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Planting the roots of a new community

Calgary Herald
Cindy Stephen

With every tree or shrub that goes into the ground, the developers of Calgary’s growing suburban neighbourhoods are doing more than just landscaping. They’re planting the community brand, attracting buyers who will dig the neighbourhood vibe.

From foliage to fences, landscape elements do the talking, informing the visitor of what type of homes will be constructed and even what they might cost. Choosing the landscape design is the fun part, says Steve LePan, development manager for Anthem United, developer of Calgary’s Cornerstone neighbourhood in the northeast, Belmont, Pine Creek and Sirocco at Pine Creek in the southwest, Chelsea in Chestermere and Wedderburn and D’Arcy in Okotoks.

“Is it family focused? Will it be built around natural wetlands with boardwalks? How do we want to attract people? It’s fun to get the creative juices flowing,” he says.
Much of what developers plan must meet municipal and provincial regulations, including reserving a minimum of 10 percent of land for green space.

“This is where you can have fun with parks and pathways. When Anthem United developed Silverado, we delivered well over minimum requirements. Rather than a lake or ponds, we created a great open space as an amenity — twice as much green space as you would normally find,” he says.

WestCreek Developments, creator of Legacy and Wolf Willow in the city’s southeast and CornerBrook in the northeast, has won awards for its emphasis on green spaces and landscape architecture.

“In Legacy, we believe it is important for the community to feel like home immediately. We want to make sure homeowners feel the sense of arrival and how their community will feel right away,” says marketing manager Kalida Manarin. “We spend a lot of time, effort and money ensuring that the community is part of the home.”

Between WestCreek and its builder partners, each of the 7,000 homes to be built in Legacy get a head start on their landscaping with front yard sod and a tree. The developer is adding another 1,000 trees, above and beyond the trees already there. Manarin says when WestCreek looks at land to develop, it tries to maximize the natural elements, such as the 121 hectares (300 acres) of environment reserve in Legacy and the natural forest by the river in Wolf Willow.

“We believe in the beauty of the land. We not only encourage the natural elements, we enhance them,” she says.

Saving existing trees, especially mature trees, is important to developers as they add instant value to a new community, but it can be very difficult. Cardel Homes has been working around the 40- and 50-year-old poplars in Shawnee Park that remain from the former golf course on that site in southwest Calgary.

Neil MacKimmie, vice-president of land development, says the site for new homes requires grading to ensure proper functionality and drainage. That involves cutting and filling, a process which trees often don’t survive.

“In practice, keeping trees looks like a great exercise but it’s difficult and expensive,” he says.

Developers often have their hands tied when it comes to what they can and cannot plant. It’s less about what’s popular and more about what works in Calgary’s climate.

“Our high elevation, long winters, drastic temperature swings and drought. The city has a list of trees that can be used and it’s a lot shorter than you’d think,” MacKimmie says.

Most boulevard trees are ash or elm, while coniferous trees, which can cause blind spots on the street, are reserved for public spaces.

The developer can conjure up whatever it wants from the design to the trees and even the types of benches or playground equipment that will fit the community. But two years after the developer has completed the community, the City of Calgary will take over the maintenance, so it has the final say.

Calgary Parks must review and approve all landscaping design, says LePan, to ensure that trees and shrubs are hardy enough for our climate, are within sight lines for the safety of drivers and pedestrians and can be maintained and cared for within its budget.

“The city’s budget is equitable across the city. So, if you wanted a water side or something extravagant, city parks will probably not have the budget to look after it. You could have those things, but you’d have to form a residents’ association and pass the cost of maintenance along to the homeowners,” he explains.

MacKimmie says a small neighbourhood pocket park could cost the developer $300,000 to create, while a larger, regional space might cost $2 million or more. Soft landscaping for parks, medians, boulevards and school sites typically makes up 10 percent of costs for a subdivision, but is a necessary expense.

“One of my old bosses used to say, your best marketing pieces should be your completed work, so we keep that in mind. If we get it right, we have financial success, the homeowners get a community they’re proud of and property values rise,” he says.

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