. Toronto can learn a lot from Calgary


Toronto can learn a lot from Calgary

Sep 24, 2007

Torontonians tempted to look down their noses at Calgary might want to think twice.

The once proud redneck capital of Canada is in the process of reinventing itself; though not there yet, Calgary is on its way to becoming a genuine urban centre, not just another overgrown North American suburb wrapped around a decaying historic core.

For the time being it remains an egregious example of the sprawl that blights the landscape of this continent. What's new, however, is that now there's a small but vocal group of Calgarians actively agitating for the city to start behaving like what it should be, a city.

Last week, for instance, the Beltline Urban Forum brought together a group of "experts" from as far away as London, New York, Montreal and, yes, Toronto, to discuss – are you ready? – how best to use Calgary's lanes and alleys. We have had the same discussion here in Toronto, of course, but it has gone nowhere. Dominated by a closed public works mentality, city hall decided it was too dangerous a concept for us to handle.

The Beltline, a multi-use, high-density neighbourhood, is located south of the CPR tracks in downtown Calgary. Its denizens are intent on intensifying the area. That means, remarkably, they welcome development, but they want it to be intelligent, i.e., urban.  Beltliners are the first to admit, however, that the struggle won't be easy.

"Suburbanization is so deeply organized in Calgary, people don't know what a city is," remarks Rob Taylor, president of the Beltline Communities Association. "It's Mississauga but cheaper."

As Taylor, a retired CBC producer also points out, "The city tends to view density as toxic."

It wasn't always thus. The very name Beltline comes from the electrified streetcars that serviced the district for half a century until they were shut down in the early 1960s.

Though Toronto did manage to hang on to its streetcars, the same forces of suburbanization have been unleashed here, especially in the aftermath of amalgamation, that great Queen's Park-imposed fiasco from which the city has yet to recover.

Like Toronto, downtown Calgary has a hidden but extensive grid of laneways that for the most part are either woefully underused or completely ignored. Yet it's clear in both places that the potential is vast. In older, more mature, cities, lanes are sites for housing, restaurants and small businesses. But in Toronto, the safety and garbage collection tyrants have made sure that they remain neglected. Rather than buy smaller trucks, they would have us build a larger – more suburban – city.

Such regressive thinking is badly out of touch and horribly inappropriate at a time when climate change is the gravest crisis we face. In Toronto, it's estimated that the city's lanes could accommodate more than 6,000 housing units. This in land already fully serviced by sewers, transit and so on.

Torontonians might also be impressed by the changing relationship between Calgary and the province of Alberta. Just last week, the provincial government agreed to a civic funding program that will see $3.3 billion handed over to that city during the next decade. This money will be used for everything from public transit to cultural facilities.

By contrast, the government of Ontario continues to suck money out of Toronto taxpayers and give precious little back in return. We even pay some for the province's social services bill.

What makes the situation here all the more extraordinary is that Torontonians willingly accept it. At least Calgarians in ex-premier Ralph Klein's riding had the good sense not to elect another Conservative in a recent provincial by-election.

In Toronto, we continue to vote for MPPs who care nothing for the city.

It's true that Calgary doesn't have Toronto's past, but then, Toronto doesn't appear to have Calgary's future.

Christopher Hume can be reached at chume@thestar.ca

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