This Labour Day, we celebrate not only the workforce but also the evolving landscape of our cities that redefine the essence of community.
McKenzie Towne in southeast Calgary stands as a testament to how intentional urban planning can shape a neighbourhood into a thriving hub of togetherness and local commerce. Thirty years ago, as a senior leader at Carma Developers (now Brookfield), I was privileged to lead a multidisciplinary team committed to creating what was then known as a “new urbanist” community in Calgary.
Our lead consultant was Andres Duany, the celebrated town planner, architect, author and co-founder of the Congress for the New Urbanism. From his Miami studio, his team had created iconic new communities such as Seaside Florida (where the movie, the Truman Show was filmed) and Kentlands, Md. City of Calgary administrators and politicians of the day were energetic, encouraging and open-minded partners in this new urbanist initiative.
I take immense pride in witnessing McKenzie Towne’s growth and community spirit. This neighbourhood embodies the principles of new urbanism, emphasizing pedestrian-friendly spaces, mixed-use areas and a strong sense of place. Recently, in a particularly harsh and cold wind, neighbours came together for an old-fashioned Disney movie in the park. Clouds, threatening rain and cold winds couldn’t dampen the community spirit.
This summer, my personal connection to McKenzie Towne deepened when my daughter opened a store on High Street, highlighting for me the crucial role of local businesses. Supporting local shops isn’t just about economic exchange; it’s an investment in our community’s fabric. Each transaction nurtures connections and bolsters a sense of belonging. Community members choose McKenzie Towne as their home to form vibrant and flourishing lives that embrace community and connection. These ideals are more important than ever as we recover from the isolation and separation caused by COVID-19.
In his recent book, The Myth of Normal, Vancouver physician and author Gabor Maté laments that loneliness is becoming a dominant and harmful challenge. He notes that the U.K. government recently formed a ministry for loneliness, encouraging people to check with a neighbour, keep in touch with friends, volunteer, join groups, contact service organizations and, more generally, be an active community participant at a very local level.
In that context, local commerce is critical to our well-being. However, growth in big box retailers and online commerce has made local commerce a challenging venture. While recognizing that it makes sense to purchase major or rare goods through online or big box means, to advance community spirit we must each take responsibility for supporting local commerce. A balanced approach to our shopping habits is vital to supporting the vibrancy and character of our local communities.
Big box and online retailing generally supports national and international (primarily U.S.-based) industry. It also involves hidden costs such as massive government (tax-based) investment in transportation infrastructure so customers and delivery trucks can congregate in one location, which is also harmful to our environment. A big box store doesn’t work without the subsidy of freeways and interchanges to provide access.
McKenzie Towne’s story demonstrates how well-designed spaces, local entrepreneurship and political advocacy can transform a neighbourhood. As someone behind the start of this community, I witnessed first-hand the effect of intentional design on fostering a sense of togetherness. Local neighbourhood shops demonstrate the significance of supporting local businesses that breathe life into our neighbourhoods.
This Labour Day, let’s celebrate both the labour force and the evolving concept of community; the labour of building connections and relationships that define a place. McKenzie Towne stands as an example of what can be achieved when planners, business owners, politicians and residents work together to create spaces that prioritize people and relationships. As we move forward, may we draw inspiration from McKenzie Towne and continue to weave vibrant tapestries of human connection within our cities.
Jim Dewald is a professor of strategy at the Haskayne School of Business. His research combines his experience as a real estate development executive, dean and professional engineer to study the intersection of business and humanity.