Las Vegas: Neon Boneyard

By Richard White, 

I often wonder when developers and urban planners will wake up and see the light (pun intended), recognizing the importance of “lighting” in creating urban vitality - and I am not just talking about street lights.

When will they realize the bleakness of today’s city centers and urban streets is due in part to the absence of the colour, charm, playfulness and character that neon lights provided (day and night) to downtown hotels, restaurants, pubs, clubs, theatres, cinemas and retailers.

Show me a street full of neon and I will show you a street full of life.  Human beings are attracted to neon like moths to a light bulb.  

Downtown Decline

The heyday for most of North American cities’ downtown was in the early to mid 20th century.  It was a time when downtown streets were full of bright, flashing neon lights. 

Perhaps the best articulation of the importance of neon light to creating great street life was in the 1964 hit song “Downtown” in which Petula Clark belted, “Linger on the sidewalk where the neon signs are pretty. How can you lose? The lights are much brighter there. You can forget all your troubles; forget all your cares.” 

 In retrospect, the mid ‘60s was also the beginning of the rise of minimalism urban design that shunned “ornamentation and decoration,” including neon signage.

Neon signs are works of art and function much like public art in creating a more visually engaging public realm that invites people to stop, look around and linger.  Cities around the world spending millions of dollars on public art each year that rarely captures the public’s imagination and is soon forgotten or ignored in the new minimalistic urban landscape.

Perhaps we should be encouraging developers to create signature neon signage that are “works of art” while at the same time help brand the building and add to are part of an engaging downtown wayfinding system.        


In my mind, the Boneyard Park is a must see Las Vegas attraction, way more interesting than The Strip.  It is much more authentic and offers an up close and personal look at one of the iconic artifacts of urban design - the neon sign. 

The link between folk art and neon art becomes more obvious the more you explore the Boneyard Park.

I am not sure which came first Disneyland or Vegas but there is a strong link between the two i.e. the sense of play, fun and fantasy. 

A perfect example of how neon signage was critical to the branding of hotels in Vegas. The sign immediately said "Fun" even without the lights on. 

Another example of branding and signage.  Love that the signage is large and easy to read. Too many downtown and suburban buildings today have small signage that is hidden away making it very difficult to find them.

The Boneyard is like a grave yard or junk yard; this just adds to the fun of exploring.  The juxtaposition of the different signs is wonderful. You also get the sense of how sculptural the signage is.  These truly are works of art. 

The Boneyard entrance is a wonderful mid-century modern building that is very inviting and memorable.

Freemont street recalls the main streets of many cities from the mid 20th century when the streets were indeed brighter and more fun visually than they are today.  

The Silver Slipper is fun day and night, male or female, young or old.  

Love the link between cartoons and neon characters.  

A good example of how neon signage can be used to add fun and colour to an otherwise ordinary streetscape. 

Lighting can also used to create a fun facade in the evening, which is even more important in winter cities like Calgary. 

Las Vegas’ Boneyard Park

Being in the Neon Boneyard Park (a two-acre oasis with over 150 historic neon signs) is like being in a museum’s storage room, with the “museum” being outdoors in the middle of the city. See artifacts in their raw state, not polished, lit up or presented in isolation on a pedestal. Here you see them randomly mixed together in junk-yard like fashion, yet they are still  wonderful works of art.

Las Vegas Signs Project has been restoring signs from the Boneyard Park and installing them along Las Vegas Boulevard in downtown Vegas since 1996. Several restored neon signs including the Horse and Rider from the Hacienda Hotel and the Silver Slipper can be enjoyed day and night by both pedestrians and those in vehicles. 

Access to the Boneyard is by guided tour only.  Our tour guide was very informed and informal, providing lots of information but allowing lots of freedom to explore on our own, take pictures and ask lots of questions. 

Guided tours are 7 days a week and reservations are recommended.  (Note: As tours can be cancelled due to inclement weather - especially wind storms - don’t wait until the last day of your Vegas vacation to visit).

The Neon Museum’s Visitor Center is the lobby of the old La Concha Motel Lobby designed by acclaimed architect Paul Revere Williams. It is like something right out of the Jetsons.  Built in 1961, it is an excellent example of the mid-century modern Atomic and Space Age design with its curvilinear arches.

See Appendix for history of neon.

The crowd gathers waiting for the Freemont Experience to begin.  

Age of LED

Today the most popular form of decorative lighting is LED light.  There are several reasons for this. While the initial price is almost the same as neon, once you have a neon sign there is no changing it, whereas LED lights can be updated as often as you like. 

Secondly and the biggest advantage of LED displays is that they use 5 to 10 times less power. Thirdly, neon tubes need their gases refilled periodically and the glass can break, while LED is maintenance-free. In addition, LED lights are brighter and can be seen from further away and even in daylight. 

Arguably, the best use of LED lighting is also in Vegas – The Freemont Experience, which began in 1995. Today, a 1,500 foot-long canopy (three football fields) covers Freemont Street in old downtown Vegas. It acts as a movie screen.  The canopy has 12.5 million LED lights, which when combined with 180 strobe lights and 8 robotic mirrors on each block plus a sophisticated computer system, can generate 16.7 million colour combinations. 

Combine this with the 555,000 watt sound system and you get an amazing light and sound show that attracts, on average, 25,000 people per night for the Freemont Experience.

While I realize not every downtown can afford this kind of nightly entertainment, more downtowns should seriously look at how sound and light shows can be part of their quest for 18/7 vitality. 

Another good example of use of LED lighting to enhance downtown vitality is “Crown Fountain” at Chicago’s Millennium Park.  Learn more: Putting the public in public art.


The Freemont Street canopy is washed with colour as thousands of people mill about waiting for the show to begin.  

Let the show begin...the canopy becomes a huge video screen for spectacular light and sound show.

Even at night the Crown Fountain attracts hundreds of people of all ages and backgrounds to play and interact with the LED faces and the wading pool. 

Take away idea

Downtowns need to focus more, or as much on becoming entertainment districts as business districts.

They need to become a place where people, “Linger on the sidewalk. Where the neon signs and LED lights are pretty. The lights must be much brighter there, so you can forget all your troubles, forget all your cares.”   

If you like this blog, you might like:

Downtowns need to be fun

Putting the public back into public art

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Neon History (excerpts from

Over the last 150 years, the luminous tube industry has evolved from the simple laboratory experiments in the second half of the 19th century to an industry of world-wide proportions.

In the late 1800s, scientists developed reliable and somewhat safe high voltage supplies and began running high voltages through many things to observe what would happen. Often, they tested to see how wide of an air gap the spark could jump. It was discovered the spark gap was inversely proportional to the pressure of the air and that an evacuated glass tube was the ideal method for viewing light from gas discharges.

After British researcher William Ramsey discovered the five rare gases between 1894-1898 (receiving the Nobel Prize in 1904), it then became possible for French scientist, Georges Claude, to figure out that these gases could be made to produce light discharges when electrical discharges were passed through them. Finally, the long desired method that scientists had been looking for - a form of practical lighting by glowworm or phosphorescent light which emitted “light without heat.”

By World War l, Claude had acquired many patents, but he had more on his mind than strictly scientific knowledge. He envisioned a lucrative market for his tubes in lighting and signage. Because neon gas produced the brightest light, it was used almost exclusively and soon the generic “Neon Sign” was born. By 1924, “Claude Neon” franchises appeared in 14 major cities across the United States. And by 1927, 611 out of a total of 750 neon signs in New York City had been made by Claude Neon Lights, Inc.

A great period of creativity for neon took place in the years that followed, a period when many design and animation techniques were developed. Unfortunately, the economic conditions caused by the Depression slowed neon’s growth. However, one place neon continued to work its magic during this period was on the exteriors of movie palaces, providing a colorfully glowing invitation to the fantasy world within.

Then following World War ll and the advent of plastics, manufacturers began promoting Plexiglas shadow boxes with fluorescent lighting, neon’s cousin, behind lettering and graphics. Neon, by then considered old fashioned, was relegated to use as a hidden light source. Still today, 75% of neon is used in this way.

During the last decade, neon has seen a rebirth, as artists, architects and interior designers have begun to rediscover its exciting possibilities. Neon tube construction hasn’t changed much since the days of Claude Neon. It’s still a handcrafted medium where a glassbender heats and forms each letter, one bend at a time. However, state-of-the art components and much-improved equipment make the neon tube of today superior to its predecessor.


Calgary Civic Art Gallery: Do we dare to be different?

While flaneuring last week I wandered past Calgary’s funky old Science Centre next to Mewata Armouries in downtown Calgary’s West End.  The concrete Brutalist designed by Calgary architect Jack Long has been funked up over the years with some bold yellow and red elements that together definitely give it a modern art gallery look.

One of the proposals for the future of the building is indeed to be a public art gallery - to become Calgary’s Civic Art Gallery.  For over 50 years, Calgary’s visual arts community has lamented the fact that we don’t have a civic art gallery. Even smaller Alberta cities like Lethbridge and Grande Prairie have civic art galleries.  I understand the future of this building will be announced soon.  

The old Science Centre looks like a modern work of art with its crayola colours and mix of angular and dome shapes.  It is like a mega cubist sculpture. 

West Village Catalyst

I would be surprised if the City didn’t choose to convert the Science Centre into an art gallery.  The City has ambitious plans for the creation of West Village utilizing the land to the west of Mewata Armouries.  Using the same thinking as in East Village, the Calgary Civic Art Gallery would function like the National Music Centre and the new Central Library serving as an anchor or catalyst for converting a harsh underutilized urban environment into an attractive place to “live, work and play.”  It could work.  If we could convert Mewata Armouries into a public farmers’ market then we might have something.  Stranger things have happened? 

The Science Centre is easily accessible by transit, by bike and by car.  

Artists Incubators vs. Gallery

I am guessing it will take $150 million to convert the building into a public art gallery, approximately the same cost as building the National Music Centre.  I can’t help but wonder if this is the best use of $150 million to enhance the visual arts or the arts in general in our city.  What else would $150 million buy?

One of the biggest issues facing artists living in Calgary today is affordability.  Artists don’t make much money and Calgary is not a cheap place to live. Calgary has no old tired warehouse areas with cheap rent that artists can use as “studio/apartment” spaces.  Places like Inglewood, Bridgeland, Sunnyside and SunAlta are all becoming more and more upscale as GABEsters (geologist, accountants, bankers, brokers and engineers) move in. 

I can’t help but wonder if we shouldn’t be investing in more spaces like C-Space King Edward that would be incubators for young artists – visuals, performing and literary – to live and work.  Perhaps we could create an artist’s village or better yet what about affordable housing project for seniors and artists – multi-generational. 

What is cSPACE? 

This is a CADA (city's Calgary Arts Development Authority) and Calgary Foundation) project that will see the 100-year-old King Edward School (South Calgary, 1720 – 30th Ave SW) converted into a hub for creativity.  Ten anchor tenants will create a 45,000 square foot space with studios, offices, production, exhibition and rehearsal space.  The cost of this project is expected to be about $30M (land and renovations).

CADA is also partnering with International Ave BRZ to create temporary presentation, studio and workshop space at 1807 42nd St. SE.  

In Beddington, a group of theatre companies have come together and converted the old community centre into a 200 seat theatre, 4 studio spaces and offices for its two resident theatre groups - Storybook Theatre and Front Row Centre Players.    

For $150M we could build numerous artists spaces around the city.  I expect places like Bowness would love to have a multi-purpose arts centre as part of their revitalization plans and I expect it could be done cheaper than $30M.  Land isn’t cheap in South Calgary, nor are renovations of old buildings.

Perhaps we could create fun, funky and affordable “container villages” for young Calgary artists to “live, work and play” across the city.  We are currently experimenting with one in Sunnyside that might help us understand how this might work!


Shaw Millennium Park's use could be enhanced by the addition of an art gallery or creative hub that would bring more events and activities e.g. out door art fair, concerts, dance etc.  

Why do we need a Civic Art Gallery?

One of the most often touted reasons we need a Civic Art Gallery is that we don’t have a facility to host block-buster travelling exhibitions that Vancouver, Edmonton, Toronto and Ottawa get.  You know those one’s with the big name artists like – Picasso and Rembrandt!

Another reason would be to have a place to showcase Calgary’s civic art collection, which is an important piece of our history and our sense of place.  Do new Calgarians need another place where they can discover Calgary indeed does have a history - we have the Glenbow, Fort Calgary and Heritage Park?

Do we need a civic gallery to increase the public’s awareness and appreciation of art? The downtown is full of art, there is public sculpture on almost every block, the office lobbies are full of public art, Hotel Arts, the Hyatt and Bow Valley College are like a public gallery with their extensive collections on public display almost 24/7.

It would also give local artists another opportunity to exhibit their work, in addition to Art Gallery of Calgary, MOCA Calgary (old Triangle), Glenbow, as well as galleries at ACAD and University of Calgary and artist-run-centres – New Gallery, Stride and Truck.  

Edmonton's Art Gallery of Alberta and Churchill Square in February. 

Link vision with reality?

The cost of a civic gallery isn’t just to build it - there is significant annual operational cost.  The Art Gallery of Alberta (Edmonton) has had an operational budget deficit since it moved into their new building.  A major civic art gallery needs an operational budget of over $5 million annual if it is going to provide exciting and engaging programming.  And that is a conservative number!

Interestingly, a $150M foundation with a 4% yield would generate a $6M annual rate of return – enough to support public gallery. I can’t help but wonder what the chronically underfunded Glenbow might do in the way of new programming with a $6M increase in its budget. 

The Art Gallery of Calgary and MOCA are struggling to find the ongoing operational funding for their spaces. How do we think we are going to fund the operations of another public art gallery? 

Perhaps the problem is not that we don’t have a civic art gallery, but that we have too many smaller public art galleries.  Are we too fragmented?

Maybe now is the time for the creation of a Calgary Civic Art Galleries, which would include the Glenbow, MOCA and the Art Gallery of Calgary spaces, staff, membership and volunteers.  Perhaps what we need is a good visual arts merger? 

Remember the motto: “working together to make a great city better?”  

Perhaps Calgary could dare to be different when it comes to how we support the arts and our artists.  We were one of the first cities to build a major skate park, perhaps it is now time create something just as edgy for our artists. 

Last word!

Here’s a radical idea!  Maybe we should just turn the Science Center over to art groups and let them see what they can do with it - forgo the huge renovation and operational costs of a major civic art gallery? 

Artists did a great job of turning the old Billingsgate Market building in East Village into a fun, studio, exhibition and event space.  Perhaps with a little seed money visual, performance and literary artists could transform the Science Centre into a wonderful creative incubator/hub.  Do we dare to be different?

If you like this blog you might like:

Poppy Plaza Review

Flaneuring Bow Valley College Art Collection

Olympic Plaza Needs a Mega Makeover

Rise of Public Art / Fall of Public Art Galleries 

Reader Comments:

SB writes: Give it to artists with rules about protecting the building. Perhaps it could be a below-market version of Art Central.

CO writes: Food for thought! 


Understanding Calgary's DNA

By Richard White, October 16, 2013

Recently, a neighbour lent me an old, tattered book titled “Calgary,” thinking I might enjoy reading it.  There was no date or author’s name in the book, just the name of the general editor, S. L. Bensusan.  However, a bit of web research turned up that the book was published in 1912 and that Samuel Levy Bensusan (born in London, 1872 to 1958) was probably the author too given he had written similar books on life in Spain, Paris and Morocco.  The cover has a foreshadowing illustration (no credit given) of Calgary complete with high-rises, smoke stacks, railway bridge and street-car that paints a picture of Calgary as a modern, industrial commercial city.  At the bottom of the cover is a reference to “Twentieth Century Cities” so I am thinking this book was part of a series on different cities at the turn of the century.  However, I was unable to find out if this is true.

I quickly found this book to be a fascinating read about what Calgary was like 100 years ago, from the perceptive of an outsider.  The book is written I suspect as a propaganda piece to entice Brits to immigrate to Calgary.  It is not unlike what Tourism Calgary and Calgary Economic Development are producing today to attract tourists and workers to Calgary.  However, recent monikers like “Calgary: The New West” and “Calgary: Be Part of the Energy” pale in comparison to the bold statement “Calgary The Phenomenal” which is how the 1912 book brands Calgary.

Though full of interesting factoids, what makes it really interesting is that many of the characteristics that define Calgary today existed or were being ingrained into our collective psyche a hundred years ago.  For example, there are constant references to Calgary being a place where a strong work ethic and individuality prevail, a sense of freedom exists for everyone and opportunities are abundant.  Comments like “all are free”, “captain of his own fate” and “master of his own soul” are found throughout the text.

As well, comments similar to former Mayor Klein’s infamous 1982 “creep and bums” comments are present in the book.  “He who will not work shall not eat, and he whose favourite task is to watch the toil of others will look in vain for a job, until he feels the contagion of endeavor and enter the ranks of the men who matter.”  Or the observation, “for the shirker, the idler and the man who was born tired, there is no place…”  

Cover photograph shows downtown Calgary in 1912 as a bustling place with street car, passenger train, smoke stakes and high-rises.  

This is an early postcard of the First Baptist Church and an early 20th century mansion on 13th Ave. SW. 


Stephen Avenue: Piccadilly Circus on the Prairies

Even 100 years ago, Calgary was being touted as “the city most progressive and up-to-date of the Western Canadian Plains.”  There are several references to Calgary’s multi-cultural population; “streets are full of Englishmen, Yankee, Hindu, Indian, Chinese and Japanese.  There is even an observation that the “Eighth Avenue shopping street is as congested as Piccadilly Circus on Saturdays.”  Further on, Stephen Avenue is described as an “ever-changing kaleidoscope throng of human beings from all over the world.” I am not making this stuff up!

Bensusan is quick to point out Calgary boasts “more automobiles in proportion to its population than any other city on the continent,” as evidence of the city’s prosperity and modernity.  He says he was “astonished at the sight of so many smart and luxurious private cars, ” noting that 1,000 cars were registered in Calgary on January 1, 1912.

He also states Calgary is a very cosmopolitan modern city with police and fire departments, schools, hospitals, shops, a great public library, as well as excellent waterworks and lighted streets.  Calgary with its four theatres and eleven motion picture houses, “insures to Calgary the opportunity of seeing the best class of theatrical entertainments…there shall be no lack of variety.”

Particular note is made of Calgary having 40 places of worship, obviously seen as a key to attracting new immigrants back then.  “Religious animosities are unknown, and nobody asks what a man believes in or fails to believe in, nor even what he has been, or who his father was. If he be a good citizen, the rest does not matter.” He goes on to say “the countries that have welcomed good citizens of whatever faith have lived and thrived, while those that have indulged in violent religious persecutions have failed signally to progress.”  Sounds a lot like Richard Florida’s observation that prosperous cities are tolerant places, welcoming creative young people from all walks of life.  It has always struck me when flaneuring our city centre how many churches there are; I had no idea there were 40.

Bensusan also tells readers Calgary is “not a winter city” as the warm Pacific Ocean winds called “Chinooks” moderate the temperature and keep the snow away. There are also many many references to the fact that Calgary gets over 300 days of sun, deemed I suspect very appealing to those living in Britain with its cool, damp and drab winters.  No mention is made that the temperature can get down to -30 degrees or that spring blizzards are very common.  But why let the facts get in the way of a good story!

Today Stephen Avenue is a pedestrian mall by day and a narrow one way street by night.  It is home to some of Calgary's tallest buildings and links the Financial District with the Cultural District.  It is one of North America's best restaurant rows.  

Stephen Avenue at night in the winter is a special place with lighting effects like this on the block with The Core shopping centre, Bankers Hall and TD Square complex and Devonian Gardens.  With over 200+ floors of offices and 200+ stores and restaurants it is one of the most dense mixed-use blocks in North America. 


Mansion Mania

Even in the early 20th century, Calgarians already loved their big homes.  One of the photographs shows 20th Ave SW in Mount Royal with a parade of large homes all sitting high above the road with a rock wall.  There is not a tree in sight.  It looks very much like a scene from a new estate community in today’s suburbs – think Aspen Woods or Riverstone.  As I have said before, don’t judge a community before the trees are taller than the houses.  It is amazing the effect larger trees can have on softening and enriching the streetscape over time.  

This is an image of the Lougheed House the first grand mansion built in Calgary and the beginning of the southwest quadrant as the preferred home to Calgary's rich and famous. 

Bushels to Barrels

From an economic development perspective, “bushels to the acre” was the benchmark of prosperity in early 20th century, similar to how barrels of oil serve as a key benchmark today. The development of the Western Irrigation project was the “oil sands” of its time, with CPR being the corporate giant investing millions in the city with their new Natural Resources building on 9th Avenue and new locomotive repair shop in Ogden which was touted as going to employ 5,000 people. It is interesting to note that CPR eventually moved its headquarters to downtown Calgary in the ‘90s, with plans now to relocate it to soon to be complete building in at its Ogden yards.  

The grain elevators along the CPR tracks were to downtown Calgary 100 years ago as the office towers are today.  Calgary companies controlled practically all of the elevators in Alberta says Bensusan.  Indeed, Calgary was already well on its way to becoming a corporate headquarters city, citing it being ranked fifth in Canada as a commercial centre.

There is even reference to the fact the City purchased most of the land around the CPR railway to develop a manufacturing and industrial district.  This was the beginning of the City of Calgary being a land developer, a role which continues today. 

However, one thing has changed, in 1912, labour was well organized with 90% of Alberta’s workers being members of trade unions (today, only about 20% of Calgarians belong to a union).  Bensusan notes in Calgary labourers often start their own businesses and become employers, which in turn make demand for labour almost always exceed supply.  Sound familiar? Calgary, it appears, has been fostering entrepreneurs for over 100 years.


Pittsburg of Canada

Bensusan predicted Calgary would become the “Pittsburg of Canada” because of its abundance of natural gas, coal and electricity nearby and the strong network of 20 railway lines.  He envisaged the population west of the Great Lakes would equal that of Great Britain and Ireland someday, with Winnipeg, Calgary and Vancouver becoming the three greatest cities of the continent.  (Note: In 1911, Winnipeg’s population was 136,000, Vancouver’s 121,000 and Calgary’s 44,000.)

He points out Calgary enjoys three postal deliveries a day, has 5,000 telephone subscribers who have unlimited calls for $30/yr  – something even London the capital of the British Empire, cannot compete with.  Calgary was also said to have 50 miles of street railway track accommodating 8,838,057 passengers per year and making a $100,000 profit (this is not a typo).  He goes on to say the expectation is that, in time, “public services will cover civic expenses and that a general tax levy will become a thing of the past.” We wish!

The early 20th century was a time when the British Empire was still strong and many young men left to seek their fortune in one of the many countries controlled by Britain.  Bensusan notes that, in the case of Calgary, “people move there to make money and establish homes, not abandon it “as they do in South Africa where new immigrants make what they can and get out.”

In many ways, that remains true today.  Young people flock to Calgary from across Canada and around the world, often thinking they will take advantage of the career opportunities the city presents and then return home or move on.  However, more often than not, newcomers stay, raise a family and retire here.  Bensusan observes,  “Calgary’s charm must be felt to be appreciated, and once felt, you become a Calgary enthusiast like those who live there.” So true!

Already in 1912 Calgary is referred to as a business centre, industrial centre, agricultural centre, sporting centre and rapidly becoming an educational centre.  Plans were already in place for the establishment of a university with a McGill College affiliation.  

While this photo is older it captures the tremendous growth of Calgary as one of North America's economic engines with one of the greatest concentrations of corporate headquarters in the world.  It also captures the city's beauty, its parks, trees and beautiful blue sky.  Calgary has come a long way from a being bald-ass prairie land. 

This photo juxtapositions the old and the new. The downtown Hudson Bay store was the icon of Calgary's position as a major commercial center in the early 20th century.  The Scotia Tower represents the late 20th and early 21st century economic engine that includes banking, oil & gas and other office tower based businesses. 



While Bensusan didn’t use the current popular moniker “live, work and play” in the book, these three elements of urban life were the focus of his discussion.  Banff and the Rockies are referred to as “Calgary’s Sunset Playground.” He notes Canada’s Alpine Club was very important to the “pleasure-seekers” of the time and that Calgary’s proximity to the Rockies was a huge asset. 

“Calgary has an added claim, for no city is quite so pleasant to work in as that which can offer, in return for a few hours’ journey, access to one of the finest health resorts known to mankind.”

He chronicles the development of Calgary as an urban playground, beginning in 1908 with the $50,000 Carnegie’s donation to build the Memorial Park Library at a cost of $70,000.  At the time, Calgary also had 10 parks totally 500 acres.  The city was home to the Turf Club (horse racing), Hunt Club (coyote hunting), Calgary Golf and Country Club and the Calgary Amateur Athletic Association with 50 clubs and several thousand members. 

This is the 2012 Blues Festival in Shaw Millennium Park. Today Calgary offers one of the most comprehensive festival schedules of any city of its size in North America.  


Calgary the phenomenal

Bensusan concludes it is ultimately the hopes, enthusiasm and ideals of its people and the fact that every man/woman/child has a fair chance that is the “vital matter of measuring a city.”  While these benchmarks are hard to measure, I think most intuitively figure this out when we visit or move to a new city.  Ultimately, these are the reasons we stay or move on!

One of the most touching stories Bensusan tells is about Calgary’s strong sense of community, specifically how Calgarians support the YMCA. The YMCA functioned in the early 20th century much like United Way does today, helping those who are less fortunate.  Calgary’s YMCA fundraising goal was 7,000 pounds, which the community raised in one day. At the same time in London, England, the YMCA’s goal was 100,000 pounds, but after two weeks the city with 100 times the population of Calgary, had only raised half of that.  Fast forward 100 years - today, Calgarians donate more money per capita to United Way than any other Canadian city.  Clearly, Calgary’s sense of community has had a long history! 


Last Word

The book ends with “For we can but regard Calgary as one of the most significant cities of our twentieth century, and its triumphant endeavor as one of the most hopeful signs of the old order changes, giving place to the new.  It is with good and sufficient reason that it has chosen for title the proud name of ‘CALGARY THE PHENOMENAL’.”  Guess that says it all!

An edited version of this blog was published in the Calgary Herald's Condo Living section as a two part column.  Part one was titled "Calgary's attitudes have century old roots" on September 28, 2013 and part two titled  "Calgary's Work/Play culture part of the City's DNA" on October 5, 2013. This is the unedited version with my own photos to illustrate some of the ideas discussed. 

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Dogs as a catalyst for healthier happier city?

By Richard White, September 9, 2013

Dog Parks and Disneyland

I am again dog sitting for friends and learning more about the how cities need to evolve to the every changing needs of the people who live in them.  I am not a dog owner, but I am fascinated about how dog ownership has changed since I had a dog 50 years ago.  

Just had a wonderful conversation with a man who told me getting a dog has significantly improved his and his wife's life as they get out and walk more.  Another couple told me how they love coming to the dog park every night just to watch the animation.  The lady said "it is like Disneyland for dogs."  

A summer evening stroll in the dog park is enjoyed by people and dogs of all ages and sizes. 

Catalyst for healthy living

Indeed, the dog park is as important to the humans as it is to the dogs.  In our urban mostly sedentary lives we need a reason to get out and walk.  Every time I dog sit I find myself saying "I must get up in the morning and just go for a walk to my neighbourhood dog park - I don't need a dog." But, I never do it!  

The dog as a catalyst for healthy living will become even more important with our aging population.  Seniors perhaps benefit most from walking a dog, not only for the physical exercise, but the people contact.  It is not very often that I go to the dog park that I don't chat with someone.  It isn't a long conversation, and I don't think I will meet my next "new best friend," but it is a nice friendly chat.  

This is why dog parks are better for socialization (dog and humans) than just walking your dog on the street, as there is a much greater probability that you and your dog will interact with others.  And, isn't that what is great about urban living i.e. interacting with others.  Not sure if it is just me, but people at the dog park seem happier and friendlier than people in the streets.  What's with that? 

Below is an article I wrote back in 2007.  I am now thinking it is not just downtown that needs to be more dog-friendly but the entire cities.  In fact, I am now thinking that all new communities should have a dog park as a key element of their master plan.  It is a great way to meet your neighbours in the new urban world.  

The dog park is the the new town square - all urban villages should have a dog park!  The dog park is used seven days a week year-round, unlike playing fields and many non dog parks. The dog park is as important to many, as the recreation centre or library is to others.  

Everybody needs a drink after a long day and a good walk.

Downtown needs to be more dog-friendly.

This blog was originally published in the Calgary Herald's Condo Living section March 3, 2007.  

It always amazes me who is out walking in the coldest, darkest days of winter.  It is largely people out exercising their dog or dogs. Even in the dark at 6 a.m., when I’m heading to work, there always seems to be someone out walking his or her pet.

As a non-dog owner, the increasing importance of dogs in our contemporary urban culture continues to amaze me.  I think this is especially true for groups like the young professional and empty nester cultures — which, coincidentally, are also the primary markets for urban living. I guess it shouldn’t be surprising then that we are seeing more dogs along our urban side- walks and pathways and in our parks and plazas.

Literally thousands of Calgarians are in dog parks every evening walking their dogs and chatting with fellow citizens.

In its 13th annual housing survey conducted by Ipsos Reid, RBC Royal Bank said last year that 56 per cent of Canadians have pets in their homes. Experts say that probably works out to about five million dogs and seven million cats. The total market size of the Canadian pet industry was estimated at $3.8 billion in 2001.

City officials have estimated there are as many as 100,000 dogs in Calgary. As many as 2,000 may use the Southland Natural Park area alone on busy days.

“Pets are the new children. It’s the bottom line,” said Michael Bateman, of Chasin' Tails, a Calgary doggie day-care centre, in a recent Herald story.  Such centers offer everything from overnight boarding to boutique areas. In some ways, dogs are to urban living what children are to suburban living.

I appreciate that owning a dog in an urban centre presents a unique set of challenges.  How is housebreaking accomplished in a high-rise building?  Where and how can a large, energetic dog be exercised?  How can a dog be taught to ignore distractions such as traffic congestion and noise, crowded sidewalks, bicycles, roller bladers, interesting trash, back alleys, roadways — and, of course, other dogs?

One solution occurring in places such as Atlanta, Houston, Dallas and Phoenix (who knew these were hot spots for urban living?) is the creation of “bark parks.” These differ from “off-leash” areas in that they are parks solely for the use of dogs and their owners.

They are often small parcels of land that are too small for development. They are fenced off and self-governed by a set of rules, much like a daycare (for example, dogs must behave, dogs must be accompanied by an owner, dogs must be healthy and owners must clean up after their dogs).  Some bark parks also have playground-like equipment for dogs to jump over, climb up and so on.

Though Calgary has over 300 “off leash” areas — which may be the most of any major city in Canada— it, to my knowledge, has no “bark parks.”  But you have to think someone is working on a “bark park” in Calgary!

Current policy in Calgary is “if there are no signs indicating it is an “off leash” area, assume it is strictly an on-leash only park.”  It is also surprising that I haven’t yet seen a Calgary condo listing that promotes dog- friendly amenities.

I have seen it many times in Vancouver listings, including one, which read, “just steps to George Wainborne Dog Park, Seawall and Granville Island.” It was amazing to me that not only did the dog park have a name, but that it was listed ahead of two of Vancouver’s biggest urban living attractions.

I am wondering when the first Calgary condo will be built with its own mini “bark park” on site — maybe already one exists?  While “bark parks” and “off leash” areas are great, there is still a need for both dog owners and non-dog owners to learn to share our public spaces including sidewalks. As a non-dog owner, I didn’t appreciate the importance of off leash activities until I started to do a little digging (no pun intended).

I didn’t know “off leash” time is important for dogs to learn to socialize with humans and other dogs. I didn’t know it makes dogs less aggressive and helps reduce neurotic activities such as barking, two benefits which are in the best interests of non-dog owners.

I also discovered dogs are part of urban socialization for humans, especially those who are single or new to the area — as having a dog helps people make friends

There is also research that says dog owners are more physically active than non-dog owners as they are more motivated to get out every day and take their dog (or dogs) for a walk.

I learned there are now “woof and hoof ” outings where dog owners get together on a regular basis to walk their dogs and chat about life (sounds like the Running Room’s programs for joggers and walkers).

Last Word

It used to be that urban planners were primarily interested in making urban areas more pedestrian-friendly places, but now they also have to ensure they are also dog friendly.

As a Calgary urbanite for 20 years, I have certainly seen this evolution happening on my street, in the park across from my house and at the “off leash” area a few blocks away.


RJ writes: 100, 000 dogs in Calgary alone huh? I can believe it, maybe even more....I'd say at least one in every ten homes has a dog. Now what we need is playgrounds built within a dog park (none that I have found)....if I could run both my four legged and two legged children at the same time that would be awesome!

Ann Toohey, PhD student, Community Health Science, University of Calgary writes:  My MSc research indicated that older adults (+50) who walk their dogs 4 times/week or more had a higher sense of community than those who walked their dogs less frequently, or non-dog owners. And of course they were much more likely to get 150 min/week of moderate, neighbourhood-based physical activity (as per public health recommendations). For more information on Tooley's MSc research

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Calgary: A leader in address urban issues?

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Calgary: The Dog Park Capital of North America

Is Calgary's downtown too dense? with comments

I recently wrote an article for Condo Living magazine (see below) about the proposed 58-floor TELUS Sky building in the middle of downtown Calgary.  As I wrote the column, after studying the 3-D computer renderings, I began to wonder just how much of the building would people really get to see.  The rendering views make it look spectacular, but nobody really gets to see the building from the aerial perspective that is used i.e. above all the neighboring buildings yet close enough to see some details.  This is something many developers and architects do to get above beyond the clutter of the other buildings and in the process, create unrealistic expectations that simply can’t be realized.

The pedestrian perspective of the buildings in downtown Calgary is often compromised because other buildings “get in the way.”  For example, The Bow’s perspective, though great today from the southwest, will change dramatically (and not for the better) when the York Hotel site is developed.  Bankers Hall and Eighth Avenue Place are much better viewed from their south sides because of the lack of buildings due to the railway tracks and 10th Avenue being mostly empty parking lots so there are not buildings to block view angles which means you can see the buildings almost from top to bottom.  Although the Bow is currently our tallest building, you can barely see it from the west side.

Modern skyscrapers need space to breathe. They look best when viewed from afar or at least with some separation from each other allowing pedestrians to view them in their entirety from base to rooftop. And, the announcement of Brookfield Place (which will be the tallest building when it is completed) just a block away will restrict the view of TELUS Sky Suncor Center and the Bow from the southwest. 

TELUS Sky aerial rendering showing the wider office element at the bottom and the narrower condos at the top. with Suncor Centre behind and Bow on the right.  

It is hard to tell at this time if the clustering of the Bow, Brookfield Place, Suncor Centre and TELUS Sky will be synergistic or antagonistic.  At best, you will see the top 20 floors of TELUS Sky as it pokes its head out from the plethora of 30 and 40-floor buildings.  Only the Suncor Centre has anything bordering on a decorative rooftop i.e. the others are flat-topped with very little visual interest.  One of the best characteristics of the early skyscrapers was their ornate rooftops which makes them so alluring even 100 years later. 

Brookfield Place will be the tallest building in downtown when completed. It will continue the city's flat topped boxy office architectural style that is often criticized. 

Suncor Centre from Olympic Plaza. This view will be partly lost with the addition of TELUS Sky, just like the Bow cancelled out the view of Suncor Centre as you enter the downtown from the east.  

It is hard to tell at this time if the clustering of the Bow, Brookfield Place, Suncor Centre and TELUS Sky will be synergistic or antagonistic.  At best, you will see the top 20 floors of TELUS Sky as it pokes its head out from the plethora of 30 and 40-floor buildings.  Only the Suncor Centre has anything bordering on a decorative rooftop i.e. the others are flat-topped with very little visual interest.  One of the best characteristics of the early skyscrapers was their ornate rooftops which makes them so alluring even 100 years later. 

New Manulife building looks like a giant glass vessel. Note that all of the buildings around it are just simple boxes to accentuate the look of the proposed tower.  This building could be a great addition to downtown's urban landscape but we won't know until it is built and we can see it in context with other buildings.  Urban architecture does not exist in isolation, it has to be synergistic with what surrounds it.  

In Calgary, some of the more interesting architectural buildings are the mid-rise office buildings, like Centrum Place, Jamieson Place and Palliser South.  And, if you are looking for interesting decorative rooftops, new condos like Alura, Arriva, Five West, Montana, Nuera, Sasso and Vetro are leading the way.  The condos also benefit from the fact they are on the edge of the city center and therefore surrounded with low-rise buildings so you can see them in their entirety, something impossible to do in our downtown core.

Unfortunately, in downtown Calgary you can’t see the architecture for the buildings! 

Reader Comments:

JT writes: Good job.  The challenges run deep- office tenants can pay more than other users in our core, and the land use policies are structured to allow mega-buildings.  Office workers are high income earners (typically) and choose more home than less.  The select these homes distant from their place of work because that is where they can be constructed. 

We are victims of our own success.  Giant offices clustered together create a wickedly vibrant downtown from 6:30 to 6.  That same vibrancy is transferred to roads and busses and trains at the shoulder times and further dispersed outwards after 6:30 pm.

That is the Calgary pattern which only gets more entrenched with the continued popularity and economic viability of office space downtown.

HH writes: Love it!   But the next question is, what is their combined impact on the city? How do they visually combine to make a statement about the city? We have lots of impressive buildings but the sight lines for the general public are not good.  I agree we have great pieces of design but are they having the impact on the visitor or even for local residents that they should? Placement is everything!

 JR writes: I think you are heading down what i consider a discredited idea about the sculptured tower. The bottom 4 or 5 stories are where you make a city, the pedestrian and citizens city. The long view of a tower is what ever ego centric drives the owner and consultants derive from, perhaps important and if very lucky iconic. I suggest another read of Jane Jacobs, and another tour of old Paris - the Eiffel Tower is a defining landmark quite aside from the city. The city is a pedestrian delight. 

AS blogged: True, but there is a benefit to having large office towers in close proximity in CBD for business purposes.  

RT blogged: Don't really agree with the point, but do like the photos in this blog post. 

CO blogged: No. I'd rather have the view problems you are pointing out versus no growth in our core. 

GM blogged: I think the shorter structures surrounding the peaks are far more interesting and human friendly.   2nd blog: I'd rather have the problem with obstructed views than a doughnut city. 

KJ blogged: Skyline important, but I care a lot more about how the buildings integrate with the street. 

TL blogged: Understand your point, but no, Calgary's core is not dense enough to support great public spaces & institutions.  

JW blogged: Large office buildings close to downtown LRT is critical to generating more transit use which is more pedestrian friendly. 

This is the street view rendering provided by TELUS and BIG architecture.  Everything about it is artificial, there is no attempt to make it reflect the existing urban design of 7th Avenue - the LRT station, train are all wrong.    

Early 20th century skyscraper were very decorative at street level and also the upper floors.  The design drew the eye to the sky to see the "crown" of the building.  This was lost in the minimalism of the late 20th century office towers.  It is only recently that it has returned with projects like Eight Avenue Place and Jamieson Place which have more interesting roof top designs. 

Condo Living Magazine: TELUS Sky

“Create a lady to stand among the cowboys.” That was the challenge TELUS President and CEO, Darren Entwistle gave Danish “young gun” architect, Bjarke Ingels.  This directive was aimed at addressing one of the biggest criticisms of Calgary’s office buildings i.e. they are too boxy with their squat rectangular massing and flat roofs. For the most part Calgary’s office building designs are safe and straight-laced, very corporate and conservative - some would say masculine, maybe even cowboyish.  To be fair, recent additions The Bow and Eight Avenue Place (EAP) have ventured away from the box and in many ways EAP has many of the feminine qualities that Ingels has incorporated into TELUS Sky.

While TELUS is a large, established corporation, its logo (green and purple) and branding (those cute animal commercials) reflects a more pretty, playful and cutesy image than your typical large corporation. Some might even say more feminine.  It is therefore not surprising Entwistle’s vision was to create a feminine (lady) tower that would stand amongst the masculine cowboy towers, especially the downtown’s two other 50+ floor towers, The Bow and Suncor Energy Centre, which are its immediate neighbours.  It will be an interesting threesome!

TELUS Sky is also unique in that it will be both an office and residential tower.  While it won’t be taller than The Bow, it will be a more slender, elegant shape because the floor plate for a typical residential building is half that of a typical office building. TELUS Sky building will taper after the 26th office floor into a slender residential tower to the 58th floor.  The building’s façade will also evolve from the smooth surface of the office portion to an articulated, textured surface for the residential part as a result of its jutting balconies.

The net result is a wine bottle (or elongated grain elevator) shape.  To use the lady analogy, the transition area from the wide office to the slender torso would be her hips.  TELUS Sky is one robust lady who will certainly hold her own with the surrounding cowboys.  

Habitat "67 in Montreal 

At street level, Ingels’ design has a glass canopy, or what he calls a “skirt.”  It twists at the separate office and residential entrances to create a “billowing skirt” effect.  The analogy with the iconic urban photo of Marilyn Munro is obvious.

The design of TELUS Sky reminds me of Moshe Safdie’s experimental housing project, Habitat 67, created for Expo 67, which was one of Canada’s most recognized and creative new urbanist buildings.  The thesis behind Habitat 67 was to integrate the benefits of suburban homes, namely gardens, fresh air and privacy, with the benefits of urbanism i.e. density, economy of scale and walkability.  TELUS Sky will have both a vertical and rooftop garden, and the positioning of the balconies and residential units will maximize the indoor and outdoor spaces for all residents.  In many ways the goal, is to create a new 21st century design that shatters the idea that urban high-density living is cold, impersonal and ugly.

Ingels is all about symbiosis (a biological term that refers to two dissimilar organisms living together often for mutual benefit), which in this case refers to the office workers and the residents. The building will be animated by day with the workers and by night with the residents. It adds a whole new dimension to the “live, work, play” equation as you could live work and play in the same building.  The “play” element is further enriched by the public gallery that will be created as part of the enhanced public realm at street and +15 levels.  I can see a sequel to the film “Way Downtown” where the bet is who can last the longest without leaving the building

TELUS Sky is scheduled to open in 2017, fifty years after Habitat 67. A lot has changed in the past 50 years with respect to urban placemaking. And in many ways, Calgary is at the forefront.   Especially over the past 10 years, Calgary has become a very interesting design city - a place that welcomes and fosters innovative new urban design. TELUS Sky will further solidify that reputation. 

Link to Condoliving Magazine Calgary

Rendering of TELUS Sky looking up from the sidewalk. If this an accurate rendering it will be a very sensual uplifting visual experience. Love the way it interacts with the blue sky and clouds. From this perspective it lives up to its Sky name. 

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!


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... 

Architecture River Cruise In Chicago

Normally, we are all about “taking the path least travelled” yet when it comes to the very popular Chicago architectural river cruises, we were all over getting in line to join the masses to take the 75-minute cruise up and down the Chicago River to see and learn more about the city’s amazing history and architecture.

The Chicago Architecture Foundation cruise is one of the most engaging, enlightening and entertaining experiences we have enjoyed in a long time.  Our guide, a retired architect, was a fascinating storyteller who made architecture both interesting and understandable, no small feat given the need to use architectural lingo like curtain wall, footprint, setbacks, art deco, post-modern, bundled tube and skeleton frame.   

A view down the Chicago River which provides a dramatic perspective to view the skyline and visual history of Chicago, which is so linked to its buildings.  

Examples of the early 20th century skyscrapers with their ornamental roof and strong vertical lines.  The early skyscrapers were church-like in their vertical thrust into the sky i.e. heaven. 

A modern skyscaper that mirrors some of the verticalness of the early skyscraper but with new materials that are much more reflective and much less ornamentation.  The age of architectural minimalism started in the mid-20th century and is still popular today. 

Did you know that “Chicago” is an Indian world for stinkweed, a plant prevalent in the swamp that is now the city?  We learned about how the “Great Chicago Fire” of October 8, 1871 that took the lives of 250 people, left 100,000 people homeless and destroyed over 17,000 homes and buildings, was the catalyst for the city to become the Skycraper City.  Chicago is home to the first skyscraper the Home Insurance Building built in 1885. It was the first building not made of bricks and mortar, but instead had a metal frame. This reduced the weight of the building and allowed taller buildings.  Subsequently, the Chicago School of Architecture was created with many high-rise buildings built form the mid 1880s to 1910.  The design of the buildings often consisted of a three parts: a wide base, a narrower tower on top of the base and a decorative top.

We also learned about the “reversal of the river.”  In the late 19th century, the Chicago River which runs through downtown, was used as an open sewer. However, since it flowed into Lake Michigan. it polluted Chicago’s drinking water. After thousands died from water-related diseases, it was determined the river needed to be reversed.  So, a 26-mile canal was dug 15 feet deeper than the river so when the sanitary and ship canal opened in 1900, the river began to flow backwards naturally as a result of gravity.  Today, the river is much cleaner and while it is still a working river, it is becoming more and more an urban playground with residential development and pathways for recreational uses along its banks.   

Th black Willis Tower (formerly the Sears Tower)  was  the tallest building in the world when built in 1973.  The neighbouring South Wacker Drive tower reflects many of the same massing (shape) elements but incorporates more decorative elements similar to the early 20th century towers and therefore is called post-modern architecture.  It is the tallest building in the world known only by its street name. Built in 1990, it has a larger circular crown at top that is illuminated at night to make it the most visible building in Chicago's impressive skyline. 

An example of the many parks that are being created along the Chicago river as it becomes more and more an urban playground than a working river.  

A view of the recreational pathway that meanders along the river, making downtown a more attractive place to live.  

For photographers, the river cruise simply “eye candy.”  It seems like every minute there is a new perspective, a different juxtaposition of architectural styles.  We were fortunate to take the cruise on a warm, blue-sky day – the light was spectacular.

Our tour guide was full of fun little factoids and memorable comments including:

“Architecture is the art in which you live in.”

“In Chicago, things are always changing. Nothing stays the same.”  A quote from Mark Twain

“Chicago is sometimes called Paris on the prairies as the river and its bridges are the heart of the city.”

“Tall, dark and handsome” is what some people call Chicago because its signature skyscrapers of the 20th century are tall, dark and handsome buildings – Sears Tower and John Hancock Tower. 

The contrast between the early and late 20th century architecture is very obvious in Chicago.  Note how the earlier skyscrapers were all about the vertical lines which give them an uplifting sense of place.  The late 20th century buildings often have more are horizontal lines that negate the visual verticalness of the structure making it less sky oriented.   

Another example of late 20th century minimalist office architecture.  The building's shape is dramatic with its razor-like edge and flat reflective glass facade.     It has immediate WOW factor, unfortunately there is not much to look at once the WOW is gone.  Some call this "look-at-me" architecture as it grabs your attention but doesn't hold it. 

Along the river you go under many bridges or all different styles.  This old bridge which is permanently elevate is very sculptural and provides a context for how cities have evolved.  There are 18 bridges along a 2 mile stretch of downtown. 

The lattice work as you pass under many of the bridges is incredibly beautiful and detailed. Urban beauty is often in the intricate details of the buildings, structures and public space.  It is often missing in modern urban design, which is often why people refer to the modern downtown as the concrete jungle.  

An example of the bridgehouse where the bridge operator would have a panoramic view of the river and be responsible for elevating the bridge as needed to allow shipping up and down the river. 

Our recommendations:

1.     Book the river cruise tour before you leave home so you aren’t disappointed

2.     Go on your first day as it will provide you with a perfect orientation to the city and its illustrious history

3.     Sit at or near the back of the boat. You’ll have no problem hearing well and this will prevent lots of “turning around” to see or take pictures after the tour guide finishes their banter about the buildings.  

An example of new residential/hotel architecture. Note it still has the basic elements of the Chicago School of Architecture i.e. wide base with a tower on top of the base and then a decorative element on top.  Today this is called podium point design and is very popular for condo developments  around the world. 

Marina City was completed in 1964.  Its corncob-like facade is a unique design that stands out immediately in the skyline.  At 65 floors the twin towers were the tallest residential buildings in the world when they were built. Note the bottom floors is actually a parking garage if you look closely you can see the cars.  

The CBD apartment building is another of Chicago's distinctive architectural gems.  In this case the pattern of different sized balconies creates a facade that is visually playful and exciting. 

 If you like this blog you might like:

The Curse of Minimalism  

Calgary: North America's newest design city!

 more information on Architecture River Cruises 

More information on Chicago Tourism at ChooseChicago



Hamilton's James Street North: A Hidden Gem

As a former Hamiltonian, I have watched with interest Hamilton struggle to cling on to its status as one of the top 10 cities in Canada.  Like Pittsburg, Buffalo and other cities in the North American Rust Belt, Hamilton has had to reinvent itself.  It is no longer the “ambitious city” (a former moniker)! Similarly its status as a “steeltown” has long disappeared with its now more diversified employment base.

James Street, one of the oldest streets in Canada, has a history, which dates back to the early 1800s.  It was home to Hamilton’s first department store (Right House, 1893) and first skyscraper (Piggott Building, 1929, 18 floors).  Lister Block, the first indoor mall in Canada, was built in 1886, burned down in 1923, was rebuilt in 1924 and in 2011, was restored to its early 20th century charm.

James Street is also home to Lloyd D Jackson Square, a mega downtown indoor mall built in 1972. It includes a public square on top that never really worked.  The mall was part of a major downtown renewal project that includes a theatre, civic art gallery, convention center, arena, central library and farmers’ market – basically   everything an urban planners and developers at the time thought was needed to revitalize the Downtown.  The thought was downtowns needed an downtown indoor shopping mall to compete with the suburban malls - Calgary built TD Square in 1977, Edmonton built, its City Centre Place in 1974 and Winnipeg built Portage Place in 1987. 

Forty years later, Hamilton’s downtown, not unlike Winnipeg’s and Edmonton’s still struggles to become the vibrant live, work and play places they were in the ‘50s. Lesson – Urban vitality is an art not a science! 

Morgenstern's is not truly a department store. Just one floor, mostly clothing.  There is an entire section of first holly communion dresses and lots of party/graduation dresses that are right out of the '60s maybe '50s.  We are always surprised it is still there when we visit. 

Hamilton City Centre/Jackson Square  shopping mall looking south from James Street north.  Once downtown was home to several department stores, today there are none.  

The barren bleak public plaza that was created on top of the Jackson Square shopping mall above street level.  Public plazas must be at street level or at least visible from the street to be welcoming.  Plazas need animated shops and restaurants opening up onto it with patios. The buildings here turn their back on the plaza and have no interaction.  What were they thinking? 

James Street North: A Hidden Gem

However, an area just north of the “super blocks,” once called “Little Portugal” now branded as James Street North (JSN) that is becoming very attractive to indie artists in many different disciplines from across southern Ontario.  JSN, a seven block district, extending from Wilson to Murray Street, consists of early 20th century, low-rise brick buildings that are ideal for low rent street level retail, restaurants and cafes with studios and apartments above.  The street retains its historical authenticity architecturally and culturally with several Portugal-based restaurants, pubs and shops in operation. 

JSN is a Jane Jacobs urban village with a diversity of buildings, activities and people and its mixture of local pubs, clubs, cafes, bistros and shops. There is no Tim Horton’s, Starbucks or Lululemon.  What there is is a new energy with the opening of the Art Gallery of Hamilton Shop and Annex, as well as CBC Hamilton studios.  C

The CBC and Art Gallery of Calgary building is the gateway to the James Street North Arts District.  This is the only contemporary urban design element in the entire district. 

James Street North streetscape is one of narrow sidewalks with lots of small shops. Doesn't take many people to generate a vibrant ambience. 

This could be in Portugal, but it is downtown Hamilton's James Street North.  This is just blocks away from Hamilton's downtown Farmers' Market one of the largest and oldest in Canada. 

New independent restaurants are starting to populate the streets. These are small intimate spaces that encourage human interactions. 

Ola Cafe is just one of the many Portuguese shops that adds an authenticity to JSN's sense of place.  You can't create this with urban redevelopment it takes decades to create character like this. 

An art exhibition in one of the many bohemian art galleries, mostly artists' cooperatives vs commercial galleries. Meet the artist not the owner!

There is a playfulness and spontaneity in the galleries. This mask/head was taken off the wall and an impromptu performance happened. 

Mom and pop cafe, no Tim's, Starbucks or Second Cup in sight.  


Initiated in 2009, Supercrawl built on the popularity of JSN second Friday art crawls.  It has quickly grown from a one-day street festival into a major two-day arts festival attracting 80,000 people in 2012. The 2013 event September 13 and 14th will expand yet again to include waterfront concerts at Pier 8 at the end of James Street on the waterfront.   

Supercrawl organizers have announced that this year's free musical acts will include Said The Whale, Chelsea Light Moving (with Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth), Young Rival, Joel Plaskett Emergency, Steve Strongman, Yo La Tengo, Sandro Perri, the Hamilton Philharmonic Orchestra and 2009 Polaris Prize winners F***ed UP.

Artists and patrons enjoying themselves at one of the monthly Art Crawls along James Street North. 

Artists and patrons enjoying themselves at one of the monthly Art Crawls along James Street North. 


If you are in the Hamilton area and are interested in art and architecture, don’t just drive by. Drive into the Downtown and check out James Street North. Take a walk back in time.  JSN should be on the radar of anyone who is into urban exploring, art, architecture and flaneuring. 

Below are just a few teasers.  If you like this article you might like the blog:  "Cities of Opportunities" 

Downtown Hamilton has several elegant early 20th century churches. 

Hamilton's Farmers' Market is a foodies mecca. The old clock I believe is from the old Hamilton Birk's Building 

Downtown is full of exquisite buildings in various states of aging. There is a wonderful urban patina that creates a unique sense of place.  This is not your pretty restored historic district. 

James Street North architecture collage

Hidden amongst the architecture and urban patina are some wonderful ornamental elements from the past which enrich the streetscape.  Decorative and ornamental elements have been lost in the age of minimalism. 

The Lister Building and people wandering James Street during one of the monthly art crawls. 

Fountain in Gore Park is a throw back to age of urban ornamentation and decoration. 

Hamilton's Central Library and Farmers' Market are a key component of the city's 40 year struggle with downtown urban renewal experiments. 

If you liked this blog you might like:

Cities of Opportunities  

Curse of Minimalism  

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. 

Cities of Opportunity: Hamilton/Calgary

Just received an email from a childhood friend with a link to a 1940s promotional film "Portrait of a City" about Hamilton, Ontario (our hometown) that sent shivers up my spine.  

It was a 20-minute marketing film that talked about Hamilton as the "City of Opportunity" with an ambitious and enterprising spirit. How the City was the "United States Industry in Canada." here were shots of Hamilton's amazing parks, recreation and sports activities.  

It painted a picture of Hamilton as a place of incredible beauty, with bustling streets, shops and the largest open-air farmer's market in Canada. Hamilton was a city on the rise both a tourist destination and one of heavy industry. A proud city!  What a difference 60 years can make?  

Hamilton's historic Gore Park in downtown.

Hamilton's historic Gore Park in downtown.

Moving to Calgary

I couldn't help but compare Hamilton in the '40s to Calgary, Alberta today.  A city that is currently Canada's "City of Opportunity" as evidenced by recently being called the #1 destination for U-haul vehicles in Canada (Annual National U-Haul Migration Trend Report). "We're moving to Calgary" has been heard by parents across Canada from their children looking for opportunities to pursue their careers.  

Today, Calgary is often referred to as the most American of Canadian cities with heavy investment from the US oil and gas industry.  It also has the most expats of any city in Canada.  Just this week, the Investment Property Bank ranked Calgary #1 for commercial real estate performance in 2012, beating out San Francisco, Houston, Perth and 28 other cities. 

It is ironic that early this month, Calgary Tourism and Economic Development released its promotional video linking tourism and economic development in much the same manner as the 1940s Hamilton film "Portrait of City."  The only difference being it is shorter and faster paced - a reflection of the times. 

Population Growth

It is interesting to look at where Hamilton ranked with regard to the top 10 ten cities, population-wise, in Canada over the past 60 years (Source: Urban Canada, 2nd Edition, Harry H. Hiller).  

In the 1930s, Hamilton was #5, dropping to #7 in the 40s and 50s, then up to #6 in the 60s and 70s, then down to #9, where it has been ever since.  

At the same time, Calgary moved from #7 in the 30s, wasn't even in the top 10 in the 40s, then #10 in the 50s, #9 in the 60s and 70s, jumping to #6 in the 80s and 90s and then #5 in the 00s and #4 in the 10s.  

The other winners in the "Cities of Opportunity" in Canada over the past 60 years are Ottawa, Edmonton and Mississauga, the losers are Windsor and London.  

Calgary the new Hamilton?

In many ways, Calgary has replaced Hamilton as Canada's "City of Opportunity" since the mid-20th century.  It is Calgary that now has the strong, ambitious enterprising spirit. I had coffee just this week with a young professional (creative class) who moved from Hamilton to Calgary. She liked Hamilton and thought there was lots of potential, but their wasn't the collective ambition, nor the enterprising spirit needed to capitalize on the opportunities.  She commented on how many former Hamiltonians she had met in Calgary since moving here only a month ago. 

I remember attending an International Downtown Association conference in the 90s and one of the senior Downtown managers saying, "every city has its heyday."  Those words have stuck with me.

While I don't believe Calgary has had its heyday yet, we should realize that we need to continue to adapt to an ever-changing world if we are going to remain Canada's "City of Opportunity." Nobody stays on top forever!

Ironically this blog was originally written in 2013, now in 2017 Calgary has fallen into hard times and some are wondering if its heyday was in fact in the early 21st century. 

Link to: Hamilton: Portrait of a City Film 

Link to: Calgary: RightHereYYC video