to guide inner-city development, and that's slated to go to council in April for a public hearing. And actually, I should do a Sprawlcast just on that, and I hope to.
But the city is also working on a growth strategy for new communities, looking at who pays for what when it comes to these new suburban neighborhoods.
Here's Kathy Davies Murphy, the city's manager of growth, speaking at a November committee meeting.
KATHY DAVIES MURPHY: We've spent a lot of time working with stakeholders to listen and understand the development industry's concerns. Certainty continues to be important to the development industry and in attracting capital investment to Calgary. It is also important that the city be able to live within its means and remain respectful of taxpayer dollars, as growth-related investment decisions use property taxes and utility rates to fund a portion of the growth costs.
JEREMY: As well, the Off-site Levy Bylaw is up for review in 2021. This is supposed to cover infrastructure costs for connecting new communities to the rest of the city, but as I reported in the last episode, it's not working out that way. The city is bracing for a $57 million shortfall—and counting—thanks to developer levies not keeping up with infrastructure costs. And you'll feel that on your utility bill.
I recently spoke with former city councillor, Brian Pincott, and here he explains what the Off-site Levy Bylaw is intended to do.
BRIAN PINCOTT: It pays for the roads. It pays for the police station and the fire hall. But it doesn't pay for plowing the road, and it doesn't pay for the police officers within the police station, and it doesn't pay for the transit drivers. Those are paid for out of property taxes, not levies, so the sprawl subsidy is now an operating sprawl subsidy and where everybody is paying for the operating of that community until it is completely built out.
JEREMY: When we talk about operating costs, the two biggest drivers are transit and fire.
Here's Matthew Sheldrake, the city's growth strategy coordinator, speaking at city council's Priorities and Finance Committee Meeting on November 5, 2019.
MATTHEW SHELDRAKE: In terms of risks, lower dispersed growth carry investment risks for the city. This is especially true if off-site levy payments do not materialize as fast as expected and if certain city services, such as transit, struggle to operate efficiently in a low-growth environment.
Businesses need to be able to rely on consistency, predictability and transparency from those who regulate them.
JEREMY: But now the city is looking at having developers pay for some of the operating costs, too—not just the capital costs for roads and pipes and whatnot inside communities.
SHELDRAKE: Criterion B is the treatment of operating costs. Hereto, in order to keep rates as low as possible, administration recommends that only business cases that do not trigger a tax increase in this budget cycle and the next budget cycle be considered for an approval.
JEREMY: The development industry is not keen on this.
Here's Brian Hahn, the CEO of BILD Calgary, at that November meeting. BILD is the big developer and homebuilder association in town, and part of what they do is lobby city hall.
BRIAN HAHN: We struggle with the notion on operating costs because, quite frankly, administration has proposed changes to how that would be calculated, and without having any details on how those changes would be calculated, it's really difficult for us to wrestle with that.
JEREMY: BILD is pushing for the process at city hall to more or less stay the same, and this will be important this year because the city is expecting another batch of applications for new suburban communities.
HAHN: Businesses need to be able to rely on consistency, predictability, and transparency from those who regulate them—administration and council—and we believe the best way to do that is to remain consistent on that.
We have seen over the last week a move of a head office of a major Canadian corporation, and we certainly would observe that uncertainty in regulatory environments was a big part of them choosing to move their office elsewhere.
JEREMY: Hahn was referencing Encana moving its headquarters from Calgary to the States.
This is a bunch of private-sector businesses competing for public money, and so we have to have a rigorous process.
Phasing out a check on sprawl
One of the other things that came up in this meeting was another check on the costs of urban sprawl. Pincott explained to me why it was put in place in the first place.
PINCOTT: The biggest part of it was something called the Growth Management Overlay, which basically, as we looked at new communities and starting the development of brand-new greenfield communities, we had to understand what the cost of the infrastructure was going to be and where we were going to pay—how we were going to pay for it.
JEREMY: So that's the Growth Management Overlay, or GMO, as it's sometimes called at city hall. And at this meeting last November, Councillor Jeff Davison suggested that the Growth Management Overlay should be phased out, and he made an amendment to this effect.
COUNCILLOR JEFF DAVISON: Explore the phasing out of the Growth Management Overlay and report back to PFC no later than Q2 2020 with options to better align to our current economic situation and create policy that encourages a much more business-friendly environment and further investment, and retention of that investment, in Calgary.
JEREMY: Let's listen in now to some of the debate that happened last November. We'll hear Councillors Ward Sutherland, Evan Woolley, and Druh Farrell.
COUNCILLOR WARD SUTHERLAND: The challenge that we have is, we implemented a system because of a situation of high, rapid growth and 30,000 people moving into the city. Okay? So that's no longer the situation, so we're using a process that we put in—we reacted to something several years ago that's completely changed. What we need to look at is, how many hoops does any business need to jump through to get to a certain point? And my concern is, this is a hoop that we don't need anymore.
COUNCILLOR EVAN WOOLLEY: I think there's an important thing to clarify here, and I'm actually fine with looking at this—this isn't some, like, business opening up a business that doesn't require city resources. This is a bunch of private-sector businesses competing for public money, and so we have to have a rigorous process. It's because we're using public dollars and citizens' money to build this infrastructure in this partnership, and there's a limited amount of that money, and there's a whole bunch of different private companies who are going after that money.
And so it's really important that we have processes and hoops to go through to ensure that we're putting those public dollars at the best return on investment for the public.
COUNCILLOR DRUH FARRELL: At one point— and not during a period of intense growth—council was approving every community that came forward, until the city manager of the day, Dale Stanway, got up to the podium and said: We have no more money. We can't do this. I think it was Evanston, actually. And we sent it back and started a whole process around growth management.
And my worry is we’re going back to the days when we might have 40 developing communities, some of them leapfrog, and we just can't afford it.
City council, I think, has lost the thread on the kinds of decisions that they make.
'We cannot go back to the Wild West'
JEREMY: Here's city growth manager Kathy Davies Murphy talking about the function of the Growth Management Overlay.
DAVIES MURPHY: The Growth Management Overlay is really a flag for council to ensure that appropriate infrastructure budget and operating budget is approved, and so that process would need to continue. We can't open communities if roads aren't built or if utility infrastructure isn't in place. So there still needs to be some mechanism with—call it what you will, it's really a budget decision.
MAYOR NENSHI: I've heard people out there say, oh, the GMO is what is preventing us from developing. That's not the case. It's actually the budget and the business cases that are what have—what is the stage gate here. And so I'm perfectly happy to support this, because maybe there's a better way to do it—the key is, to your point, the stage gates must exist. We cannot go back to the Wild West.
You know, your example of Evanston was way before my time, but Councillor Magliocca will agree with me that when we finally did approve that neighbourhood, we approved it with one entrance and one exit, and we didn't have the budget to actually build the road infrastructure that neighbourhood needed, and that's what I want to avoid going forward. All right?
Councillor Magliocca, please.
COUNCILLOR JOE MAGLIOCCA: Thank you, Your Worship. And the only thing I'm worried about — and I agree with this, and I'm going to fully support it. The only thing I'm worried about, Councillor Farrell, is if we get no more investments here in Calgary. Because we put up so many hoops for people to invest in our city, and we've got to stop that.
And I know developers right now, and I know other businesses, they're waiting to see what's going to happen, because they'll take out a billion dollars out of our community and take it elsewhere, and investments travel, and that's reality, so we've got to start looking at that, too.
COUNCILLOR DAVISON: Nobody, I don't think, would ever want to go back to the Wild West, but in a business-case scenario, how do we create those robust business cases with clear objectives, but also the consistency to provide investor confidence?
And I think part of that is also, how do you also build that public trust into this as well, because—I'll just go back to my comment earlier about changing the narrative in a lot of this. It's been flying around Twitter as we've been having this conversation—"Oh, they're spending money on new communities, and, and, and." I mean, people need to stop looking at the way we move this city forward in silos.
And so, we've got to figure out how this conversation here allows us to take part in that bigger conversation about, it takes many things and building things and pulling multiple levers to move a city forward.
JEREMY: Council gave Davison's amendment the green light. Councillors Farkas and Farrell voted against it, and admin is supposed to report back by year's end (see correction below) on the possibility of phasing out the Growth Management Overlay, along with more details about how costs would break down between city hall and developers.
Council 'has lost the thread': Pincott
We're going to close out by hearing more from my conversation with former city councillor Brian Pincott. Just one heads up: In this interview, he references 42 new communities being approved for development in Calgary. That's almost correct, but it's actually 41.
PINCOTT: With the addition of 40 new communities—I think it's now up to 42—new communities that are under deve-, that have been approved for development, we—12 years ago, we knew that 33 was unsustainable, and now it's at 42. And so that was—that was as close to throwing out the Municipal Development Plan as you could get. And then removing the Growth Management Overlay takes us back to the—everything before 2008, 2009, which was essentially a developer free-for-all.
City council, I think, has lost the thread on the kinds of decisions that they make. They're not making a decision for today. Right? The decisions that are being made for, say, Growth Management Overlay and the MDP, is for what the city will look like in 50 years—long after they're all dead. Most of them. And it isn't about satisfying the development urges of today. It's—you have a responsibility to look into the future and what kind of city you want in the future—not what's the cheapest city that you can have today.
Getting rid of the Growth Management Overlay would be—I would argue that the MDP has already been thrown out the window, but that would just be the absolute end of any kind of control or oversight that the City of Calgary would have on new growth and new development.
And then you get rid of that, and what kind of chance does inner-city redevelopment, inner-city densification, have against that? It just doesn't.
CORRECTION: This story originally stated that city administration was to report back on the Growth Management Overlay by summer 2020. In fact, on February 3, council voted to extend the timeline on administration's request. Admin is now to report back by year's end.