Calgary's neighbourhoods are great, but we can make them better

Post Date: Saturday, October 08, 2011
Naheed Nenshi - formalIn addition to my regular monthly column in the Calgary Herald, I've written the introductory column for the newspaper's special series called Project Calgary: Making our neighbourhoods better. Here is the full text of that special article:  

What makes a good community?

This is a question that I have been grappling with for many years (long before the honour of serving as your mayor) and it’s something that your City Council works on every day: making sure every community is a great community.

This isn’t rocket science; I remember when, as a volunteer, I worked on imagineCalgary—the process to develop a long-term vision for our city. One of my jobs was to sift through the responses of 18,000 Calgarians describing their ideal city.

There was remarkable unanimity amongst the responses. When people were asked what kind of a neighbourhood they valued, they said they wanted to live in a place where they could walk to the store. A place where their kids could walk to school. Where kids grow up surrounded by neighbours who are different from themselves, so that they understand that everyone is not the same. Where it’s easy to get to and from work and play. Where that second, third, and fourth family car are a choice, not an absolute necessity to live a decent life.

Of course, to make this work, we need the basics: every neighbourhood must be safe. We must all have access to clean water, air, and land. We have to take the garbage away and provide opportunities for recycling.

The good news is that every neighbourhood in Calgary has these basics. Take crime and safety, for example: you will read in this Herald series about the variations between communities in reported crime, and the differences are sometimes a bit striking. However, the context is important: every single neighbourhood in Calgary is an incredibly safe neighbourhood. Even our “highest-crime” communities would be the envy of any city anywhere.

Calgarians know this: in the recent Citizen Satisfaction Survey, 81 per cent of Calgarians said they feel safe walking in their own neighbourhoods at night.

Indeed, as we sensitively increase the density of existing neighbourhoods, safety will also increase. While some claim that more people in a community leads to more crime, the evidence shows that the opposite is true. More people means more eyes on the street at different times of day and night, and that means more safety for all.

This does not mean, however, that the job is done. I often note that density is only one part of the picture of a successful city. The other elements that we need for economic growth and social development are diversity and a sense of discovery.

We have work to do on diversity. While Calgary is a model of pluralism and meritocracy for the world, we are not reflecting the diversity of the city in our individual neighbourhoods. For too long, we have been building new communities that exclude by design, and, over the last decade, we have seen a troubling stratification of neighbourhoods.

Where once most communities were “average” – with a mix of incomes, ages, lifecycles, and ethnicities, we are starting to see more segregation: some neighbourhoods are rich, others poor; some young, others old; some more ethnically diverse, others less so.

This is troubling because of the need for social cohesion in our city. We cannot separate the rich and poor, for example, without running the risk of increasing the gap—particularly through the temptation to reduce public investments in neighbourhoods seen as less “desirable”.

But it’s also a big problem for long-term financial sustainability: if a neighbourhood is made up entirely of young families, for example, we are always struggling to keep up with rec facilities and programs for kids. The province rushes in to build schools. Within a relatively short period of time (measured in years and not decades), the kids all grow up, the schools are empty, and we struggle to build facilities in the next neighbourhood out.

We can’t keep on like this. We need to encourage people at different lifecycles to live in all neighbourhoods—to keep schools open and hockey rinks and buses full and to ensure that seniors can stay in their homes as long as possible.

Changing this will be tough, but it is possible; and, as a community, we can do it. It means making sure that new neighbourhoods are designed to serve different kinds of people from the ground up, and it also means that we need to continue to find ways to ensure that existing neighbourhoods are welcoming to young families.

Overall, we are so very lucky to live in this city. Eighty-four per cent of us agree with the statement "I'm proud to be a Calgarian," and the same number agrees that "I'm proud to live in my neighbourhood."

But it will take more than luck to maintain this as the city grows. It will take goodwill, willingness to change, and a lot of hard work. The good news is that Calgarians have all three, and together, we can do anything!

- Mayor Naheed Nenshi