Calgary Unearthed: Understanding our Land

Posted on May 28, 2024

The last post commented on water; this one is about land. It should be clear that the two are inseparable in an ecological sense. Once we appreciate that water often gets its character from land (and vice versa) and that we must be mindful of the relationship between the two, we might well ask, beyond the particulars of location and ecology, what else we might discuss.

In short, plenty.

Let’s return to the idea of living with the city we have created. Water is mobile, immediate, and essential, and as such, lends itself easily to serious discussion. Land, while no less essential, can often be ignored or taken for granted because it is land. One must visit it, traverse it, and sometimes run headlong into it to understand it. Bearing this in mind, let’s wind back the city again, perhaps not so far back in time as we did with our explorations of water, but just far enough to get a handle on why and how the city we live in came to be the way it is.

The disposition of Calgary’s districts—residential, commercial, industrial, and recreational—are largely due to how the land in and around the nascent city was distributed at its founding. Calgary, as a distinct entity of roads, buildings, and railways, began to emerge in the 1870s and 1880s. The defining feature of the new city, however, was the land ceded to the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) during that period, in and around where the central downtown business district now stands. That land was then parceled out and sold by the corporation for profit and to finance the construction of the railway. Simply, if one wished to be close to such amenities as were available, as well as the growing cluster of people and businesses, and the railroad that linked the fledgling settlement to other parts of an emerging nation, then one bought land from the railway. If prospective landowners could not afford to purchase property from the CPR or wanted larger parcels than were on offer, then they could procure it outside or just adjacent to railway lands. This is important to remember. This arrangement set the pattern of development for the city for the next century, dictating the placement of everything including public parks, residential districts, commercial and industrial areas, and waste dumps, to name but a few. The original urban settlement was dirty and in many cases poorly constructed, but it did bequeath one singular feature that can now be seen everywhere in the inner city: the grid network of roads and streets.

This grid network provides one of the most redeeming features of the inner city. The long stretches of tree-lined streets and avenues that run north/south and east/west at more or less regular intervals are a common feature here. Now, in many places around the city, large mature trees (poplars and elms for the most part) overhung the residential streets, softening the hard angles of roads and houses, greening our surroundings, and moderating local environmental conditions. It takes the sting out of the urbanization process but does not erase the fact that the ecology of the land has been replaced with a grid patchwork of trees, lawns, and gardens (as well as the rocky surfaces of roads and roofs) comprised of mostly non-indigenous species, many of which have escaped our control entirely (see the history of the dandelion in North America for details). There are many more historical questions for us to ask and a variety of urban forms to investigate, but all are defined by this singular realization. The real question is what can we do with what we have to improve the ecological and therefore economic health of our city.

The trees and green spaces are precious, and we cannot afford to do less than intensify our care of them. We may not be able to speedily restructure the city according to our ideals of sustainability, but we can take advantage of the fact that cities continually rebuild themselves, something we mentioned at the outset, to make the best out of the spaces we can access. And it doesn’t have to be attractive (although I’ll admit that it helps), it just has to be clean and life-sustaining. My backyard is one such example, although I sometimes struggle with the notion of using it as such. The quarter-acre lot and house that I rent in the inner city is probably too much for me and my spouse to handle or develop without staff and a lot more money. When I get down on myself for failing to do more with it, I consider, on the opposing hand, such condition as we have managed to bestow on the site. It is clean, the gardens are mostly perennials, vegetables, and grass. The big trees on the property are aged, and we are waiting for the city to come and take down the great dead birch tree in the front yard. We haven’t used pesticides in our fifteen-year tenure on the property, and last year the outside taps remained closed as we were regularly able to collect and store up to twelve hundred liters of water off the roof for the gardens and greenhouses. This year we are able to collect and store eighteen hundred liters. As usual, we won’t water the lawn this summer, not that this practice has ever prevented it from returning annually with a shaggy and emerald vengeance, and we won’t mow until June in order to give burrowing native insect and bee species as much shelter and opportunity to propagate as we can. The lawn is a functional oasis for many species of plants, insects, animals, and my family. Probably more so because of the way that we use it and care for it. It is also what I mean by intensifying care.

We have only pondered briefly on this complex subject. If we look at the example I have provided, perhaps we find that by "intensify," I mean to care for nominally. Certainly, this is effort/commitment enough for most and most assuredly for me as well. Just think for a moment, however, what the city might be like if the number of like-minded citizens were doubled. How much greener, more beautiful, and cleaner would the city be? How much happier and more civil (to say nothing of compassionate) would its people be? It is an idea worth considering as one looks at the land about oneself, especially when we practice even a nominal level of care.


Shawn Mueller 

Communications Team Volunteer 

Green Calgary Association