Calgary Unearthed: Understanding Calgary's Urban Environment

Posted on May 23, 2024


Approximately eighty percent of Canadians live in cities, according to recent statistical data. This means that for four out of five Canadians, daily interaction with the living world occurs in a city among streets, sidewalks, houses, buildings, and automobiles. This interaction often includes a few square meters of lawn with a tree in one’s backyard (if you are fortunate enough to have such a space) or a momentary respite from daily affairs during a visit to a local park. Lawns, gardens, plants, trees, and animals (wild and otherwise) live, propagate, and sometimes even thrive alongside humans in our intensely modified yet fragmented environment. This is, as a colleague of mine recently pointed out, the "green moment" available to most city-dwellers.

This blog series is about that moment and how to use it as a springboard to a greater understanding of our surroundings. We might even come to regard the green moment as an opportunity to exercise and extend compassion to the life around us, as well as, and perhaps most importantly, to each other.

To facilitate this process, the series will focus on three main themes. First, we will examine our own urban environment, namely Calgary, and explore how and why the city is organized as it is. Second, in service of the first theme, we will figuratively wind back the city's development. While urban development has changed the landscape at our usual scale of observation, the deeper, more persistent features of topography, drainage, and climate remain. It will be shown that it benefits us to be aware of them. Finally, and probably contrary to expectation, this commentary will argue that urbanization and cities—Calgary in particular—are not always deplorable or a necessary evil to endure. Cities are much more than that. They represent a contract we make with each other and our surroundings to provide an essential compromise between peace, freedom, security, and opportunity. Our chance to realize these goals is found in the propensity of cities to continually rebuild themselves. With understanding and local action—action in the green moment of our living day—we can contribute positively to this process, this contract, this city.

We will explore each of these themes through five topics: water, land, animals, air, and trees. As city-dwellers, our closest contact with free-running water, for those of us who don’t live near a river, is often the city’s system of storm sewers. The waters that flow through this system are inherently local, falling as rain and snow on our cars and homes, gathering in our yards, lawns, and streets (and yes, basements), and finally channeled into the larger components of regional drainage systems like the Bow River. Our interaction with this water is intensive and intimate and very much worth minding.

Land is another element we will address in this series. Seven-tenths of this planet is covered by water, and only approximately half of the remaining thirty percent is what can be reasonably referred to as comfortably habitable, to say nothing about arable. The message? Simply and inescapably, it is that we must learn to sustainably co-exist with our world and each other, wherever we find ourselves, with whatever we have at hand. The idea of the green moment resurfaces here as a place and opportunity to operationalize and demonstrate a commitment to making life better. Period. It might just be a lovingly cared-for balcony garden, naturalized public spaces, or community food-forests and vegetable plots. The history of large-scale trends in housing and urban development is doubtlessly important (and will be commented on), but the creation of those spaces leaves many opportunities, many green moments in their wake. They are small but profuse on the urban landscape, and if taken together, these spaces account for a large portion of the land in urban areas. In short, this perspective on land use and development is worth exploring more deeply.

Animals are either a sign of nature’s integration into the urban setting or the invasion of that space. It largely depends on one’s perspective, but we can be certain of one thing: if you are having a problem with urban wildlife, regardless of the species, the source of that problem is probably you. Animals are part of the green moment too, but it is our responsibility to understand where they fit into the urban ecological landscape. A bloom of mosquitoes is irritating and sometimes dangerous, considering the diseases they can carry, but they are also a significant source of food for other more beneficial insects and animals. If we control our water use and limit the development of standing puddles and ponds around the city (it can be as simple as turning over a wheelbarrow so that it does not collect water), we can largely avoid the extensive use of pesticides to control mosquitoes. There are many examples of similar relationships between us and the animals with which we share the urban environment, but this blog will pause to consider our relationship with magpies, the monochromatic and supremely agile tricksters so prevalent in our surroundings that may both plague and intrigue us.

Thoughts of birds take us naturally into a consideration of the ultimate commons: the air around us. City air is often thought of as dirty and polluted, although perhaps less so now than in past decades, forest fires notwithstanding. Yet, as urbanites, we can have a powerful effect on air quality if we choose. Cultivation of gardens and trees gathers carbon, contains dust, holds water, reduces ambient temperature on hot days, and produces oxygen. Every instance in which we take public transit, walk, bike, or work from home promotes air quality and makes the smog that develops in the temperature inversion prior to the arrival of chinook winds— to say nothing of more regular sources of pollution—much less of a task to endure. Air, then, is very much a subject on which this blog will touch.

Moss that hangs from trees, as we often see in the mountain parks, is a sign of very high air quality and should remind us of the role of trees not only in the wilderness and countryside but, and perhaps more importantly, within cities. Many cities, Calgary in particular, often contain many contradictory elements. In our case, the development of Calgary has placed a forest of seven million or more trees (City of Calgary estimate) where no forest should naturally stand. Our best estimates indicate that the city is approximately ten percent covered with trees. Trees, their care and propagation, are often what makes the difference between occupying a city and truly living in and enjoying it. We have extended the habitat of trees from the river lowlands and small but hardy clonal stands of aspen poplars in the foothills and coulees to a diverse and highly modified environment spreading out to some one thousand square kilometers. Surely, this is a subject that needs to be revisited in our thoughts and writings as often as possible, and so it forms the fifth topic for this blog.

In the end, this blog will advocate for urbanization. It is rather pointless to take the opposing view, given that cities are where most of us live. If we wish to make a difference in our environmental circumstances, and the freedom and justice that comes from that effort, then that difference must be made where we live, every day, as part of the daily routine. This is a message that we need to repeat, augment, and amplify as often as we can, and it is hoped that the reader will join in this process.


Shawn Mueller

Communications Team Volunteer 

Green Calgary Association