Illustration: Emily Chu

Who gets to be part of Calgary’s livability?

It’s geared toward the creative class.’

This story is part of The Sprawl's edition on Calgary's shifting civic identity. We're asking: What is authentic about this place? What is contrived? Where is the line between the two? Sign up for our weekend newsletter to follow along.

As cities around the globe compete against each other to attract capital and talent, Calgary is rebranding itself as a unique, innovative and diverse city where anyone’s dreams can come true, to paraphrase the latest iteration of our city’s economic strategy.

Livability plays a key role in achieving this vision.

To get Calgary in the list of people’s considerations, our city’s economic strategy proposes a series of “transformational” initiatives driven by livability, such as the Greater Downtown Plan, the Climate Resilience Strategy, and the creation of an innovation district, all of which work together to deliver a vision of what Calgary could be.

And we’re getting there. In June, the Economist magazine’s Urban Liveability Index ranked Calgary as Canada’s most livable city, and the third most livable city in the world.

Our city was selected based on over 30 factors related to political stability and safety, health care, culture and environment, education and infrastructure.

This is “something that just reiterates all the things that we’ve been doing as a city are starting to pay off, and other people are noticing now,” said Brad Parry, CEO of Calgary Economic Development.

Livability has become part of our civic identity. But what does livability actually entail—and who does it benefit?

This should be the third best city in the world for everyone who lives here, even if you’re disadvantaged.

Alex Kirkman,

Calgary resident

What makes a city livable?

Our city’s economic strategy defines livability as the aspects that make Calgary a “vibrant, inclusive and connected [city] where people of all backgrounds are welcome and have the opportunity to enjoy a high quality of life.”

But the livability discourse has been widely criticized for focusing on living standards for the affluent.

Initially conceived as a measure to evaluate living conditions in Dutch rural areas in the 1950s, livability has evolved to become key in attracting the coveted “creative class,” while its role in increasing inequality is obscured to favour entrepreneurial goals.

Following the roadmap laid out by urbanists Charles Landry and Richard Florida in the 2000s, over the last two decades cities have focused their branding efforts on attracting and retaining a segment of the population made up of talent employed in creative fields, ranging from artists to designers to tech workers and innovators.

Livability attracts the coveted creative class,” while its role in increasing inequality is obscured to favour entrepreneurial goals.

This talent is expected to gravitate towards cities that offer unique experiences in a walkable environment overflowing with character and iconic buildings, where serendipitous encounters spark innovation.

Successful American cities like Austin and Boston have risen to the spotlight by launching branding strategies to position themselves as the “live music capital of the world” (Austin) and a “diverse, all-inclusive metropolis” (Boston). These cities have also created innovation districts that concentrate tech workers and provide them with the services and amenities they require to thrive.

Meanwhile, newly revitalized cities such as Detroit and Pittsburgh leverage their character and relative affordability to create a venture-capital-friendly environment. In Canada, our social safety net has bolstered the sustained efforts of Toronto and Vancouver to attract tech talent.

Although Parry says Calgary’s economic strategy isn’t emulating any other city’s or trying to attract a specific kind of talent, the priorities outlined in the document are clear: Out of 22 initiatives, all but five are driven by talent and focused on tech, arts and culture.

If successful, these initiatives would fill our city with living labs, art installations, world-class events and entertainment venues, all connected by sustainable modes of transportation. “These kind of investments and initiatives become the essence of what our brand is—showcasing what our community can and will be in the future,” Parry said.

But not all Calgarians get to participate in that community, says Meaghon Reid, executive director at Vibrant Communities Calgary (VCC). “There are a lot of people who don’t feel that they are part of this strong, supportive and inclusive community.”

“It’s lovely when we see Calgary in a great spot in terms of livability standards, [but] not everybody in our city has access to what that feels like,” said Reid, adding that “some of the factors that make us one of the most livable cities in the world are still quite out of reach for one in 10 Calgarians who live in poverty.”

These kind of investments and initiatives become the essence of what our brand is — showcasing what our community can and will be in the future.

Brad Parry,

CEO of Calgary Economic Development

Calgary's high level of income inequality

The innovative city we aspire to become isn’t necessarily an inclusive city, as the “new economy” is unlikely to bring prosperity to all Calgarians. In many so-called successful cities, social challenges such as gentrification, displacement, and poverty continue to run rampant.

On the surface, creating a desirable environment for the “creative class” seems to be a collective good—what’s not to like about increased walkability, connectivity, and placemaking initiatives? But it has unintended, yet important, consequences for less affluent Calgarians who already can’t afford to access housing and services in our city’s most livable neighbourhoods.

“If we’re looking at the bright spots, we also have to look at the dark spots, otherwise we’re ignoring a big part of who our community is,” Reid said. “One area where we continue to rank high as well is inequity. The gap between people in poverty and wealth is significant, and people who are racialized experience that even more deeply.”

Indeed, despite having the third highest median income in Canada, Calgary ranks second in Canada on income inequality—sandwiched between Toronto and Vancouver.

Evidence shows income inequality undermines social mobility, meaning that as Calgarians grow increasingly segregated by class, income, and race, their chances of doing better also decrease.

If we’re looking at the bright spots, we also have to look at the dark spots, otherwise we’re ignoring a big part of who our community is.

Meaghon Reid,

Executive Director, Vibrant Communities Calgary (VCC)

This disparity also manifests in the quality of the built environment—and where in the city people live.

As poverty concentrates in the city’s northeast, investment revitalizes formerly low- and middle-income neighbourhoods in our livable inner city, where access to high quality services and amenities is a given—as long as one can afford them.

The amenities of livability

Ricardo Cosentino and his family have lived in Mayland Heights, an established neighbourhood located just east of Deerfoot Trail, for over a decade.

“It’s kind of a weird island in the middle of industrial, and the Deerfoot separates it from the west,” Cosentino said, adding that the primary reason they purchased a home there was affordability.

At the time, prices were 30% less in Mayland Heights than in nearby Renfrew, he explained. “I could only have so big a mortgage.”

But it didn’t take long before the Cosentinos realized affordability came with a hidden cost: underinvestment.

Although Cosentino is satisfied with the maintenance of existing infrastructure, neighbourhood improvements are hard to come by. “Why can’t we get some nice sidewalks, and bike lanes, anything?” he said, noting that the city’s response is always the same: “‘We don’t have money for that.’”

Through his community association, where he is currently a board member, he advocates for improvements and amenities that have boosted the livability of other inner-city neighbourhoods. One of these improvements is the creation of a safe cycling connection to the river pathway via 8 Ave. N.E.

Cosantino believes more affluent communities, whether in the suburbs or the inner city, are more likely to get more investment from the city—and this comes at the expense of working-class neighbourhoods such as Mayland Heights.

You cannot have a revitalization strategy that doesn’t tackle some of the root causes of poverty, mental health, and addiction.

Meaghon Reid,

Executive Director, Vibrant Communities Calgary (VCC)

Global appeal, local struggles

However unintentionally, aiming to put Calgary on the global radar implies prioritizing the needs and desires of those who have the privilege of choosing where to live.

“We want people to consider Calgary,” Parry said. “If we can get in their shortlist, that’s the key—once we get them into Calgary, we win.”

But for low-income Calgarians like Alex Kirkman, choices are limited to more basic needs. “Usually it’s food, medicine [or] rent,” they said. “You don’t get all three of those.”

For Kirkman, easy access to public transit, groceries, and health-care facilities are key, so they rent a bungalow with their partner in Ramsay, an up-and-coming inner-city neighbourhood in Calgary’s southeast. “We got in here right before prices started creeping up,” they said about signing their lease roughly four years ago.

At the moment, they feel their housing situation is stable. But Kirkman previously experienced homelessness after struggling to find suitable housing before their lease’s end. “If you’re living hand-to-mouth all the time… it’s a terrifying thing,” they said. “Not knowing whether you’re going to have food later on, or just pay rent.”

In other words, the choices available to Calgarians like Kirkman are limited by what they can afford, not by aspirational lifestyle rankings

Despite having the third highest median income in Canada, Calgary ranks second in Canada on income inequality.

A city for everyone who lives here

Tying our civic identity to a ranking that disregards the needs of lower income Calgarians evidences our deeply-rooted belief that a rising tide lifts all boats. But as many continue to struggle to access food, housing and social services, the chasm between aspirational discourse and meaningful action is only increasing.

“You cannot have a revitalization strategy that doesn’t tackle some of the root causes of poverty, mental health, and addiction,” Reid said, adding that one important difference between the east and west quadrants of our city are health indicators.

“Healthy cities—where people have the same access to good health outcomes, and preventative health—are really important to attracting investors.”

We may be able to brand ourselves out of a conservative cowboy cliché, but a city can’t brand its way out of inequity.

For Kirkman, a livable city is one that provides universal access to publicly-funded health care, social service programs and affordable housing. “This should be the third best city in the world for everyone who lives here, even if you’re disadvantaged,” they said. “A city is not just made up of people who are financially successful.”

But while reproducing systemic inequities won’t result in such a city, finding alternatives could make Calgary truly unique—and benefit everyone.

“We have to work on ourselves while we also promote the great things about Calgary,” Reid said, adding that addressing issues ranging from living wages and core housing need to reconciliation and racial inequity would actually make our city more livable for most.

“It’s really time for us to have some honest conversations and hard conversations about who we are leaving out of the equation when we celebrate our success.”

“We have to take decisive action... [And] we will be rewarded by such a rich and inclusive community that business will flock to you, if we can get things right."

Ximena González is a freelance journalist whose work has also appeared in The Globe and Mail, The Tyee and Jacobin.

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