Where do we grow from here

Keystone Hills not yet ready for prime time

Imagine another 1.2 million people arriving in our city from all corners of the world. That’s what Calgary’s Municipal Development Plan (MDP) is forecasting will happen by 2069. Where will we house these new arrivals? Where will they work shop go to school and get medical care?

The answer for the past 20 years has been almost exclusively in greenfields — farmland and prairie on the edge of our city spilling relentlessly out into the foothills. But all of this growth has come at a cost. Up until now every home built in a suburban development has put our city deeper in the red. We come up short about $7 billion to $8 billion for transit infrastructure alone. According to Mayor Naheed Nenshi under the current arrangement for tax revenue from these suburbs we will never recoup the costs of building them.

The MDP is supposed to change all of that. This week council held a public hearing to consider a bylaw for the first new development under the MDP — the Keystone Hills Area Structure Plan (ASP) which covers 11 square kilometres housing 60000 people in three distinct communities located northwest of the junction of Stoney Trail (ring road) and Deerfoot Trail. That’s right 15 km from downtown Calgary and a mere 2 km from Cross Iron Mills.

If you take this new community plan in isolation its look good. The street grid the bicycle and transit routes and the design guidelines for the neighbourhood and community activity and retail centres will all contribute to more walkable communities. But as soon as you widen the lens to look at its context things come undone.

As they say location location location. Calgary’s new communities are isolated pockets in a sea of multi-lane highways and interchanges far from the heart of the city. The further out from the city centre you go the more these communities are hemmed in by the freeways required to service them. Keystone Hills doesn’t change that.

In all likelihood if you live in Keystone Hills you will have little choice but to get in a car to venture beyond your community. If you want to go to the library or to a swimming pool you will have to trek across the formidable Stoney Trail. Transit lines have been drawn but with no date for the LRT and no commitment to put sufficient buses on those routes.

Keystone Hills is a step in the right direction but there is a yawning gap between its vision and the daunting challenges we face in the coming decades. Just this past week the United Nations’ 2012 Global Environmental Outlook reported that only four of 90 ecological indicators are moving in the right direction. Meanwhile Calgary’s own sustainability assessment notes that this ASP does nothing to reduce our ecological footprint and will result “in greater demands on the Earth’s biosphere than the current citywide baseline.”

The city has made commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 80 per cent by 2050 but the sustainability assessment estimates that Keystone Hills will produce GHG emissions greater than the current Calgary average. There are lofty pronouncements of how to reduce energy consumption they are called guidelines and they carry no legal weight — friendly suggestions really to hard-nosed bottom-line profit-seeking developers.

A goal of the MDP is that new developments will not “compromise quality of life for current and future Calgarians.” We think this ASP may do just that. A major study from Queens University was published this week estimating that inactive lifestyles in adults — caused in large part by auto-dependent cities — cost the Canadian health care system almost $7 billion annually. Calgary’s share would be approximately $212 million. That’s a lot of compromised quality of life.

As is this ASP will lock its communities into the old financially unsustainable pattern of development for the next 25 years. It does not meet the expectations of Calgarians as expressed through the imagineCalgary and Plan It processes and it undermines MDP goals and the city’s financial stability.

Is another battle for sustainability lost? Here’s how we might improve the ASP. First include established communities in the land supply assessment. Second if there is still a case that we need new developable lands establish energy-intensity targets so these communities will contribute to the city’s GHG reduction strategy. Third does this ASP make financial sense? Ensure that accepting or rejecting it is based on the real costs of growth including full life cycle costs. Fourth could you live in the community without a car? Make transit a part of core infrastructure and acceptance of this ASP contingent on the provision (in plans and budgets) of high-quality transit service that will make it a realistic option for Keystone residents within five years of first occupancy.

Keystone Hills will be the suburban development template for decades. It is incumbent upon city council and developers to get it right. Let’s make sure we know where we are growing.