COURTESY OF McKERNAN COMMUNITY LEAGUE

The Power of Community

As our cities change, community leagues and associations are more important than ever

By Miranda Martini

The music video shows dozens of regular Calgarians in line at the grocery store and cavorting on a playground, singing: “How will we make it through the ages/ If we don’t even know the neighbours?” Released by the Winston Heights–Mountview Community Association in October 2011, the video was the brainchild of Sarah Arthur, a resident of the neighbourhood.

She had happened to hear Clea Roddick’s “Neighbours” on CBC radio during her afternoon commute. She mentioned it to the community association, which approached Roddick about co-producing a video for the song. Community members would star as themselves, singing the song as they went about their lives, with the intention of familiarizing residents with the faces of the people who live around them. The video was made less than a year later with the help of a small grant from the Calgary Foundation.

The video is shot simply, but it drives home its message: When you know your neighbours, you can get things done. This project moved quickly from passing whimsy to completion because members of a community association decided to work on it together. The video demonstrates what can be accomplished through community engagement.

Community effort can significantly affect the lives of residents. It’s strange that many of us in Alberta quietly benefit from a system that makes such projects possible, and hardly ever stop to think about it. If you live in Alberta’s largest urban centres, you may be a member of your local community association (in Calgary) or community league (in Edmonton). These community-rooted organizations have become so familiar to Edmontonians and Calgarians that they’re part of the furniture. Edmonton author Myrna Kostash, in a column for Alberta Venture celebrating the history of community leagues, wrote, “I’m a lifelong Edmontonian, and even I have been taking them for granted.” It’s not uncommon for small towns to have informal groups that deal with community concerns. In Edmonton and Calgary the more formal community leagues and associations are deeply ingrained in the fabric of civic life.

I saw the music video at the Beyond the Four Walls conference, put on yearly by the Federation of Calgary Communities. As its name suggests, the conference addresses how communities can foster engagement among their residents. One of the major takeaways came from Cesar Cala, “neighbourhoods strategy lead” for United Way Calgary, in his presentation on leadership and organization in community associations. He pointed out that community is not the automatic result of proximity. Living close to each other doesn’t make people a community. It takes more than that. It takes getting to know each other and learning how to co-operate to work on mutually beneficial projects and achieve common aims.

Social media networks create “communities” of people who live nowhere near each other. The spaces where we live, work and play can be hundreds of kilometres apart. Neighbourhood-based organizations, however, were born out of the assumption that proximity-based communities matter; that we should know the people who live close to us. Over time, community leagues and associations have stretched and shrunk to incorporate many different roles. Today a community-based organization might be responsible for offering support services for elderly residents, or acting as an advisory body for a new transit-centred development strategy, or running drop-in yoga classes, depending on its current leadership.

The diverse functions of community leagues and associations draw in volunteers who might not ordinarily need or want to work together otherwise. This curious jumble of desires and skills shapes the organization, which represents one of the few remaining non-partisan political spaces. This goes to the very core of what civic politics is supposed to be about: drawing our lines in the sand not with ideology but with patience, compromise and a shared desire to effect positive change. As community-based organizations approach their hundredth anniversary in Alberta, it is worth reflecting on them.

Participation in a community-based organization is one of the truest and simplest expressions of citizenship available to Albertans.

The model for neighbourhood-based organizations comes to us from the City Club movement, born in Rochester, New York, near the turn of the last century. George M. Hall, an American living in Edmonton’s Jasper Place district in 1916, imported the concept of volunteer organizations that would attend to the needs of individual communities. As Ron Kuban says in his book Edmonton’s Urban Villages, “Such clubs… provided a counterbalance to the pervasive power of aggressive municipal politicians or developers and allowed private citizens more say in their local governance.”

The City Club movement eventually died out in Rochester, but in Edmonton it flourished and grew. By 1920 nine leagues had formed in Edmonton. As they faced common goals and challenges, these community leagues began to see the benefits of unifying their voices in order to more effectively advocate for community life. In 1921 the Edmonton Federation of Community Leagues (EFCL) was founded in order to give the leagues a stronger voice at City Hall and other levels of government. The idea eventually spread to Calgary, with community associations forming in Elbow Park, Mount Royal and Scarboro in the 1930s; their own umbrella organization, the Federation of Calgary Communities, was incorporated under the Societies Act in 1961.

Allan Bolstad, president of the EFCL, suspects the system came naturally to Albertans because it is an “outgrowth of a rural ethic that people developed as homesteaders in Alberta,” when neighbours needed each other in order to survive. When Alberta’s population exploded and towns became cities, these practices continued although their goals had changed. Kuban expands on this: “They believed in and practised the notion of ‘neighbour helping neighbour’—except that, instead of being spread across countless miles in isolated farms or homesteads, these neighbours lived next door to each other within closely knit and formally organized community leagues or neighbourhoods.”

These rural roots are still visible in the way community-based organizations form today. Often their impetus is a perceived crisis—a school closure, a planned high-rise apartment. Other groups coalesce around a task that needs to be done, like the building of a rink or community hall. Although these reactive situations can mobilize a community quickly, experts like Cala suggest these are not necessarily recipes for lasting, stable organizations. Sometimes, once the task is completed, members find that the rush of deciding to do something and then accomplishing it is addictive and they find a new project to rally around. Sometimes the organization simply goes dormant. Under whatever circumstances they are born into, community leagues and associations are primarily volunteer-run and must eventually face the challenge of staying relevant once a major project wraps and the group starts losing volunteers.

Leagues continue to serve the immediate needs of community residents, performing upkeep of rinks and community halls or facilitating soccer leagues. Some are powerful influencers, shaping the cities they’re a part of as much as advocating for their constituencies’ specific needs within it.

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“Communities are petri dishes of ideas. Lots of things are thought of at the community level and then carried out.” —Leslie Evans. (Courtesy of Polly L. Knowlton Cockett)

Nowhere are community-based organizations more conspicuous than in neighbourhoods built in the 1950s and 1960s—“middle-ring” communities. Originally realized as suburbs, they are now practically city-centre, with sprawl well beyond their boundaries. With the rapid growth of our cities, and developers capitalizing on the population boom, these formerly suburban neighbourhoods now find themselves coming of age in ways they never asked for, and often much more quickly than they might like. Many are wrestling with redevelopment plans or are hollowing out due to a changing population. Community leagues and associations in these areas are critical because they enable residents to work together and have a say in what happens to their neighbourhoods during periods of upheaval.

Some of the most important battles faced by organizations in middle-ring communities take place around schools. McKernan, a leafy middle-ring Edmonton community within spitting distance of the University of Alberta, is 32 per cent university students, and 54 per cent of its residents are renters. (Renters make up about 38 per cent of Edmonton’s total households.) Meanwhile, children have dwindled to around 10 per cent of the neighbourhood’s population. Stats like these are a serious challenge for community-based organizations, says Hilary Gray, a director on McKernan Community League board. Quite apart from the fact that school closures can mean the loss of valuable meeting spaces in a neighbourhood, a dwindling population of children and youth often corresponds with dwindling membership for the community association or league. This, says Gray, is because “people don’t get involved until there’s a [crisis]” or until they need a service that only community league membership will get them, such as a sports league or recreational facility. Many volunteers have heard the excuse that a resident won’t buy a membership because their kids are no longer in school or aren’t playing a sport that year.

Even a strong community league can struggle to weather these changes, but McKernan has gotten creative to engage the next link in the community-building chain after children: young adults and students. A recent revitalization project saw a local park receive a facelift, which allowed McKernan to update the playground and paths and put in a splash park to replace an old wading pool. The league, recognizing that skateboarders had been using the concrete wading pool for their own purposes for years, sensed an opportunity to ensure that the park would be a true public space. Rather than attempt to edge the skaters out, the league brought the Edmonton Skateboard Association on board in their discussions of how to update the park.

This may seem like a small concession—allocating money and space for a skate spot at the local park—but even this instance of engaging with and cultivating diversity, rather than trying to manicure it away or cordon off public spaces, has real and far-reaching implications. Who has access to public space—and, crucially, who regulates it—are regular bones of contention between community-based organizations and the residents they represent. So far the McKernan skate spot and splash deck have, with a few exceptions, been self-regulated, with skaters, families and other users of the park negotiating and sharing the space respectfully and discouraging misuse. This is not always the case when residents, especially those of a community that considers itself a suburb and therefore insulated from “urban” concerns, are made to share space with perceived interlopers. Inviting strangers into our bubbles is not an easy habit.

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McKernan’s new splash park incorporates a skateboard spot. Community organizations can mediate who has access to public space. (Courtesy of McKernan Community League)

If it is difficult to welcome change when it is gradual and organic, brought on by children growing up and moving away, it is even more fraught when a community is reshaped from the outside. Middle-ring communities are discovering that consultation can be uneven during the process of intentional redevelopment. Active community associations and leagues can mean the difference between changes making life better for residents or driving them out.

Calgary’s Brentwood is an example of how a community association can seize control in the face of imminent change. Still arguably a suburb though connected to downtown by a 10-minute train ride, Brentwood is prime real estate. Bounded by Nose Hill Park on one side and a main artery to downtown on the other, the neighbourhood became a target for increasing density in the middle ring. However, a curious visitor can still find signs that parts of Brentwood were grazing land as recently as the 1990s, says Cheri Macaulay, long-time member and former development committee chair of the Brentwood Community Association and one of the neighbourhood’s most vocal champions.

Like so many communities of its age and proximity to downtown, Brentwood was built with families in mind—a paradise of single-family dwellings, big backyards, attractive views and, of course, a wealth of schools. Calgary’s planning commission approved the Brentwood Station Area Redevelopment Plan (ARP) in late 2007 when it became clear that the neighbourhood was hollowing out and public amenities were looking worn down. The community associations in Brentwood and neighbouring Varsity initially opposed the plan, but after extensive community consultation and revision Brentwood Community Association gave it a cautious green light, and city council approved the plan in 2009.

An Area Redevelopment Plan guides redevelopment in established areas of Alberta municipalities. It defines, for example, density targets, the maximum height of new structures, how old buildings are to be rehabilitated, environmentally sensitive areas and land use designations for commercial and residential properties. Community associations and leagues have a legal right to contribute to the ARP. Once it is approved, the ARP empowers a community to demand that the city adhere to the plan.

Although Brentwood will never again be a suburban sanctuary, residents such as Macaulay are optimistic that the neighbourhood could be on its way to a different kind of greener pasture, in the form of University City, the keystone of the Brentwood Station ARP. The five Lego-esque condo towers, two of which already loom over Brentwood Village Shopping Centre, have been at the centre of debate since their conception. It doesn’t look like much now, but true believers in University City’s promise of economic reinvigoration already see patios, mixed retail and a network of footpaths meeting in an open plaza where a tired strip mall is now.

Although change can’t come fast enough for many Brentwood residents, some fear what may be lost once Brentwood lives in the shadow of the completed University City. While the Brentwood Community Association supported the condos, a separate group, Brentwood Concerned Citizens, formed in reaction to the condo proposal and submitted an appeal that delayed the project’s groundbreaking in 2011. Their main concern was that Brentwood would not be able to support the traffic burden caused by the sudden influx of several hundred new residents. Many were also nervous that the flashy, candy-coloured towers were the start of a change that would edge out Brentwood’s older residents. This fear that an evolving community will move on and leave some residents behind is not totally baseless; many communities come of age without seniors programs or other provisions that would allow long-time residents to age in place.

The Brentwood Community Association played an integral part in convincing the community to accept the ARP as a reality. “Brentwood is a lovely community, and people would like to see it stay the same,” said Macaulay in a Calgary Herald interview during the appeals. “But nothing does. It hasn’t stayed the same for years. It’s actually been slowly declining. We’ve lost a lot of shops and services over the years and that has had nothing to do with [densification].”

Brentwood Community Association ensured that current residents’ concerns were taken into consideration. Its involvement resulted in a better redevelopment plan. Similarly, the activism of Calgary’s Hillhurst–Sunnyside Community Association has had a positive impact. They fought tooth and nail in the early 1980s against a proposed LRT line that would bifurcate the proud and independent Calgary neighbourhood. The battle established Hillhurst–Sunnyside as a force to be reckoned with. The negotiation led to many concessions on city planners’ part. The resulting better design makes the LRT station—now 27 years old—feel inseparable from the neighbourhood.

More recently, in Edmonton, nine community associations (including McKernan’s) have been fighting a similar battle over the South Campus, a large tract in Edmonton’s core owned by the University of Alberta. University land, unlike land leased by community leagues or associations, does not fall within city planning guidelines; the U of A is under no obligation to consult affected communities regarding new projects. When an old curling rink in the community of Balmoral was developed as a medical-isotope production facility in 2010 without notification or consultation of the communities nearest the South Campus, their community leagues formed the South Campus Neighbourhood Coalition as a means of negotiating with the university more effectively. The SCNC brought legal action against the U of A over what they saw as its failure to adhere to consultation and disclosure procedures outlined in governing legislation and its own long range development plan.

The threatened suit resulted in a memorandum of understanding between the SCNC and the U of A. The university has expressed a willingness to renew their efforts to consult with affected communities before making changes within their boundaries, although “very, very reluctantly,” says McKernan’s EFCL representative Wayne Rogers. “We always have to pay attention to what the university’s doing, not just what they’re telling us.”

How best to represent an entire community with but one volunteer board is a question faced by all community-based organizations. As Rogers points out, “You can’t be all things to all people.” Brentwood also illustrates this. The very fact that a community association gets involved in the vision for the community’s future, however, is a sign that its residents will emerge on the other side of its growing pains better off.

To get an idea of the influence of community-based organizations, just look at the composition of Calgary’s and Edmonton’s city councils.

Some city planning authorities feel Calgary and Edmonton have outgrown the current model for delivering community services, which allows administration of local services and civic activism to spring up side by side and then go to seed when there’s no one to nurture them. Leslie Evans, president of the Federation of Calgary Communities, argues that we dismiss community institutions at our peril. When she took the job, she says, most Calgarians were saying that community associations were dead. “I’ve never believed that, never for a minute,” she says. She grew up in Brentwood, and the active community association was an integral part of her experience of the neighbourhood.

Today, Alberta has around 300 community associations and community leagues, and more are forming all the time. Meanwhile, their influence in municipal affairs grows as citizens realize what community-based organizations are capable of, through the examples of communities such as McKernan and Brentwood.

To get an idea of the influence of community-based organizations on municipal politics in Alberta, just look at local city councils. Numerous sitting councillors cut their civic teeth volunteering for their community leagues or associations. The mayors of Edmonton and Calgary have been involved with community-based organizations: Don Iveson was vice-president of the Malmo Plains Community League, while Naheed Nenshi lent expertise to the Coral Springs Community Association prior to becoming mayor. Former provincial Liberal leader Kevin Taft continues to be involved with the Belgravia Community League.

Even if one doesn’t go on to a career in politics, though, participation in a community-based organization is one of the truest and simplest expressions of citizenship available to Albertans. All you need is the $20 membership fee and the willingness to volunteer a few hours each week in order to participate in shaping the community and city you live in. The challenges of good governance apply to community-based organizations as much as they do to higher levels of government. “Communities are petri dishes of ideas,” Evans says. “Lots of things are thought of at the community level and then carried out by people who may never have been part of a community association before.”

The organizations are living proof that a community doesn’t need much of a budget or a massive membership to enact change, from making neighbourhoods safer and more accessible to reshaping the face of the city itself. The trick to engaging citizens in their communities, as Clea Roddick and the people of Winston Heights–Mountview demonstrate, is in convincing them that it really is that easy.

Miranda Martini is a journalist, essayist and musician living in Calgary. She is Alberta Views’s editorial assistant.

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