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Plan It and Think! Alberta

By DJ Kelly July 6, 2009

A couple weeks ago I was asked by Rachel Singh, web editor at Alberta Venture, to do a guest post on their Think! Alberta blog. I happily jumped at the chance.

My posts (it was too large for one post and so was broken into two halves) was written before the Plan It public hearing at Calgary City Council. I myself am surprised how accurate my predictions were as the main thesis of my post appears to be very similar to what the developers were complaining about and what council is now grappling with through 76 amendments.

Time will tell where things land, but after it being live on the Think! Alberta site for a week or so, I wanted to cross post the text here for you to read if you haven’t already.

Part I – Buyer Beware

As a marketer I find myself often telling clients “if you want to be seen as something, then just be that something.” You don’t need to spend a large amount of money to tell people what they should think of your company if you’ve got a good product. On the other hand, if your product is terrible, it doesn’t matter how much money you throw at the problem – people won’t buy it.This appears to be exactly the kind of problem the City of Calgary may be facing in Plan It.

For those who are unfamiliar, Plan It is perhaps the most important policy document the City of Calgary has created in many years. It consists of two documents, the Calgary Transportation Plan and the Municipal Development Plan, that set out the vision for how the city will grow over the next 60 years and 1.3 million residents.

Housing developers and their lobby organizations are coming out of the woodwork to denounce Plan It’s goal of increasing housing density and generally not allowing them to build the kinds of suburban developments they have gotten so good at producing for over half a century. And who can blame them?

Nobody likes to be forced to fundamentally change their business model when their current one is so profitable and highly sought after. Assuming Plan It is approved, its success or failure will be based on its ability to change the public attitude toward these kinds of developments. If the public winds up preferring to live in smaller homes or closer to their place of work, more walkable communities or near transit, the homebuilders that adapt to this change will be the ones that succeed the most.

I have no doubt public attitudes will shift in this direction eventually. This is not the hill Plan It could die on however – despite the development industry’s request that it does. The good news – or bad news as the case may be – is that the success of Plan It will fall directly on the shoulders of the City of Calgary and how the plan is implemented.

Calgary City Council has done a very good job over the years looking down the road and helping set a vision for the city’s future in motion. Plan after policy after plan have been enacted, but clearly the citizens of Calgary feel unaffected for the most part by these plans and policies: urban sprawl has continued, there are constant complaints about transit usefulness, and despite a great pathway system biking to work has not caught on in a big way.

Why?

The answer is simple: you can’t just say you are something, you have to be that something.

Part II – Don’t Say, Do

Plan It lays out what we want to be. But we’ve had plans before. How has the City of Calgary done with these previous plans? They don’t have a good track record with turning previous ambitions into action.

As the average commuter waiting in traffic can tell you Calgary Transit has not been effective at getting people out of their cars despite the City setting public transportation higher than roadways on their priority list. The majority of C-Train stations are in the middle of large parking lots. This encourages people to drive to their local station instead of walk. Not to mention there is little in the way of amenities around most stations and therefore little to encourage you to take a C-Train for any use other than to go downtown. (Clearly this was the original intent of the C-Train system, but it hasn’t evolved since first being built despite the high-cost associated with operating it for only a single task.)

The need to drive to a C-Train station is further compounded by the frustration users feel when attempting to take a bus to the closest station. Many bus stops in the suburbs are lonely concrete islands with no sidewalks, and infrequently cleared of snow in the winter. Even if a suburb is lucky enough to lose their “Future Bus Stop” sign and have an actual route, the user demand is not enough to warrant a frequent schedule because, in short, we have built these communities so that a car is required for even the simplest of errands.

The same is true when it comes to other forms of alternative transportation. The City has been trying to encourage more commuters to use their bicycles to get to work. Plans and policies have been approved with this goal in mind. But what is actually occurring on the ground is far from encouraging people to bike to work. According to this Calgary Herald story the new bike lane installed last year on 26 Avenue SW is all but impossible to navigate. The lane icons have been scraped off the road by snowplows and, not being able to see the icons, drivers ignore the lane to the detriment of bikers peddling next to them. The article also mentions that at one point bikers must disembark and lift their bike over a low fence to even stay on the path.

Another bike commute route with similar issues is 20 Avenue N. Despite it being a road without a bike lane, it is frequented by riders as the main east/west inner-city route. It was not scheduled to be cleared of gravel until June 16 – well into Calgary’s bike riding season.

Just like the suburban transit user, when existing bicycle commuters are treated with this kind of indifference what is the incentive for more people to join them?

The City of Calgary has no shortage of plans – and Plan It is another example of the City’s excellent visionary thinking and should be approved – but until city Administration buys in to these plans and changes the way they think about city building, the hard work of those that have written these documents will continue to languish. As will our city.

The time has come to no longer just say we want to be a great city; the time has come to put our money where our mouths are, stop talking about what we could do, and work at becoming that great city.

  • Rachel Singh

    DJ did in fact make some predictions. Not only did he rise to my challenge of writing a 600-word article in his spare time. Spare time is all relative though, isn’t it. This is a guy that seemed to find time in what I gauged to be a 50 or 60-hour work week to contribute his thoughts on what he felt was important.

    I am heading off to pursue studies and so am leaving editing magazines behind for the time being, but if there is one thing I have learned in my time in the magazine industry, it’s that if you want to say something, why don’t you? You never know who will be listening. Everything is possible. It just needs the voice, or voices, behind it. Speak, share, listen. Forward. And, above all, comment.

  • Rachel Singh

    DJ did in fact make some predictions. Not only did he rise to my challenge of writing a 600-word article in his spare time. Spare time is all relative though, isn’t it. This is a guy that seemed to find time in what I gauged to be a 50 or 60-hour work week to contribute his thoughts on what he felt was important.

    I am heading off to pursue studies and so am leaving editing magazines behind for the time being, but if there is one thing I have learned in my time in the magazine industry, it’s that if you want to say something, why don’t you? You never know who will be listening. Everything is possible. It just needs the voice, or voices, behind it. Speak, share, listen. Forward. And, above all, comment.