Dec. 4, 2020

Professor envisions carless living in Calgary

Policy work looks at reducing cost of housing, transportation and food, making city more sustainable

Each year, millions of tourists flock to New York City to experience the art, architecture, and sights of one of the world’s most popular cities. Many of them wander over to a historic, elevated rail line that fell into a state of abandoned disrepair in the 1980s. They walk, sit, eat, and take photos at the world-renowned "High Line," a former eyesore slated for demolition. Today, it's the embodiment of community engagement and a thriving boon to the city, drawing nearly eight million visitors annually.

The High Line is not the only example of a city repurposing a space for public benefit. Paris, Toronto, Sydney, Helsinki, Tokyo and Chicago have all reclaimed unused spaces to turn them into pedestrian-friendly areas, forging new connections within the cities through active transportation networks, whether pedestrian- or bicycle-powered.

  • Photo above: Manchester Industrial Area. Photo by Spectacle Bureau (architecture firm) — Jessie Andjelic, MArch’09 and Phil Vandermey, MArch’06

What if Calgary adopted a similar sensibility in reimagining ways of revitalizing dead zones for public benefit?

Dr. Noel Keough, PhD, a professor in the School of Architecture, Planning and Landscape (SAPL), has spent 30 years researching how to make Calgary a more equitable and sustainable city. “The three biggest monthly household expenditures are housing, transportation and food — if you can reduce those three, it becomes more affordable for people to live in our city.”

Keough co-founded the not-for-profit Sustainable Calgary 22 years ago. Through this organization, he has worked tirelessly on initiatives that promote sustainability as a way of advocating for change.

“One of the most significant ways to reduce household expenses is by eliminating the need for an automobile —  through changing land use to allow laneway housing and micro-businesses, and having safe and connected active transportation networks within neighborhoods and across city districts,” says Keough. While it’s not necessarily feasible to walk or bike across the entire city, “if you can create a matrix of transportation that integrates with the LRT system, you create a functional transportation network.”

Thanks to university funding from an anonymous donor, Keough recently worked with Sustainable Calgary to identify urban policies that would support more affordable living through the Housing Transportation Food (HTF) Nexus Project. Through community engagement, they identified two areas in Calgary that would benefit from initiatives to help transform inner city neighbourhoods and industrial lands for the purpose of promoting a sustainable economy.  

The Deerfoot Divide

Near the Telus Spark lies a former Canadian Pacific Railway spur line that runs through a tunnel under Deerfoot Trail and east into the Franklin Industrial area. What if the area could be transformed to expand the network of bike paths and walkways; to bridge the equity divide the Deerfoot Trail has unwittingly created between east and west and allow for homes, offices, and shopping for everyone?

Spur Line Project.

The Spur Line Project.

Alfred Gomez, MLA’21

SAPL students worked with Sustainable Calgary and Iuliana Morar, MLA’18, to re-envision the area. Alfred Gomez, MLA’21, one of the team members, says, “We focused on converting and re-purposing abandoned infrastructures while connecting the surrounding communities to the rest of the city through an active transportation corridor. Working on this project made me realize how design can shape or reshape policies in the city. Design can be a tool to drive innovative policy solutions for the improvement of place-making in cities.”

Manchester Industrial Area

The Manchester Industrial Area was identified as another area with great potential for transformation. Directly east of the Windsor Park neighbourhood, Chinook Mall and Macleod Trail, it is home to an array of businesses, with an unused utility road running alongside the LRT line and a number of its own dormant rail spur lines. Local architects Jessie Andjelic, MArch’09, and Phil Vandermey, MArch’06, worked with Sustainable Calgary to reimagine the area as an incubator for a circular economy — where all materials are re-used, re-purposed or recycled, and the energy used in the district is generated via renewable technologies — solar, wind, hydro or geothermal. They envisioned a community that combines housing with jobs, green infrastructure, and a streetcar system that makes owning a car optional, where innovative design encourages and enables active lifestyles.  

Spur Line Project

The Spur Line Project.

More funding toward active transportation 

Since its founding, Sustainable Calgary has produced five State of Our City reports that monitor 40 indicators of sustainability to identify areas for improvement in Calgary. The report is used as a benchmark for promoting change through a series of ongoing interdisciplinary initiatives intended to help transform inner city neighbourhoods and industrial lands to promote a sustainable economy. The organization engages communities and uses design as a policy tool — imagining interventions prioritized by the community, and leveraging those interventions to advocate for policy change at the city level.

“Thanks to the funding for the HTF Nexus we’ve been able to put this work in front of City administrators and Council as part of pushing for more support for active transportation,” says Keough. “The city has a lot of good policy and recognizes that active transportation should be given preference, but their budgets have not reflected that. More money going to active transportation infrastructure will be the real measure of our success.”