Living On the Edge of Calgary City Limits

The exurban communities that surround Calgary have much to recommend them – friendlier neighbours, bigger yards, safer streets. But this small-town charm comes at a cost, much of it being shouldered by Calgary taxpayers.

Illustrations by Dan Page

Whatever you do, don’t call them bedroom communities. There’s nothing sexy about the term, and not even unassuming Okotoks – the town that adopted “There are a number of things to do in Okotoks” as its tourism slogan – wants to be known as a bedroom of the house that is Calgary.

Yet there they are, on the edge of a big city that dominates and largely defines the region economically and culturally (if not politically): Okotoks to the south, Airdrie to the north, Cochrane to the west, and to the east – just barely, already rubbing up against city limits, Chestermere and, further on, Strathmore. As well, there are smaller towns like Black Diamond and Turner Valley, hamlets like Bragg Creek, Priddis and Langdon, and the “one of a kind” townsite of Redwood Meadows. Many – in some places, most – of their citizens work in Calgary. Virtually all come into Calgary to play or to shop, and virtually none would ever, ever, ever want to live in the city itself.

So what draws them to life on the edge? The same thing that drew the first suburbanites and ex-urbanites out of London and Manchester and into England’s first “garden city” suburbs in the wake of the Industrial Revolution: the air is cleaner, the birds are chirpier, the lots are bigger and the houses are, potentially, cheaper.

In other words, the perceived quality of life is better.

“I know everyone around me. I know my neighbours, and not just their names. I really know them. We help each other out,” explains Paula Evans, who grew up on an acreage in Springbank on the edge of Calgary. After an interlude of a dozen years as a resident Calgarian, she’s been raising her three children in Cochrane. “When my kids graduate from high school, they will know every child in their class, every child in their school,” she says. “I love that I live in a place where my children can bike halfway across town to school and I feel completely safe about it.”

Gita and James Grahame relocated their family from the Calgary suburb of Millrise to Turner Valley for similar reasons. “Calgary was too big,” Gita Grahame says. “Our son was about to start kindergarten, and he would be bussed to school.” A move to the outskirts of Turner Valley (population just over 2,000) still put them within walking distance of the elementary school and everything else, including Gita’s job with the town library.

The move kept them within arm’s reach of the amenities Calgary offered – most importantly, further educational opportunities for their son as he grew – while allowing them to build a close community within an already close community. “People in Calgary are friendly, yes, but people in small towns are friendlier,” Grahame says unequivocally. “My neighbours in Millrise would say, ‘Hi, how are you?’ and that was about that.” Her neighbours in Turner Valley offered the Grahames a spare bedroom to sleep in the first time the family visited their not-quite-built Turner Valley home.

The small town/rural feel that’s within reach of everything the big city has to offer but is away from it all was the draw for life on the edge for Chad Fehr as well. Fehr lives in the townsite of Redwood Meadows, a community of just under 1,000 people settled on land leased from the Tsuu T’ina nation, five kilometres from the 500-person hamlet of Bragg Creek, and a 45-minute drive from downtown Calgary. Fehr moved to Alberta with his wife and two children from the Northwest Territories. Even though the couple wanted to be near the amenities of Calgary, they definitely did not want to be in Calgary. “We wanted something that was more rural, we were clear about that,” Fehr explains, “but with access to the city, to good school systems, to additional opportunities for the children.” He believes Redwood Meadows delivers all that, combining “more space and a little more privacy” with a “sense of community and security, because everybody knows everybody else.”

And when he wants it, the cacophony, chaos and culture of Calgary are just a short drive away. An accountant, Fehr works out of Bragg Creek for predominantly Calgary-based clients. “We go to them,” he says. “We pick our times to go into the city, so most of the time we aren’t driving during rush hour. Our commute is rarely stressful.”

But that’s not the case for all denizens of the outer regions. While a commute from Calgary to any of Airdrie, Okotokos or Cochrane (each about 35 km from downtown Calgary) should take no more than 45 minutes when Deerfoot, Crowchild and Stoney are moving well, commutes of an hour or more are increasingly common. Not much, perhaps, by Greater Toronto or mega-Vancouver commute standards, but still two hours a workday spent traversing the congested roads of Calgary. It’s a situation fueling a heated conversation among the municipalities, the City and the Province on highway infrastructure and regional transit solutions … and who should pay for said solutions.

A January 2016 study by the C. D. Howe Institute came out strongly in support of toll roads as a revenue-raising solution to the high cost of road infrastructure – an idea briefly floated by Jim Prentice’s Progressive Conservatives back when the economy just started to soften. Rachel Notley’s NDP government rejected the suggestion as vociferously as it had when former Bank of Canada governor David Dodge made the same suggestion in a commissioned report in 2015.

The consensus seems to be that Albertans will not accept toll roads or user fees, just as they don’t respond well to increased taxes. So. No user fees. No taxes. What are we left with? “We need a regional approach to transportation and infrastructure challenges, absolutely, and there is some major regional collaboration that needs to occur on our transportation, water, sewer issues,” says Peter Brown, mayor of Airdrie. “In some ways, we’re competing interests, but governments should never compete with each other. We all need to provide services and infrastructure to our residents.”

Regional collaboration does happen. South of Calgary, the municipalities of Nanton, High River, Black Diamond, Turner Valley and Okotoks, working with Calgary under the umbrella of the Calgary Regional Partnership, are set to launch the On-It Regional Transit system in September 2016. The two-year pilot will run buses through the rural neighbourhoods to the Somerset-Bridlewood LRT station in Calgary’s deep south in the morning, with return trips in the evening rush hours. The estimated $500,000 a year cost will ultimately be funded in large part by the province, offset in part by user fees.

The advocates of the award-winning project are thrilled in advance: it’s good for the environment, good for congestion on the roads, good for the mental health of commuters – good for everyone. Right?

Right. Except then, delivered to the Calgary LRT station, the Foothills commuters get on Calgary transit – which is, again, great, right? As Calgary councillor Brian Pincott says, “We don’t want them to take their cars downtown. We want them to take transit. Calgary transit is about more than Calgary – it provides transit for the region, and that’s how it should be.”

However, it puts pressure on an already heavily used system. During morning rush hour, a Calgarian getting on the south LRT at Canyon Meadows or Anderson Station will rarely get a seat, as the train is already filled with exurban commuters. The solution, of course, is longer trains, more frequently. But who’s going to pay for it? And that’s the rub. Transit is 50 per cent funded by the tax base of the City of Calgary – that is, Calgary taxpayers – with the other half of its budget coming from transit ticket sales. That means non-Calgary residents get an effective 50 per cent subsidy every time they get on a train or bus.

Fair? Pincott, and other Calgary politicians and policy makers struggling to make a municipally funded transit system work for the region don’t think so. But Pincott points out that raising fares for out-of-towners is not the answer. In an ideal world, the province would step in, as it has on the On-It Regional Transit System and as it is doing with the allocation of GreenTRIP funding across the province. But these are all special projects. New projects. Alberta remains the only Canadian province that does not contribute, as a matter of course, to funding municipal transit. And in a mobile world, in which people live in Okotoks but work in Calgary – or live in Calgary, but work in Airdrie, because, as Mayor Brown points, some 25 per cent of Airdrie’s workforce are Calgary residents -“municipal” transit is a misnomer.

While transit is an ongoing lightening rod for friction between Calgary taxpayers and daytime Calgarians who use the city’s infrastructure and services but do not contribute to its tax base, it’s not the only one. Cities and municipalities have a conflict of priorities over every overpass, planned road and infrastructure improvement, such as a hospital or 24-hour emergency medical service, funded by the province.

Water rights are also a monster issue in the offing. With the flood of 2013 still fresh in the region’s memory, it is easy to forget that Southern Alberta is essentially arid. The province as a whole accounts for only 2.2 per cent of the nation’s drinking water, and while Alberta has 600 lakes and 245 rivers, they cover only three per cent of its surface area. The province’s oil and gas industry and agricultural sector are both water hogs, consuming 52 per cent of the groundwater allocations in 2009, and its urban, rural and in-between residents aren’t light users either.

A further challenge is transportation. Eighty per cent of Alberta’s water is in the north of the province, but 80 per cent of the user demand is in the south. As both Calgary and the smaller communities grow, they don’t just consume more water – they demand very costly infrastructure to deliver and process that water. And all that costs more money than any municipality can afford, even with help from the province and the federal government, which needs to be negotiated and renegotiated every time. The regional transit and infrastructure debate underscores that life on the edge has a price, and Calgary’s reluctance to pay the lion’s share of infrastructure and service costs such as transit, or regionally used recreation centres, is understandable, especially during an economic downturn.

The resulting tension between the Big City and its smaller neighbours is not unique to Calgary. It flares up constantly in, among others, Vancouver and Toronto, which are much further along the path to regional amalgamation, collaboration and interdependence. Nor is the tension unique to 2016. There are still Calgarians who consider themselves citizens of the community of Bowness first and their village’s amalgamation with the larger city in 1964 a mistake. “Most people supported and voted for the amalgamation,” recalls Carole Carpenter-Gjertsen, president of the Bowness Historical Society. “But some people were very, very much against it.” Bowness’ absorption into Calgary half a century ago provides a tantalizing tease of what could happen to the proudly independent Airdrie, Okotoks or Cochrane later this century.

The history of Bowness in the 20th century is in some ways a history of the Canadian suburb. Carpenter-Gjertsen herself grew up on what was called the Soldiers’ Settlement in Bowness – lands allotted to veterans of the Second World War at accessible prices – and at the then-revolutionary 25-year mortgage. “Everyone had big gardens, and animals – chickens, horses,” she recalls. Then came subdivision, and what had been each soldier’s lot became five smaller lots, some of which, in time, would house duplexes.

The City of Calgary didn’t just absorb Bowness, but grew around it. And yet, 50 years later, Bowness is still Bowness – a cohesive community, a village within the city. “It’s different than any other place in town, and I wouldn’t live anywhere else,” says Anne Campbell, Bowness resident since 1964 and director of the board of the Bowness Community Association. It may be Bowness Road on Google Maps and street signs, but residents call it Main Street. The community boasts a through-the-roof volunteer rate. Despite the amalgamation, it has retained a unique, separate identity.

Will that happen to Airdrie, Okotoks? No one’s talking about that yet, of course. They’re still trying to figure out how to share transit or effectively collaborate on prioritizing infrastructure projects. The region’s most notable collaboration, the Calgary Regional Partnership – the driving force behind the On-It Regional Transit project – has lost some of its outlying members in 2009 and then again in 2013 as a result of conflict over infrastructure connectivity, opposition to the Calgary Metropolitan Plan and governance issues. When collaboration at this level is a challenge, amalgamation is not in the cards. If and when Calgary absorbs them, though, the experience of Bowness suggests that insofar as there are unique aspects to being Airdrie, being Cochrane, the towns will retain them.

But are the edge towns really towns and communities, or are they now mostly cookie-cutter suburbs that are even further out from the downtown core than Calgary-proper suburbs? David Gordon, director of the School of Urban and Regional Planning at Queen’s University, has some disturbing research on this subject. Gordon calls Canada not an urban nation, but a suburban nation. “We often say Canada is an urban nation, that most Canadians live in urban centres. What we actually should be saying is that two-thirds of Canadians live in the suburbs,” he argues. That’s where Canadian cities have grown predominantly over the past 50 years, and Calgary is not just an example of this trend – it’s its leading example. During the 2006 to 2011 boom, Calgary’s population grew by 12.6 per cent – or a whopping 136,000 people. Only three per cent of this growth came in the inner core of the city and none in the suburbs connected to the core by reliable transit. That means 97 per cent of Calgary’s and its region’s population growth came in what Gordon’s study calls the auto-suburbs and the exurban areas on the edge.

This troubles Gordon. Why? Because of the word everyone uses but nobody wants to hear: unsustainable. Shelagh Peirce spent almost 12 years living in the “exburbs” outside Manchester, in the United Kingdom. “I loved it,” says Peirce, who recently moved back to Calgary with her family. “Everything was there, and everything was a short walk away. Two minutes in any direction took you to nature.” She and her husband both commuted to work by train, and there were weeks and weeks when their car stood in its port, unused.

That’s not a scenario that plays out in the suburbs as we build them in North America, within a city’s limits or without. The cost of the simpler lifestyle, nicer house in that closer-knit community with clean air, a rural feel and nature all around translates into constant dependence on the car and more costly infrastructure shared between fewer people – as evidenced by the high and rising tax bills in pieces of paradise like Chestermere.

The Grahames are selling their Turner Valley home and relocating to Okotoks. As the move to Turner Valley was prompted by the needs of their kindergarten-aged son, the needs of their teenager are driving this one. “His friends are in Okotoks, his school is now in Okotoks, and his theatre is in Calgary,” she explains. “In Turner Valley, he is isolated.” The danger is that in Okotoks, the teenage Grahame will be as isolated as in Turner Valley unless his and his friends’ parents commit to chauffeuring him around. “There’s a reason teenagers hate the suburbs,” says Gordon. “So here’s the challenge. Can we design communities and cities where people who are eight years old and who are 80 years old can function? When you design with those folks in mind, you end up with things that work for everyone.”

The people who live in and love the edge communities love the things that work about them: the neighbours who don’t just say hi, but bend over backwards to help. The ability of their children to criss-cross the entire town on bicycles safely. Small schools. Mom-and-pop shops, local restaurants, main streets with character. They even find individualized solutions to the things that don’t work: Paula Evans’s husband commutes daily from Cochrane to Calgary. But as soon as he hits the city’s western bicycle pathways, he ditches his four wheels for two and bikes into Calgary’s downtown core.

Will they – or their governments – find institutional and policy solutions to making life on the edge more sustainable and more connected? Airdrie mayor Peter Brown is optimistic. “We need to work together better,” he admits. But the will is there. “We live as a region, we die as a region.” Everyone understands that.

There is a gap, however, between understanding and acting. And the thing that keeps municipal governments from being able to act with the big-picture view most do believe should guide their decisions is, of course, money. Calgary mayor Naheed Nenshi has been an outspoken critic of the existing federal-provincial-municipal taxation/service delivery system, in which the majority of taxation occurs at the federal and provincial level while the majority of service delivery occurs at the municipal level. If cities had more power and discretion over taxation and received a greater chunk of tax revenue on a regular basis, they would be able to address the metropolitan infrastructure deficit more efficiently, and would be more empowered to work together on collaborative, regional solutions.

So imagine this. Road infrastructure and transit options that move people in and out of Calgary and between the smaller communities on its edge, that are as much a part of what makes Calgary Calgary as is its downtown core, easily and without stress. Suppose it was painless for someone from Cochrane to visit downtown Calgary without a car? Suppose it was easy and convenient for a Calgarian from Mission or Bowness to get to a festival in Okotoks on a train? Suppose a toll road and a well-placed overpass and collector lane, reduced traffic just enough that what used to be a half an hour drive was a half an hour drive again?

Suppose. Imagine. It could happen. Until then, grab a friend. Grab a car. Pick your time, and make sure it’s not within the morning or evening rush hour. And explore life on the edge.

You’ll never know what you will find.

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