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Beyond the Green Line: Calgary Needs to Get Serious About Commercial Subcentering

For decades, downtown has been the location of choice for corporate Calgary and each weekday some 345,000 Calgarians stream in and out of the core. The majority of these people are commuters on their way to work, arriving by automobile (54.4 per cent), transit (34.5 per cent), and those close enough to walk (9.4 per cent) and cycle (1.7 per cent).1 For the hundreds of thousands of people that are either too far away or disinclined to walk, The City has spent billions of dollars over the decades in dedicated infrastructure – including roadways, cycle tracks, and one of the most extensive radial transit systems in Canada – to keep the mass of humanity flowing. The proposed Green Line is a major expansion of this radial system, moving people in-and-out of the downtown to North Pointe in Panorama Hills and Seton near the South Health Campus at an estimated cost of $4.6 billion dollars.

Council’s decision to commit funding to the Green Line last week secures the second of three needed revenue streams; echoing the federal commitment and increasing the likelihood that the province will commit funds to this piece of “green infrastructure” through its new carbon tax. Matching provincial funding will lock in all players and speed up construction, with some estimates figuring that an operating line could be in place as early as 2024.

While the Green Line will significantly alter how thousands of Calgarians get to work, with many switching from car and bus to the C-Train, it only reinforces the daily schlep from the suburbs to the core and back home. By-and-large Calgary is a “monocentric city” – a single central business district surrounded by a sea of residential neighbourhoods. There are many reasons for this, some of which include the rapid pace of growth in the city (having almost doubled in population since the ’88 Winter Games), the agglomerative nature of Calgary’s primary industry (oil & gas companies like to locate near one another), and, until recently, the lack of real alternatives for large corporations to locate.

The monocentric model functions very well in towns and small cities; however, as monocentric cities grow, so does the costs for firms that locate downtown (in terms of rising rents) and the workers who fill the towers (in terms of longer commutes). Both of these pressures can be alleviated by building more towers (a private sector response), and more train lines (at the taxpayers’ expense), or alternatively locating more people near the core (with a mix of private condominiums and publicly subsidized affordable housing). Given the realities of Calgary’s built environment, the Green Line is a much needed piece of infrastructure, but it does nothing to address the long-term costs of funneling workers downtown.

Beyond the Green Line, Calgary needs to get serious about commercial subcentering. Subcentering brings the workplace closer to the people, instead of trying to bring people closer to a single central business district. While Calgary is littered with past attempts to plan commercial subcenters, some of which are more successful (Sunpark Plaza) than others (Crowfoot Village), it was the 2012 announcement that Imperial Oil was relocating from its three downtown offices to a 20-acre site in the Quarry Park commercial campus that signalled a shift in where firms choose to locate in Calgary. What was a gravel pit as recently as 10 years ago, Quarry Park has now grown into 1.7 million square feet of office space, home to other major firms such as Canadian Pacific Railway, Jacobs Engineering and Bayer Crop Science. Compared to downtown, commercial rents are affordable, the commute by car is a lot shorter if you live in the south and if you don’t, nearby housing is a fraction of its inner-city equivalent, and in time the Green Line will connect to it.

Even with the current economic downturn, and the decline of commercial rents across the city, Calgary and the broader city-region will continue to grow, by as much as 900,000 new residents in 25 years’ time. As the city grows, firms and residents will be faced with increasing costs as a result of the physical structure of the city. Quarry Park is a step in the right direction. Its growth, and the emergence of other commercial subcenters, will impact the commuting patterns and location choices of Calgarians over time – reducing commuting time and commercial rents. More consideration should be given to commercial subcentering as an alternative to bringing more people downtown.


  1. The percentages are the average of the four years since the cordon count began (City of Calgary Data).