Photo by Kim Walker

Constituency Close Up: Calgary-North East

Local residents spark a community revival in suburban Calgary.

By Tadzio Richards

Calgary-North East is back. Sixty years after it was first contested in 1959—and abolished after one term—the constituency was recontested in 2019 and won by the UCP. But provincial representation is only one way a spotlight is shining in the northeast corner of the city: In recent years new community-led projects such as Canada’s longest mural, a fast-growing night market—Night Market North, which showcases local vendors—and reimagined plans for old playgrounds have sparked a community revival.

That percolating revival may be just in time—since 1980, average individual incomes here have remained static or declined in relation to the city average. As a recent academic report describes it, “The spatial pattern of income change in Calgary is clear, with income growth in the core and decline in the suburban periphery.” For Kim Walker, a long-time resident, that decline was showing. In response, she initiated the Northern Hills Mural project—turning an aging, 850-m stretch of six-foot- high fence into “an artistic interpretation of Calgary’s history” painted by over 700 community members in Coventry Hills.  

“I’ve been driving down that fence area 15 or so years,” said Walker, “and I’ve watched the sun, literally, set on it, thinking every time I was driving by that this would be a perfect spot for a mural.” With help from community associations in Calgary-North East, Walker raised money, got permission from the city and recruited artist Mark Vazquez-Mackay to lead community members in designing and painting the mural. “The project had many intents,” says Walker. “One was to elevate the arts. Another was to increase the vibrancy of the community through beautification—to fix a fence that was falling down and making our community look pretty bad. The other [intent] was to help our community—a friend of a friend was looking to purchase a home and they were looking in this area and their realtor told them, ‘Oh no, this is not an area for you to buy in.’ And I thought, wait now, why isn’t it? It’s a beautiful area to live in. So I thought I’m going to draw attention to our community and put this mural in and get people talking about [the far northeast sector of Calgary] as a place to come.”

Similar motivations sparked a related initiative, led by local resident Moraig McCabe, to save playground areas. “I was volunteering for the Northern Hills Community Association and I heard [the City of Calgary] was considering taking some playgrounds out. I kind of panicked,” says McCabe. “Playgrounds get put in by developers and then they pass them over to the city. But the city’s budget for replacing playgrounds is quite small, and of course the bigger Calgary grows the more playgrounds there are. So I made a deal with the city that if I could make playground redevelopments cheaper for them to maintain in our area, then we could keep them all. They laughed at me a bit and said, ‘Sure, go for it.’ And I did.”

Nearly 1,000 residents came to 10 community engagement sessions, where McCabe and others asked locals what they would like to see in 15 playground areas. “We do need tot lots [playgrounds for young children] because we have little kids in our community, but we don’t need 15 of them,” says McCabe. Residents were asked to “dream big,” with the idea that each playground and park area would be different. In 2019 construction started on a basketball court and outdoor rink at one site, while two median areas were converted to pollinator [wildflower] corridors. Other playground areas will be turned into a community picnic area, a park for bicycles, and other sites that, in total, says McCabe, will be cheaper to maintain.

Walker credits Philip Lozano, a community economic development coordinator at Momentum, a non-profit organization in Calgary, with being “a catalyst for much of the invigorated energy in our community.” Lozano, who has worked with community groups in the area for several years, says his work “is all about… empowering residents to solve their own problems with sustainable solutions.”

While some houses “may look a bit bigger” in Calgary-North East, says Lozano, many people “on a month-to-month basis are barely covering their mortgage payments,” and many residents face “the social isolation commonly found in some of these suburban areas.” At the same time, he says, “there’s an interest and an enthusiasm here—it’s a special place.” A key to instigating positive change, he says, may lie in the way locals are invited to engage in community-building. “Instead of saying ‘This is what’s sad and broken and needs repair, so you should come and help out,’ ” he says, locals such as Walker, McCabe and others said to community members, “ ‘Hey, there’s excitement and enthusiasm already, do you want to be a part of it?’… There’s something inspiring about that.” 

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