OPINION | Calgary's slogan should be 'The Family Friendly City'

Calgary shouldn’t be focusing on trying to attract the young, hip, tech worker, looking for big city culture and nightlife. We should be trying to attract the 30-something tech workers who are looking to settle down and raise a family.

Let’s stop being ashamed of our big suburban homes with their double garages

One of the biggest barriers to raising a family in many cities is housing affordability. Calgary should be promoting the fact that you can buy an 1,800-square-foot house for under $500,000 US. (Richard White)

This column is an opinion from Richard White, who has written extensively on Calgary's urban development.

While most cities try to encourage young and restless global entrepreneurs to move there and set up a business and thrive in the 21st century economy, maybe it's time for Calgary to try something different.

Perhaps Calgary would be wise to focus its marketing on a different demographic.

Let's stop being ashamed of our affordable, big infill and suburban homes, with their backyards and double garages. Let's start to brand Calgary as "North America's Family Friendly City." It is our sweet spot!

Dare to be different

Recently, I sold two very cool Bob lounge chairs on Kijiji (which I had previously purchased on Kijiji) to a Calgary newcomer who had just bought a new house in Airdrie with two living rooms — a fact he shared with me several times.

After we loaded the first chair into the back of his new Kia Telluride, with his young daughter sleeping in the back seat, I had to ask, "What brought you to Calgary?" 

He told me he and his wife were living in a small flat in Paris with two children and another on the way and decided they needed to live somewhere more family friendly.

He smiled and said, "We were living the good life in Paris, but realized we needed more room." 

"Why Calgary?" I asked.

It turns out these two IT professionals, born in Cameroon, picked Calgary because they could get a good paying job in their profession as well as a big house and a big vehicle to get around in. 

Then the light bulb went on! 

Calgary is the fifth most livable city in the world, according to the Economist, and it's the most affordable city in North America, according to Zoocasa. (Richard White)

Calgary shouldn't be focusing on trying to attract the young-and-hip tech worker, looking for big city culture and nightlife. We should be trying to attract the 30-something tech workers who are looking to settle down and raise a family. 

Calgary needs to play to its strengths. 

Livability, rather than excitement

While Calgary is the fifth most livable city in the world (The Economist 2019 survey), it probably isn't in the top 50 (maybe 100) of the most exciting places to live for young entrepreneurs.

I am betting Amsterdam, Austin, Berlin, New York, Barcelona, Paris, London, San Francisco, Melbourne, Sydney, Seoul, Toronto, Vancouver or Montreal enter their minds long before Calgary. If Calgary ever does.

Ironically, as I was researching family-friendly cities for this piece, a German relocation service called Movinga published its Best Cities for Families 2020 findings that ranked 150 cities around the world. Calgary was ranked eighth.

Not surprisingly, the top 10 was dominated by northern European cities, but a big surprise was Quebec City coming in at No. 2, just behind Helsinki. Montreal finished ninth and Ottawa 14th. Neither Toronto nor Vancouver made it into the top 20. 

Calgary ranked high in several of the 13 factors Movinga measured: affordability, education, air quality and neighbourhood safety. Our high unemployment rate hurt us, as did children's activities, which surprised me.

Affordability and low commute times

One of the biggest barriers to raising a family in many cities is housing affordability. 

So, rather than talking up our new library, music museum, bike lanes or festivals, Calgary should be promoting the fact that you can buy an 1,800-square-foot house just minutes from downtown, for under $500,000 US, or an even bigger house in the suburbs for the same price. This is unheard of in Vancouver, San Francisco, New York or London. 

When it comes to renting, a small one-bedroom apartment rents for $3,400 US in San Francisco or New York City — if you can find one.

You could get a $450,000, three-year fixed mortgage in Calgary for about $1,800 US per month, which would be an annual saving of $19,000 a year. Or you could get a 625-square-foot, one-bedroom, one-bath apartment in Sodo (the shiny new 35-storey residential building on 10th Avenue in the Beltline) for about $2,000 Cnd. or $1,523 US per month, and pocket $1,900 per month, or $22,800 per year. 

And yes, we should quote value in US dollars. Not only does it make our housing look more affordable, it also makes it easier for internationals to understand.

Rather than talking up our new library when we try to sell Calgary, how about talking more about our dog parks? (City of Calgary)

According to a study done by Zoocasa, based on December 2018 data, the most affordable North American cities were:

  1. Calgary, Alta.
  2. Oklahoma City, Okla.
  3. Columbus, Ohio
  4. Indianapolis, Ind.
  5. Charlotte, N.C.

Yes, Calgary is No. 1.

Second on the list of what makes Calgary attractive to parents is our average commute time: 26 minutes. Compared with 68 minutes in San Francisco or 74 minutes in London or 43 minutes in New York City, this is a great selling feature for parents of a young family.

Child friendly

Calgary is a great place for families to live because it is clean and safe, relative to other big cities. Also, our schools and health-care facilities are attractive and inexpensive, when you compare them to most other cities. Plus Calgary has one of the most child-friendly (read, fun-looking) hospitals in the world. Yet I can't recall ever seeing the Alberta Children's Hospital in a promotional video. 

UNICEF's "Child-Friendly Cities" initiative encourages cities around the world to consider the perspectives, needs and interests of children when making decisions and developing policies and programs.

Among its key points, the initiative calls for children to "live in a safe, secure and clean environment with access to green spaces," and to "meet friends and have places to play and enjoy themselves." Hey — that's Calgary.

Doctors at the Alberta Children's hospital say they're seeing an unprecedented number of children in mental health crisis. (Alberta Children's Hospital)

Did you know that every Calgarian is within a five-minute walk to a park?

Yes, Calgary is blessed with over 5,600 parks and open spaces, as well as 1,000 kilometres of pathways, over 100 dog parks (dogs are a big part of family life these days) and 1,000 city playgrounds (that's about five per community, and that doesn't include school playgrounds). 

And our modern recreation centres offer a plethora of programs and activities that makes them a welcoming gathering place for people of all ages and backgrounds.

While some might say Calgary isn't family friendly because it is so car-oriented, I would argue most international families would love the fact that they can own a car and drive their kids to places, rather than using crowded transit or cycling — especially in the middle of winter. 

And while it is legitimate to lament Calgary's car dominated culture, Calgary drivers are some of the most pedestrian-friendly in the world. There are not many cities where drivers routinely stop and let families cross the street (walking or cycling).

Calgary is also one of the most ethnically diverse cities in North America, making it an attractive place for international families looking to raise a family in a welcoming society.

The missing index

Back in 2002, Richard Florida wrote a book called The Rise and Fall of the Creative Class. His premise was that, in the 21st century, young creative professionals would choose where they wanted to live and work based on how bohemian, gay-friendly and ethnically diverse a city was.

The creative class included everyone from software engineers to dancers, from IT professionals to chefs.

Florida argued it would be the employees, not the corporations, who would determine what cities would thrive in the 21st century, as companies would move to cities where their employees wanted to live, or were already living, to avail themselves of the knowledge workers they needed.

Calgary is blessed with over 5,600 parks and open spaces, including Manmeet Singh Bhullar Park in the northeast. (Audrey Neveu/CBC)

We saw this exact situation play out when Amazon was determining where it would locate its second headquarters. 

Florida created several indexes (bohemian, diversity, talent, gay) to help cities identify their strengths and weaknesses in attracting the creative class. Soon cities around the world were scrambling to see how they measured up and trying to determine how they could get themselves a higher ranking. 

What Florida missed was the "family friendly" index. 

What happens when the 20-somethings reach their 30s? Most of them pair up and start raising families, which means they start thinking about a house instead of an apartment, a mortgage instead of rent, a car instead of transit or a bike, and schools and playgrounds rather than bars and festivals. 

Perhaps Calgary Economic Development should adopt the moniker, "Calgary: The Family Friendly City" or maybe "The Family Fun City," as we try to diversify our economy.

And how about including more families having fun in our promotional videos, rather than the young and restless. 

Just a thought.

This column is an opinion. For more information about our commentary section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.


Richard White

Freelance contributor

Richard White has served on the Calgary Planning Commission (Citizen at Large), the Calgary Tourism Board, the Calgary Public Art Board and the Tourism Calgary Board. He writes a blog called Everyday Tourist about the city, and has written extensively on Calgary's urban development.


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