Suburban homes Calgary

The sprawling city of Calgary is choosing between new suburbs and climate goals

As much as three quarters of Calgary’s growth is in new suburbs but a new climate strategy could force a reckoning

Calgary is a city of shifting edges. 

Everyone who’s lived in the city for long enough has a story or a memory of where the city ended when they were a certain age — a hard line between a row of houses and fields. 

The edges never lasted for long.

Unlike so many other cities, Calgary is a monolith. There are no towns and cities on its borders, at least not yet. It has annexed every one that used to stand in its way. It’s not a collection of municipalities, like Edmonton or Toronto. 

There is also nothing to contain it. The mountains are far off, 80 kilometres to the west. The foothills and plains are easily conquered. No ocean. No great lake. And the booming economy — albeit with some notable busts along the way — has helped ensure most car-dependent Calgarians have enough money to cover the cost of fuel.

At the same, Calgary’s population has been on the rise, expanding by more than 50 per cent over the past two decades. The result is a sprawling city which has consistently spilled over its border in search of land for new communities. Those new communities consist largely of single-family homes accessed by fast roads — despite the hefty servicing costs borne by traditionally tax-averse Calgary taxpayers.

But the ever-expanding city is facing a now-familiar reckoning.

Council declared a climate emergency this year, and then followed up by releasing a climate strategy calling for a new way of valuing, monitoring and building the city. But it also approved the development of five new communities on the city’s edge 21 days after the strategy passed. 

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The decision followed the previous council’s decision in 2018 to approve 14 new communities along the municipal boundaries and a recent committee decision to move forward with three more in the coming months. 

As a result of this decision and others, a broad swath of Calgarians, from conservationists to urban planners — even city councillors — raised concerns and opposition to the way the city continues to grow. Some are also concerned over whether the latest climate strategy will be given the teeth lacking in previous efforts. 

“Not a whole lot has changed in 20 years,” Noel Keough, an associate professor emeritus of planning at the University of Calgary and a co-founder of think tank Sustainable Calgary, told The Narwhal. “A big stumbling block now is we have decent policy, [but] we have zero accountability when it comes to budgeting.”

The most stark example, he says, is passing a climate strategy and then approving five new suburban communities in the same month.

A new Calgary suburb to be built in wetland-rich area, home to herons and hawks 

One of those new communities is a familiar piece of land for many Calgarians — it’s the last view of the Bow River before you leave the southern edge of the city on the sometimes fast, often slow, Deerfoot Trail freeway. The site has historically been known as Ricardo Ranch, named after the original homesteader William Crawley Ricardo, who established it in 1888 and went on to help found the city’s Ranchmen’s Club, an exclusive private club in downtown Calgary. 

It’s where pelicans rest on a rocky island and the river meanders off to the east after a southerly jaunt through the city. 

It’s this area — which could be home to 20,000 residents when fully built — that has caused the biggest outcry of the five most recently approved communities.

Nathan Schmidt, a board member with the Alberta Wilderness Association, is the catalyst for much of the opposition. He went walking through the area in August, after city council fast tracked the final hurdle to building the new community, and posted what he saw to Twitter. Wetlands and wildflowers. Wolf willow, pollinators and solitary sandpipers. So many birds.  

That thread circulated far and wide. 

And so he ended up in the area again, offering tours for those concerned about the plans. They were so popular he was forced to split the 100-plus crowd into more manageable groups. The Narwhal tagged along in September.

Walking through the area, blue herons take flight, the group excitedly breaks into calls of “Pileated! Pileated!” as a woodpecker lands on a tree. Down on one edge of the water, threatened — and federally protected — bank swallows have built homes, but it’s unclear if they’re still in use. Herons have a rookery further down the river. 

Schmidt talks about red tail hawks, eagles, osprey, merlins, cormorants and more.

“It’s something that doesn’t happen in Calgary very much anymore,” he says. “All those species exist here, but they don’t exist all in one place.”

A man stands next to wetlands in Calgary
Nathan Schmidt, a board member with the Alberta Wilderness Association, sparked concern over the development of Ricardo Ranch after he posted photos on Twitter. The development is one of five fast-tracked for approval by city council in July. Photo: Drew Anderson / The Narwhal.

The Bow River on the area’s southern edge gives way to stands of poplar trees and dense brush on its northern bank, before it turns into wetlands, fields and native grasslands. The tracks of cows on this traditional ranch are evident on the ridge leading up to the current edge community of Seton. 

It’s not a pristine area. The heritage ranch house sits as a reminder of its former use. And it’s clear people still come here today. Deep ruts from cars and trucks line the property. There are fire pits. But the sound of traffic rushing past on Deerfoot Trail disappears soon after walking east, replaced only with the sounds of birds, rushing water and wind. It is a far cry from the suburbs closing in. 

The developers’ plans include some protections for the river and the wetlands. Genesis Land Development Corp., one of three developers in the area and the company behind the Logan Landing neighbourhood, said 30 per cent of the new community will include open space and environmental reserves.

In late August, Arnie Stefaniuk, the company’s vice president of regional planning, posted a statement online, saying no development would take place within a minimum of 60 metres of bank swallows’ nests and “sensitive riparian landscape and wildlife habitat” would be left “undisturbed.”

Deerfoot Trail passes over the Bow River in Calgary
Deerfoot Trail, the main freeway from north to south in Calgary, passes over the Bow River next to where Logan Landing will be built on the city’s southern edge. The city continues to expand despite attempts to reign in sprawl, but a new climate strategy could impact suburban growth. Photo: Drew Anderson / The Narwhal

“We want to emphasize that Logan Landing went through a rigorous review process and met or exceeded all environmental regulatory requirements,” he added. 

“Environmental reserve areas will help balance the protection of sensitive lands and species with the City’s desire for access to the area’s natural assets.”

Reached by phone, a spokesperson for Genesis said the company was not able to comment prior to publication, but stood by its earlier statements. 

Brookfield Residential, another developer in the area, did not respond to a request for comment.

With Calgary population growing, council speeds up approval of five new communities

Despite the tours and the birds, the wind and the water, the decision to remake this land into a new home for tens of thousands of Calgarians has already been made. 

Late one night in July, city council decided not to wait until budget deliberations slated for November before approving the five new communities, including those on Ricardo Ranch. It was the final hurdle — the removal of what’s known as growth management overlays — developers needed to clear before they could break ground. The administrative move essentially lifts a blanket ban on developing an area until council approves the plans.

“The speed up was not huge, it was an expediting of months. But it actually ends up being quite a meaningful gesture to the folks that have interests in these areas,” Coun. Evan Spencer, who represents the area where Logan Landing will be and who voted to speed up the process, said in an interview. 

Spencer, who joined Schmidt’s tour group, said the decision around building these communities happened before he was elected, but the details around things like setbacks from the wetlands and sensitive areas could still be negotiated. 

The city, he added, still doesn’t know how much it will cost in long-term operating expenses to service these communities. 

One example of Calgary's population growth: suburbs in the south.
Just to the west of Ricardo Ranch, the new suburb of Riverstone is still being built along the river. The city aims to have development of new housing split 50/50 between new communities and existing communities, but has failed to meet those targets. Photo: Drew Anderson / The Narwhal.

But it’s not those costs that Spencer thinks will ultimately slow the city’s expansion.

“I honestly don’t know, but my guess would be it’s gonna slow down, because when we actually start putting dollars and cents, like monetary values alongside of the climate impacts, instead of just a one-page PDF, I think it will start to swing votes pretty quick and change how the city goes about laying its capital,” he said. 

Those climate impacts could be substantial: projections by the city show Calgary will face increasing risks from extreme heat, wildfires, severe storms, drought and flooding as the climate continues to change. Investing to slow those impacts by transitioning to a net-zero economy comes with a price tag — but there are also benefits.

Climate investments could save $72 billion by 2050: Calgary climate strategy

Costs are a big part of the city’s climate strategy, and the debate that followed it. 

The strategy estimates it will require a combined investment of $88 billion by 2050 — over $3 billion each year — for Calgary to reach net-zero emissions. It was a figure that dominated the headlines when the strategy was unveiled. But the document also estimates that investment will save $72 billion over the same time period through faster adoption of mitigation and adaptation measures. 

The strategy talks about the costs of sprawl on the bottom line of the city and for those who live far outside the core, and the ultimate need to shift away from that style of development as Calgary’s population grows, while also recognizing its enduring legacy. 

“Calgary’s spread-out urban form will necessitate the use of vehicles to transport people and goods around Calgary for the foreseeable future,” reads the strategy, noting it will require the province to move quickly to decarbonize the electricity grid and for Calgarians and the city fleet to move to electric vehicles if there’s any chance of hitting its climate targets. 

Transportation, private and public, currently accounts for 33 per cent of total emissions in Calgary, according to the strategy.

Beyond finding a way to work within the existing expanse of Calgary, the document also calls for more densification, and for modelling to find the right mix of new growth and reinvestment in established areas in order to achieve net-zero emissions. 

People walk along a treed pathway.
The Ricardo Ranch property is home to wetlands, riparian areas, the river and groves of poplars. The city’s new climate strategy calls for a way to quantify the value of natural areas, including during consideration of new communities. Photo: Drew Anderson / The Narwhal.

It also calls for increased protection of natural areas and to consider emissions and the ability of natural areas to absorb them when looking at approving new communities. 

According to the strategy, Calgary’s population will have to be denser, with more sustainable transportation options for all, not just those who can afford electric vehicles, if it is to achieve its targets. It will have to focus on building within its footprint and it will have to work hard to preserve, rather than pave, nature. 

Those plans come up against a long history of building ever outward. And a history of missing ambitious targets. 

More than half of new growth is on the outskirts of Calgary

Sasha Tsenkova, a professor of planning at the University of Calgary, said there have been efforts to direct more growth into existing communities, but those efforts have not yet achieved what they set out to do. 

While city plans called for 50 per cent of new growth to happen in existing communities and along transit corridors and economic centres, with the remaining 50 per cent to take place in new suburbs, Tsenkova said the reality is that closer to 75 per cent of new development is happening on the fringes. 

“I think there is obviously the issue of doing too little, too late sometimes,” she said. 

Tsenkova says planning and development involves so many different interests that it requires strong leadership to make changes, but also the creation of coalitions to push for those changes.

That’s some of what Keough has been doing since about 1996 when the first seeds of Sustainable Calgary were planted and later when he helped form Civic Camp, a group of vocal, policy-centric advocates that helped launch the mayoral career of one its members — Naheed Nenshi, who went on to be mayor for more than a decade.

Keough said the debate around sprawl has improved, with more attention to the impacts of unfettered growth, and developers have responded by building more dense suburbs. But it masks an ongoing problem. 

A time lapse shows just how much Calgary has grown since 1984, repeatedly spilling over its municipal border as more communities are built. The city is unique in that it isn’t surrounded by other towns nor is it geographically constrained. Map: Google Earth. Video: Shawn Parkinson / The Narwhal

Keough agreed density has increased, at least if it’s defined as increasing the number of houses on any given chunk of land. But, he said, the city ignores the thousands of hectares taken up by the increases in road infrastructure as Calgary’s population sprawls further and further.

“In the current strategy of building our city, we won’t achieve any kind of sustainable sprawl because it is entirely being built on the premise [that] everyone has an automobile,” he said.

That premise affects not only the climate and the financial health of the city, but significantly raises the costs imposed on households and calls into question the argument of suburbs as drivers of affordable home ownership, he said. 

Tsenkova points to modelling she worked on with Radio Canada. It shows the Calgary region did increase its density between 2001 and 2021, but only one per cent of the urban area developed over those 20 years can be considered amenity-rich and not reliant on automobile travel. By contrast, 80 per cent of the urban area developed is considered to be low in amenities and heavily dependent on cars. 

Keough, and many who want to see a climate strategy with teeth, will be watching budget deliberations in November and whether the plans will have the dollars and cents required to enact them. 

“The other thing about climate or about sustainability initiatives is that they’ve been woefully underfunded, consistently,” he said. 

“So again, we have a policy, we create a unit, and we completely underfund it so it’s ineffectual. And in fact, what I’m hearing from the climate group is that certainly there’s going to be budget for action, but not enough to meet targets that we’ve ourselves set.”

Cities often rely on provincial funding to support their plans. The office of the minister of municipal affairs did not respond to a request for an interview about whether Calgary will have provincial funding to implement its climate strategy.

In response to a question about adequate funding for climate actions, Dick Ebersohn, the manager of climate change and environment for the city, said additional resources were allocated to the climate team at the city during budget adjustments in Nov. 2021 “to accelerate the development and implementation of climate actions in Calgary.”

“As decision makers, we need to consider the impact of all our decisions from a climate perspective,” Ebersohn said by email. “We need to go beyond simply just playing a part in responding to the climate crisis. We need to act. ”

The city, he said, is “on track to present a four-year plan and budget in November that aligns with council’s direction to keep expenditures in line with inflation plus population growth.”

A view of the Bow River in south Calgary
This stretch of the Bow River on Calgary’s southern edge, in an area know as Ricardo Ranch, will soon have a new suburban community near its shores. The plan to build in the area was made in the same month council passed its new climate strategy. Photo: Drew Anderson / The Narwhal.

Tsenkova said decisions about city building which focus on a particular period of time can have long-lasting implications. She points to Calgary’s hollowed-out downtown core as an example of how quickly things can change and the mess it can leave behind. 

The moment in time that gave rise to single-family homes in the suburbs has come and gone and the city has to find another way to ensure vibrancy and affordability, she added. 

Cities, she said, are “a vital place and something that provides opportunity for change. It’s not fixed in time.”

‘Humans don’t belong in some places anymore’

Schmidt, walking the Ricardo Ranch property after shedding the larger group, frequently stops mid-sentence to point out a new bird. In between, he talks about how productive the land is, how surprising it is to feel like you’re in the middle of nowhere with a freeway nearby. 

And while he says he doesn’t want to vilify developers who “have a job to do that we’ve entrusted them to do,” it’s hard to keep the frustration at bay. 

“When they removed the growth management overlays, there was so little talk about what are the implications for Calgary,” he says. “It was a big focus on the implications for the developers.”

He worries that despite the best intentions to protect the wetlands and the nesting sites, they will face too much pressure given the number of people living around them.

The new suburb’s area structure plan, he acknowledges, does talk about environmental protection. But he’s concerned by the way the developer plans to make the wetlands accessible to more people — and use them as a selling point for potential buyers. “I think that’s a terrible idea,” he says, as the sound of the freeway becomes more audible. 

“We’re just gonna have to accept it — humans don’t belong in some places anymore. If we want to manage the effects of climate change.”

Updated on Oct. 28, 2022, at 12:15 p.m. MT: This story was updated to identify the spokesperson for the City of Calgary as Dick Ebersohn, the manager of climate change and environment.

Updated on Nov. 2, 2022, at 9:15 a.m. MT: This story was updated to correct a figure. Logan Landing will not be home to 20,000 residents when built, that figure refers to the entire Ricardo Ranch area.

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Investigating stories others aren’t. Diving deep to find solutions to the climate crisis. Sending journalists to report from remote locations for days and sometimes weeks on end. These are the core tenets of what we do here at The Narwhal. It’s also the kind of work that takes time and resources to pull off.

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We hear it time and time again:
“These are the stories that need to be told and you are some of the only ones telling them,” John, a new member of The Narwhal, wrote in to say.

Investigating stories others aren’t. Diving deep to find solutions to the climate crisis. Sending journalists to report from remote locations for days and sometimes weeks on end. These are the core tenets of what we do here at The Narwhal. It’s also the kind of work that takes time and resources to pull off.

That might sound obvious, but it’s far from reality in many shrinking and cash-strapped Canadian newsrooms. So what’s The Narwhal’s secret sauce? Thousands of members like John who support our non-profit, ad-free journalism by giving whatever they can afford each month (or year).

But here’s the thing: just two per cent of The Narwhal’s readers step up to keep our stories free for all to read. Will you join the two per cent and become a member of The Narwhal today?

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