Nelson: Ready or not, Calgary's housing revolution is upon us

Portland, Oregon once thought it had nailed urban development. No longer. Calgary is going down the same path. We should be very careful

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The city official in Portland, Ore., couldn’t conceal his disdain regarding this strange Canadian city called Calgary, from which he’d recently returned following some fact-finding mission.

He didn’t know this was my hometown or he might have been less cutting with his remarks — U.S. folk being not so different when it comes to politeness than their northern neighbours, though often a little louder in expressing such good manners.

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This was in the fall of 2004, while among a group of Canadian journalists invited by the State Department to visit key U.S. presidential battlegrounds in the run-up to the election in which George Bush would eventually win a second term.

Our final stop was Portland, where we were briefed, among other things, on that city’s successful drive to increase residential density by making transit a priority and bringing people downtown to live — famously ripping up a major freeway that ran through the city core to kick-start this exciting experiment in urban planning.

Then Calgary was mentioned. The fellow giving the presentation couldn’t believe what he’d seen on his tour north of the border. “It just goes on and on and on. It never seems to stop,” is how I recall his description.

Our city was essentially branded the mirror opposite of saintly Portland, a somewhat dreary place where wide-reaching suburban sprawl was accompanied by a necessary massive roadway system, while the downtown became a veritable ghost town once the working day was done.

As much as that description stung, there seemed more than a grain of truth in those harsh words.

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That was then. This is now. Portland today is a city under siege: gone are those pristine walks along the riverbank and that carefree, youthful ambience of downtown. In its place are camps of homeless drug addicts who make passersby targets for endless harassment and intimidation.

Indeed, downtown teems with people. The problem is the city wishes many of them would pack up and move on. They won’t, because there’s nowhere else to go.

Meanwhile, the once-maligned, sprawling suburbia of Calgary now looks increasingly like some urban oasis by comparison; one where people live comfortably among neighbours not constantly harassing them.

But let’s not pat ourselves on the back too quickly. Our city council seems intent on following Portland’s initial moves that helped push it into an urban hell, by ditching rules that allowed Calgary to evolve into a large collection of reasonably content communities, widely spread to take advantage of the surrounding empty northern prairie.

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Our current model isn’t one that appeals to those climate-forward councillors who seemingly make up the majority on council. Some seem determined to have us embrace the sardine as our civic emblem: merrily relocating to a prescribed downtown tower block and thereby reducing our carbon footprint to that of a hamster’s paw.

This environmental crusade is now joined with a deemed need to provide more affordable housing, as soaring accommodation costs and limited supply crash up against record levels of immigration from across Canada and beyond.

That, and the promise of a big cheque from the Trudeau government if housing rules are relaxed in a hurry, has led to a push to scrap those civic regulations that have been in place for decades, governing what can be built where. It’s revolutionary and could affect every community. And it’s moving ahead with alacrity.

Maybe it is what’s needed. But stakes are high and the outcome is far from certain. Pushing people to live downtown and ramping up housing density everywhere sounds fine.

But, as Portland discovered, things don’t always go as planned.

The question is: Do you trust this council to get it right?

Chris Nelson is a regular Herald columnist.

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