Infrastructure Dollars: Art vs. Sprawl

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mC:t   2015.02.26


Concept drawing by Stephen Glassman for "Frozen River" public art installation.

Concept drawing by Stephen Glassman for “Frozen River” public art installation. (photo:


There has been a lot of talk lately surrounding Calgary’s public art spending especially with the recent crash of oil prices and “reduced growth expectations”. Councillor Peter Demong recently proposed to suspend Calgary’s public art spending until at least 2016. A program that allocates only 1% of the budget for capital projects to public art. Mayor Naheed Nenshi said that cutting the public art budget would be “terribly short sighted” and that a piece of public art is as important for a capital project as paint or landscaping [see his response here]. Council responded on Monday by voting overwhelmingly against Demong’s proposal [coverage of the vote here].


Calgary’s newest public art installations. Clockwise from the top left: Luminous Crossings, Chinook Arc, Charged Line, Under the Helmet, River Passage, Frozen River. (photo: metro

Calgary’s newest public art installations. Clockwise from the top left: Luminous Crossings, Chinook Arc, Charged Line, Under the Helmet, River Passage, Frozen River. (photo: metro


This recent conversation has brought out many strong opinions on either side of the debate, however, it seems that we can all find common ground in that we would like for our city to be a vibrant and economically sustainable place both for our current and future citizens. While many argue that “artistic” projects such as the Santiago Calatrava Peace Bridge are unnecessary expenditures, it is evidenced by the portrayal of our city by the media that projects like these are what defines our city and how we present ourselves to the rest of the world. They also develop a vibrant street scape and sense of pride among residents. This is not to say that occasionally a piece may fall short of the mark (a certain giant blue ring) but the success of a policy cannot be discounted on the basis of its weakest product. If that were true we would have to suspend city council every time a councillor made half-baked proposal.


Santiago Calatrava's "Peace Bridge. (photo: Ryan Quan)

Santiago Calatrava’s “Peace Bridge. (photo: Ryan Quan)


Perhaps there are other infrastructure expenditures that might be addressed in order to save the city money. If one were to look at the cost of new suburbs compared to denser urban developments one would notice that creating and maintaining roads, sewers, water, community centres and libraries, and providing fire protection, policing, and school bussing for new suburbs far surpasses that of urban developments [source]. While cutting public art spending for the next year in Calgary might save the city around $4 million, a study conducted on 17 of the 40 new developments underway or planned in Edmonton, concluded that net costs have been projected to exceed revenues by nearly $4 billion over 60 years (66 million per year) [read more]. This is not to mention the less obvious costs on health, productivity, and the environment that new suburban development accrues.


The cities annual cost per household of a suburban unit compared with an urban unit in Halifax. (photo: Spacing Edmonton)

The City’s annual cost per household of a suburban unit compared with an urban unit in Halifax. (photo: Spacing Edmonton)


On the reverse side, more density can save the city money. This is because new developments can piggy-back on preexisting services and infrastructure resulting in lower municipal spending. For example, Calgary found that by adopting a denser growth pattern that used 25% less land, it could save $11 billion in capital costs alone (read more). These numbers make the public art policy seem like spare change.

The problem is that many of the costs resulting from urban sprawl are hidden and therefore to the average citizen it appears that living in the suburbs is cheaper than living in the core when in reality the cost is just being absorbed by the the government and it’s taxpayers. Mayor Naheed Nenshi has started calling these hidden costs the “sprawl subsidy.” The issue is therefore not with developers but with current price structures that encourage sprawl while obscuring the real costs. According to Sustainable Property:


“By more closely examining both costs and alternatives, we can turn prices around and make them reward infill development, brownfield development, and suburban retrofitting. When we do so, we will reap significant economic environmental, and municipal budged benefits.”


So what can be done in order to shift the system toward a more sustainable model? Sustainable Property has given us some possible starting points including changes to development charges, utility charges, property taxes and transportation pricing reform (read more).

It seems clear that how we build our city has a dramatic impact on the cost to the taxpayer and greatly impacts the quality of services that everyone receives. Perhaps by saving ourselves billions of dollars by changing where we develop a few million spent on making our city a more beautiful and engaging place wouldn’t seem so bad. As a taxpayer, do you enjoy public art in Calgary? Leave your comments below.


Check out our recent articles on public art in Calgary:

Five Things Public Art discusses Calgary’s Public Art Policy

The Importance of Street Art and Culture discusses the differing responses to street art in Calgary compared to Sydney and Melbourne


Great design starts with a conversation… makeCalgary:talk provokes conversation among Calgarians about design in our city. Catch up with us on Twitter (@makecalgarytalk), Instagram (@makecalgarytalk), or Facebook.


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