Drunken neighbours to economic recovery: why your vote matters in Calgary's election
It's not just big economic decisions on the line, but micro issues like noise complaints and tree cover
Cities are increasingly complex entities, in some cases overseeing billions in economic output and managing labyrinthine networks of roads, sewers, sidewalks, pathways and pipes. They are critical as economic drivers and political constructs, not to mention the fundamental role they play in making sure your waste flows swiftly away from your home.
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Which is to say, municipal politics and the elections that pick who sits at the table, like the Calgary election on October 16, are important. It's not just in the local context, but in securing a city's place in the world and driving the fortunes of all those within its borders.
When you elect a councillor or a mayor in Calgary, you're choosing someone to help helm a billion-dollar-plus enterprise, as well as someone who, in a roundabout way, oversees the local dog catcher and makes decision about who can make how much noise and when, or how many trees will form a canopy over Calgary.
By no means comprehensive, here's a look at some of the impacts.
Front and centre these days is an economy too often tied to the price of a barrel of oil and political whims far outside the control of mayors, councillors and school board trustees. It points to a fundamental disconnect between the importance of cities in the global scheme of things and, often, their distinct lack of authority and power.
That is changing in Alberta, sort of, with draft city charters that grant more power to Edmonton and Calgary. The charters help alleviate the need of those two leading centres to go cap in hand to the province for things like collecting municipal fines or tackling some climate change mitigation strategies, but they only go so far.
"When urban governments have the power and ability to enact a development agenda, they can help the citizens of their cities hook up with the global economy," reads a World Bank report on globalization and urbanization that encourages a devolution of power from states to cities.
And while Calgary is largely at the whims of outside economic forces, or the provincial government, it does have the power to build infrastructure, increase or decrease density, approve cell towers, determine business and personal property tax rates, establish business licence rules and procedures and so much more.
These are not insignificant decisions. In Calgary, the local GDP last year was $115.2 billion, according to Calgary Economic Development, and it's projected to be the fastest growing economy in Canada from 2018 to 2021. The per capita GDP was just shy of $80,000. To put that in context, Alberta's GDP was $288.1 billion in 2016.
But Calgary is facing challenges, particularly with its downtown office towers facing a vacancy rate around 25 per cent.
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Council has already eased rules around businesses operating in the core in order to make it easier to change the use of a space, or to renovate a space within certain limits. The idea of converting towers to residential use has been floated, and the city has, at least in the case of East Village, spurred the redevelopment of areas using tax dollars to pave the way for private development — using a Community Revitalization Levy, a scheme that's at the centre of the current Flames vs. City arena debate.
That said, businesses are being pinched by the lingering effects of the recent recession and a series of tax hikes that, at least anecdotally, have led to a significant number of businesses closing their doors.
These are not insignificant decisions or effects, nor are the ones yet to come. Alberta has gone from a population that was 75 per cent rural in 1901 to one where almost 84 per cent of us live in urban areas in 2016. The Edmonton-Calgary corridor has grown faster than any other region of its type in the country and is a main driver of the economy.
City decisions affect that and can either attract or dissuade businesses looking to set up shop. Ahem, Amazon, ahem.
But it's not all hard numbers and finances when it comes to the impact of council. The city also literally impacts our views on the world.
Calgary was once a treeless place — outside the small enclaves of forest on river islands, this was the bald prairie. That changed with European settlement and incorporation as a town.
In 1884, the newly formed Town of Calgary encouraged planting by offering spruce trees to local taxpayers for a small fee, spurring the growth of an urban canopy that would swell from a handful of saplings to almost 500,000 public trees and 1.5 million private trees, according to the city. The efforts have radically altered the landscape.
After the so-called Snowtember storm in 2014, the city actively worked to save the canopy in Calgary, replacing damaged trees, pruning damaged limbs and offering incentives for homeowners to replace and repair damaged private trees.
It is aiming to have the canopy cover 20 per cent of Calgary, compared to a little over eight per cent now.
And as the climate shifts and more unpredictability is predicted, drought, disease, storms and more will be met with city efforts to ensure the prairie does not reclaim this anthropocentric oasis.
While all those trees altered the natural landscape, the city is just as involved in altering the physical nature of our surroundings and, in that way, how we see ourselves and interact with our surroundings.
Gleaming towers are the most obvious manifestations of the city prodding and nudging how and where buildings are built. Constraining those towers to the relatively compact downtown core is one example of the city's ability to shape our surroundings. Planting the seeds of an industrial park is another.
Less obvious is the sunshine touching your face as you float down the river, or walk in a park, brought to you by such un-sexy regulations as building setbacks and height restrictions. The tops of office towers? There's a guideline for what the city wants and doesn't want to see jutting out from up there. Street level storefronts, the podiums that ring the base of residential towers and the way a building opens onto public spaces are all governed by what the city wants to see.
If you find yourself physically bumping into people on the sidewalk on a regular basis, you could be the victim of bad municipal decisions — whether the theorized impact of urban design on physical activity (and, therefore, your waistline) or the narrow width of a downtown sidewalk.
"In the 21st century, well planned cities have the potential to reduce non-communicable diseases and road trauma and to promote health and wellbeing more broadly," reads a 2016 article in the medical journals The Lancet.
"This could be achieved by reducing automobile dependency, traffic exposure, pollution, noise, and urban heat-island effects, while enhancing mental health, contributing to climate change mitigation, and promoting walking and cycling in ways that are safe, comfortable, and desirable."
But what makes a city truly unique as a political entity is the intimacy of the relationship between government and governed. If you've got a problem with your neighbour, the Prime Minister's Office doesn't care, but the mayor's might, your councillor's likely will, and bylaw will certainly roll on by if your neighbour narcs on you.
The city handles everything from regulating the height of that fence you want to build in your front yard, to licensing and incarcerating pets, as well as dealing with noise complaints, illegal fire pits and whether or not you're shovelling your walk or cutting your grass.
In 2017, the city received almost one million 311 calls, down from 1.9 million in 2016 and a peak of 2.4 million in 2014. Those calls cover everything from complaints of garbage left in parks, to green bins that were dropped off broken, to graffiti reports on private property.
Police, fire and EMS scanners crackle incessantly with reports of animals on the loose, needles that need to be picked up, fire pits that neighbours would like to see extinguished, children wandering alone and so much more.
Personal is political
It all adds up to a personal sort of politics, and yet one that regularly sees dismal turnout for elections. In 2013, the turnout was a measly 39 per cent.
The pothole in front of your home will be dealt with by the city, the storm sewers will back up or flow based on its work and will empty into areas increasingly designed by the city to naturally filter pollutants before they enter the watershed. The view outside your bedroom window could be blocked by a three-storey infill next door.
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It's these decisions that arguably have the most impact on citizens and that can have a big impact on the working life of a city councillor. Their careers live and die based on how well they respond to the concerns of their constituents, even if it means just picking up the phone and lending an ear, or making some calls to ensure Bob from next door isn't yelling drunkenly out his window at midnight on a Wednesday.
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