Calgary’s Next Great Neighbourhoods

What makes a neighbourhood desirable and will those qualities still be desirable by 2030?

illustrations by dean stanton

This year, Avenue‘s annual Best Neighbourhoods Survey named the Beltline as the most desirable community overall to live in. Brentwood and Acadia made it to second and third place out of 178 residential neighbourhoods ranked.

Like most of the high-ranking communities every year, these best neighbourhoods are loaded with amenities within easy walking distance, have ample green space and are connected to the city’s public transit system – things survey respondents identified as being the most important factors in making an area a great place to live.

The survey asked respondents which neighbourhood features were most important to them. A “walkable” community with nearby amenities was the most important characteristic. Parks and pathways, low crime rates, strong community engagement, good access to thoroughfares and public transit and a nearby grocery store were among the most enticing features.

In the 2015 results, the majority of the best communities were often older, established neighbourhoods, but they were not all identical. There were those near the city centre, like the Beltline, Hillhurst and the Downtown Commercial Core. Others were farther out and spread over the quadrants such as Brentwood (in second place), Acadia, Arbour Lake, Riverbend, Scenic Acres and Huntington Hills.

Those on the bottom of the list share much more with each other than those at the top. Despite offering plenty of relatively inexpensive new housing and a virtual absence of crime, many of the lowest-ranking neighbourhoods in the city, like Sundance (177), Copperfield (178), Applewood Park (174), New Brighton (173) and Rocky Ridge (172), are on the outskirts of town. Due mainly to their newness and location, they all suffer from comparably poor community engagement, poor access to major roads and a layout that makes walking to existing amenities difficult. There is also little if any public transit and few schools. At the same time, these areas attract a high number of buyers with their comparatively lower prices, modern home amenities and homes that are often more conducive to modern life than those in the inner city.

Many newer communities including Walden, Mahogany, Seton and Auburn Bay that have been designed to take walkability, engagement and other aspects into consideration from the beginning didn’t have enough census data available to be included in the research, so they weren’t even ranked at all.

If you are buying a home in one of the more desirable parts of town – or, better still, if you bought into an area ages ago, before everyone else knew how great living there was going to be – congratulations. But what of the neighbourhoods that are set to improve? By, say, 2030, where in Calgary will you wish you had bought?

The answer is not the same for everyone, says Calgary Real Estate Board president Corinne Lyall. “This is dependent on a buyer’s needs and wants. For instance, if you have children, an important neighbourhood feature would be parks and playgrounds,” she says. “The reasons why people live in the inner city versus outlying areas are dependent on various factors such as commute time, lifestyle, marital status, kids, budget etc., just to name a few.”

Overall, though, there are certain factors that most Calgarians seem to want in a good neighbourhood, according to the survey results. And some of these are more changeable than others, meaning certain neighbourhoods are more likely to climb the ranks in the coming years.

Walkability

Despite different lifestyle requirements, on the whole, respondents reported wanting to live in a community that is easy to walk through. They want to walk to a grocery store, to a park, to a neighbourhood restaurant.

Walkability has become an important trend in Calgary development. A lot of this has to do with auto-centric urban design trends in previous decades that focused on controlling traffic in a steadily sprawling city, but ultimately forced people to drive anywhere they needed to go. City planners are now well aware of the flaws in the winding, curvilinear street designs common to most suburbs built in the past 40 years.

Beginning in 2009 with the Municipal Development Plan, which outlines urban planning in Calgary out to the year 2070, City departments have begun collaborating to make future and existing neighbourhoods more attractive places to live by contemporary standards.

Ben Barrington, program manager, Centre City Implementation, says a truly walkable community is not just about street layout, but is essentially what urban planners now call a “complete” community. “The principle of complete communities just means that, if you are designing a community, you should have all of the parts in there instead of some of the parts in there – so that you have a place to shop, a place to work, a place to live and a place to recreate, and it’s safe and clean,” he says. “We involve all City departments, as well as the private sector, to figure out how we can make sure all those parts are included.”

This is why the City and developers are working together to make sure that, when the first residents move to new neighbourhoods such as the as-yet-unbuilt Keystone Hills in Calgary’s far north, they are coming into a development that already contains the foundation of a complete community.

Green space

Calgarians also want green space. Parks and pathways are important, but Darrell Sargent of Calgary’s Main Streets project says adding them to an existing area is a lot harder than adding them to the blueprints for a new development on open land. Calgary Parks manager Keath Parker agrees. “Obviously, acquiring land in an established community that is already built out is a challenge. Real estate prices are such that it almost precludes the opportunity,” he says. “We do have cases like

Bridgeland where the [General] hospital came down, and we’ve basically redeveloped half of that community and it was a great opportunity to secure open space.”

Parker also points to cases such as the shutdown of the Canadian Forces Base in southwest Calgary in the 1990s, which has led to ongoing residential redevelopment ever since, as “islands of redevelopment opportunity” where new parks are possible. Overall, though, adding the kind of green space Calgarians are looking for today is easier in outlying neighbourhoods starting from scratch because City development regulations require at least 10 per cent of land in a new subdivision be set aside for park space, and that’s over and above land like riverbanks that must be preserved for wildlife. Generally, when it comes to established communities, the green space they already have is all they’re going to get.

Transportation

Transportation is a tad more malleable. “Having a good transit system in the area improves the value of the community, and having major road access nearby is important for commuters,” says Lyall, echoing the high ranking survey respondents gave access to both LRT and transit, as well as major routes.

Public transit service is driven by the population growth in a community because half of the system’s cost is funded through user fees. That’s why the newest neighbourhoods have pitifully little, says City senior transit planner Jonathan Lea. For those outlying areas like Copperfield or Rocky Ridge that score badly on the transit meter now, change will come.

With Calgary’s constantly booming population growth, City administration is aware it must make dramatic enhancements to the entire public transport infrastructure. Lea says, under the 30-year RouteAhead transit plan, this involves extending LRT lines, building dedicated “busways” separate from existing thoroughfares, moving transit services from a core-centric system focused on moving people from suburbs to downtown to one that moves people more quickly between important suburban communities and, of course, adding more vehicles to the fleet.

In July, the federal government announced $1.53 billion in funding for the Green Line project, the largest single infrastructure investment in the province’s history. The 50-km, 27-stop Green Line was initially planned as a busway that would eventually be converted to a rail line. However, this new funding accounts for a third of the total cost of the LRT route from North Pointe to Seton through downtown, which should fast-track the LRT.

The exact route, as well as the remainder of the funding, is still not confirmed, but this funding likely means improved transit service for the 290,000 Calgarians who currently live in communities along the Green Line. Construction is planned to begin in 2017 and to be completed by 2024.

While the funding announcement came too late for us to take it into consideration in a major way for our calculations, this type of long-term infrastructure planning is exactly the type of change that affects the future of the city’s communities and which ones might be considered the best in 20 or 30 or more years from now.

There is also a busway in the works for the southwest, which has been approved and for which planning has begun.

Crime Rate

Lyall says an area’s crime rate can be a concern for people trying to decide which community to live in. However, Lyall has noticed that crime rates are primarily a concern for homebuyers who are relocating from other places to Calgary, and this may reflect that even the highest crime rates in Calgary neighbourhoods are still low compared to that of many other cities in the world.

Some residents are more willing to tolerate problems in neighbourhoods that offer everything else they like, such as in the Beltline. Of all the 178 residential neighbourhoods surveyed, the Beltline had one of the highest crime rates. However, it still came out as the best place to live in Calgary due to extensive retail, recreational and entertainment options, access to transit, downtown and a mix of housing options all within easy walking distance.

The hope of creating neighbourhoods that are as much fun to live in, but that are also safe, is a big part of the City’s Main Streets and Centre City programs. Barrington says Centre City aims to enhance the core, everything from the East Village to downtown’s West End, and south from Connaught to the Stampede. Though some 40,000 people already live there, City administration wants to double that population within 20 years.

“One of the most important things we have heard time and time again is that safety and cleanliness is one of the sort of foundational pieces [a neighbourhood] must have. It must happen because if you have an unsafe, really cool place, people aren’t going to go to it,” says Barrington.

Addressing crime is a big part of the program, and Barrington says the kind of measures Centre City is employing to reduce it have an effect in any community. “There’s been specific targeting of crime and disorder and cleanliness through a program we manage called Clean to the Core, which is all about partnering with the police and Animal Bylaw Services and Calgary Roads and Transit,” Barrington says. “Years ago, there were more beat officers put out on the ground to deal with unsavoury activities … and, then, to further supplement that and make it have more longevity, [we work to] improve the quality of the public spaces so they attract more people. When you attract more people, it’s safer … If you’re on a dark street with no people on it, even if it’s safe, it doesn’t feel safe.”

In addition to downtown, the City is working hard to extend the “complete communities” concept into long-established residential areas through the Main Streets program. For that program, City planners have identified 24 areas in Calgary that have been commercially and culturally significant in Calgary’s past, and which appear ripe to encourage denser residential patterns.

Sargent says on selected Main Streets, people will want to live in higher-density areas and buildings “because [they’re] close to transportation, walking distance to commercial shops, some grocery stores, those sorts of things, and so those are the areas that are really getting a push [from the City].”

The City wants to encourage residential and commercial development in the Main Streets areas rather than just spreading population growth evenly over the city. This plan may mean the Main Streets areas are good communities to move to now in order to benefit most from these future improvements and the potential property-value increases that will follow.

According to Kevin Barton, a senior planner with the City and the Main Streets Initiative lead, many of these areas are already quite popular districts in strong business revitalization zones (BRZs) where community associations are working hard to make them attractive. He points to areas like Inglewood, Marda Loop, Kensington, the Beltline or 17th Avenue S.W. as Main Street districts Calgarians already think are cool places to live. He says others, like Richmond Road S.W., 32nd Avenue N.E. and Montgomery, will take more work to enhance, but are definitely on the City’s radar.

So which neighbourhoods are poised to make it to the top of the list in 2030? Well, many that are very good today are apt to retain the infrastructure and character that put them at the top, but here are some from further down the list that look the most promising.

The next most promising Calgary neighbourhoods

Downtown

The Downtown Commercial Core ranks fairly high at eighth place, but downtown is much more than this small area. Stretching the definition of downtown to include the West End and East Village, the area falls closer to 50th place – but its future is bright. It is already saturated with shopping, entertainment, arts venues and transit. That feature will only be heightened as the area adds the new central library complex, more cultural spaces like the National Music Centre, access to St. Patrick’s Island and new shopping in the East Village including an already confirmed Loblaws grocery store. The impact of the new downtown bike lanes network has also yet to be seen.

The City wants to double the area’s population and is working directly with developers to ensure a mix of high-density housing options are built in coming years. Barrington is confident good housing will happen as developers also see the benefit in investing in enhancing all aspects of downtown Calgary.

Though the downtown crime rate is currently comparatively quite high, the Centre City program has already resulted in reductions in crime thanks to a variety of initiatives geared toward creating vibrant, public spaces that encourage people to visit and discourage criminal activity. Those willing to think of downtown as a place to live and even raise a family, rather than just visit, are likely to be impressed.

 

Montgomery

Sitting at 34th place, Bowness‘ lesser-known next-door neighbour currently suffers from comparatively high crime, and there’s no LRT access coming anytime soon. But it already has so much to offer, it’s hard to believe so few people know about it.

Montgomery is quite pedestrian-friendly as it is laid out on an older-style grid street pattern. It contains some retail shopping, schools and playgrounds. An active BRZ group is working hard to attract more businesses. The neighbourhood is also part of the Main Streets program, meaning it can expect an influx of attention and urban planning from the City.

In addition to abutting the Bow River, Montgomery is adjacent to four large parks: Bowness, Shouldice, Edworthy and Montgomery. The first three are well-connected to the City’s pathway network. Finally, main thoroughfares like 16th Avenue N.W., Bowness Road and Sarcee Trail are easily reached from Montgomery, making it a great stepping-off point to the rest of the city or the mountains.

 

Kingsland

This neighbourhood just south of Chinook Centre is much like Montgomery in its great location, but currently high crime rate and low housing value. It comes in at 65th place in Avenue’s annual Best Neighbourhood rankings, but revitalization efforts and the desirable location may improve that over time. Bordered by the mall and Glenmore Trail to the north, Macleod Trail and the LRT line to the east and the Glenmore Reservoir and park system not far to the west, Kingsland already has many of the features Calgarians are seeking within walking distance, including the popular Market on Macleod. Help from the Main Streets program may improve the image of this slightly time-worn community.

 

Seton

Although a lack of available census data on this new community made it ineligible for Avenue‘s ranking this year, Seton has all the marks of a complete community-in-the-making, with many of the attributes survey respondents were looking for. Built around the new South Health Campus, the intention is for many Seton residents to live and work in the same community. The developers have included walkability and bike commuters in their planning, and it is expected to be the future terminus of the proposed LRT Green Line. But the area also has easy access to Deerfoot and Stoney trails. So once the neighbours move in, and the amenities follow – this should be an area with walkability, road access and the parks that new communities have built in from day one.

 

Keystone Hills

This one is a long shot, since it doesn’t exist yet. City council gave developers the go-ahead in 2012 to build Keystone Hills on 1,800 hectares of land in north Calgary off Centre Street and 144th Avenue, north of Stoney Trail. Being so far away from the city’s core, it’s reasonable to think it will suffer from the same dearth of infrastructure and amenities past periphery neighbourhoods have.

“Infrastructure is always one of our most interesting challenges when developing communities,” says Lyall. “The ones that have done it well seem to incorporate a mix of residential and retail, along with community parks and future schools. I don’t think that those communities will necessarily become more attractive than the inner city, however … I do think that the outlying communities that do a good job of creating infrastructure will compete for residents who want to live in the suburbs.”

However, the City intends Keystone to be different. It is being meticulously planned so that, by completion, as long as 15 years from now, it will not only be capable of providing homes to 60,000 people but already offer the features people want: walkability, green space, solid public transit, major road access and even the commercial capacity to employ people so residents may not have to commute into the core. The finished product is a long way off, but it is worth watching because it’s the first to undergo this kind of holistic planning to try to ensure a complete community from scratch.

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