Calgary versus the car: the city that declared war on urban sprawl

The sprawling, car-centric city of calgary, alberta is home to much of canada’s oil and gas business
The sprawling, car-centric city of Calgary, Alberta is home to much of Canada’s oil and gas business / © Alamy

Calgary is like any other Canadian city that grew outwards, not upwards. But led by progressive mayor Naheed Nenshi, the oil-rich, car-friendly city has become an unlikely leader in the battle to limit urban sprawl

On 14 June 2016, as it does once a month, the entire Calgary city council – including mayor Naheed Nenshi – spent nearly the whole day reviewing individual applications for “secondary suites”. If it sounds like a tedious grind, that’s because it is. Secondary suites are minor house alterations – for example, converting a basement into a separate rental unit. The council debates and votes on each one, one by one. It can be a rancorous process, and it’s inevitably far too microscopic in scaleto occupy so much of the time of council of a city of more than a million people.

But Calgary is no ordinary city. As the corporate home of Canada’s oil and gas industry, it has long been particularly friendly to the car. Secondary suites, however, present a challenge to the automobile’s supremacy: they increase housing density, and ease the push to expand ever further into the suburbs.

So when Nenshi came into office in 2010 on a progressive pledge to fight urban sprawl and bring in city-wide secondary suite legislation, a fight was indeed what he found. Twice, city councillors representing the suburban wards have voted down his secondary suite proposal. And so the interminable monthly approval discussions drone on – a routine reminder that Calgary still has a long way to go in its transformation from a city of expansive suburbs and broad, multi-lane expressways into the denser, more emphatically urban place so powerfully symbolised by Nenshi’s ascent to mayor.

Calgary’s battle against sprawl is duplicated in one way or another in every Canadian city. Blessed with abundant space and cheap fuel, the country’s cities grew mostly outwards instead of upwards as they prospered in the decades after the second world war. The aspirational Canadian lifestyle that emerged in those years was a wholly suburban one – a detached home surrounded by a tidy putting-green lawn on a wide curving avenue, with two cars in the garage to drive down fast-moving freeways to work, school and the mall. […]

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