Calgary Unearthed: Understanding our Air

Posted on May 28, 2024

This will probably be the least lengthy of the entries in this blog. Simply put, everything we have been commenting on to this point has laid the groundwork for a commentary on the nature and importance of air in the life of the city. Compared to the bulk of the world’s population that lives at or near sea level, Calgary stands at a high altitude, approximately one thousand fifty meters. Calgary air is among the clearest and cleanest anywhere too, forest-fire smoke notwithstanding. The air here is naturally cool and dry, quite tough on all but the hardiest vegetation that does not have ready access to water. This is nowhere more apparent than in the arrival of the snow-consuming Chinook winds in winter. Certainly, those winds are a welcome respite to the serious cold of the winter months - even though they come in summer too - but they often whisk away moisture and protective snow cover, leaving the land vulnerable to drought. They can, perversely, create an inversion that traps cold dirty air near the ground in what is known as an inversion, leaving cold air downtown but much warmer temperatures in the higher districts of the city.

Air is almost anti-geographic in that it covers all surfaces of the world that are not underwater. It does not respect international or even personal boundaries. We need it, we share it, and we place the very essence of ourselves, good, bad, and indifferent into it. Since it is omnipresent both spatially and temporally, one wonders if the customary practice of this blog, namely to engage in the mental exercise of winding the city back in time, is of any use here.

Land, water, trees, and even animals are part of the air and so are we. A few lines earlier, it was remarked that we need air, but we should amend our thinking and phrasing. We use air, sometimes properly, sometimes badly, but it is the indifference to the use of air that causes us the most harm. It is on this distinction that the employment of our imaginative traverse of the space-time continuum relies.

If we place ourselves back in 1880s or 1890s Calgary, we will understand the use of air immediately. There are no cars to release petroleum-based smoke or pollutants into the atmosphere of the young city, but if you could go there physically, your nose would no doubt inform you of other waste gases being released. Indeed, the air would be redolent with the smell of horse and cattle manure, not to mention the metabolic waste of humans as it piles up in gutters, latrines, and outhouses (remember, there is no sanitary or storm sewer at this time and very little hand-washing either). It was little wonder then that the next versions of Calgary that featured indoor plumbing, civic water treatment facilities, roads, electric forms of public transportation, and relatively few automobiles were hailed as revolutionary. One might have even started to believe the hype about the whole city beautiful initiative had one been there.

We of course realize that here, in our relative present, we have traded one kind of air use for another. My personal perspective is that the Calgarian air is in fact clearer than it was during the 1980s and 1990s. Cars are generally smaller, their engines more efficient, and increasingly many of them are electrically powered, recalling perhaps the days of the streetcars and electric buses mentioned earlier. Industry is cleaner and more efficient on the whole too. Against this, there is the overwhelming geographic size of Calgary, our one million-plus population, and the nonsensical concentration of commerce and business in a single monolithic urban core that requires - as the foolish design of the entire city requires - the mobilization of tens of thousands of vehicles at least twice daily during the working week. We might even say that the current need for private vehicles to live in giant, sprawling, super-consumptive car-centric cities is some hideous fantasy of urban planning made real. There is no real point in spending many words describing this phenomenon other than to note its passing. The reality is that we are stuck with the products of the misdeeds of the past in terms of urban development and the air problems it creates.

Like it was in the 1890s, we rely on the air, the wind that moves it to take the stench and the waste products we place in it away from us. The story has changed; however, and our collective pose of willful ignorance is now readily identifiable. We know that the winds blow back only to us and that which we placed on them will return to their origin with us. We can care for the air just as we care for the land, animals, water, and trees. Caring for these improves the air as well. We can choose to ride-share, walk, bike, take public transit, or (best of all) work from home to intensify our efforts. The equation and the requirement are both simple and nominal.

Cities are always rebuilding themselves, and once again if we invest in this process, care about and for this process, then it follows naturally, even inevitably, that the air will clear and remain so.



Shawn Mueller 

Communications Team Volunteer 

Green Calgary Association