Northeast evolving into ‘airport city’

Vancouver has one and Toronto has one — does Calgary need one?

The B.C. and Ontario metropolises have an independent airport city. In Vancouver, it is called Richmond. In Toronto, it is Mississauga — but in Calgary, it is currently simply the city’s northeast quadrant.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, seaports and train stations were the hubs of economic activity in North America. In the mid- to late-20th century, highways were the economic engines.

Today, with the global economy, airports are the leading economic engines for prosperous cities. Around the world, multi-billion-dollar airport cities are being created in old and new urban areas such as London and Dubai.

Aerotropolis: The Key to a Prosperous, 21st Century City was the title of an ArchDaily blog March 19 that explored the increasing importance of airports as a catalyst for city building.

The blog begins with the quote: “The rapid expansion of airport-linked commercial facilities is making today’s air getaways anchors of the 21st-century metropolitan development where distant travelers and locals alike can conduct business, exchange knowledge, shop, eat, sleep and be entertained without going more than 15 minutes from the airport,” says John Kasarda, professor of strategy and entrepreneurship at the Kenan-Flagler Business School at the University of North Carolina and director of Kenan Institute’s Center for Air Commerce. “This functional and spatial evolution is transforming many city airports into airport cities.”

As Canada’s three strongest urban economies, Toronto, Vancouver and Calgary have one thing in common — strong airport-based economies. The similarities of these airport cities are striking.


Richmond, home to the Vancouver International Airport, has a population of 205,133. Of these, 60 per cent are immigrants — the highest of any Canadian city. It is connected to Vancouver’s downtown by the recently-built Canada Line light rapid transit system.

Richmond has an employment base of 135,000 and it is home to several large corporations, including Nintendo Canada. It also has 672 hectares of parkland, 50 kilometres of trails, 60 kilometres of road paths and 121 parks.

The Golden Village is Richmond’s retail hub, with seven shopping malls in close proximity.

With its numerous restaurants, Alexandra Road is the city’s food street. Richmond also has a popular Night Market on weekends that attracts thousands of locals, as well as tourists.

For lovers of the arts, Richmond has its own city hall, performing arts centre, art gallery and library.

The city is governed by a mayor and eight councillors, who oversee an area of 129 square kilometres.

Its vision is “to be the most appealing, livable and well-managed community in Canada.”


Home to Toronto Pearson International Airport, Mississauga has a population of 729,000, making it larger than the city of Vancouver.

The GO Train connects it to downtown Toronto and the 401 highway is the distribution corridor for a large chunk of eastern North America from Detroit to Montreal.

Mississauga is 288 square kilometres and 49 per cent of residents are visible minorities. It also has its own mayor and council representing 11 wards.

The city has 425,000 employees and is home to 61 Fortune 500-based global or Canadian-based head offices.

It has 480 parks, several major trail systems and is linked to the Lake Ontario Waterfront Trail, which is an ambitious, 780-kilometre trail along the edge of Lake Ontario from Niagara-on-the-Lake to the Quebec border.

Mississauga has a planned town centre whose hub is the Square One Shopping Centre, along with a city hall, central library, performing arts centre and several new highrise condos.

These include the Absolute World twin tower skyscraper complex, nicknamed the Marilyn Munro towers due to their curvaceous, hourglass-like shape.


Home to the Calgary International Airport, the city’s northeast has a population of about 150,000 people. It is connected to downtown Calgary by the northeast leg of the city’s LRT system.

With its western boundary being the QE2 highway north to south, and the Trans-Canada Highway running east to west through the centre, it is the major distribution hub of the Prairies.

The boundaries of Calgary’s airport city roughly correlate with wards 5 and 10, giving it two aldermen on a 12-person council.

Mayor Naheed Nenshi also happens to live in the northeast, although he represents the entire city.

The area supports 125,000 employees and is home to several major Calgary employers, including WestJet. It boasts 10 major parks and is part of the city’s 700 kilometres of urban pathways, as well as the first phase of the Calgary Greenway — a 138-kilometre, multi-use pathway system that will encircle the city.

Unlike Richmond or Mississauga, there is no planned “town centre” for northeast Calgary. Apart from what it shares with the rest of the municipality, it has no city hall, central library, major performing arts centre of its own.

There aren’t even any highrise condo towers or transit-oriented development (TOD) villages in Calgary’s “airport city.”

Shopping is scattered throughout the area, but 36th Street N.E. has the largest concentration of major shops. Sunridge Mall anchors the north end and Marlborough Mall the south end.

A major new power centre shopping mall, CrossIron Mills, opened in 2009 just a few minutes drive from the airport.

The largest single-level shopping centre in Alberta, the mall is just outside the city of Calgary’s boundaries near Balzac, but it is definitely part of the emerging “airport city.”

The mall offers shuttle bus service from the airport for travellers with long layovers.

Not far from northeast Calgary, there’s a restaurant row along nearby 17th Avenue S.E. branded “International Avenue” that’s noted for its Around the World in 35 Blocks festival each spring.

Along 17th Avenue toward Chestermere, Elliston Park is home to Global Fest. One of Canada’s largest firework competitions, it celebrates the growing global community that lives in Calgary.


While all three of Canada’s airport cities have grown significantly during the past 25 years to become major players in the economy of their respective metropolitan areas, they also have struggled to develop their own sense of place.

This is partly because they were located in industrial areas surrounded by huge warehouse buildings with no residential, retail, entertainment or parks amenities to speak of.

Although Richmond and Mississauga have recently attempted to create master-planned town centres based on new urbanist principles, residents have resisted adopting these new centres as the heart and soul of their cities.

In the case of Mississauga, the city was only formed in 1974 after a forced amalgamation of a number of smaller towns and villages, each with their own identity and main streets.

After almost 40 years, the tie to the old towns and villages remains stronger to these communities than to the actual city of Mississauga.

In Richmond, the city struggles to deal with the complexity of multiculturalism in a global world. Thanks to the Internet, new immigrants are no longer cut off from their original homelands when they move to Canada.

This means it is taking longer for them to identify with Canada and learn English.

In the 2011 census, 40 per cent of the population of Richmond identified a Chinese language as their mother tongue, about the same percentage as those who identified English as their first language.

This has resulted in some businesses using “Chinese only” signs, heightening alienation by some in the non-Chinese community.

In more than 200 years, francophones and anglophones in Montreal have not been able to resolve their language issues, so it is doubtful Richmond’s problems will get resolved soon.

Calgary’s collective of northeast working class communities is perhaps different from Richmond and Mississauga because they have grown up as part of Calgary since the beginning.

Calgary’s city structure is, and continues to be, based on creating small communities of 5,000 to 10,000 people — each with their own name and identity — but in all cases, these are also part of the city at large.

With no attempt to artificially create an identity for the northeast quadrant, it has grown organically — some might say chaotically — without a traditional main street or any pedestrian-oriented thoroughfares.

Calgary is a unique kind of “uni-city.” Although 90 per cent of its population lives without the large edge cities common in a place like Toronto, it is uniquely segregated into quadrants. Most people live and play in their quadrant, only going outside to go to work.

It is only recently that northeast Calgary has reached the diversity and critical mass of a city thanks to the expansion of the Calgary International Airport, the construction of numerous major regional warehouses and mega new master-plan residential communities, and the coming of age of International Avenue as a multicultural district.

Quietly, without the intervention of master plans and revolutionary changes, it is evolving. Yes, it is very car-oriented, but its drive score is very good; everything you need is within a five- or 10-minute drive, which for many residents is just what they are looking for — a short drive.


Perhaps it is time to think of Calgary less as a unicity and more as four or five different cities, each needing their own governance plan.

Under this way of thinking, the northwest quadrant is our Learning City because it contains the Alberta College of Art and Design as well as the University of Calgary, Foothills Hospital and SAIT Polytechnic.

The southeast quadrant, too, is also evolving into its own city due to new communities such as Quarry Park and Seton providing new options to live, work and play.

Perhaps planners are being too downtown-centric, because only 20 per cent of Calgarians work downtown and only and five per cent live there. Perhaps more focus should be given on how to make the Calgary a unique quadrant city, with each area cultivating its own live, work and play culture.

Richard White has written on art, architecture and urban culture for more than 20 years. He is currently the urban strategist at Ground3 Landscape Architecture. He can be reached at Follow him at Visit his website at


The Calgary International Airport is flexing its economic muscles.

The airport saw 13.6 million total passengers, or 37,000 a day, last year, said the Calgary Airport Authority at its recent annual general meeting — up from 12.8 million in 2011. Revenue for 2012 was $308 million, up $18 million compared to 2011.

In its annual report, the authority’s five-year outlook predicted revenue of $339 million this year, increasing to $426 million by 2017.

The predictions are buoyed by two major projects — a new runway and an international concourse.

The runway is to be operational by mid-2014 and will be 4,267-metres long and 61-metres wide — the largest commercial runway in Canada. The cost of that project is $620 million.

The new international terminal is scheduled to be completed by late 2015 and will double the size of the current terminal, adding two million square feet on five levels, with 22 aircraft gates and a 300-room hotel. The cost of that project is $1.43 billion.

— Calgary Herald staff


The Calgary International Airport has come a long way from a grass airstrip in Bowness in 1914.

More than $800 million will be invested in the airport this year, the single-largest capital investment for any year in its history. Capital investment in 2012 alone was $476 million and has totalled about $2 billion in the past 20 years.

The new runway and terminal currently under construction— the longest runway in Canada to offset Calgary’s thinner air due to the city’s altitude — will allow direct flights to and from anywhere in the world, as well as accommodate larger aircraft.

— Calgary Herald staff

© Copyright (c) The Calgary Herald


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