Calgary's Million Dollar Communities

By Richard White, December 2, 2013

Forget the million dollar luxury homes, or the million dollar streets; Calgary now has million dollar communities.  Yes there are 14 communities (based on the MLS sales July to September 2013) in the city where the average selling price is over one million dollars.)  In fact, five communities have an average selling price of over two million dollars. 

Who are they? Belaire is #1 with an average selling price of $2.5 million, followed by Britannia at $2.2 million.  Mount Royal, Elbow Park/Glencoe are tied for third and fourth spots at $2.1 million and Eagle Ridge is #5 at just over $2 million. 

Most of the million dollar communities are clustered in the area  north of Glenmore Trail, south of 17th Avenue, west of Elbow Drive and east of Crowchild Trail i.e. the “Oil Patch Executive District (OPED).”  There are only three million dollar communities north of the Bow River – St. Andrew’s Heights, Varsity Estates and Rosedale and they are all just barely over the one million mark. 

This is one of several new homes being build in St. Andrew's Height along the edge of the Bow River's northern bluff. These home offer sweeping views of the city, river valley and mountains. 

Another example of a St. Andrew's Height mansion. 

Britannia: Model Community Development 

One of my favourite million dollar communities in Calgary is Britannia. For 10 years when I lived in Kelvin Grove and worked at the Muttart Art Gallery in the historic Memorial Park Library building I use to drive by this community everyday.  I think what attracted me most was the quaint Britannia Plaza with its angled parking and local shops that looks like an early 20th century prairie Main Street.  What community wouldn’t lust to have its own Main Street with grocery store, bistro, café, bookstore, wine merchant and hardware store?   Funny this is what we are struggling to create in our new communities and yet it was already created in over 50 years ago.   It is even surrounded by small three floor condos and apartments to add some density without creating monster high-rises.  In an ironic twist, the lowest price condo sale in the city from July to September was in Britannia at $125,000.

I am surprise that this model of community development with a single block of retail easily accessibility to Elbow Drive wasn’t duplicated as the city expanded southward.  For that matter it could have also worked along 10th, 14th and 19th Street NW, as well as Centre and 4th St NE. 

An example of one of Britannia's original homes, which would have been quite luxurious in their time, now they are modest. Note the one car garage, there were few two car families in the '60s. 

An example of the large multi-level homes that are currently being built.  Could these become modest homes in 50 years? 

Plaza / High Street 

Mike Keho at Fairfield Commercial informed me that in 1953, the Britannia Plaza was the first purpose-built shopping centre in Calgary and became a template for other small scale suburban retail strip malls at the entrance to other communities like Fairview, Cambrian and Mailand Heights and even the Stadium shopping centre.”   

The creation of outdoor strip malls in the ‘50s and ‘60s was an experiment that worked for 25 or 30 years before falling to mega indoor shopping centers and today’s big box power centers with their huge grocery stores and hardware stores with acres of parking.  Britannia Plaza demonstrates that local small retailers can survive, with good vehicle, pedestrian and cycling access, some density nearby and without a sea of surface parking.   

Britannia Plaza is not what we would call a plaza today but what they call in England a "high street" or "shopping street."  It has the feel of a small prairie town main street with its angle parking.  It is a lovely street with lots of small shops and a Sunterra local grocery store. This is what every community needs or maybe ever second one along the major road like Elbow Drive. 

Britannia Plaza/Street from the west side i.e. the community side. 

Smaller than you think

I was surprise to find out how small Britannia is with only 746 people living in the community - it must be one of the city’s smallest communities population wise.  It is also small geographically with its borders being Elbow Drive on the east and Elbow River on the west, 50th Ave on the south and Britannia Drive on the north.

It is also interesting that Britannia Plaza thrives without any high density housing in the area.  A quick check of the City of Calgary’s community profile shows that Britannia is 71% single-family housing and 29% apartments, which is significantly higher than the than city-wide figure of 58% for single-family, but surprisingly also slightly above the city average for apartments which is 27%.  What is missing in the housing stock is town and row housing. When it comes to home ownership and rentals Britannia mirrors the city average of 73% homeowners and 27% renters. 

I expect what makes Britannia so attractive is the abundance of large single- mid-century homes and large lots with great accessibility to Calgary’s many urban playgrounds - Downtown, Mission, 17th Avenue and Chinook Mall.  Easy access to Calgary Golf and Country Club, Riverdale Park and the Elbow River doesn’t hurt.

Britannia is very attractive to Calgary’s young “executive class” and their families as evidenced by the fact 21.3% of the population is between the ages of 5 and 19, significantly higher than the city-wide 17.7% for the same bracket.  It is not surprising that a whooping 49% of adults living in Britannia have a BA or higher level of education, compared to a citywide figure of 25%. Yes it does pay to get a higher education! 

Britannia has numerous small apartment blocks surrounding the plaza to add some density close to the stores and transit. In the '60s this is where seniors would retire to.

British Theme

Britannia was annexed into the city in 1910, but no significant development took place until the 1950s - the bungalow era for North America housing.  If you wander the community you can still see many of the mid-century bungalows, however, they are quickly becoming extinct as the young “executive class” are buying them up and adding a second floor as children today must have their own bedroom and in many cases their own bathroom too.  The mid-century ranch house has evolved into a mini boutique hotel or inn, complete with master retreat, media room and private wine cellar. 

One of the other fun things you notice when wandering Britannia is that all the street names have a distinctly British theme – Coronation Drive, Edinburgh Boulevard and Elizabeth Road.  In fact, “Britannia” is an old Latin name for Great Britain and in the Roman period Britannia was the name of a goddess depicted as a beautiful young woman, wearing a helmet of a centurion with her right breast exposed.

Another example of condos in Britannia that create a more urban sense of place as you get closer to the plaza and Elbow Drive. 

Last Word 

Creating and sustaining estate communities in Calgary to attract and retain the “executive class” is essential to creating a complete city. Just as important as creating “urban villages” to attract the “creative class.” Great cities are attractive to people of all ages and backgrounds.  

A version of this blog was written for Calgary's Domus Magazine, winter 2014 edition.

If you like this blog you might like: 

Country Estate Living 

Be a tourist in your own neighbourhood

Estate Communities vs Urban Villages

Urban Cottages

Reader comments:

GB writes:  I was just a young boy when Britannia was developed but I remember very well my Mom and Dad driving us around the old traffic circle and up Elbow Drive into what would become Britannia.  In about 1955, there was a house built on the East side of Elbow Drive at about Imperial Way or 49th Avenue.  It was known as the Trend House or The Trend Home and I think it was one of a series of houses that were built across Canada to demonstrate new building materials.  All that I can remember from walking through it with my folks was that it had an electric can opener and I think it had a dishwasher which was unheard of at that point.  The house is still there.  Anyway, a story on the Trend Home would be very interesting if you wanted to follow it up.

 

Working together to make Calgary better!

By: Richard White, November 5, 2013

Is it just me who hates all those the curved maze-like street design in the new suburbs with street names that are impossible to distinguish because they all sound the same? I think GPS was invented so we could navigate new communities.

Recently I attended a presentation organized by Brookfield Residential, Danube Farming Ltd., Ollerenshaw Ranch Ltd., and Trafford Family where three design teams (two from Vancouver and one from Salt Lake) presented their ideas on how to transform 1,800 acres in Calgary’s southeast next to Seton Town Centre and was SHOCKED that all three proposed a grid-like pattern for the streets. Yahoooo! 

This aerial image show the agricultural quarter section grid that has been used in the area for over 100 years. that served as the inspiration for proposed grid structure for the new Ranchview community. 

You can also see the numerous ponds and creeks which will be integrated into the open spaces and sustainability features.  

The inspiration for the renaissance of the grid was the existing quarter section grid pattern. All three groups went to great lengths to express how they were captivated with the site’s prairie mountains vista. They all talked about respecting the existing prairie patchwork quilt, the sense of agriculture and one group even talked about how to make the community “horse friendly.”  All three wanted to preserve the “rural” sense of place as part the new community tentatively called Rangeview.

ICC: Innovation/Competition/Co-operation

Kudos to the four owners for taking the initiative to organize this “design co-opetition” for the development of Rangeview. The process is a competition in that three urban design groups were asked to independently produce ideas for the development of the land. At the same time is it a co-operative process as the four landowners, the City, Calgary’s design community and public and the design teams will work together to combine the best of all the ideas into one shared vision.  

In established communities the planning process often consisted of the landowner and developer engaging their team of site planners (landscape architects, environmentalist, engineers, planners, urban designers et. al.) to produce a concept plan. This plan is then circulated to the city departments for comments and revisions made.

At the end of the presentation all of the members of the three design teams were invited up to the stage for questions.  This is just half of the brain power that was applied to identifying ways to best develop the raw land that will become Rangeview.  I couldn't help but notice it was all male and all middle-age to older.   I have heard it said that one of the issues facing city building is that there is not enough diversity in the urban planning and design profession.  

Only after spending thousands of hours and millions of dollars and having the city on-side does the developer go public with the proposal. I have heard more than one person call it the “design and defend” model because the plan is pretty much complete by the time they conduct an open house.   This means they are reluctant to make any major changes based on community input i.e. they will defend it as the best possible plan.  This is why you get all of the controversy over new developments in places like Brentwood transit station development and Shawnee Slopes golf course.

However, in new communities the City’s Engage Policy means the City, the landowners and the neighbours collaborate to create the concept plan that then forms the Area Structure Plan (ASP), which will govern any new development.  What is new is that in the Rangeview engagement process and ASP development the landowners are paying for all of the costs including the salaries of city staff.  

 

Extraordinary Community Engagement  

 

Brookfield Residential’s Doug Leighton, VP Planning and Sustainability along with the other owners decided to take a different route with Rangeview by selecting from a list of nine respected international firms, Design Workshop (Salt Lake City), Perry + Associates (Vancouver) and CIVITAS (Vancouver) to help them determine how best to develop the land.  Each out-of-town design team was first asked to pair up with a local firm to provide a local prespective before coming to Calgary to meet with the landowners and the city, as well as tour the site in mid September. The teams were then asked to generate ideas on how to best develop the Rangeview lands based best urban design practices.

Six weeks later, each of the groups were back in Calgary to present their visions not only to Brookfield Residential and the landowners, but to the City, Calgary’s urban design community and at a weekend public open house in Auburn Bay.  At each of the presentations the audience was given an evaluation sheet to share what they ideas they thought were best. It was all very open and transparent!

As I understand it Brookfield Residential and the landowners now own all of the collateral material from each team and can pick the best ideas from each, as well as ideas from the greater Calgary urban design community and the public to create their vision for Rangeview. 

This shows one of the linear parks with the retail activity area at the end with space for farmer's market and a village square. Diversity of uses and activities is critical to successful public spaces. And you can see the GRID! Yahoooo!

 

Calgary is innovative!

 

Indeed, this is community engagement at its best.  Calgary Municipal Land Corporation undertook a similar process to develop the master plan for East Village. “Community engagement first” is also the mantra of James Robertson, President and CEO of the West Campus Development Trust who is leading the transformation of 205 acres on the west side of the University of Calgary into a new inner city “live, work, play, learn” community.  However, both of these projects are in established neighbourhoods where community engagement is a must.  Brookfield Residential is the first to my knowledge who is doing it for a green field development on the edge of the city. 

Calgary is too often criticized for not being innovative when it comes to new community development. In fact Calgary’s development community has been one of the most innovated in North America over the past 25 years. Projects like McKenzie Towne, Garrison Woods, Quarry Park, Seton, East Village and now Rangeview are all benchmarks for new urban development.

Another team designed this linear park that they called Vista Park as they wanted to preserve a space that would celebrate the current vista of prairie and mountains.  Again you can see how they have incorporated existing ponds, connected them with storm water creeks and added several activity amenities. Again you can see the grid! Yahoo!

 

Key ideas for Rangeview

 

 

Wetlands/ Linear Park

 

 

All of the presentations looked at how the preservation of existing wetlands could be integrated into valuable open space and create as unique sense of place for each of the distinct neighborhoods which will comprise the larger Rangeview community.

Similarly each vision prosed a linear park running roughly east to west that would maintain the prairie/mountain vista that currently exists by taking advantage of an existing high spot in the middle of the property. The linear park would be used to create connectivity - connect the wetlands, connect the neighbourhoods and connect to the region pathway system. 

One proposal included an urban beach, skating ring, adventure playground, small farm or large community garden and retail node as a means of animating the park year-round.  Another proposal had a spreadsheet with dozen of activities that should be accommodated in the public spaces year round.

To me the parks and open spaces proposed would combine some of the best attributes of Prince’s Island, Confederation Park, Shouldice Park, Glenmore Park and the new St. Patrick’s Park.  

Here you can see how CIVITAS has proposed the creation of four villages each with their own charm and each with their own density which can be seen by the density of roads with the Hamlet being the least dense. Here you can see the grid of Rangeview vs the maze-like street design of the community north of Seton.  Yahooo for the grid!

 

Community Retail Hub

 

All of the plans developed several retail nodes strategically located so everyone is within 400 meters or 5-minute walk to a High Street with a grocery store and 10+ shops.   Think Britannia Plaza with its Sunterra Market, bistro, bookstore, wine merchant, café and hardware and small apartments and condos surround it.

 

Density

 

All three presentations had a mix of housing types.   In fact one presentation listed 17 different housing products, everything from single family to laneway housing.  I didn’t see any high-rise (over 20 floors). Most of the medium density was clustered near the new Seton Town Center, the hospital, the BRT (future LRT) transit routes and retail hubs, as you would expect.  

Wouldn't it be great if Rangeview could have several of these one block angled parking Main Streets that we so popular in the early 20th century in small towns across the prairies.  That fact that Britannia is still viable 50 years later tells me that it can work in today's market place. 

Last Word

Rangeview reeks of innovation, collaboration and cooperation on many levels. This is great to see after years of developer/city friction. I hope this community planning process is evidence of a new willingness “to work together to make a great city better.”

A public open house in Auburn Bay was organized to give the public, especially those in the neighbouring communities a chance to respond to the ideas being presented and to share their ideas on what a new 21st century community should look like.  Public engagement first, then vision and master planning. 

Woodbine is wonderful!

By: Richard White / November 2, 2013

Calgary is blessed with a wonderful array of communities from estate enclaves to urban villages.  City building is not just about attracting the “young and restless” i.e. “creative class” to your city, it is also about attracting and retaining executives and their families who might want a big house and yes a three-car garage. Estate living is every bit a part of city building as is urban villages in the city centre or at transit stations. 

This estate home in Woodbine backs onto Fish Creek Park offering sweeping views of the valley from the back deck.   

Calgary communities built from the ’60 to the ‘90s (established communities) with their big homes, large lots and front car garages are currently not in favour with City Council and planners, yet they are very popular with citizens of Calgary.  

Did you know Calgary boasts 14 million dollar communities i.e. communities with an average selling price of over one million dollars and five are over two million.  Almost all of the million dollar communities were built in the ‘60s to the ‘80s. What does that tell us?

While current urban gurus are touting the importance of walkable communities using community “walkscores” (a rating system that determines how close you are to things like grocery stores, cafes and shopping, transit service, schools, recreation centers and professional services) as a means of measuring a communities desirability. What they are missing is that these amenities are not as important to everyone. 

Estate homes along the Fish Creek north bluff offer homeowners a tranquility that is very desirable for many executive families or young retirees.  For many retirees there is no longer a need to go downtown everyday or functions in the evening.  More and more time is spent at home.

For many, the access to a dog park is the most important amenity; especially given people are now walking their dog two and three times a day. For others, a quiet place to walk in nature several times a week is just as important as a grocery store. Did you know that bird watching is one of the fastest growing recreational activities? Where better to bird watch than near a major park or natural reserve?

Who needs a café when you can create a crema at home better than most baristas in the city? Who needs a street patio with noisy traffic, smelly fumes and hard chairs when you have a quiet deck with sweeping views and soft seating? 

Imagine having these trails in your backyard for walking, hiking, snow shoeing or cross-country skiing.  Who needs a recreation centre when you have this just minutes away.  

One hidden gem for estate living in Calgary is the southwest community of Woodbine. While Woodbine is not anywhere near the being a million-dollar community, there are numerous homes along the northern bluff of Fish Creek Park that definitely qualify as a “millionaires row” with spectacular backyard views of the park and mountains. 

In particular, Woodpath Estates in the extreme southwest corner of Woodbine is a county oasis in the city.  I am told rarely do these large three-car garage homes each with million dollar backyard views of Fish Creek Park come up for sale.  Why? Because they are very desirable to Calgarians who want a country-like home in the city.   

Not only do the Woodbine estate home owners have access to Fish Creek but they will also have the 131 km Calgary Greenway at their backdoor. 

While urban gurus would look at Woobine’s walkscore of 27 (best score is 100) and rank its desirability very low.  Woodpath Estates with no sidewalks and further from Woodbine’s great amenities -schools, parks, playing fields, a local shopping centre with a Safeway and a pub – would rank even lower.  However, for some it is the ideal place to live.

City building is about building a diversity of homes and communities that reflects the different values and desires of its citizens.   We need to embrace the development of “estate living” like Woodpath Village, as much as we do East Village. 

Estate living.....

Calgary's Newest Urban Village?

BH wrote:

Richard. I’m pleased to see that someone is interested in and writing about urban villages. They do contribute to the quality of life at the neighborhood or community scale. Yet so  much of planning is focused on other  issues , residential land uses, parking, density, development charges, growth management etc. I’m not sure planners or developers  really understand what makes an urban village successful. While planners and architects  may have drawn some pretty pictures of streetscapes, they have not really studied how urban villages developed, and how they survive.

The City of Victoria has some excellent examples of urban villages, particularly in the older areas-Cook Street, Oak Bay Village, James Bay, Cadboro Bay Village, as well as locations for big box retail in the Greater Victoria area. The ingredients are small scale, service businesses-usually a restaurant or pub, coffee shop, food and flowers, bank, pharmacy, wine store, etc. Contrary to popular belief, while they are surrounded by residential development it is not high density. Indeed the infrastructure required for high density development-major streets, parking structures, security etc, would probably overwhelm their profile , compromise their image, and frustrate their success. The City of Victoria Official Community Plan has a focus on encouraging and supporting urban villages and town centers. (Growth Management is not a major concern for the city).

The blog originally appeared in the Calgary Herald's Neighbours publication on August 29, 2013 as part of a series of community profiles.  Some of the text has been changed and additional images have been added. 

I’m guessing you don’t know where Shouldice Terrace is; I didn’t - until I did some digging into the history of Montgomery and uncovered that that was Montgomery’s original name.  The “Terrace” part of the name makes sense given the entire community is built on the south facing Bow River escarpment.  The gradual slope offers almost everyone in the community a view of the majestic Douglas fir tree forest (the most eastern stand in Canada, with some being over 400 years old) on the other side of the Bow.

The “Shouldice” part comes from James Shouldice who purchased 470 acres west of the Calgary city limits in 1906 so he could farm. After farming he land until his death in 1925, the land was slowly developed as its own town. Fifteen years before he died, he donated 100 acres along the Bow River for a park (land today that would be worth multi-millions of dollars for condo development), obviously thinking that someday Calgary would grow and need more park space. 

A view from the north side of Montgomery looking across to the stand of Douglas Fir trees.  

Montgomery's Main Street with new condo development, just one of the many new infill projects that will transform this community into an attractive inner-city urban village. 

But why the name change to Montgomery? In 1943, the post office had an issue with the name as there was also a town in Alberta called Shouldice (it still exists today, as a hamlet about 85 km SE of Calgary). They requested a name change to prevent confusion.  Montgomery was subsequently chosen to celebrate Bernard Law Montgomery of Alamein a celebrated Great Britain military leader who played an important role in WWI and WWII.  Montgomery annexed into the City of Calgary in 1963, is celebrating its 50 anniversary this year.

Today, Montgomery’s boundaries are Shaganappi Trail to the east; 32nd Avenue and Market Mall to the north and Bow River to the south and west.  Like many older inner city communities, it has seen its ups and downs, but today it is on an up swing! It is one of the city’s top 10 infill communities with numerous new houses and condos being built.  It is also home to Calgary’s newest Business Revitalization Zone, an indication that local businesses are working together to create a sense of place and a brand for the community.  Montgomery’s population rose to 3,860 people in 2012, a 4.7% increase compared to 2011, an increase twice the city’s average. A very healthy sign!

Montgomery's new town square.  It is a modest beginning, but this space could become a wonderful pocket park. 

Shouldice Athletic Park consists of several football, soccer and baseball fields.  It is used by people from across the city. 

Montgomery is the gateway into Calgary as you drive in from the west on the TransCanada Highway. It is here you see the funky Alberta Children’s Hospital on the bluff, the cluster of new buildings at Foothills Medical Centre and your first good look at downtown’s shiny skyline.  It is not surprising then that Montgomery has its own motel village along the TransCanada highway, as mid-century travellers would have been looking for a place to stay as soon as they entered the city.

Montgomery has some of the best recreation facilities of any community in the city with Shouldice Park offering football, baseball and soccer fields, a batting cage, tennis courts, indoor pool and a wonderful picnic area on the Bow River.  It also has its own shopping center anchored by a Safeway grocery store – Bridgeland, Inglewood and East Village can’t match that.  And then there is Market Mall, its neighbour to the north.  From a shopper’s perspective, it doesn’t get much better. From an employment perspective Montgomertonians can walk, cycle or drive in minutes to two hospital complexes, the University of Calgary and downtown.

Looking at the community’s demographic it’s clear to see Montgomery is in transition.  Seniors over 75 make up 11.2 percent of the population, almost 3 times the city average of 4.3%; this it the result of several seniors’ lodges in the community.  At the same time, 26.7% of the population is between 20 and 34 years old (vs. Calgary’s 24% average). This is a very healthy sign as they are the one’s who will give the community the energy and investment needed to transform it into a 21st century urban village.  

Notable is one of Calgary's premier restaurants and the fact that it is located on Montgomery's Main Street is a testimony that the community is becoming more trendy. 

This is Montgomery's Safeway mall, but I decided to use this image as it speaks to the smaller mom and pop shops that are indicative of an urban village i.e. a sushi bar, liquor store, Donair shop, Loonie Store and Massage Therapy.  Around the corner is a Vietnamese Sub shop and hair salon. The mall also has the neighbourhood pub.  

One of the young newcomers to Montgomery is Kristina Groves, former Olympic speedskating medalist and now a University of Calgary grad student who, is in the process of building a small, affordable, sustainable home on a “tear down” lot she purchased.  “I love the charm and character of the community. It has history, is affordable and is located close to both the Oval and Canada Olympic Park,” exclaims Groves.  She also notes that several other current and former Olympians are living in Montgomery.  Hmmm….maybe the name should be changed to “Olympic Village?”

Montgomery, like Bowness has its own Main Street, currently experiencing signs of beautification with new banners, a pocket park and the recently completed four-storey condo building with retail at the street. Montgomery is home to over 100 businesses including its own lumberyard (Timbertown), its own boat dealer (Hyperactive Watersports – what a great name – in 2010 it was the largest Tige Boat dealer on the planet) and one of Calgary’s top restaurants (Notable).

Montgomery has all of the ingredients to become one of the city’s top ten inner-city communities in the not too distant future.  

 

 

If you like this blog you might like:

Killarney is hot! 

Beautiful Bowness

 

 

 

Live like a local in Chicago's Hotel Lincoln next to the park....

After this blog was published in the Calgary Herald, August 3, 2013.  Melissa McCarville, Regional Public Relations Manager, emailed "this is a fantastic piece about Lincoln Park! Love you detail and the places you mention are just perfect. Great, great, great story.  You captured the essence of living there - and I can say that because I did for 4 years!"

By Richard White

How small could you go?

How small a space could you really live in and be happy?  And not just for a weekend getaway – but on an ongoing basis. The current craze in the condo development community seems to be who can create the smallest condo!  In Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal, 400 square foot condos i.e. the size of two parking spots, is becoming quite common.  And Vancouver’s new development called Balance boasts the smallest condo in Canada - a 297 sq. ft. micro condo. 

I didn’t think I could live in anything under 1,500 sq. ft. – that’s, until I spent a week in a well-designed 475 sq. ft. suite at the Hotel Lincoln in Chicago.  Now I am really rethinking how much space I need after spending a week in their chic, contemporary junior suite.  It had two bathrooms at opposite ends of the suite, which works well for couples getting ready to go out at the at the same time.  The suite was open concept - a full king size bed at one end and a sitting area at the other (comfortable sofa, chair seating and coffee table) at the other.  Tucked along the wall was a desk, small coffee area and wall mounted swivel TV so it could be viewed from the bed or the sofa.  It all worked very well.  

In order to live small you need to have a coffee spot close by that you feel comfortable hanging out at.  It becomes an extension of your home.  Elaine"s  Coffee Call in the lobby of the Hotel Lincoln is just such a place. 

The Neighbourhood

Downstairs was Elaine’s Coffee Call, a great place for a morning coffee and toast (I think I could live on their PBJ toast, with its pecan butter) and people watching – it was a happening place.  Who needs a big kitchen when there are cafes, pubs and restaurants just outside your door?  The key to living small is to have lots of amenities nearby.

If we lived at the Hotel Lincoln, I think we would have soon considered Nookies as an extension of our home.  Located just a block from Hotel Lincoln (in funky Old Town) – we loved the home style cooking and ambience. In fact, you can bring your own wine and they don’t charge any corkage and if you don’t finish your bottle, you can just take it home.  How good it that? We learned that is not uncommon in Chicago.

Who needs a big screen TV and media room when it’s so easy to wander over to the local sports bar, cheer as loud as you want without your spouse shouting “don’t make me come down there.” Bonus there are no empties or mess to clean up either.

On our first night in Chicago we headed to The Old Town Pour for dinner and to watch the Chicago Blackhawks in a Stanley Cup playoff game. We have never been in a bar that was so loud and so full of energy – who would want to stay home when, instead,  you could be part of that! 

Who needs a media room when you have a sports bar just a block or two away. 

Downtown Fun

Not a sports fan?  More into comedy?  No problem. Second City is located just a few short blocks away, with performances nightly, with many nights offering multiple performances.  Forget reruns of Friends, Big Bang Theory or Seinfeld; enjoy live comedy instead with a room full of kindred spirits. Living small is about living in your community.

The Hotel Lincoln was perfectly located for living without a car.  Bus stops are just steps outside the door, as is the huge Lincoln Park with its free (yes free) zoo – yes free!  Imagine… walk out your door down the street and in five minutes you are wandering in a hundred year old (1868), 35-acre zoo… beats having a cat or a dog in my mind. 

Or, head to the beach in the summer. It too is only a few minutes walk away.  It is almost like having a pool in your own backyard.  The closest that you might get to this in Calgary would be those living in the condos near Hotel Arts! (Did you know that you don’t have to be a hotel guest to enjoy the Hotel Arts pool? I just found out!)

Imagine having Second City in your backyard, beats watching sitcom reruns....

Lincoln Park Zoo is a wonderful walk in the park with the bonus of being able to get up close and personal with the animals. 

Aerial view of Chicago's beaches from the Hancock Building with Lincoln Park at the top.  Beach, park, zoo, farm and farmer's market makes living small easy in Lincoln Park or Gold Coast communities in Chicago. 

Rooftop Patios

Who even needs their own little balcony or patio when you can hang out on you own roof top patio?  We were able to experience what this would be like at the Hotel Lincoln as they had one of the coolest and most popular rooftop restaurants in Chicago. It doesn’t get much better than to come home, sit back and have someone serve you your favourite adult beverage.

Calgary doesn’t make enough use of its  rooftops (office or condos) for restaurants. An exception will be Qualex-Landmark’s new condo Mark on 10th, which will have a rooftop patio that I suspect with become the residents’ second living room.  You don’t need a large space if you have the right amenties both on site and on the street.

What about laundry you say? Chicagoans have that figured out too; a local dry cleaners on every block.   Well maybe not every block but just about.  On our way to Nookies for example we passed a dry cleaners/tailors that would have made it easy to just drop off our cleaning at our convenience (or I expect they would pick up too).

And to top it off, every Wednesday and Saturday in the summer a Farmers’ Market in Lincoln Park is literally right across the street. No need for your own garden when you have all the fresh fruits and vegetables you can imagine, as well as breads, jams, honey and flowers across the street.  

Brenda looking over the options at the Lincoln Park Farmers' Market across the street from the Hotel Lincoln in Old Town. 

Last Word:

Living small in Chicago I think would be easy.  I’d recommend that if you are contemplating buying a small condo, that you rent a hotel room in the area for a month so you can see if there are sufficient amenities to make small living realistic. I am thinking condo developers would be wise to have a couple of furnished room that they rent out for a month to prospective buyers – consider it a test drive. 

Condos in Calgary are definitely getting smaller, many in on the 500 sq. ft. range.  A well-designed 500 sq. ft. space might just be the ticket for a single first time buyer, or someone who travels a lot, or a true urbanite who really lives and embraces their local community.

P.S. Don’t forget the big benefit of small living is that it takes no time to clean up, leaving you more time to play!

Comments:

JT writes: "I would easily live in 500 sf in the middle of any city if it was just me.  It would be even better if it was central Chicago and with a healthy budget.  I'd add this wrinkle - add a person and you add 500 sf of space need.  A family of four gets you to 2000 sf.  Try living with that size of family in 1000 sf like we did as kids- it is not fun, especially when you have the option of living in bigger.

The small solution is a great one to populate urban spaces but the band of potential residents is narrowed to the singles with enough disposable income to live a lifestyle of spending in the public realm. 

 

Nookies is a family restaurant in Old Town that serves up home-cooking meals for locals. Bring your own wine is encourage and no corkage is charged. Just like being at home, except you don' t have to cook or clean up.  

Hotel Lincoln on Lincoln Park in Old Town is the perfect place if you want to live like a local when visiting Chicago. 

Who needs a backyard or a patio when you have a park next door - horse shoes anyone? 

Most backyards aren't big enough for a pick up game of baseball...Lincoln Park is perfect... 

Our Country Estate Voyeur Adventure

We spent this past weekend at the house of our friends a friends in the suburb of Elbow Valley Estates.  We volunteered to look after their daughter’s Berenese Mountain dog – four-year-old Scapa – allowing them to head to the mountains for some R&R.  For long time inner-city urban dwellers like us, the move (even though only 20 km away and just outside the Calgary city limits) was like a trip to another country.

The first thing we both noticed was how quiet it was. No early morning magpies squawking to wake you up (who knew magpies live only in urban communities). No constant hum of traffic along Crowchild Trail all day, or motorcycles racing in the middle of the night.  The streets were deserted - no sidewalks, no parked cars and no people.  The place was like a ghost town!

The houses shared sameness as a result of the architectural controls i.e. similar architecture, same massing, same colour palette and same landscape planting materials. It is surreal - some might even say contrived.  To some, these are high-end, very large cookie cutter homes.  Everything was so neat and tidy (hardly a weed to be found in the lawns), so homogeneous.  It was so different from the potpourri of architectural styles and ages of the homes of our inner-city neighbourhood, with its streets filled with parked cars and yards overgrown trees and shrubs and patchy lawns. 

  A sample street with no sidewalks, no cars and no people. 

Even the "For Sale" signs all have to look the same.  Isn't this a bit too anal? 

A sample of the architectural styles and materials allowed. 

And yet as we walked around there was evidence of life.  On our many dog walks we must have counted at least 30 different homes with hockey nets (scattered on the street or in the driveways) and about half that many with trampolines. One house even had a huge, castle-like playground in their backyard.  At first we thought it must be the community centre, but no, just another mega house with a mega backyard.

While it would appear that there are lots of children living in the community there is very little evidence of them other than one very friendly family who clearly enjoyed their front yard and having the street to themselves  It struck us as strange that there is no park with playing fields for baseball, soccer or football. Not even a flat area where you could engage in such activities.  Though there are pathways to the river and to a pond, no pathways link the many dead-end cul de sacs. 

And no hockey rink! Given the sheer number of hockey nets littering the driveways, you’d think there would at least be an outdoor rink for the kids to play hockey in the winter.  The more we walked and the more we experienced country estate living, the more mystifying it became. 

Hockey nets and trampolines are everywhere.  

There are small pocket parks with swings and this basketball net, but no playing fields. 

Yes more hockey nets.  It is surreal how they are just left there in the middle of the summer. 

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The castle playground in your backyard - how good is that? 

Children's playground in backyard right at the pathway inviting everyone to come and use it.  Over the four days we didn't see anyone using any of the playground equipment either in public areas or backyards.  Where have all the children gone? 

Though not a gated community, on our nightly Scapa-led walks we’d always see a security car (a Mustang nonetheless) cruising the streets checking things out.  There was a strong feeling of being safe, almost to the point where we felt no need to lock the door when we went out.  We were tempted, but in the end old habits won out – we locked the doors.

After 24 hours, we found ourselves thoroughly enjoying all the comforts of a big house like the two patios, a real laundry room vs. our laundry closet, big kitchen, bar fridge and media room.  We loved that we could actually hear the songbirds singing. We discovered there is a different light and sense of space with no house 8 feet away. And with no six-foot fences allowed or decade old caragana hedges to hide behind, you can see and hear everything – if anyone was home.  I am thinking they must all be voyeurs!  I sure felt like a voyeur everytime and everywhere we walked.

A typical backyard with no fences between the houses or along the pathway.   

All homes have outdoor living spaces offering great views of the mother nature and human nature. 

Probably one of the more private outdoor patio spaces in the entire community. 

I am not sure that country estate voyeur living is for us, but it was a great staycation. It truly was like travelling to a different country, with a different culture and sense of place even though we were only 20 km from home.  

There is a tranquility that comes with living outside the city.  Yes you can fly fish in the middle of the city but it isn't the same as this. 

The walks along the pathway with there "peeks" at the rushing river below and the ever changing light add to the tranquility.  Just moments before I took this picture three deer strolled along the shore. 

The setting evening sun recalls a Group of Seven painting. This is the quintessential Canadian experience. 

Being an everyday tourist!

Have my Mom visiting which means going for nice walks everyday, sometimes twice.  I am always amazed at how every time I walk the neighbourhood, even though I have lived in for over 20 years that I find something new or rediscover something that I had forgotten about. 

Sometimes I wonder why we need to travel hundreds / thousands of miles to far away lands when there are lots of things to enjoy right in our backyard.   

This is the Parkdale century home that was actually moved from its original location just a block away from my house to one that is 10 blocks away.  It was moved to allow for the construction of the Crowchild highway.  Today it sits as the bottom of a bluff with a wonderful garden. It is a reminder that even 100 years ago their was an elegance and civility at a t time when  Calgary was still very much a frontier town. 

 Yesterday's walk took us along the Crowchild Trail (yes in Calgary our highways are called Trails) sound barrier wall where we found this heart along the side of the bluff.  A teenager was there and he told me that a neighbour mows the grass (I think this is city property) to create the heart.  How great is this? 

Yesterday's walk took us along the Crowchild Trail (yes in Calgary our highways are called Trails) sound barrier wall where we found this heart along the side of the bluff.  A teenager was there and he told me that a neighbour mows the grass (I think this is city property) to create the heart.  How great is this? 

Found this bench carved out of a tree trunk strategically placed on the lawn so you can see the downtown skyline.  While the lawn is attached to a house, it is not fenced and given it is at a corner it very much feels like a pocket park.  A hidden gem!

I have walked by this musical fence dozens of times and it always brings a smile to my face. I suspect that the notes are from a real song.  If anybody knows the song...let me know.   

I love the roof line of this house which is modern and yet has traditional roof line elements.  To me it has a mountain-like quality with the thrusting angles which reflects the Rocky Mountains just west of Calgary.  More and more i believe Calgary is developing its own sense of place and architecture. 

There is a new house being built on almost every block in Calgary's inner city communities.  This one is just a few blocks away but it has captured my attention as seems to also be capturing the Rocky Mountain sensibility with its multiple peaked roof.  It may be over done, will have to see it when it is completed. 

I love the fact that although I live in the inner city i can go just a few blocks away and be walking in forested trail all alone with my thoughts and feelings.  It truly is the best of both worlds.  

Being an everyday tourist allows you to travel to different places everyday using your imagination, memories and local environment.  Maybe we should create the 100 mile tourist movement?  

Urban cottage living & Gentrification!

Recently I have become fascincated with the tiny urban cottages that still exist on almost every block in my mid-century inner-city community. Even after 25 years of constant infilling these cottages remain as reminders of how people lived just two generations ago. There is no room in these homes for a bedroom for every person living there.  There is no master bedroom. no walk-in closets, no media room or home office.

It is interesting to note that, in the '40s '50s and '60s families were larger yet homes were smaller.  These urban cottages are about the size of today's urban condo i.e. 700 to 800 square feet. Some of the new homes being built next to them have an "owners retreat" that is as big or larger. Every new house has a garage that is at least half the size of these mid-century cottages. 

As Canadians have become more and more urban dwellers, we have also become more and more creatures of "comfort, convenience and privacy" (click to see blog on this topic). The ultimate status symbol is the big house with all of the bells and whistles i.e. every member has their own bedroom and own bathroom - heaven forbid we should share. No wonder there is a sense of "entitlement" in youth today! 

As I wander the streets of my neighbourhood I often wonder if those living in these tiny cottage homes could have envisioned the million dollar mansions that are currently being built around them and all the other changes that have taken place in just 50 years. 

I also wonder if we can really envision what this community or others in our city will look like in 50 years.  Will today's mansions be converted into rooming houses like many of the larger homes of the early 20th century were. Or, will we be tearing down the mansions in favour of some other form of urban living.   

One thing is for sure...we will be adapting to a new economic and environmental reality in 2060. Life is just a continuous series of adaptation!

A typical urban cottage on the pariries. White picket fence, porch and large windows make it very welcoming.

Cottage has been adapted for business use, but retains its charm.

Cottage has been renovated to add more space and porch has become outdoor patio / living room

Ranch style cottage

Many of the cottages are today dwarfedby the trees.  This is a lot harder to do with a two story house and underground utlities.

One of the larger cottages. Lots of windows. One of the few with a side entrance.

Red Riding Hood would have loved this little fairy tale like house with the Christmas tree decorations in the tree. 

One of the more unique cottages in the neighbourhood.

One of the few cottages that are set back from the street. You really get a sense of how small they are.  You can see the monster mansion that has been built next door.

There is still an entire block of original urban cottages that seem untouched by time.  

Across the street from the block with the original urban cottages is a row of new infills.  The contrast is wonderful as the new homes have more colour, more design variations and will keep the community thriving for another 50 years.  These new homes accommodate the needs of new families which means the parks, playgrounds and school yards are full of screaming children.  

Example of new mansions that replace the tiny cottages from the '40s.  They come in all styles from contemporary to traditional.  

A blog of urban cottages boarded up and ready for demolition, to be replaced by condos that will cost or rent for twice as much resulting in a decline in the diversity and vitality of the community i.e. gentrification. 

Example of condo projects that replace urban cottages. This is a seniors complex that replace a previous block of tiny cottages for seniors.  It is located next to a power transformer and a homeless shelter and near the Bow River pathway.   It is unfortunate that it isn't a multi-generational complex with say 75% seniors and 25% young artists to add more diversity to the community. 

Wreck City: The Experience of Experimentation

As a recent transplant to Calgary, I’m constantly absorbing, searching and learning, about the city, its offerings and its character. I came here with a blank slate, no expectations (having never been here before) or real understanding of the city's identity. Specifically seeking to understand cultural identity, as a creative worker, I tried to piece together some pillars – the larger art institutions, the creative spaces, the galleries and those making it happen. What is harder to tap into is the essence of the cultural experience in a city – the organic, the happenstance, and the interventions that create a positive, vibrant, rich environment.

Thus, I was excited to visit Wreck City: An Epilogue for 809 – the recent public art installation happening in response to nine houses, including beloved garage gallery 809, set for demolition. With 8 curators (Matthew Mark Bourree, Caitlind r.c. Brown, Jennifer Crighton, Brandon Dalmer, Andrew Frosst, John Frosst, Shawn Mankowske, and Ryan Scott.) inviting over 100 artists to participate, this project was something I had not experienced the likes of before, in my  years of passionate exploration of public art. Some works were responsive to the architectural elements of the house, others were about playful interaction with the four walls, while some touched on the past, previous residents and the lives they lived. 

One of the many notes left by the over 8,000 visitors to Wreck City. Illustrates the importance of engagement in public art.

I felt a genuine joy when swinging on a swing, crossing a wooden footbridge linked between two houses, or lying on the floor to see a room created upside-down. I felt simultaneously sad and inspired coming across a wall of messages from “Wreck City” visitors. Their thoughts, reactions and emotions were revealing what Calgarians from all walks of life are thinking about their city. Comments ranged from -   'I feel like crying', 'More fun public art like Wreck City, unpretentious and accessible...', to  'Make it livable. Walk, bike, local markets not big box', 'There is beauty in destruction'.

Though some spaces and works were more successful than others, it was the overall experience of this project that was invigorating, and we need more of it, not just in Calgary, but in many North American cities. We have not left enough room for active culture – continuous, organic happenings that grow naturally as part of our city, or pop-up unexpectedly. Sometimes the best experiences or memories we have happen when we least expect them, when they surprise us, when our plans change and develop. It is similar with art – it needs room to breathe and grow. In our cities, we have over-planned and over-stipulated, placing value on a controlled outcome, rather than the process of creation. The intrigue, the provocation and the daring are replaced with the safe, the comfortable, and the inoffensive. We have created public art with an 'X' to mark the spot – it will fulfil this need, it will check that box, and poof: uninteresting public art.

The importance of experimentation is that it creates a sense of freedom and magic, and opens up the city. It demonstrates that creativity is valued, that all citizens have a voice in their city, and a desire to be a place that embraces fun, new energy, and a dose of self-criticality. Wreck City was an opportunity for people to see Calgary let its hair down, and trust a group of individuals to change the site as they wanted

Bridge by Alia Shahab

Whatever your opinion of the project, its great success was in its transitory, experimental nature. Turning the city into a lab for creativity is something that allows us to share experiences more democratically – with neighbors, residents, artists, business owners, friends and strangers- because there are no boundaries, and art is everywhere.

Wreck City was playful, provocative, and got people together, from all ages and backgrounds. Such experiences shows what our city looks like underneath, stripping away the boundaries (the gallery wall, the museum doors), the regulations and rules, and participating with others to experience fun, sadness, frustrations, together. 

Weaving by Suzen Green

Artist Jeremy Pavka

I think Calgarians are looking for more of these experiences, and want a city that is rich and diverse in interest. There is great power in the unexpected and allowing people to explore and form their own opinions. When we dictate the outcome of the artwork, we are telling people what they should know, how to experience. When there is no room for thought or interaction, it’s a one-way conversation.

Experiments in public space change how we view things and alter our expectations. An un-manufactured experience – raw and genuine- It asks us to be part of something greater, to share, and to learn.

___________________________________________

Everyday Art Tourist recently relocated to Calgary from the GTA and works in the creative sector. With over 7 years of experience in both Canada and the US, large museums, small non-profits, and government, Everyday Art Tourist’s focus is on public art and cultural policy. EAT will be a regular guest contributor to EverydayTourist. 

EverydayTourist note: I received the guest blog this week from a new Calgarian and thought it captured some to the ideas that I have been blogging about recently Calgary: North America’s Newest Design City and Alberta’s Dream and Wonderland public artworks.  I think the author correctly points out that most public art in Calgary doesn’t really capture the public’s imagination and is more or less ignored.  Perhaps it is because it is too contrived, too planned, and too safe and too soon becomes part of the urban landscape.  I believe “Wreck City” had over 8,000 people visit in just one week, the same week that Jaume Plensa’s Alberta’s Dream was installed downtown to almost no reaction.  It created a buzz and an urgency that rarely happen with public art. 

Look for more guest blogs from Everyday Art Tourist in the future.

Killarney is hot and getting hotter....

Calgary’s southwest community of Killarney is home to not one, but two “HOT” yoga studios – Calgary Hot Yoga (one of the first hot yoga studios in Calgary) and Hot Yoga on 17th. 

Or, if your Buddha belly is looking for some sustenance and a bit more of a European flair you can walk to Cassia Bistro.   To quote John Gilchrist, Calgary’s esteemed food guru, "Restaurateurs Gilles and Andrea Brassart and Dominique Moussu have created a bistro in the new Casel Marche that is as French as anything I’ve tasted on this side of the Atlantic. It’s lively, loud, casual and rocks with an engaging blend of French technique and Canadian ingredients."  Cassis Bistro, Casel Marche and J. Webb Wine Merchants all located on the corner of 17th Avenue and 24th Street SW have together created Calgary’s best French Corners.  I believe this is foreshadowing of good things to come as the area evolves into a more diverse walkable urban village. 

This development just adds to Killarney cornucopia of restaurants including Spiros Pizza, Little Lebanon, Bow Bulgogi House (Korean) and Creteus (Greek). The urbanity doesn’t stop with restaurants either.  Killarney is home to Heritage Bakery (think perogies), Mountain Bike City and Beat It Music (look for the drum set on the sidewalk).  For true urban trekkers there is what we refer to as the BMM (Bibles for Mission Mall) on 26th Avenue at 33rd Street that is home not only to one of Calgary’s best thrift stores (my favourite place to shop for used books), but also to Café Francesco for a taste of Italy. Killarney’s other independent café is Coffee Cats Café on 17th Ave.  On Killarney’s south side is the Richmond Shopping Centre (29th Street and 31st Avenue) with its eclectic collection of shops - CURVES fitness centre, Highlander Wine & Spirits, an old fashion Shoe Repair shop, a great Vietnamese Sub shop, a Women In Need thrift store and Western Canadian Canine Academy. 

J. Webb Wine Merchants was one of the first privately owned wine and spirit stores in Alberta.  It anchors Killarney's French Corner along with Caissa Bistro and Casel Marche.  Look for more retail boutique developments like this in the future. 

Heritage Deli & Bakery is another example of the diversity of shops in the Killarney area.  All good urban villages have a signature deli and bakery. 

Killarney is one of Calgary’s thriving “infill” communities, i.e. what planners like to call an established or inner city community because it is older than 50 years and close to the Downtown. Like most of Calgary’s inner city communities, it is experiencing a lot of “ infilling,” a sign of a healthy community as it means the next generation of Calgarians find it very desirable and so they move in and invest heavily in upgrading the housing stock.  The 1200 square feet bungalows from the ‘50s are quickly becoming 2,000 square feet side-by-sides (they use to be called duplexes) or 2,500 square foot mini-mansions.   Land is also being assembled for low-rise condos that make great homes for Yuppies or Ruppies (retired urban professionals).  Look in the future for more mid-rise condos (10+ story) at key sites destined to add another dimension to the community.  With more people and more affluence will come more amenities including cafes, restaurants, pubs and boutiques.

With a walkscore of 61, Killarney is Calgary’s 56th most walkable community. I expect the walkscore is lower than it should be, in part because the scoring system undervalues some of the great recreational amenities in the area.  For example, Killarnians can walk to the Shaganappi Golf Course and Driving Range and the Killarney Pool/Recreation Centre.  (Hot Tip: the recreation centre has a great deal on drop-in passes that allow you to do everything from yoga to dance, from martial arts to access to the state-of-the-art weight room, for less than $10/visit).  

Community gardens are the new playground, where people of all ages come and play in the dirt, have fun and meet their neighbours. 

Speaking of playgrounds, Killarney has them seemingly on every second block.  

Killarney Pool has everything you need to keep fit so you can walk, run or cycle to work. 

Killarney is also home to two elementary schools, a good thing as 44% of community’s residents are between the ages of 25 and 44 and you know what that means. Parks and playgrounds around almost every corner make this a family-friendly community.  There is also an athletic park south of 33rd Avenue at 25th Street, with ball diamonds, tennis courts and a great toboggan hill. 

From Killarney you can walk, run or bike to the Bow River where you have access to Lowery Gardens (named after John Lowery who once had a market garden in the City’s earliest days) and the Douglas Fir Trail, the most easterly place in North America where the majestic Douglas Fir tree grow. 

Killarneians also have easy access to five major employment centers - Downtown, Mount Royal University, University of Calgary, Foothills Medical Centre and SAIT.  You can easily bike and/or drive to all of these in less than 15 minutes.

Killarney is only going to get hotter now with the LRT’s West Leg up and running. And just wait until the new urban village gets underway at Westbrook Station (new library, new retail and new high-rise condos and offices).  The entire Westbrook Mall will eventually become part of the TOD (Transit Oriented Development) hub.  When that happens, Killarney will be hotter than Adam Scott’s putter at the Masters!  

New Westbrook Station is evidence that urban living is coming to the Killarney area.  

Urban living is about having quirky shops around the corner like the Beat It drum music shop.  

The independent corner cafe like Coffee Cats Cafe is part of the charm of urban living in Killarney.

Every urban village needs its own art studio. 

Killarney even has its own signature gateway red pedestrian bridge across the Bow (Bow Trail, not River). And it is actually in Shaganappi not Killarney but it is the gateway to the Bow River for Kilarnenians. Architect unknown.

Killarney even has it own unofficial mural program on the side of its own comic bookstore - Bazinga! 

Comics, Action Figures and Records it does't get any better than that.

And of course every good community must have a few neighbourhood pubs....

Creatures of comfort, convenience and privacy

Having read Witold Rybczynski's book, Home, during the holidays, it really struck me how mankind's quest for comfort, convenience and privacy has been the driver of change in urban living and home design for the past 500 years.

In his book, Rybczynski, who is the emeritus professor of urbanism at the University of Pennsylvania, looks at how home life has evolved from the Middle Ages to the late 20th century. He traces how the design of our homes has shifted from basic shelter from the elements and enemies, to our castles of comfort.

Using a series of artworks of domestic scenes - from German artist Albrecht Durer's St. Jerome in His Study (1514) to a Victorian bathroom illustration from 1885 - Rybczynski traces how homes have progressively become more comfortable, convenient and private.

The book is full of interesting facts - such as during the 16th century, households of 25 people in one-or two-room homes was not unusual. Nobody had their own room and even bathing was communal. Even in early 17th century Paris, having a room dedicated exclusively to a single use was seen as strange. The idea of separate rooms for cooking, bathing, dining and sleeping had to be invented - spurred by the invention of things such as the stove, which was the impetus for the creation of the kitchen as a separate space. 

Over the centuries, urban life changed as home lighting evolved from candles to kerosene lamps to electricity. Having light at night allowed children to read in the evening (after working all day), which in turn allowed more learning and ultimately advanced society's knowledge.

One of the most intriguing facts is how medieval parents (both rich and poor) had a very unsentimental attitude toward children, sending them away from home at age 7. If poor, they went to work; if bourgeois, they went to apprentice with an artisan.  In today's child-centric world, it is hard to imagine that concept of watching one's children grow up at home into their 20s is a relatively new phenomenon.

In the chapter on Domesticity, Rybczynski looks at the evolution of intimacy, privacy and urban living in Paris, London, Oslo and Amsterdam.  It was interesting to learn how urban living in 17thcentury Holland differed from other European cities, with the country's new Calvinist religion contributing to a sense of sobriety and restraint.

As well, Holland's small merchant economy and smaller family sizes allowed for shops at street level and homes above. We also learn the creation of the country's iconic, tall, narrow row homes was necessitated by boggy soil that required lightweight brick versus stone (used elsewhere in Europe) and shared common walls for support. It was in Holland at this time, too, that mothers began to raise their own children, sending them to schools and keeping them at home until married.

Rybczynski suggests the Dutch were also the first to en mass love their homes, children and gardens. For the Dutch, the garden was a private space at the back of the house, unlike the rather more public courtyard style favoured in Paris and Oslo.

Feminization of urban living

Rybczynski discusses the feminization of the home, which began in the 17th century, as one of the most important events in the evolution toward modern households. He points out the invention and spread of electricity as a source of power in the 19th and 20th centuries was a game-changer for women. Not only did it provide better lighting, but it came with electric irons, vacuums, toasters, coffee pots, stoves and washers - all of which were more convenient to use and made life more comfortable, especially for women.  By 1927, the electric iron for clothes was the most widely used electrical appliance, making the previous 12-pound flatiron heated on a stove redundant.

Rybczynski traces how the "rise of the female influence" has resulted in the suburbanization of urban living, with its large, single-family houses. It is the women who most often decide what community and what house a family will live in. Like no time in human history, women today are focused on the design of their home. The home is the woman's castle.

The advent of the professional working women has dramatically changed how we live. Their second income results in more money to buy bigger houses with more comforts, conveniences and privacy. The increased family income buys separate bedrooms for everyone, along with a separate dining room, kitchen nook and family room.  This includes the master bedroom - the "homeowner's retreat" - with its spa-like bathroom, huge walk-in-closet and king-sized master bed.  You can't fit that all into the 850 square feet that was the size of an average home in the 1950s, or the average downtown condo today.

The two-income family also necessitated the need for daycare for most families, which dictated the need for two cars, dramatically changing the family commute. Not only did it mean two cars commuting to work, it created a more complicated commute involving drop-off and pickup of children.

It became even more complicated when suburbs were designed without schools, meaning children had to be bused or driven to school. Ultimately, all this has meant public transit, as opposed to private vehicles, is not a comfortable or convenient option for most families in Calgary.

The increasing influence of women in modern decision-making appears to have changed urban living and design forever.  It will be interesting to see what happens as more women become urban planning professionals; it is one of the last professions still dominated by males. The City of Calgary currently has a Transformation Planning Working Group looking at how to change our current planning culture. It is interesting to note the majority of members of the working group are female, including group leader Whitney Smithers, who is manager of strategic initiatives, planning, development and assessment for the City of Calgary.

Modern family's sense of place

For most people, the suburban home provides the most comfort, convenience and privacy for the least dollar in 21stcentury North American cities.

The suburban house has the space for the contemporary sense of home, an ideal that includes kitchens equipped not only with a self-cleaning oven, ice-cube maker, frost-free fridge, dishwasher, coffeemaker, pasta maker, blender and grinders of all sorts, but also microwave, convection and conventional ovens.

This ideal also aims for multiple bathrooms that often include a steam shower, rain shower, soaker tub, fireplace, TV, heated towel rack and floor, two-person shower and his-and-hers sinks.  Most people also want a backyard for the family dog, along with a deck (with its outdoor living room-style furniture, outdoor kitchen or at least mega-deluxe barbecue, hot tub and fire pit).  Under this ideal, the basement is no longer a storage area with maybe a rumpus room - it is the entertainment centre for a jumbo home theatre. This is the modern family's sense of place.

Comfort, convenience and privacy are also drivers of many Calgarian's general disdain of public transit. Who wants to sit or stand next to a stranger or wait for a bus or train - especially in the cold or at night - when you could be in the comfort of your own car, where you wield control over temperature, music, route and stops along the way?

The epitome in privacy, comfort and convenience - although we love to complain about traffic - in reality, is the car. It often has the best chair we own, with multiple adjustments to maximize our comfort. In the winter, many of us even have heated car seats, and our vehicles have a multi-speaker stereo system and a convenient cupholder in the perfect spot. If we are commuting alone, it often is only a few minutes drive away from the kids to the boss and co-workers - and we can crank up the tunes as loud as we want.

Last word

Rybczynski reminds us that cultural mores such as comfort, convenience and privacy have a life whose evolution is measured in centuries.  This explains why human behaviour changes slowly and why we resist change.  He points out over and over that our "comfort, convenient and privacy" culture did not evolve overnight - and so, it will not be undone anytime soon.