Does Calgary have an "urban inferiority complex?"

By Richard White, September 11, 2013

This blog was originally published in the Calgary Herald's New Condos section on September 7, 2013.  There have been a few revisions and the photos and captions are different. 

The recent flurry of announcements of new office buildings for downtown Calgary has me wondering if these are all just more nails in the coffin of our downtown’s urban vitality? The goal for a vibrant, healthy downtown is to have the streets animated with people from early morning to midnight seven days a week i.e. 18/7.  This is very difficult when over 80% of your buildings are offices. 

While the addition of new office buildings is great for the 7 am to 7 pm weekday vitality of the downtown, it does nothing for the evening and weekend animation.  I don’t blame the developers as office buildings generate the most return for shareholders. And kudos to Shaw and Telus who are locating in buildings, which will have both office and condos spaces; this should generate some non-office hour vitality.  Unfortunately our downtown continues to evolve into an “office ghetto” a place where people come to work during the day, but few live or play there in the evening or weekends.

Show me the jelly... 

Our city center is like a jelly donut, with the downtown offices being the “jelly” in the middle. There is also a flurry of condos being constructed around the downtown in Beltline, Bridgeland, East Village, Inglewood and Kensington. Each of these communities have their own “Main Street” with restaurants, cafes, bars, pubs and shops, which means people living there have no need to come downtown to play. What downtown needs is its own live-in population if it is going to become an 18/7 community


Even in Downtown's Eau Claire district the office towers dominate the few condos in the area.  The Eau Claire Market (entertainment retail) has failed to become the hub of  vibrant 18/7 community.  

Unfortunately, the density of downtown office towers is already too unfriendly to pedestrians especially in a winter city.  More and more no sunlight will reach the downtown sidewalks from October to April and this is only going to get worse.  The chilling wind tunnels will also increase with each new building.  And while the new developments will try to be more pedestrian friendly at street level, in reality the main floor will be an elevator lobby as all the retail will be on the +15 level. 

Sure you can place a sculpture on the street and make it look clean and neat but that isn’t enough to make people gather and linger as a café or restaurant patio could do.  Sorry, nobody wants to live and play on streets that are “chock-a-bloc” full of office buildings.


In the 50 block Central Business District there is nothing but office buildings which means there is no one there after 7 pm and on weekends.  The smaller office buildings block the views of the good contemporary office architecture like Jamieson Place.  

Bring back the "Mom & Pop"

Great streets have lots of little pedestrian oriented shops at street level, not corporate glass canopies and lobbies.  Stephen Avenue has some of these elements but none of the other streets or avenue in the downtown have any contiguous pedestrian oriented retail.  Stephen Avenue is great in the summer with the patios, but in the winter it becomes a dark, dreary place with no sun, no patios and mostly “expense account” restaurants.  Kudos to the Calgary Downtown Association for all of its work to try and make it more colourful and cheerful, but I am afraid it is a losing battle. 


Downtown Calgary needs more "mom and pop" shops like this rather than glitzy towers if it is going to be vibrant 18/7.  

Dare to be different!

Perhaps we need to accept reality!  Our downtown is our central business district and it will always just that - a business district and nothing more.  The reality is our downtown (from 9th Avenue to Bow River, from Macleod Trail to 8th Street SW) will never be a major tourist attraction and it will never attract a lot of people to live there.  However, it will be one of North America’s leading downtown office parks!

Every city centre is different - we are not Vancouver, Chicago or Portland. Every city evolves differently due to numerous different factors and influences.  We should never strive to be like other cities, we should focus only on being Calgary and being the best we can be given our inherent strengths and weaknesses.  

As such we must understand and accept that as a major corporate headquarters city, with downtown as the hub of our LRT system, we need to continue to foster a strong central office core that will be vibrant 12/5 (12 hours a day, five days a week). 

We can then use our vivacious office core as the catalyst for expanding our existing live/play urban communities (Beltline, Bridgeland, Inglewood, Kensington and Mission), which are as good as anything in Chicago, Vancouver or Portland.  As well, we must create new ones along the LRT – East Village, SunAlta, University Village and Westbrook Village and along 16th Avenue NW next to next Southern Alberta Institute of Technology.


Two new modern office towers in Chicago demonstrate how they are situated in a synergistic manner and you can see the entire building with all of its articulations and textures.  

Be Brave

Recently, I attended the d.talks (conversations about design and built environment) panel discussion on “Bravery” as it relates to urban design planning and development in Calgary.  One of the key messages was delivered by Sonny Tomic (Manager, Centre City Planning and Implementation, City of Calgary) which was we need to be patient, that Calgary’s evolution into a more interesting urban city is happening more quickly than most people think – SETON, Currie Barracks, Calatrava Bridge, RiverWalk, Memorial Park redevelopment and the East Village public art.  He thinks we are close to the “tipping” point where all of a sudden Calgary will have a very exciting urban Centre City.  

Perhaps the “bravest” thing we can do is to lose our “urban inferiority complex” and become proud of our Centre City, as one of the best in North America for a city of a million people


The Calgary Tower no longer dominates the skyline. more often than not it looks more like a UFO amongst the numerous office towers.  

New Downtown Office Towers:

  • Brookfield Place, 56 floors
  • Calgary City Centre, 36 floors
  • GWL Tower, 28 floors 
  • Manulife Tower, 27 floors
  • Telus Sky, 58 floors (office/condo)
  • 3 Eau Claire, 48 and 43 floors (office/condo)

If you like this blog you might like:

Are we too downtown centric? 

Is Calgary's Downtown too dense?  

Top 10 Flaneuring Finds in Portlandia

Calgary: North America's Newest Design City