Can Calgary really cram 650,000 more people into existing neighbourhoods?

The city’s long-term plan to limit sprawl contains some 'noble goals,' says Richard White, but pulling it off will be a 'herculean task.'

City's long-term plan to limit sprawl has some 'noble goals,' but pulling it off will be a 'herculean task'

A view of Calgary's downtown skyline from the east in late fall. (Pat Fogg/CBC)

City planners estimate that, from 2009 to 2069, Calgary will gain 1.3 million residents.

That's a doubling. So where will we put everyone?

Calgary's Municipal Development Plan (MDP) has set an ambitious target that 50 per cent of all population growth between 2009 and 2069 should happen in established communities, rather than new suburbs.

Yikes. That means adding 650,000 people to our existing neighbourhoods.

A noble goal. But it will be very difficult.

This isn't some academic exercise, either. We all have skin in this game. The MDP is our roadmap for shaping the kind of city we want to live in. It affects roads and transit planning. It affects your taxes. It determines what gets built in your neighbourhood. It impacts our collective carbon footprint.

Some say you have to set stretch goals if you want to make significant changes. But city planners admit progress in achieving the MDP goals has been mixed. While infill development has been on the rise, it hasn't been enough to offset population loss in some communities. Other communities that were once on the decline, however, are now seeing positive population growth.

But demographic trends still generally tend to favour population growth in the suburbs.

So hitting those targets — and limiting Calgary's sprawl — will be a herculean task.

10,000 more people each year

Consider what needs to happen for Calgary to accommodate 650,000 new people in established communities.

Via infill, new build, rebuild and other projects, we'd need to make room for about 10,000 more residents per year, every year, for six straight decades.

Think about that.

Calgary's East Village community is expected to have about 10,000 residents by the time it's fully built. So we're talking about adding one East Village — every year — to our already-developed neighbourhoods.

This was the path Calgary set itself upon when the MDP was adopted back in 2009. That was a different time for our city — pre-downturn — but still, it's the vision we're using as we move forward.

The city's mid-term target is for 33 per cent of the cumulative population growth by 2039 to happen in established communities.

This would mark a radical change from the past decade or so, when more than 90 per cent of Calgary's growth happened in suburbs, and only 9.7 per cent in what the city calls the "developed area," which is no small chunk of the city.

The "developed area" encompasses most of Calgary's existing footprint. And still, the vast majority of growth has come at the peripheries.

The 'developed area,' indicated in dark grey, actually lost population between 2006 and 2011. By 2017 it accounted for 9.7% of cumulative growth since 2006. The city's goal is for that to reach 33% by 2039 and 50% by as early as 2069. (City of Calgary)

To see the developed area's share of population growth go from 9.7 per cent now to 33 per cent by 2039 — and 50 per cent by 2069 — is going to mean a paradigm shift in how Calgarians live.

The city would need to devote considerably more time and tax dollars to making the inner-city communities a more attractive and affordable place to "live, work and play" than it has ever done before.

This will mean new, mid-rise condos along major transit routes and the conversion of old shopping centres, churches and schools into mixed-use developments. Think Stadium Shopping Centre, the new Kensington Legion or Westbrook Village (on the old Ernest Manning High School site) happening in almost every inner-city community.

A rendering of the future vision for Westbrook Village from the city's redevelopment plan for the area. (City of Calgary)

This will require huge investments in things like bus rapid transit, bike lanes, public spaces, parks and recreational facilities.

It will also mean finding land, conducting complex public engagements and gaining community approvals to complete infrastructure upgrades and build 250,000 new homes.

How this mega-makeover would happen is complicated. There are many factors at play.

Where people are born and where they die

Back to that 9.7-per-cent figure.

Despite thousands of infill homes and hundreds of new condo buildings that have gone up in developed neighbourhoods over the past decade, these existing communities still only account for that small fraction of Calgary's recent growth.

How is this possible? Get ready for some math.

It probably shouldn't surprise anyone, but the older suburbs are where the older Calgarians live. A quick check of the City of Calgary's community profiles reveals, for example, that 22 per cent of the population in Lake Bonavista is over the age 65. In Lakeview, it's 20 per cent. In Acadia and Silver Springs, 17 per cent.

New communities like Aspen Woods, Bridlewood, Evanston and Auburn Bay, meanwhile, have five per cent (or less) of their population over 65.

So, you'll find more grey hair, like mine, in the middle-ring suburbs. Those are communities typically built between 1950 and 2000.

Now, for the morbid part.

On average, Calgary sees about 7,500 of its residents die each year. Unfortunately, the city doesn't track deaths by community. However, it's reasonable to expect that more deaths occur in the developed areas than the developing ones.

Likewise, we can expect different birth rates in Calgary's established communities versus the new ones.

Again, there's no precise record of how the roughly 17,000 babies born each year are distributed throughout the city. But those same community profiles that show a greater share of older residents in older communities also show significantly more young children in the new communities at the edges of the city.

In addition, established communities are more likely to have older teens and young adults who will be moving out of the house.

So, when it comes to population growth, it's not a fair fight.

The playing field is tilted toward the new suburbs, making it an uphill battle for the already-developed communities.

Two steps forward, one step back

Calgary's new suburbs have seen population growth each and every year since 2006 but, in the existing communities, it's been more like two steps forward, one step back.

From 2006 to 2009 there was virtually no net change in population. In 2010, the population declined in the wake of the global financial crisis. That was followed by a period of strong growth from 2011 to 2015. But then it was back to declines again in 2016 and 2017.

Developed communities have gone through periods of population loss, especially during economic downturns, while new suburbs have seen more and more people arrive every year for the past decade. (Andrew Lupton/CBC)

This back-and-forth has put the city off track for hitting its medium-term goal for growth.

Despite some "positive growth in strategic areas," senior city planner Denise Carbol says "it is not yet at the level the plans intended."

A city report quantifies the challenge, noting that to reach the cumulative growth target of 33 per cent by 2039, approximately 47 per cent the growth between now and then will need to be captured annually in the developed areas.

In other words, we're already off pace — and the pace will only accelerate in the coming years.

If that's not enough, there's yet another hurdle standing in the way.

Location, location, location

Remember: most land in established communities is, by definition, already built on.

So, how does the city expect developers to go about amassing sufficient land to construct the 250,000 or so new homes that will be needed to accommodate the 650,000 more people the city expects to live there by 2069?

One option, of course, is to go up.

Build tall towers on small plots of land.

If the past is any guide, however, developers and city planners are going to face stiff opposition to large-scale projects in established communities, given the increasing complications of community engagement and infrastructure upgrades that are required.

The controversy and delays surrounding the Highland Park Golf Course and Kensington Legion developments are good examples of how messy this process can be.

But let's say we do build up.

That, too, presents financial challenges.

Some people assume infill projects are "free" for the city, as they don't require new roads, LRT lines or police and fire stations to be built. This is not exactly true.

More people means more pressure on old infrastructure, which comes with a cost.

For example, the city is spending $44 million on upgrades along 17th Avenue S.W. to make it more attractive for future business and residential development. To accommodate future development in Forest Lawn, the city is devoting $96 million to bus rapid transit to better connect the communities along International Avenue (17th Avenue S.E.) to the city centre, as well as to create a more pedestrian-friendly experience.

And then there's East Village, where the city has invested mega-millions on new infrastructure, a new library, museum, public art, community garden, dog park and the redevelopment of St. Patrick's Island Park.

Calgarians lined up to take in the newly opened Central Library on Nov. 1, 2018. (Dave Dormer/CBC)

If we are going to put 650,000 more people into our existing communities, they are going to want more amenities. Plunking down 10,000 new residents next to a small library or an old community centre will come with increased demands for better "stuff."

But even if there is a commitment to redeveloping older neighbourhoods — and we come up with the money for the amenities — there's another cost that will make growth in established communities difficult.

The cost of the actual homes, themselves.

Affordability issues

Most Calgarians today simply can't afford homes in established communities.

Think of it this way. In the suburbs, a nice single-family home can easily cost $500,000, but that's to buy it lock, stock and barrel. In developed communities — especially in the inner city — the lot, alone, can cost $500,000.

Yes, we could try to focus on replacing houses with condos when redeveloping older neighbourhoods, but the cost of a condo can still be twice as much in the inner city compared to the suburbs, especially if you're looking at a concrete building with underground parking.

Even for more affordable housing types such as row houses and apartment-style condos, prices in the inner city tend to be higher than in the suburbs. (Zoocasa)

It will also take a huge shift in thinking to get Calgary families to adopt condos as a preferred way of living.

So, until the city and developers can find a way to build more affordable, high-density, infill housing, Calgarians will continue to gravitate to the city's new suburbs or even surrounding municipalities like Airdrie and Cochrane.

But there is some progress on that front.

More and more niche developers are building small row-housing projects or condo complexes that replace two or three mid-century homes. Many of our inner-city communities are now bustling with infills. The city centre is also full of cranes building high-rise residential towers.

The 2018 census showed a significant population increase in the downtown area and the communities that surround it.

However, there was a decline in the older suburbs (between the inner-city ring and the new suburbs) that offset most of the growth in and around the city centre.

The evolution of mid-to-late-20th century communities from almost exclusively single-family homes to a substantial mix of housing types will take more than two generations, or roughly 60 years.

Inner-city communities like West Hillhurst, Bridgeland and Altadore have been experiencing infill development for more than 30 years, now, and only recently have their populations begun to grow beyond what they were in the 1960s.

So we're heading in the right direction, but we have a long, long way to go.

And a lot to think about, in the meantime.

Linking vision with reality

As we chart a path forward, it helps to have a plan that's in line with the realities we face.

Rhetoric and aspirational thinking can be dangerous  While they can inspire, inform, encourage and energize us, they can also have the opposite effect when targets are not met.

That can jade the community and ultimately erode the power of words to motivate change. We must be careful of not setting impossible targets in the name of "doing something" about sprawl, environmentalism and economic development.

The intents of the MDP are good. There are lots of smart ideas and policies. But the targets need to be achievable.

We need to rethink the target of having 33 per cent of Calgary's population growth between 2009 and 2039 in established communities, and 50 per cent by 2069. 

A better target, perhaps, would be to achieve continuous improvement from the 9.7-per-cent growth we've seen to date. Or to split up the massive "developed area" and establish different goals for the city centre and older inner-city communities versus the the mid-to-late-20th century neighbourhoods — recognizing each has its own inherent opportunities for (and barriers to) diversification and densification.

Good plans are not static.

The city recognizes this. Plans are afoot to review both the Municipal Development Plan and other planning documents in the next two years, and to update them with new initiatives and targets based on what we've learned over the past decade.

And, yes, there will be an opportunity for community input.

So, let's all work together — politicians and planners, developers and the general public — to help the city manage Calgary's growth in a realistic manner that will curb our urban sprawl, once and for all.

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

Calgary: The Road Ahead is CBC Calgary's special focus on our city as it passes through the crucible of the downturn: the challenges we face, and the possible solutions as we explore what kind of Calgary we want to create. Have an idea? Email us at

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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.