Museums of Memphis / International Blues Challenge

Preface

It is hard to believe that even in 2015, whites in Memphis and the entire Delta area haven’t embraced the blacks for their wonderful spirit and joie de vivre.  Someone told me (I wish I could remember who) many years ago “we must embrace the differences that define us, not let them divide us.”  After attending the IBC, checking out the museums of Memphis, wandering Clarksdale and attending the First Baptist Church service, I say “vive la difference!”

International Blues Challenge

Mike Clark (far right) with some of his new best friends jamming at IBC 2014.

Mike Clark (far right) with some of his new best friends jamming at IBC 2014.

In December 2013, a few of Mikey’s Juke Joint groupies (including myself) decided to head to Memphis for the International Blues Challenge (IBC) to support the Mike Clark Band and Tim Williams, both of who would be representing southern Alberta at the January 2014 competition.  It was a truly amazing experience, not only did Williams win the competition as the best single/solo act and best guitarist, but I developed a whole new appreciation for the history of the blues and the culture of the south that produced it.

This year’s Challenge happens January 20 – 24 with Calgary’s Mike Clark Band and Tim Williams again representing southern Alberta.

The Museums

One of the great things about visiting Memphis is their trio of music museums – Stax Museum, Rock ‘n’ Soul Museum and Sun Records.

The STAX Museum blew both Brenda (not so much a blues or music keener) and I away with its campus that includes not only the museum, but a charter school and extensive collection.  For anyone interested in the history of 20th century music in North America, this is the place to go. You will learn about the evolution and connections between numerous genres of music – blues, soul, jazz, Bebop, country, gospel, hillbilly, R&B, rock and Pop music.  What I particularly loved about the museum is there is its air of authenticity as much of the history actually happened in Memphis or in the immediate area.  

STAX museum is located in an older neighbourhood, with a mix of both new and somewhat seedy buildings.

STAX museum is located in an older neighbourhood, with a mix of both new and somewhat seedy buildings.

The museum starts with a wonderful 20-minute film, after which you wander at your own pace through hundreds of displays that tell the story of the music with lots of memorabilia.  The highlight was when I complemented an elderly, distinguished-looking man on his great tie.  He thanked me and we got chatting about the museum and how he was visiting with his grandchildren who “wanted to see where their grandfather was” in the museum.  Turns out I was talking to Harold “Scotty” Scott of the Temprees, whose gold record for “Dedicated to the one I love” and other band artifacts we on exhibit.

One take away message I got from this museum was how the pain and hardship deeply penetrated the African American culture of the south and how they sought comfort and solace in their music.

I would recommend anyone visiting the museum, also take an explore a few around the museum, it will reinforced the link between poverty, sense of place and blues music.  The predominately black neighbourhood of empty lots, abandon homes, homes with what looked like religious shrines on the porches and numerous churches looked like many of the images we saw in the museum.

In chatting with Andrew Mosker, CEO, National Music Centre (NMC), who is currently construction a new museum in Calgary, I was told they would be incorporating some of the lessons learned from STAX on how to engage, entertain and educate the public about music.  Yet, I couldn’t help but wonder if the NMC could match STAX museum’s authenticity as most of NMC’s artifacts will be imported from elsewhere. Also a big shiny new museum located in a glitzy new master planned urban community seems diametrically opposed to places that are the catalyst for artistic creativity. Time will tell.

One of the things that make Memphis' museums great is their authenticity, as they are telling stories that are both local and global. 

One of the things that make Memphis' museums great is their authenticity, as they are telling stories that are both local and global. 

Harold "Scotty" Scott. 

Harold "Scotty" Scott. 

The Rock ‘n’ Soul Museum, created by the Smithsonian Institute and located downtown next to the arena provides an excellent overview of the history of Memphis area music from the 1930s to the city’s musical heyday of the ‘70s.  The museum’s digital audio guide offers up over 300 minutes of information including 100 songs that you can listen to while surrounded by artifacts of the time.  It is a total music immersion program not to be missed.

Sun Records, located just outside of the downtown, is easily accessible via the tram and a short walk to the historic building. Like the STAX museum, I think you get a better appreciation for the history and the environment that produced the music when you walk the streets around it.

The lobby of Sun Studio looks like a '50s diner.

What is great and unique about Sun Records is that you get a personal tour led by a local musician.  Sun Records, an American independent record label was founded in Memphis in 1952, by Sam Phillips and financed by Jim Bulliet.  It was here that Phillips discovered and first recorded Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, Roy Orbison, Jerry Lee Lewis and Johnny Cash. Phillips loved the music of African-Americans and wanted to bring that genre to a mass audience, which changed the world of music, but meant Sun Records struggled to be viable. 

The museum is full of artifacts and your tour guide has amazing stories to tell.  But the highlight of the tour is to stand on in the recording studio where Elvis, Carl, Jerry Lee and Johnny belted out your favourite songs. The building just oozes history - I am sure I heard Roy singing.

The modest entrance to Sun Studio.

One of  the many artifacts from the early days of Sun Studio.

The recording studio is still used today. It looks like a rec room from the '50s. It is hard to imagine that this is place where the legends of '50s and '60s music created their hits here.

Beale Street

Beale Street, truly one of North America’s iconic streets, is home to the International Blues Competition (IBC). The event utilizes 17 different venues along the street for the 250+ entries from around the world.  The street is hopping with music from noon to the wee hours of the morning. 

For me, the highlight of the Challenge were the midnight jams at the Daisy Theatre (every night various musicians from the competition and past winners put on an impromptu concert, the energy was electrifying).   There are certain art experiences that stand out in my life - seeing Baryshnikov dance from the front row of the Lincoln Centre (1984) and the Hermitage Show at the Winnipeg Art Gallery (1977) - and the IBC jams on Beale Street.

Beale Street is animated by buskers and bands who provide great street entertainment. 

Beale Street is animated by buskers and bands who provide great street entertainment. 

The International Blues Challenge midnight jam. 

The International Blues Challenge midnight jam. 

Clarksdale

No trip to Memphis for a blues lover is complete without a road trip to Clarksdale, Mississippi (90 minute drive), considered by some as “ground zero” for the blues. The entire city is a living museum complete with numerous historical plaques and a self-guided map. 

Clarksdale is home to the crossroads of highways 61 and 49 where legend has it iconic blues guitarist Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil.   You can also visit the McKinley Morganfield’s (aka Muddy Waters) cabin on Stovall Road. There are lots of tiny cabins still inhabited that serve as a reminder of the poverty that begat the blues.  

When in Clarksdale check out The Delta Blues Museum, WROX radio station on Main Street and all of the other historic sites around town, it will give you a whole new appreciation of how the blues was germinated.

Ground Zero Blues Club opened in 2001 in an old warehouse building with “manufactured authenticity” complements of an old couch and other bric-a-brac on the porch and the tradition of graffiti-like visitors writing of their names anywhere they can find space. names of people who have been there on the walls.  We arrived mid day (nothing was happening), but we did manage to get on stage and pretend we were performing.

In chatting with Holger Petersen (veteran CBC and CKUA blues broadcaster), after his talk about the history of the blues at NMC a few years back he told me Ground Zero was one of his favourite places to listen to the blues. You could easily spend an afternoon wandering the streets of Clarksdale, checking out the museum, eating dinner and listening to an act Ground Zero and maybe even book yourself a room at the Riverside Hotel, established in 1944, where the the likes of Robert Nighthawk, Sonny Boy Williams and Ike Turner had been guests.

It truly is a sacred place.

Ground Zero Blues Club looks like it was part of Clarksdale's heyday, but in reality it didn't open until 2001. It has established itself as the premier place for blues performers to play when in the area.

Ground Zero Blues Club looks like it was part of Clarksdale's heyday, but in reality it didn't open until 2001. It has established itself as the premier place for blues performers to play when in the area.

Panels like these are located throughout the city, creating an informative self-guided walking tour. 

WROX radio
Clarksdale has numerous music related stores that are fun to explore.  It is a great place to flaneur - you will find everything from the charming Greyhound bus depot to the Tennessee Williams historic district of mega-mansions from the early 20th century. Tennessee Williams grew up in Clarksdale.

Clarksdale has numerous music related stores that are fun to explore.  It is a great place to flaneur - you will find everything from the charming Greyhound bus depot to the Tennessee Williams historic district of mega-mansions from the early 20th century. Tennessee Williams grew up in Clarksdale.

Barry (another Mikey's groupie) and I on stage at Ground Zero Blues Club. 

Gospel Revelation

No trip to Memphis is complete without attending a Sunday morning Gospel Church service. While many trek to the well-publicized Al Green church service near Graceland, we were fortunate to notice during our wanderings that at the end of Beale Street is the First Baptist Church (built in 1880, it is believed to be the first brick-constructed, multi-story church built by African Americans).  We like authenticity so this seemed like the perfect choice.

So on Sunday morning, when many IBC revellers were still recovering from their Saturday night festivities, we headed to church.   Wanting to be respectful, we tried toquietly walk in and sit at the back, but that was not to be.  We were immediately welcomed like long lost family, hands were shaken, we were given a program, and by the end hugs were shared and we were part of “the family.”  I have never experienced a more friendly welcoming. 

At the beginning of the service, all-newcomers were welcomed by name and where they were visiting from.  We were asked to stand to be recognized and invited to say a few words. Then amateur singers and preachers started to perform building to a crescendo with a large female choir and professional passionate preacher that made both your body and soul shiver. I don’t think I have ever heard so many AMENs in my life. 

Initially planning to only stay for 30 minutes or so, we were mesmerized we stayed for the entire two-hour service.  We were even invited to join them for lunch afterwards.  It was a magical experience. Amen!

insidechurch

2014: Calgary's condo culture comes of age!

2014 could well be branded the year of the “luxury condo” in Calgary with Vancouver’s Concord Pacific’s announcement of their 218-unit Eau Claire project, The Concord, which includes a 6,200 square foot penthouse with a price tag of 13 million dollars.  The project design team included Arthur Erickson, arguably Canada’s most celebrated architect.

It is interesting to note that this announcement comes just one year after Calgary’s great flood of 2013. The banks of the Elbow and Bow River continued to attract major upscale condo developments in 2014.   Joining The Concord along the Bow River is Avenue in the West End by the Vancouver development team of Grosvenor/Cressey’s and their architect James Chen.  Vancouver’s Anthem Properties also announced the final phase of Calgary’s largest condo development -the 1,000-unit Waterfront on the old bus barn lands on the east side of Eau Claire.  

Yes, Vancouver developers and architects continue to transform the south shore of the Bow River into a tony, upscale highrise urban community.  The only thing missing in 2014 was the announcement that Harvard Properties was moving forward with their billion-dollar Eau Claire Market site redevelopment designed by
Vancouver’s IBI/Landplan group (that was announced late in 2013).

Calgary’s Park Avenue

One would have thought it might take a few years to see any new condo developments in the Mission area given the devastation of the flood. The uber-chic River condo with its record condo setting $8 million dollar penthouse made some quick changes to it is flood prevention design while construction continued. 

But, the big new announcement in 2014 was the 14-storey XII boutique condo (on the corner of 2nd St and 26th Ave SW).  It will have only 12 units i.e. 10 floors will be a single condo with four floors consisting of two 2-floor units.  Designed by the Calgary’s own Sturgess Architecture, this project is a quantum leap in luxury with its car parking elevator that will allow residents get out of their car in the parkade at street level, so the car can be parked robotically in the parkade. How amazing is that!  The architectural design is also futuristic with its transformer-like shape.  Residents will also get private consultation with the architects and interior designer (Douglas Cridland) and make a trip to Vancouver (yes, Vancouver) to meet with balthaup kitchen team there.

Luxury condo development along 26th Avenue in Mission started in the late '70s. 

XII condo on 26th Avenue will set a new benchmark for contemporary architecture in Calgary. 

The River condo on 26th Ave SW is Calgary's most expensive condo project to date.  

The River condo on 26th Ave SW is Calgary's most expensive condo project to date.  

Kensington is exploding

This past year has been a big one for Kensington village as new residents moved into Battisella’s Pixel and StreetSide Development Corporation’s St. John’s condo, both Calgary developers.  Vancouver’s Bucci Development started construction of Ven just east of the Hillhurst/Sunnyside LRT station and announced the Kensington, on 10th Street NW.  As well, Battistella also announced plans for Lido (as sister condo to Pixel), also on on 10th Street. 

After years no condo development, Calgary’s only NoBow urban community is finally participating in Calgary’s emerging condo culture. There are currently over 1,000 condos at various stages of development in Kensington Village.

Bucci hasn't even completed its Ven condo in Kensington and they have already begun construction of Kensington on 10th Street. 

Bucci hasn't even completed its Ven condo in Kensington and they have already begun construction of Kensington on 10th Street. 

Battistella just finished Pixel in the background and almost immediately started on Lido in the foreground. 

Bridgeland is bustling

After stalling for a few years because of the recession, condo construction resumed in earnest in Bridgeland this past year. The completion of the St. Patricks’ Island pedestrian bridge in the Fall of 2014 and the redevelopment of the island itself, scheduled to be completed in 2015, is making Bridgeland a very attractive place for, Calgary rapidly increasing yuppie community.

Thus it’s not surprising that Apex and GableCraft Homes have decided to proceed with Bridgeland Crossing II and Assured Developments with Giustini Development Corp are proceeding with STEPS, both are within easy walking distance to the LRT and the new St. Patrick’s Island. 

Bridgeland Crossing 2 is currently under construction on Memorial Drive across from the LRT station. 

The Steps is just one of many modest condo projects approved, under construction or recently completed in Bridgeland. 

Suburban/Urban

Condo building continued to be strong in the Beltline with the topping off of The Park (Lake Placid Group) and Mark on 10th (Qualex-Landmark) as well as the first tower of The Guardian (Calgary’s tallest condo at 44-storey by Hon Development). However, new condo development wasn’t restricted to the greater downtown communities like the Beltline in 2014.

In fact, citywide condo development in 2014 outpaced single-family housing starts by two-to-one with 8,915 multi-family housing starts vs. only 4,363 single-family as of the end of November.  Not only were almost 90% of new condo units are being not built in the greater downtown; this trend is expected to continue.

The City approved several new “suburban/urban” villages in 2014.  In September, City Council approved West Campus, a planned community east and south of the Alberta Children’s Hospital.  After several years of community consultation, it approved the West Campus Development Trust’s a master plan for the 184-acre site that will eventually accommodate 15,000 new residents (mostly in condos) and 10,000 workers when completed by about 2025.   

In December, Truman Development presented its master plan for its 96-acre West District community to the City.  When fully built out, in 10+ years it will be home to 7,000 residents and 5,200 workers.  Both West Campus and West District are planned as complete communities that will allow residents (families, yuppies, empty nesters and seniors) to not only live, work, play and age in their community.

West Campus' main street with condos above and in the background. (rendering by RK visuals, photo credit: West Campus Development Trust.)

Rendering of condo concept for West District (photo credit: Truman Development).

Rendering of condo concept for West District (photo credit: Truman Development).

Livingston is Brookfield Residential Properties' new urban community at the north edge of the city. It will have many of the features of SETON including a major town centre. 

Last Word

Recently, Brookfield Residential, one of North America’s largest homebuilders and headquartered in Calgary, branded its proposed new Livingston community at the northern edge of the City as “not your parents’ suburb.”  While still only in the conceptual stage, it promises to create a new town centre at the northern edge of the city, equivalent to their SETON urban village on the southeastern edge.

As of the end of November, metro Calgary multi-family starts was only 378 units shy of the City record of 10,602 units in 1978.  Indeed, Calgary’s developers are building condos at a record pace in the greater downtown communities, established neighbourhoods and in the new suburbs. 

But what is really exciting is that they are not just building condos, they are building communities that have a density and diversity of uses that hasn’t been seen for over a century. Calgary's new communities are not your parent's or even your grandparent's suburbs but your great-grandparents suburbs.

By Richard White, December 26, 2014 

NB: An edited version of this blog appeared in the Calgary Herald's New Condo section on December 27, 2014

Concept rendering by RK Visuals of the SETON a planned new urban community at the city's southeast edge. (photo credit: Brookfield Residential Properties).

Auburn Walk condo in Calgary's new community of Auburn Bay developed by Brookfield Residential Properties. 

Auburn Walk condo in Calgary's new community of Auburn Bay developed by Brookfield Residential Properties. 

Calgary's Bee Kingdom Red Hot Spring Studio Tour

Editor's note:

Thought I would repost this blog for the Bee Kingdom's Fall 2016 Open House November 12 and 13 at 427 22nd Ave NW from noon to 5 pm.  Everyone is welcome!
Bee Kingdom Open house

 

This weekend I got a chance to tour the studio of Calgary's Bee Kingdom Glass as it was their annual Christmas sale and open house.  You could get a great deal on original art by Calgary's hottest young visual artists -  everything from fun glass balls ($30) that would add some colour to any room over the winter, to fun, funky Scotch decanter and two glasses for $199.  There was something for everyone.

Everything is handmade in-house (sorry in-garage) and just to prove it the boys are giving very entertaining demos in the garage, which is actually their studio.   As a bonus, not only were they selling their work, but they are also giving demonstration on the magic they perform to make the art.  Trust me it is well worth the visit.

Personally, I love the little colourful, playful, cartoon, cherub-like figures that hang on the wall. Mine for only $450! Surprise your loved one(s) with an original work of art this Christmas. 

Coming off their successful Glenbow exhibition this past summer, the Bee Kingdom (Ryan Fairweather, Phillip Bandura and Tim Belliveau) are the young guns of Calgary’s visual arts community. 

Look out Dale Chihuly (the world’s leading glass artist) these guys are gunning for you.

For more information: www.beekingdomglass.com/

By Richard White, December 21, 2014

This is the living room picture window. How festive is this? 

You would never know that this mid-century house has been home for the Bee Kingdom for several years without the sign saying "Let's just call it beesiness?"

You would never know that this mid-century house has been home for the Bee Kingdom for several years without the sign saying "Let's just call it beesiness?"

The back deck has a table of seconds for sale. You can't have the multi-coloured one in the fore-ground - we bought it. All under $100.

Scotch decanter sets are one of their biggest sellers. For you traditionalists, not all of them have antlers.

Some hidden gems on a shelf in the garage. 

I love these little guys...

Bee Kingdom studio demo. They make it look so simple.  Don't you just love the shoes? 

A view from the back alley of shoppers milling about in the studio after the glass blowing demo.

Chihuly's lovely yellow glass sculptures amongst the plants in the Dessert Botanical Garden, in Phoenix. 

Winnipeg's Old World Charm

By Richard White, December 16, 2014

One of the things we loved when travelling recently in Italy, was the abundance of artisans and small craftsmen with studios on the street - everything from furniture upholstery to musical instrument repair.  It was a constant reminder of the past when people fixed things rather than just throwing them away; a time when things were handmade vs. mass-produced. 

Certainly, one of the cultural differences between Europe and North America is our relationship with objects.  You are hard pressed to wander the streets of Europe without being reminded of the sense of craftsmanship, be it the construction of buildings or the creation of handmade fashion items. That’s not the case in most North American cities.

On a recent trip to Winnipeg, I was delighted to discover a little of that city’s old world charm.

We met this happy couple in Florence. They had a leather shop at the end of the block where we were staying. I saw a belt in the window I liked, but they didn't speak English, nor did I speak Italian.  Luckily there was a lady in the shop who did speak some English and I got my belt. 

We met this happy couple in Florence. They had a leather shop at the end of the block where we were staying. I saw a belt in the window I liked, but they didn't speak English, nor did I speak Italian.  Luckily there was a lady in the shop who did speak some English and I got my belt. 

We passed by the shop several more times during our visit and we always stopped in to say Hi. They were always busy, but still they had big smile for us.  

We passed by the shop several more times during our visit and we always stopped in to say Hi. They were always busy, but still they had big smile for us.  

Wilder Goods

One day, I decided to check out Winnipeg’s West Broadway district, my old stomping grounds back in the mid’70s. After wandering for a bit (loved Zed books, Stella’s Café & Bakery and the Salvation Army Thrift store), it was time for coffee and perhaps some work on my laptop.  I was intrigued by Thom Bargen Coffee & Tea shop, which just happens to feature Calgary’s own Phil & Sebastian coffee.  However, not finding any free Wi-Fi, there I was ready to leave when I fortunately noticed what looked like another shop at the back.

Wandering up the stairs, I discovered a showroom of handmade leather bags, belts and leather accessories.  Behind it, was a backroom with two young guys in aprons surrounded by sewing machines and other gadgets. My curiosity was aroused. Soon Brendon Friesen and Nate Bezoplenko were chatting with me about their thriving business called Wilder Goods.

Utilizing a small backspace (it might be 500 square feet), that the Thom Bargen café wasn’t using, these two, self-taught craftsmen created a workshop which supports both of them working full time. They advertise on Instagram and sell via their showroom – old world meets new world!

The day I was there they were making denim aprons on spec from an end bolt of a 40- year old fabric sourced from one of Winnipeg’s historic fabric warehouses. They were both confident they could sell all the aprons they would make (I subsequently learned they made a limited run of 10 aprons and sold all of them in days to local chefs, a mosaic artist and Christmas presents for spouses).

When asked what was the weirdest thing they had ever made, they quickly said “a denim canopy for a 30ft by 16ft geodesic dome for a mobile performance venue for the Riel Gentlemen’s choir

Brendon and Nate’s creativity and enthusiasm was very refreshing, arguing well for the idea that old mid century urban spaces do indeed have a future, especially if they are not renovated into upscale franchised café and shops. It also supports the idea that more affordable cities are a haven for the young creative class.

Find out more about Wilder Goods at wilderwpg.com

 

Wilder Goods workshop with one of the denim aprons. 

The showroom.

The showroom.

The boys and their best friend.

Eric Shoe Repair

Brenda first discovered Eric in a non-descript ‘60s strip mall on St. Mary’s Road in Winnipeg’s St. Vital community, back in September when she needed her brother’s shoes fixed. Backstory: her brother has hard-to-fit feet so when you find a pair of shoes that fit him, you buy them.  In this case, they were actually new, “steal of a deal” leather shoes that fit but had a flaw, so she brought them to him with the hope they could repaired.

She learned of Eric Shoe Repair from the shoe salesperson at the nearby Hudson’s Bay department store at the St. Vital Mall where she had bought the shoes. After showing the problem to him Eric said “No problem. When do you want them?” And just a day later they were “just like new” for a mere $5.

Then, on our December trip to Winnipeg, we spent a whole afternoon footwear shopping with her brother; this time for new winter boots. We eventually found some that fit.

But given the old boots were in good condition, except for the tongues, Brenda decided to see if Eric could fix them so he’d have a “spare pair.” Both mesh-type tongues were being pretty much torn to shreds. Eric again said “no problem” explained that he would replace them with matching brown leather tongues, even showed her the leather he would use and what the cost would be and then asked, “When do you need them?” It was late Thursday and we were on a tight schedule, but he was even willing to come in on Sunday if need be to have them ready for first thing Monday morning, before we had to head back to Calgary.

This visit he also showed us that he makes moccasin-type boots and was quick to show off the ones he was wearing and another pair he had just completed.  On the back of his business card it says special prices for bikers and even includes a photo of leather chaps – Eric is full of surprises!

Who knew that in a little space of no more than 300 square feet in a North American suburb someone could create a thriving business using century old skills.

Eric's crowded workshop.

Eric showing off his new boots.

Eric showing off his new boots.

A sample of custom boots Eric made for a customer. 

A sample of custom boots Eric made for a customer. 

Last Word

Everyone knows that Winnipeg is home to one of North America’s best early 20th century historic districts – The Exchange.  However, there are examples of old world charm across the city (and most cities if you look for them) and when you find one, there is something fun and refreshing about buying directly from an artisan. 

Cities need to find ways to preserve and foster street level workshops and studios, as well as independent shops and cafes, for those like Brendon, Nate and Eric are part of the diversity that creates urban vitality.  

If they can do it in the old world, certainly we can do it in the new world. 

 

Getting my custom belt fitted in Rome's Monti district. This store was actually a warehouse where belt-makers come to get their supplies - everything from dyes to buckles. The green boxes in the background are full of different buckles. 

Getting my custom belt fitted in Rome's Monti district. This store was actually a warehouse where belt-makers come to get their supplies - everything from dyes to buckles. The green boxes in the background are full of different buckles. 

Calgary: 24 new main streets coming soon?

By Richard White, December 13, 2014

Though it doesn’t make any “best seller” lists, nor even have a catchy title, Calgary’s Municipal Development Plan is a recommended read for those living in Calgary now, as well as those seriously considering moving here. The Plan illustrates how our city will reshape itself over the next 30 to 60 years, during which an estimated 1.3 million more people call Calgary home. 

An idea that particularly intrigued me was the concept of creating enhanced urban corridors (think condos, shops, cafes, restaurants, patios, offices and small parks and plazas) corridors along major transit streets throughout the city.  This idea that has been incubating with City planners and politicians for a few years now, has now been rebranded as the Main Street Program (corridors sounded like a transportation initiative) and was approved by City Council in May 2014.

I have always loved the old main streets of Bowness and Montgomery and wondered why they haven’t changed much over the past 25 years as the City’s population doubled.  I also loved the Britannia and Parkdale loops with their shops and restaurants.  A good neighbourhood Main Street need only be a vibrant block or two long.

I also love the idea of the City working with landowners, communities and developers to create new vibrant Main Streets across the city where locals can walk for a coffee, yoga, dentist, and doctor or meet up with friends for a meal, a beer or a glass or two of wine.  Atlantic Avenue (9th Avenue) in Inglewood is a good example, 25 years ago it was a seedy place of pawnshops and hookers, today it is the heart of Canada’s best neighbourhood.

The City has identified 24 potential Main Streets across the city (excluding the City Center i.e. downtown and Beltline). Some are called neighbourhood main streets (1st Ave NW, Bridgeland) as the volume of traffic and the size of the road is more local, while others are known as urban main streets as the road handles much more traffic and is more regional in nature (e.g. 32th Avenue NE or 16th Ave N).

24 main streets

What will it take?

I am not the only one who has wondered why Calgary’s old retail streets have not shared in the prosperity of economic booms of the past 25 years.  I am told the land use and zoning are in place to allow for larger buildings with a greater mix of uses, but nothing has or is happening, even where there has been lots of residential infilling. Why?

A key reason is that current landowners are happy with their rate of returns, having bought the buildings many years ago for what seems like peanuts today, they are able to generate good revenue without having to invest any money in upgrading or expanding their buildings. Current owners are not motivated to sell when they are making money and the value of their land is increasing. It is the best investment in town!

The fragmented ownership of the land along these main streets also makes redevelopment difficult.  It can take years, maybe even decades, to assemble a big enough piece of land for the development of a new condo or small office building with some retail, café or restaurant space. 

A third reason for the lack of new development on retail streets in established neighbourhoods, is the difficulty in attracting new retailers and restaurants at they are surrounded by single-family homes, which means they don’t have the density needed to support new businesses.

Fourthly, the demographics in older neighbourhoods work against them as they don’t have a lot of young people (i.e. those in their high consumer years) living around them.

First Street SW is a good example of a City Centre Main Street revitalization with condos, offices, shops and restaurants, which the city hopes to duplicate in established communities (without the highrises).

First Street SW is a good example of a City Centre Main Street revitalization with condos, offices, shops and restaurants, which the city hopes to duplicate in established communities (without the highrises).

Early Public Engagement

Another barrier to redevelopment of retail areas in established neighbourhoods is the real potential of community opposition. When a new building is proposed, almost always the community has concerns about traffic, parking, crime and shadowing of nearby homes. Developers can take a year or two working with the community and City to get approval, which not only adds to the cost of the redevelopment, but the risk the project might not get approved, so they look elsewhere to invest.

Communities also often want a say in what retailers are welcome in their community. Who wants to have their community gentrified? The removal of longstanding family-owned and operated drugstore for a big chain drug store can be the cause of WWIII.

I am all for fostering mom and pop cafes, restaurants and shops as they create a unique sense of place.  Part of the charm of Inglewood (Canada’s Best Neighborhood in 2014) is that its Main Street, Atlantic Avenue, has no chain stores.

We must remember, that these tired and worn retail strips are in fact incubators for local entrepreneurs who need older buildings with low rents.  We need to find a way to include them in any Main Street redevelopment.

The additional time and money required for redesign and approval gets passed on to the tenants, making it almost impossible for “mom and pops” to afford the rent.  It also means delays in bringing the project to the market, which is why the demand for retail, office and housing currently exceeds supply in Calgary today, which in turn increases the cost to both the homebuyer and the retail tenants.

1st Street NE in Bridgeland is enjoying a renaissance as a result of new condos and new infills bringing in yuppies and empty nesters, who support increased amenities like the Bridgeland Market

Bowness has an existing Main Street, complete with angle parking. The goal is to enhance the street with more shops, cafes, restaurants,  residential and office development.

Bowness has an existing Main Street, complete with angle parking. The goal is to enhance the street with more shops, cafes, restaurants,  residential and office development.

Edmonton Trail is already a popular breakfast spot, with some shops and services, the Main Street program will encourage this to grow with more residential and commercial development on key sites. 

Edmonton Trail is already a popular breakfast spot, with some shops and services, the Main Street program will encourage this to grow with more residential and commercial development on key sites. 

14th Street SW is a prime candidate for a Main Street program on the west side of the street.  These single storey buildings could be replaced with 4 to 6 storey structures with retail, restaurants and cafes along the street. 

14th Street SW is a prime candidate for a Main Street program on the west side of the street.  These single storey buildings could be replaced with 4 to 6 storey structures with retail, restaurants and cafes along the street. 

Montgomery also has a Main Street that has great potential for increase density and diversity shopping, eating and services.

Inglewood's Main Street, aka 9th Avenue aka Atlantic Avenue is enjoying a renaissance as a result of new low-rise commercial and residential development. 

Inglewood's Main Street, aka 9th Avenue aka Atlantic Avenue is enjoying a renaissance as a result of new low-rise commercial and residential development. 

An example of affordable senior's housing that could be developed on adjacent streets near a Main Street to allow community members to age in their community. 

An example of assisted living complex in an established community that could be located next to Main Street as part of the community revitalization program. 

An example of assisted living complex in an established community that could be located next to Main Street as part of the community revitalization program. 

Early Private Engagement

At a recent meeting with developers and the City planners I heard the comment, “The City needs to help take out the front-end pain.”  To achieve this the private sector would like help with understanding the political and community support for the development of these Main Streets. Is the Councillor is on side?  We need the Councillor to become the Main Street champion.  

Everyone also agreed one of the first steps should be to prioritize which Main Streets have the best chance of success and focus on them first – building on success will be important.

Another key issue to redevelopment would be the capacity for the infrastructure to accommodate redevelopment.  One suggestion was for the City to do the infrastructure review studies for high priority Main Streets and then sell the information to perspective developers.

It was also recommended the Main Street Program not only at the actual Main Street, but also how residential redevelopment could happen along the streets flanking the proposed Main Streets to increase and diversify the market.

The development of a communication plan focusing on the benefits (e.g. aging in place, with new seniors housing) of the Main Street Program for each of the stakeholders was also thought to be a good idea.

The City planners liked the ideas and suggestions said they would discuss them with their colleagues and report back in the new year. What was really encouraging about this meeting was that the City’s planners and private sector were all singing from the same song sheet.   

What’s Next?

The City plans to form a Main Street Team (no date set) modelled after the City Centre Team which will work with the community, businesses, landowners and developers to foster the creation of new vibrant 21st century Main Streets across the city.   The 24 identified Main Streets border on 60 different Calgary communities, with a total population estimated at about 300,000 (25% of the city’s current population).

One of the key goals of our Municipal Development Plan (MDP) is to ensure established communities share future city growth.  To achieve this goal we must diversify our predominantly single-family residential established communities built from the ‘50s to the ‘80s.  These communities must evolve into more complete communities, which is defined in the MDP as “a community that is fully developed and meets the needs of local residents through an entire lifetime. Complete communities include a full range of housing, commerce, recreational, institutional and public spaces. A complete community provides a physical and social environment where residents and visitors can live, learn, work and play.   This is an ambitious goal, but if we work together we can make our city a better place for everyone. 

And wouldn’t it be great, if one day, instead of talking about NIMBYism (Not In My BackYard), we’re talking about BABBEism (Building A Better Backyard for Everyone).

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Canadian Museum for Human Rights: Money Well Spent?

I received the comments below from childhood friend Bill Browett and thought that EDT readers would enjoy his insightful perspective on the Canadian Museum for Human Rights and Human Rights.  I have received many other comments from readers which I have added to the end of the blog.  I hope you will enjoy this revised blog. 

Bill Browett writes:

I have been thinking about this blog since you sent the link out. Rather than focus on whether the money was well spent, I was struck by your subtitle …

“Museum without artifacts …  One of the things I associate with great museums and art galleries is allowing visitors the opportunity to see things you can’t see anywhere else.  “

I too love seeing the artifacts, but mostly when I go to museums and art galleries what I am doing is looking at the stories that are told … the meta messages … Stories that reveal the attitudes and aspirations of the curators, owners, and artisans in both the artifacts and messages. Public institutions tend to tell institutional stories, and institutions pretty much by definition are conservative. Dissenting opinion is often. The Canadian Museum for Human Rights (CMHR) is no exception, as noted by “WB”.

Canadians have played pivotal roles in the progress of Human Rights … e.g., the creation of the UN "Universal Declaration of Human Rights” … I am all for celebrating both the positive contributions … However, these celebrations are empty and appear only as propaganda, if the institutions do not reconcile and work to reconcile Canadian failures, and entrenched cultural bigotries whether colonial and tribal [e.g., European biases] histories, e..g, genocidal policies, such as the Residential School program for First Nations children, and failure to include reconciliation in the Truth and Reconciliation process that is on-going.

I will visit the CMHR if I manage to make it to Winnipeg. Nonetheless, if the website is any indication, https://humanrights.ca/exhibit, this museum has failed to capture not only the rich, and on occasion dark history of the human rights struggles in Canada, but the CMHR has not put into a global context the Canadian struggles and contributions. … We are left with what I call a “happy face” institutional interpretation … sanitized and romanticized versions of the past.

If the CMHR, as the website suggests, has very narrowly defined the history of Human Rights, as I suspect, … then it has done a significant disservice to the many, many Canadians who have deeply sacrificed in these struggles, and worse does a disservice to current and future generations by suggesting that there are not serious conflicting histories of what Human Rights are.

Perhaps the "expressions" section of the website captures my concerns better than most, and illustrates the point of institutional messaging … (https://humanrights.ca/exhibit/expressions

 “Developed by the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa, this travelling exhibition explores the ways that Canadians have defined, made and kept peace at home and around the world. Peace is examined on three levels: how we negotiate to obtain and protect it; how we organize and demonstrate to demand it; and, sometimes, how we fight to achieve it."

To no one’s surprise, and as someone who has been an active participant in the Canadian peace movement all his adult life, the content in the "expressions” section is a very narrow definition of how "Canadians have defined, made and kept peace at home and around the world."

For many of us, on many levels, Human Rights struggles continue both in Canada and around the world. Appropriately, this is the season for such reflections.

Canadian Museum for Human Rights: Money Well Spent???????

By Richard White, December 10, 2014

The September 2014 opening of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights (CMHR) in Winnipeg was probably one of the most anticipated, new 21st century buildings in Canada. It is the first new national museum since1967 and the first outside the National Capital Region.  The design is strange, intriguing, and not just a big box museum. In the words of Antoine Predock, the architect, “ the abstract ephemeral wings of a white dove embrace a mythic stone mountain of 450-million year old Tyndall limestone in the creation of a unifying and timeless landmark.”

 Indeed, the building is a new landmark and tourist attraction for the City of Winnipeg and another wonderful new addition to the city’s urban meeting place, The Forks, which is on par with places like Vancouver’s Granville Island.

 On a recent visit to the Winnipeg, I had a chance to tour (two plus hours) the CMHR. And while I was initially impressed by the design and the exhibitions, something seemed to be wrong. At first, I couldn’t put my finger on it, but gradually I began to question whether Winnipeg - and Canada for that matter - got full value for the $350 million cost.

CHRM looking east is a strange juxtaposition of shapes.

The "Welcome Wall" video has a series of shadow figures who quickly enter write the word "welcome" in various different languages and then exit.

The entrance to the first exhibition hall is along this dramatic and sombre hallway. 

Museum without artifacts

 One of the things I associate with great museums and art galleries is allowing visitors the opportunity to see things you can’t see anywhere else.  CMHR has very few unique artifacts consist mainly of text and videos.  In many ways, this museum’s experience is like walking through a huge documentary film at your own pace.  This got me to thinking again perhaps a series of documentaries could have worked just as well.

 I was also struck by the fact there wasn’t much “new” in the museum; most of the information is available to anyone with a computer and Internet.  One really has to rethink the role of museums in the 21st century.

 Interesting to that the museum’s website has no video of the exhibitions – not even a short “teaser “one. I can’t but help but wonder if they realized that if they did a good video tour, there would be no need to go to the museum. 

There are quotes from individuals scattered throughout the museum. 

There are quotes from individuals scattered throughout the museum. 

IMG_7322.jpg
The first exhibition hall is dominated by a wall that documents the history of human rights on the left and video on the right. The wooden basket at the end is a small theatre space for a video.  

The first exhibition hall is dominated by a wall that documents the history of human rights on the left and video on the right. The wooden basket at the end is a small theatre space for a video.  

Detail of the history wall.

Detail of the history wall.

Several of the exhibition halls are dominated by a large billboard like video screen with words and images. 

Several of the exhibition halls are dominated by a large billboard like video screen with words and images. 

Children loved the interactive floor of colour. As each person stepped onto the floor they were surrounded by a ring of colour and as you moved closer to others your coloured rings joined.  If there are enough people, and you worked together you get the whole floor to light up. 

Children loved the interactive floor of colour. As each person stepped onto the floor they were surrounded by a ring of colour and as you moved closer to others your coloured rings joined.  If there are enough people, and you worked together you get the whole floor to light up. 

Opportunities Lost

Any museum that is focused on human rights is going to be controversial, and if it isn’t, it is not doing its job. This is an even larger issue when it is funded by the Federal government, with the many political considerations and constraints. This museum needs much more in the way of interactive and thought provoking exhibits.  There is no shortage of topical human rights issues in today’s world; it simply takes the freedom and courage to address them.

One of the most memorable exhibits is Jamie Blacks’ The REDress Project (see photo) that looks at violence towards aboriginal women.  Winnipeg and Manitoba have the largest First Nation and Metis population of any city or province in Canada and this population is rising at four times the overall rate of the city and province.  Governments at all levels are struggling with First Nation housing, education, health and crime challenges that are not being addressed. There is no shortage of aboriginal issues that could be dealt with in this museum in a thought-provoking and illuminating way.

Another of Canada’s most pressing current human rights issues is the chronic unemployment or underemployment of disabled Canadians who want to work but can’t find job.  Perhaps the money might have been better spent on job creation programs for the disabled.

And there are many other topical issues of today – violence against women, increasing government surveillance of the general population, the militarization of police forces, the role of women in today’s major religions, abuses of civil rights under the banner of the fight against terrorism, and on. This museum could be a beacon of light if it had some ideas for solutions.

Perhaps some of the space could be utilized for the topical issues of today, and allow outside organizations could develop the exhibits without bureaucratic or political interference.  The museum needed to focus more on how could we move from awareness to action. Now that would be a museum worth a visit.

 

Jaime Black, The REDress Project, 2010 to present, empty dresses collected by community donation with digital backdrop. The REDress Project is an ongoing public art installation. It is a response to the overwhelming number of missing or murdered Aboriginal women across Canada. The installation seeks to engage the public in discussion about the sexist and racist nature of violent crimes against Indigenous women. 

Jaime Black, The REDress Project, 2010 to present, empty dresses collected by community donation with digital backdrop. The REDress Project is an ongoing public art installation. It is a response to the overwhelming number of missing or murdered Aboriginal women across Canada. The installation seeks to engage the public in discussion about the sexist and racist nature of violent crimes against Indigenous women. 

Photo of residential school.  The information panel included the following quote: "I want to get rid of the Indian problem...Our objective is to continue until there is not a single Indian in Canada that has not been absorbed into the body politic..." Duncan Campbell Scott, Deputy Superintendent of Indian Affairs, 1913 to 1931. 

Photo of residential school.  The information panel included the following quote: "I want to get rid of the Indian problem...Our objective is to continue until there is not a single Indian in Canada that has not been absorbed into the body politic..." Duncan Campbell Scott, Deputy Superintendent of Indian Affairs, 1913 to 1931. 

Japanese

Big & Bold Architecture

 While the vastness of the building is part of its provocative statement, one can’t help but wonder, why there is so much empty space.  My guess is that less than 50% of the buildings’ space is utilized for exhibitions and offices.  This means incredible cost for heating and air-conditioning the building, especially with Winnipeg’s long cold winters and hot summers. 

One rumour I heard was that it will cost $100,000 a year just for window cleaning.

One of the biggest issues facing most major museums across Canada today is operating cost; this is not going to be efficient building to operate. 

The interior of the museum is dominated by a floor to ceiling atrium that filled with ramps that take you from floor to floor. The luminous walls are an interesting visual metaphor for the "enlightenment" that the museum is trying to foster.

While the ramps and atrium create a very haunting and perhaps uplifting space, it takes up 50% of the museum space.

The glass walls from the inside are an intricate and rhythmic pattern that fragments the visitors view of the city. 

Even when you look up to the tower, the view is blocked by all of the mechanical pipes and girders - there is no sense of awe that you might expect.

It is strange to have a glass wall that is blocked by so many lines.

Last Word

After a few days of mulling my CMHR experience over, I continue to think the $350 million spent to build a human rights museum and probably another $10 million per year to operate it, might have been better spent actually dealing with the human rights issues themselves.

I would highly recommend that if you are in Winnipeg that you visit CMHR and decide for yourself if it was "money well spent!"

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Readers' Responses:

CW writes: 

Your blog is written rather mildly. Perhaps the CMHR building could be repurposed as Museum of the Scams We Have to Endure in This Life: the CMHR structure, the Edmonton Oilers & Toronto Maple Leafs, Bre-X, the music industry for the last 40 years, and now the Wildrose Party of Alberta. Blog that one please.

KG writes: 

I asked myself this question as well and I do believe it's money poorly spent. From my perspective, the internet allows us to reach people with almost all the content contained in the museums walls – focussing just a quarter of the money on digital media content, rather than a lavish physical monument could have led to something exciting.  Now, granted that won't bring tourists. But, will the physical museum? I doubt it, especially not repeat visits.And don't even get me started on "starchitects" designing sculptures instead of functional spaces. How many human rights were violated to get all that steel just to tie the glass facade to the actual building.

JR writes: 

I fear that a third of a billion dollars was thrown down a rat hole. Question: what part of the money was raised from private citizens; from public companies; from “we the people”? Question: where does the $10M annual operation cost come from, speculate “we the people”? Question: how are they measuring the gigantic influx of tourists who are surely flying from all over the planet to see the museum?

Anyway the real depressing part is the annual cost. Assuming a “cap rate of 5.5”, I make it that there is a negative valuation ($181,000,000) i.e. to lose $10,000,000 annually“we the people” have to deploy $181,000,000 of capital earning 5.5% return to support it, all that after deploying $350,000,000 that makes no return. Poor bloody taxpayer.

WB writes: 

Great and inquisitive article on the CMHR. Many people I know in Winnipeg have little interest in visiting the museum owing to a litany of issues. You mentioned the $10m in annual operating costs but I believe e the figure is pegged at around $26m give or take a mill.

Why? No mention of Aboriginal genocide. No Palestinian causes represented. Only 4 of the 11 galleries completed? Why? ETC. "Controversial" starts with exclusions and lots of pink slips. The CMHR may be the first politically directed public cultural museum in Canadian history and that story has yet to be aired in public.

 

 

 

Calgary's got its mojo working!

A recent poll on Canadians’ perception of Calgary (Calgary Herald, Dec 10, 2014) wasn’t very flattering.  While Calgarians have tremendous community pride, we shouldn’t look at our city though “rose- coloured” glasses. However, at some point in time, we also must recognize our city can’t be all things to all people. 

In many ways, the results aren’t that surprising. Calgary isn’t going to appeal to people who don’t like winter - we have six months of it.  Our city won’t be loved those who lust after beaches and water – the Bow and Elbow Rivers, plus the Glenmore Reservoir just don’t compete. Calgary doesn’t have great retirement appeal, as retirement dollars won’t go further here.  That being said, many empty nesters will move to Calgary, largely to be closer to their children and grandkids who have relocated here to advance their career. 

Calgary is not a major Canadian tourist destination – Banff is! For some reason, Calgary and Banff have not been linked in the minds of Canadian tourists in the same way as Vancouver and Whistler are linked.

Calgary is most attractive to Canadians of all ages who want to “work hard and get ahead.”  In many ways Calgary is still a “frontier city.” Just like at the beginning of the 20th century when farmers and ranchers moved here, Canadians from the east are still migrating here to create a better life for themselves and their families.

Canada’s Young Career Class

“Why the West has won Canada’s youth” was the title of Mike Milke’s (Senior Fellow, Fraser Institute) Herald column November 22nd, 2014.  In it, he provided interesting facts about what he called “Canada’s young career class (YCC),” i.e. those 25 to 34-year olds who have finished their education and are seeking to establish their careers.  From 2003 to 2012, Alberta gained 60,855 YCCs on a net basis; British Columbia gained 10,643 and Saskatchewan 581. On the “losing” side, Quebec lost 24,355 and Ontario lost 27,451. He didn’t give numbers for Manitoba or the Maritime provinces except to say “Manitoba and Atlantic Canada also bled young adults but that’s been a constant for some time.” If you do the math, they collective lost a whopping 40,000+.

Calgary’s oil patch has been a magnet for Canada’s YCC for over 50 years - it is not a new phenomenon. Today, it is Calgary, Edmonton and Fort McMurray that are the magnets for young Canadians who want to establish their career, with Calgary being especially attractive for those wanting a career in Geology, Accounting, Banking, Brokering (stocks, land, commercial space) and Engineering or as I call them GABEsters.

Calgary has an fashionable cycling culture

Calgary has an fashionable cycling culture

Calgary's mojo includes some great nerdy shops.

Calgary's mojo includes some great nerdy shops.

Downtown Calgary's Power Hour

Downtown Calgary's Power Hour

Tourist love Calgary's laid-back urban culture.

Calgary's street culture.

Calgary's street culture.

Calgary’s got its mojo working

Since the beginning of the new millennium, Calgary has evolved significantly.  We have become a better “Festival City” with Beakerhead and SLED Island being two key examples. We are a better “Foodie City,” often placing one or more restaurants in enRoute Magazine’s annual Top 10 New Restaurants and our chefs are regular medal winners at international competitions.  Cowtown will also become more attractive to the YCC when the National Music Centre opens in 2016.

Calgary is also a leader in new community planning with new communities like Brookfield Residential, McKenzie Towne, SETON and Canada Lands’ Garrison Woods and Currie Barracks.  We have also become North America’s newest “Design City,” with world-renowned architects and artists creating work for Calgary – Calatrava (Peace Bridge), Foster (The Bow), Ingels (Telus Sky), Plensa (Wonderland sculpture) and Snøhetta (New Central Library)

We’ve also got some of the best urban neighbourhoods in Canada – Inglewood, Beltline, Kensington and Bridgeland/Riverside.  The Canadian Institute of Planners named Inglewood Canada’s Greatest Neighbourhood in 2014 and Kensington was a finalist.

We are currently ranked #5 as one of the world’s most liveable cities (Economist Intelligence Unit) and #1 in Canada for family living (MoneySense Magazine). And, one thing most Canadians probably don’t know is that Calgary has been ranked the “Cleanest City” in the world (Mercer Global).

Calgary has also diversified its employment base. We are now Western Canada’s financial centre and the distribution hub, which means more opportunities for YCC.

Calgary has also become Canada’s leading political city - the Prime Minister is from Calgary and our Mayor is respected internationally.

Many young Canadians come to Calgary for the job and stay for the lifestyle. I know that happened for us. We moved to the Calgary area in 1981 thinking it would be an interesting adventure never thinking that 33 years later we’d still call it home.

Calgary has a bustling cafe culture.

Calgary has a bustling cafe culture.

More street culture.

Yes, we sometimes live in our own little bubble.

Yes, we sometimes live in our own little bubble.

And, we can laugh at ourselves.

And, we can laugh at ourselves.

Last Word

In the words of iconic bluesman Muddy Waters Calgary has "got our mojo working, but it just won't work on you!"  And really, do we really care what Canadian's think of our city?  

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What is urban living and who really cares?

By Richard White, November 27, 2014 

80% of Canadians live in cities, but only a small part live urban,” reads one of the tweets in a recent tweeter debate by a few of us urban nerds.

This got me asking myself “what really is urban living anyway?”  Can you live in a city and not live “urban?”

I tweeted the author asking what his definition of urban living was, but got no answer.  Indeed, too often people – including urban designers planners, architects, engineers, politicians, developers and yes, even myself use terms that even we don’t really have a shared meaning of and/or doesn’t make a lot of sense to others.

I have often thought the term “urban sprawl” should more aptly be called “suburban sprawl” as what is being referred to is the sprawl of low-density predominantly residential development at the edge of a city, areas commonly thought of as suburbs. But, I digress; perhaps a topic for another time.

Urban living is about diversity? Young and old? Bikes and pedestrians? Residents and retail?

Urban living is about diversity? Young and old? Bikes and pedestrians? Residents and retail?

Is this urban living?

Is this urban living?

What is urban living?

I admit – not only did I not have a handy definition, I could not recall ever seeing one.  It begs a number of questions, including:

  •  Do you have to live in or near downtown to “live urban?”
  • Do you have to live in a community with a certain density to be considered urban living? 
  • Is urban living measured by the percent of time you walk vs. take transit vs. drive?
  •  Does urban living mean not having a car? Or, is it driving less than the Canadian average of 18,000 km/year?
  • Is urban living about the size of your house, condo and/or vehicle?
  • Is urban living about residing in communities with a diversity of commercial and residential buildings?  

I thought a Google search might help, but I struck out. Unable to find a nice clear and concise, definition I went “old school” and checked some dictionaries. They all just said something about “living in a city,” much too ambiguous to satisfy me.

Urban living is about living on the streets?  Food carts in Portland's suburbs encourage street dining.  

Urban living is about living on the streets?  Food carts in Portland's suburbs encourage street dining.  

Urban living in Calgary's West Hillhurst?

Urban living in Calgary's West Hillhurst?

 

Statistics Canada says…

 Not one to give up quickly, I turned to our government, specifically (and logically) Statistics Canada.  I found out that, in 2011, Statistics Canada redesignated urban areas with the new term "population centre" a new term was chosen in order to “better reflect the fact that urban vs. rural is not a strict division, but rather a continuum within which several distinct settlement patterns may exist (their words not mine).”

Stats Canada went further, identifying three distinct types of population centres: small (population 1,000 to 29,999), medium (population 30,000 to 99,999) and large (population 100,000 or greater).

They go on to say, “It also recognizes that a community may fit a strictly statistical definition of an urban area but may not be commonly thought of as "urban" because it has a smaller population. Or, functions socially and economically as a suburb of another urban area rather than as a self-contained urban entity. Or, is geographically remote from other urban communities.”  Have I lost you yet - it is getting very muddy for me!

For example, Airdrie, with its population of 42,564, is a medium size population centre, but it is socially and economically a suburb of Calgary.  On the other hand, Medicine Hat, with its population of 61,180 is also a medium size population centre, but because it is the largest population centre for a large geographical region, it could be thought of as “urban.” 

Despite its change in terminology, Statistics Canada’s current demographic definition of an urban area is “a population of at least 1,000 people where the density is no fewer than 400 persons per square km” (which would include all of Calgary’s 200+ communities).

Dig a little deeper and Statistics Canada defines low-density neighbourhoods as those where 67% or more of the housing stock is composed of single-family dwellings, semi-detached dwellings and/or mobile homes.  A medium-density neighbourhood is deemed one where the percentage of single-family, detached or mobile homes is between 33 and 67%, while high density is where these types of dwellings comprise less than 33% of the housing stock.

By this, Stats Canada identifies six high-density neighbourhoods in Calgary (they didn’t name them), by far the least of any of Canada’s major cities.  Perhaps the author of the tweet meant only those Calgarians living in Calgary’s six, high-density neighbourhoods are living urban?

Urban living is about great public spaces, like this one in Strasbourg, France.

Urban living is about great public spaces, like this one in Strasbourg, France.

YYC Municipal Development Plan

Still not satisfied, I moved on. I wondered if the City of Calgary’s Municipal Development Plan has a definition of “urban living” or a related term in its glossary of terms. The best I could find were the following:

Intensity: A measure of the concentration of people and jobs within a given area calculated by totaling the number of people either living or working in a given area. 

Complete Community: A community that is fully developed and meets the needs of local residents through an entire lifetime. Complete communities include a full range of housing, commerce, recreational, institutional and public spaces. A complete community provides a physical and social environment where residents and visitors can live, learn, work and play. 

So, where does that leave me and others who are interested in a meaningful debate about how we work together to build a better city. What would be a useful definition of “urban living” that professionals and the public to agree upon as the on debate how best to “urbanize” Calgary continues?

Brookfield's SETON mixed-use community on the southern edge of Calgary will offer many of the same urban experiences as living in Calgary's City Centre. 

Brookfield's SETON mixed-use community on the southern edge of Calgary will offer many of the same urban experiences as living in Calgary's City Centre. 

Calgary's new suburbs are being as complete communities with both a density and diversity of residential dwellings (single-family, town homes and multi-family) that would make them a medium to high density community. It will take 15 to 20 years to achieve this; don't be too quick to judge!  

Calgary's new suburbs are being as complete communities with both a density and diversity of residential dwellings (single-family, town homes and multi-family) that would make them a medium to high density community. It will take 15 to 20 years to achieve this; don't be too quick to judge!  

Possible working definitions

One potential definition of “urban living” might be, “living in a place where you can comfortably walk, cycle or take public transit to 80% of your regular weekly activities (i.e. work, school, shop, medical entertainment and recreation).

As for The definition of “comfortable,” I leave up to the individual. For some, a comfortable walking distance might be 15 minutes; for others it might be 30 minutes. I know Calgarians who take the bus or even drive the two kilometers from Mission to work downtown, while others cycle 15+ km to work (and back). I myself used to walk 50 minutes to and from work downtown for 10+ years.  

A second possible “urban living” definition might be, “when you regularly use at least three of the four modes of transportation (walk, cycle, take transit and drive) to engage in your regular weekly activities.”

High-rise living in Edmonton's downtown.

High-rise living in Edmonton's downtown.

Downtown Calgary's West End.  Are condos just vertical suburban dwellings?

Downtown Calgary's West End.  Are condos just vertical suburban dwellings?

Low-rise condos on a residential street in Mission.

Low-rise condos on a residential street in Mission.

Last Word

But really, does the average Calgarian even care if they a live urban or suburban? Thanks for indulging me.  I hazard a guess to say most don’t. And there’s nothing wrong with that. I highly suspect they just want to be able to get to their activities in a timely, affordable manner.

Yet for us urban nerds, we are always thinking about how can we build a better city for everybody, one that is more cost-efficient, environmentally-friendly, affordable, integrated and inclusive. It’s what turns our cranks!

By Richard White, December 4, 2014

Reader Comments:

GG writes: "Initially the definition was applied to the rural/city divide, and has since become a true city ‘divide’. It doesn’t seem to matter than many of these ‘urban inner-city communities’ were the suburbs of a few decades back, and the reasons that people built there and moved there are no different than those today.  By virtue of Calgary’s rapid growth, they are now close to the city center and have developed a ‘cachet’. This was not a result of great urban planning, foresight, or any attempt at smart growth. The densities in many of these communities are less than they are in the ‘reviled’ suburbs that are being built today. They were the product of development methods of the day, and schools and community centers were part of the package.  Families were one car or even no car, and transit was a common denominator. And today, it is all too common to see perfectly liveable houses bulldozed so that the affluent can enjoy a big house but be environmentally and developmentally superior by being an urban dweller, an inhabitant of the inner city."

CW writes: "A most excellent column. Certainly people do care very much about their urban living, yet our language completely fails to capture how we choose to situate ourselves in life. Why would that be? Everybody knows it's not good manners to talk openly about class, but a definition of urban living should take into the account the ability to insulate oneself from undesirable situations of class. Most people love the city they choose to live in, but they also wouldn't be caught dead in some parts of it."

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University of Calgary: Can art change anything?

On Friday, December 5th from 11:15 to 11:50 am, artist Teresa Posyniak and the Law School at the University of Calgary invite Calgarians to attend the 20th anniversary of the installation of the sculpture "Lest We Forget." 

In conjunction with the National Day of Remembrance and Action on Violence Against Women, this event will be an opportunity to collectively reflect on Posyniak's installation LEST WE FORGET which was installed at The Law School at the University of Calgary (2nd floor of the Murray Fraser Hall) twenty years ago.

Installed in 1994, it is her personal response to violence against women starting with the Montreal massacre of 14 women on December 6th, 1989.  

Guest blog by Teresa Posyniak, November 30, 2014 

Building a memorial to murdered and missing Canadian women wasn’t something I’d thought of back in 1989.  At age 38, with a six-month old daughter and 2 year old son, I had delayed motherhood to pursue an MFA and establish a career as an artist and instructor at The Alberta College of Art and Design.   

My 80’s work, The Sanctuary installations - large, contemplative, full of metaphors relating to vulnerability and resiliency - never overtly reflected my social activism.  All that changed after the Montreal massacre of 14 women on December 6th, 1989 at L’ Ecole Polytechnique.  This tragic event and concern for my kids’ future pushed me to make a strong art statement about violence against women. 

Would my daughter Kaia ever be safe, even at university?  Would my son, Nick, grow up to be like his father, Clarence Hookenson - considerate and respectful of women? 

As I began exploring ideas about violence against women through drawings and paintings, I thought of my own experiences – of being sexually assaulted, of helping out girlfriends who’d been attacked, of growing up around an aunt, mother of 5, who lived in terror of my uncle’s rages, and of sexual harassment which nearly derailed my graduate studies at the University of Calgary.

Can art be a vehicle for social change? 

I was at a loss how to express these hopes and fears through art.  While I admired some political art of the past, I was also aware that socially engaged art sometimes sacrifices aesthetics for the big message or conversely, leaves the viewer bewildered, unaware of the artist’s ideas.  And there’s the big question, can art ever be a vehicle for social change?  

My inspiration came in early 1991 when I read a “femicide” list of murdered women compiled by Mary Billy of B.C. in This Magazine (formerly called This Magazine is about Schools).  I was fascinated by Ms. Billy’s idea that rather than focussing on the names of the men who murder women, we should instead remember the female victims’names, “make their deaths count for something”. 

With that in mind, I designed and built a sculpture upon which I wrote each woman’s name and age of death, adding more as they sadly appeared regularly in the local media.  After the names of the Montreal 14, I pointedly added those of nine local aboriginal sex trade workers (not identified as aboriginal on the sculpture) whose murderer(s) had not yet been found.  I felt strongly that not enough attention was focussed on investigating these unsolved murders. 

Was it because they were First Nations or Metis?  They were someone’s daughter, mother, aunt, sister or friend as well!  These questions continue to rage today.      

LEST WE FORGET - name side detail 1.jpg
Lest We Forget unfinished side

I was unprepared 

Lest We Forget, constructed with paper, wood, styrofoam, paint and leaves – all easily destructible materials- was never intended to be a public sculpture.  During its first exhibition, curated by Muttart Gallery  director Richard White in 1992, it attracted the attention of University of Calgary law school alumni Judy Maclachlan who felt that this sculpture, if placed in the Law School (then under construction), would serve as a reminder to lawyers and lawmaker of their responsibilities. 

Once Dean Sheilah Martin secured approval for the sculpture’s placement in the building’s airy main foyer across from the Law Library, the need for the protection of a glass and steel case posed another hurdle. 

Lest We Forget made it past the proposal stage due to the generosity of Bahaa and Emily Faltous of Moli Industries who designed, built and installed the protective case at a significant discount.  Fundraisers paid for the materials.  

Helen Zenith of Newzones Gallery of Contemporary Art (my representation at the time) convinced the The Alberta Foundation for the Arts to buy Lest We Forget and permanently loan it to the Law School.  It took almost two years and the efforts of many to see this project to its conclusion.    

I was unprepared for the depth of emotion and the exposure to the victims’ families’ trauma.  Some called me to tell me about the tragic deaths of their loved ones.  I added names to the sculpture when requested, even responding to a Calgary Sun reporter’s request to include the name of a mother of five who was randomly murdered in Pincher Creek while minding the family store alone.  

Before its installation, Suzanne LaPlante Edward, the mother of Anne-Marie Edward - one of the Montreal 14 - visited my studio while on a cross country tour to promote gun control.  I also received a visit from the extended family of an aboriginal woman murdered while working in the sex trade.  They brought the woman’s 18-month old son to see the sculpture and took his picture next to his mother’s name.  Ten years later, he left a rose and a card at the base of the memorial after the annual December 6th vigil. 

Lest We Forget

Sign of Hope 

I’ve always believed in the power of art.  Did Lest We Forget change anything? Did it increase anyone’s awareness?  I’m not sure. 

Twenty years after its installation, we will formally gather again to remember the women and to talk about ways we’ve moved forward and what needs to be done. 

To me, that’s a sign of hope.

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West District: An urban village in the 'burbs!

By Richard White, November 29, 2014

West District is a proposed new MAC (Major Activity Center) community on a 96-acre site that straddles the southwest communities of West Springs and Cougar Ridge by Truman Developments. The boundaries are north of 9th Ave., west of 77th Street, east of 85th Street and south of Old Coach Banff Road in the southwest.

 A MAC is a term from the City of Calgary’s Municipal Development Plan to describe an “urban centre for a sub-region of the city, which provides opportunities for people to work, live, shop, recreate, be entertained and meet their daily needs.”

West District is a unique infill MAC community, as the land surrounding it has already been developed for several years. Most new MACs are at the edge of the city with no surrounding communities.  As a result, Truman Development’s team of planners and urban designers have been able to respond to what currently exists, as well as what is missing for the West Springs and Cougar Ridge to become a vibrant live work play community.

They were also able to respond to the City’s guidelines for creating successful MACs, which were not in place or not possible given most of the previous developments in West Springs and Cougar Ridge were on small parcels of land with fragmented ownership making master-planning impossible.

Over the past year, Truman Development has embraced the City’s vision of creating a vibrant new mixed-use, mixed-density communities in consultation with the community.

This image illustrates how West District (the block of land in the middle of the image) is surrounding by low density development.  West District is essentially a mega infill project.  The concentration of trees in the middle will become part of the new communities Central Park. 

This image illustrates how West District (the block of land in the middle of the image) is surrounding by low density development.  West District is essentially a mega infill project.  The concentration of trees in the middle will become part of the new communities Central Park. 

Community Engagement

One of the first things Truman did right was to engage the existing community from the start, not after they had developed a comprehensive plan.  Rather than the old open house format where developers would present their vision after it was completed and then defend it when the individuals in the community raised questions and concerns.

They decided to open what they called the EngageHub in the spring of 2014, a purpose built 2,000 square foot building where people could visit, learn more and weigh in on some of the ideas being considered for West District. Since opening, the EngageHub has been open to the community 130+ hours  (weekdays, weekends and evenings) for people to drop-in to see how the West District plans were evolving based on community input.  

The pretty little EngageHub looks like a cafe. In reality it is the an open meeting place where the developers and the community can meet and discuss ideas, options and issues that will create a vibrant urban village that will be a win for the community, developer and the City.

The pretty little EngageHub looks like a cafe. In reality it is the an open meeting place where the developers and the community can meet and discuss ideas, options and issues that will create a vibrant urban village that will be a win for the community, developer and the City.

The EngageHub is full of books that people can read and get ideas from about what they would like to see in an urban village.  For me urban development and placemaking is an art not a science. 

The EngageHub is full of books that people can read and get ideas from about what they would like to see in an urban village.  For me urban development and placemaking is an art not a science. 

Density Dilemma

As with almost every new development in Calgary the biggest issue is always density. Too often the developer is put in an awkward situation as the City is demanding more density, but the existing community doesn’t want it.

For example, West District’s density is envisioned to be 36 units/acre, which is 10 times the current density of the surrounding developments.  However, when you average the density of the existing communities with the addition of West District the overall MAC density would be 5.3 units/acre, which is less than the City’s current goal of 8 units/acre for new communities and not that different from the 3.1 units/acre that currently exists. 

Too often the public hears the term density and immediately thinks 20 storey highrise condos, but in fact the density for West District and other proposed MACs will be achieved with a mix of single-family, town/row housing and some low and mid-rise condo bulidings.  This allows for a diversity of housing options that will be attractive and affordable for first homebuyers, families, empty nesters and seniors housing.

Indeed, vibrant communities include people of all ages and backgrounds. Truman Developments is Attainable Homes Calgary’s biggest multi-family partner and they are keen to see a healthy mix of market housing with some more affordable units in West District.

This is an example of the scale of the proposed condos with ground floor retail.  You can also begin to see the wide pedestrian friendly sidewalks and clear cross walks. 

This is an example of the scale of the proposed condos with ground floor retail.  You can also begin to see the wide pedestrian friendly sidewalks and clear cross walks. 

Central Park

Over the past seven months of community engagement one of the things Truman heard loud and clear was the need for a park to serve both existing and new residents. One of the community’s desires was to retain many of the existing and beloved Aspen Tree groves. As a result, the design team has developed large central park that balances passive natural areas with programmable activity areas, which will allow for year-round use.

West District Central Park

Traffic / Transit

Another key issue for existing residents when new developments are planned is the ability of roads and transit to handle the increased traffic.  While the West Leg of the LRT does provide improved transit service to the Calgary’s west-side communities, it is unfortunate that is it is surrounded by low-density communities rather than something like a West District. 

To capitalize on the City’s 1.4B investment in the West LRT, Truman Development is proposing a developer-funded express bus between West District and the 69th Street LRT Station, about four kilometers away. Kudos to Truman Development for taking this innovative initiative.

West District shuttle.jpg

Cost Effective Development

West District is an infill development and as such the area has already been serviced to urban standards for water and sewer, which means no addition costs for new infrastructure.   There is also a good network of existing major and arterial roads that will be further upgraded with the completion of the west leg of Stoney Trail.

In addition, West District will add an estimated $550M in new residential and business taxes over the next 50 years, which is significantly more than the $130M that would be generated by a typical low density suburban development. The additional half billions dollars can be used for new or enhanced parks, recreation centres, as wells as new buses or roads across the city – everyone benefits from mega infill developments like West District.

One of the barriers to creating new urban villages in established neighbourhoods, especially on the west side of the city is the fragmented ownership.  It becomes very difficult to assembly the large tract of land needed to develop an integrated plan of mixed-uses. The opportunity to create a new community like West District on the city's west side is very limited. 

One of the barriers to creating new urban villages in established neighbourhoods, especially on the west side of the city is the fragmented ownership.  It becomes very difficult to assembly the large tract of land needed to develop an integrated plan of mixed-uses. The opportunity to create a new community like West District on the city's west side is very limited. 

West District calls for low density residential on the south side next to single family homes, with low-rise condos and offices on the north side with a traditional grid street pattern which will server to create the Kensington-like community. 

West District calls for low density residential on the south side next to single family homes, with low-rise condos and offices on the north side with a traditional grid street pattern which will server to create the Kensington-like community. 

NUVO Kensington

In many ways, West District is like building a new Kensington community on the west side of the city.  In fact, the new condos in Kensington - Pixel, St. John’s, Lido and VEN – are very similar to what is being proposed for West District. There are also similarities between West District’s Central Park and Riley Park and West District’s main street and the mix of shops along Kensington Road and 10th Street.

While it might take a few years for West District to have the urban patina of Kensington, the goal is to create a community that has a wonderful outdoor culture of patios, parks and pedestrians. (there are not pedestrians in this photo as it was taken very early on summer morning.)

While it might take a few years for West District to have the urban patina of Kensington, the goal is to create a community that has a wonderful outdoor culture of patios, parks and pedestrians. (there are not pedestrians in this photo as it was taken very early on summer morning.)

Last Word

One of the criticisms I often hear from new comers to Calgary, especially those from major urban centres is we don’t have enough walkable urban communities like Kensington, Beltline or Inglewood.

No plan is perfect, however, I am thinking the City should be fast tracking the approval of West District if we are serious about providing attractive, affordable and accessible housing for both existing and new Calgarians.

By Richard White, October 27, 2014

West District At A Glance

  • 7,000              residents
  • 3,500              dwelling units
  • 20%                detached/attached homes
  • 80%                4 to 8 floor condos
  • 10                    acres of park space
  • 500,000         sq. ft. or retail (small scale with urban grocery as anchor)
  • 1.2                   million sq. ft. of (office, medical, satellite education)
  • 5,200              workers 

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80% of Calgarians must live in the 'burbs.

"When it comes to house prices, here's how much location matters" was the title of a Maclean’s article in their November 17, 2014 edition. The story looked at how Canadian homebuyers in Vancouver, Toronto, Montreal and Calgary can save thousands of dollars by buying a home further away from downtown. You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to figure that out. Most Calgarians and I expect those in other cities figured that out a long time ago.

But it was interesting to see that in all the cities except Calgary, the savings increased with every 10 minutes further you lived from downtown. But in Calgary, the price dropped from an average of $665,500 10 minutes from downtown to $515,900 if you lived 20 minutes from downtown and stayed in the $500,000 to $550,000 range until you got 50 minutes away.  Calgary’s big ring of established communities with similar housing stock in the 20 to 40-minute commute range to downtown, making them very attractive to downtown professionals with their higher than average salaries, stock options and profit sharing. 

Majority of Calgarians simply can’t afford to live in established neighbourhoods.

Do the math and you quickly find out the majority of Calgarians can’t afford to live in the established neighbourhoods. A family income of $100,000 (Calgary’s median family income was $98,300 in 2012, Statistics Canada) will support a mortgage of only $300,000. I am told 3 times your gross income is a good benchmark for how much mortgage you can afford.  If we assume a generous down payment of say 20%, that means 50% of Calgarians can only afford a house or condo under $360,000.

A quick review of the City’s average home sales costs by community shows that in the southwest has no communities with an average selling price in the $360K range and there are only two in the northwest.   In the southeast, there would are three or four, while in the northeast almost all of its communities are close to the $360K mark. I realize that even with an average selling price over $360K in established neighbourhoods there will be many homes under that price, but most of them will be smaller and in need of renovations that will bring the price over the affordability of most Calgarians. 

So While the City of Calgary wants to encourage more Calgarians to live in the established neighbourhoods in the inner city west of the Deerfoot Divide, most Calgarians simply can’t afford the $500,000+ cost.  In fact, only 21% of Calgary’s households have an income over $150,000 which in turn would allow them to have mortgage of $450,000 which combined with say a $100,000 down payment would, get them a $550,000 house.  

If only 20% of Calgarians can afford to live in established communities, this means we have to accommodate 80% in the suburbs until we can find a way to build affordable housing for the average Calgarian in established communities. 

A street of older mid-century homes in one of Calgary's established communities on 50 foot lots. Typically they sell for $500+ to developers who knock them down and build a two story infill that is 1,800+ sf and better meets the needs of a modern family. 

A street of older mid-century homes in one of Calgary's established communities on 50 foot lots. Typically they sell for $500+ to developers who knock them down and build a two story infill that is 1,800+ sf and better meets the needs of a modern family. 

A typical street of new infill homes in an established community. Prices start at $700,000 for older infills with new ones starting at $900,000.  

A typical street of new infill homes in an established community. Prices start at $700,000 for older infills with new ones starting at $900,000.  

A new duplex in the inner city starts at about $900,000 as they are about 200sf larger than detached infills. 

A new duplex in the inner city starts at about $900,000 as they are about 200sf larger than detached infills. 

These two new infills on a 25 ft lot sell for $900,000 for 1,800 sf. A similar size house and lot in the 'burbs sells for about $450,000. 

These two new infills on a 25 ft lot sell for $900,000 for 1,800 sf. A similar size house and lot in the 'burbs sells for about $450,000. 

New condos in established communities start at $300,000 for studio, $400,000 for one bedroom and $500,00+ for a two bedroom.  

New condos in established communities start at $300,000 for studio, $400,000 for one bedroom and $500,00+ for a two bedroom.  

Why are we always focused on downtown?

However, my biggest beef with this study - and most of these kinds of studies for that matter is they are only looking at the downtown commuters, which represents only 25% of Calgary’s commuters. For the majority of Calgarians, their decision where to buy a house isn’t governed by the commute to downtown, and that majority is getting larger every year.

The City’s most recent job growth numbers from 2006 to 2011 show that downtown job growth was only 11.5% of the new jobs in the city, while growth in the City’s industrial areas accounted for a whopping 77% of the job growth.  Is it any wonder there is a huge demand for homes and condos in the southeast and the northeast near the industrial and warehouse developments?  In the ‘90s GO Plan, the City’s goal was to get people to live closer to where they work.  That being the case, we need to build more communities near our industrial lands.

The majority of Calgarians don’t need to live near downtown.

Retired Calgarians can live anywhere; commuting time is not a factor.  Many retirees I know have a goal of not leaving the house until after 9 am and being home before 3 pm leaving the roads available for those who need them.   

For those working in and around the airport, the ability to live in the far northeast and northwest means minimal time on the Deerfoot and a shorter commute time.  Living east of the Deerfoot in the far southeast also results in a short, 10 to 20-minute commute for those who work there.

With only one leg of the LRT serving the NE and none the SE the quadrant, workers in our major industrial, transportation and distribution centres have limited transit access and so the majority must drive to work.

Unfortunately, the large tracks of land needed for industrial and warehouse operations don’t create the concentration of jobs in a small geographical area needed for effective rapid transit. Transit only works well for downtown, and a few other places like large employment centres (e.g. university, hospitals), but not for the majority of Calgary workers. 

Calgary’s urban planners and politicians must realize that today’s Calgary is as much a distribution warehouse city as it is an oil & gas downtown office city. Did you know that transportation & manufacturing (mostly east of Deerfoot) accounts for 125,000 jobs in the city, while oil & gas adds up to only 72,000?  The NE with growth of the Calgary International Airport has evolved into a major economic engine for the city and could in the future rival downtown. Did you know that there are more hotel rooms in the northeast than in downtown?

Why Calgarians love the burbs.

While many young urban singles are willing to live in a 500-square foot home and pay $450+ per square foot that won’t work for families.  A young family of four wants 2,000 square feet (the same 500 square feet/ person), which means they can not afford the $500,000+ an older established neighbourhood home, but the home doesn’t meet their needs.  As a result, the majority of young Calgary families are forced to go to the edge of the city where starter homes or larger condos can be had for $300,000 to $400,00 and don’t need any major renovations.

Did you know 67% of Calgary households have children and another 2.3% are multiple family homes? It is therefore not surprising 62% of Calgarians want a single-family home, 16% want a semi-detached home and only 22% desire a multi-family one (Calgary Growth Benchmark, 2014).  Currently, there are more multi-family homes being built than single or semi-detached. Obviously, since supply isn’t meeting demand, the cost of single and semi-detached homes will only increase, making them even less affordable.

I know some will ask, “Why does a family have to be raised in a single-family dwelling?” And, indeed some parents will choose a semi-detached or multi-family home but most desire a single-family home where the kids to run, play and make noise without disturbing the neighbours. As well multi-family buildings don’t meet the storage needs for an active family in a four-season city like Calgary.

Suburban population growth from City of Calgary's "Suburban Residential Growth 2014 -2018 Report.

Suburban population growth from City of Calgary's "Suburban Residential Growth 2014 -2018 Report.

Land Supply (City of Calgary, Suburban Residential Growth 2014 - 2018)

Land Supply (City of Calgary, Suburban Residential Growth 2014 - 2018)

Residential Building Permit Applications, City of Calgary, Suburban Residential Growth 2014 - 2018 Report)

Residential Building Permit Applications, City of Calgary, Suburban Residential Growth 2014 - 2018 Report)

The BIG Question.

Should we be pushing families to live in multi-family housing in established neighbourhoods they can’t afford and aren’t any nearer to work? I fact, if we get more people to move into the established neighborhoods west of Deerfoot, we will be encouraging more people to drive to work, creating more traffic issues as there is no effective transit to their jobs in the far northeast and southeast. 

Calgary needs more mixed-use, mixed density urban style development on the edges of the city like Brookfield Residential's SETON. 

Calgary needs more mixed-use, mixed density urban style development on the edges of the city like Brookfield Residential's SETON. 

SETON happy hour.

SETON happy hour.

A Radical Idea.

Instead of trying to get more people to live in the established communities (where the existing community members don’t necessarily want more density and the majority of Calgarians can’t afford to live there anyway), we should focus on how we can improve the live/work/play opportunities in Calgary’s northeast and southeast quadrants of the city.

In the 20th century urban thinking was to separate housing from employment centers so most of the housing was west of the Macleod and Edmonton Trails and the jobs east. By the late 20th Century the Deerfoot became the dividing line between living and working.  In the 21st Century, we need to look at integration, not separation of live/work centres. We need to rethink the balance between inner city and suburban growth. We need to think of suburban growth as mega infilling projects. 

We need to think of Calgary differently, as a federation of five different economic zones - NW, NE, SE, SW and Inner City.  Each one needs to have its own growth management strategy (land use, transit, roads, recreation, retail) that capitalizes on each zone’s unique aspects as a place to live, work and play. 

By Richard White, November 26, 2014.

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Public Art vs Street Art: Calgary, Florence, Rome

After six weeks of recently wandering the streets of Dublin, Florence and Rome, I was puzzled by the lack of new public art (approved by a public process), appalled by the abundance of graffiti and intrigued by the street art (no public approval).

There was really only one piece of what looked like new public art that caught my eye. It was in Rome, in the tiny off-the-beaten path Vicolo dell’Oro square. The piece “Personal/NonPersonal” by Simone D’Auria was commissioned by the Gallery Hotel Art which is located next to the square. A very ambitious piece that encompasses the entire square, it has 18 ghost-like man/animal figures strategically placed from the earth to sky, including several figures climbing the side of the building. 

The artwork represents an imaginary world populated by white creatures with a human body and the head of an animal. The inspiration has its roots in the past of those great men who have made the city of Florence and its history and who repesented themselves through emblems depicting the head of an animal followed by a motto that extolled the value and virtue of action. Some examples? The turtle with a sail for Cosimo I,  symbol of prudence combined with the power of action; a rhino for Alessando de Medici to symbolize his strength and strong will; a weasel by Francis I, the symbol of cunning.

"Today, in my work, those animals and the meanings they carry with them become faces of men and women, ironic caricatures in which they can identify themselves, visible expression of their deepest inner values; portraits, in fact," says D'Auria. The circus-like animation is a welcome relief in a city dominated by somber ruins of past cultures and statues of people long passed away.  It was definitely a refreshing and welcomed surprise.

I can’t help but think that an artwork like this would be a good addition to downtown Calgary.  It would be very appropriate for a space between the many two-tower office blocks or for the alley space between the towers of the Hotel Le Germain project on 9th Avenue SW. 

fying
climbing the wall
bums
flying figures
seated figures

Florence Street Art

While Calgary invests millions of public and private dollars into public art, in Florence and Rome, temporary free street art seems to be the rage.  Very soon after arriving in Florence, I started to notice the appearance of faceless, simple cartoon-like stick figures with balloons and words like “exit, freedom and resistance”.  For me, it soon became a fun game of spotting the next piece. And they were all over the place!

Later, I found out by googling that the no-name artist was from Pisa, Italy a hot bed for street art. The title of the project is “Exit/Enter” with the purpose being to tickle the imagination of street spectators, to be a catalyst for a smile or a smirk and maybe even be a bit thought-provoking as one tries to understand the ongoing narrative.  I thought the title was very appropriate as the streets and alleys of Florence are full of doorways and corners where people are always entering or exiting. 

CLET

While walking around Florence’s San Niccolo district we discovered a t-shirt shop with some very interesting street-sign decals so we popped in.  We quickly learned that they were the work of CLET, a very well-known, European street artist who has his studio in the area at Via Dell’Olono 8r. CLET cleverly alters road signs around cities with removable stickers. Seems the local authorities tolerate the work, which again adds humour to an urban landscape polluted with street signage.  Once, we knew about CLET we started to find the altered street signs everywhere. 

This is the entrance to CLET studio. The Fish sign is CLET's, the hear and stick figure is from the "Exit/Enter" project and the blue piece is by Blurb another street artist (see below) and butterflies by another artist. I am not sure who did the guns or the black figure with paint roller. 

This is the entrance to CLET studio. The Fish sign is CLET's, the hear and stick figure is from the "Exit/Enter" project and the blue piece is by Blurb another street artist (see below) and butterflies by another artist. I am not sure who did the guns or the black figure with paint roller. 

close up


collage
kisses
cross
t-shirt
blind corner

Exit/Enter Project

waste
Resistance
resistance 2
Exit bike
Lost
balloon
woman and child
ladder
natzi
fly away

Blurb 

A third street artist, Blurb, takes on major masterpieces of art and dresses them up in scuba gear.  The title of the project is “Art knows how to swim” and while I have no idea was the meaning is, they too added an element of fun to serious works of art like Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa and Michelangelo’s David.   Many of the works on paper are ripped and faded to the point where they blend right in with the urban patina of the city. 

david
Blurb
mona lisa
red hat

Rome Street Art 

In Rome, we didn’t find any new public art or graffiti street art like Florence (though we did find a few Exit/Enter pieces). However, in the graffiti-filled streets of the San Lorenzo district near the university, we found the motherlode of street art. 

Along the retaining wall of a playing field in an elevated park are two block-long linear art galleries with works by various artists intertwined to create a powerful statement about the area’s sense of place. 

These are not the refined, pretty, decorative street art works you see in some cities, but rather the evolution of graffiti and tagging into expressionist paintings full of social and political protests.  In some places, it was hard to tell where the graffiti ended and the street art began.

A typical streetscape in San Lorenzo.

A typical streetscape in San Lorenzo.

One side of the street art wall.

One side of the street art wall.

Detail from art wall

Detail from art wall

Detail from art wall

Detail from art wall


The second side of street art wall is devoted to the work of one artist.

The second side of street art wall is devoted to the work of one artist.

Street art on the security doors of a shop.

Street art on the security doors of a shop.

PsychoLAB

PsychoLAB

Need food not football?

Need food not football?

Calgary Street Art

Earlier this year, Calgary experimented with some street art on the retaining walls of the busy pedestrian (4th and 14th Street SW) underpasses connecting 9th and 10th Avenues.  And although in most cities street art is painted without permission on public and private walls and is permanent, most of Calgary’s street art is approved and temporary.

For example, this past May, as part of the Beakerhead, program Michael Mateyko and Hans Theiseen (also known as Komboh) created a pair of 27-foot long murals on 4th Street and 12-foot murals on 14th Street. Eco-chalk graffiti, an environmentally-friendly product that can be easily removed was used.  The murals consisted of several cartoon robot-like figures that mimicked people walking to work. 

The spontaneity, surprise and fun-ness of the artwork that appeared overnight was dampened by a large text informing everyone, “This temporary public artwork is created with eco-calk and application and removal process approved by the City of Calgary.”

As well, in East Village, Calgary Municipal Land Corporation organized two interesting temporary street art projects. The first “I am the River” by Derek Besant and the current “The Field Manual: A compendium of local influence” by Calgary’s Light & Soul Collective, both using the new RiverWalk’s bridge abutments, storage sheds and robo-bathrooms as their canvas.  

 

4th Street Mural from the other side of the underpass.

4th Street Mural from the other side of the underpass.

The 4th Street mural pedestrian perspective.

The 4th Street mural pedestrian perspective.

Example of one of the fun and clever cartoon characters. 

Example of one of the fun and clever cartoon characters. 

Love this cartoon of a woman walking with her briefcase and plugged in to the sky aka icloud.

Love this cartoon of a woman walking with her briefcase and plugged in to the sky aka icloud.

Somehow I felt this signage took some of the fun and spontaneity out of the work.

Somehow I felt this signage took some of the fun and spontaneity out of the work.

Last Word 

One has to wonder if Calgary and other cities would be better served by encouraging more temporary street art, both approved and unapproved, than expensive permanent public art works.  Not only is street art cheaper, it doesn’t have any maintenance costs and if the public doesn’t like it, well, it will literally disappear in a few months or years.

Found the juxtaposition of the bike and the skeleton figure quite provocative. 

Found the juxtaposition of the bike and the skeleton figure quite provocative. 

Calgary's MAC attack

Over the next few months, Calgary’s planners and politicians are going to experience a “MAC attack” as developers present plans for new Major Activity Centers (MAC) on the west and north edges of the city. 

What is a MAC you ask?  The City of Calgary Municipal Development Plan defines it as an urban center for a sub-region of the city providing opportunities for people to work, live, shop, recreate, be entertained and meet their daily needs.  

MAC is not a new idea

In the early ‘90s, the City’s Go Plan called for “mini-downtowns” at the edge of the city and in many ways a MAC is like a small city downtown with a main street and offices surrounded by low rise residential development.  Then in the early 21st century, planners started using terms like “urban villages” and “transit-oriented development (TOD)” for mixed-use (residential, commercial) developments that incorporated live, work, play elements.

The problem with TOD was that in many cases Calgary’s new communities were getting developed years before the transit infrastructure was actually in place. For example, Quarry Park and SETON in the southeast are both being developed today along the future SE LRT route, but the trains won’t arrive for probably another 15+ years away.

TOD also had other limitations, as MACs are not always right next to major transit routes, but more oriented toward major roadways in the city. For example, the Currie Barracks has all of the attributes of MAC but no major transit connections. Its focus is more on Crowchild Trail and Glenmore Trail, with Mount Royal University and the Westmont Business Park and ATCO site redevelopment as its employment centre.   

Currie Barracks Mount Royal University is just one of several Major Activity Centres (MACs) identified by the City of Calgary as places where vibrant mixed-use urban density developments should take place. The numbers refer to various amenities like parks, schools, shopping etc.

Currie Barracks Mount Royal University is just one of several Major Activity Centres (MACs) identified by the City of Calgary as places where vibrant mixed-use urban density developments should take place. The numbers refer to various amenities like parks, schools, shopping etc.

An example of a street in Currie Barracks where attached houses are nestled together with shared front lawns, narrow sidewalks and alleys. 

An example of a street in Currie Barracks where attached houses are nestled together with shared front lawns, narrow sidewalks and alleys. 

MACs have a enhanced sidewalks leading to public spaces and shopping areas, which make for more pedestrian and wagon friendly streets. Also note the open storm water area which allows for natural water run off for vegetation. 

MACs have a enhanced sidewalks leading to public spaces and shopping areas, which make for more pedestrian and wagon friendly streets. Also note the open storm water area which allows for natural water run off for vegetation. 

This is a back alley in Currie Barracks with a mix of traditional garages and laneway housing. 

This is a back alley in Currie Barracks with a mix of traditional garages and laneway housing. 

MAC 101

The City’s Municipal Development Plan has some very specific guidelines when it comes to what is a MAC, these include:

  1.  200 jobs per gross developable hectare (a hectare is approximately the size of two CFL football fields including the end zones).
  2.  Provide a business centre/employment center; this could be an independent office buildings or office/medical space above retail.
  3.  Range of housing types – single-family, town and row housing, medium-density condos (under 6 floors), rental and affordable housing
  4.  Large format retail (big box) should be at the edge of the MAC to allow access from other communities
  5. Pedestrian/transit-friendly design i.e. pedestrians and transit have priority over cars. For example, vehicle parking should design to minimize impact on transit and pedestrian activities, ideally underground.
  6.  Diversity of public spaces i.e. plazas, playgrounds, pocket parks and pathways.  Sports fields should be located at the edge of the MAC as they take up large tracts of land and are only used seasonally.  Planners want to keep as many higher uses clustered together near the LRT or Main Street.

While these are useful guidelines, they should not be prescriptive, as each site must be allowed to develop based on its unique site opportunities and limitations - no two MACs are the same.

 

This is an early conceptual computer rendering of Brookfield Residential's SETON showing the South Health Campus in the background with low rise condos and office buildings and a pedestrian oriented main street with shops, cafes, restaurants and patios.  

This is an early conceptual computer rendering of Brookfield Residential's SETON showing the South Health Campus in the background with low rise condos and office buildings and a pedestrian oriented main street with shops, cafes, restaurants and patios.  

Early conceptual rendering of SETON pedestrian street. 

Early conceptual rendering of SETON pedestrian street. 

Conceptual rendering of a mixed-use street in SETON.

Conceptual rendering of a mixed-use street in SETON.

SETON at might with street patios. 

SETON at might with street patios. 

Coming Soon

Earlier this year the City approved land-use plans for the University of Calgary’s West Campus an inner city MAC that was developed after extensive community engagement. 

Up next for Council’s approval will be West District that links the west side communities of West Springs and Cougar Ridge and Brookfield Residential’s Livingston at the northern edge of the city, both of which will be topics for future blogs.  

This is an artist's sketch of the central retail area proposed for Currie Barracks. Surrounded by offices and condos, this public space is designed to allow for a diversity of uses by people day and night, weekdays and weekends. Also note that designers are also taking into account Calgary is a winter city. (rendering provided by Canada Land Corporation) 

This is an artist's sketch of the central retail area proposed for Currie Barracks. Surrounded by offices and condos, this public space is designed to allow for a diversity of uses by people day and night, weekdays and weekends. Also note that designers are also taking into account Calgary is a winter city. (rendering provided by Canada Land Corporation) 

West Campus' main street has been designed as the community's focal point with spaces appropriate for boutiques, cafes, restaurants, pubs, a hotel and cinema. It will be a place that appeals to Calgarians of all ages and be accessible by pedestrians, cyclists and vehicles.  (computer rendering by RK Visuals provided by West Campus Development Trust 

West Campus' main street has been designed as the community's focal point with spaces appropriate for boutiques, cafes, restaurants, pubs, a hotel and cinema. It will be a place that appeals to Calgarians of all ages and be accessible by pedestrians, cyclists and vehicles.  (computer rendering by RK Visuals provided by West Campus Development Trust 

Last Word

As Calgary evolves as a city, so does the glossary of terms used by planners and developers to describe their utopian vision of what Calgary could and should be in the future.

Calgary’s development community has enthusiastically taken up the concept and challenge of creating MACs; this is a good thing for two reasons.  One Calgary needs to speed up its residential development approval process if we want to create affordable and adequate housing for the next generation of Calgarians. Second, more and more new Calgarians are looking for walkable urban communities.

While in the past developers and planners didn’t always see “eye-to-eye” on how new communities should be planned, more and more there is a shared vision of how to create pedestrian-friendly, mixed-use and mixed-density communities.  

Calgary’s planning department use to have the motto “working together to make a great city better.”  I am thinking this would be a good motto for all of the city’s departments, as well as the development community and the citizens of Calgary. 

By Richard White, November 22, 2014

An edited version of this blog was published in the Calgary Herald, titled "Big hopes for mini-downtowns" on Saturday, November 22nd in the New Condos section. 

If you like this blog, you might like:

Brookfield: Working together to make Calgary better!

District: Community Engagement Gone Wild 

West Campus: Calgary's first 24/7 community?

3Rs of walkable communities?

 

A Surprise Playground Lunch

After a fun day of exploring Rome’s hipster Trastevere district, we were getting hungry. So, as good flaneurs do, we started asking shopkeepers where to go to lunch with the locals. Following the suggestion to check out the restaurants along Via G.A. Bertani, we eventually ending up at triangular Piazza San Cosimato. 

 To our surprise, the piazza was animated with a pop-up farmers’ market and a few permanent food vendors.  We quickly spotted a butcher making some great looking fresh sandwiches.  We stood in line to get one.  When our turn arrived, we non-Italian speakers pointed and said “two.” A few minutes of charades later, we found out we needed to go to the bakery on the street behind the butcher to purchase the buns and then return to the butcher who would make us our sandwiches.

 Buns in hand, we were back at the butcher’s in a flash. While he was making our sandwiches, I realized I really wanted a beer, so in another round of charades, I asked if he had one.  At first he pointed back to the bakery/grocery store, but then he nodded, smiled, grabbed a beer out of the fridge (I expect it was his personal beer fridge) and handed it to me.

 After paying up, we went to find a place to sit and enjoy our big fat, paper-wrapped sandwiches.  The only obvious spot was the benches along the inside perimeter of the tiny playground at the tip of the piazza. 

 

Yes, Dads love to jump too.  This Dad is showing off his jumping skills to the entire family.

Yes, Dads love to jump too.  This Dad is showing off his jumping skills to the entire family.

One sister is keen, the other is not so sure.

One sister is keen, the other is not so sure.

Big brother helping sister.

Big brother helping sister.

Playground Fun 

It turned out to be the perfect spot, with dappled sunlight and a front row seat for the Cirque du Soleil-like performance by young children and their parents. As we ate, we were treated to a series of children hopping from one orange stationary, stool-like structure to another, spaced just far enough apart to make the jump difficult for younger children.  It was too much fun to watch as dads helped their kids and older siblings helped the younger ones.  We even had a couple of amazing performances by the dad – interesting to note that none of the moms gave it a try. It was amazing to watch how long the families jumped back and forth on this simple, low-tech playground equipment.

 The playground was also a great people-watching place. Locals of all ages and backgrounds came and went – it was a cast of characters.  I was even befriended by a little guy with a soccer ball who wanted somebody to kick it back and forth, which we did for few minutes until his Mom said they had to leave (or at least I think that is what she said as she smiled and said “thank you.”) As we left, I discovered what must be one of the largest blackboards in the world. Somebody had cleverly turned the concrete retaining wall along the edge of the piazza into a huge blackboard, probably close to 100 feet long.  I wish I had brought my sidewalk chalk.

 

The seven stepping stools, who would think they could be so much fun.

The seven stepping stools, who would think they could be so much fun.

The spectators bench. 

The spectators bench. 

The world's longest blackboard?

The world's longest blackboard?

A good public space attracts people of all ages. 

A good public space attracts people of all ages. 

Our friendly butcher, sandwich maker. 

Our friendly butcher, sandwich maker. 

Last Word

This was definitely a far cry from the $250,000+ mass-produced, mega colourful playgrounds being constructed in parks in communities throughout Calgary.  This playground was integrated into the community’s everyday pursuits with shops and restaurants surrounding it on all sides.  Yes, there was a fence around the park, but there were no Playground Zone signs and no isolating the playground in a park far away from pedestrian, bike, motorcycle and car traffic. Rather, it was an integrated part of the everyday activities of a community that embraced outdoor urban living.  It truly was a community meeting / hangout place.  

 We love urban surprises and the Piazza San Cosimato ranks high as one of the best surprise of our 7 days in Rome.

 If you like this blog, you might like:

Plaza design: Dos & Don'ts

Public Art vs Playgrounds in the 21st Century

Vegas' Crazy Container Park

Dublin: St. Stephen's Green vs St Patrick's Cathedral Park

I have always believed that great cities have great parks.  A recent visit to Dublin and its two urban parks reminded me or the importance of parks in creating attractive urban places for people of all ages and backgrounds. 

St. Stephen's Green 

Until 1663 St. Stephen's Green was a marshy common on the edge of Dublin, used for grazing. In that year Dublin Corporation, seeing an opportunity to raise much needed revenue, decided to enclose the centre of the common and to sell land around the perimeter for building. The park was enclosed with a wall in 1664. The houses built around the Green were rapidly replaced by new buildings in the Georgian style and by the end of the eighteenth century the Green was the urban playground for the city's rich and famous. Much of the present day streetscape around the Green comprises modern buildings (some in a replica Georgian style) with very little from the 18th and 19th centuries.

Today St. Stephen's Green is a green oasis for people of all ages and backgrounds  in Dublin's bustling city centre. The current park was designed by William Sheppard in 1880.  The park is adjacent to one of Dublin's main shopping streets, Grafton Street, and to a shopping centre named for it, while on its surrounding streets are the offices of a number of government office and the city terminus of one of Dublin's LUAS tram lines.  At 22 acres, it is the largest of Dublin's Georgian garden squares, others include nearby Merrion Square and Fitzwilliam Square.

Map of St. Stephen's Green

Map of St. Stephen's Green

There is a wonderful calmness in the park that invites you to sit and relax. 

Parks are great places to sit, chat and people watch. 

Parks are great places to sit, chat and people watch. 

Fusilier's Arch is located at the entrance/exit to the park from Grafton Street. Built in 1907, it is dedicated to the Royal Dublin Fusiliers who fought and died in the Second Boer War (1899 - 1902).

The Park's playground is very popular with the little people.. 

The Park's playground is very popular with the little people.. 

Stephen's Green has a wonderful pastoral ambience to it.

Stephen's Green has a wonderful pastoral ambience to it.

The park is surrounded by high dense hedges that serve as noise and sight barriers, which contributes to the sense of an oasis and privacy. 

The park is surrounded by high dense hedges that serve as noise and sight barriers, which contributes to the sense of an oasis and privacy. 

The Park is full of monuments, mostly formal statues, but this contemporary piece titled "Famine,"  by Edward Delaney caught our imagination.  Parks make great spaces for public art, as they allow people to contemplate the artwork and move around it.

St. Patrick's Cathedral Park 

I love that Baileys sponsored this information panel about the park and cathedral. 

I love that Baileys sponsored this information panel about the park and cathedral. 

The formal park is centred around a modest fountain. 

The formal park is centred around a modest fountain. 

Every park needs a playground. 

Every park needs a playground. 

Parks should appeal to people of all ages.  This little guy turned a ramp into his private playground.

Parks should appeal to people of all ages.  This little guy turned a ramp into his private playground.

Parks and public space should invite people to sit and linger.

Parks and public space should invite people to sit and linger.

Liberty Bell, by Vivienne Roche occupies a prominent spot in the park.

Liberty Bell, by Vivienne Roche occupies a prominent spot in the park.