Density Doldrums: Why Does Adding Homes to Established Communities Stir Up Emotions?

There is more than enough evidence out there to support the idea that greater housing density is needed to maintain housing affordability in our city. So why don’t we feel better about it?

Illustration by Gust of Wind Studios.

On nice days, Doris Yaskiw likes to stroll along the pathways that follow the shores of the Glenmore Reservoir. She’s recently retired and lives in Haysboro, a 10-minute walk from Glenmore Landing, a shopping plaza just off 14th Street at 90th Avenue S.W.

In 2015, RioCan Management, owner of Glenmore Landing, started working with the City of Calgary to revitalize this 1980s retail complex. The developer’s latest proposal includes six new apartment towers that are taller and denser than anything in the neighbouring communities. Yaskiw opposes the plan.

While she worries about potential impact to water quality and the natural setting around the nearby Glenmore Reservoir, Yaskiw admits she’s probably most uncomfortable with the proposed density. It’s not because it’s the unknown. Rather, it’s all too familiar for Yaskiw, who spent her childhood in Lima, Peru, a city with nearly twice the population density of Calgary. Now, when she goes back to visit family there, she feels claustrophobic. “I cringe because I grew up in a place where … you have people everywhere,” she says, referring to the proposed development. “As I’ve gotten older, I like my space.”

According to writer and urbanist Richard White, RioCan’s proposal for Glenmore Landing is exactly what Calgary needs right now — 1,250 new homes for 2,500 people in an ideal location with easy access to a supermarket and other shops, as well as the Southwest Bus Rapid Transit (BRT), which offers quick transit access to nearby employment hubs. In an article for the Calgary Herald, White argues that it is “an ideal residential site.”

Yaskiw is sympathetic to Calgarians who need an affordable place to live; she has friends whose kids have moved back home, despite having good, professional jobs. But some of her neighbours have mounted a campaign to stop the development and she supports their efforts. She plans to attend meetings for a group called Communities for Glenmore Landing Preservation, saying: “Whatever it is they need, I will help.”

“Ask the single people of almost any age group earning anything short of an executive salary, and they will tell you that (Calgary’s housing) crisis is very, very real .… We need a higher density built form to keep (housing) costs down.”

These words could be attributed to one of the many community leaders and politicians who condemned Calgary City Council in June 2023 — that’s when Council was forced to reconsider its rejection of recommendations brought forth by the City’s Housing and Affordability Task Force. It was a brief, but embarrassing, moment in the face of Calgary’s growing housing affordability crisis.

But that quote actually appeared in a 1982 news article about an event organized back then by the City of Calgary. It was called the Shelter Crisis Conference, and it featured a speech by then-Alderman Patricia “Pat” Donelley, who delivered a bare-knuckle assessment of how resistant Calgarians were to higher density, and why attitudes needed to change. The logic in her speech was so widely applauded, the Herald printed it word-for-word.

Illustration by Gust of Wind Studios.

Over the last 40-plus years, planning experts and city leaders have presented many rational arguments in support of higher urban density. Calgarians have heard how uncontrolled housing sprawl has the potential to increase our taxes; how vibrant, walkable communities will attract the young, talented workers we need to create a strong economy; how higher density is a key factor in creating more-affordable forms of housing. Even so, it seems many Calgarians have yet to embrace density in a meaningful way.

Maybe it’s because we love single-family homes: A 2018 study from Mustel Group and Sotheby’s International Realty Canada says 91 per cent of families in Calgary would own a single-family home if they could afford it. In 2022, the School of Cities at the University of Toronto reported that 62 per cent of Calgary’s residential properties are still exclusively zoned for single-family homes.

Maybe it’s because many Calgarians feel uncomfortable with the prospect of higher density — despite warnings like Donelley’s, our city has witnessed countless community campaigns opposing medium- and high-density housing projects in existing neighborhoods.

Illustration by Gust of Wind Studios.

But now, it’s crunch time. After Council passed an amended version of the new housing strategy last September, the federal government awarded Calgary funding through its Housing Accelerator Fund. The money will go to initiatives aimed at increasing housing supply and affordability.

The money comes with a big catch: The City must fulfill a commitment to end exclusionary zoning city-wide by adding middle-housing zoning that allows up to four units and secondary suites on a typical 50-foot lot. It means that homebuilders can construct multi-family townhouses in neighbourhoods that were once exclusively the domain of single-family homes.

It’s a big, big change in a city of people who love single-family homes as much as Calgarians do. But today’s housing crisis means that too many people can’t afford to put a roof over their heads. That’s a serious dilemma, and it’s time to make some tough decisions. So, if years of well-researched arguments about density won’t help Calgarians change, what will?

Maybe, it’s time to talk about our feelings.

Illustration by Gust of Wind Studios.

French landscape architect Julie Karmann is pursuing a PhD in public health at the University of Montreal. She’s also part of INTERACT, an interdisciplinary team of researchers exploring the impact of urban changes on health and equity. In 2023, her team released a paper exploring emotional responses to urban change in the academic journal, Emotion, Space and Society.

“What you have to know is that, at the beginning, we didn’t plan to study emotion,” Karmann says. But, after collecting data from residents in Montreal and doing a literature search, the INTERACT team started to learn that urban change had an enormous emotional impact.

“It just came out that emotions were really at the core of how people perceive [urban] change,” she says.

Specifically, new condo projects and the associated gentrification they can bring generate the most intense feelings in Montreal. Residents frequently expressed four negative emotions: disappointment (losing important neighbourhood features; experiencing broken promises); irritation (with private interests, local government, worsening traffic, noise); fear (of change to their neighbourhoods, of unanticipated side effects); and pessimism (powerlessness; lack of influence with local government and developers).

Karmann is happy to report that residents also expressed three positive emotions: enthusiasm (about changes that make their community more pleasant); safety (created by better traffic-calming features, public spaces and pedestrian access); and gratitude (for better green spaces, neighborhood amenities and public transit).

Regarding the trepidation around density in Calgary, Karmann describes the new housing strategy as “a drastic change,” and observes a wide range of emotions between those who are irritated by the idea of more density, and those who are relieved that it’s finally happening. She anticipates the speed of change will create a lot of stress, and may even lead to people choosing to leave their communities.

“You have the feeling that you no longer belong to that place so it’s a kind of displacement,” Karmann says. “This has huge consequences.”

But, she also acknowledges Calgary’s dilemma around equity. “It’s pretty terrible, but it comes down to [a question of] who has the right to live in the city?” she says.

Without more density, Karmann wonders if the less wealthy will be forced to live elsewhere.

Illustration by Gust of Wind Studios.

A tax lawyer by trade, Doug Roberts brings a tenacious sense of logic to everything he does, including his community advocacy work regarding density.

When his old neighbourhood, Richmond Knob Hill, saw the fresh shoots of redevelopment, he started questioning what he saw. Soon, he joined his community association’s development committee to ensure new developments were respectful of neighbouring properties.

Roberts also started noticing feelings of fear and sadness among his neighbours. “I’ve had people… say they’ve cried themselves to sleep because of what is proposed next door and the impact they see it potentially having on their enjoyment of their home,” he says.

As he learned more about the planning system, Roberts grew increasingly frustrated that the City didn’t have any current planning policies for his neighbourhood. “I fought with them for years to say, ‘Let’s get a plan in place,’” he says.

When an area redevelopment plan (ARP) finally happened in 2014, Roberts was disappointed at how quickly it was ignored when new developments were approved that did not comply with the ARP. “[The City] just put a new ARP in place,” he says.

Don’t assume that Roberts is opposed to density. He believes there are places that can support increased density without significant negative impact. But, he adds: “We’re wasting a lot of the opportunities where significant density could go by allowing puny little developments going in that, presumably, aren’t going to be there in 50 years.”

Roberts knows generating more enthusiasm for density is tough. He has tried to find examples in cities that he believes have done a good job of redeveloping older communities. (He says he couldn’t find any.) Still, he suggests that the starting block is to make sure that City policy is visionary.

“I know that’s a tall order,” he says. “Build a picture that shows people that there are benefits to densification.”

Illustration by Gust of Wind Studios.

Willem Klumpenhouwer has also experienced disappointment, most recently with Calgary City Council. The Calgary-based public-transit research consultant moved back to Calgary from Toronto last summer, and was struggling to find an affordable place to rent for his young family.

After witnessing the initial failure of the Housing Strategy last June, he decided to take action. “That was sort of the emotional suck, but [it was] also the emotional kick to start a pro-housing group trying to push for more housing supply in Calgary,” he says.

Subsequently, Klumpenhouwer helped found More Neighbours Calgary, a grassroots organization to support sustainable housing growth.

When the amended strategy returned to Council last September, Klumpenhouwer attended the public hearing. As someone who self-identifies as “a very middle class person,” he was moved by stories of other renters, such as a Ukrainian refugee who had looked for months for a home for herself and her family, and who ultimately ended up paying higher rent than Klumpenhouwer was paying. “That sort of cognitive dissonance really set the tone for the whole conversation,” he says.

As it happened, the Strategy passed on its second trip through Council, and Klumpenhouwer believes emotion had a lot to do with it. “I think those stories had a lot of impact on a few councillors and helped to change minds,” he says.

Regardless of what side of the fence Calgarians are on when it comes to greater urban density, it’s apparent that we’ve accrued a lot of emotional debt; some Calgarians are desperate for more access to better and more affordable housing, while others fear losing everything that they believe is important about their homes and communities.

So what do we do, then?

Teresa Goldstein is a professor in the University of Calgary’s School of Architecture, Planning and Landscape, and, as of last November, chair of the Calgary Planning Commission for the City. She has practised urban planning for more than 20 years, and, in the last few years, she noticed that her interactions with the public were changing. “I began to see, very clearly, that people were feeling extra-emotional,” she says. “They were feeling sad or mad or skeptical, or untrusting of the practice of planning.” So, she decided to find out why, and more importantly, how to address it.

Last year, Goldstein published her doctoral dissertation, a lengthy treatise examining the links between emotion and community planning. It starts by examining her own experiences — both as a child growing up in Hamilton, Ont., and as an urban-planning professional in Calgary. She has observed that it is harder and harder for people to adapt to today’s pace of change. “I don’t think that people are feeling a loss of love in their place; I feel like people have lost that feeling of security and stability in their place,” she says.

But she also proposes solutions: Goldstein’s dissertation includes what she calls The Handbook for Community Connection, created as a resource for planners who want to create deeper relationships with the communities they serve.

The Handbook is full of methods to help professional planners improve community dialogue, find better ways to connect with residents, and change the jargon-filled language that surrounds urban planning. At the end, Goldstein provides tips for humanizing the planning profession. Her techniques are all designed to foster empathy, because she believes planners need to demonstrate this emotion to connect with residents.

Goldstein believes Calgarians could be more empathetic, too, and that we must reexamine some of our deeply held beliefs. Take home ownership, for example. “We have a very strong ownership model in North America,” Goldstein says. “This dynamic between people that own property having a more valid opinion than those that rent has been around for many years.”

We also can’t assume young and newcomer Calgarians want the same things the previous generations did when they purchased single-family homes 20 or 30 years ago. “A different generation is demanding different things from cities,” Goldstein says.

Ultimately, it’s about listening to and appreciating the opinions of those who, until now, have had limited influence over how we live in Calgary. As Goldstein says, even if you might not agree with it, you can at least then rationalize why new forms of housing are important for our growing city, and why we need to densify nodes like Glenmore Landing.

Dave Robertson is a single-family home owner living in Calgary’s southwest.

This article appears in the March 2024 issue of Avenue Calgary.

Related posts

Property of the Week: A Luxurious Altadore Home with a Wine Room

Michaela Ream

Condo of the Month: A High-Rise Penthouse with Wraparound Balconies

Michaela Ream

Property of the Week: A Brand-New Townhome in Shawnee Park

Michaela Ream

This website uses cookies to improve your experience. We'll assume you're ok with this, but you can opt-out if you wish. Accept Privacy Policy

Privacy & Cookies Policy
Avenue Calgary