01/28/2016 09:29 EST | Updated 01/28/2017 05:12 EST

During Hard Times, Calgarians Must Manage Carefully But Think Ambitiously

calgary  canada   feb 18  the...
calgary canada feb 18 the...

As a lifelong Calgarian, each economic crisis shows me that we suffer from a chronic case of short-term thinking on long-term problems. On the way up, we feel that we will never come down, and on the way down we imagine the collapse of life as we know it. And so it goes.

What have we learned? Calgary has gone through times of great hardship, and our history holds many enduring lessons. Our city was built by generations of Calgarians marked by frugality and generosity; when hard times brought people closer and communities banded together for financial and emotional support.

So I will start there, with generosity. Between 2001 and 2006, despite a strong economy and low unemployment, Calgary's poverty rate did not decline. If we failed in reducing poverty during the good times, it is likely less about resources and more about fundamentals. Let us tackle the roots of poverty by strengthening community and supporting economic development that provides the greatest social benefit.

Disruptive change, like we faced during the 2013 Flood, showed the importance of ingenuity and flexibility in crisis response. Adversity was the spark for resourcefulness and determination. Silos between City departments, outside agencies, and other governments vanished as we focused on the task at hand and solved problems quickly.

Rules can be a barrier and sometimes the rule-makers just need to know when to get out of the way.

Crises can make us restless, inquisitive, and ready for innovative revolution. With history as a guide, we can expect some noteworthy entrepreneurial trendsetters to emerge from the current crisis -- people who refuse to be intimidated and instead think creatively about making the best of a downturn.

As Albertans, we must ask new questions in new ways and take quantum leaps in innovation. We cannot afford to wait for the economy to right itself before we solve chronic issues like the affordable housing crisis or seniors' care. Now is the perfect time to experiment with low-cost options. Why not try out temporary granny pods inspired by Australia's elder-cottage program, seniors' co-operative housing, or the many examples of innovative funding for affordable housing? Be nimble and see what works. Learn from failure and move on.

After the last global economic crisis, many cities started testing the idea of Tactical Urban-ism; a new name for an old concept. While large-scale, transformational projects still had their place, incremental micro-improvements were increasingly seen as a way to phase into large investments. I have long been a promoter of low-cost, high-reward projects to create opportunity and vibrancy, test new ideas, and solve urban problems. Quick projects such as pop-up parks, patios, and restaurants take little investment but add instant vitality. Pilots like cycle tracks or lane reversals help us test new concepts before making substantial political and financial commitments. Rules can be a barrier and sometimes the rule-makers just need to know when to get out of the way.

While temporary projects can spark creative solutions, we must take a long-term approach with investments that are meant to last. Over the years I have seen both booms and busts used as an excuse for shoddy design and workmanship. When the economy is booming we are in a rush to build, and success is measured by the speed of the planning process. During a downturn, we are afraid to be too demanding for fear that that the opportunity will vanish. Calgary deserves better.

During hard times, manage carefully, but think ambitiously. Combine caution with optimistic long-term planning for the recovery. We cannot afford to define our city's soul only through the volatility of our economic cycles, our highs and lows, our excesses and constraints. This time, let us use our ingenuity to emerge stronger, kinder, and more resilient.

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