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Growing pains plague Calgary

Thursday, September 28, 2000

CALGARY -- In many ways, Calgary is a relative teenager compared with other world cities.

It's barely more than a century old, and its energy comes both from an ambitious young population and from its status as the energy capital of Canada, home to the headquarters of most of the country's oil and gas companies.

Calgary is also going through one heck of a growth spurt.

"We have 2,000 people moving here every month," Calgary Mayor Al Duerr beamed.

At that rate, Calgary's population is projected to reach one million by 2007, from the present 860,749, according to city planning documents.

The influx of new residents, particularly in the past three years, is due to the prosperity of the oil-rich province and to job opportunities in Alberta's industrial centre.

But like most things approaching maturity, growth doesn't come without some pain.

"Canadians in general, and Calgarians in particular, use more energy, generate more waste and use more water than practically anybody on the planet," said Noel Keough, co-ordinator of the Sustainable Calgary Society, a non-profit group working on its second State of Our City report.

That kind of resource use is a drain on both the environment and the economy, Mr. Keough said.

While city hall, backed by urban planners and other groups, is pushing for higher density away from the downtown core, lower-density suburbs with names such as Evergreen and Bridlewood are springing up on the fringes.

Although the city has a top-notch transit system, Calgarians, loath to be pried from their vehicles, are just starting to experience rush-hour traffic and tie-ups long familiar in Toronto and Vancouver.

Increasingly, the municipality's ability to deliver basic services is under strain and there is greater demand on the dated infrastructure.

According to a recent study by the Washington-based International City-County Management Association,Calgary ranked near the bottom among major North American cities in terms of fire-department response times. Fire officials in Calgary pointed to the city's urban sprawl and low-density population as reasons why services haven't kept up with the fast-paced growth.

Although the city is coping with provincial cuts to municipal grants in recent years, coupled with higher costs for materials and equipment, Calgary's 2000 to 2004 capital budget earmarks almost $1.8-billion for things such as transportation infrastructure.

"The 2000 budget focuses on the most prominent issue facing the city over the next five years: increased demands for municipal infrastructure and services because of growth," the city notes in its budget overview.

The city passed something it calls the Calgary Plan in 1998 as a blueprint for commercial and residential expansion as well as for infrastructure development, with an eye to accommodate an expected population of 1.25 million by 2024.

But if Calgary's density continues to decrease as development sprawls, the existing urban problems with traffic congestion and delivery of services are just going to get worse, said Dr. Beverly Sandalack, a professor at the University of Calgary's faculty of environmental design.

Thought also has to be given to public squares and parks, she said.

"Growth is a sign that people want to live here, which is positive, but with growth there has to be attention to the quality of urban form," Dr. Sandalack said. "When most of the development is single-use suburbs, maybe we need to attend to the civic nature of development."

Mr. Keough says the city has recognized the issues surrounding Calgary's rapid growth and focused on tackling the problems.

"[It's] going in the right directions maybe," he said, "but not fast enough."

Monday: Paradise or parking lot?
Tuesday: York's green strategy.
Wednesday:Durham -- small town, big plans.
Today: Parallel universe in Peel.
Friday: Halton's development showdown.
Saturday: Toronto opens for growth.
Join the debate on urban sprawl at

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