On October 19, ThinkHQ released the results of a poll looking at Calgarians’ view on where their city is going. Photo: Jeremy Klaszus

Is Calgary on track? It depends who you ask

Young Calgarians are more likely to say yes.

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On Monday, local public opinion researcher ThinkHQ released the results of a poll looking at Calgarians’ view on where their city is going.

The survey asked two questions, one on the strength of the local economy, and one more generally on whether Calgary is “on the right track or wrong track right now?”

The headline accompanying the release makes clear that the results weren’t sunny. “A plurality of Calgarians believe the city is on the wrong track,” with 43% thinking Calgary’s direction is “somewhat” or “definitely” wrong, compared to only 36% who believe the opposite.

The results are even more dire when you look at the extremes: more than one in five Calgarians say we’re definitely on the wrong track, and only one in 20 think we’re definitely going the right way.

No doubt, that isn’t a great result, and it’s one that any city councillors currently contemplating re-election are surely nervous about. It’s also a difficult result to pull many answers from.

The message it presents is that, in this moment, Calgarians are more skeptical about the city’s future than they are optimistic.

The poll doesn’t go on to ask what people are worried over, frustrated with, or optimistic about. Are there too many new developments? Too few bike lanes? Are they upset about the new event centre, or frustrated it took so long to get approved? How do you even sum up what “track” Calgary is on right now?

The poll doesn’t have much nuance, but it’s not meant to. It’s a gut check, and the message it presents is that, in this moment, Calgarians are more skeptical about the city’s future than they are optimistic.

That overall number—43% “wrong track” and 36% “right track”—is only part of the story, though.

As LiveWire Calgary mentioned it in its coverage of the poll, the results are virtually even once you factor in the margin of error. In other words, Calgarians are divided in their views, and it’s revealing to see where that split lies.

The groups that lean towards believing we’re moving in the right direction include a plurality of women, young people, households earning under $125,000 annually, residents of the northeast and inner city, people who rent their homes, residents of multi-unit homes, and people who have lived in Calgary for under 20 years.

In other words, the younger you are, the less wealthy you are, and the newer you are to Calgary, the more inclined you are to believe things are moving in the right direction.

A full 52% of Calgarians under 35 believe that we’re on the right track, versus 29% who think we’re going the wrong way.

Some of those splits are just as marginal as the overall results, at or barely above the margin of error. But some make much stronger statements.

A full 52% of Calgarians under 35 believe that we’re on the right track, versus 29% who think we’re going the wrong way. That seems worth celebrating—young people need to believe in this city for us to have any future, and young Calgarians are one of the most optimistic groups here.

In fact, the only other demographic group to crack the 50% positive mark are newcomers to Calgary. Over 60% of people who’ve lived here five years or less believe Calgary is somewhat or definitely on the right track. Which makes sense; if given the choice, you probably wouldn’t move to a city that you think is heading towards a dead end.

Split priorities

The other significant split isn’t demographic, it’s ideological. Calgarians who voted for the UCP are much more likely to believe the city is going wrong than those who voted NDP, who are more broadly positive.

That makes sense when you consider the baseline beliefs behind progressivism and conservatism. In overly broad strokes, progressive politics is anchored in the notion that change is generally for the better; conservatism aims to keep things from getting worse. You’d expect progressives to be at least somewhat more optimistic.

More importantly, the political split speaks to a difference in priorities. After all, the survey’s other question has a much stronger consensus. Four in five Calgarians agree the local economy is fairly or very weak. Once again, Calgary’s youth are more optimistic, with just over a quarter believing the economy is fairly or very strong—but that’s still compared to 68% of youth who see it as weak.

The disagreement isn’t over the economy, then, so it must be something else.

Framing next year’s election as an economic debate ignores the real divide.

The press release that accompanies ThinkHQ’s survey says these results mean “issues such as infrastructure, transit, and growth management will take more of a backseat” to economic concerns in next year’s election.

That may be true for the UCP voters, homeowners, and older Calgarians who feel most negative—and their concerns are certainly important to address. But it may not hold for young Calgarians, those with lower incomes, and those who’ve recently chosen to make their homes here, who are optimistic despite the struggling economy.

Framing next year’s election as an economic debate ignores the real divide here. If this survey shows anything, it’s that we agree about where we are, even as we disagree on where we’re going. It’s that direction—that destination—that we really need to be discussing.

Peter Hemminger is a Calgary writer, editor, cultural worker and arts advocate whose work aims to encourage a more open, collaborative and idiosyncratic culture. Formerly the music and film editor at Fast Forward Weekly, he is executive director for the Quickdraw Animation Society.

Support in-depth Calgary journalism.

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We connect Calgarians with their city through in-depth, curiosity-driven journalism—but we can't do it alone. We rely on our readers and listeners to fund our work by pitching in a few dollars a month. Join us by becoming a Sprawl member today!