Geography can segregate parts of cities. With Calgary, it’s often our urban highways

The roads, rails, and rivers that divide our city

Last week, I attended the Urban Affairs Book Club (find them on Facebook) to discuss the book Subdivided: City-Building in an Age of Hyper-Diversity. There was plenty of interesting discussion about culture, diversity, and immigration. I want to expand on some of those musings here.

One recurring theme revolved around what cities can do to make newcomers feel welcome and join the “fabric of Canadian society”, however you’d like to interpret that. Canada has a long history of welcoming immigrants and refugees with open arms, and in the current political climate this tradition is more important than ever.

When this theme crossed with discussion of space and geometry in cities, my interest was in full swing. In the context of Toronto there was discussion of how economics, in the form of land values, house prices, and transportation costs can isolate newcomers into groups, and make it very difficult for them to access the services they need.

In Calgary, we have a similar problem, but ours is to a larger extent caused by sprawl and our very car-centric transportation system. In many cases, major roads such as Deerfoot Trail divide our city into groups more than our definition of quadrants or even the cost of living in different areas. I have heard a former police officer talk about “the bad side of the tracks” in Bowness, and the concept of “East of the Deerfoot” rings true for many people.

If you look carefully, this portal across the “Great Divide” the CPR mainline creates through Bowness appears in Season 1 of Fargo [Google]

Every city has its share of natural and man-made barriers, but in the context of urban Canadian cities Calgary has some truly large cuts of land that divide the city into fairly inaccessible regions, if you are not in a car.

At the book club, people shared stories of refugees being placed in the far corners of the city with no access to a vehicle and meager (at best) access to transit. These places aren’t designed to be serviced by transit, and it shows in the travel times, where people are forced to spend 3 hours of their day commuting to and from their job.

At Skyview Ranch, Downtown is only a hop, skip, and a jump away! [Google]

In many cases, these divides are along major road right of ways. They often come with significant green space, which is hard for anyone to argue is problematic in a city. Many of these divides in our city are often quite beautiful.

The “transportation utility corridor” of Sarcee Trail: Great for walking dogs, not so great for connectivity. [Google]

Green space in cities is important. I’m not suggesting we remove our wonderful green spaces and build over Nose Hill or Fish Creek park. These are part of what makes Calgary an attractive place.

Yet we cannot ignore that there are social and economic impacts caused by these natural and man-made barriers. They make it harder for the city to deliver services easily around the city. They make it harder for us to interact with others in our city.

After all, it’s much easier to stop and say hi to a neighbour while walking by on the street than driving by in a car. These small interactions are what make up Jane Jacobs’ “ballet of the street”, encourage trust and meaningful dialog between Calgarians old and new, and make our city safer and happier.

Two dividing objects: A river of cars and a river of water. [Google]

So what can we do about it? A large part of it includes a change in attitude about what is important in our city. Find places where our transportation needs have been put ahead of our needs as city-dwellers. There is a ton of essentially unused green space along our urban highways.

For a start, I’d suggest taking the money we’re using for a ring road I’m not convinced we need and use it to build and encourage the type of city connections that allow diversity to thrive. This requires identifying areas of our city that are divided, and working to bring them together.

You could find places in your area where roads have been over-engineered and push the city to make them safer (maybe using revenue from all those speeding tickets).

You could join an urban affairs book club and learn about issues you didn’t know existed. Nobody should ever criticize you for informing yourself about issues.

Maybe most importantly, we should recognize that cities thrive by bringing people together. Go out and meet new people you might never normally interact with. Live outside your bubble. Learn new things.

Force the connections our city can sometimes make difficult to achieve.

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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