Calgary's Million Dollar Communities

By Richard White, December 2, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

Britannia: Model Community Development 

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

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

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

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

Plaza / High Street 

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

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

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

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

Smaller than you think

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

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

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

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

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

British Theme

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

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

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

Last Word 

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

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

If you like this blog you might like: 

Country Estate Living 

Be a tourist in your own neighbourhood

Estate Communities vs Urban Villages

Urban Cottages

Reader comments:

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


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! 


Working together to make Calgary better!

By: Richard White, November 5, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

ICC: Innovation/Competition/Co-operation

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

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

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

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

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


Extraordinary Community Engagement  


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

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

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

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


Calgary is innovative!


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

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

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


Key ideas for Rangeview



Wetlands/ Linear Park



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

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

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

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

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


Community Retail Hub


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




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

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

Last Word

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

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

Beltline: North America's best hipster/gabester community?

By Richard White / October 31, 2013 

This blog is from my White House column in the Calgary Herald's Neighbours section. It was published on October 31, 203.

 Upon returning from a recent trip to Chicago and Portland, where I explored several urban villages including Wicker Park and Bucktown (Chicago) and Pearl District (Portland), considered two of the best hipster communities in the USA (Forbes, September 2012), I couldn’t help but reflect upon Calgary’s Beltline community. Shouldn’t it be on the list of best hipster communities in North America? I might even venture to say it may be THE best!

If you don't believe me, perhaps you will believe Josh Noel travel writer for Chicago Tribune who recently wrote: "Calgary pedal to the metal."

Beltline hipsters (GABEsters) hanging out on 17th Ave in March. 

New condos Portland's Pearl District are very similar to what you see in Calgary in massing and design.

Eight High Streets

For one thing, the Beltline has not just one, but eight pedestrian streets. First, Fourth, Eighth, Eleventh and Fourteenth Streets all have funky local shops, cafes, pubs, galleries and restaurants as do 11th 12th and 17th Avenues. 

And numerous ones are signature spots - O’Connors (First Street), Rose and Crown, REDS, Boxwood and Sony Store (4th Street), Bonterra, Trepanier Baer Gallery, Mountain Equipment Co-op, Modern Jelly Donut and Kawa Café (8th Street), Gallaxy Diner, Good Earth Café and Katmandu Grocery (11th Avenue) and Heritage Posters and Music and Boyd’s Lobster Shop (14th Street). 

Each of these streets has a very Jane Jacobs (1960s champion of urban street life) feel - lots of little shops, owned and operated by locals.

In addition, the Design district along 10th and 11th Avenues with Bo Concepts, Heavens Fitness, Herringer Kiss, Paul Kuhn and New Zones galleries, Metro Vino and Cookbook Company as its anchors.  

The district also is home to three grocery stores – Calgary Co-op, Safeway and Community Natural Foods (a magnet for hipsters). Lastly, Calgary’s premier urban street, 17th Avenue the Beltline’s southern boundary, is home to Calgary icons like Ship & Anchor pub, Brava Bistro, Café Beano, Rubaiyat and Reids Stationers. 

The Beltline includes five districts - Warehouse district, Victoria Park, Design District,  Gear District anchored by Mountain Equipment Co-op and 17th Ave. 

Calgary's 17th Avenue's "GABEster" corner is a popular place for Calgary's "young & restless" to hang out.  It is full of bistros, cafes, boutiques and new condos.  It is sometimes referred to as the RED Mile for the sea of red shirted sports fans that gather here for hockey celebrations.  It currently has be re-branded as RED which stands for Retail Entertainment District.  

Haultain Park in the Beltline is a busy place with a very active playground and sports field.  Old and new condos surround the park. 


Walk 2 Work 

There are very few urban villages in North America where you can walk to 160,000 jobs as easily (10 to 15 minutes) as you can from the Beltline. Separated from Calgary’s dense downtown office core by the Canadian Pacific Railway’s main TransCanada tracks, Beltliners make the grungy trek through the underpasses to and from work.

While plans are in place to beautify the underpasses, part of the charm and history of the Beltline is the urban grit and patina that comes from decades of use.

The 8th Street underpass linking the beltline to the downtown core is a good example of the urban grit that is part of hip urban living. 

New Condos On Every Block

It seems like every block in the Beltline these days have a new condo being built. However, if you walk the streets, you find there is an amazing array of different types of housing – high, mid and low-rise condos, townhouses and single-family homes. 

Every street is a patchwork quilt of old and new, small and large residential structures of different designs and materials, combining to create a rich, residential visual impact. In addition, most of the avenues are lined with mature trees, creating a delightful canopy that is synonymous with quality residential communities in North America.

 One of the benchmarks of a good urban community is diversity of housing which in turn attracts a diversity of people of all ages and backgrounds.

The pool at Hotel Arts is a gathering place for GABEsters in the Beltline.  Does it get any hipper than this? 

The Ship & Anchor is the Beltline's signature hang-out for people of all ages and backgrounds

Density & Diversity 

Today the Beltline is home to 20,000 Calgarians, 40% of whom are between 25 and 34 years of age (more than twice the city average) and 60% have never been married.  Unquestionably, the Beltline is where Calgary’s young hip professions “live, work and play” (36% have a university degree or higher vs. 25% city-wide). 

At the same time, it is also home to two of Calgary’s major social services agencies (Mustard Seed and Alpha House) and a smattering of seniors’ residents. The net result is the Beltline has a wonderful mix of people of all ages and backgrounds who call it home - exactly what an urban village should be!

Just to the north of the Beltline is Calgary's downtown core with over 40 million square feet of office space. It has one of the highest concentrations of corporate headquarters in North America. It is where the GABEsters work. The building in the foreground is the MEC (Mountain Equipment Co-op) which anhcors the Gear District as there are several sporting goods and bike shops in the area. 


The Beltline is one of Calgary’s newest communities formed in 2003, when the Connaught (west of 4th Street) first established in 1905 merged with the Victoria Park (east of 4th Street) established in 1914. As such, it lays claim to some of Calgary’s best heritage sites - Central Memorial Library, oldest library in Alberta, Haultain School, Calgary’s first school, Memorial Park, one of the oldest urban parks in Canada and Lougheed House one of Calgary’s first mansions. 

The Beltline name comes from the No. 5 trolley which in the first half of the 20th century circled back and forth on the avenues the Beltline and connected it to downtown in belt-line like manner in the first half of the 20th century. For more information on Beltline history go to

New +/- 20 storey condos are popping up on almost every block in the Beltline. 


Calgary’s hipsters are unique as they are more likely to be clean shaven, Armani suit wearing, geologists, accountants, bankers, brokers and engineers, than bearded, skinny jeans and plaid shirt artists, writers and musicians. 

But let it be understood they definitely love their Saturday music jams, bowling alley, craft beer drinking, gallery strolls, food trucks and festival fun as with any hipster. Perhaps we need to coin a new term  “GABEsters” (Geologists, Accountants, Bankers/Brokers and Engineers).

Future GABEsters also love playing in the Beltline. Does it get any better than this?  

Not only are there 8 pedestrian streets but there is also alley shopping.   

The Beltline's Design District is a fun place to flaneur on weekends.  

Chicago's Bucktown is much older and as a result has much more urban grit than Calgary's Beltline.

The Beltline's Victoria Park district has a mix of old and new, high-end fashion shops and funky pubs and clubs. There 100+ historical buildings and sites in the Beltline. 

Inn from the Cold is just one of several major social agencies that call the Beltline home.

No hipster village would be complete without at least one thrift store.  The IODE thrift store has been in the Beltline for a long as I can remember 20+ years?

The Beltline's warehouse district is getting a major makeover with old buildings being renovated and expanded and new ones being built.  What hipster wouldn't want to work in the Biscuit Block? 


 HH writes: "I like the way you describe the beltline but here is a question for you- why doesn't this area have the reputation some similar areas have in other cities?  What does it need to have a place identity that attracts visitors?  The Red Mile was developing that kind of identity but then of course they shut it down because it was too uni-dimensional.  What is needed to make it a true gathering place and destination for residents elsewhere in the city or tourists?  I think you uncover very interesting stuff that most Calgarians either take for granted or do not even recognize but the place has no identity that is widely recognized.  We need more people like you to point all this out to us."

JM writes: "Great read! It's got some interesting perspective to it, one that probably eludes lots of folks."

CW writes: "I remember Beltline when I moved to Calgary from Ontario in '81: there was a diner intact from the 40s, but not celebrated as retro, called the Lido, I think; a couple of used record shops; the IODE thrift shop that sold vintage western clothing that I could no longer fit into (if I still had the items); the Muttart Gallery, of course; and a bit later an artists' co-op where they showed godawful art videos, as well as a folly of a record store 100% devoted to jazz. It was all good enough for me to buy a condo alongside the Beltline three years later.

I don't know if you're correct to say that Beltline doesn't have the past of the Chicago district, it would be correct to say that a good part of it has been diminished - the folly part of it. I think your column nails it when it says the it's professional population distinguishes this district. There's no reason that Calgary should be the same as Chicago or Portland, and I am looking forward to seeing the "place identity" (sought by the commentator) that this population produces."

GG writes: "I like the term Gabesters."  

ST writes: "Not sure about Beltline being the hippest in N. America, but it feels good when I read your stuff...and yes, most people do not have a clue what good stuff we have, so keep reminding the public with your good blogs.

Was wandering in the Beltline today and came across this sign which I thought illustrates just how hip the Beltline is.   The neighborhood is full of historic churches which have become community centers for various ethnic and arts groups including Calgary Opera. Jane Jacobs would have loved the Beltline.

During the 1988 Winter Olympics 11th Avenue was branded as "Electric Avenue" for its concentration of bars.  Today it is a mix of bars, shops, restaurants and galleries.   It is a GABEster hang-out!

GABEsters love their bikes even if it means hanging them over the balcony! 

Does Calgary have an "urban inferiority complex?"

By Richard White, September 11, 2013

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

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

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

Show me the jelly... 

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


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

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

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


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

Bring back the "Mom & Pop"

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


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

Dare to be different!

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

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

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

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


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

Be Brave

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

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


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

New Downtown Office Towers:

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

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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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Does Calgary need an urban beach?

By Richard White, September 7, 2013


JT writes:

How about a "pop-up beach." Next summer after spring run-off people could just bring their own chairs, coolers, blankets, yoga mats etc and we could convert the gravel bars into beaches.  Could be impromptu or could be organized like a community garage sale.  Sometimes the best things are spontaneous rather than planned.

 Everyone loves the beach

'Recently, a friend suggested to me that Calgary should have an urban beach and with the recent flood reconfiguring both the Bow and Elbow Rivers there are lots of new gravel bars that would make great beaches.  Calgary’s inner city has traditionally had two rock beaches that are popular summer playgrounds – Edworthy Park and Sandy Beach. The latter is a misnomer as there is no sand, but perhaps that speaks to the fact that Calgarians are so desperate for a beach anything that resembles a beach will do.

Edworthy Park on the west side of the Calgary's city centre is a very popular gravel beach. 

Edworthy Park on the west side of the Calgary's city centre is a very popular gravel beach. 

Sandy beach is at the southern edge of Calgary's city centre and is a very popular summer picnic area.  

Everyone else has one!

But Paris has perhaps the most famous river beaches.  Initiated by Mayor Bertand Delanoe in 2002, the “Paris Plage” program has been a huge success.  In 2013, there were three temporary beaches, each open to the public at no charge from 8 am to midnight in the summer months.  There is also a popular free summer concert program associated with the beaches.  The beaches attract thousand of locals and visitors every day in the summer.

An urban or city beach is defined by most as an existing open space that is artificially transformed into a beach with the use of sand, umbrellas and seating elements.  It does not included swimming or any natural slopping to the water’s edge.  The urban beach often is part of the “urban surprise” as it is inserted into the urban fabric in an unexpected but pleasant way. While urban beaches are often at the waters edge they can be over a parking lot, road or town square.  They are most often temporary. 

In Frankfurt, we experienced what we call the “green beach,” which extended the length of the river through the city centre.  The “green beach” was a simple, open lawn adjacent to the river and pedestrian bike path.  It is a great place where people of all ages love to sit, have a picnic and people watch.  It was a great gathering place for locals and tourists alike.  We were also able to watch the barges go by, as well as boaters of all types.  There was even a place to grab a beer - in a glass stein nonetheless - and go back to the beach to enjoy the animation.  How civilized! 

One of Paris' popular beaches.  Note it is beside the river not on the river's edge.  It is more like a huge patio. 

Frankfurt's green beach with beer vendor is just a narrow lawn area between the road above and the pathway along the water.  

Green Beach

Does Calgary needs/deserves an urban beach. I understand the plans for St. Patrick’s Island redevelopment call for many exciting amenities to be added to the park but there are no plans for an urban beach.  Missed opportunity? 

Maybe, like Paris we need three beaches – Edworthy, Eau Claire and East Village.  However, given the dramatic changes in our rivers I am thinking we should look at Frankfurt’s “green beach” concept which would keep our urban beaches well away from the water’s edge, but with good view lines to the pathways and water.  

The Crowchild Trail gravel bar has the look of a white sand beach complete with its own lagoon and blue/green water. 

Lots of fun things can happen on the beach.  Just happened to catch this couple either getting married on the Edworthy beach or having their wedding pictures taken. 

Calgary's Newest Urban Village?

BH wrote:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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Olympic Plaza needs mega makeover?

Reader Comments re: Olympic Plaza needs a mega makeover?

BB writes:  "You have touched a soft spot for me with Olympic Plaza.  Although I think Parks has done a stellar job at dressing up what is there (putting lipstick on a pig ? – oops was that my outside voice)  I agree it’s time for a makeover – the Olympics ended 25 years ago and the site needs to be repurposed – I was so excited about the potential for  German Christmas market but sad it did not get legs.  The Olympic Plaza is very much under utilized and filled with potential as a gathering place.  I have and continue to travel extensively and always comment on how every major city I visit the first thing you do is head for the centre city where all the history and action/interest is.  Every day | see and often engage with visitors in our DT who seem to be looking for something.  Mayor Bronconnier started things going by putting police an bylaw into the core to clean it up as well as Parks and Roads resources.  Next we need to make it an exciting place to be especially evenings and weekends."

Derek Besant on his  Olympic Plaza SONGLINES project: 

The concept was to design several gestures that would somehow be in proximity to one another around and in visual distance to Olympic Plaza.  Each site required negotiations with the building owners, and requirements to attach mount systems to the exteriors of their faces.  

I titled them: SONGLINES, based upon research into how Indigenous myth and story-telling was preserved, as part of my job in the early to mid 1970's as Exhibition Designer for the (then new) Glenbow Museum construction downtown.

At the time, I was investigating finer optic technology, and the challenge was to create drawn gestures that were NOT interpreted as advertising or logos, but would simply be drawn line forms.  The subjective aspect was that the linear forms would "talk" top one another by shifting colour ranges, as a rhythmic dialogue amongst them.  There are five in operation on various sites:

  • Rocky Mountain Plaza, 
  • Teatro Restaurant, 
  • The Glenbow Museum, 
  • Epcore Centre for Performing Arts, 
  • City Hall

All were installed successfully, and a sixth was planned out for the West corner of the Performing Arts building near street level; but never went ahead.  Each drawing was finally selected from pages and pages fill of gesture drawings as exercises… 

The project came about quickly, and I was approached by a committee from Epcore Centre to come up with a plan for the art installation.  I had only a three weeks to research and prepare the concept and deliver a critical path plan.

Originally, I wanted to do something like I had seen in Shanghai China, with laser light projections atop several buildings into the sky; but with the density surrounding downtown, and all that glass… the reflection factor was too difficult to control, so I went the finer optic route.  

This proved cost effective and climate-controlled, and as long as the various building owners would change the bulbs whenever they burned out, the dialogue between SONGLINES would indeed 'speak' to one another as architectural  articulations of line, motion and gesture.

Derek Besant: More Thoughts On Olympic Plaza and what it could/should be. 

I have thought for a long time that Olympic Plaza needs the connective big bang 'WOW' factor to bring it up to being a focal destination and not the open space between Mall and City Hall.  My SONGLINES was a flicker to try to awaken some response mechanisms between the facades within a limited budget and less time.   It did allow me to dream on what 'could' happen there though, especially after visits on my projects to Shanghai, China.  

I understand our climate gives the space some limits… or are they opportunities?  Hmmm?  

When I am downtown by the Congress Bridge in Austin Texas, or on Trafalgar Square in London, or in the long cool shadows of bank buildings strung along Bay Street in Toronto, or crossing the Alexander III Bridge in Paris, or the central plaza with four museums opposite one another in the Medieval city of Györ, in Hungary beside the Danube; I know where I am, and the perception of place resonates within me and I long for those identifications of what those urban centres hold for me to explore and reveal, or stay hidden beneath them. 

City Hall here is a landmark building.  But what does it talk to out there, really?  Itself… It needs an opposite, a mirror, a debate, a love affair, a shot in the arm, and an arrival into another reality

Blog: Everyday Tourist  

For some reason or reasons Olympic Plaza has never really captured the public’s imagination as an attractive place to meet and hang out like other civic plazas – Portland’s Pioneer Square or Union Square in San Francisco to name just two.  It should be an important tourist attraction for Calgary, a “top of mind” place for Calgarians to proudly show visiting family and friends. 

Quoting Wikipedia, “Today, this (Union Square) one-block plaza and surrounding area is one of the largest collections of department stores, upscale boutiques, gift shops, art galleries and beauty salons in the United States, making Union Square a major tourist destination, a vital, cosmopolitan gathering place in downtown San Francisco, and one of the world's premier shopping districts. Grand hotels and small inns, as well as repertory, off-Broadway and single-act theaters also contribute to the area's dynamic, 24-hour character.” That is what our Olympic Plaza should be. 

Outdoor patio on Union Square in San Francisco is warm and inviting. 

Plaza in Frankfurt's city centre full of people even though there is no programming.  It truly it their "urban living room." 

In contrast, Calgary’s Olympic Plaza is only animated when it is programmed, i.e. International Children’s Festival, summer noon hour concerts, etc. Most times you can shoot the proverbial cannon off and you wouldn’t hit anyone.  Even the outdoor skating rink is used by only a few lonely souls most days in the winter, despite it basking in brilliant sunshine at noon hour mid-winter.

For a public space to feel safe there needs to be lots of people of all ages and backgrounds moving through the space at all times of the day/evening doing a diversity of activities. Olympic Plaza is surrounded by a diversity of building types – a major theatre complex, large museum, convention center, high-end restaurant, City Hall/Municipal building, Central Library, church, apartments and office buildings – which you’d think would make it a busy place even when there is no formal programming.  In theory it should work. In reality it sits empty most the time.  

With the plaza now 25 years old, I understand some elements are at the end of their life span making it timely to look at how a mega makeover could make it Calgary’s urban living room.

It is interesting to note that plazas in many European cities, are often just large, flat, hard surfaces that allow for multiple uses.  They are also surrounded by mixed-use buildings that exit right onto the plaza, not separated by a street. Unfortunately for Olympic Plaza, Teatro really turns it back on the plaza (other than its small summer only patio), there is no interaction with 7th Avenue or Mcleod Trail and EPCOR Performing Arts Centre is dark during the day. Only the Jack Singer Concert Hall has a grand entrance off the plaza. 

The first thing I would do is bring in the heavy equipment!  Flatten the site so people can easily walk diagonally through the plaza - pedestrians love short cuts. Letting them easily walking diagonally from 8th Avenue to 7th Avenue would provide a link from Stephen Avenue Walk to the LRT station and to East Village and vice versa.  Plazas need to link key urban elements that surround it.

The cost to program a flat open space without a wading pool or skating rink would be less and allow for easier use as you wouldn’t have to drain the water or cover up the ice. It would be a wonderful space for a summer farmers’ market (think Portland), or a weekend flea/artisan market (think Frankfurt) or a Christmas market (think Frankfurt again). 

Strasborg town square is a wide open flat hard surfaced space that can be used for a variety of activities.  This is an early morning photo, later in the day it is busy with people cutting through or on market day it is full of vendors. 

Frankfurt's Saturday flea market happens year round on a long linear plaza along the river.  It attracts thousands of people downtown. 

At the same time I would I cut down all of the trees along 7th Avenue (I know this sounds harsh but I will explain soon) and create a long narrow space where food trucks could park to create a “pod” like they do in Portland - an outdoor food court of sorts.  Ideally, different trucks would cycle through the plaza each week to keep it fresh and spontaneous. This could also be a stage area for concerts that could then play to the entire width of the plaza. 

The large dense trees are a safety hazard.  CPTED 101  (Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design, a multi-disciplinary approach to deterring criminal behavior through the landscape design) states that public spaces should be “see through” i.e. people walking by should be able to see through to the other side of the space. No places for people to hide or sleep; no dark spaces. I will probably be “hung” for saying this, but if you look at the great urban plazas, they have very little vegetation. Their “life” comes from the people.

The biggest challenge is how to animate the space daytime and evening year round without a huge programming budget.  We could convert the space into the Olympic Plaza Art Park with numerous sculptures - some permanent and some temporary.  The first one is already there – the popular “Famous Five” sculpture.  Image if “The Root of All Evil” currently hidden away in Ramsay was in the middle of Olympic Plaza.  Or what about moving the Family of Man to Olympic Plaza?  The plaza is already home to the “Famous Five” sculpture.  

Root of all Evil sculpture is temporary located in Ramsay at Ramsay Exchange.  Imagine how much more powerful the statement would be if it was in Olympic Plaza right across from the Cathedral Church of the Redeemer.   This should be a major tourist attraction.  We need to create more urban synergies. 

The Family of Man sculpture will have to be moved as the old Board of Education block gets redeveloped.  It would make a great addition to Olympic Plaza as a gateway at the northwest corner. 

I’d love to see some pieces with special LED lighting to make the space more attractive in the winter.  A companion piece to Julian Opie’s “Promenade” in East Village would be a perfect piece for one of the corners of the plaza.  The “Crown Fountain” piece that Jaume Plensa did for Chicago’s Millennium Park would be perfect for Olympic Plaza, as would Anish Kapoor’s “Cloud Gate.”  We shouldn’t copy Chicago, but we need to find public art that is interactive and engages the public like they do. 

There was an attempt awhile back to add whimsical lighting elements attached to the sides of the buildings around Olympic Plaza.  I believe there were light sculptures on the side of the Glenbow, Municipal Building and Rocky Mountain Plaza. The project was dropped; I’m not sure why. Imagine if there were light sculptures on all of the 20 different buildings that you can see from Olympic Plaza and they turned off and on at different times, dancing in the winter sky - the urban equivalent of the “northern lights.” 

Perhaps too there could be a laser show every night in the winter with Olympic Plaza being the focal point.  Maybe we could use modern technology to project highlights of the 1988 Olympics onto the buildings in the winter night as a way to celebrate our history and that we are a winter city.  It would also be a way to celebrate that Calgary has a wonderful public art collection, unfortunately it is too scattered and hidden to achieve the urban synergies need to make it a tourist attraction. 

Now is not too soon to plan for Olympic Plaza’s 30th anniversary in 2018. 

Plensa's Crown Fountain sculpture even at dusk attracts hundreds of people to interact with it. 

Kapoor's "Cloud Gate" aka The Bean also attracts thousands of people to come downtown every day and is a major tourist attraction. 

Opie's "Promenade" seems to be out of place sitting on a berm above the street and invisible from the new River Walk promenade.  It should be where the pedestrians can stand beside it,  interact with it and be easily photographed. 

If you like this blog you might like: Poppy Plaza Review  

Calgary's Olympic Plaza in the summer showing wading pool, Olympic medal stage area with Municipal building (large blue building) and old City Hall (red clock tower) in the background.  Look idyllic a nice oasis in the middle of the city, which is how public spaces were designed in the 70s and 80s.  Unfortunately they have not aged well and they don't function as well as they could for a diversity of activities. 

Songlines was a pilot project by the Olympic Plaza Cultural District and the Downtown Association to create a visual identity for blocks around the plaza as Calgary's cultural / arts district.  This image is from Calgary artist Derek Besant's website showing his piece on the side of the Teatro restaurant and you can also see another piece on the side of the Glenbow museum on the left side.  

This is Red Square in Moscow which is just a large flat open space with buildings not roads on the edges.  It has good pedestrian traffic even when there is no programming.  There are no trees, no decorative design elements, just space.  

This is the plaza outside of Centre Pompidou in Paris. Again just a flat open space.There are some trees on the edge but they are deciduous which allow people to see into and out of the plaza.  One the best plaza activities is people watching - people attract people. 

Our Country Estate Voyeur Adventure

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

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

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

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

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

A sample of the architectural styles and materials allowed. 

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

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

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

Hockey nets and trampolines are everywhere.  

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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  

Putting the public back into public art!

Richard White, May 14, 2014

In mid May, I finally got visit to visit Millennium Park in Chicago and wasn't disappointed. Both Jaume Plensa and Anish Kapoor's public artworks were being enjoyed by thousands of people of all ages and backgrounds.

Like architecture, public art should probably not be judged until they are at least 10-years old (which these two pieces are close to being) i.e. once the lust of the new has faded away. 

Both piece allow for significant public engagement which too often is missing from public art. The cameras were out in full force documenting the antics of the public. There must be a billion photos of these two artworks in the world today. 

While we have all seen the skyline photos reflected in Cloud Gate aka the Bean, I was surprised by the more complex and intriguing images generated inside The Cloud.  

Plensa's fountain was just as I expected, except that all of the faces take on a similar visual quality when computerized on the big screen or at least that was the case for the faces I saw on several different days and different times.

Both pieces had the public laughing, playing and smiling something we so rarely see with public art.

Public art isn't public unless it engages the public!  

n example of the wonderful images created when you walk underneath Cloud Gate.  You could spend hours manipulating and playing with the reflections.  

loud Gate has become the place to come to celebrate be that graduations or weddings.  There is a wonderful sense of humanity as people interact with the piece with family and friends both formally and informally.  The piece seems to speak to people of all ages and backgrounds. 

nother example of families experimenting with ways to enjoy the reflection and create their own performance art piece.  Everyone is smiling, laughing and enjoying themselves.  There is a sense of amazement, like a carnival or mid-way.  

Another image of the Crown Fountain at looks almost like a huge flame that lights up the wading pool.  It is just one big happy campfire in the middle of the city that you share with strangers.  

Just a few blocks away are three late 20th century pieces of public art by Picasso, Miro and Calder.  Each of them sit on a corporate plaza with little or no interest from the public.  While they may have captured the public's interest at first, they have become part of the urban landscape and are ignored by the public for the most part.

Last Word

Anyone who is interested in public art, parks and urban placemaking should visit Chicago to see first-hand not only Millennium Park, but also Lincoln Park with its Zoo, Farm and Conservatory.

Chicago is my kind of town!  

Poppy Plaza Review Revisited

Editor's Note, April 19, 2015.

It is now almost two years since I wrote and posted this review. Since then I have walked, cycled and driven past the plaza at least once a week, and often more.  I have yet to see anybody use the plaza for more than a walk by.  Today was a beautiful early spring day and I thought for sure there would be lots of people on the plaza. I was wrong. I hung around for about 30 minutes and I saw one couple walk through and one guy on a bike use the seating area as a bit of an obstacle course for about a one minute.  Earlier in the day I was told by some skateboarders (who had travelled from Edmonton just to skate various sites in our downtown) at the MacDougall Centre that Poppy Plaza would make a great boutique skatepark. 

It seems a shame the City spend millions of dollars to create this public space and nobody uses it.  Maybe we should take down the signs and let whomever want to use the space do so -rather than just let is sit their empty. 

I can't help but wonder "What were the lesson learned?"  

View of Poppy Plaza at 2:30 pm on Sunday, April 19, 2015. 

View of Poppy Plaza at 2:30 pm on Sunday, April 19, 2015. 

By Richard White, May 14, 2013

Recently Poppy Plaza opened along Memorial Drive at the Louise Bridge (10th Street).  The Plaza is part of a rejuvenation of Memorial Drive as Calgary's ceremonial boulevard that celebrates Canada's and Calgary's contribution to the First and Second World Wars, as well as other war and peace keeping efforts.  

The first phase of Memorial Drive took place in the 1920s when trees were planted along the roadway in memory of fallen soldiers.  Today they have become a valued part of Calgary's urban forrest, but they are also nearing the end of their life expectancy.  

Over the past five years several projects have been initiated that will make Memorial Drive an important part of Calgary's heritage for another 100 years.  The first project was the redesign of the roadway with a boulevard in the middle with decorative lighting, banners and plantings (including poppies).

The second project was the Peace Bridge designed by world famous bridge designer Santiago Calatrava which opened in 2012.  Other projects include the Remembrance Day lawn at the east end of Memorial Drive where crosses of fallen soldiers are placed in the grass every Remembrance Day and the Memorial Wall created west of Poppy Plaza.  (For more information on Calgary's War Memorials and History click here.)

Poppy Plaza has already been the subject of graffiti and complaints that skateboarders have taken a liking to the design and are causing damage, which in turn is causing some officials to want to fine the skateboarders. 

However, I liked Ray Hillman's May 8th letter to the editor in the Calgary Herald who was in favour of letting the kids play.  Hillman recalls a cartoon from the Calgary Herald published at Remembrance Day showing a WWII soldier lying on a cloud looking down at a group of children and the caption read, "I just love watching them play."  He then goes on to say that many of these skateboarders are probably the same age as the soldiers who fought for our freedom.  

I look at the design and think "how could the designers not think that the skateboarders would love this?"  Yes there is a skateboard park just across the river, but everyone knows skateboarders are part of any city's street culture and love to use public spaces everywhere, not just in the designated areas, which get boring pretty quickly. They are free spirits and you have to take your hat off to them as they are out there in all kinds of weather practicing their tricks.  If you want to animate a public space, make sure you make provisions for skateboarding and you are sure to get year-round animation.

Personally, I find the skateboarders fun to watch.  I have visited Poppy Plaza several times and the place is deserted even on nice days.  Seems to me the designers Marc Boutin Architectural Collaborative should have known that skateboarders would use the plaza and made allowances for that. 

Good public space design has a diversity of uses which in turn creates a diversity of users resulting in the animation of the space.  Poppy Plaza should have been designed for multi-uses - memorial, picnics, skateboarding and maybe even a soap box so people could rant about their political views.  We need to think about including as many uses as possible for public spaces - design them for people of all ages and backgrounds - that is what public place-making is all about. 

One of the key elements of the plaza are these life-size letters spelling out Memorial.  Made out of what looks like rusty steel, they are place right up against the sidewalk and very visible to the road.  There very foreboding.  Unfortunately it is very easy to carve into the rust to write messages or tag them. 

Skateboarders getting ready to do their thing.  I have yet to see anyone sit on these seats which look intriguing but not inviting.  They look like something from a skate park.

One of two larger steel sculptures on either side of 10th street they have the look of a bomb or torpedo.  On them is written words from the poem Flanders Fields which includes the phase "where poppies blow."  The rusted steel gives an immediate patina which in turn gives the plaza a historical sense of place.  The steel looks old and weathered.  It has the feeling of a crying wall. 

The plaza even has a ramp that allows the skateboarders a place to launch off of.  As well it serves as a great place to sit and people watch or watch the skateboarders or BMX bikers do their tricks.   A good example of a simple design that functions in several ways.

Kids will also love running up and down the ramp.  It is a cleaver design that allows for multiple uses for people of all ages and backgrounds.  It also offer great views of the Louise Bridge and downtown skyline. 

A view of Downtown from Poppy Plaza and the elegant Louise Bridge. 

The Peace Bridge is popular with downtown workers morning, noon and night - be it walkers, runners or bikers. 

The west side memorial which is much more subtle and solemn with the white marble panels with the names of soldiers from various wars and peace keeping efforts.  

There are elements of Poppy Plaza in the west side memorial with the rusted steel.  From a distance it looks like one of the small boats that were use to land soldiers on the beach of Normandy.  

Remembrance Day crosses on the Memorial Drive lawn.

Wreck City: The Experience of Experimentation

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bridge by Alia Shahab

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

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