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It's the people who build communities: Neighborhood finds just the right mix of housing (Calgary Herald)

December 08, 2011 10:22 PM | Anonymous

When Beryl Ostrom's elderly neighbours decided to give up their Glamorgan home for seniors housing, they didn't leave the neighbourhood. They found a place in Glenway Gate, a few blocks away. They didn't even sell their home. Instead, one of their kids is moving in with a young family. That, Ostrom says, is what's great about Glamorgan. She keeps her neighbours, inherits some new ones to help keep the community fresh, and she avoids the losingyourneighbours anxiety that often accompanies such news. "This happens quite often in our community," says Ostrom, who is the president of the Glamorgan Community Association. "You can go from cradle to grave without having to leave the community. That keeps your social investments." In the urban planning world, Ostrom is speaking of housing mix, a once esoteric part of planning that has come to have a huge effect on the way communities in Calgary grow, age and regenerate. Although Calgary is famous for tidy suburbs filled with tracts of single-family homes, a diverse mix that also incorporates condominiums, apartments and seniors complexes has become a new mantra for planners and many developers, who are touting housing options in new communities under construction. While planners say a diverse housing mix makes for stronger communities by attracting diverse residents - young, old, rich and poor - and lessening the effect of the boom-bust demographic life cycles that plague some areas, the idea is far from beloved. In fact, the idea of housing mix is at the heart of a continuing debate in the city over secondary suites, and many residents worry that retrofitting communities in line with such ideas threatens to destroy the things they love about their communities. For Project Calgary, the Herald has compiled City of Calgary data on the housing mix in 200 Calgary communities and found some surprises. Some of the least-diverse are those single-family dominated burgs on the fringes of the city, such as Hidden Valley, Saddle Ridge and Coventry Hills. But also lacking diversity are urban communities downtown and in the Beltline, which are filled with condos and apartments, but few detached single-family homes. The most diverse communities are those like Glamorgan, a 1950s-era suburb with a healthy dose of single-family homes punctuated by a large number of condominiums, duplexes and apartments, mostly on the fringes of the neighbourhood. Also scoring high on the list are Patterson, South Calgary, Dover and Midnapore. Gary Weikum, an instructor of urban planning at the University of Lethbridge, says a diverse mix of housing has several positive implications. By offering more options, people can stay in their community throughout their lives, without having to look elsewhere when they have kids, retire or move into assisted living facilities. A mix can also help shelter a community from the downsides of big demographic changes, such as when school enrolments fall or aging residents have difficulty maintaining amenities. "Most neighbourhoods go through that generational life cycle over time, but the life cycle tends to lessen if there's a mix," Weikum says. Ostrom says she thinks the diversity in Glamorgan has helped give it a strong foundation and enabled it to keep a vibrant population through the years. "It's a huge bonus, but we also have a very stable housing population group," Ostrom says. "If you want to sustain your community, you need a big mix. You also have to have things to attract people that will regenerate a community, like  schools." Tamar Epstein, president of the Rutland Park Community Association, which also includes Currie Barracks (currently under construction) and Lincoln Park, which also scores well on the housing mix index, agrees with Ostrom that a stable core group is essential to keeping a sense of community. She thinks the diverse mix in her community - which also includes co-operative housing - gives the neighbourhood more density. "Because of the density, it's creating a lot more options," she says. "It supports local business and makes for more housing options." These communities, however, were planned with that mix. That wasn't the case with many suburbs built during the 1980s and 1990s, which are dominated by single-family homes. Trying to retrofit such neighbourhoods to add more housing options can be expensive and disruptive. In the southeast community of Riverbend, which has 3,253 single-family homes out of a total of 3,445 dwellings (94.4 per cent), according to city statistics compiled for Project Calgary, community association president Rose Martin says she sees how more housing options might benefit her community, but initiatives to make such changes are often resisted by residents. A recent condominium proposal on the edge of the neighbourhood, for example, was initially rejected by neighbours, until both sides agreed to concessions. "To all of a sudden have these big, huge buildings, looking down into people's backyards and that kind of thing, it was just not (accepted) by the community," Martin says. She and many other residents worry such developments might ruin the feel that has existed in the neighbourhood for years. Such arguments have dominated the city's recent debate over secondary and basement suites. Advocates for affordable housing trump relaxed restrictions on secondary suites as a way of creating more affordable housing units and bringing more people into existing neighbourhoods. Opponents, however, say changing the rules after they bought into a certain lifestyle is unfair. They worry about parking and traffic problems, and changes to the feel of their neighbourhood. Calgary's new municipal development plan, developed from the document known as Plan It, calls for the creation of "complete communities," which is defined partly as places "where people of varying ages, incomes, interests and lifestyles feel comfortable and can choose between a variety of building types and locations in which to live." While such principles guide new development in Calgary, city council rejected a call this year to allow secondary suites throughout the city. The debate over housing mix is not uncommon in other municipalities, says Weikum, even with its inherent contradictions. He pointed to a study that found most aging empty nesters would choose to move into an apartment if it enabled them to stay in their community. The same group, however, said they would not like to have more apartments built in their neighbourhood. "I don't think we are always good at understanding the long-term consequences of our own individual choices," Weikum says. "There's this balancing act between what's good for the public . . . and what is sometimes seen as good planning. "That's what the role of municipal politicians should be, maybe to look more long term." For her part, Ostrom says she's grateful her community was built with a mix of housing, and she sees that reflected in the way homes are kept within families for generations. "What makes a community work is the people who live in it. They've invested their lives and their children's lives," she says. "If you plan things, as people age, you don't have to go very far." Help us explore the idea of density. One of the bigger questions raised by the issue of housing mix is around density - the number of people who work and live in a given area. The city's long-term goals include increasing density in some areas, but such actions are controversial. That's why we're asking Herald readers to help us explore the issue. Visit the Project Calgary blog to share your thoughts on housing density, or drop us a line. Visit CalgaryHerald.com/ProjectCalgary, drop me a note at Twitter.com/ TomBabin, Facebook.com/Tom. Babin, on Google Plus, or e-mail me at tbabin@calgaryherald.com.

How we did it- Housing mix can be a tricky thing to measure, so we took the advice of the City of Calgary and, using city data, compiled what's known as a Simpsons Diversity Index. The index was devised to quantify the biodiversity of ecosystems, but is increasingly used by urban planners, as well. The index takes into account the different types of housing in a neighbourhood and the total number of dwellings, and creates a score, from zero to one, representing the diversity of that housing. In our measure, the communities closer to zero are the most diverse. To see the raw data, visit our website and download the spreadsheet. Communities with the most diverse housing mix:











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