For many years, the fast-growing cities of Calgary and Edmonton have been the stereotype for sprawling, car-dominant urban planning, but recently they have begun to shed that image and are in many ways becoming North American leaders in progressive urban design and city building policy. Other cities might take note.
Private vehicles have shaped our cities more than anything else over the last century, but the environmental, economic, urban quality and social equity impacts of cars has progressive cities looking to diversify mobility options. Calgary and Edmonton both made the investment in light rail transit more than 40 years ago, when they had less than two-thirds of Winnipeg’s current population.
Today, broad public support is fuelling transit investment and expansion in both cities. Backed with significant federal funding available to all cities, current construction of the Valley Line in Edmonton will more than double the city’s 24-kilometre-long LRT system by 2026, and Calgary will soon begin construction on the 20-kilometer-long Green Line, adding to its current 60 kilometres of rail transit. In Calgary, 45 per cent of people who work downtown commute by train. The network is used by more than 300,000 people per day, making it one of the busiest LRT systems in North America, second only to Guadalajara, Mexico.
Calgary has also demonstrated leadership in active transportation development. In 2014, the city installed a complete, temporary downtown grid of protected bike lanes, all at once. The network has since been made permanent and the results have been significant, with more than 18,000 cyclists entering or leaving downtown daily, an increase of more than 300 per cent over 20 years.
The City of Edmonton is not only working to diversify mobility, they have also committed to building safer streets for all road users, to calm traffic, reduce collisions, promote walking and cycling, and create more liveable, and healthier neighbourhoods. The city has implemented a Vision Zero policy with the goal of eliminating all traffic fatalities by the year 2032. Funded by revenues from red light cameras and automated traffic enforcement, the city has been building traffic-calming elements into street design that intuitively slow drivers through changes in the physical environment. This includes narrowing streets and lanes, adding speed bumps and raised crosswalks, building protected bike lanes, and extending curbs at intersections to shorten crossing distances for pedestrians. The city is going even further, announcing that speed limits on all residential and high-pedestrian main streets will be reduced to 40 km/h.
These initiatives have found success. Over the last five-year period (pre-pandemic), Edmonton reduced vehicle collisions involving pedestrians and cyclists by nearly 30 per cent, overall collision fatalities decreased by 56 per cent and serious injuries declined by 30 per cent. The number of trips taken by bicycle has also doubled in the last ten years across the city.
Urban mobility is one way Calgary and Edmonton are moving into the future, reconsidering land-use policy is another. Calgary will hit the ground running as we move out of the pandemic, recently releasing a visionary, ten year, one-billion-dollar downtown plan. The urban transformation road map will ensure economic and cultural prosperity for the city centre long into the future. A $200-million initial investment will be used to fund affordable housing and office tower conversions, greenspace development, arts and culture, and public realm improvements, focused on creating a liveable downtown neighbourhood that redefines the business district into a vibrant, 24-7 centre of the city.
Edmonton’s land use policy has been the gold standard for promoting neighbourhood densification, renewal, and infill development in mature neighbourhoods. The city’s successful Infill Roadmap began in 2014 with dedicated political buy-in from city council, which moved forward a comprehensive network of guidelines that shape development, monitor construction sites, encourage good design and promote clear dialogue between all stakeholders. Its success has seen a public fear of change evolve into a greater understanding of the economic, environmental, and social benefits of higher-density growth and acceptance that neighbourhood character and demographics can evolve without detriment to quality of life. Last year, 30 per cent of all new development in Edmonton occurred as infill in mature neighbourhoods, more than twice Winnipeg’s current levels.
Edmonton has not stopped with this success, recently becoming the first city in Canada to eliminate minimum parking requirements for new developments that stifle investment and lead to overbuilt parking in new construction. The city is also working on a new zoning system that will re-think the city’s entire land-use policy to prioritize economic and environmental sustainability, social and housing equity, neighbourhood mobility and walkability.
Implementing progressive urban change in Alberta’s cities should not be dismissed as a function of wealth. It is not a matter of money; it is about priorities and political will. Continuing the ideas of the past and moving forward with apprehension will be a greater cost to other cities.
Calgary and Edmonton still struggle with urban sprawl, as most Canadian cities do, but bold leadership is executing a progressive vision that will push those cities into a prosperous future. Rethinking the urban mobility and land-use ideas of the past is not radical, it is just what progressive cities do.
Brent Bellamy is senior design architect for Number Ten Architectural Group.