Do we need another McNally Report?
Is it time for a third-party review of governance in the Calgary Region?
For the past 60 years, one of Calgary’s biggest economic advantages has been its uni-city governance, where 90% of all policy, planning, policing, infrastructure, social, parks and recreational programs of the region were under the jurisdiction of one mega city – Calgary. There have been no major edge cities competing for property and business tax revenues nor fragmentation of social and infrastructure services.
Calgary has no major edge cities like Toronto’s Mississauga (population, 756,000) Vancouver’s Surrey (population, 516,650) competing to attract new business and homebuilders that syphon significant tax dollars away from it.
Calgary is an urban monopoly!
Fast-forward to 2016 and some are questioning if the uni-city model really has – or still is – serving Calgary as well as we thought. Two such individuals are Bob Holmes (former City Planning Commissioner) and Richard Parker (former Head of City of Calgary Planning Department from 1988 to 2003). While both think that our current uni-city governance model has served us well, it might be time to have an outsider look at what would be the best governance model for the Calgary Region in the 21st century.
Would Calgary be better off today if Bowness hadn’t been annexed and left to become a vibrant city of its own? The same could be asked about Forest Lawn and Midnapore. Instead of having one major central downtown, would we have had several smaller downtowns in each quadrant?
Instead of all of the jobs being east of the Deerfoot Divide, would it be better to have employment nodes in all quadrants of the city? Would we need to be creating master planned town centres like Seton and Livingston from scratch?
Competition makes everyone better. Without competition has the City of Calgary become wasterful, inefficient, perhaps even a “fat cat?”
Calgary’s City Council’s current policy says no more annexation. So where does that leave Airdrie, Okotoks, Chestermere, Cochrane and Strathmore as part of the Calgary Region? How do they grow synergistically with Calgary? Is that even possible?
It all started in 1954. A Royal Commission headed up by Dr. George Fredrick McNally, a retired Deputy Minister of Education, was tasked with examining what would be the best governance model to manage metropolitan growth in Calgary and Edmonton. At the time, Calgary was a city of 170,000 people and the adjacent towns of Bowness, Montgomery and the hamlet of Forest Lawn (14,000 people combined) were struggling. Neither Bowness nor Montgomery had sewer or water services and insufficient tax revenue to finance these services.
After extensive review, the McNally Report determined the best form of governance would be achieved through one central municipal authority and it recommended Bowness, Montgomery and Forest Lawn, as well as other surrounding lands, be annexed over a seven-year period. By 1964, Calgary had grown from 130 square kilometres to 407 square kilometres. Today, Calgary encompasses a whopping 825 square kilometres, making it one of the largest cities (not metro regions) in the world by landmass.
Creating a uni-city didn’t eliminate the need for regional planning. So, in 1964 a preliminary Regional Plan was developed with the philosophy being that Calgary should contain sufficient land to enable it to direct and plan for its future development. It has been City policy to have a 20-year land bank for anticipated residential and commercial growth. Also the ’64 Regional Plan called for any development of land outside Calgary to not to compete with anticipated Calgary development.
By the mid-90s, in response to pressures from rural municipalities, the Province of Alberta disbanded regional planning and placed regional policies within the Municipal Government Act (currently under review), allowing urban and rural municipalities the same ability to compete for residential and commercial development.
The overall benefit of Calgary’s uni-city model is the effectiveness and efficiencies of the comprehensive planning and control of land use, delivery of programs, services and transportation infrastructure.
In Calgary’s case, it has allowed the City to develop one of the most well-used and extensive LRT systems on a per capital basis in the world. Others point to our integrated water supply and wastewater treatment system as one of the best in the world.
Still others point out how a uni-city tax system has allowed Calgary to create both a strong city centre and attractive master-planned suburbs. And there are those who point to the fact that Calgary has the lowest residential property tax rate of any major city in Canada.
Thinking outside the Quadrant
I have often heard Calgarians say, “ I never leave my quadrant of the City except to go to work.” Instead of thinking of “live, work, play” communities, should we be thinking of “live, work, play” quadrants? To some extent, this is already happening with the move to regional libraries, parks and recreation centres in each quadrant and happened even earlier with regional shopping centres like Chinook, Market, Southcentre and more recently CrossIron Mills (which is not within the City of Calgary).
Recently, the City made minor changes to the Ward boundaries, but what if they made more radical changes that reflected the reality of Calgary’s distinct economic and cultural districts in the 21st century, rather than the 20th century?
Bob Holmes thinks some form of regional government encompassing Calgary, Airdrie, Okotoks, Cochrane and Chestermere is worthy of investigation. He cautions, “The devil is in the details. The challenge is to find the right size and structure to produce good planning and economies of scale in the delivery of services.”
Something to think about?
In 2016, Airdrie and Chestmere gained more residents than the City of Calgary – 4,371 vs. 4,256. Is this a good or a bad thing?
Is this an indicator that our 20th century “uni-city” governance model is outdated? Is it time for a third-party review of governance in the Calgary Region?
Calgary’s future is at stake. Is your future at stake?
White is a Calgary freelance writer and blogger with 25+ years experience writing about city building and urban development issues in Calgary and beyond. You can read his blogs at everydaytourist.ca and tweets @everydaytourist.