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An Evaluation of Calgary’s Municipal Development Plan

An essay for ENVS427 Making Plans. It critiques Calgary, Alberta’s Municipal Development Plan according to 10 criteria. The essay received an 80, a high distinction. Written in March 2017.

1. Introduction

In September 2009, Calgary—a city in the Canadian province of Alberta, adopted a Municipal Development Plan (MDP) to establish 30—60-year development goals and comply with Alberta’s Municipal Government Act (MGA) (Government of Alberta, 2017). With over 1.2 million people, Calgary is the largest city in Alberta and third-largest in Canada (Statistics Canada, 2017). Consequently, adopting a high-quality MDP is vital to guide Calgary’s continued growth.

This report evaluates the preparation and presentation of the MDP according to its evidence base, mechanisms for community involvement, consideration of the future, analysis and synthesis techniques, overall strategy and approach to implementation, monitoring and review. Comparisons to plans prepared by other entities also informs the evaluation. Notably, the MDP has undergone many revisions, with the most recent version from February 2017. That version is the primary source for this report.

Evidence for the MDP came primarily from a literature review of relevant laws, policies and plans; feedback from public consultation and some limited, other data (see: Figure 2.1). The MDP does not have a dedicated webpage—like the West Lancashire Local Plan—to describe its supporting evidence (West Lancashire Borough Council, 2013). Instead, the MDP references the myriad sources that informed the plan across its many pages and ancillary content.

Figure 2.1: Types of Evidence that Informed the MDP

Figure 2.1

Source: author’s analysis of The City of Calgary Municipal Development Plan and its supporting documents. Larger circles indicate that the MDP appears to place greater importance on these sources of evidence.

Relying heavily on a literature review is similar to the approach used for the Liverpool City Centre Strategic Investment Framework (Liverpool Vision, 2012). Calgary’s historic and active plans were part of the review, and the MDP is also said to align with several regional plans (e.g., the Alberta Land Use Framework) that were being prepared at the same time (City of Calgary, 2017a). Policies referenced in the plan include 11 Sustainability Principles for Land Use and Mobility, which the city council adopted in January 2007, and a city-wide recycling target (City of Calgary, 2012a; City of Calgary, 2017a). As for legal requirements, and aside from the MGA, the MDP also references laws focused on specific topics, such as the Alberta Historical Resources Act (City of Calgary, 2017a).

The Approach to Community Involvement section of this report delves further into public consultation for the MDP, but two multi-year efforts were important: (1) imagineCALGARY, a visioning exercise that set the foundation for the MDP and (2) Plan It Calgary, a multi-faceted effort to engage residents before, during and after preparation of the draft MDP. As for other data, the plan has a few population projections (e.g., people living in city centre) and supporting videos describe other data (City of Calgary, 2017a; City of Calgary, 2011a). Still, the breadth of hard data falls far short of the many graphs about population growth, housing, jobs and more found in the West Lancashire Plan (West Lancashire Borough Council, 2013). Different from the Liverpool plan, the MDP does not provide examples from elsewhere (Liverpool Vision, 2012).

3. Strategic Environmental Appraisal

The MDP does not reference a strategic environmental appraisal. Unlike England, which requires local authorities to conduct one as part of the local plan-making process, the MGA states that considering environmental issues is optional (DCLG, 2015; Government of Alberta, 2017). Nonetheless, does MDP address environmental issues, and earned a 2011 Sustainable Community Award from the Federation of Canadian Municipalities (City of Calgary, 2017b).

4. Approach to Community Involvement

Calgary solicited extensive feedback throughout the plan-making process (see Figure 4.1). The first stage, imagineCALGARY, established the vision for the city (imagineCALGARY, 2006). Next, came Plan It Calgary to prepare the MDP (City of Calgary, 2017a).

Figure 4.1: Summary of the Approach to Community Involvement

Figure 4.1

Source: author’s analysis of the imagineCALGARY and The City of Calgary Municipal Development Plan. The figure describes three stages of community involvement for the MDP.

 Plan It Calgary solicited feedback in several ways (see: Figure 4.1) that align with recommendations from Planning Aid for conducting meaningful public consultations (Planning Aid, 2012). Calgary’s approach is also similar to Crowley Road Matters, an initiative in Oxford, England, with opportunities for input prior to preparing the plan, events for adjusting designs and several opportunities to comment on proposals (Planning Democracy, 2009). One unplanned development was CivicCamp, a grassroots group that emerged to advocate for compact communities (Markusoff, 2015).

Despite having many ways to participate, the city council had the final decision, so the MDP process fits Arnstein’s description of consultation in her famed Ladder of Citizen Participation[1]. Arnstein notes that consultation is a form of tokenism, because ‘rules allow the have-nots to advise, but retains for the powerholders the continued right to decide’ (Arnstein, 2016, p.217). However, this level may be appropriate, as the MDP is a city-wide strategic and statutory document. Further, the consultation clearly influenced the final plan. For example, the survey found major support for building mixed-use communities, which is central to the MDP (Leger Marketing, 2008; City of Calgary, 2017a). Still, while Crowley Road Matters explicitly targeted hard-to-reach groups, it is unclear whether Plan It Calgary had similar initiatives (Planning Democracy, 2009). In particular, the workshop phase had three meetings in different parts of the city, which is one short to cover each of Calgary’s quadrants.

Engagement has continued since finalising the plan. For example, Calgary has released 22 videos about the MDP on YouTube (viewed 18,000 times as of March 2017). These videos are accessible via the plan’s still active website.

5. Consideration of the Future

The MDP outlines a plan for Calgary’s development over 30—60 years, which, aside from imagineCALGARY, is the longest period of all Calgary planning documents (see: Figure 5.1). As mentioned previously, imagineCALGARY sets the 100-year vision for Calgary and the MDP. However, the document is far different from Stockholm Vision 2030, another visioning exercise (City of Stockholm, 2007). For example, imagineCALGARY’s 100+ pages far exceed Stockholm’s concise 11 pages (imagineCALGARY, 2006; City of Stockholm, 2007).

Figure 5.1: Calgary Planning Documents by Time Horizon

Figure 5.1

Source: this figure, from The City of Calgary Municipal Development Plan, illustrates the time horizon for different types of strategic plans, including the MDP (denoted by the red oval).

During Plan It Calgary, residents considered ways to accommodate 1.3 million more residents and 600,000 more jobs (City of Calgary, 2011a). Other issues included housing choice and affordability, changing demographics, environmental effects and more (City of Calgary, 2011a). ‘Rather than assuming current trends will persist,’ participants assessed three scenarios for growth: dispersed, hybrid and compact (City of Calgary, 2013, p.6; Leger Marketing, 2008). Using scenarios is similar to the European Union’s ‘Blue Banana’ or ‘Bunch of Grapes’ alternatives for growth, and the MDP ultimately settled on the compact approach (ESPON, 2013).

Detailed forecasts are noticeably absent from the MDP. While population growth is a key assumption, little indicates the characteristics of people expected to drive this growth. In contrast, the Knowsley Local Plan includes several economic and environmental forecasts (Knowsley Council, 2013).

6. Analysis and Synthesis Techniques

The MDP relies on quantitative and qualitative, people-based analysis techniques. For example, Plan It Calgary included a charrette, focus groups and several other forms of discourse that Healey—who defined collaborative planning—might endorse (Healey, 1996). In addition, Calgary conducted a survey and online questionnaire, which is akin to Argyll and Bute’s plan-making process, and had online and offline engagement like Berlin 2030 (Argyll and Bute Council, 2011) (City of Berlin, 2012). However, the MDP does not reference other analysis techniques, such as a Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats (SWOT) exercise, as found in both the Berlin and Argyll and Bute plans. Further, Berlin’s spatial analyses are richer than Calgary’s maps, as they include housing costs, transport modal splits and more (City of Berlin, 2012).

Calgary used a decision-support framework to synthesise its findings and describe the progression from the vision to actions (see: Figure 6.1). However, as is described in the Strategy section of this report, the framework does not match the subsequent content in the MDP. For example, principles, goals, objectives, indicators and targets are all explicitly included in the MDP, but the vision from imagineCALGARY is only referenced and no content links explicitly to strategies and actions.

Figure 6.1: Decision-support Framework for the MDP

Figure 6.1

Source: this figure, from The City of Calgary Municipal Development Plan, is its decision-support framework.

Another diagram presents city-wide goals (see: Figure 6.2). While this diagram is not in the MDP itself, it is on the website and supplementary videos. Unfortunately, the diagram creates additional confusion because it includes Managing Growth as a seventh goal, which is not referenced in the MDP. In addition, no similar diagrams are available for the typologies and specific uses sections of the MDP, which also include goals and objectives.

Figure 6.2: City-Wide Goals of the MDP

Figure 6.2

Source: diagram from Calgary’s MDP – part 2 organization YouTube video. This diagram lists the MDP’s city-wide goals.

7. The Plan’s Strategy

The MDP states that imagineCALGARY supplied the vision, but neglects to include that vision. Instead, the MDP includes a mission, which could be interpreted as a vision: ‘to build a more sustainable city’ (City of Calgary, 2017a, p.12). That concise statement is more similar to the Thame Neighbourhood Plan’s vision compared to the series of statements about making Calgary more connected, as found in imagineCALGARY (Thame Town Council, 2013; imagineCALGARY, 2006). Following the decision-support framework described previously, the MDP includes two sets of principles: the sustainability principles mentioned before and eight Key Directions for Land Use and Mobility. The Key Directions, also adopted by the City Council, appear to take precedence as the MDP links them to the city-wide goals.

Each city-wide goal has objectives and each objective has corresponding policies. Table 7.1 provides an example for the first city-wide goal. The MDP also includes objectives and policies for the typologies, specific uses (e.g., retail) and a framework for growth and change sections. The typologies refer to 13 types of geographic areas (e.g., industrial). A framework for growth and change is different from the other three sections as it is primarily about implementing the MDP. In total, these four sections have a staggering 413 policies.

Table 7.1: Example Progression from Vision to Actions for a Single City-Wide Goal

Figure 7.1

Source: author’s analysis of The City of Calgary Municipal Development Plan. The table highlights the difficulty of matching the decision-support framework to content in the plan.

Including numerous objectives and policies is similar to the Thame Neighbourhood Plan and the Netherlands Strategy for Infrastructure and Spatial Planning 2040 (Thame Town Council, 2013; Government of the Netherlands, 2011). However, while the MDP only has a short phrase for each policy, the Netherlands plan includes more information. Supplementing the goals, objectives and policies are six maps to represent them spatially, which mirrors the Thame and Netherlands plans.

Considering alternatives is a final aspect of strategy development. As described previously, Plan It Calgary evaluated three scenarios. The MDP does not discuss them again, instead only detailing the compact approach. In contrast, the Sunderland Core Strategy not only includes a consideration of alternatives, but describes the strengths and weaknesses of each one (Sunderland City Council, 2009).

8. Implementation, Monitoring and Review

Calgary’s transportation and planning departments are implementing the MDP (City of Calgary, 2013). The departments prepared a practical guide (last updated in 2011) that describes how to align lower level plans with the MDP and addresses how authorities should assess planning applications (City of Calgary, 2011b). The current MDP also includes guides specific to city centre and planning new communities (City of Calgary, 2017a). The MDP does not include a Gantt chart or expected budgets similar the Barrow Port Area Action Plan, but those are likely inappropriate for a city-wide plan due to its scope and scale (Barrow-in-Furness Borough Council, 2010).

Calgary intends to issue monitoring reports every four years to precede the city’s three-year business cycle (City of Calgary, 2017a). The first report was released in November 2013 and the second is due this year (City of Calgary, 2017b). The 2013 report assessed performance against the 14 MDP indicators, which are ‘proxy measures for the social, environmental and economic performance of the MDP’, but they do not have a direct link to specific goals, objectives and policies (City of Calgary, 2017a, p.123). The report also identified areas of progress and ongoing challenges (see: Figure 8.1), further stating that Calgary is developing a strategy to ‘link the vision and general objectives of the MDP to specific actions and The City’s work programs’ (City of Calgary, 2013, p.51). Overall, the report is clear, like the dashboard in the Vancouver Greenest City 2020 Action Plan, but lacks Vancouver’s annual reporting frequency (City of Vancouver, 2012). However, Calgary’s report includes a spatial component, while Vancouver’s does not.

Regarding review, the MDP is ‘a living document’, with the city advancing ‘amendments as required’ (City of Calgary, 2012b). The plan has undergone 21 amendments, which include updating, adding or replacing policies and revising maps. The city is transparent with these edits, including new content in italics with a revision date. Most policies have proven durable, with only 14 new or revised policies out of 114 in the current MDP. Notably, a 2013 amendment requires a ‘major review’ of the MDP every 10 years, with the first such review due in 2020.

Figure 8.1: Summary of Progress Against the 14 Indicators

Figure 8.1.PNG

Source: City of Calgary Municipal Development Plan 2013 Monitoring Progress Report. This figure shows progress against the combined 14 indicators for the MDP and the Calgary Transport Plan.

9. Conclusion

For the reasons given in Table 9.2, the MDP earns high marks for review, implementation and community involvement, satisfactory marks for evidence, planning for the future and monitoring; and unsatisfactory marks for analysis, synthesis and strategy. The plan earns a zero for strategic environmental appraisal. These marks do not reflect the specific goals, objectives and policies of the plan, which are admirable for pushing sustainable development. Instead, they reflect the preparation and presentation of the plan, especially weaknesses in linking sections together. Table 9.1 describes the possible marks for each component. A plan that is satisfactory for each component would receive a mark of 20; the MDP earns an 18.

 Table 9.1: Description of the Possible Markings for Each Component

Mark Description
0 The plan does not address this component
1 The plan addresses this component, but in an incomplete or superficial way
2 The plan satisfactorily addresses this component
3 The plan addresses this component in an exemplary way

Table 9.2: Marks for each Component, Ordered from Highest to Lowest

Component Mark Justification
Community involvement 3
  • Two, multi-year consultation initiatives with high participation, many ways to participate
  • Ongoing education including an active website and a YouTube video series
Implementation 3
  • General, city centre and greenfield site guides
  • Framework for growth and change section lists clear implementation policies
  • City-wide goals, typologies and specific use sections have policies for each objective
Review 3
  • Numerous amendments since publication in 2009, with a major overhaul due in 2020
  • Most policies and objectives have proven durable, and added content reflects new evidence (e.g., flood hazard areas subsection)
Evidence 2
  • Literature review of reports, policies, laws/regulations and other plans
  • Robust consultation initiatives
  • Opportunity to improve: include more hard data
Monitoring 2
  • Reports prepared every 4 years, with legible dashboard for the 14 indicators
  • Opportunities to improve: issue more frequent monitoring reports and specify the relationship between indicators and goals/objectives
Consideration of the future 2
  • Long-term (60-year) plan for sustainable development, with forward-leaning goals, objectives and policies
  • Ideas drawn from community visioning and scenario exercises
  • Opportunity to improve: include explicit forecasts to support preferred policies
Analysis 1
  • Consultation initiatives informed the analysis
  • Opportunity to improve: describe how goals, objectives and policies were prioritised or selected (e.g., with a SWOT)
Strategy 1
  • Lists many goals, objectives and policies
  • Opportunities to improve: include the vision from imagineCALGARY, a rationale for excluding alternatives and add details for interpreting individual policies
Synthesis 1
  • An overly simple decision-support framework and city-wide goals diagram (online only)
  • Opportunities to improve: link terms in the framework to the plan content and include a diagram that illustrates the relationship between different types of goals
Strategic environmental appraisal 0
  • Not referenced in the plan-making process



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Barrow-in-Furness Borough Council. (2010). Development plan document: Barrow port area action plan. Barrow-in-Furness: Barrow-in-Furness Borough Council.

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[1] Arnstein’s Ladder of Citizen Participation describes eight types of consultation exercises that fit into three categories of non-participation, tokenism and citizen power.



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