New development may lead to social exclusion.

Calgary’s East Village may suffer from “diversity annihilation”

Note: this article was first published on September 26, 2015 at Klumpentown. Some edits have been made to fit the context of a broader discussion of urban development.
The inspiration for this article came from reading Jarrett Walker’s post on Rhetorical Annihilation in the social sciences. It’s a good read, and I’ve adopted his thinking into the way I write papers and conduct research.

What Walker is saying is that it is very easy when conducting research of any kind to end up ignoring a significant (even if a minority) portion of the population you are studying. If you conduct a transportation ranking of American cities based solely on commuter car congestion, you are ignoring transit riders, people who make their way to work via manual transportation, and people who don’t make their way to work during the commuting hours, or at all. A study like that would be a vast oversimplification of how people move around in a city.

If we translate this idea over to urban design, for me “diversity annihilation” is an analog that occurs when the overall design, feel, and types of services/amenities are built catering only to a portion of the population of a city. In other words, where the urban design of an area leads to a physical or social exclusion of a group of people who may otherwise use that space. In my mind, every part of the city should be built to accommodate everyone, which in the end results in a mixture of low and high-income housing, commercial services that cater to many cultures, and a feeling of inclusion that I think most Canadians boast about our country. For example, I think transit is one place where diversity excels, and why you should take the bus while on vacation. One could argue that a road designed mainly for cars suffers from the same problem, which is why I argue that pedestrian is king.  In this article, I’m going to talk about one particular place in Calgary where I think diversity annihilation exists because of the urban design, and where the city does not, in general, accommodate everyone.

I went for a walk around a neighborhood in Calgary that is undergoing a major transition: the East Village (Wikipedia/Commerical Site). The neighborhood is a very interesting one, and before I get into addressing the clickbait-esque article title, I want to take a moment to introduce you to the neighborhood that is going to play the case study for my larger discussion.

Let’s start off with a map:


At first glance, the East Village seems like a wonderful location for any number of people. It is next to two rivers which boast an excellent pathway system, it’s adjacent to Downtown, close to Calgary’s LRT, the Zoo (St. George’s Island), Fort Calgary (historic fort around which the rest of Calgary grew), the Stampede grounds (Victora Park, to the south), and a couple of other successful neighborhoods, by Calgary standards (Inglewood to the East and Bridgeland to the North).

But geographically, it’s also fairly isolated. It’s bordered by a river to the North and another to the East, and the CP Railway tracks to the South. In fact, the only open-ended link is to the West with downtown, and this was “broken” when Calgary’s new city hall, facing the other direction, was built in the 1980s. This isolation had a profound effect on the neighborhood, and when I was growing up it was known as a crime-ridden area (as much as Calgary has one). This, in a way, was the first diversity annihilation of the East Village (in the recent past, anyways. The Hudson’s Bay Company probably spurred the first one when it set up shop in the late 1870s)

It’s not surprising, then, that in 2005 the city council approved a plan to completely revitalize the area. Since then, a number of new and important structures have been popping up in or nearby the East Village, including a National Music Centre and a new building for the Central Library. Large residential towers have been climbing up ever since, and the area is poised to become one of the densest areas in the city.

But this comes at a price: the landscape of who is using the space has shifted, not widened. High-income individuals and couples are buying incredibly expensive condos. An expensive cafe and steakhouse has booming business. Gourmet grocers are opening up shop. While this in and of itself is not a bad thing, there is a definite lack of the diversity that neighborhoods like Inglewood, Bridgeland, and Kensington have. There is no low, or even medium income housing available. The only somewhat progressive project is a high-rise which does not have a parking space, designed to encourage car-less living in Calgary. When you go there and look around, you see a very narrow slice of who Calgarians are.

The interesting thing is this: Walk across the bridge to St. Patrick’s Island, a city park which just recently opened up after a massive renovation, and suddenly you are reminded of all the different people that call this city home. The park is not exclusionary, everyone feels welcome. The park even boasts gender-neutral washrooms,a minor but often overlooked detail that is representative of a thoughtful designer. The park’s main access is through the East Village, so why is this area so much more diverse?

I think the answer to this question is more complicated than I am able to do it justice, but I am going to say this: It appears that keeping an area welcoming to everyone is difficult, but possible. Suffice it to say, this is an idea that needs to be considered when “gentrifying” or “revitalizing” an area that is suffering from diversity annihilation in the first place. It doesn’t do any good to end up right where we started, only with more money changing hands.

I want to end with this clarifying statement: I think Calgary’s East Village has good intentions. I’m all for increasing the density of urban neighborhoods, and creating spaces that are welcoming and safe. I don’t think leaving it the way it was would have been better (though thinking twice before constructing a large building with it’s back literally facing the neighborhood, and then placing two busy roads would have been good). The East Village is certainly not the only neighborhood in Calgary that suffers from diversity annihilation, and my guess is there are many, many places in other cities that can serve as prime examples.

Let’s just make sure that we include everyone in our cities.

Willem Klumpenhouwer

Willem is a PhD student in transportation planning and engineering at the University of Calgary, working on improving transit schedule design. In his spare time, Willem does programming projects and is a volunteer and improviser at the Loose Moose Theatre.

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  • Ryan Plestid

    I am always somewhat torn in these areas. You need to develop enough economic incentive before you can leverage developers. The problem is that if that takes while to develop is it worth the opportunity cost of no development? I do not have a good answer to that.

  • Kelsey

    In addition to excluding low income people, the neighbourhood seems to have been designed to exclude families. 2 bedroom condos have small floorplans and are prohibitively expensive even for relatively high income families like mine. I have not seen any 3+ bedroom floorplans at all. It’s a shame, since the lovely new parks, playgrounds, future library etc would make it a highly desirable area for young parents. I guess developers still cling to the outmoded idea that children only belong in suburbs.

    • Good observation – I’m not sure what can be done about the “prohibitively expensive” part, these places will be as expensive as people are willing to pay. Only when more are built can the price come down a little, and that is going to take some forward thinking developers and a council that pushes for more, denser housing.

      I agree with you, though – the East Village seems like it might become a great place for kids!


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