Calgary sprawls into open fields around it, while existing areas are closed off to change
Zoning rules only allow standalone homes in most residential areas. To meet growth targets, that must change
Aside from death and taxes, there are a few other certainties in Calgary life. There's abrupt weather shifts to give us all something to small-talk about; there's the perpetual debate about whether Peters' Drive-In is actually good; and there's the continual expansion of suburban Calgary, with new community names getting weirder as the city spirals further outward.
Unlike other major centres like Vancouver or Toronto that have grown to the edge of natural barriers, neighbouring cities or protected green belts, Calgary has ample land all around it to boost its supply of reasonably affordable stand-alone houses.
Last week, city council approved five additional new edge communities, atop the few dozen already being developed. But as the costs — both environmental and financial — grow ever more apparent, there's pushback on council about whether or how fast to green-light more suburbs.
City hall has, for more than a decade, set ambitions to curb infinite expansion. The long-range goal is a 50/50 split of population growth in edge communities and established ones by the 2070s, and the shorter-term goal is one-third of growth in existing areas by 2039.
How's Calgary growing now, as we start to approach that first target year? About 90 per cent of growth goes into fringe suburbs, and 10 per cent in established communities. That 10 per cent is a net figure — it doesn't just account for new condo towers around downtown, but also the fact that many aging neighbourhoods developed in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s have shrinking populations, explains Josh White, the city's director of city and regional planning.
If Calgary really wants to meet its sustainable growth targets, something's got to give. That something is this map.
A version of this map made its rounds a few weeks ago, during council's latest residential expansion debate. It's a map of all residential lots whose zoning will only permit single-detached homes to be built, and nothing else.
If it basically looks like a map of all of residential Calgary, that's because it nearly is. The vast majority of the city's lots exclusively allow stand-alone houses, known as R-1 or RC-1 zoning.
This is the reason why a rundown old bungalow in places like Rundle or Southwood will languish for years, because a teardown can't be turned into a duplex or side-by-side like it can in other areas. It's also the reason why almost all the infill redevelopment is happening in neighbourhoods like Killarney, North Glenmore Park or Tuxedo Park — it's because those areas have RC-2 or R-2 zoning, and you can't legally replace one wide-lot house with two anywhere else in the city.
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Well, you can get it done. But on any of those lots in those orange zones, property owners must apply to the city for rezoning, a costly process that includes having to get your individual proposal accepted at a city council meeting.
Remember that longstanding absurd spectacle of homeowners' one-at-a-time pleadings to councillors to allow them to add in legal basement suites, before council finally relented and eased those stubborn limits on suites? Most Calgary homeowners need that same special permission to develop semi-detached homes.
Four years after by bi-weekly mini-dramas of suite development ended at council, public hearing meetings are now heavily preoccupied by property owners who need special permission to build duplexes, or short spurts of row housing, which is allowed in even fewer portions of Calgary.
The missing middle
In planner-speak, densification through semi-detached homes, row houses and low-rise apartments is called the "missing middle," because it's a middle option between the solitudes of stand-alone houses and highrise condos. And in most of Calgary and other cities, it's largely missing from the landscape.
There's high demand among families and couples to buy or rent new row houses, says Gursharan Pabla, CEO of Professional Custom Homes. He's made several successful applications to council to rezone and build them — and they're often 1,400 square feet, replacing old bungalows with multiple family-sized offerings — but he largely sticks to areas that already permit duplexes and are accustomed to infill growth.
"We're not really going into the neighbourhoods where we know we're going to face strong headwinds," Pabla says. "We just stay away from more lower-density neighbourhoods."
But there can even be pushback getting neighbourhoods used to duplexes to stomach more than two houses where a single house once stood.
At a council hearing into Pabla's four-unit proposal on a 20th Street S.W. corner lot in Altadore, several residents spoke out.
"Please consider the traffic and safety of our community," said one neighbour, who also fretted that potentially losing the lot's trees made it bad for the climate. (Council approved the rezoning, 9-5.)
Duplexes face similar resistance in R-1 zones, with many community association leaders explicitly defending the preservation of "R-1 neighbourhoods."
Kourtney Penner is councillor for Ward 11 in Calgary's suburban southwest, and lives with her children in a skinny infill.
"You hear the comments: it's gonna bring increased parking, or increased cross traffic, or it's going to lower my house prices," she says. "And those are all urban myths."
Penner would like the city to lead a conversation to help erase those fears. Because what is coming on the horizon, in the next couple of years, is a major overhaul of Calgary's zoning bylaw to make the missing middle projects easier to develop.
It's clear that Calgary won't pursue the path Edmonton chose.
In 2018, council in Alberta's capital city voted to simply end its version of R-1 zoning. Now, you only need administrative permits to develop two homes on a single lot, not rezoning; and future zoning plan overhauls stand to make neighbourhood intensification even simpler.
Calgary is being more cautious. In an interview, White, the planning director, signals the city's intentions to ease infill restrictions in some areas, but it won't be city-wide and will focus on strategic areas most likely to face demands for growth.
"Because there's an existing context to these communities, it requires us to be smart about how we deal about that conversation," White says. Aside from the subtle change to allow suites, the city hasn't enacted mass rezoning of R-1 areas since the 1980s, when it created the R-2 zones in inner-city areas.
Nibbling at the edges
Instead, the city has let the lion's share of housing growth happen at the edges where, interestingly, R-1 zones don't exist. In developing neighbourhoods like Keystone Hills in the far north and Belmont in the southwest, they've instead zoned everything as R-G, which allows duplexes without special permission.
In those new subdivisions, there are no established community groups or residents to push back against potential change.
Elsewhere, change to find the missing middle won't come easily.
"It's going to be a kicking and screaming fight," Penner says, "but I hope we have the tenacity to work through it and meet our goals."