FUN ideas for Downtown Calgary!

By Richard White, November 24, 2013 

I recently shared some of the fun things to see and do in downtown Spokane, Wash. — and spoke of how, if Calgary wants to have an attractive, vibrant downtown, it is vital to create entertaining and even purely whimsical things for people to enjoy.

In this blog, I want to open up the discussion as to how we might add more fun to Calgary’s rather staid, office-centric core, where sober practicality can too often be an excuse for lack of imagination and engagement.

Arguably, the most fun spot in our downtown is the Colourful Cows for Calgary exhibition, hidden away on the second floor of the Centennial Parkade. Where, and what, you say?

That’s where a dozen or so of the Udderly Art cow sculptures were put out to pasture, so to speak, at a city parkade on Fifth Street near Eighth Avenue around the corner from the Globe Theatre.

Udderly Art was a charity event that took place in the summer of 2000. Using the same fibreglass cow as a template, artists were sponsored by companies to come up with everything from a Mae West-inspired entry named Moo West to a Holy Cow that was perforated with holes. The history of one of Canada’s most successful public art projects is there for everyone to enjoy. Thirteen years later, perhaps it is time for another fun summer public art program. 

Just one of the dozen of so cows that are grazing on the +15 level of the Centennial Parkade.  

Everybody loves a train

Is it just me, or is there something fun about a train?

Did you know that at noon every day, the steam whistle on the Canadian Pacific Railway No. 29 steam locomotive goes off in front of the Gulf Canada Square building on 9th Avenue? Too bad this couldn’t happen more often; it would be great if anyone could come up to the train anytime pull a lever and the whistle would sound. 

I hope downtown doesn’t lose the engine when the railway company moves its headquarters out of downtown. If it is moved, perhaps it could be replaced by a monster oil sands truck. Last time I talked about Spokane’s popular Big Wagon slide. How about we get a decommissioned truck and turn it into a slide? Maybe with a little imagination, it could also become a climbing apparatus for kids. What kid (even dads) wouldn’t want into climb the big truck?

We need some visual reminders downtown that we are one of the world’s leading oil and gas centres. 

The historic Engine #29 sits on Gulf Canada office building which is the head office of the historic Canadian Pacific Railway Ltd. Unfortunately they are moving out of the downtown.   

Climbing walls?

Speaking of climbing, if we want to add some fun to our downtown and give a nod to the Rocky Mountains and our passion for recreation, we need a mega downtown climbing wall. Perhaps we could start by turning the Calgary Tower into a huge climbing wall. Wouldn’t it be fun to watch people climb the outside of the tower? The colourful hand and foot holds, with their funky shapes and patterns would make the tower look like a totem sculpture.

If the Calgary Tower doesn’t work, perhaps an existing or new office developer could create a climbing wall on the outside of their building or in the lobby. Canmore has a climbing wall in their new recreation centre in a space that looks remarkably just like an office lobby — wouldn’t that animate a sterile office building. I could see the space being used by all kinds of people for different events.

For anyone who argues the liability lawyers would have a field day with this idea, I recently toured the University of Idaho’s climbing wall facility, which has one of the highest walls in the world. It turns out injuries are minimal and they have had no liability issues.

The climbing wall located on the main floor of the new Canmore, Alberta recreation centre bears a striking resemblance to an office lobby with its two floor open ceiling. Sure beats a sterile office lobby for animation. 

The University of Idaho in Moscow has once of the tallest climbing walls in the world.  Wouldn't this be a nice addition to downtown Calgary. 

Family days

In the early ’90s, the Calgary Downtown Association organized a Kids’ Days event.

But rather than the usual face-painting and art-making activities, how about an annual or monthly downtown scavenger hunt that encourages families to explore, learn and have fun downtown.

Perhaps it could even be self-guided, encouraging families to find interesting things, such as a bush plane hanging from a ceiling … or a buffalo skeleton … or the Cowabunga skateboarding cow from Udderly Art.

Might we convince Calgary Transit to offer free rides on the LRT to downtown on the first weekend of the month? Kids love to ride the train and come down to the “tall city” (as my nephew used to refer to Calgary’s downtown when he was three years old). 

This is an actual plane hanging from the ceiling of the Suncor Centre.  


Calgary used to have a downtown Santa Claus Parade, creating an annual fun event for families to do in the core. I think some of us still have childhood memories of going downtown to see the animated Christmas windows at The Bay and Eaton’s.

Flagship retailers in New York, Chicago and Paris pride themselves on their magical Christmas windows, attracting tens of thousands of people to their downtowns at Christmas time.

Perhaps we could convince businesses along Stephen Avenue, aka Calgary’s main street, to create amazing Christmas window displays each year that would add some fun and excitement to the street for everyone. While some of the current windows are nice, none have the magic of past Christmases. We need to kick it up a notch, perhaps through a contest with proceeds going to charity

Why wait for, funky, quirky downtown windows should be part of the unique downtown experience all year. 

Kids banners

We could also have an annual fun banner program downtown.  Instead of the text-oriented designs used for most of the current banners, children’s workshops could be organized throughout the city to generate art depicting what they like about Calgary.

Judges could choose which ones get made into banners, while others could be displayed as part of exhibitions at City Hall and the Devonian Gardens.

Everybody loves children’s art as it is always colourful and fun. Imagine if every lamp post downtown had a kid’s banner on it? Imagine how the Seventh Avenue Transit corridor could be transformed into a children’s art gallery — now that would change downtown’s sense of place

Imagine if these LRT station banners used children's art to create a more unique sense of place and play.

FUN Architecture 

The proposed new downtown library is an opportunity waiting for some fun urban design. We should let kids in on designing the library; they did a great job on the Alberta Children’s Hospital. At minimum, they should be part of the creation of the library’s children’s area. 

The proposed Telus Sky building also has an element of fun in its design, which I think (and hope) could probably be played up even more as the design evolves. Maybe one of these two projects could incorporate the climbing wall?

It is not coincidence that the Alberta Children's Hospital looks like it was constructed with lego.  A youth advisory group provide the design team with ideas about what the hospital should look like - big windows and bright colours were two of the suggestions.  The building is both fun and welcoming, something every building should be. 

Some of Calgary's most colourful and fun architecture is hidden from view, like this office building at Canada Olympic Park.  Imagine if this building was along the 7th Avenue Transit corridor or along 9th Avenue as a gateway into downtown.  This makes a fun statement. 

Alley Art Gallery

While recently strolling through downtown Boise, Idaho, my wife and I recently came upon an alley full of young girls and their moms. We wondered what was happening.

It turns out it was a dance company that was using their “Freak Alley” paintings as a backdrop for a photo session. Even a place in a state known for its potato production is willing to fly its freak flag — how fun is that?

 The walls of the buildings facing the alley and an adjacent surface parking lot are full from the ground to the rooftops of street art by numerous artists, whose styles range from graffiti to realism. It is a wonderful outdoor gallery and a nice urban surprise.

If only we use a little imagination and co-operation, Calgary’s downtown has plenty of alleys that could become outdoor art galleries.

 Downtown is already mega urban art park that contains more than 100 public sculptures, not to mention a few murals. Perhaps the city’s bonus density program — a municipal policy that allows developers to build more floors in return for creating public amenities like indoor gardens, plazas, public art and Plus-15 bridges — could include creating an alley art gallery. 

It would be fun to have an alley art walk that people could experience anytime they are downtown. 

Fun art from Boise's Freak Alley.

Calgary does have some fun art like these two sculptures at Bow Valley Square. They always make me smile.

Calgary does have some fun art like these two sculptures at Bow Valley Square. They always make me smile.

Zip Line

Freemont Street in Las Vegas is very much like Stephen Avenue — both are pedestrian malls. One of Freemont’s big attractions is a zip line down the middle of the street.

I am not sure this would work on Stephen Ave, but perhaps it would somewhere else downtown; maybe in Shaw Millennium Park, or in Prince’s Island. How about across the Bow River (a reader once suggested this to me) going both ways.

It could add a whole new dimension for those walking to work and would be a fun activity for Calgarians and visitors.

Freemont Street in old downtown Vegas has a zip line under the white canopy that covers the street for several blocks.  The canopy is used in the evening for a spectacular light show that is set to music.  Now that FUN!

Bring back the neon

In the heyday of downtowns in the mid-20th century, the streets were “brighter,” as ’60s singer Petula Clark once noted in her song, Downtown. But that is not true today. Most of the streets in downtown Calgary are dark, with little or no light on the sidewalks. Any signs you come across are very subtle and corporate.

We need to bring back the flashing blade signs of the neon era that shout out that something fun is happening inside. A great place to start would be to animate the EPCOR Centre and the Glenbow with some great neon signs.

Downtowns across North America use to fun places with lots of colour and street animation animation provided by the flashing bright neon lights. Today there are few of the big, bold beautiful neon signs left.  

Last Word

These are just a few of my wacky FUN ideas I am sure there are more and better one’s out there. Email me your thoughts on how to make our downtown or city centre a more FUN place for everyone and I will tweet and blog them out. 

If you like this blog you might like: 

Freakn Fun in Freak Alley: Boise

FFQing in Tri-cities

Downtown Spokane Fun

An edited version of this blog was first published in the Calgary Herald's Condo section on Saturday, November 23, 2013 with different photographs. 

Downtown Fun Spokane vs Calgary!

By Richard White, November 11, 2013

Recently we were in lovely downtown Spokane staying at the Red Lion Hotel at the Park (yes they have a hotel right on the Spokane River where you can see and hear the water) next to Riverfront Park, home to Expo 1974.  While wandering their downtown we quickly noticed how much more fun their downtown is on a Saturday morning compared to Calgary’s. 

I share the fun things we discovered as a way of incubating ideas on how Calgary' downtown and for that matter any downtown can become more fun.  and other  can add more fun to our downtown. 

A carousel is common place in many cities I have visited - Spokane, Missoula, Helena and places like Paris and Lyon. Why not Calgary?

Every downtown needs a big red wagon or the equivalent in one of their urban parks!

Looff Carousel / Rotary Fountain

Wandering from the Red Lion’s (a fun name for a hotel) gardens to the pedestrian bridge, you immediately enter Riverfront Park.  Within a few minutes, we were intrigued by the sound of carousel music, then by the sight of a Ferris wheel and finally the sight of the 1909 Looff Carousel itself housed in a building allowing for year round use.  (Note: Lucky for us there was a private function so the area was animated with music, movement and people.)  

While Calgary’s Sheraton and Prince’s Island have some of these elements -especially in the summer when the wading pool is open - it doesn’t have the same playfulness.  In Spokane, not only do they have the carousel and Ferris wheel in their downtown park, but they also have a wonderful summer fountain sculpture that kids love to play in and adults use as a meeting place year-round. 

Boo Raddley's is jam packed with fun things. It has the feeling of a carnival.

Fun Retail

Boo Raddley, a quirky store across the street from the Carousel, oozes fun for young and old alike.  Upon walking in you are surrounded by posters of clowns and plastic lion and unicorn heads.  I loved the display case with the ray guns made out of old drills.

Next door is a unique gift/coffee shop called Atticus. The saying on the large mural “Shoot all the blue jays you want but…it a sin to kill a mocking bird” immediately tells you this place is full of fun. And it doesn’t disappoint.

Around the corner is an "Apple" store. Even at 10 am the place is packed with smiling people - the place bubbles with fun. I am not sure what it is about "Apple" products and "fun" but they seem to go together.  I can't believe downtown Calgary doesn't have an Apple store yet!  

Later in the day we came upon the bright pink Brutties Gourmet Candy Shoppe, with the look and feel of an old tyme candy shop. After seeing their made-on-site selection of candy, chocolates and fudge and tasting soft peanut brittle their invention, I was literally smiling like a kid in a candy shop.

Soon after, we found Annie’s Bookstore - every downtown needs a bookstore like Annie’s with its fun children’s area and separate room for gamer geeks to hang out.  Calgary used to have a signature downtown bookstore – remember McNally Robinson?  

Even the +15 bridges have a sense of fun in their design and colour.

Mobius Children’s Museum

Our spiny senses told us the Riverfront Park and fun retail didn’t completely explain the Saturday morning downtown animation.  Walking along Main Street we soon figured out why – the children’s museum was located on Main Street as part of Riverfront Square (think Stephen Avenue and The Core). 

The entrance right off Main Street was nondescript; you could easily miss it.  However, once you find it, there is a fun quirky design element - it has two doors - one for big people and one for little people (or big people with a sense of play). How fun!

Inside, the place was hopping and it was only 10:30 am.  It is not a big space but it has 7 or 8, regularly changing activity centers at any given time.  By the buzz, it was obvious everyone was having fun.  We were told on a typical Saturday in fall, they have 750 to 1,000 people visit. 

They even have a “drop and shop” program several times of year (Christmas, Valentine’s Day, Mother’s Day) where parents can drop off their kids ($15 each for 3 hours) and parents can go play elsewhere.

You gotta give credit to the person who designed this entrance. Talk about fun, a sense of place and authenticity; this is good urban street design.

 Parkade Signage

Outside again, we noticed the signage to the Riverfront Square parkade was colourful and fun, not your usual minimal colourless signage that you can’t find even when you know it is there. 

One of the tallest structures in the downtown, the Parkade sign above the city’s 10-story above ground parkade built for the Expo ’74, is now a mid-century modern architectural icon.

There are also several older neon signs that signify the entrance to parkades built much earlier.  I love the ironic neon “Every Green Parking” sign probably from the ‘30s. 

Downtown signage use to be fun, especially in the neon era when almost all signage was big, bold and flashy - I long for the return of the neon craze.

To me this is the perfect parking garage sign. It is easy to see from a distance day or night and it is whimsical. We need to bring back more neon signs!


Mobius Science Centre

Across the street from the Children’s Museum and Riverfront Square sits the new Science Centre, which opened just a year ago. A shame its entrance isn’t very inviting and there is not attempt to connect it with the Children’s Museum or to say, “science is fun.” However once inside, there are strong elements of fun from a paper airplane challenge to the basketball jump competition.

At the entrance are live snakes, frogs, turtles and tarantulas with a quote the floor “Kissing will not produce princes. Handling will not cause warts.” Again, the Centre is not huge, maybe 15 or so activity area but judging by the squealing, jumping and laughing, there were lots of children and adults have fun while learning.

When was the last time you saw hundreds of kids running around Calgary’s downtown having fun? If downtown is truly the heart of the city, shouldn’t it be attractive to everyone, not just the corporate crusaders? 

Perhaps we made a mistake taking our science centre out of the downtown. Riding the bus or train including walking through the +15 walkway to get to the science centre use to be part of the fun downtown adventure for our visiting nieces and nephews.

This was our new friend showing us how this exhibit worked. She probably spent 30 minutes with us showing us how everything worked and encouraging us to give it a try. Too much fun!


Big Red Wagon and Building Blocks

Wandering back to the Red Lion through Riverfront Park again, we came upon more families milling about the big (and I mean BIG) Radio Flyer red wagon slide.  Standing 12 feet tall, 12 feet wide and 27 feet long and weighing 26 tons, the wagon so big moms and dads can and do climb unabashedly up into it and slide down with their kids.

Next to the wagon, are a dozen or so concrete cubes painted like children’s blocks for climbing and sitting. Even when there are no kids around, I highly suspect the scene generates more than a few smiles from passersby.

Making a downtown an urban playground should be more than just fun things for adults i.e. boutiques, restaurants, pubs, lounge and bars. I love to hang out in our downtown during the International Children’s Festival; too bad we couldn’t make our downtown more child friendly year-round. Or can we?

How fun and creative are these children blocks for kids to sit and climb on?

Even the shoppers were having fun. These one's were laughing so hard my camera couldn't get a clear picture. Everywhere we went people were having fun.

Gondola Ride

Of course, one of the most fun things to do in downtown Spokane is to ride gondola over the roaring Spokane Falls. It drops you 200 feet into the river gorge over the falls and under the Monroe Street Bridge, offering outstanding views of the falls and historic architecture of the downtown.  If you are lucky, you can open the windows and take a close-up picture of a rainbow.

Though in Calgary you can float down the Bow River and maybe even catch a Rainbow trout, it is tough to beat the fun factor of Spokane’s Sky Ride ($10 for 15 minutes), ranked this year by Conte Nast Traveler as one of the top gondola rides in the world.

Red Lion Hotel

Earlier that morning at the Red Lion on the Park, we were surprised at the sheer number of families having breakfast.  Later, as we were leaving for downtown, we discovered why.  The hotel has an outdoor pool area (complete with waterslide, waterfall, hot tub and huge patio – very resort-like), as well as an indoor pool and hot tub we noticed earlier. However it wasn’t until we returned after our day of flaneuring downtown that we found the children’s outdoor playground.  I am not aware of any downtown hotel in Calgary or anywhere for that matter with this big of a commitment to family fun. 

The Red Lion Parkside hotel's pool is also a hidden gem with its 28-foot waterslide and 6-foot rainbow LED light waterfall cascading from a lush native Northwest landscape scene. The pool has a fun history. When it was first opened in 1983, the hotel manager, losing a bet with the contractor that the pool wouldn’t be ready for the grand opening, had to go down the waterslide in his business suit. The manager, Don Barbieri, is now Chairman of the Board of Directors for Red Lions Hotels Corporation.

In keeping with tradition, current General Manager Patrick Shimon also was the first to go down the waterslide – and in his business suit - after the 2012 renovations. (photo, Spokane Review).

How about this fun piece of public art? Gives a new perspective on jogging!

Last Word

I have said it before and I will say it again “downtown Calgary is too corporate!”  Why do downtown office buildings have to be so lifeless and visually minimal?  Why can’t they have more color and ornamentation?  Why can’t their entrances and lobbies be more inviting and visually interesting?  

Maybe Suncor Centre could have one of the monster oilsand trucks on the plaza in front of their building – wouldn’t that make a fun statement?  Let the kids climb up and play on it.  Maybe make it into a giant slide?

To be fair there are some fun things in our downtown, but that will be the subject of another column.  

Love to hear about what fun things there are to see and do in your downtown! Send me your comments.


If you like this blog you might like: 

 Off The Beaten Path In Spokane 

Discovering Calgary's Secret Heritage Trail 

Calgary's Cafe Culture  

Largest Bike Shop in North America  

An edited version of this blog was published in the Calgary Herald's, New Condos section, November 9, 2013.