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— urbantick

June 2019 Monthly archive

Calgary has seen a number of consultation and engagement projects in recent years. One of the largest and ongoing projects is the Calgary Ring Road. Since the 50s this project has seen many phases of negotiations and consultations.

Many large scale planning projects have shaped the city of Calgary since the arrival of CP rail in 1882 We are charting the interaction of a whole range of different actors over the past 60+ years in a comprehensive review of Calgary’s planning history. Here is a first look at the Ring Road project as a piece in that history.

This post provides a generalized overview of the evolution of some of Calgary’s consultation practices around the long term planning of a major infrastructure project, the Southwest Ring Road. A full comprehensive history of the project can be found here. Special thanks to Jesse Salus for providing a major source of information for this post.

Ring roads are a common infrastructure/transport tool in cities around the world. Beijing is one of the few cities to have multiple ring roads, currently counting 8. The largest ring however was built around the city of Huston TX, at least when they last checked back in 2009

image source: ring roads of the world


On October 25th, 2013 an agreement between the Tsuu T’ina Nation and the Government of Alberta was officially reached regarding the land exchange for the construction of an extension of Sarcee trail south to complete a route through the Tsuu T’ina nation that will bypass Calgary. Known to many as the Southwest Ring Road, the process of planning and implementing this project has been underway since the 1950s, and one of the most significant barriers to the project has been related to the lack of transparency and consultation to the residents of the City and Reserve.

Early History

image source: the history of a road

In 1883, 6 years after the signing of Treaty 7 and 1 year prior to the establishment of Calgary, the Tsuu T’ina nation was established. At this time the town limit of Calgary was still a good distance from the reserve. In the early years of the relationship between the City and Reserve a road was built connecting Calgary to Priddis through the nation, later a portion of land on the northeast corner of the Tsuu T’ina was surrendered by the nation to be sold, but was annexed by the military prior to World War I for the construction of a Harvey Barracks, this land transfer contributed to a contentious relationship between City and Nation that would persist throughout the Ring Road planning process

In the 1950s the City of Calgary drafted plans for 3 potential ring roads and released them in the 1952 Road Plan, the innermost road involved an expansion of Memorial drive into a freeway that would allow for more vehicle access to downtown, while the outermost was the original plan for the Southwest Ring Road. The City’s consultation practices at this time excluded some of the most significant stakeholders. In the case of the Memorial Drive expansion, some of the most affected actors, i.e. the residents of adjacent neighbourhoods like Sunnyside/Hillhurst, were not informed that these plans were underway until they were released publicly in the Calgary Transportation Study (C.A.L.T.S.) in 1963, as the City did not consider these neighbourhoods to be within the study area. This created public backlash and led to the formation of citizen groups which had a hand defeating the proposal citing the potential for devastating environment and neighbourhood degradation.

The outer ring road plans laid out in C.A.L.T.S. were originally planned to go through the Harvey Barracks site, but were realigned several times throughout the years. The 2 route options being either through the Tsuu T’ina or through the Weaselhead.  Although these 2 option were mostly rural at the time C.A.L.T.S. was released, the southward expansion of the city in the 1970s incentivized the city to begin planning a ring road that could connect new communities to the rest of Calgary, the development of Southwest Calgary also begot the establishment of the Weaselhead as a city park. The potential alignment of a ring road through a beloved natural area prompted the consultants who planned the alignment, Deleuw Cather Consulting Engineers and Planners to suggest the implementation of a full scale public participation strategy. The backlash against the construction of the ring road through the Weaselhead gained enough traction to inspire premier Peter Lougheed to pledge he would do what he could to prevent the construction of the ring road through a park, stating “If there’s to be a ring road, it should be outside the built-up areas of the city.”

The plans for the route through the Weaselhead were put on hold and an alternative route through Tsuu T’ina was discussed in a 1977 Route Location study. This was partly in response to Calgary residents’ rejection of the route through the Weaselhead. Citizen meetings were held with residents of adjacent communities such as Lakeview and Oakridge.

Citizens from Tsuu T’ina were also invited to attend the meetings, but chose not to participate as they feared that participation could be misconstrued as an endorsement of the project. This route study was never adopted by council and was strictly used to inform the writing of future policy, after this study, the ring road was neither studied nor negotiated until the early 1980s

In 1982 the City, under Mayor Ralph Klein reopened negotiation with the leadership of the Tsuu T’ina, and although nothing would actually built for some time, these negotiations created a working relationship between the City and the Reserve that would lay early groundwork for the construction of the ring road.

1990s – Present

image source: the history of a road

In 1994 the City of Calgary undertook its largest public consultation to date in the form of the Calgary GoPlan. The GoPlan consisted of a series of studies and surveys that would assess the needs and values of Calgarians in the preparation of a new Transportation Plan. This process was undertaken mainly due to the public backlash the transportation planning in the past, including backlash related to the ring road. The study points out that traditional forms of engagement in the past cannot be relied on as accurate representations of public opinion, and can result in polarization of opinion, self selection bias, and intimidation of of those with differing opinions. The GoPlan instead used a several methods of consultation including citizen opinion polls, a core value tradeoff study. One of the major questions the study wanted to answer was whether the people were willing to allow the development of the ring road through the Weaselhead. The study determined that citizens of Calgary favoured the construction of the road through the Tsuu T’ina. This study led to the final decision to continue negotiations with the Tsuu T’ina for construction of the Ring Road through the reserve, rather than the Weaselhead natural area.

Although the negotiations over the construction of the ring road were far from over at this point, it is worth noting that final route of the ring road has remained on the Tsuu T’ina lands since the 1994 GoPlan. Despite the continued controversy, the GoPlan was more effective in allowing participation in the planning process than the traditional engagement methods undertaken by the city in the years prior, and paved the way for Calgary to undertake future participatory studies like PlanIt Calgary and ImagineCalgary.


Several other large Calgary projects in the making fit into a similar frame. One can think of the LRT system for example, Calgary’s public transport backbone that was dreamed up shortly after the lovely streetcar system was abolished. Some say because certain bus manufacturers pressured the city into switching from street cars to buses. Or indeed the world famous downtown walkway network, the +15. Much more of a process than a structure. Few things in Calgary embody policy as dramatically as the +15 or controversy for that matter.

Author: Graham Allison

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