March 27, 2023

Open minds, brave leaders needed to re-imagine Calgary’s sustainable future

UCalgary design school panel looks to inclusive revamp of homes and housing
Open minds, brave leaders needed to re-imagine Calgary’s sustainable future
School of Architecture, Planning and Landscape

Changing Calgary will be much easier than changing Calgary minds when it comes to sustainable and inclusive urban growth.

That was the key message and daunting hurdle presented by Mayor Jyoti Gondek at a panel discussion on the city’s future growth, hosted by UCalgary’s School of Architecture, Planning and Landscape.

  • Photo above: Panel participants, from left, June Williamson, Alex Ferguson and Joe Case listen as Mayor Jyoti Gondek addresses the audience during a panel discussion at SAPL’s downtown City Building Design Lab on how Calgary can manage growth and address equity, livability, and economic and environmental sustainability.

Calgary’s mayor explained that while politicians in places like city hall may appreciate the idea of development that considers sustainability and social equity, those who live by the vote too often fear the public’s distaste for change.

“When you put decisions in the hands of people who are elected by other people, sometimes our judgment gets clouded by the fact that we may have a desire to keep our communities happy, and we may have desires to get re-elected,” explained Gondek, who went on to describe the thinking process that results from this dynamic.

“I love this project, but my community associations won’t like it.

If we’re always being a chickenpants about what our community’s going to say, you’re never going to make good, compelling decisions.

Sold-out session discusses future growth

The panel also featured Joe Case, vice-president, Mattamy Homes; June Williamson, author, architect, professor at City University of New York, and Fellow at the Urban Design Forum; Alkarim Devani, president, RNDSQR; and Alex Ferguson, senior VP, sevelopment, Anthem Properties Group Ltd.

Challenged with the thematic question "How will our cities move from our past actions and shift our practice to enable more sustainable growth patterns?", Gondek opened the sold-out session by challenging politicians to be bolder, while telling voters to look for politicians who embrace change.

“The fear that is created about something different, and change coming into your community, makes politicians very nervous when we make decisions,” she said.

“You need to think about who you’re going to vote for — and what kind of courage they have to make good decisions.”

Open minds, brave leaders needed to re-imagine Calgary’s sustainable future

Jyoti Gondek, flanked by Joe Case, addresses the crowd during the panel discussion.

School of Architecture, Planning and Landscape

Rentals: No longer second-class to a mortgage

Much of the discussion centred around re-developing neighbourhoods so they offer something for everyone, from single family homes to affordable and multi-generational housing.

The movement away from mortgages as the pinnacle of housing choice was also a subject for the panel discussion, with Devani saying change is already well underway.

“There is no question a demographic shift is starting to happen where we are starting to see young people prioritize flexibility and convenience over long-term ownership,” said Devani.

“We're starting to see folks who are not thinking of staying in the same home for 10 or 20 years, or the same community for that matter.”

While rental communities have long been embraced as a top-notch housing option in the United States,  Ferguson said Canadians still look down their noses at a mortgage-free living choice.

“Canadians actually suck at rental housing; Americans are amazing. They’re like, ‘We're going to put in giant TVs and make it fun,’” explained Ferguson.

“Canadians, because we’re conservative and there’s a social stigma around it, we haven’t made great rental communities yet.”

From asphalt ugly to multi-use magnificence

Williamson shared a series of slides, showing how a typically grim urban area designed with parking as a priority can be transformed from asphalt ugly into a bustling neighbourhood of multi-family homes and retail, or into a green park with recreation areas and market space.

“We need both regreening and compact redevelopment and infill,” said Williamson, professor at the Bernard and Anne Spitzer School of Architecture at the City College of New York.

“My message is that suburban built form can and must be urgently retrofitted for increased social equity and resilience in the face of climate change and other forces.”

She said Calgary is in prime position to use underwhelming existing areas for creative and sustainable retrofitting of affordable housing and rental homes.

“Existing metropolitan areas can sustainably accommodate projected population growth, demographic changes and the introduction of new and diversified uses without increasing the overall footprint of urbanized land area,” she said.

“That’s the key piece, we can do all of this within our existing footprint.”

This panel was part of SAPL’s free and public lecture series, Design Matters.

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