The importance of the public realm

By Richard White, Community Strategist, Ground3 Landscape Architects, January 6, 2014

Cities are often judged by the quality of the public realm in their downtown or city center to attract people to live, work and visit.  Great cities have great public realm!

An edited version of this blog appeared in my  Calgary Herald Column (January 3, 2014) which examined what initiatives are being taken in Calgary to enhance the quality of  the public realm of Calgary's City Centre. 

The Importance of the public realm...

Calgary architect Ben Barrington made a mega career change in 2010 leaving his position as senior architect with BKDI Architects to assume the role of Program Manager of Centre City Implementation for the City of Calgary.  It wasn’t made any easier when, after taking on the position and he realized that while the City had approved a Centre City plan with over 400-action items, the budget for implementing them was fragmented into the budgets of various business units and city-held development funds.

But that didn’t deter Barrington. Instead, he and his team have been quietly and diligently worked at building relationships both internally (various city business units) and externally (building owners, landowners and business revitalization zones.)  He also used the past three years to analyze the 400-action items looking for synergies between them and projects the city or private sector were planning in the Centre City. 

For the City of Calgary, the City Centre is defined as these communities on the south side of the Bow River. Unfortunately this doesn't include the urban communities on the north side of the river. In some documents all of the communities south of the Downtown are referred to as the Beltline. It is all very confusing to the public. Hopefully this will be corrected in the near future. 

Establishing Priorities

Priorities were then established based on where Calgarians are currently are walking, cycling and playing and ideas on how those activities could be expanded and enhanced with other programs.  The creation of pedestrian-friendly corridors along 8th and 1st Streets SW, as well as Centre Street were determined as the highest priorities, as they currently have the most pedestrian traffic and potential for connectivity to key destinations.

The team also identified several different funds within the City’s existing budgets and bank accounts that might be used as seed monies for various projects in each of the Centre City communities.  While Barrington was not a liberty to tell me the number, my guess is in the $15 million range.  He told me his goal was to leverage those dollars in partnerships with other city departments and the private sector, thus maximizing the return on investment for everyone.

One of the biggest improvements in the Downtown over the past few years has been the redesign of the LRT stations. 

What does this all mean?

Today, the Centre City team has over 25 public projects at various stages of implementation, all designed to make the public realm more attractive for residents, workers and tourists. 

It means sidewalks with more trees, bus shelters or poles in the middle of them and adequate lighting so people feel safe at all times.  It means benches placed to invite people to sit and linger, as well as more banners, planters and flower baskets to add colour to the streetscape.  Look too for more patios to animate the streets in the summer.  And yes, it also means a more cycling friendly downtown with dedicated bike lanes.  Public art and new pocket parks will also add a sense of pedestrian-friendliness.    

Look for more "pop-up" patios that use street parking spots to allow for the addition of a summer patio on a narrow sidewalk. 

Centre City  & Public Realm

The Centre City is defined by the City as the area from the Bow River on north to 17th Avenue on the south and from the Elbow River on the east to 14th Street on the west.  Basically it comprises the communities of Beltline, Chinatown, Downtown, East Village, West End and Stampede Park.  These communities are not only some of the oldest communities in the city, but they are also the most heavily used with approximately 200,000 people living, working and playing there each weekday.

It is not surprising the City Centre’s public realm (sidewalks, parks and plazas) is looking tired and dated.  The demands of 21st century urban living and employment are very different than in the early 20th century, when much of the infrastructure was built. The need to integration trains, buses, cars, bikes and pedestrians is very different today than it was even 20 years ago.  The demand for street patios, public art and pocket parks is higher.  Cars are bigger, cycling is back and have you seen the size of the contemporary baby strollers (like mini SUVs)!

It is no wonder Calgary’s 100+ year-old Centre City is in need of a major makeover.


Great sidewalks don't have artworks in the middle of them. 

Mega makeover is happening

Already some of the public realm makeovers are happening and not all are directly linked to the City’s Centre City Implementation team.  For example, Memorial Park was renovated with new fountains, pathways and the wonderful Boxwood Café, making it a more attractive place to visit and linger, was an initiative spearheaded by the Victoria Park BRZ.

7th Avenue LRT stations have been totally revamped to create contemporary, airy stations that are integrated with new wide sloping sidewalk (no stairs to an ugly concrete platform) to allow for easy accessibility for everyone.  Public art has also been added to many of the stations to enhance the urban experience.  The need for the renovations was precipitated by the need to allow for longer four-car trains as part of Calgary Transit’s long range plans to increase capacity.

The 13th Avenue Greenway is currently under construction; this project is designed to create a pedestrian and cycling-friendly east-west route through the Beltline, away from the heavy vehicle traffic along 11th and 12th Avenues connecting some of Calgary’s best historic sites like Memorial Park and Lougheed House and gardens.

The dedicated 7th Street SW bike lane has been created to allow for easier cycling into the core from the Bow River pathway.  Other bike lanes have been painted on road (10th Ave SW), to allow for better sharing of the roadway.

The Centre Street Bridge lighting has been totally upgraded to LED lighting, which accentuates our oldest bridge’s classic architecture and is more energy efficient.

Memorial Park is a great example of an urban park that has be redesigned to encourage the public to sit and linger. 

Downtown should also be a place for kids and families like this playground in the Haultain Park. There is also tennis courts and a soccer field that is well used by downtown residents. 


The Implementation team also completed the new downtown wayfinding system in 2012. There are now 135 sidewalk wayfinding signs in key locations throughout the Centre City, making it easy for people to navigate the maze of streets, towers, underpasses and +15 bridges.

An ongoing program is also in place to transform ugly utility signal boxes into community history billboards with photos from the Glenbow and original art from local artists.

A brand new park, Enoch Park, along Macleod Trail between 11th and 12th Avenues S.E. is approved for the existing parking lot over the LRT tunnel.  Yes, in Calgary we are tearing up parking lots and building parks. Hopefully, plans to move the adjacent Enoch House and convert it into a restaurant will come to fruition.

The Carl Safran Park on the west side of the historic school of the same name is nearing completion.  Soon there will be a place for those living on the Beltline’s west side to kick a ball, throw a Frisbee or catch some rays. 

This is the Enoch House that will become part of a small park.  This Queen Anne-style home was built in 1905 by businessman Enoch Samuel Sales. 

One of the many new wayfinding signs in the downtown that help people find their way to key destinations in and around the downtown. Image courtesy City of Calgary 

Upgrading of Ugly Underpasses

One of the biggest eyesores and barriers for connecting the Beltline and downtown core is the ugly underpasses that pedestrians have to negotiate.  The completion of the new 4th Street S.E. underpass linking East Village and Stampede demonstrated what an underpass can and should look like. 

Upgrading the 1st Street SW Underpass (Fairmont Palliser Hotel) should have happened this year, but because of the flood, this will be a 2014 project.  The Marc Boutin Architectural Cooperative, the same group that did the Poppy Plaza, has designed an uber cool cocktail lounge-like pedestrian experience for the underpass. 

This is part of a long range plan to create an enhance pedestrian corridor all the way from 17th Avenue’s Rouleauville Square at St. Mary’s Cathedral to the Bow River and Prince’s Island.  This corridor has some of Calgary’s best historic buildings from St. Mary’s Cathedral to the iconic Hudson Bay Store.

A plan for upgrading the 8th Street SW underpass and sidewalks is also close to being finalized, with improvements are expected to start in 2014. The design has been lead by Rene Daoust who designed the public space in the Place des Arts in Montreal with assistance from DAW architects and Calgary’s Marshall Tittemore architects.  Discussions are also taking place on how to better integrate pedestrian traffic along 8th Avenue with Century Gardens and the new LRT station. 

The Eight Street SW underpass has the highest number of pedestrians commuting from the southside into downtown. It will get a mega make-over in 2014. 

7th Street bike lane in downtown is just the beginning of a comprehensive cycling plan for the City Centre.  

7th Street bike lane in downtown is just the beginning of a comprehensive cycling plan for the City Centre. 

20-minute makeover

The smallest project the Implementation team has supported to date was to provide funding to Central United Church to install lighting in their alley as a preventative safety initiative for their congregation. Indeed, small projects are just as important as mega ones!

As for the “quirkiest project” Barrington thought it would be the “20-minute makeover” where various corporate teams volunteered 20 minutes to clean up the area around their buildings.  Over 3,800 people at 260+ locations collected tons of garbage.  “It was amazing how many cigarette butts there are on the sidewalks,” exclaimed Barrington.

The city has a comprehensive clean and safe program for the Centre City that is proactive in dealing with issues before they become a problem and responding quickly once they are identified.  

River Walk in East Village has become an attractive public programming space on what was once a seedy area that was avoided by the public. 

Public Art

Public art has been popping up throughout the City Centre over the past few years.  In addition to the highly publicized works of Jaume Plensa (Wonderland and Alberta’s Dream) at the Bow, there are Ron Moppett’s “ THESAMEWAYBETTER/READER” and Julian Opie’s “Promenade” in East Village.  

Others are Incipio Modo’s 10-foot tall insects “Ascension” in Poetic Park (4th Avenue and 9th Street SW) and two LRT station pieces - “TransitStory” by Jill Anholt (Centre Street Station) and “Luminous Crossing” by Cliff Garten (Downtown West/Kerby Station.)

Downtown is looking more and more like one giant art park and that’s a good thing! 

This is Poetic Park Plaza on the southwest corner of 4th Ave and 9th Street SW next to the Avatamsaka Buddhist monastery.  The two artworks are titled "Ascension" and were created by the Calgary based public art team INCIOP MODO. 

Last Word

Barrington says all of the improvements – both current and future - are about connecting the different activity nodes in the Centre City with attractive pedestrian corridors.  The vision is to create delightful 24/7 pedestrian experience for those who work, live and visit our Centre City. 


If you like this blog you might like:

Calgary's Rail Trail Stroll

Building a better bike rack

Beltline: North America's Best Hipster community 

Putting the public back into public art