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Calgary-wide rezoning may reduce carbon emissions, increase physical activity: researcher

Click to play video: 'Calgary city wide rezoning debate delves into affordability discussions'
Calgary city wide rezoning debate delves into affordability discussions
Affordability in Calgary’s housing market was front and centre during the marathon rezoning debate at Calgary City Hall on Wednesday. As Adam MacVicar reports, many say it won’t make homes less expensive. – Apr 24, 2024

A researcher from Mount Royal University is calling Calgary’s proposed rezoning bylaw a “step in the right direction” to lowering carbon emissions and increasing physical activity in the city.

The proposed bylaw is one of around 80 recommendations in the City of Calgary’s housing strategy, which would change the base residential zoning district to RC-G instead of RC-1 or RC-2 zoning.

Currently, the majority of residential areas are zoned to only allow single-family homes by default.

RC-G zoning will allow single-family homes and duplexes, triplexes and rowhouses to be built.

Those opposed to blanket rezoning argued in public hearing sessions throughout the week that increased density in RC-1 and RC-2 communities will increase carbon emissions and even accused Calgary city council of being hypocritical. Councillors voted 13-2 to declare a climate emergency in 2021. A climate strategy to get the city to net-zero by 2050 was greenlit the following year. 

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“I’m here to protect the ecological concerns with this blanket rezoning bylaw,” said one participant.

“I need to remind Mayor Gondek that she declared a climate emergency. We are in southern Alberta where we are facing drought and several rivers are already dry. The (Bow River) is at 50 per cent of its streamflow at least last year. Glaciers are receding. Groundwater is decreasing in all areas of the province.

“So I’m finding this uncontrolled development of tearing down perfectly good houses in neighbourhoods where rents could be affordable and slapping up townhouses and basement suites and lane houses where developers are asking for astronomical rents quite distressing.”

City administration said the new bylaw will support climate action by decreasing the distance between trips to work, school or amenities, creating opportunities to get around the city using public or active transportation.

The City of Calgary’s website says by rezoning all neighbourhoods to RC-G by default, the city will preserve natural grassland and agricultural land on the outskirts of the city. The move will also allow more people to live in new, more efficient homes.

City administration also said in documents submitted to council Monday that the proposed bylaw would support the Municipal Development Plan, a policy document that guides the city’s development and growth. Section 2.2 of the plan says the MDP will direct future growth of the city that “fosters a more compact efficient use of land” creating vibrant communities and allowing for more mobility choices.

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How does this proposed bylaw stack up?

James Stauch, executive director of Mount Royal University’s Institute for Community Prosperity, said the proposed bylaw is a good first step toward lowering carbon emissions as it would decrease car dependency.

A 2014 study from the University of California’s Berkley (UC Berkley) campus suggests that population-dense cities contribute less greenhouse gas emissions per person than other areas. The climate benefits were wiped out as suburbs account for about 50 per cent of all household emissions, mostly from cars, trucks and other forms of motorized transportation.

A Massachusetts Institute of Technology article published in 2023 suggests that people in semi-urban and suburban areas emit more carbon dioxide than those in central areas of cities, at least in high-income countries. This is because the primary drivers of carbon footprints, such as vehicle ownership and home size, are all considerably higher in suburbs.

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“There’s a well-established link between the density of neighborhoods, especially medium density, and lowered carbon emissions. There’s a more likely uptake of transit and more people not relying on a car so much or even having a car-free lifestyle,” Stauch said.

Calgary has a higher carbon footprint because of cars and sprawl, Stauch said, and the city has the second-highest road-to-person ratio in the country. Only one per cent of households are car-free in Calgary and the vast majority of households have two or more cars.

That means for every Calgarian nearly six metres of roadway is needed to maintain the city, according to Stauch.

“So imagine if we just tweaked density enough so that we could double that number of car-free households from one per cent to two per cent, it’s still negligible. but that’s the equivalent of planting a million tree seedlings growing for 10 years. Or it’s the equivalent of installing 17 industrial wind turbines,” he told Global News.

“If you do the math, an average car puts out 46,000 kilograms of carbon per year. If you increase the car-free household statistic by one per cent, that’s 64 million kilograms less carbon output.”

Stauch also said neighbourhoods zoned for single-family homes do not have sufficient density thresholds to sustain amenities like corner stores. If a family needs some milk or bread or another everyday item, someone will need to drive to the nearest grocery store because suburbs are filled with circuitous roads with only one or two entry points.

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The researcher also said densification will help share the infrastructure load more evenly across the city.

“Blanket rezoning is a really fair approach because it means that all neighbourhoods, not just the inner city, share the responsibility and opportunity for densification,” he said.

“It’s fairer across the board that parts of the city that previously were subsidized by the inner city are now more likely to share the load. Just because of the fact that there are more people living there and more people paying taxes and paying for that expensive infrastructure.”

Robert Tremblay, co-chair of the Calgary Climate Hub’s board of directors, said the proposed RC-G rezoning is “unequivocally a good move for the climate.”

In an interview with Global News, he said allowing for more density will make Calgary more energy-efficient because it will encourage alternative forms of transportation such as walking, transit and biking. Calgary’s suburban sprawl has made the city car-dependent.

“Nobody is saying that anybody has to use transit or they have to cycle. This move will simply make it easier for some folks who want to do that, to do so,” Tremblay said.

“There are going to be other solutions to decarbonize transportation, like electric vehicles. And if we can allow people to live closer to where they want to live, that’ll make it easier for them to spend less time in their car driving and to be using less energy, which will make it easier to transition to electric vehicles as well.”

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Click to play video: 'Police chief discusses Calgary’s rezoning plans and recruitment efforts at CPS'
Police chief discusses Calgary’s rezoning plans and recruitment efforts at CPS

Increased density may also have health benefits

Both Tremblay and Stauch said increased density along with improved public and active transportation infrastructure will have broader health benefits for Calgarians.

A study published by Pennsylvania State University (PSU) suggests that community design that supports more physical activity outside of school has the potential to help slow chronic disease epidemics affecting children and youth in Canada. The PSU study said the majority of Canadian school neighbourhoods are not always well-designed for safe walking — 42 per cent are located on high-volume, high-speed roads and another 14 per cent have no sidewalks in the immediate area.

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The study also said shorter distances between home and school increase the likelihood that children and youth will use active modes of transportation to school.

A public health guide published by the CDC Foundation suggests frequent and reliable public transportation systems lead to fewer vehicle crashes, reduced air pollution and increased physical activity levels. This includes buses, light rails, paratransit and subway systems.

According to the City of Calgary’s 2022 Safer Mobility Plan Annual Report, there were around 24,483 vehicle collisions in 2021 and 415 of those collisions were considered major injury or fatal collisions. Out of the 415 serious or fatal collisions, 29 involved cyclists and 93 involved pedestrians including eight deaths.

“The more that we can allow people to have the option of cycling or walking for their mode of transportation, the more we can just be allowing them to have exercise in their daily lives,” Tremblay said.

“We need to be allowing people to have (more transportation choices) instead of restricting their choices, which is what we’re doing now with single-detached (zoning).”

Stauch said there’s a connection between higher-density neighbourhoods to better physical fitness, better mental health, and neighbourhood safety.

“I’ve lived both (car-free and car-dependent lifestyles) and there’s a dramatic difference. You lose weight when you have less car-dependent neighbourhoods. You feel better. You get to know your neighbours. You get to observe your neighbourhood. It makes the neighbourhood safe,” Stauch said.

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“I’ve heard the arguments put forward that we want to maintain the character of single-family neighbourhoods, but I think we should be truthful with ourselves. Very few homogeneous single-family neighbourhoods have anything close to interesting character.”

However, most Calgarians are stuck commuting to work when they could be spending that time doing something else.

“We’re a little bit afraid of what the future might hold with a lot of these things, and then when it happens, we realize it’s not so bad. In fact, it’s kind of nice to be able to leave the house without a car once in a while, grab a neighbourhood coffee and grab your whatever it is you need,” Stauch said.

Click to play video: 'Calgary’s city-wide rezoning proposal: what does RC-G look like?'
Calgary’s city-wide rezoning proposal: what does RC-G look like?

What about green space and trees?

Many public hearing participants opposing the proposed rezoning bylaw said they were concerned over development in areas previously dedicated to parks, green spaces and trees.

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One participant said Calgary has a lot of space to expand as a city, and said she doesn’t understand why the city needs to build on top of existing neighbourhoods.

The participant went on to say she is concerned that densification will destroy city-owned parkland and green spaces in her community.

“The reason why cities have high density because they don’t have any land to build on. Calgary doesn’t have that problem. We can expand north, south, east and west,” she said. “The last council approved eight new communities. Why doesn’t this council approve new communities, too?”

Stauch said he understands where the concerns are coming from because a lot of Calgarians love trees.

“Trees do a bunch of things. They absorb carbon. They reduce runoff. They reduce pollution. They are also natural air conditioners,” he said.

“I am sensitive to those arguments that in particular neighbourhoods, you risk damaging or destroying mature trees that actually does have an effect on the character of the neighbourhood.”

He said there needs to be a balance between preserving tree canopies and increasing density and added the city does an “objectively poor job” of planting new trees and taking care of existing mature trees.

“If you look at the data, tree canopies can thrive in low-density neighbourhoods, but it’s even more true that the age of the neighbourhood, especially the affluence of those communities, are actually a stronger predictor in the degree of tree canopy they have,” he said.

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“If you compare the Beltline and certain places in Lower Mount Royal and Sunnyside, which have a mix of uses and definitely higher density, to literally any community in northeast Calgary, the more dense inner-city neighbourhoods have more tree canopy as well. They’re proof that you can have medium density and significant tree coverage.

“The arguments around tree coverage, I think, are a little bit hollow, if we’re not willing to actually spend time, money and effort to make sure there’s proper tree coverage.”

Tremblay said the bigger issue is sprawl because developing more houses at the edge of the city consumes a lot more green space than densifying inner-city neighbourhoods.

An analysis of global agricultural land in areas with lots of urban or suburban sprawl leads to six to 10 times more consumption of natural spaces to make up for the agricultural land used for development, he said.

“When we sprawl outwards, we’re consuming agricultural land, which leads to sprawl, which consumes far more natural habitats than it could ever be consumed inside the city,” he said.

Tremblay disagreed with the idea that densification would negatively impact Calgary’s tree canopy long term, saying it is much more important to pay attention to how sprawl will negatively impact natural ecosystems.

He acknowledged the love Calgarians have for parks and trees but it is much more important to take care of Calgary’s natural ecosystems.

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“You know, these spaces are great, but they’re not important in the same way for biodiversity and for the climate that some of our truly natural spaces are,” he said.

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