The Guidebook for Great Communities Heads to Council!

On Monday, March 22nd, 2021, the City of Calgary will be hosting a formal public hearing to address the ‘Guidebook for Great Communities’ and welcomes any suggested amendments before releasing it into the wild. The guidebook itself endeavours to give citizens a voice in shaping their communities and develop some guidelines by which our city can mature.  

When I first opened the City of Calgary’s proposed “Guidebook for Great Communities” and scrolled through the initiatives, I was pumped on what I saw. There appeared to be a number of excellent considerations, and the mere fact that my fair city had put this together had done me proud. This is a guidebook that has been over 10 years in the making, and could end up being quite pivotal in the way that it revises plans for communities as they exist now.  

It is over 100 pages and let’s be honest, if it weren’t for attending a Calgary Climate Hub meeting in January, this would have never been on my radar. In talking to my friends of similar interests and climate change concerns, it wasn’t on theirs either. 

At the last Calgary Climate Hub meeting I attended, I was surprised by the number of insightful amendments that had been put together in collaboration with Sustainable Calgary.  These of course will be brought to council on Monday, along with those amendments suggested by other concerned citizens. Many of the amendments that they had tabled made sense, but also brought to light the fact that I was lacking the information necessary to view the guidebook with a critical eye.  

This is not to say that the guidebook didn’t get many things right, on the contrary, there were many points worthy of note.  But if my awareness of it is a litmus test for the greater public of quasi-informed concerned citizens, then this is a topic definitely worth breaking down.  

The guidebook itself - which can be found here - is cleanly laid out and prefaced by a list of myths and facts to help lay to rest criticism born of uncertainty right from the get go.  

Of the great things the guidebook presents that will have a direct relationship in considering climate change, we see: options to assess climate risk and develop mitigation strategies, using climate resilient plant materials in landscaping and in parks, and identifying opportunities for comprehensive energy planning. It also suggests that moving forward the City will be incorporating climate change policy in community plans.  This is all good stuff.  

Where the Hub and Sustainable Calgary saw room for improvement, however, was in the rhetoric (amongst other areas).  In many places of the guidebook, we see the word ‘should’ or ‘may’ being slotted in, leading us to believe that these suggestions will in reality be only just that - suggestions.  

For example: Page 101 under the topic of ‘Sustainable Development Policies’  we see a sentence that says “Development may be required to incorporate sustainable building features, technologies and operational approaches.”  A nod in the right direction, but a little lackluster in the department of commitment. 

Page 75 “Comprehensive Planning Sites should undertake a master planning exercise…” again showing a lack of commitment. In the case of this one, the Hub and Sustainable Calgary recognizes there is a big opportunity for many sites to establish themselves as flagship Low Energy Developments, if only they were made to undertake a planning exercise to explore these options first. 

There are many more instances in this vein, all of which are addressed in the Hub’s proposed amendments, but you get the picture. Without properly backed requirements in the guidebook  - or at very least, proper verbiage - how can we expect communities to take these recommendations seriously? Other than just the motion to ‘do good’, where will the motivation truly come from, especially as the bottom line for everyone during times of uncertainty holds unpredictable weight.

Another amendment from the Hub and Sustainable Calgary that caught my eye fell under the category of urban forestry, a topic I am coming to know well.  

Page 101:  ““Targets and responsibilities shall be established for the local area and for proposed development to ensure that tree canopy meets The City's urban forestry goals, including within city easements on private land." 

Another objective which on the surface seems great, but delivers little in the way of follow up as to how this is to be met.  The amendment  addresses the need for clearer mechanisms as to how this is to become an actionable item. 

For instance, why aren’t the City’s urban forestry goals right in the guidebook, and what specific steps will be required to meet them? This vagueness injects its flavour through the guidebook as a whole, with great ideas for a better future in community development but setting up for an expectation of poor delivery on the follow through.  If we are taking the time to recognize and address these issues, shouldn’t the City be willing to at least provide committed language to support the details?  

My take away wasn’t necessarily a bad one.  I still feel very encouraged by the City’s willingness to put together a comprehensive document that brings to light a number of the issues that need to be addressed when it comes to community development.  I see now, however, the need for citizen involvement and injection to take these ideas and concepts to the next level.  Not only does it provide a more holistic insight, but a level of accountability as well.  

On Monday the Hub and Sustainable Calgary will present their amendments shoulder to shoulder (virtually, of course) with others.  We can only hope the turn out represents the greater good and leads to a Guidebook that delivers the climate justice our city - and planet - deserves.  I will post an update of the results, so stay tuned for that!


Written by: Chelsea Lees, Mobilize Node Communications Lead