Kudos to CMLC for making a tough decision

By Richard White, May 8 2014

I think everyone I know was surprised to learn that Calgary Municipal Land Corporation’s (CMLC) is closing the public washrooms on Riverwalk in East Village.  Since its inception in 2007, CMLC has done an amazing job of developing and implementing an ambitious vision and master plan for the once-troubled and downtrodden East Village community.  

Throughout the East Village redevelopment, CMLC has been very transparent in the process, hosting numerous open houses before making any key decisions.   It truly has been a collaborative and cooperative community process.  While not everyone will agree with every decision (you can’t make everyone happy), there was always lots of public consultation as part of the any decision-making.

In this case, CMLC engaged a group of experts last summer to assess the perception of safety across in East Village, which included three community meetings. The recent changes in Riverwalk programming i.e. close the washroom except for events and removal of a few lounge chairs was based on dialogue with the community, police and crime prevention experts.

As a founding Board Member of the Calgary Homeless Foundation, Executive Director of the Calgary Downtown Association, an International Downtown Association Board member and now as the community strategist at Ground3 architecture, I am passionate about creating public spaces that are safe and attractive for people of all ages and backgrounds. 

This is not a homeless issue

I have been very impressed by the work of CMCL in taking risks and being ambitious with the design and programming of Riverwalk incorporating inclusivity at all times. While some see this as an affront to the homeless population and clients of the nearby Calgary Drop-In Centre, I believe their clients also want and deserve a clean and safe Riverwalk. I don’t believe this is a decision to penalize the homeless, but rather a proactive decision to deal with criminal activities taking place in the washrooms. I have a strong hunch there is “more to the story” behind why the decisions were made - I don’t think we need to know the all the ugly details. 

The decision to close the washrooms (except when an event is happening) and the replacement of the few permanent lounge chairs (there are still hundreds of places to sit along the river and pathway) after four years was a tough one for CMLC to make.  

This is one of public washrooms that have been closed except for event use.  

Riverwalk is well used by Calgarians of all ages and for a variety of activities.  Note there are lots of places to seat, the few lounge chairs that have been removed will not be missed. 

Zero Tolerance 

I am confident the Police and Bylaw Officers can and will deal with it the criminal and conduct issues in East Village. The City of Calgary has a Public Behaviour Bylaw that addresses some of the public space issues we have faced in the past.

The following are prohibited in public places:

  • Fighting
  • Defecating and urinating
  • Spitting
  • Loitering that obstructs other people
  •  Standing or placing one’s feet on tables, benches, planters or sculptures
  • Carrying a visible knife

I would like to add “loud swearing” to the list.  I know this was an issue on Stephen Avenue and Olympic Plaza in the past. Some individuals would persistently shout and swear at each other using language that would intimidate everyone within earshot (including me and I think I am very tolerant).  It was a way of a few taking ownership of a public space and keeping others away by making them feel so uncomfortable they would walk away and not return. These undesirable behaviors should not be tolerated. 

I believe a “zero tolerance” policy when it comes to violent, destructive and aggressive conduct in public spaces. No one should be made to feel uncomfortable in a public space.  Everyone needs to be held up to the same community conduct standards - rich and poor, young and old.  

My recommendation

Police and Bylaw officers should have a “zero tolerance” policy along Riverwalk this summer to ensure it is a safe place for ALL Calgarians. Enhanced policing and bylaw enforcement has worked before to make problem areas safer and I don’t see why it can’t work again.

I have no problem if CMLC wants to close the washrooms and remove a few permanent lounge chairs.  But I would hope that once the intervention has been complete they might experiment with opening the washrooms seven days a week from 9 am to 9 pm from May to September and 10 am to 3 pm from October to April. I see no need for them to be open 24-hours a day.

The addition of new condos, office buildings, restaurants, cafes, a library and museum will add lots more pedestrian traffic to East Village in the next few years. More people will make the area safer and more attractive for everyone. 

Last Word

This situation is very unfortunate, happening just as new condos are rising out of the ground, the National Music Centre is under construction and the new Library visioning is happening. The good news is the addition of more people living, working and playing in East Village over the next few years will make it safer for everyone (including the homeless) as it will mean more eyes on the streets and public spaces - something criminals shy away from.  People forget there was a time when Eau Claire was a prostitute stroll – look at it today.

Creating great urban villages is not just about managing big construction projects. It is also about getting the small operational things right.  Creating good public spaces requires ongoing management and experimentation in response to new issues and opportunities.

I believe a city is defined by the attractiveness of its public spaces as gathering places for passive activities – think Central Park in New York or Millennium Park in Chicago. Riverwalk is an award-winning public space that has attracted international attention as one of the best designed public spaces of the 21st century.

We must do all we can to make Riverwalk and all of Calgary’s parks and public spaces safe and and inviting for ALL Calgarians. I say kudos to CMLC for making a tough decision.

Riverwalk has been designed so special events can take place and yet others can enjoy a passive quiet experience near by. 

Here are the few lounge chairs that have been removed. While they are nice, they are not essential. 

This is Chicago's Millennium Park. Great public spaces have areas where people love to gather, linger, relax and chill-out.