Calgarians embrace winter.

By Richard White, December 26, 2013

I eagerly looked forward to reading Jeremy Klaszus’ Urban Compass column on what we could learn from Edmonton regarding embracing winter (Calgary’s Metro newspaper on December 23, 2013). However, I was disappointed that while the column talked about Edmonton’s policies and strategies for embracing winter, there was no real evidence they were actually doing so. 

I was expecting to hear about thousands of people skating on quaint neighbourhood ponds evenings and weekends. Maybe about hundreds of people enjoying community toboggan hills with pop-up food trucks, or new ideas for designing playgrounds for year-round use.  Rather I read about a vision of a vibrant winter city that is yet to be realized. 

Read Klaszus' Urban Compass column "Let's do what Edmonton does."

Since Klaszus' column there have been numerous articles in the media about Calgary's winter activities including Annalise Klingbeil's "Backyard rinks make comeback in Calgary" which addresses the many backyard rinks in Calgary inlcuding Snider's curling rink and Rosemont Ice Guys. Read more.



Calgary's Bowness Lagoon is one of the world's best outdoor skating rinks.  Unfortunately it is closed this winter due to the flood. 

Winter Event Experiments

Calgary has experimented with numerous major winter events over the past 30+ years.  After the 1988 Winter Olympics, annual attempts were made to have a winter carnival in the middle of February.  Several locations were tried – Canada Olympic Park, Olympic Plaza, Prince’s Island and Calgary Zoo - but eventually organizers had to accept there was no support for it. 

This was very disappointing as Quebec City (one of our sister cities) has probably the best winter festival in the world.   You’d think we could learn from them how to plan a major winter festival.

In the past, Calgary has also experimented with a First Night Festival (New Years Eve), which many cities established late in the 20th Century, but again the support for such a winter celebration died a slow death.  

Stephen Avenue with its wonderful winter lights and +15 connections to hotels and office buildings is an indoor outdoor adaptation to winter in Calgary where the temperature can be -30 one day and +10 the next. 

Winnipeg does it best?

Recently, while doing some research on Winnipeg, I discovered they might in fact be the leader in Canada for urban winter activities.  Did you know Winnipeg has the world’s longest skating rink? Yes, longer than Ottawa’s Rideau Canal! 

The Forks, Winnipeg’s equivalent of Granville Island or Calgary’s Stampede Park has numerous outdoor winter activity areas including an Olympic-size skating rink, 1.2 km of skating trails, a snowboard fun park, a toboggan run and warming huts designed by the likes of world renowned architect Frank Gehry.  

They even have Raw: Almond the world’s first pop-up restaurant on a frozen river.  See more winter programming ideas from Winnipeg at the end of the blog.

Thousands of people enjoy the world's longest skating rink in Winnipeg.  Perhaps Calgary could convert some if its pathway system into a skating trail.  (photo courtesy of Tourism Winnipeg) 

Can’t compete with mountains?

I can’t help but wonder if the reason Calgarians don’t embrace winter in large number in our urban parks and public spaces is because we have such a wonderful winter wonderland outside the city.  On any given winter weekend, tens of thousands of Calgarians are in Canmore, Banff, Fernie and Invermere, as well as places in between, skiing, snowboarding, snowshoeing and cross country skiing.

While these outdoor winter activities are available in Edmonton, Quebec City and Winnipeg they are not as prevalent, accessible or grand as Calgary’s. 

Camore Nordic Centre is just one of hundreds of places in the Rockies that thousands of Calgarians, Albertans and tourist flock to in winter to embrace winter. 

Livable Winter Cities Movement

In fact, Calgary was one of the early members of the international winter cities movement in the early ‘80s.  I remember chatting with Calgary planner Harold Hanen (I believe he was one of the founding members) about how we could encourage Calgarians to embrace winter.  Yes Hanen, was the same guy who championed Calgary’s +15 walkway system, which was an adaptation to winter, as was Devonian Gardens.  

At that time urban thinkers were focus on how to mitigate winter by allowing for summer activities indoors.  Our regional recreation centres are part of that thinking with their indoor wave pools, gyms, skating rinks and climbing walls.  

In various chats, with Hanen and other planners, as well as 10 years of trying to develop outdoor winter programming on Stephen Avenue, Olympic Plaza and Prince’s Island I came to the conclusion Calgary probably has as much winter outdoor urban vitality as we are going to get.

Winter Patios?

Klasuzus’ article talks about crating a year-round patio culture, which is a great idea in theory, but downtown Calgary with its concentration of office towers doesn’t allow for any sun on sidewalks.  Winnipeg, Edmonton and places like Copenhagen (thought to be the mecca of winter cities by most planners) have few tall buildings so maybe they will be more successful with winter patios.   

Did you know that all downtown office buildings have conducted shadow and wind studies for many years?  While there are some things you can do to mitigate the sun and wind tunnels created by tall buildings there is only so much you can do? 

It is unfortunate The Bow Tower’s southwest facing plaza doesn’t have patio or even some benches would be a welcome addition to those who want to sit and enjoy the sculpture “Wonderland.”

That being said there are some good winter patios in Calgary.  The Ship & Anchor’s south facing patio on 17th Ave is a very popular winter hangout when the sun is shinning and Chinooks blow in.   Similarly on 10th Street in Kensington, the Roasterie’s west facing pocket plaza is a popular place for SAIT and ACAD students to hang out on a sunny winter afternoon.   

In West Hillhurst, Dairy Lane's east facing patio is very popular and is used almost year-round with the help of blankets and heaters.

Olympic Plaza also gets good sun in the winter for skating and would be a great spot for a winter patio; however, it has never attracted large numbers of skaters.


The Ship & Anchor patio and 17th avenue are full of people in March 2013.  

Do Calgarians embrace winter more than we think?

Recently I have chatted with a number of people about winter activities in the city and found out there is more happening than I thought. 

A father of three and ringette coach informed me in Cranston they have an outdoor community rink (with an ice plant to allow for longer use), that is so heavily used they could easily use a second one.  He says it is the same for all of the southeast communities.  He was hoping to find some outdoor ice time for ringette practices at one of the local outdoor rinks, but no luck.

Did you know there are over 100 outdoor rinks in Calgary?

The city of Calgary has five major rinks in Marlborough Park, Carburn Park, Olympic Plaza, Prince’s Island and Prairie Winds (Bowness Park rink is closed this year), as well as 34 “adopt-a-rink” in smaller community parks.  Note: Carburn Park has been expanded with larger ice rink and fire pits due to closure of  Bowness Park. 

All of Calgary’s lake communities have outdoor rinks, as do many of Calgary’s over 200 Community Associations.  One hundred rinks at 100 people per day on weekends would be 10,000 people embracing winter – the number could easily be 20,000 on some days! 

In chatting with other friends they informed me Confederation Park has groomed cross- country ski trails.  A quick check of the City’s website and you find out Shaganappi Point, Confederation and Maple Ridge Golf Courses all have groomed trails.  Ungroomed trails can be found in Weaselhead, Edworthy, Fish Creek and North and South Glemore Parks.  There could easily be a couple of a couple of thousand people embracing winter on these trails on weekends and unless you were there you wouldn't know.  I expect snowshoeing also happens in these and other parks.

Tobboggans / Dogs

The City of Calgary website lists 18 toboggan hills in the city, with the St. Andrew’s Heights hill often cited as the best. I expect there are at least 20 unofficial toboggan hills in the city.   If 100 people used say 25 toboggan hills on a Saturday or Sunday that would be 2,500 Calgarians embracing winter.

Calgary’s dog parks are also busy in the winter with literally thousands of people walking their dog morning, noon and night regardless of the weather.  Did you know Calgary has 150 off-leash areas across the city?  If 100 people on average used each dog park per day that would be 15,000 people embracing winter daily.

Then of course there is Canada Olympic Park with it multi-use winter sports activities, which attracts thousands of Calgarians especially in the evenings and weekends. 

A local rink is used by thousands each winter to learn to skate and play hockey. Often they are next to summer playgrounds turning the space into year-round park.  

Last word

Klaszus ends his column with “If you can’t beat winter, join it.”  I am guess there are over 50,000 people embracing winter on any give Saturday or Sunday. I am thinking that many Calgarians indeed do embrace winter, each in our own way.  Calgary is a city of recreation, we like to get out and do things rather than sit on patios and philosophize. 

While some Calgarians complain about the winter roads and sidewalks, most of us are indeed out enjoying winter activities.  The media sometimes gives a distorted view of Calgary by catering to the complainers! 

If you like this blog, you might like:

Does Calgary have an inferiority complex?

Calgary City of Parks & Pathways 

Calgary Dog Park Capital of North America?

This blog also inspired another blog about "winter" by The23rdStory that looks at both Edmonton and Calgary from a more personal perspective.  Great read...Winter

Readers' Comments:

CW writes from Edmonton:  On a plus 2 Celsius Christmas night we walked the seven blocks of Edmonton's Candy Cane Lane up and down. Lots of people out. This year we were surprised that at least 80 percent of the talk on our walk was not English - most commonly Russian/east European, followed by Chinese, and Indian/south Asian. China and India are our biggest sources of immigration, after the Philippines (and they were there too, I think, but not talking as audibly).

To build our winter culture in Alberta, we should look at inviting those of other cultures that have longer traditions of living socially outdoors, and, as you propose, use technology to support the participants. Of course, through Aboriginals, Alberta has the greatest tradition of outdoor living, but I didn't see them out that night.

A parade of dog walker in January, in River Park, in Altadore is a common sight.   

More lessons from Winnipeg

Perhaps there are some more lessons to be learned from Winnipeg.  Brenda reminded me that a few years back they had a friendly community snowman making competition. Everyone was invited to make a snowman on their front lawn and they wander around looking at each others creation.  I thought it was a great idea at the time and still do.

I couldn't find anything on line to see if it is still happening. Too bad, as it is a simple and inexpensive way to get everyone out embracing winter and meeting their neighbours.  

I have certainly noticed more snowman in Calgary this year with our record December snowfall. I am thinking a Snowman Weekend festival would be easy to organize. Could be an impromptu festival that happens when we have snow and weather permitting.  

This could be the tallest snowman I have ever seen over 15 feet.  Somebody in Calgary was embracing winter. The park across the street from our house now has 3 snowman. 

I found this old relic of a toboggan slide in a playground area with an outdoor rink and summer playing fields in Winnipeg this past November.  I have never seen these anywhere else but Winnipeg. What a great idea to make playgrounds year-round attractions for families. 

Winter photography great fun....mountain or city! This image is from Grassi Lake trail...Canmore AB!

Saskatoon city trekkers recommend exploring Calgary and other second tier cities....

Guest Blog by two city trekkers from Saskatoon who love to explore cities around the world who recently discovered Calgary has more charm and character than they originally thought. 

Over the past few years we have been able to travel the planet studying the city building experiments that are currently taking place in Europe, Asia, Africa and many American urban areas. It has been an education and we lament the state of most Canadian cities including Calgary. My wife and I have visited Calgary many times over the past 30 years and we even lived there once upon a time.  Usually when we are in Calgary we are visiting friends and relatives, so don't have time to explore, however a few weeks ago we found ourselves in a unique position - we had a free Monday morning to spend in Calgary.

What to do?  We asked ourselves, what would Richard do?  Then, we asked Richard himself.

Based on his recommendations, we spent a wonderful morning enjoying the inner-city Ramsay and Inglewood communities. These areas are enjoying a wonderful urban transformation. We spotted the upside down church right away and then, as he said, Café Rosso was a great place to start exploring. We made new friends with some very creative people over coffee and muffins. Then, because the major galleries were closed on Monday, we just walked the streets of this colourful neighbourhood where you see yards that must have had artists in residence. There are a rich variety of small stores along Inglewood’s historic main street including a fascinating bookstore with nooks and crannies of art on an upper level.

Cafe Rosso located off the beaten path in an industrial building which has been rebranded as Ramsay Exchange with plans to become a mixed-use urban development with offices, retail and condos. It is a popular spot for the Ramsay hipsters to hang out.

Fair's Fair Books combined with Galleria is an urban trekker's hidden gem for hipsters, as well as others. 

Unlike most Saskatoon people, we are not encumbered by a cottage at the lake, which means we can explore cities all over North America and the world. We are writing this from Prince Edward County in Ontario where we are currently having a wine tasting weekend with friends from Burlington. Two weeks ago we had our bicycles in Minneapolis for a week. This is the perfect way to explore their incredible residential urban lake districts. We love exploring cities.

We are pretty sure this is a trend that involves more folks than us and Richard White. On our latest trip we met some other Saskatchewan folks in the airport who have created their own version of NAFTA. For them it stands for the "North American Fun Travel Arrangement." Twice a year they meet their Texas friends in a new city for fun and urban adventure. They take turns between Canada and the USA. Each couple is responsible for the basic accommodation and activity arrangements in their home country.

In our view, city holidays are a great way to go. It’s great to visit New York, San Francisco and Chicago, but everyone does that. There are so many other interesting places to explore. Some of our favorites include Winnipeg, Kansas City, Pittsburg, Omaha, Memphis, Cleveland, Philadelphia, Minneapolis and now Calgary. There is plenty of fun to be had in these lesser known cities if you are prepared to explore and ask locals for recommendations. They are less expensive, have fewer line-ups, wide selections of amazing VRBO’s and generally people are friendly and happy you came to visit their city. 

Winnipeg is probably not on the top of most urban explorers' "must see" list.  However, projects like the "Ice Huts" make The Forks one of the best urban renewal projects in North America.  Winnipeg is also home to the "Exchange District" one of the best collection of early 20th century architecture in Canada, maybe North America. 

Minneapolis is one of North America's leading cycling cities.  We had to check it out for ourselves.  The Walker Art Gallery is another must see North American gem. 

The San Antonio Library is perhaps the most fun architecture we have encountered in our travels around the world.  Who wouldn't want to go inside? 

Another fun place to explore in San Antonio is the Blue Star Art Complex it is just as interesting inside as it is outside.  We love old industrial sites that have been repurposed.  

We would not have found Ramsay, Café Rosso and the “upside down church” without advice from a local. A downtown concierge would have not have made this recommendation.  The church (Dennis Oppenheim's "Device to Root Out Evil) was interesting on a number of levels. It raises some interesting theological issues and even calls to mind the bumper sticker, "I'm in favor of the separation of church and hate". It was executed with excellent craftsmanship in a deconstructionist style. The scale was completely appropriate to the context. Too often, public art and the space it occupies are not really synergistic. 

Another observation from our recent “off the beaten path” experience in Calgary would be how easy it was to make personal connections in the shops. The owner of the metal shop in Inglewood was interesting and personable. We have seen recycling stores before, but the one on 9th was staffed by an owner/operator. We ended up buying things we didn't need while discussing ideas for products they could add to their inventory. For a city of over one million, Calgary still has lots of areas with small town charm.  

"Device to Root Out Evil" was created by Dennis Oppenheim in 1997.  It is a compelling 6 meter tall glass, steel and aluminum sculpture on loan to the Glenbow Museum from Vancouver's Benefic Foundation.

Mr. Wrought Iron is an example of the eclectic mix of local businesses in the Inglewood Ramsay district. 

How cool is this entrance patio/plaza to DaDE Art & Design? 

Saskatoon Urban Trekker also explored the residential streets in the area with their charming early 20th century CPR worker homes that have been adopted by artists who have added charm with front lawn patios, sculptures and murals.  

We were surprised at how easy it was to find a parking space, even for an F-150 extended cab 4x4. We had read Calgary has some of the most expensive parking in North America, not true in Ramsay and Inglewood.

It's sad that many Calgarians are not aware of what they have at their doorstep and do not take the time to find out. Get out and explore! Urban tourists and especially those from Calgary need to add CALGARY to their bucket list. 

Saskatoon Urban Trekker