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The Real Point is Missed in the Nenshi vs. CHBA Dialogue

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After two consecutive weeks of the media fanfare over the Calgary city hall and its Mayor vs. the Calgary Home Builders Association (CHBA) verbal spat, I have to admit that this ping pong game of jab is starting to make for a lot more of an exciting read than the antics of certain Hollywood starlets' run-ins with the law and rehab.

But what I do find surprising is that this dissension has brought forth little or no voice from the very group that is the subject of this debate - Us, the residents of this city! It's kinda playing out like the verbal fight on the school playgrounds between two dudes over a girl, while in the presence of the girl, without ever asking the girl whom she prefers.

Now I do not claim to know all the facts to make any informed judgement on who is right or wrong in this debate. And it does not matter. Because the real point is being missed in this volley of words. Let me explain.

The crux of this debate appears to be over the critical assumption made by the CHBA regarding the restriction of urban sprawl (meaning less subdivision lands to build homes upon) by the city planners. One can see why their members would be concerned. They are in the business of subdividing land and building expansive homes on it.

The city claims that such an assumption is overly ambitious and the city is keeping its options open regarding curtailing urban sprawl. This is my interpretation of the debate based on various media reports. Correct me if I am mistaking.

Now some really dubious claims have been brought forth by certain members of the media who seem to have taken the voluntary role of voice for the CHBA and the residents of Calgary. Lets look at just three common ones being thrown our way.

The city is trying to curtail our rights and freedom by restricting choice
Ummm..Yes. (and that's a yes in a John Stewartish deadpan face).
My freedom to drive at 180 km/hr in my vehicle is curtailed by those radar pointers, my freedom to hold a mini Burningman party inside my home is dampened by those calendar boys in overalls, my freedom to say "just shove it" to a certain federal collection agency is cut short by some dude sitting out there in the cold in Windsor or Winnipeg.

You get the point. Yes, that's what a legal system and the government is there for - to curtail the unrestricted freedom to do whatever the heck we want. And the government usually always gets its way. Just turn to Ontario and see how things worked out in the end for homebuilders after they enacted the Greenbelt Act (Hint: They innovated).

Restricting suburban land development reduces affordability by increasing home prices
Oh my! What are we to do. Yet another thing to worry about in a city that is still recovering from the recessionary period, facing uncertainty over the future of its major export, and witnessing a daily butchering of its precious commodity price in the global market. All that talk of shortage of workers and new hordes of people moving is, well, just talk. Calgary has seen several booms and busts and has witnessed housing peaks and troughs. Unlike in most other places, residents in this city seem to be quite the mobile lot. And even if we are to accept the notion of increasing density and reduced affordability, let us not forget that there are other bigger, richer, larger cities in this world than Calgary, that are getting along just fine by going this route (Hint: Hong Kong).

I like to have a backyard with a fence where my kids can play
Have you even been to your backyard lately, sir? Like with the snow cover for a good part of the year, and for the rest being manicured in the style of Home and Garden magazines, I have yet to see kids running around in backyards. Kids are on the playground. With other kids. Under the watch of a parent.

The way I see it, the debate has not touched upon the real crux of the matter affecting planning policy solutions, which in my opinion, in fact, has very little to do with housing itself.

High density living in condominium towers are considered the antithesis to harassment-free living. For those who have been on the unfavorable receiving end of condo board decisions, myself included, understand this point well. This may be true. But that is a legal construct instituted by us. So laws can be amended if it turns out to be unfavorable. If the economics and personal tastes favor dense urban living, so be it. We will in time become conditioned enough to enjoy the confines of a smaller space and lack of backyard. It was the prevalence of these factors that kept me a happy condo owner for the longest time while I lived in Toronto. (For the record I am a homeowner in the suburbs in Calgary now).

Business and employment is the core of any city and housing tends to revolve around it. Given the limited downtown land, it is obvious why ever taller office towers keep getting built to accommodate staff by day. But one cannot fathom an ever expanding suburb to accommodate the residents by night. There are eventual dis-economies of economies of scale. This means we need business and companies to evolve away from the downtown core concept to a more spread out satellite office concept. This is starting to happen already with certain major energy companies moving out of the core in to suburban office campuses. And live-work units is all but the norm in San Francisco and has been experimented with initial success in Toronto. This is a policy issue.

Transportation corridors need to be able to sustain the increase in suburban to urban commutes. While our Deerfoot Trail may not make the cut for World's Most Congested Highways, one only need to leave at 3:30 PM from downtown for the airport in order to catch the 5:00 PM flight to realize the grievances (and potential cardiac arrests) of our nascent congestion problem. Its all well and good to have those fancy marketing brochures advertise proximity to major arterial roads and 'just steps to' transit, but that's not solving our real commuting concerns. So now you have an engineering and urban design problem.

So there you have it. The resolution to our so called housing ills lies in legal, policy, engineering and urban planning issues more than it does in the housing product issue. And this is being lost in the ongoing debate between the two parties.