Sustainable City Betrayed?: Calgary’s Neoliberal Sustainability Politics and Its Consequences

Byron Miller  from the Department of Geography at the University of Calgary and currently Guest Professor, Institut für Umweltsozialwissenschaften und Geographie, Albert-Ludwigs-Universität Freiburg, writes about how Calgary continues to wrestle with the issue of “sustainability” …

Over the past decade Calgary, Alberta, like many cities around the world, has promoted a wide range of sustainability initiatives as part of what While, Jonas and Gibbs have termed a “sustainability fix.”  There are certainly good reasons why Calgary might turn toward a sustainability agenda.  Long considered the poster city for urban sprawl in Canada, Calgary ranks as the Canadian City with the largest “ecological footprint,” the highest degree of socio-spatial income polarization, and one of the largest infrastructure deficits. Its politics, moreover, are dominated by fierce anti-tax sentiment, despite low tax rates.  Whatever the merits or demerits of the concept of “sustainability,” the need for Calgary to address its ecological, social, and fiscal issues has been clear for some time.   

To grapple with the perceived deterioration of quality of life in Calgary, the City began an extensive two-year “city visioning” process in 2004, called imagineCalgary.  Over 18,000 Calgarians participated in the process, which produced a surprisingly progressive and detailed document focusing on needed improvements in five systems: the built environment and infrastructure, the economic system, governance, the natural environment, and the social system.  imagineCalgary was adopted by City Council as an advisory document and laid the foundation for a new municipal development and transportation plan, dubbed “Plan-It,” which was prepared between 2006 to 2009.  

Plan-It was envisioned as a means to enhance the environmental, fiscal and social sustainability of the city and, indeed, it called for substantial changes in growth and development patterns to enhance transit service and walkability and to reduce the fiscal costs of growth.  The social aspects of early versions of the plan were dramatically weakened, largely due to restrictions contained in the provincial government’s Municipal Governance Act, and to avoid an anticipated backlash from the development industry.  Planners pressed ahead on the environmental and fiscal agendas with reports detailing the cost savings associated with Plan-It.  Public relations stressed not only cost efficiency of the plan but also consumer choice, particularly the provision of more mobility options, more neighbourhood facilities and services, and stronger local businesses.   

That city officials and politicians would anchor their arguments in the rhetoric of fiscal responsibility, cost efficiency, and consumer choice was not particularly surprising.  What was surprising was  the extent to which these neoliberal political tropes were adopted by many citizens and citizen organizations, including many that had been involved in the imagineCalgary process.  Indeed, many citizens’ organizations adopted the same neoliberal tropes, often for purely strategic reasons, to make their case for the sustainability agenda of Plan-It. Perhaps most  surprising of all, Plan-It was passed unanimously by City Council after early indications it would be defeated by a wide margin. The strategic adoption of neoliberal tropes to counter the anti-planning arguments of the development industry ultimately proved successful, but at what cost?  Quality of life, environmental, social justice and use-value arguments were largely abandoned, as were critiques of the federal and provincial governments’ underfunding of basic city functions such as public transit and social housing. Today, a concerted development-industry counter-attack that seeks to weaken the implementation of Plan-It relies on the same tropes and appears to be gaining traction, at the same time the provincial government further cuts funding to cities. The dynamics of Calgary’s planning politics raises questions about the merits of short term strategic adoption of neoliberal discursive tropes.  It also points to the role citizens play, unwittingly or not, in the reproduction and perpetuation of neoliberal hegemony.   To twist the words of Peck, Theodore and Brenner just a bit, “[citizens]… are not merely at the ‘receiving end’ of neoliberalization processes, imposed unilaterally from above.”

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