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Calgary mayor Naheed Nenshi, photographed in his office on Feb. 2, 2011, on his 100th day in office. (Chris Bolin for The Globe and Mail)
Calgary mayor Naheed Nenshi, photographed in his office on Feb. 2, 2011, on his 100th day in office. (Chris Bolin for The Globe and Mail)

The Tell

Naheed Nenshi's challenge: Making Calgary a livable city Add to ...

It's not that he wants to abolish suburbs. "We have to recognize that a lot of people want to live in them," he says. "I'm not interested in forcing everybody to live in a high-rise building downtown. This isn't Hong Kong." He just wants the price of a place in the suburbs to reflect the true cost of putting it there.

None of this will be easy. Developers, a powerful force in Calgary, and big contributors to local political campaigns, say they are already paying plenty in taxes and fees.

Michael Flynn, executive director of the Urban Development Institute, an industry lobby, says it would be "social engineering" to try to change the housing choices of Calgarians. Like it or not, "Calgary is very much an auto-oriented city. People like to go skiing in the mountains on the weekends."

"The mayor has a very significant challenge in front of him," says Doug Cassidy, an executive with Canada Lands, which developed Garrison Woods. "The majority of development here has been based on the suburban sprawl model. Turning that around will not be an overnight order."

Statistics Canada says that 60 per cent of Calgary dwellings are single detached houses, compared to 42 per cent in Toronto, 35 per cent in Vancouver and 32 per cent in Montreal. Outside the downtown business district, high-rise buildings scarcely exist. Just 21 per cent of Calgary dwellings are in apartment buildings, compared with 50 per cent in Montreal, 39 per cent in Vancouver and 38 per cent in Toronto.

Intensifying neighbourhoods sounds good until the neighbours get wind of it. The city ran into flak when it unveiled plans to covert a low-density site, Brentwood Village Mall, into a new community of mid-rise and high-rise buildings, taking advantage of a nearby light-rail station. Residents groups worried about overcrowding and traffic congestion.

David Watson, Calgary's chief planner, concedes that developers would rather build "in a piece of dirt at the edge of the city, where you only have to deal with the planning department and a few gophers."

Despite all these hurdles, Mr. Nenshi has a couple of advantages as he presses forward with his vision for a new Calgary. The first is his own skill as a salesman. Open, engaging and almost supernaturally articulate, he impressed Calgarians during the election campaign by daring to speak to them in detail about complex urban issues - an approach that he called "politics in full sentences."

Developer Leslie Conway calls the mayor passionate and "uber smart."

"He doesn't mince words. He's a great listener. He's super collaborative."

His enthusiasm for Calgary is infectious. Taking a reporter on a tour of the East Village, he shows off an "incredibly brilliant" new pier on the bank of the Bow River where people can watch concerts and dangle their feet in the water while listening to the gurgling of the river - a sound effect created by boulders specially positioned to make the river sing.

His second advantage is the Calgary spirit. Calgarians pride themselves on being creative, entrepreneurial and open to change. The city has gone through several transformations in its history, from railway hub to cow town to oil town to white-collar service centre.

"We are unchallenged by history," says the mayor, "and we have an ability to innovate and pick and choose the best off different places."

With people arriving from all over Canada and the world to take profit from the robust Alberta economy, Calgary has become a much more cosmopolitan place, with a population over 1 million, a thriving downtown arts scene and street festivals in the suburbs that echo with the sound of South Asian bangra music.

Attitudes about city living are changing. One penthouse condo sold for $4.1-million last month, a Calgary record and a sign that high-rise living is gaining appeal. Despite all the fuss over the Brentwood redevelopment, two condo towers in a local project sold out when they went on the market.

"When did Jane Jacobs write the Death and Life of Great American Cities? We're getting there, just 40 years later," says Mr. Nenshi.

When a project called Imagine Calgary asked residents what they wanted from their city in the future, it found most wanted to live in a place where they could walk to the store, walk their kids to school, get by with only one car and be surrounded by different kinds of people.

"If everyone wants that, why aren't we building that?" says the mayor.

It's a good question, and not just for Calgary. Cities across Canada are trying to reinvent themselves on denser, more modern lines. If Naheed Nenshi has his way, Calgary will show them how.

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