Rollin Stanley, City of Calgary
A question that often comes up when we talk about green or sustainable cities is: what does that mean? Does sustainability mean preservation of heritage buildings? Does it mean measures to discourage car traffic? Perhaps it means a balance of taxation and service delivery? In the career of Rollin Stanley, it means all of these things and much more.
Having worked in urban planning in Toronto, St. Louis, and Montgomery County, Maryland, Stanley is getting settled into his new surroundings in Calgary as General Manager for Planning, Development and Assessment. Along with Calgary, each of these communities exhibits different characteristics in terms of demographics, income, history, infrastructure, and a host of other factors. This uniqueness makes the definition of sustainability completely relative to the community in question.
So with that in mind, asking Stanley what sustainability means is like opening the flood gates; he speaks with passion and no small degree of earnestness: “sustainability is about remediating families in housing with lead paint. It’s about building on land where you have to worry about the soil due to demolition of houses twenty years ago. It’s about getting fresh food and vegetables where there are no full service grocery stores. Sustainability means something completely different in Washington, a region that arguably has the worst traffic in the US,” Stanley explains, describing the challenges of working in Montgomery County, Maryland. “We were trying to incentivize green buildings, but nobody wanted to build them, they couldn't see the value. The county was in competition with Fairfax, Virginia for jobs, so the extra cost of green buildings made us uncompetitive. We had to find a way to get that dialogue to change.”
Changing the dialogue is a central theme in Stanley’s work. He is known for pushing agendas that may not be immediately popular, but fiscally and environmentally necessary. Continuing to talk about his work in Maryland, Stanley recounts “I was showing them the tax benefit between a single family home, and a fifteen story condo on the same land. The yearly benefit of that condo is about $600,000 greater compared to the home. Then I showed them maps of all the water pipes needed to service those homes; in 25 years half of those have to be replaced. We can’t afford to do it. When all the tax bills start coming due for the suburbs, they’re not going to have the revenue to pay for the infrastructure. We have to raise density somewhere, as that’s the only way we’re going to raise income. The higher density areas come to subsidize the lower density areas.” For cities, this can be purely about tax revenue, but increased densities also means greater efficiencies in terms of heating, power, transportation, and other services. Put more succinctly, “fiscal sustainability ties into green sustainability.”
This is the fiscal sustainability dialogue that is now starting to affect Canadian cities. “In Calgary, I’m starting the dialogue, but it’s a younger city. We haven’t been talking about the long term; how are we going to service those low density lands? If you drop two hundred and fifty units from a high-rise building on its side and give each of them 50 foot frontages, how much more will the infrastructure cost? We’re going to have to rethink that in terms of the tax dollar value. Traffic is increasing, infrastructure is being built to lower densities; everybody is going to be in trouble in 25 years, because they’re never going to be able to raise taxes enough to pay for that.” The development discussion can’t only be about capital cost, as the bigger bills for operating and replacement will inevitably cause headaches a few decades later.
Working in Calgary has another unique challenge: an established suburban development industry that isn’t overly pioneering when it comes to the profitable status quo. “This is the strongest I’ve seen in the four metro areas I’ve worked in,” explains Stanley, “as a lobby group, they can influence the agenda. I’m talking to the downtown owners and property managers and telling them that they’re generating fifty percent of the tax revenue, so why don’t they have a lobby group? Their lands will be paying for the future replacement bills in todays Greenfield areas.”
Aside from fiscal sustainability, Stanley also spends time thinking about the social sustainability of the communities he has worked in. “Water quality, health, time parents spend with their children: all of these things are about sustainability.” While working in Maryland, “every weekend in the summer I’d read in the paper about a death or serious car accident involving teenagers. There’s nothing worse than a 17 year old male behind the wheel on a Saturday night. They can’t get transit, so they have to drive. That’s a sustainability issue in the suburbs.”
Using another example, Stanley continues, “there’s a hospital in downtown Bethesda. One hundred forty different ethnic groups, one hundred different languages; for every doctor you’ve got eight to ten support workers who make on average $43,000 a year. The average commute time to and from work for those workers is forty-five minutes each way. Those workers that are spending so much time commuting are lower-income and probably minorities with large families. That’s one and a half hours per day that they’re not spending with their kids. That impacts the family network, and that’s a serious sustainability issue also.”
For all of his forward thinking and open mind when it comes to the concept of sustainability, Stanley still believes that we have a lot to learn from our past. The so-called new urbanism actually mirrors the way most North American pre-war cities were built, and preserving the buildings that we already have in downtown cores not only reflects that more sustainable way of life, but can save us money. St. Louis converted dozens of abandoned shoe factories from the last two centuries into over 6,000 units. Stanley worked out that had the buildings been torn down, the equivalent mass of debris would equal 3.5 billion aluminum cans in the landfill. While innovation is necessary, it shouldn’t stop us from making use of what we already have. After all, as Rollin Stanley likes to say, “the greenest building is one that’s already built.”
(Icon photo courtesy of Canadian Home Builders Association, Calgary Region)