The Guidebook for Great Communities

Druh Farrell
7 min readOct 14, 2021


Date Published: March 12, 2021

In 2020, Calgarians stood up for smart growth and sustainable development by pushing Council to stop the addition of 11 new community business cases on Calgary’s edges. Calgarians made it clear that we cannot afford service cuts in existing communities or city-wide tax increases to subsidize new communities. Instead, Calgarians asked Council to focus on investing in existing communities and making more efficient use of existing City infrastructure. Now, on March 22nd, Councillors will review a new plan that is critical to sustainable development, supporting existing communities as they grow and change, and helping build a more resilient Calgary.

The Guidebook for Great Communities is the answer to decades of Calgary unsustainably expanding outward and outward. This policy document will serve, exactly as the name says, as a guide to building great communities. We’ve all seen the headlines recently about schools closing, recreation centres failing, fire stations at risk, cuts to public transit, and struggling local businesses. The Guidebook looks to stop these cuts, closures, and struggles. The Guidebook helps us build communities together that are vibrant places where people want to live.

What exactly is the Guidebook for Great Communities?

At a high level, the Guidebook helps to ensure our communities are complete. It provides policy guidance for the City, communities, and developers to help ensure our communities are socially, financially, and environmentally sustainable.

But what does that really mean? What does a complete community look like? Think about the things that mattered to you when you decided where to live in Calgary. Did you want strong local schools for your kids? Did you want successful local businesses you could walk to? Did you want reliable public transit service in your neighbourhood? Did you want safe streets and choices on how to get around? Did you want recreation opportunities and quality park spaces? Did you want a healthy urban forest? Did you want attractive streetscapes with well-designed buildings? Did you want housing choices and housing affordability?

If you answered “YES!” to these questions, then you already know what a complete community looks like and why it’s so important to a high quality of life. The Guidebook provides the tools and policies needed to ensure all of our established communities can be complete and desirable communities for Calgarians.

How does the Guidebook support complete communities?

All of the features that build a complete community depend on a community having enough residents to support public and private services. Unfortunately, most established communities in Calgary have been in population decline for decades. You may have heard the term ‘Calgary’s donut of decline’, where some community populations have dropped by 45% since their peaks in the 1960s. When communities lose residents, their schools close, their pools close, their local businesses suffer, their transit service is cut, and other City services become inefficient to operate.

The Guidebook informs how our established communities can have enough people living in them to support the public services and private businesses that matter to Calgarians. It speaks to what kinds of densities are needed to keep our communities sustainable and that densities should be focused around activity centres, transit service, Main Streets, education centres, and employment hubs. However, the Guidebook is about much more than just density. It is a vision for how our communities can change over time in a way that supports future residents, while also maintaining/enhancing the features that make our communities special today.

The Guidebook speaks to the importance of unique community attributes, the need for public and private investment, the importance of vibrant commercial areas, safer streets, heritage retention, social inclusion, environmental stewardship, and financial sustainability. All of these factors are critical to a successful smart growth strategy.

How does the Guidebook help curb new community growth on Calgary’s edges?

For decades, Calgary has depended overly on new community expansion to support our growing population. This comes at significant cost to the City of Calgary, which you can read about in my previous blog. New communities are less financially sustainable to service and they take time to build out. This means that we either have to increase taxes for everyone and/or cut services in established communities to afford hundreds of millions in subsidies for new community expansion. In 2019 alone, Calgarians saw a 2.15% tax increase to subsidize new communities. Calgarians have also witnessed cuts to Calgary Transit and to the Calgary Fire Department, two services that become more and more expensive as the city expands. It is simply an issue of spreading too little butter over too much bread.

The City’s high-level Municipal Development Plan identifies that failing to balance growth 50–50 between new and existing communities means that we face $16.18 billion in additional capital costs over the next 60 years and additional annual operating costs of $390 million by 2070. Calgarians cannot afford this and we must grow smarter. Since we know we cannot afford to continue growing outward, we all need to support smart growth.

The Guidebook helps reduce dependency on new community growth by supporting more Calgarians in living in existing communities. It supports increased housing supply, increased housing options, and improved housing affordability. Through the Guidebook, we can better balance growth between new and existing communities, which, in turn, will reduce the massive financial burden on Calgarians from unsustainable growth on our edges.

What does the Guidebook mean for my community?

Most of us understand the need for smart growth and redevelopment. We want to support change, but we want to do it in a thoughtful way that maintains what’s special about our communities. The Guidebook focuses on providing greater certainty for where change will happen, as well as design guidelines for how new buildings should fit into our communities. It also recognizes that supporting change needs to come with public investment like traffic calming, transit upgrades, pathway improvements, and park space enhancements.

It is important to keep in mind that the Guidebook makes no changes to your community on its own. The Guidebook is designed to work in conjunction with a new Local Area Plan/Area Redevelopment Plan. The Guidebook sets the stage for what communities need to be complete, but it is the Local Area Plan that guides redevelopment in your community specifically. In the coming years, communities will receive updated Local Area Plans, with many communities receiving a plan for the first time ever. Unlike the current ad hoc approach to planning in communities with decades out of date Local Area Plans or no plans at all, these new plans will improve certainty for how Calgary communities will grow and change over time. They will highlight where you can expect different types of development to happen, where community improvements are needed, and what community features are important to maintain/enhance. For an example of the first new Local Area Plan built with the Guidebook, check out the North Hill Communities Local Area Plan.

When your community is next on the list for a new Local Area Plan, you can expect comprehensive public engagement to help guide you through the process. You will be able to help mold how your community will grow, identify what improvements are needed, and speak to your aspirations for your community. Until that time, the Guidebook for Great Communities will not affect you.

Does the Guidebook change zoning in my community?

No. The Guidebook does not change the zoning of your property or any property in your community. A land use change (rezoning) is required to change the allowable types of development on any property and the Guidebook does not change that. Property owners still need to submit a land use change that is still circulated to the local community association, notice posted on-site, open to community comment, and ultimately subject to a Public Hearing before Council. Neither the Guidebook nor a new Local Area Plan reduce the opportunities for public engagement. While the Guidebook and a new Local Area Plan will help to inform what types of development are appropriate for an area, the process for a land use change remains the same as it is today.

What about these public investments?

The Guidebook and the Local Area Plan processes work to identify improvements like traffic calming, Main Street transformations, transit enhancements, pathway upgrades, park space enhancements, and community facility upgrades. Through Local Area Plan engagement, residents have the opportunity to identify what improvements are most needed and where public investment should be focused.

These improvements will not end with just aspirations and words on a page, though. The City has created a dedicated fund to bring upgrades to life in communities experiencing change, with additional funding streams under review currently. Some of these improvements will also be delivered by private developers at no cost to the City.

These improvements not only support growth in our communities, they also recognize that a community supporting change should come with increased public benefits that support high quality of life for both current and future residents.

And these design guidelines?

The Guidebook includes a variety of guidelines that focus on design quality, attractive streetscapes, how buildings engage with streets and park spaces, urban forest growth/retention, appropriate transitions between larger and smaller buildings, building sustainability, and more. Currently, many communities have few or no design guidelines to rely on when redevelopment happens. This means we see varying levels of quality and challenges for communities in pushing for better development. The Guidebook will help to ensure that, when redevelopment happens, it will positively contribute to our established streets through quality design and thoughtful planning.

What about heritage?

Heritage buildings are critical to the feel of our communities and provide an important connection to our past. Redevelopment can be a challenge for heritage retention, which is why the Guidebook has policies that specifically support and encourage the protection of heritage buildings. City staff are also working on additional heritage preservation tools and incentives that will follow soon after a decision on the Guidebook.

Through the Local Area Plan process, the City will also work with residents to identify areas with significant heritage or character home concentrations. These areas will receive additional rules that support the retention of heritage buildings and help ensure that, when redevelopment does happen, it is done in a way that is sensitive to the heritage streetscape.

Where Can I learn more?

You can learn more about the Guidebook for Great Communities, and read the full document, here.

City staff have also developed a helpful list of frequently asked questions to help improve understanding about what exactly the Guidebook does and doesn’t do. You can read this here.



Druh Farrell

Druh Farrell is a born-and-raised Calgarian and a long-time resident of Ward 7. As a City Councillor, Druh brings a depth of experience to Calgary City Council.