Vital Signs 2012: Calgary

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Calgary is a study in contradictions. It was named the 2012 Cultural Capital of Canada, but ranked only sixth out of twenty cities in the 2011 Canadian Creativity Index. Calgary Southwest is the home riding of Prime Minister Stephen Harper, whose 2008 statement that “ordinary working people” do not support arts funding sparked outrage in the national arts community.

Though its citizens are overwhelmingly optimistic and happy, and many of them are very prosperous, food bank usage in Calgary has increased by a staggering 70%. Welcome to the paradoxical Heart of the New West.

The Calgary Foundation

Doug Hawkes received care packages from the Red Cross while he was a POW during World War II. His gratitude for those packages, sent by strangers, led him to establish The Calgary Foundation in 1955 with the idea of giving back to the community that had shown him so much compassion. Holding a current asset base of $400 million, the Foundation is involved with donor and endowment stewardship, knowledgeable grantmaking, and community leadership. It pools funds from philanthropic families and businesses and divests the income to registered charitable organizations in the areas of arts and heritage, community development, education, environment, health, human services and recreation.

Good but not yet great

The purpose of the 2012 Calgary Vital Signs report is twofold: to ask Calgarians to grade their quality of life, and to publish indicators and trends in the key issue areas that have been graded. Now in its sixth year, the Vital Signs report shows steady optimism about life in Calgary: 90% describe themselves as happy, 89% are surrounded by loving family, companions and friends, and 73% feel optimistic that Calgary is a good place to raise children now and in the future.

If it is true that the mayor sets the tone for the city, some of Calgary’s high spirits could be a reflection of its ebullient, social media savvy mayor, Naheed Nenshi. Calgary Foundation VP Communications Kerry Longpre noted, “We’ve elected an optimistic, outgoing, visionary mayor” who has certainly impacted the civic attitude with such initiatives as 3 things for Calgary, a “better your city” project.

Overall, Calgarians rated their quality of life at a B+, leading the report authors to note, “We’re good, but how can we be great?”

Three of the Vital Signs categories that might have the greatest daily impact on Calgarians are finances, housing and transportation. It is in these areas that some curious contradictions emerge.

Financial wellbeing

Calgary is home to some of the highest wage earners in the country, and it has not experienced the same scale of economic downturn as other cities. However, life can still be a struggle for those on the lower end of the income scale. One of the recipients of a Calgary Foundation grant is the Momentum Community Economic Development Society, for its Policies for a Provincial Poverty Reduction Strategy Initiative. The Initiative is working to implement a provincial poverty reduction strategy and a strategy for early childhood development. Momentum Community Relations Associate Director Carolyn Davis argued that “people living in poverty don’t seem to benefit when the economy improves overall.”

The Vital Signs report backs this up: 1/13th of the workforce is unable to earn a living wage. The Low Income Cut-Offs (LICO) (before tax 2010) show a declining poverty and child poverty rate in the city, though senior poverty remains unchanged. Food bank usage has increased by 70% since 2006-2007.

Davis suggested that the biggest struggles for low wage earners in the city is the ability “to live life with dignity, hope and choice. Our provincial minimum wages are too low to ensure that someone working full time doesn’t live in poverty.”

Dan Meades, director of Vibrant Communities Calgary, agrees. “There are 160,000 people living in poverty and 95,000 people working for less than a living wage. While there are some indicators that suggest that people are doing better in Calgary, we still do have an unbelievable number of people who are going to work every day and still struggling to make ends meet.”

Longpre referred to Calgary’s growing income gap as a “worrisome trend”: The richest 5% of neighbourhoods have an average after tax income that is 2.9 times higher than the poorest 5%. This gap rose by 81% between 1980 and 2005, higher than any other city in the country. Quality of life is indeed rosy for the high wage earners, but steps need to be taken to ensure that the less fortunate do not get left behind.

Survey respondents agreed, suggesting that what Calgary most needed to improve were its affordable housing options, the implementation of a living wage, and services that support the transition from poverty to the workforce.


Income levels have a direct impact on both housing and transportation options. In Calgary, although housing is relatively affordable, some individuals and families may still have problems with access to affordable housing, or they may be spending so much of their income on housing that other needs, such as food, fall short.

According to Longpre, the issues of urban sprawl and density in Calgary have arisen in every Vital Signs report they’ve conducted.

“We’re building out rather than up. That translates to more schools, more roads, [more] costs to expand. [The issue] continues in the comments in this year’s report that we’ve got to focus and put a priority on building higher density within the city rather than new neighbourhoods. We have the highest level of ecological footprint in the country.”

With a population of 1.2 million, Calgary has a population density of 237/km2. As a point of comparison, the geographically expansive city of Los Angeles has a population density of 3,124/km2.

Homelessness in Calgary showed an 11.4% decrease since 2008, which is the first recorded decrease in the city. Survey respondents were pleased with city efforts to address homelessness and affordable housing, although their recommendations still included affordability of rental housing and integrated housing options in all communities, as well as addressing the density issue to curb urban sprawl.

The city has funded 3,677 of the 8,500 housing units needed to end homelessness entirely according to the 10 Year Plan to End Homelessness. However, Davis argued, “for families in particular, Calgary offers few affordable housing options, especially homes with more than two bedrooms.”

Adeel and his family used the savings earned through Momentum’s matched savings programs toward a down payment on their first home.

Housing in Calgary is statistically more affordable than in the rest of Canada, with 37.2% of median household pre-tax income required to cover mortgage costs, property taxes and utilities for a 2-story house, in comparison to 49.4% in the rest of Canada. Proportional affordability, however, and real affordability are not the same thing. Dupre noted that statistically, throughout the country, “compared to our parents’ generation, we’re paying a higher percentage of our housing.”

Increased densification that allows for mixed income inhabitants just might be one of the keys to take Calgary from good to great for all of its citizens. Meades suggested that increased zoning for secondary suites might also take some of the pressure off.

“The ten year plan is working well, but I would say there’s an awful lot left to do. We can have a real economically diverse population in every area of our city. What would it mean to mandate that a certain proportion of our housing be affordable or subsidized housing? If 15% of the population is struggling with housing, then mandate that 15% of new housing be dedicated to low income housing.”

Getting around

Survey respondents graded Calgary the lowest in the area of getting around: a C. This makes sense given the city’s urban sprawl and the state of its public transportation infrastructure. “Every year the biggest issue is transportation, but there were some positive indicators,” said Longpre.

For the first time in Calgary’s history, 50% of downtown rush-hour trips were made via public transit (20% of Calgary jobs are located in the downtown core).

“We have increased significantly our pathway and on-street kilometres devoted to bikes. When you look at traffic congestion we’re way down.”

Calgary ranks 16th most congested rush hour in North America. It certainly could be worse, but Calgarians still experienced 35 hours worth of delay per year for a 30-minute commute.

RouteAhead is the City of Calgary’s project team for the development of a 30-year transit plan. Following feedback from citizens and studies of similar metropolitan areas including Vancouver, Seattle, Portland, Salt Lake City, and Denver, RouteAhead has devised a draft plan in line with an overarching vision for the city. Top citizen priorities included expansion of the LRT line, frequency of trains and buses, networked designs, fares, and reliability. Because the plan, which includes customer service strategies and capital projects has a potential cost of billions, City Council will be looking at it very closely over the next several months. RouteAhead is planning further public engagement in the fall and they urge Calgarians to provide further feedback.

Richard Zach, vice president of Bike Calgary, would like to see more infrastructure for commuter cyclists. Survey results suggested most Calgarians also wanted a reduced reliance on cars.

“Large swaths of Calgary, especially the far south and the entire northeast, are not well connected by either pathways or on-street bike lanes. There are few bike lanes, (25 km currently), about a tenth or less what other Canadian cities offer their bicycle commuters. The downtown core has none at all.”

Bike Calgary estimates that approximately 50% of Calgarians would like to cycle more often for transportation purposes.

Commuters on Calgary’s Peace Bridge.

“The downtown bike count broke 10,000 last year for the first time (bicycles in and out of the downtown core in 24 hours). With bike lanes giving people safe and efficient access to their workplaces it could easily double.”

Dan Meades notes that people living in poverty find transportation to be the most challenging issue that they face.

“When we provide them with affordable transportation options, 99% of people say that it drastically increases their quality of life. It helps them enjoy their city and [improves] how they feel about their role in the city.”

He notes that the low-income transit pass has qualifications that are too stringent. “It’s under review, but right now you need to be living at 75% or less of LICO, therefore $16,000 year or less. Seniors are paying $40/year vs. $40/month for low income people. Services need to be based on income, not on age.”

Engagement and sustainability

In addition to the big three issues of financial wellbeing, housing and transportation, the report points to other surprises and changes in Calgary. Though happy with their quality of life and their families, Calgarians reported a lower sense of community belonging than the national average, which was a somewhat surprising statistic, though perhaps it is in keeping with other contradictory aspects of Calgary’s character.

There was a big rise in environmental sustainability and interest in issues related to food, which was included as its own category for the first time. More children are learning from nature, such as with the Miistakis Institute for the Rockies’ project to reintroduce beavers to the Ann & Sandy Cross Conservation Area. The Cross Conservation project is a multi-year project involving landowners who want to be better stewards of nature and Canada’s national symbol, the beaver, which is an important contributor to local ecosystems in its own right. The project also engages grade seven students from the Calgary Science School to undertake baseline monitoring of the site where the beavers will be reintroduced. The Cross Conservation project is an exciting example of multiple stakeholders coming together to make positive changes for Calgary.

Nikki Reimer is a Calgary-based freelance writer, editor and creative writer. She is passionate about the health of cities.

First two photos (from top) via Momentum Community Economic Development Society. Last photo via Bike Calgary. All photos used with permission.

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