Ward 12 Councillor Evan Spencer. Photo: Jeremy Klaszus

The myths and realities of the suburbs

A conversation with Councillor Evan Spencer.

Sprawlcast is a collaboration between The Sprawl and CJSW 90.9 FM. It's a show for curious Calgarians who want more than the daily news grind. Subscribe on iTunes, Spotify or wherever you listen to podcasts. Thanks to our members, a written version of this episode is provided below for those who would rather read than listen.

In late 2021, I did a series of Sprawlcasts on the idea of neighbourhood—looking at how we can strengthen the fabric of our communities in a time of division and alienation. I think about this question a lot, but all of those conversations were with folks who live in inner cities: East Village in Calgary, Commercial Drive in Vancouver and Old Strathcona in Edmonton.

I gleaned a lot of insights from those conversations and I hope you did too. But I’m also curious about how folks in the suburbs experience their neighbourhoods. Is it harder, or easier, to strengthen community in the suburbs than it is in the inner city? I live fairly close to downtown and I often tend to think of the suburbs as lonely and isolating places. And I often hear from Sprawl listeners and readers about this—that this is a one-dimensional, simplistic portrayal of the ‘burbs that doesn’t actually reflect the lived experience of the people who live there.

I think that’s a fair point, and something I’m keen to explore. The ways in which the realities of the suburbs differ from the stereotypes.

For this Sprawlcast, I went into the far southeast, to the neighbourhood of Mahogany in Ward 12. Mahogany sits on the eastern edge of the city. City council approved Mahogany’s community plan in 2006, which envisioned a neighbourhood that would eventually be connected to the rest of the city via LRT. Mahogany is along the Green Line route, close to its southern end. The developer proposed a neighbourhood with a private lake.

Mahogany is a relatively affluent community. In 2016 (the last year for which the City of Calgary has census data for its community profiles), household incomes were quite a bit higher than the city as a whole—$136,000 in Mahogany, compared to $97,000 citywide. One in four people in Mahogany was an immigrant. Unsurprisingly, 90% of Mahoganites used a car to get to work. And the vast majority of people in Mahogany were homeowners—only 7% were renters.

I went to Mahogany to speak with Councillor Evan Spencer. He moved to the neighbourhood seven years ago as part of a church-planting project. He’s one of nine rookie city councillors who were elected last October. And while that’s interesting, that’s not what I wanted to talk to him about.

Before being elected, Spencer was involved with the homeowners’ association in Mahogany and spearheaded a project called Abundant Community Copperfield Mahogany. His work was largely informed by a book called The Abundant Community by John McKnight and Peter Block.

It’s a worthwhile book—a short read. The thesis is basically that the power of our neighbourhoods sits domant and needs to be awakened. Our neighbourhoods, they write, can sustain our health, help us raise children, take care of the marginalized among us—and more. But “this power is silent on most streets where we live,” in large part because we’ve gone from being citizens to being consumers. Instead of looking to our neighbours for our needs—a cup of flour, advice regarding personal struggles—we often look to companies and professionals instead.

Our neighbourhoods, McKnight and Block write, have become incompetent in providing for our most basic human needs. And we’re all poorer for it.

Instead of looking to our neighbours for our needs, we often look to companies and professionals instead.

So what to do? The good news, they write, is that what we need is already all around us. It just needs to be awakened. Our neighbours have gifts, and so do we—it’s just that we’re often not sharing them with each other in the neighbourhood. McKnight and Block envision neighbourhoods where there is a lively sharing of gifts for the benefit of all, creating streets where there is relationship, genuine encounter and surprise instead of the flat emptiness of modern life.

I spoke with Spencer at a coffeeshop in Westman Village—a high-density mix of condos, shops and restaurants by the lake in Mahogany. We discussed “abundant community,” how to build connections in new neighbourhoods—and the realities versus the myths of the suburbs.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

To start, one thing I know you're interested in and has shaped your life down here is this idea of abundant community. How did you come to that concept?

The idea of abundant community was one that was brokered to me through conversation with people that I trusted. When I think of the kind of life that most people endeavour to live, they want one that involves a sense of joy and excitement. It has room to breathe. And that's not the experience of so many people. They feel stretched thin. They're working many hours. They've got all kinds of things on the calendar. They essentially are getting through life instead of settling into and enjoying life.

Here in this neighbourhood of Mahogany, we wanted to live a more integrated life. We did a lot of those things on the calendar, but we would do it with the same people as often as possible. Recreation, work, community work, volunteer work—we wanted that in a close proximity. So that conversation dovetailed with this idea of an abundant community and a place where you could explore all the possibilities instead of getting stuck on and focused on what was wrong with a place. That was what ushered us into that conversation and got us excited about exploring it.

When you say "us," are you referring to your family?

Yes, certainly my family, so my wife and kids. But I also moved into this neighbourhood with some other families. This was a conversation that had years of runway ahead of it before we decided to make this change and sell our homes where we lived—kind of scattered across the city—and all of us moved together. So we actually ended up with four families on one street together very intentionally. We all bought at the same time. My brother-in-law and sister-in-law live next door and we share a backyard. And we got an apple tree right on the property line to symbolize that we're committed to this for the long haul. It was something that we wanted to do together.

And so when you arrived here, you weren't arriving as a total stranger in the neighbourhood.

For sure. When we picked Mahogany, we got involved right away. One of the gifts of some of these newer neighbourhoods is they have these homeowners associations, so we reached out early on. And we were sitting down with a gal named Linda Knight, who was hired by the developer to create community. You have associational life, you have a committee that's doing youth programming, you have a committee that's taking care of the dinner club, you have a committee that is taking care of safety issues.

I got involved in that mechanism right away and pulled some of the families that we moved into the neighbourhood to get involved right away—and that brokered relationship right away. And not only that, it also helped us feel a sense of ownership and agency in the neighbourhood right from the get-go.

Before, I'd lived in my neighbourhoods and I participated in church life, I participated in clubs—but they weren’t directly connected to where I lived. Oftentimes, I was driving 15 or 20 minutes to go participate in those things. This was the first time in my life where all of that was connected to one place. And it continues to be a rich experience.

That seems like a difficult thing to do—to have it all in one place in a city like Calgary. Obviously, the decision to do this with some other families helped. I'm curious what appealed to you about this neighbourhood. Did you and these other families look at different communities to decide where you wanted to go?

Absolutely. The built environment was huge for us when we got here. It showed us that there was some intention to the design that, to a certain degree, aligned with the kind of lives we were hoping to build together. When we got here and saw a lake right in the middle of the neighbourhood and heard about the dream of this clubhouse right in the middle of the neighbourhood that was going to draw people to it, it was easy to connect the dots that this was going to be powerful. It was going to enable some of the dreams that we were carrying when we came to the neighbourhood. They had essentially rolled out a red carpet to get involved.

One of the things that was kind of unique about this neighbourhood was they had some money set aside. The developer had made sure that the volunteers were well-funded. So, when we got here, if you carried a dream of a dinner club, you weren't on your own. You didn't have to go out and get funding. You just aligned yourself with this dream of a life together in this neighbourhood in a small-town feel, and all of a sudden, your dreams were being nurtured, and money was being put behind it, and organizational power was being put behind it, and you became the hero in this new, emerging neighbourhood.

I think that was hugely influential on a whole variety of families, and some of my best friends now are people that I met that were wrapped up in that volunteer mechanism in this neighbourhood and giving their gifts to the neighbourhood. And it absolutely propelled me and it gave me a foundation upon which to enact all of the dreams of an abundant community. The idea that where you live can be a place that gives you what you need, and that you can give the best of yourself to.

Recreation, work, community work, volunteer work — we wanted that in a close proximity.

Do you think that is easier or more difficult to do in the suburbs versus the inner city? People like myself who live in the inner city, we tend to think those ties are easier to form in the inner city because of close proximity—and you can more easily get around by sustainable transportation and all that. So I'm curious how you see that in terms of how easy it is to do in the suburbs and what are some of the challenges or maybe some of the gifts that are there.

I think you're right. It's more difficult to sustain, I think, because the built environment does shape how we live our lives. And so there’s that idea of the front drive attached garage home, where the family drives in, they park their car, and they don't even have to wave to their neighbours. They can do their entire life basically insulated from the people around them.

Mahogany is one those places people come just before they save up enough money to go to acreages. I've met quite a few great families that have come to Mahogany, and they have the big home, and then they move out. And it's almost like this ever-increasing isolation. It's a journey from the inner city out to having your own kingdom in the regional areas around Calgary.

I think it's harder to find and it's harder to sustain that kind of community. But with great intention, you can do incredible things in the suburbs. Because the environment and culture of an emerging neighbourhood is still malleable, I think the barrier to entry is a little bit lower in terms of getting involved and starting that bird watching club—and all of a sudden becoming a known member in the neighbourhood that's bringing that gift to the neighbourhood. Whereas, in the inner city, you have Inglewood Bird Sanctuary. If you're going to become a known character in that world, you've got to be at that for like 40 years and have a PhD.

In the suburbs, if you have a gift to give, that barrier to entry in terms of being somebody that's looked to and celebrated for bringing that gift I think is a little bit lower. So it's something that can nurture civic participation in some ways.

That certainly aligns with my journey. I came, started giving my gifts here in the neighbourhood, and people were quite appreciative of that. And they kept entrusting me with more and more responsibility. I was encouraged and nurtured into civic life in a way that I probably wouldn't have been anywhere else in this city. So, while I think it's harder to find it and sustain it, it also provides some interesting access points to civic life.

There is, or was, an "abundant community" group out here. Can you tell me a bit about how that got started and what was the idea behind Abundant Community Copperfield Mahogany?

I stumbled across some of the work that was being done up in Edmonton. There's a fellow up there by the name of Howard Lawrence, who, in his own neighbourhood, became very compelled by what could happen if he very intentionally started to connect his neighbours and map the gifts that they carried. So, he took his own street, and essentially acted on some thought work that comes out of the U.S. called asset-based community development—and then he watched how it transformed his street. And as he was doing that, he was also engaging with leaders in the municipal space in Edmonton, and they became so compelled by that story and what happened on his street that they actually started to build a framework upon which this could be used to nurture that on other streets and in other places in the city. And then it ended up becoming a program that they run.

As he was doing that, he was then getting called to all kinds of conferences to talk about the work that was happening, and I just got caught up in that. And what was great is it came with a playbook, essentially. The City of Edmonton had spent the resources to map out how you start one of these and some of the pieces that needed to come together. And I'm a cockeyed optimist kind of guy so I grabbed that playbook and I just started tackling the to-do list.

I ended up applying, and I think to this point, I'm the only one in the southern region of Alberta that got grant money to set that up. So that was my job for a year. I got to nurture that idea of what happens when a street connects well and you create a community of care at a block level. And of course, I was experiencing that leading up to it, so I had some stories of my own to tell.

And then obviously COVID hit, and I got sucked into Councillor Keating's office, and now I'm on a whole new journey. So, it's kind of on ice a little bit right now, but certainly lots of great learnings along the way. And I'm really excited to see what its next stage of evolution will be here in the neighbourhood—and more. I'm really excited at the possibility that something similar can happen in our own governance structures here in Calgary to speak about the value and to nurture the value of neighbouring here in Calgary.

Because the environment and culture of an emerging neighbourhood is still malleable, I think the barrier to entry is a little bit lower.

Earlier this week I was thinking about the city’s Snow Angel program. The idea of you shoveling your neighbour's sidewalk if they can't, and that kind of thing. One of the points in that book, The Abundant Community—they talk about how communities have become incompetent, by which they mean they don't fulfill basic human functions for us, those networks of support, supporting the health of people, all that kind of stuff. There’s a question of if the city wants to do a program like that, is the social fabric thick enough to support it?

I would think probably not in lots of different places in our city. But one of the things that's amazing about Alberta in particular, and then obviously Calgary, is we have this long, lauded history of real incredible volunteerism through our community leagues in Edmonton and community associations here in Calgary. I think we're at a stage where they've probably been a little underserved, under-resourced.

I mean, we have amazing organizations like the Federation of Calgary Communities celebrating volunteers that are doing amazing work. But the municipality, I think one of the things that it can do is shape culture just by the kinds of conversation we have in the council chambers, and the kinds of resources that we make available to Calgarians to feel a sense of ownership and get involved.

When I came to this neighbourhood and there was a little pot of money available for me, that really expedited my journey of feeling connected and involved. And, being given agency in my neighbourhood—I think the city can do that potentially at a much larger level. So, that social fabric is probably not as weak as we think in a lot of places, but we can put some new layers of weave into that very quickly if it becomes something that we focus on and care about. I'm hopeful that our fabric is going to be a lot more resilient in the years to come.

You talk about the different gifts that people have. Is it difficult to get people to think in those terms and to shift out of a consumer mindset? If I have enough money, I can pay professionals to do this or that or fix my door. Whatever little need I have, the market can satisfy it. And what you're talking about is something different, where people are going to each other. Is that difficult to shift people's mindset? Is it a tough sell?

At the beginning, it is. And it really depends. One of the gifts we had on our street was everyone was relationally displaced. When we all moved onto that street together seven odd years ago, our networks kind of got untethered. We came from different places where we already knew who our hairdresser was, we already knew who took care of our kids, we already knew who we carpooled with. And then you move together into a new neighbourhood—you're a free agent, to a certain extent. And because we focused early on relationally on our block through some block parties very early on, some of those connections were made. And so people are doing life together in an amazing way.

I think you can get people on that journey. You just have to ask the right questions. You just have to be willing to take a few steps.

One of the things my wife and I did early on: she makes amazing banana bread. So she would make a loaf, and anyone that arrived around us, we'd deliver that, that would open up a conversation, and then shortly after, we were inviting them over for tea. That turned into me going for runs with a neighbour across the street. We have a guy down the street who, when it comes time for the block party, he's got a connection with Astro Jump, so he's our link into that. There's a gal just next door to us that is an amazing cook, so every now and then, we're checking in with her. We have a fellow across the street from us that is unable to work due to a variety of life situations, but he walks his dog all the time. So when it comes to, "This happened on the street, that felt a little unsafe," he's often one of the first people we're connecting with because there's a good chance he saw it go down.

We've created that web, and I think creating that web is just a little bit of intentionality. And it can be quite intoxicating when you start to get the value out of it right away.

But obviously, there are plenty of things that can mess that up. Parking issues, dog poop, development issues. I think it's a lens you put on, and then you intentionally go look for those positives instead of choosing to see your neighbours as barriers or problems to solve.

For the Abundant Community project, you have something called block connectors. What's the idea there?

The block connector is somebody that has taken ownership of 20 to 40 houses—a small enough section of the city that you can really sink your teeth into it and actually know the names and a little bit of the stories of the people that you’re tasked with. You take a street, you take a cul-de-sac, you take a small geographical location in the city, and you give that person again a sense of agency. They're tasked with keeping that block, that cul-de-sac connected—hanging out once or twice a year.

Once you find out that on your street, you have a fireman, you have a nurse, you have a teacher, you have a mechanic—you can start to link those assets together as a block connector. And those become lifelong relationships sometimes. If you find a really good mechanic and they live three doors down from you, not only are you getting a need met, you're now building a lifelong relationship. You're changing the way that street feels, because now when you drive past that person, not only are you connected in that they are giving you their gifts, you know them because probably when you picked up the vehicle after they changed out the winter tires, you stopped and you had a 10-minute conversation and you got a sense of that their kids are misbehaving right now and they're stressed out over that. Or, financially, they're in a rough patch. That requires interaction and it requires time.

Right now, we live in a world where the number one thing we hear is that we're so busy. And so we just naturally do not prioritize neighbouring relationships, because there are so many other calls on our time. Block connectors woo you into life on the street. They're helping you see the value of being connected to those right around you.

What have you seen come out of that?

One of the biggest things is that I've never felt safer on a street than where I live right now, because I know the faces. So, when I walk up and down the street, I know who's supposed to be there, who my little village is. And then, when somebody walks by that I don't know yet, you're interacting with them from the footing of knowing everyone else around you. There's a certain layer of security that comes from that. And just comfort. You feel a sense of: This feels like home because you know the faces, you know the stories.

And then also, it's just a lot more fun. It's a lot more fun to live on a street where in the summer, everybody's looking forward with anticipation towards that block party. We prioritize all kinds of holidays where we focus on our family and friends. And Neighbour Day is that one holiday that focuses on the neighbouring relationship, and it's my kids' favourite. They look forward to it every year. When that bounce house gets delivered on the street, it's go time. We have neighbours that bring out speakers, the barbeques get dragged out front, the ball hockey starts, we plan games. Just like the family has the Thanksgiving meal, this is the yearly reconnect for a lot of streets where you haven't seen someone because they've been busy. Now they come back together.

If that party doesn't happen—especially once kids leave and you get older generations or the mixed generations—you can get out of that habit. I think it absolutely impacts how neighbourly that place feels, how welcoming that street feels when you no longer know the faces and the names. So, one good block party can change how a street feels for years to come.

I think you can get people on that journey. You just have to ask the right questions. You just have to be willing to take a few steps.

You mentioned before how some folks come to this neighbourhood on their way out of the city. They've worked and maybe they're retired, they come here, and then they move to an acreage. I'm curious about that in terms of the mix of people that are here in the community. There’s a question of who gets to access this. And this is big issue in the city, as our neighbourhoods are increasingly homogenous economically and, to a point, racially as well.

The neighbourhood experience for somebody living in the townhomes just adjacent to us is going to be quite a bit different than, say, on my street, where we're all in detached homes. I think one of the gifts of a neighbourhood or a development like Mahogany is I think they've put in some intention in terms of trying to mix and match as best as possible.

So we have million-dollar lake homes on an island with a gate. The “woah, man, come on now”—right? But it's here. And then we have super high density just within walking distance. And now that we also have the lake, the pedestrian corridors, these folks are hopefully mixing and connecting with each other.

But you're absolutely right. Everyone's experience of "neighbouring” is going to be very impacted by the style of housing and the people that are right around them. It's a whole other story to talk about what it's like to connect a floor on a condo building then it is a street or a cul-de-sac. Different challenges to all of them. But I think it's doable. You just have to come at it from a different angle of attack. And again, in all of those instances, I believe it just requires one or two people that are willing to invest the time to knock some doors, to create some flyers, and invite people out to meet each other.

But it's not an equitable experience for sure. Even just on my street, the fact that I have three other families that I know that are up for this task—I know I can boldly plan a gathering, and worst-case scenario is those three other families show up and we have a good time. I'm privileged in that sense on my street. Whereas, it's a whole other thing for a single mom on a floor where she's met no one to start knocking those doors. That's really putting yourself out there. The possibility of rejection could be quite high. So, I need to recognize that fact. And then, if we’re to talk about the municipality supporting this, obviously the supports for someone like that need to be considered for sure.

You mentioned the safety of the street. And there's an interesting tension there too. You have community cohesion, which is a good thing. But in my conversation with David Goa, he brought up an important question. He was talking about how we need to make the suburbs cities. He was talking about places like this: there should be places people can go for entertainment and work and all this stuff within their own community. But his question about these new 'complete communities' was, "But are they making a place for the stranger?" By which he meant, are they making a place for people who are not all the same, who are not all of a certain income bracket, etcetera. I'd be curious how you see that.

Just to the south of us, in Mahogany, there's going to be a massive central park. So, obviously neighbouring at a small proximity level is going to be bound by those smaller geographical factors. Whether you're on a condo or you're on a street, that's going to flavor that. But then you have these opportunities to bring the community together in a much more macro sense. I think those are super important.

Growing up in the suburbs that I grew up in, if I wanted to participate in a cultural event, we were often going downtown or someplace else. So, I absolutely align with David's feedback in terms of: You need to create that culture and those bumping places where people can interact and find people of difference and open up that possibility of creating a relationship with someone that's not like you in the neighbourhood. And I think that absolutely needs to be a consideration.

I know a dream of the homeowners association, and certainly one I get excited about, is to create some of those more large, cultural bumping place events at that central park. Have a local artist come and play their music and then you build a bit of a festival around it. And families are interacting, and you're encouraging them to sit and tables together and to share in activities together. That absolutely needs to be a part of it. And I love that vision of it happening within neighbourhoods, and focusing on making that happen in neighbourhoods, and not always having to go downtown to do that.

It’s a whole other story to talk about what it’s like to connect a floor on a condo building then it is a street or a cul-de-sac.

I sometimes hear people say The Sprawl seems anti-suburbs. And I think what's beneath that is a set of assumptions about the suburbs and what the suburbs are or aren't. When we think about these ideas of abundant community and isolation, it's easy to oversimplify and say if you live in Hillhurst, then that's a connected experience, and if you live in Auburn Bay or Mahogany, then that's an isolating experience. Do you think you're going against these stereotypes in some ways?

Yeah, absolutely. I think for anyone living in Auburn Bay and Mahogany, they would kind of laugh at that, because a lot of them are experiencing the full benefits of living in a suburb. While there are real issues with living on a street with everyone in the same income bracket and common stage of life, creating those social ties is a little bit easier when you have a little bit more in common right out of the gate to create those connections. So, the trick is making sure that we don't get stuck in that. There’s no easy solution for sure.

As a newly-elected councillor, one of the things I'm hoping I can do is really encourage development like this that is thoughtful and intentional about the long-term implications of what it looks like to live in this neighbourhood. I know in one of the conversations around the Guidebook for Great Commnities was that public feedback to push back against copses of single use, where people have lived in that neighbourhood with their large lots and grown accustomed to it—and now redevelopment is coming in and they're pushing back on that because they've grown to love the kind of lifestyle they have.

I think as we move towards that ideal future, where there's more mixed usage, where people can bump into each other from different walks of life and different income brackets, we need to be careful in pushing that envelope—that you don't just create polarizations of the two.

And I think one of the places where we can really move that conversation forward is in these newer neighbourhoods, because it's a blank canvas. Every time you pop up a new neighbourhood, you have an opportunity to move something forward. So, I think Mahogany, Auburn Bay are places that we're starting to see that, but we certainly can do it with greater intention, I would imagine, in the years to come.

I'm hoping we can start to shift people's expectations in a place like Mahogany—that they're not going to be able to access the whole city super easily in their vehicle in the years to come. I would like to be a part of helping push the envelope in terms of changing how we get around so that these neighbourhoods don't ultimately become the new ghettos, the way that David Goa would talk about them. That's a very dystopian future that I would like to avoid.

I do want to see the Green Line. This is incredible density that we're sitting in right now. This is a packed coffee shop. I would love them to be able to walk to a Green Line—hopefully before they pass away.

We'll see, given how it's going. Just kidding. I was actually thinking about this as I was driving out here—that dystopian future you mention. We are not going to be able to drive and we're not going to be able to consume like we have been. And as we go in that direction, it's a question of what do these places look like, and can people stay in place and live?

That really highlights the need for this neighbouring conversation to move forward. Because ultimately, when we think about some of the pain points, the pressure points in our life, when the supply chain breaks down and you're unable to get your baby food or whatever it may be that really impacts your life—we're already looking for alternatives to create that for ourselves in neighbourhoods. COVID even brought us into this.

And that's one of the things that I get the most excited about, because you think of the capacity of the people on one street alone, just the lived experiences, the knowledge and the relational network that they represent—there's so much to explore in these tighter geographical places to build webs of resilience, where you no longer have to get everything from Amazon. You no longer have to drive 45 minutes across the city to participate in an activity that you want for your kids. I think these are going to be conversations that will increasingly become these watershed moments for communities, forced on us out of necessity.

My hope would be a place like Mahogany is ready for it—that they'll meet it with some courage, and some of that social fabric that's necessary for it will already be there.

Jeremy Klaszus is the editor-in-chief of The Sprawl.