Noel Keough, Geoff Ghitter. Sustainability Matters: Prospects for a Just Transition in Calgary, Canada's Petro-City. Calgary: University of Calgary Press, 2021. Illustrations. 256 pp. $34.99 (paper), ISBN 978-1-77385-248-5.
Reviewed by Jeff Manuel (Southern Illinois University, Edwardsville)
Published on H-Environment (January, 2023)
Commissioned by Daniella McCahey (Texas Tech University)
Calgary, Alberta, is one of Canada’s richest, fastest-growing, and most automobile-dependent cities. Not coincidentally, it is also a hub for Canada’s energy industry. So what does sustainable development look like in Calgary? That is the question taken up by Noel Keough and Geoff Ghitter in Sustainability Matters: Prospects for a Just Transition in Calgary, Canada’s Petro-City, a collection of essays that originally appeared as columns in an alternative weekly newspaper. The book is not a comprehensive history of Calgary or its urban development but rather “a place-based exploration of the concept of sustainability from the vantage point of Calgary—a fast-growing, wealthy, car-dependent, sprawling, culturally diverse, cosmopolitan urban centre” (p. 2).
The book’s first three chapters set the stage, both conceptually and geographically, for the analysis in chapters 4-14. Chapters 1 and 2 critique sustainable development as it is usually practiced. Keough and Ghitter argue that accepting a business-as-usual definition of sustainable development means continuing sprawl and unsustainable use of energy and natural resources. Chapter 3 offers a brief history of development and urban planning in Calgary and likely will be the chapter environmental historians will find most useful. Following discoveries of oil after World War II, Calgary boomed as the corporate and financial hub for Alberta’s oil industry. But steering Calgary’s growth was left to private developers who created a sprawling, car-dependent city. Since the 1990s, urban planners have tried to rein in Calgary’s uncontrolled growth through a series of comprehensive plans. But progress has been slow.
One theme running through the book’s essays is criticism of Calgary’s dependency on privately owned automobiles. Chapter 6, for example, argues that Calgary should build trams (streetcars) and invest in more bicycle infrastructure. There is little analysis of why these systems might be well suited to Calgary, however. The authors mention stories from other cities that have built successful public transit systems and assume something similar would work in Calgary. Chapter 7 criticizes the auto-dependent focus of Calgary’s recent planning efforts. Keough and Ghitter highlight the plethora of studies pointing out the very high costs—economic and environmental—of automobiles.
Closely connected to auto dependency is the problem of sprawl. Calgary today is a city “spread over the prairie like jam on toast” (p. 78). Calgary’s sprawling footprint is not entirely surprising given its location at the transition between prairie and mountain and the city’s historical connection to the oil industry. Keough and Ghitter highlight how the region’s sprawl and auto dependency have made Calgarians vulnerable to high gasoline prices, suggesting that the costs of uncontrolled growth are now too high to bear. The book offers several suggestions for slowing Calgary’s sprawl. Chapter 4 praises density and “green urbanism,” arguing that Calgary’s planners could learn from these concepts and apply them to new developments. Chapter 5 suggests that the city should adopt an urban growth boundary to rein in unsustainable growth. “At some point,” Keough and Ghitter argue, “we have to bite the bullet and start building the smart, compact, low-carbon Calgary of tomorrow rather than the fossil-fueled, high-maintenance, Cadillac city of the past” (p. 132).
Both sprawl and auto dependency reveal Calgary’s imbrication with fossil fuels. Keough and Ghitter are blunt: “Let’s be clear [about] what has fueled and sustained growth in Calgary. It’s oil and gas. We have been the most single-industry-dependent city in Canada and perhaps North America” (p. 255). Wealth from oil and gas, they argue, “muddles our thinking, causing us to flout both sense and prudence in our city-building habits” (p. 194). Interestingly, they see Calgary’s historical foundation in the oil and gas industry as an opportunity. Since Calgary is one of the cities that has “reaped the treasure of the fossil fuel age,” Calgarians, the authors note, now have a moral obligation to lead Canada in confronting climate change (p. 203). This is an optimistic vision, but recent political history suggests that many Albertans disagree.
Sustainability Matters lives up to the authors’ goals of offering readers a collection of short essays exploring various issues related to sustainability firmly grounded in Calgary. The writing is brisk and the authors can turn a good phrase, revealing the essays’ origins as newspaper columns. Private developers are the villains of this story, constantly pushing for more sprawling, auto-dependent developments. But the preferences and decisions of average Calgarians are rarely mentioned. As is common in planning literature, Keough and Ghitter presume that people’s choices about where to live and how to commute are channeled by the decisions of urban planners and commercial developers. But this approach ignores the persistent truth that Calgarians consistently choose sprawl and automobiles. Keough and Ghitter throw provocative ideas against the wall—like a moratorium on oil sands development—but there is little analysis of whether these ideas will stick. The essays are thought experiments rather than plans for implementation.
That said, these essays will be useful for anyone trying to better understand Calgary’s urban development and possible futures. The book is especially well suited for classroom use because the University of Calgary Press makes Sustainability Matters freely available on its website as part of the press’s open-access publishing venture. Instructors can easily share a single chapter with students to spur discussion on a specific topic.
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-environment.
Jeff Manuel. Review of Keough, Noel; Ghitter, Geoff, Sustainability Matters: Prospects for a Just Transition in Calgary, Canada's Petro-City.
H-Environment, H-Net Reviews.
|This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.|