Downtown Calgary’s biggest issue is safety, not empty office buildings

This column is an opinion from Richard White, who has written extensively on Calgary’s urban development. For more information about CBC’s Opinion section, please see the FAQ.

Downtown Calgary’s biggest issue isn’t its empty office spaces. It’s that many Calgarians don’t feel comfortable or safe there. 

The city can add all the murals, banners, hanging baskets, street furniture, public art and public spaces it wants in the downtown, but first they are going to have to deal with the safety and comfort issue.  And even when the data show downtown crime is declining (or not rising) it will still take a long time before the perception of an unsafe downtown will change. 

This was driven home to me personally recently when I wandered Bridgeland near the new Dominion apartments and a 30-something male said to me, “Nice, if you have a million dollars!”

I corrected him, saying they weren’t condos but apartments, with studios renting for $1,100 per month with lots of amenities. He seemed surprised. I asked him where he lived and he said downtown in an $800 per month studio with no amenities. He seemed intrigued about the possibility of moving to Bridgeland.

I asked him how he liked living downtown, and he said, “It is great during the day, but scary at night with people high on drugs, sometimes urinating right in front of you.”

‘They don’t feel safe’

Ironically, I had an email the day before from an empty nester who also lives in Bridgeland telling me she and her husband never go downtown anymore as they don’t feel safe.  

A quick check of the Calgary police crime stats shows the incidents of social disorder in the downtown core actually declined from 2018 to 2019 (from 5,901 to 5,436), while physical disorder increased from 278 to 381 over the same period. From 2015 to 2018, the numbers stayed pretty much the same. These statistics refer only to reported incidents, not the actual number of incidents, so while some numbers appear to be increasing and others decreasing, ultimately it isn’t the crime numbers that are important — it is the perception. 

The City of Calgary’s 2019 Centre City Perception Survey confirms safety is an issue. From 2017 to 2019, the number of Calgarians living downtown who felt safety had worsened increased from 18 per cent to 32 per cent — almost a doubling. The percentage of downtown workers who believe safety is getting worse increased from 15 per cent to 26 per cent. For those who don’t live or work downtown, the number rose from 17 per cent to 22 per cent over the same period.

Lately, Richard White has been asking people who live and work downtown if they feel downtown safety is an issue. More and more, they’ve been saying it is. (Richard White)

However, when asked what initiative would make the centre city a more vibrant area to live in, only 16 per cent said addressing safety, crime, homelessness or panhandling issues. The number 1 response — at 26 per cent — was more activities, such as shopping, restaurants, recreational, art, and cultural events. 

However, if you look at the downtown core the safety issue becomes higher. In 2020, the city, working in collaboration with the University of Calgary School of Architecture, Planning, and Landscapes and other community partners, conducted an online survey to look at safety and other issues within a nine block area near city hall — from First Street S.E. to Fourth Street S.E. and from Sixth Avenue S.E. to Ninth Avenue S.E. 

In this case the perception of safety was very different. During the day only about 50 per cent of the people felt safe, but in the evening that number dropped to only about 15 per cent.  

Lately, I’ve been asking people I know who live and work downtown if they feel downtown safety is an issue. One young professional said she and six girlfriends who work downtown (all in their late 20s or early 30s) have all recently bought key chain accessories that double as weapons if needed. She said the absence of people downtown due to COVID-19 has definitely made downtown streets appear less safe, as the “scary” activities and people are more visible.

‘The vibe has changed’

I asked her to let me know if she hears any safety concerns from colleagues, and within an hour an email arrived from one of her colleagues who works and lives downtown, saying, “the vibe of downtown has changed recently and personal safety has become a bigger issue. I encounter more street people who are either yelling at each other, at me, or to no one in particular. I am definitely more aware of which side of the street I walk on than I used to.”

She went on to say she and her boyfriend recently looked at an apartment near the Sheldon Chumir Health Centre that they would have taken in a heartbeat, but ultimately felt the area was too unsafe, so they chose a place just off 17 Avenue S.W. instead.

It will be interesting to see what impact the closing of the supervised drug consumption site at the Sheldon Chumir Health Centre will have on safety perceptions in Memorial Park, says Richard White. (Richard White)

I have been told by many others that they avoid walking near the Sheldon Chumir.  It will be interesting to see what impact the closing of the supervised drug consumption site at the centre will have on safety perceptions in Memorial Park and neighbouring streets.

Indeed, it is not uncommon to be downtown and hear people shouting at nobody. Or to see someone sitting with all their possessions sprawled all over on the sidewalk. While many Calgarians are tolerant and realize street people will cause them no harm, others are not so sure. I consider myself to be a tolerant person, but have to admit I don’t feel as comfortable downtown as I used to. 

Public spaces are “home” for the street people — they are essential to their daily life. Public spaces are their living rooms, family rooms and dining rooms and, in some cases, their bedrooms and, yes, their bathrooms. 

At the same time, public spaces are supposed to be shared spaces, where citizens of all ages and backgrounds can feel safe and comfortable. Unfortunately, the undesirable activities of a few (shouting, swearing, drinking and excessive littering) can make a public space uncomfortable for many.  

Safety first

One of the key strategies for making downtowns safer is to attract more people to live there, but first you need a safe downtown. Will new and improved public spaces make our downtown a more attractive place to live? Perhaps, but not if they are empty most of the time and become places for drug deals, drinking and sleeping. What we need is to make our existing spaces safe and comfortable.

Short term, downtown Calgary needs lots of eyes and ears on the street — ambassadors, social workers, police, bylaw officers — who can proactively help people in need, as well as arresting those who are breaking the law.  

Long term, what downtown Calgary and all Canadian downtowns need is for all levels of government to collaborate to provide safe and adequate housing for everyone who needs it, addiction and mental health programs for those who want them, and stiffer penalties for those engaged in criminal behaviour.  

Downtown safety is not an urban design issue, it is a societal one.

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