Calgarians want the city to spend a bit more on most things but slash public art: poll

Across age, gender and political lines, that's one thing we tend to agree on.

Across age, gender and political lines, that's one thing we tend to agree on

Calgarians would like to see the city spend a bit more on things like roads, business recruitment and police, while spending a lot less on public art. (@KIRORadio/Twitter, Homefront, City of Calgary, photo illustration by CBC)

The City of Calgary spends billions of dollars each year and there's bound to be plenty of disagreement between its nearly 1.3 million residents about how that money should be allocated.

But if there's one thing Calgarians can agree on — it's that we should spend less on public art.

That's according to a wide-ranging survey of more than 2,000 people conducted for the University of Calgary's School of Public Policy.

"There's a widespread attitude that public art is not an important policy issue," said political science professor Jack Lucas, who led the survey research.

Survey respondents were asked if the city should spend much more, somewhat more, about the same, somewhat less or much less across nine different categories.

The responses were averaged out and, in eight of the nine categories, Calgarians preferred small spending increases.

"Public art" was the only category where people wanted to see a spending decrease — and that held true regardless of age, gender or political affiliation.

Click or tap on the interactive chart below to see how Calgarians' opinions vary:

(Note to mobile users: Charts are more easily read when viewed horizontally.)

"There's no question it's the outlier," Lucas said."It's just so obviously distinct from the others in the way people respond."

There was some variation in Calgarians' opinions on public art spending, but that came mainly in the degree to which they thought it should be slashed.

Older Calgarians tended to prefer a larger cut in spending, while younger people wanted a more modest reduction.

United Conservative Party supporters wanted the largest cut, while supporters of the NDP also wanted a reduction but a smaller one.

The results stand in stark contrast to Calgarians' responses in the other spending areas.

'Moderate increases'

In each of the other eight categories, survey respondents expressed a desire for city council to boost spending by a small amount.

Lucas had a note of caution about interpreting the overall results, however.

"The tricky thing is that all of these are averages, so you can have a fair bit of disagreement hiding within an average," he said.

"But what does seem to be clear is that — in general, across a number of major policy issues in Calgary — on average, Calgarians are looking for moderate increases in spending."

On average, women in Calgary wanted more spending on police than men did. (CBC)

Of the nine categories, survey respondents ranked "recruiting new businesses to Calgary" as their top spending priority.

That was followed closely by "roads, highways and bridges."

"Affordable housing" ranked third, overall, and was the highest priority among young Calgarians (those aged 18 to 34).

In fourth place, overall, was "tax relief for local businesses."

"Policing" was fifth, but among women it was the top spending priority (tied with housing and business recruitment.)

"Public transit," meanwhile, ranked sixth among the nine categories.

Men want less spending on flood mitigation

The two lowest priorities, apart from public art, were "parks and recreation" and "flood mitigation."

Calgarians, on average, preferred a tiny spending increase in those areas — bordering on no increase at all.

Women wanted a slightly larger increase, while men preferred a small decrease in both areas.

Two people look onto a flooded area.
Calgarians look out over a flooded Calgary Stampede grounds and Saddledome in June 2013. (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press)

Overall, Lucas said the results suggest "a real attitude favouring fiscal restraint" in Calgary.

Even though survey respondents expressed a desire for spending increases in most areas, he said that's pretty common when it comes to these types of surveys.

​"When we ask people about spending," he said, "they tend to like the idea of more spending."

Relative to years' worth of public opinion research from other sources, Lucas said Calgarians' responses to this survey fall on the conservative side.

"Even among the people who are calling for increases, it's much, much more likely that they're calling for modest increases, rather than large increases in spending," he said.

How much does the city spend on public art, anyway?

While it's often the focus of public attention, Calgary's public art program makes up a small fraction of city spending.

The program costs about $1.2 million per year on an operational basis, according to city staff.

That's on an annual operating budget of about $4 billion, of which about $1.7 billion comes from property taxes. (The rest comes from user fees and other sources of municipal revenue.)

Two sculptures make up Ascend, a piece of public art on a hill by the new Rocky Ridge YMCA in Calgary. (Mike Symington/CBC)

The purchase of the art installations themselves comes from the city's capital budget. Capital spending varies from year to year and is often supplemented by grants from the provincial and federal governments.

For capital projects under $50 million, the city allocates one per cent of the cost of the project to public art.

That falls to 0.5 per cent for any costs above $50 million, up to a maximum of $4 million.

Calgary's capital budget for 2018 was roughly $1.7 billion (on a "cash-based accounting basis.")

The city says a precise dollar figure for total spending on public art last year isn't yet available.

Council's 'extraordinary challenge'

Even if public art spending were significantly reduced, Lucas said it would still be an "extraordinary challenge" for the city to satisfy all the desires Calgarians expressed in the survey.

"Calgarians are concerned about taxes … and yet, at the same time, we don't see widespread agreement that there needs to be spending cuts in important areas of municipal public policy," he said.

"And so these are the really difficult tradeoffs that city council has to deal with whenever the budget is up for discussion. There's no easy answer."

The survey of 2,001 Calgarians was conducted by Forum Research between Nov. 14 and Dec. 13, 2018.

Respondents were contacted by phone and those who agreed to participate completed the in-depth survey online, answering a range of questions about themselves and their views on a wide range of issues.

The margin of error in the overall scores was plus or minus 2.2 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.

The margins of error for the demographic breakdowns vary and were all larger than for the full sample. More detailed data and notes on the methodology are available here.

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

More from the series: