More than just a sidewalk: Why some people believe walkable neighbourhoods are the key to a vibrant Calgary

Compact neighbourhoods promote health, social interaction, and closer friendships

By Mario Toneguzzi | January 31, 2022 |5:00 am

Some communities, such as Bridgeland, are known for their vibrant streets and pedestrian-friendly sidewalks.

Photo: Mario Toneguzzi

Creating vibrant, active and interesting communities is a critical part of Calgary’s financial, social, and environmental future but it’s not going to be an easy task.

Enhancing existing neighbourhoods consists of having great destinations within those areas such as local convenience stores, community gardens, hubs and social gathering places. 

However, those great destinations will also need great pathways to encourage people to walk to them and to encourage the social interaction that comes with a pedestrian-friendly neighbourhood.

The downside of “the sprawl” 

Ward 9 Councillor Gian-Carlo Carra says one of the big reasons the city has to invest in existing communities is financial, adding it’s essential for creating more opportunities for rational, socially-equitable and environmentally-responsible choices.

“We want to build a city that makes more and more dollars and cents from the perspective of how we run the city, from the perspective of how the tax bills that we collect payment for the services that we consume,” he says. 

“And cover the long-term capital costs of keeping our roads paved and our rec centres cutting edge, if we want to build a city that supports a diversifying economy, we have to change what we’ve done for the last seven decades.” 

Carra says sprawling outward has had a tremendous environmental cost with its post-war North American driving lifestyle that has driven climate change.

“One of my favourite things to do when I’m talking to kids is I always ask the kids, ‘What car do you drive?’ ” he explains. 

“They’re like, ‘I don’t drive a car,’ then they start to contend with the fact that… we built a city where in order to participate as a first-class citizen [they] need to drive and [they’re] a kid and can’t drive.” 

We built this city… on roads 

Carra says that begs the question of why we built a city where people are put into a position of needing to drive. 

“That applies to kids, that applies to the elderly, that applies to working people who it becomes cost-prohibitive to maintain a fleet of vehicles,” he says. 

“We know that social isolation goes up. We know that the causes of poverty it’s not just about housing, it’s about putting a supportive, complete community around you.”

Celia Lee, executive director of Sustainable Calgary, says the city should be looking at creating more walkable communities. 

“One thing we’ve focused on a lot in the last 10 years is health and we’re seeing increases in chronic diseases across Canada,” she says, adding she believes that’s related to the way cities have been built to drive more and walk less. 

“We’re seeing that all of us need more physical activity in our daily lives. If we could walk to the convenience store and grab our milk, that would actually help with public health.” 

She says people who use public transit are “measurably healthier” and that’s because they walk to and from the train station. 

“On top of that, we need to address climate change,” Lee adds. 

Walkable communities are important for socialization and loneliness

Seniors who experience loneliness are much more likely to be hospitalized, according to Lee.

Also, in walkable and compact neighbourhoods, there is more social interaction and closer friendships are developed.

“Great destinations need great pathways,” Lee says. “We want pathways that are safe, that are comfortable, that are interesting, that are convenient.”  

One of the projects that Sustainable Calgary has worked on is revitalizing catwalks, which are basically pedestrian shortcuts through neighbourhoods.

“We see this as a really great opportunity for a lot of our suburbs where they have a lot of this infrastructure but they’re not always designed to make people feel safe or comfortable,” Lee says. 

“They’re not always accessible. They’re not always cleared of snow. They’re not always lit. They might not have great curb cuts. A lot of them have gates which create a barrier for example for people with strollers.”

Community means different things to different people

Richard White, who writes a regular blog called Everyday Tourist, says the fact that there isn’t a homogenous population in a community opens the door to the discussion as to what exactly people would like in their neighbourhoods.

That means different communities and different individuals and families all value various things. For some people, it might be bike lanes. For some people, it might be a new playground. 

“Established communities are different than new communities. Established communities maybe need money invested in their community centres which are 50 years old and underfunded,” White explains. 

“New communities have homeownership associations and all of their facilities are brand new and they have pathways that have been put in by the developer and new playgrounds and playing fields.” 

It’s a delicate balancing act but one thing most agree on; the city needs to be more walkable.

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Mario Toneguzzi

Mario Toneguzzi is a contributor with Calgary Citizen.

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