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."

If you like this blog, you might like:

Urban living is in its infancy in Calgary 

Don't be too quick to just the new suburbs?

Importance of comfort, convenience and privacy in urban living 

Urban cottages & Gentrification 



Beakerhead: Stevenson says "Adapt or die!"

Top 10 things heard at Mark Stevenson’s Beakerhead talk, “The future and what to do with it.”

#10     Culture eats strategy for breakfast.

#9       Happiness is finding something more important than you and dedicating your life to it.

#8       Think like an engineer, not like a politician.

#7       Police your cynicism. Cynicism is a recipe for being lazy.

#6       Embrace the evidence.

Calgary's Bow Tower meets its big blue sky!

Calgary's Bow Tower meets its big blue sky!

#5       How many people have you inspired?

#4       The most adaptable people, cities and cultures are the ones that will survive.

#3       Decline of the institution; rise of the individual.

#2       Stop being defined by what we own. Be defined by what we create.

#1       Did you ask a good question today? 

Lyon, France, public art.

Adapt or Die?

Stevenson’s talk was entertaining, engaging and educational. Like an extended TED talk it was perhaps too polished and slick - but maybe that is my cynicism showing through. 

From a Calgary perspective, he was very optimistic about our collective future given our plethora of engineers and our existing culture of energy research and development.

The take away message I got from Stevenson was that if Calgary can adapt its knowledge base from fossil fuels to solar, wind and alternate fuels over the next 25 years, we will continue to be one of the world’s leading cities. 

As I like to say, “life is just a continuous series of adaptations. 

By Richard White, September 12, 2014

Calgary's power hour or the march of the engineers (photo credit: Jeff Trost).

3Rs of walkable communities?

Guest Blog: Ross Aitken

In the inner city communities of many older cities you will often find old homes converted into funky shops and restaurants – places like Height/Ashbury, in San Francisco and Yorkville in Toronto immediately come to mind. While Calgary lacks the charm of a street of big old houses that have been converted into charming boutiques and bistros, there are some good examples of how old homes can become trendy places to shop and dine in Calgary.

The best example would be the century old Cross House in Inglewood that has been converted into the Rouge restaurant. It is not only one of Calgary’s best restaurants, but in 2010 it ranked #60 in the S. Pellegrino’s top 100 restaurants in the world.  Not many Canadian cities can boast a world class restaurant in an iconic home built in 1891 for heroic local citizen – A.E. Cross was one of the big four who started the Calgary Stampede.

A good example of a house that has become a boutique is located in the Parkdale Loop.  “Where you ask?” Parkdale Loop is the cluster of shops just off of Parkdale Boulevard on Parkdale Crescent NW. The cul-de-sac is probably best know as the home of Lazy Loaf Café. But, also on the Loop is Chateau Country Lace a popular women’s boutique that has been around for years in what looks like a mid-century bungalow.

Another great example of a historic house that has become a restaurant is Laurier Lounge in the Beltine. This unassuming Tudor Revival house built in 1908 was the birthplace of George Stanley designer of the Canadian Flag.  But for as long as I can remember, it has been a popular restaurant and lounge, know for its tasty poutine.

Rouge restaurant in Inglewood, Calgary.

Chateau Country Lace, Parkdale Loop. Calgary.

Laurier Lounge, Beltline, Calgary. 

Integration vs Segregation

Recently, I was driving to Marda Loop and in order to bypass the bustling traffic on 33rd Street, I slipped over to 34th Avenue and discovered a half-block of old cottage homes mixed with new two-storey shops that look like modern infills that are home to variety of interesting shops including an upscale tailor and two hair salon. I am convinced this is the future of inner city retail in Calgary.

I am thinking the next evolution of inner city infilling could be like the 2000 block of 34th Avenue in Marda Loop with small shops that look like houses in scale and design being added to the mix of single family, duplex and small condo projects especially on busy transit corridors like Kensington Road in West Hillhurst. 

Cottage home in Marda Loop gets a new life as a business.

Cottage home in Marda Loop gets a new life as a business.

Several cottage homes in Marda Loop that have been converted to retail along with a new two-storey modern home purpose built for retail.

Better Walkscores

The city of Calgary’s vision is to enhance he walk score of every community in the city. This means more people walking to meet their everyday needs. If this is going to happen, it will mean the City will need to encourage the conversion of more inner city streets to become more like the Parkdale Loop, Marda Loop or the wonderful Britannia Plaza on 49th Avenue in Britannia.

While some might complain the new businesses will add more traffic to their inner-city community, remember they will also convert some drivers to pedestrians and cyclists. And, don’t worry about your property values – Britannia, Parkdale and Marda Loop’s property values have skyrocketed because of their mix of residential with retail and restaurants.

If we are truly serious about creating walkable communities we must allow for the integration of residential, retail and restaurants on the same block - not segregate them!

Ross is a RE/MAX realtor checkout his website rossaitken.ca

If you like this blog, you might like:

Window licking in Portlandia

Window licking in Paris

Window licking in Chicago


Calgary's Learning City is blooming!

By Richard White,  June 4, 2014

While much of Calgary’s urban development debate seems to revolve around new suburbs vs. City Centre i.e. Downtown, East Village, Beltline and Bridgeland vs. Seton, Cityscape and Walden, there is a mega transformation happening in the northwest. 

I doubt many Calgarians are aware of the multi-billion dollar investments that have been or are being planned for Foothills Hospital (teaching hospital), SAIT / ACAD (Alberta College of Art and Design) and the University of Calgary.  These three campuses, all located within about five kilometers of each other, are the economic engines of Calgary’s emerging “Learning City,” which extends from the Bow River north to Nose Hill and from SAIT Campus to Shaganappi Trail.

The Alberta Children's Hospital has added a new dimension to Calgary's growing learning city. It is also one of Calgary's signature modern architectural buildings. 

The Children's Development Centre located across the street from the Alberta Children's Hospital is home to several agencies that help children in need.  It was one of Calgary's first LEED buildings. 

Calgary's Southern Alberta Institute of Technology (SAIT) has undergone a billion dollar expansion over the past 10 years.   

Calgary's Southern Alberta Institute of Technology (SAIT) has undergone a billion dollar expansion over the past 10 years.  

SAIT's Heritage Hall is Calgary's finest historic building.

SAIT's Heritage Hall is Calgary's finest historic building.

Catalytic Projects

The Learning City has numerous catalytic projects on the books, which will reshape it over the next 15 to 20 years into a more all-inclusive city. For example, along its “Crowchild Trail Corridor” there are major developments at several LRT stations including the transformation of the Brentwood Mall into University City village with highrise and midrise condos, retail, restaurants and other amenities designed to appeal to students, young medical professionals and empty nesters. 

The Dalhousie LRT Station is also adding mid-rise condo development on its west side, turning it into a more mixed-use station when factoring in the retail on the east side.  And this is just step one in the evolution of this station into a more diverse urban place. 

Motel Village (the collection of old motels across from McMahon Stadium) is also quietly evolving.  A new office building was completed a few years back and plans for upgrading the motels and hotels has begun with the new Aloft Hotel slated to open in February. The University of Calgary is also looking at the potential to redevelop the McMahon Stadium site, studying if this is the best use of site given it gets used to its maximum about 10 times a year.  Given stadium and playing fields proximity to the LRT, the university, hospitals and downtown, it’s “prime picking” for transit-oriented, mixed-use development. 

As well, the mid-century Stadium Shopping Centre is past its “best before” date, with the city having approved zoning to allow for 800,000 square feet of mix of retail, residential, office and hotel buildings this will become a “community within a community.”  The development will be synergistic with the needs of Foothills Hospital workers and visitors, as well as the neighbouring residential community.

But the biggest catalytic project for the “Learning City” is the West Campus project. It will see 205 acres of underutilized University of Calgary campus land immediately west of the Olympic Oval converted into a 21st century walkable “live, work, play” community.  The area already includes the Alberta Children’s Hospital, Ronald MacDonald House, Child Development Centre, University’s Physical Plant and family housing.  While the final plans are still being developed you can be sure the new village will include parks, pathways, a central plaza and community gardens all carefully linked to a variety of housing types, retail, restaurants and personal services, as well as office space. While no specific date has been set for the start of construction, this will be probably be a 2016 to 2025 project.

McMahon Stadium site is currently being looked at by the University of Calgary to determine how it might be redeveloped. (Image courtesy of Ross Aitken, Remax)

Owners of the Stadium Shopping Center (highlighted in yellow), which is located across from the Foothills Hospital are working with the City and community to create a mixed-use (residential, retail, office and hotel) village.  (Image courtesy of Ross Aitken, Remax)

The proposed West Campus university town is well conceived and is already getting lots of interest from developers. (Image courtesy of West Campus Development Trust).

A great place to play!

The Learning City boast some of Calgary’s best urban amenities from indoor shopping (Market, North Hill and Northland Malls), to bobo street retail and restaurants in Bowness and Montgomery.  

Abundant recreational facilities exist - from Shouldice Park to Canada Olympic Park and numerous City of Calgary indoor recreational facilities.  The University and SAIT also offer major recreation facilities to students, faculty and public, not the least of which is the Olympic Oval. It is also home to some of Calgary’s biggest and best parks – Nose Hill, Bowness and Bowmont.

Culturally, the University of Calgary has several performing art spaces for music, theatre and dance.  ACAD is home to the Illingsworth Kerr Gallery and its renowned semi-annual student art sales popular for those looking to start an art collection.   And of course, the Jubilee Theatre is part of the SAIT/ACAD campus.

For those interested in adult education on any given evening everything from travel classes at the University, to culinary classes at SAIT, to art classes at ACAD can be had. 

A great place to live!

The Learning City also offers a diversity of housing options. Upscale communities like Briar Hill, Hounsfield Heights and St. Andrew’s Heights have many spectacular million-dollar view lots along the north bluff of the Bow River.  Both St. Andrew’s Heights and Varsity Estates qualify as million dollar communities as the value of the average home sale is now over one million dollars.

There are lots of new single and duplex housing in all of the communities bordering the Learning City’s employment centers, with new infill construction on almost every block.  These homes with their modern kitchens, three bedrooms and developed basements are particularly attractive to young families.  

The Learning City is very family-friendly with numerous school options (public, Catholic, charter and private) from kindergarten through to high school, post-secondary and university and colleges, as well as Renfrew and Woods Home schools for special needs.

University City at Brentwood Mall will be the first high-rise living with its two colourful 20-story towers (tallest buildings north of the Bow River) – one Royal Gold (yellow) and one Sunlit Topaz (orange).  This emerging urban village will appeal to those wanting a more urban lifestyle with all of the amenities walking distance away and the university across the street. 

The Renaissance condos offer a unique lifestyle in Calgary as they are attached to the North Hill shopping center, which means you can shop without having to go outside.  There is a library just a half a block away and the Lions Park LRT station is across the street. It simply doesn’t get any better than that.

West Campus will create a 21st century pedestrian-oriented community for 15,000 or more people. 

The first two University City towers which are part of a mega transformation of the land east of the Brentwood LRT station from a retail power centre, into a mixed-use transit oriented urban village. 

The Renaissance condos are attached to the North Hill shopping mall and are within l walking distance of SAIT and Lion's Park LRT Station.

Last Word

Today, on any given day, nearly 100,000 people visit Calgary's Learning City (University of Calgary, SAIT/ACAD, Foothills Hospital, Children’s Hospital, Market and North Hill Malls to work and shop, or attend a class or medical appointment. Currently, 55,000+ people live in Learning City communities; this could double over the next 15 years.

By 2030, the University of Calgary campus could be the heart of a new city with its own culture based on academia, wellness and sports excellence. It could be surrounded by several vibrant self-sustaining pedestrian-oriented urban villages e.g. West Campus, University City, Stadium Village and McMahon Village (redevelopment of McMahon stadium site).  

Dubai Healthcare City looks very similar to the proposed the West Campus Development Trust's plan for the University of Calgary's West Campus. 

Launched in 2002, Dubai's Healthcare City (DHCC) is home to two hospitals, over 120 outpatient medical centers and diagnostic laboratories with over 4,000 licensed professionals occupying a total of 4.1 million square feet of medical facilities. 

Dubai is also home to the  Dubai International Academic City (DIAC) as part of their city’s master plan.  Formed in 2007, it currently has 20,000 students from 125 nationalities and offers over 400 higher education programs. The campus has 18 million square feet of state-of-the-art facilities. 

Like Dubai, Calgary's Learning City is blooming into one of the world's more interesting urban places for healthcare, academic and athletes to live, work and play. 

If you like this blog, you might like:

Eau Claire Mega-Makeover

The importance of entrepreneurship in city building!

By Richard White, May 12, 2014 (an edited version of the blog appeared in the Calgary Herald's New Condos section on May11, 2014, titled "Civic innovation a breath of fresh air)

Recently, a 6-week, 8,907 km road trip took me to many cities (big and small) including Salt Lake City, St. George, Las Vegas, Phoenix, Tucson, Albuquerque, Santa Fe, Colorado Springs, Denver, Billings, Bozeman and Helena.  Most of the time was spent flaneuring downtown streets, plazas, parks and alleys looking for new ideas on urban living.  Three projects stand out for their entrepreneurship and relevance to Calgary’s contemporary urban culture.

Container Park, Las Vegas

What would you do if you had a spare $350 million? In 2008, after selling Zappos, an online shoe and clothing site, to Amazon for $1.2 billion, Tony Hsieh (Zappos’ CEO) decided to undertake his own urban renewal project. He bought up land in Las Vegas’ east end and created Container Park.

Container Park is perhaps the most exciting and unique urban development project I have ever seen.  Though currently it is one entire block (at the east end of Freemont Street), there is lots of room to expand.  Using 40+ old shipping containers, some stacked on top of one another, Hsieh effectively transformed the once - empty block into an attractive, animated urban village.

Half of the block is a vibrant entertainment center with boutiques, restaurants, lounges, a huge children playground with its three-story tree house (young adults also love the playground at night). There is also an outdoor concert venue for the likes of Sheryl Crow (who we missed by a few days) and indie bands. 

Container Park, in sharp contrast to the adjacent Old Vegas’ Freemont Experience and the Strip is focused on being an incubator for small-scale start-ups in the fashion, art, food and music industries rather than mega international players. To date, over 50 small businesses have joined the party so to speak.

The other half of the block is a quiet learning campus with several containers positioned to create a campus (kind of like the old portable classrooms of the ‘60s). Here, the Container Park community, as well as others meet and share ideas to help germinate new ideas or expand existing ones.

Hsieh’s vision is to “create the shipping container capital of the world, while at the same time becoming the most community-focused large city in the world.”  Judging by the number of people hanging out when we visited (both day and night), he is well on his way in turning his vision into reality.

It is amazing what Hsieh has been able to accomplish in a few years, given the decades it has taken Calgary to get the East Village revitalization off the ground. Container Park opened in the Fall 2013 and is currently the toast of the town. However, the real test of success is best determined in 5 or 10 years when the “lust of the new” has worn off.

Container Park by day is full of families and hipsters.  It is a happy place!

At night Container Park the children are gone, but the fun continues.

Adults using the children's playground. at night.

Ivywild School, Colorado Springs

Another example of good old American entrepreneurial spirit is evident at the Ivywild School in Colorado Springs (COS), Colorado. Two years after this 1916 yellow brick, elementary school closed in 2009, two neighbouring businessmen - Joe Coleman (Blue Star restaurant) and Mike Bristol (Bristol Brewing Co.) negotiated the purchase of the school and converted it into a mixed-use community hub.

In the spring of 2013, the “school” reopened as a bakery, cocktail lounge, coffee house, charcuterie, bike shop, art school and of course brew pub.  In addition, it hosts numerous events and a farmers’ market.  We visited twice and it is clear that it has definitely become a hub for hipsters.  I understand the funding for the renovations was totally the responsibility of the individual tenants.  The washrooms and hallways have been left untouched, so there is still an elementary school atmosphere about the space. We loved the children’s murals on the walls and the old water fountains.

Its positive impact on the inner city community of Ivywild is already being felt.  Millibo Art Theatre has bought and renovated an old church across the street, converting it into a performance space and theatre school. We attended their Six Women Play Festival, which proved to be both entertaining and thought provoking for the full house audience.

I couldn’t help but compare this renovation to Calgary’s King Edward School repurposing project, the latter which has taken many, many years and $31 million dollars of public funding to make happen.  Ah, the power of private funding! I also couldn’t help but think maybe a brew pub would make a great addition to the King Edward School.

Yet, perhaps a better comparison would be with the Simmons building in East Village with its similar indie foodie focus.  It will be interesting to see how it is received when it finally opens in the spring of 2015.

The Boys washroom still has all the charm of elementary school. 

It wouldn't be a hipster hang-out without a bike shop.

The thought behind the Iveywild School project.

 Musical Instrument Museum, Phoenix

I had no idea that the world’s largest museum of musical instruments (15,000 instruments from over 200 countries) was located in Phoenix.  What is most impressive though is that Robert J. Ulrich, former CEO and Chairman of Target Corporation, was able to accomplish the feat of building this world-class museum in just five years from its inception. 

The story goes (according to one of the museum’s gallery educators) that Ulrich was in Europe looking to purchase some major artworks when he got the idea to create a major new museum focusing on musical instruments.  Using his Target store opening experience, he set a very ambitious goal of having the museum open in five years.  This is unheard of in museum circles where even planning and fundraising for a museum expansion or renovation can take decades, let alone one that had no land, no collection and no staff.

Ulrich immediately hired Rich Varda (who oversees Target’s team of store designers) as the main architect to create the building and exhibition displays.  He also hired Bille R. DeWalt, a cultural anthropologist (University of Pittsburgh) as the founding president and director to guide the development. 

True to his word, the museum did open five years later, in April 2010. The $250 million dollar museum has five huge galleries devoted to Africa and Middle East, Asia and Oceania, Europe, Latin America and Caribbean, and the United States and Canada. There are almost 300 vignettes, each with historical instruments from the country, related artifacts and a short video about the people and the instruments.

With the videos using the latest Wi-Fi technology, you don’t have to press any buttons. As soon as you get near the videos, the headphones you are provided with pick up the sound and all you need to do is listen. The museum also has a theatre for concerts, a conservation lab and an “experience gallery” where visitors can play the instruments.  You could easily spend all day there. They even have a two-day pass to allow you to come back if you haven’t given yourself enough time to digest everything in one day.

My only complaint is the museum is located at the edge of the city, making it accessible only by car. It’s unfortunate it wasn’t designed as an anchor for a new urban village.

The five gallery space are like five Target stores!

Some of the instruments are very simple like this Grater.

The conservation lab.

Last Word

While Calgary takes pride in its ambitious, entrepreneurial and philanthropic spirit, I can’t help but wonder why the Glenbow struggles to survive, why the National Music Centre still isn’t fully funded and why are we still talking about a contemporary public art gallery 50 years after the idea was first debated. Why do things take so long in Calgary?

If you like this blog, you might like:

King Edward Village?

Eau Claire Market Mega Makeover

Calgary's newest urban village


Design Downtown for Women - Men Will Follow

Guest Blog: David Feehan, President, Civitas Consultants LLC

Years ago, when I was the downtown director in Kalamazoo, Michigan, a retail consultant we had engaged named Robert Sprague made a startling statement. “In 1950, 95 percent of the retail sales in the US occurred in downtowns. Today, less than 5 percent of retail sales are made in downtowns.” Sprague made that statement in the early 1990s and it is still true today, even in cities where there has been successful downtown revitalization. Only a few major cities still have downtown department stores and strong retail components - Seattle, San Francisco and Washington DC. 

Many theories have been advanced as to why retail stores virtually abandoned US downtowns in a few decades. After all, office buildings were still being built in downtowns during the latter half of the past century. Major attractions – convention centers, ballparks, arenas and museums – became symbols of hoped-for reinvestment in and around downtowns. Other fads came and went – festival markets, aquariums, enclosed shopping malls; and still, downtowns continued to lose the one feature so many saw as they key to success – retail stores.

Some blamed the massive shift in residential development. Others pointed to the building of high-speed expressways that could whisk people to suburban communities quickly and without so much as a stoplight. Still others saw the increase in crime and the urban unrest of the 1960s as the culprit. Many thought that “white flight” – a desire of whites to get away from expanding black urban populations – was killing downtowns and central city commercial districts.

No doubt all of these factors and more contributed to the decline of downtowns since 1950. But one of the most obvious factors has until very recently been almost ignored. Downtowns have, by and large, ignored their most important customer – women – while shopping mall developers designed their facilities specifically for women.

Shortly after I left the presidency of the International Downtown Association in 2009, I started asking questions and doing research in concert with Dr. Carol Becker, who had just completed a survey of business improvement districts, or BIDs as they are more commonly known (BIAs in Canada) on behalf of IDA. Among the questions we asked ourselves were:

  • Are there significant gender differences in the way public spaces are perceived?
  • How important are women in terms of retail decisions, residential decisions and business location decisions?
  • Who really designs the downtown experience?
  • What obstacles are there to women who want to participate in and direct the design of downtowns?

Let me be clear: we were not just thinking about physical design – things like buildings and parks. We were interested in designing the whole experience – things like mobility and access, safety and security, friendliness, aesthetics, activities, opportunities to dine and be entertained as well as shop.

Research Says

Here is briefly what our research revealed:

  • Women control or influence roughly 80 to 85 percent of retail purchases.
  • Women control or influence approximately 80 percent of residential and health care decisions.
  • Women constitute nearly 60 percent of college graduates.
  • Women control more than half of the private wealth in the US.

And yet, women are grossly underrepresented in the professions that design the downtown experience. Architects, landscape architects, urban planners and designers, engineers, real estate developers and brokers, even construction professionals and lenders are predominantly male. Only 16 percent of registered architects are women. Only 3 percent of engineers are women.

We could not find a “Top 50” firm in any of the above categories in the US that is headed or owned by a woman. But perhaps in government agencies that impact downtown we might find women more represented? Not hardly. In the US federal government, at the cabinet level, there have been 14 Secretaries of the Department of Housing and Urban Development, but only two have been women. At the Department of Transportation, 2 Secretaries out of 16 have been women; and at the Department of Commerce, only 3 out of 43 Secretaries have been women.

At the professional association level, we had hoped to find women better represented, but this was not the case. Virtually all of the professional and trade associations having to do with the downtown experience (International Downtown Association, National Main Street Center, Urban Land Institute, American Planning Association, American Institute of Architects, National League of Cities, US Conference of Mayors, International City and County Managers Association, American Public Transportation Association, International Parking Institute and others) were headed by men at the time we began our research. Today, a couple of women have been named to top posts. 

In short, what we have is a terrible mismatch. One only has to look at the things women hate like dirty, dark parking garages, filthy or nonexistent public restrooms, street furniture designed for a person taller than 5’ 9” tall, multi-space parking meters with screens that are too high and hard to read, lack of signage and wayfinding, and a hundred other things that men tend not to notice. 

Last Word

Women are not as involved in downtown design as they should be.

Dr. Becker and I, along with a number of noted co-authors and contributors are set to publish a new book this summer, called “Design Downtown for Women – Men Will Follow.” In the book, we suggest some ways that those of us who care about downtowns and urban commercial districts can begin to change they way the downtown experience is designed and delivered.

The book also challenges decision-makers to not just ask women what they want, but to bring women into leadership positions in the decision-making process.  

Dave Feehan can be reached at: civitas.dave@me.com


DEW writes: 

Reading David Feehan's blog brought to mind Harry Gordon Selfridge (1858-1947), the founder of Britain’s hugely successful department store, Selfridges. This American mastermind recognized the female consumer and he understood the public culture of his era. He revolutionized the shopping experience for the public, particularly for women, and in the process of doing so became a multi-millionaire. Many of his ideas continue to be practiced in department stores today (e.g., place cosmetics and perfume at the front entrance,  have merchandise out in the open and not hidden behind glass, carry ready-to-wear clothes, offer novelty etc.).  Mr. Selfridge not only pushed "pink", he also, perceptively realized the social mores of Britain were changing and capitalized on it. He welcomed all British citizens to mingle in his attractive store for commercial enjoyment. This inclusive policy proved effective in two ways: it contributed to the erosion of Britain's class system and it simultaneously increased the department's store customer base. 

Selfridge’s department store provided the upper/middle class women with a socially-acceptable excuse to venture out independently. Women could legitimately go out “shopping” without raising (society’s) eyebrows. And to make the ladies’ shopping excursion pleasant, Mr. Selfridge added an elegant dining area to his department store … men soon followed. Gentlemen frequented the restaurant to either socialize with their companion(s) or to while away the time as their significant others shopped.

Selfridge‘s idea to concentrate on the needs/desires of the female consumer and market to them accordingly worked. He employed various business strategies --- novel and conventional, to reach his target group. Selfridge constructed a grand building with enticing interiors; cultivated outside greenery (his store had a roof-top garden); created an elegant eatery; published tastefully done, but slightly seductive “come hither” advertisements; designed “state of the art” displays against a backdrop of theatrical touches and antics; installed all the latest technological innovations of his time; and organized unique publicity stunts --- all these strategies worked for him. And this winning female concept continues to work, judging by the doubled dividends paid out in November 2013 by Selfridges to its current Canadian owner, Galen Weston, (despite the slight dip in the department stores profits*). 

So it stands to reason, that Mr. Selfridge’s chief business strategy of zeroing in on female needs could be refashioned to suit current downtown urban design plans--- just as David Feehan suggests in his article. If the charismatic Harry Gordon Selfridge were alive today, and was an urban planner, one can be absolutely certain, he would already be in his bomber-jet blitzing the downtown core with his multi-coloured female-friendly confetti --- because it works!

(*Financial Times- November 2013- Duncan Robinson- http://www.ft.com/

Many downtowns like Calgary are creating comprehensive wayfinding maps to help pedestrians find what they are looking for.  Note distances are in minutes not distances; this is very helpful to women who often relate more to time than distance. 

Wayfinding systems like Calgary's encourage downtown visitors to explore other areas in the vicinity. 

Unfortunately dark and dingy underpasses that often link one downtown district to another are not attractive to anyone. 

Convoluted sidewalks, pillars blocking views and dark spaces along downtown streets don't make for a pleasant shopping experience. 

Yes it is nice to have trees downtown, but not in the middle of sidewalks. 

Sidewalk clutter and blind corners don't make for an enjoyable shopping experience. 

Too many downtown public washrooms are not cleaned as often as needed.  In fact, too often it is hard to even find the public washroom as it is hidden away down a hall with no signage.  Most downtown building owners discourage the use of public washrooms. 

Downtown seating is often too high for people to sit comfortably with their feet on the ground. 

Downtown seating is often too high for people to sit comfortably with their feet on the ground. 

Even on a bright day, office and condo towers cast shadows on the street that make it look dark and unattractive.  Railway tracks and barriers make it difficult to walk across the street.

Empty lots with fences like this one are a huge turn-off for women.

Tree grates like this on are common on downtown sidewalks. They are not problem for men in shoes but for women they can be an accident waiting to happen. 

Entrance to this parking ramp is intimidating to everyone, but especially women.  To be fair, significant improvements have been made to parkade design over the past 20 years. 

Unkept parks and plazas are a turn off for anyone wanting to come downtown for shopping, dining or entertainment. 

Sticky sidewalks and plazas are no fun to walk on.

Broken curbs and sidewalks don't make of a pleasant walking experience. 

Designing safe and attractive connections between downtown and neighbouring communities is critical to attracting women to shop downtown. 

Everyday Tourist Note:

While this research is for American cities, I expect same is true for Canadian cities. London, Hamilton and Windsor no longer have any department stores and struggling indoor retail centres.  Winnipeg, Edmonton, Regina and Saskatoon struggle to make their downtowns viable shopping districts.

We have to rethink how we plan our downtowns from the design of parkades, street furniture and sidewalk, to street signage to wayfinding systems. We talk about making our urban places more pedestrian friendly, when perhaps we should be more specific and make them female friendly. We can’t keep doing the same thing and expect different results – that’s insanity!

If you like this blog, you might like:

Nordstrom Last Chance: A feeding frenzy! 

Window Licking In Paris

Importance of Comfort, Convenience & Privacy




Intelligent Infilling or Living in a bubble!

By Richard White, April 2, 2014

Yes we live in a bubble!  Calgary is one of the few cities in North America with healthy inner-city neighbourhoods.  While many Calgarians complain about the proliferation of infill projects – big (East Village) and small (infill homes) it is a problem most North American cities would love to have.  Just ask people and politicians from Winnipeg, Hamilton or London, Ontario.  The new developments attract new young families who will foster community vitality for another 50+ years.

Not everyone agrees infilling is a good thing! Every major infill project is met with public outrage - Shawnee Slopes golf course, Stadium Shopping Centre, Bridges or Brentwood Mall. The concerns are always the same more traffic, more crime, shadowing and loss of views.  Too often the complaints are dismissed as NIMBYism (not in my back yard) or BANANAism (build absolutely nothing anywhere near anything).  While that is definitely true for some individuals (there are some people you just can’t please), often locals have valuable insights for city planners and developers.  People who have lived in a community for years, understand the local culture and how the community functions. Intelligent infilling should build on the existing community, not radically change it. 

This philosophy is inline with that of Jane Jacobs, the ‘60s renowned community development guru and author of “Death and Life of Great American Cities” who suggested community building should be evolutionary not revolutionary i.e. lots of little developments rather than mega multi-block projects should be encouraged.  Nobody called Jacobs a NIMBYist.  

While Calgary has its fair share of mega inner-city infill projects at various stages of completion the real infilling is happening house-by-house, duplex-by-duplex and condo-by-condo from Glenmore Trail north to Confederation Park and from Sarcee Trail east to Deerfoot Trail.

Toronto Crescent in St. Andrews Heights is quickly being transformed into a multi-million dollar mansion row with huge new two story homes being built to capitalize on the outstanding views.

Contemporary infill home.

Modern new infill home.

An example of the cottage homes that are quickly disappearing to be replaced by larger single-family or duplexes. 

An example of the cottage homes that are quickly disappearing to be replaced by larger single-family or duplexes. 

Lane homes are becoming more and more common in places like West Hillhurst. 

There is not longer a negative stigma of living in a duplex in Calgary's City Centre. 

Evolve or Die!

Fortunately, all of Calgary’s inner city communities are experiencing gradual redevelopment as old 600-square foot cottages are being torn down and replaced by either single family homes, duplexes or, if a developer can assemble enough land row housing, or in sometimes small condo projects. While some lament the loss of the small homes that provided affordable living for fixed-income seniors and low-income individuals and families, the benefit is the new homes attract young families i.e. new investors. 

If inner city communities are going to compete with the “call of the ‘burbs” for families then we must provide family-sized housing.  This means a large kitchen, family room, a media room, separate bedrooms for each child and several bathrooms. A 600 square foot cottage won’t do it, nor will a 1,200 square footer.  Young families are looking for 1,800 square feet or more.

The addition of new families means inner city schools are viable again, as are the existing recreation and community centres. From the government’s perspective, there is no need for new schools, libraries, recreation centres, parks, fire, police or ambulance stations. While that is not quite true, some of these facilities are in dire need of repair or replacement.  But the good news is each new infill home will generate approximately $5,000/year more in taxes than the tiny cottage home.  So for every 100 new infills, $500,000 per year in new tax revenue lands in the government’s bank account.

New families also mean “new investors” to the community as evidenced by the new playgrounds in almost every inner city neighbourhood park. It is in the playgrounds, schools and recreation centers that neighbours often meet and foster a sense of community. Healthy communities are those that constantly adapt to new economic realities, new market demands of young families.

From 2008 to 2013, 3,345 new infill homes (this doesn't include condominiums and apartments) were built in Calgary's inner city communities.  At three people per home that is the equivalent of building an entire new community of 10,000 people.  Most communities take 10 to 15 years to build out e.g East Village or Seton, yet we have built a new community in just five years. 

The value of these new homes is estimated at one billion dollars, which is equivalent to value of  one major office tower the size of Eight Avenue Place or the Bow. These home owners will also pay $15 million dollars in property taxes per year, significantly more than what was being paid by the small cottage homes they replaced.

Yes we live in a bubble! 

A parade of infill show homes in Hillhurst. 

More and more stroller and trikes are decorating the front lawn of City Center homes. 

More and more stroller and trikes are decorating the front lawn of City Center homes. 

Haultain Park's playground is very popular with families living in the east side of the Beltline. 

Gentrification is good?

Gentrification happens when a community is redeveloped in a way that attracts more high-income families at the expense of low-income ones.  If you were to look at the average selling price of homes you would say that gentrification is rampant in Calgary’s inner-city communities. Today, new duplex homes cost $750,000+ and new single-family homes start at $1.2 million and condos are the new urban cottage with 600 square foot units starting at $300,000. 

While some wonder how families can afford these homes, in reality, many families can and do.  In Altadore 17% of the population is under 14 years of age, close to the city’s average of 18%; in West Hillhurst, 16% are under 14. The number of young children is only going to increase, as the population of 25 - 44 year olds (those of childbearing years) is 40% in Altadore and 38% in West Hillhurst, above the city average of 34%.

However, while housing prices have increased, most of Calgary’s inner city communities have not seen the upscale retail and restaurant development usually associated with gentrification.  For example, despite all of the development in West Hillhurst we still have our bohemian 19th Street shops with anchors like Central Blends, Vina Pizza & Steak House and Dairy Lane that have been part of the community forever.  Similarly, Parkdale still has its “Lazy Loaf block” and the Capitol Hill Corner still has Weeds and Edelweiss Imports. 

In addition, Calgary’s inner city communities continue to have active recreation and community centres that attract people citywide to programs and events.  The Hillhurst Community Center boast one of the best and longest running flea markets in Canada.  The West Hillhurst recreation centre’s gym becomes a church on Sundays and the Tri-Wood Arena is home to Calgary’s women roller derby league. 

And we have not forgotten about our seniors, there are old and new (Lions Village and Glenway Gate) affordable seniors facilities scattered throughout Calgary’s inner city communities.

If new housing options and new neighbours (with kids) means gentrification, then I say bring it on.

Recess in Parkdale. 

There is a wonderful parade of kids walking to school in Rosedale. 

Bridgeland Market is just one of a dozen of examples of the improving urban amenities in Calgary's City Centre communities. 

Evolutionary vs. Revolutionary Development

In some inner city communities, it seems like at leas one new infill project dots every block.  Some streets look like a suburban “Parade of Show Homes.” While some might see this as too much too fast, personal experience has demonstrated that it takes decades to infill an existing community. 

I have lived in West Hillhurst years for over 20 and despite what seems like constant infilling, there are still older homes on every street. It will take another 20 years for all mid 20th century homes to disappear and by that time my 40-year old infill will be ready for a mega-makeover or demolition

Last Word

Communities are like gardens, every year you have to rip out a few of the old plants that have died off to make room for new ones.  From my perspective, Calgary’s developers, home builders and planners have planted the seeds for “intelligent infilling” of our inner city communities.  “Intelligent infilling” is a gradual process that increases the diversity of housing options in a community so it continues to attract people of all ages and backgrounds to want to call it home. 

If you like this blog, you might like:

King Edward Village

King Edward Village Revisited

Do we all need to go back to kindergarten? 

Calgary's newest urban village?

Flaneuring the Fringe: 19th Street NW

By Richard White, March 10, 2014

For Calgarians and tourists alike, exploring Calgary’s urban “street life” all too often means we head to the same places – 17th Avenue, Inglewood, 4th Street, Kensington, the Design District or maybe Stephen Avenue. This is the second of a three-part look at “street life” on the fringe of Calgary’s city centre. 

19th Avenue NW from Nose Hill Park to the Bow River is a popular bike route from the northwest into the downtown.  Along this corridor are two urban hubs, one in West Hillhurst from 1st Ave to 3rd Ave NW and another at 20th Avenue in Capitol Hill.  Neither are presently on the radar of urbanists, but they should be.

Main Street West Hillhurst, (aka 19th Street NW)

West Hillhurst is one of Calgary’s most active infill communities with construction of new homes on almost every avenue. And now the under construction four-storey Savoy condos at Kensington Road and 19th St corner will bring urban living a step closer to reality for this community.   Rumour has it the Savoy developers are courting Phil & Sebastian for one of its retail spaces.  Another rumour has Starbucks moving into a former restaurant space on 19th Street.  Even without these cafes, Main Street West Hillhurst has all the makings of a great community hub with its dry cleaners, hair salon, florist and hardware store and office spaces.

Dairy Lane (391 - 19th St NW)

Dairy Lane has been a fixture on 19th Street since 1950.  If you like omelettes, burgers and milkshakes, this is the place to go.  Dairy Lane has strong connections to 20 different farm-to-table suppliers.  A very popular breakfast spot; don’t be surprised if people are eating on the patio even in winter as they provide heaters and blanket.  They also provide coffee to those who have to wait in line to get a table either inside or out.  Dairy Lane proves that good things really do come in small places – seating capacity inside is about 20 people. 

Central Blends (203 - 19th St NW)

This is my favourite place in the city for muffins – they are chock full of fruit and fresh out of the oven every morning at 7 am.   And Central Blends is more than just a café; it is also an art gallery with revolving exhibitions of local artists/artisans - you never know what you are going to find here.  This is where both hipsters and GABEters chill in West Hillhurst.

Amato Gelato Café (2104 Kensington Rd NW)

The local retailer for Mario’s Gelati traditional Italian ice cream, Amato Gelato offers over 50 varieties of gelato, sorbetto, yogurt, tofulati and specialty desserts.  Open year round, it becomes especially animated in the summer, when it becomes one of the city’s best places for people and dog watching.

SA Meat Shops (106 - 2120 Kensington Rd. NW)

Located in the strip mall next door to Amato Gelato, it offers authentic home-cured South African sausages, dried meats and groceries. Its Piri Piri chicken was cited in Avenue Magazine’s top 25 things to eat in Calgary.  Looking for a snack? Try the dried beef or buffalo sausage sticks or chewy dried beef biltong (a cured meat that was originated in South Africa, similar to beef jerky but thicker).   

West Hillhurst Recreation Centre (1940 - 6th Ave NW)

For those into vintage, you may want to slip into the West Hillhurst Recreation Centre.  This recreation block dates back to the ‘40s when “The Grand Trunk Hot Shot League” needed some playing fields.  In 1951, a clubhouse was built on this corner, the arena followed in 1971.  On hot summer days, the adjacent family- friendly outdoor Bowview Pool is a welcome throwback to the ‘50s. 

One of literally thousands of new infills that are redefining urban living in West Hillhurst and all communities north of the Bow River within a 45 minute walk, 20 minute cycle or 10 minute drive of downtown Calgary. . 

One of literally thousands of new infills that are redefining urban living in West Hillhurst and all communities north of the Bow River within a 45 minute walk, 20 minute cycle or 10 minute drive of downtown Calgary.

Bowview Pool is part of West Hillhurst's recreation block which includes the pool, arena, playing fields, playground, gym, squash courts, tennis courts and meeting rooms.  

Bowview Pool is part of West Hillhurst's recreation block which includes the pool, arena, playing fields, playground, gym, squash courts, tennis courts and meeting rooms.  

Amato Gelato Cafe is popular with the young families who are moving into West Hillhurst. 

Amato Gelato Cafe is popular with the young families who are moving into West Hillhurst. 

Central Blends Cafe has an "everyday" Mexican charm to it. 

Central Blends Cafe has an "everyday" Mexican charm to it. 

Dairy Lane is very popular summer or winter. 

Dairy Lane is very popular summer or winter. 

Capitol Hill Corner, (aka 20th Avenue at 19th Street NW)

 Just up the hill from West Hillhurst, across the TransCanada Highway (aka 16th Avenue North) at 19th Street and 20th Avenue is Capitol Hill Corner – a collection of old and new shops and small offices buildings for various professional services and a drug store. 

Edelweiss Village (1921 - 20th Ave NW)

Edelweiss is like entering a little European village complete with café, cheese shop, butcher shop, bakery, grocery and gift shop all under one roof. Though not very big, it packs a lot of product on it shelves with food and home accessories from Swiss, German, Ukrainian and Scandinavian suppliers – only in Canada!  

Weeds Café (1902 - 20th Ave NW)

Established in 1964, this bohemian corner café serves a wide selection of handcrafted food, beer, wine and 49th Parallel coffee.  The walls are covered with local art and there is live music on weekends.  It is a “chill space” for many students from University of Calgary, SAIT and Alberta College of Art & Design.

Ruberto Ostberg Gallery (2108 - 18th Street NW)

It’s one of Calgary’s best-kept secrets with its eclectic exhibition schedule of local artists’ work on the main floor and artists’ studios in the basement.  Exhibitions change monthly featuring everything from glass and ceramics in various genres realism and expressionism.  Kitty-corner to Weeds and just a block east of Edelweiss, it’s worth checking out.


Edelweiss Village is a bit of Europe in the middle of Capitol Hill. 

Edelweiss Village is a bit of Europe in the middle of Capitol Hill. 

Weed's Cafe is a charming bohemian hangout.

Weed's Cafe is a charming bohemian hangout.

Glass work by the Bee Kingdom collective at Ruberto Ostberg Gallery.

Bee Kingdom's opening night at Ruberto Ostberg Gallery in early March. 

Bee Kingdom's opening night at Ruberto Ostberg Gallery in early March. 

Last Word

While the City of Calgary officially considers Calgary’s City Centre to be on the south side of the Bow River i.e. downtown and the beltline I think it is time to rethink those boundaries. 

In reality our City Centre should encompass the north side from 20th Avenue south to the Bow River and from 19th Street NW east to at least 11th Street NE in Bridgeland. 

Doing so would include Kensington, Edmonton Trail, Centre Street and Bridgeland, all of whom offer local residents a walkable urban living experience with their cafes, restaurants and shops. 

Calgary's urban experience is more than just downtown and the Beltline.

Cycle Tracks Revisited: Everyone Benefits?

By Richard White, March 1, 2014

R.W. writes: "Richard..you have done a great job of opening the debate past the emotional rants of radicals of both side of the argument. First time I have seen a well assembled set of facts and related benefits associated with bikes."

My February 13 and 20th cycling blogs generated interesting comments from both the “bike addicts” and the “bike bashers.” I thought it would be good for me to check in with the City’s key bike people – Tom Thivener, Cycling Coordinator, Katherine Glowacz, Active Transportation Educator and Blanka Bracic, Cycle Track Project Manager to see if I could get a better handle on the issues. They happily took me up on my offer to meet and learn more about the City’s plans to encourage more Calgarians to access downtown by bike and at the same time better integrate cars, bikes and pedestrians travelling in our city centre.

Everybody Benefits!

One of the key ideas that came out of these meetings is that everyone at the City is confident we can indeed encourage more Calgarians to access downtown by bike. And that if more people choose to cycle downtown to work and play, everyone will benefit - drivers, cyclists and pedestrians!  

There is lots of good research from other cities and Calgary’s new 7th Street cycle track that says if we create a few key separate bike lanes, we should see at least a doubling of cyclists in our downtown.  Currently the number of fair weather downtown cyclists (April to October) is about 6,000 (this number drops by 70% in the winter to about 2,000 cyclist), so a doubling would see about 12,000 Calgarians accessing downtown by bike, rather than car or transit.  

That is not unrealistic given there are over 160,000 downtown workers, plus another 20,000 people per day (just a guess) accessing downtown for various reasons.  So 12,000 cyclists per day out of 180,000 is not unrealistic for the peak cycling month – about 6.6%.

Visually and functionally the 7th Street cycle track creates a much better integration of cars, bikes and pedestrians. 

Eight Avenue Place has 300 secure bike parking stalls and showers, along with a separate bike entrance from the street.  All new downtown office buildings are including bike parking as it gets them one LEED point and additional floor space that they can lease out.  Approximately 1,000 new bike parking stalls have been added to the downtown with the completion of Eight Avenue Place, The Bow and the Centennial Place office towers. 

More cyclists benefits drivers in three ways:

  • less cars on the road
  • better integration of cyclist and cars
  • more parking spots for cars

There is recent evidence from New York City that shows traffic speed for cars actually increased on roads with separate bike lanes, perhaps because there is no more weaving in and out of each other’s way. Did you know the 9.5 km of proposed cycle tracks is only 3% of the 296 km of total traffic lanes in the City Centre? That’s, roughly the same proportion as the 2.5% of Calgarians who choose to access the city centre by bike.

If you assume half the 6,000 new cyclists were driving and half taking transit, that means 3,000 less people looking for parking stalls and 3,000 more seats on buses and trains. Three thousand less people looking for parking doesn’t mean you free up 3,000 stalls, as there is a mix of all day and short stay parkers. 

I won’t bore you with the math but it should equate to about 1,800 stalls being freed up. More parking should make car commuters, retailers and restaurateurs happy. The Parking Authority is currently planning to add a couple of new parkades in the downtown, perhaps they would be better off investing in bike lanes for $25 million vs. $100 million for say two new 1,000 stall parkades.

While Centennial Parkade is perhaps one of the more attractive parkades in North America, it has not been a catalyst for street life despite being designed with sidewalk retail spaces.  The same can be said of most parkade blocks in our Downtown and those in other cities. 

I don’t know the math for the cost of purchasing and operating buses, suffice to say the 3,000 transit seats that would be freed up by more cyclists spread over several routes. While there may not be much saving in purchasing buses or operating costs, it would help ease the chronic overcrowding of buses and trains. Maybe Calgary Transit would like to kick in some funds for bike lanes, rather than buying more buses or streetcars.

From a pedestrian’s perspective, the separate bike lanes would mean less bikes jumping onto sidewalks to bypass cars and other obstacles.  We know that after the completion of the 7th Street cycle track the number of cyclist using the sidewalk dropped from 25% to less than 1%.  The redesigned corners and changes to traffic signals would also mean a more systematic sharing of the road at intersections to allow all three modes of traffic (cars, bikes and shoes) to take their turns crossing the street.

Looks to me like creating more bike lanes could be a win-win-win situation.

Safety in Numbers?

The other lesson I learned is that while many argue we need separate bike lanes so cyclists will feel safer; this may be a bit of a red herring.  Current information for Calgary shows that car/cyclist collisions have in fact decreased over the past 10 years, while the number of cyclists has increased.

One of the benefits of more cyclists on downtown streets is that drivers are becoming more aware of cyclists and learning to share the road with them. While cycling advocates point to better infrastructure as the key to safety, the best way to increase safety might simply be to have more cyclists on the road which makes them more visible and top of mind for drivers.

This graph indicates that collisions involving cyclist on Calgary's roadways is decreasing as cycling increases in Calgary. 

This graph indicates that collisions involving cyclist on Calgary's roadways is decreasing as cycling increases in Calgary. 

Cycle tracks budget not out of line 

At the meeting, I was reminded the total budget for the cycling improvements city-wide is about 1.1% of the City’s transportation budget, which is less than the 1.3% of Calgarians city-wide who cycle to work. It then seem fair to me that we should invest at least 1.3% or our transportation budget in cycling improvements (city wide) and maybe more if there is some low hanging fruit.

There is strong information that investing in bike infrastructure and programs in the city centre will have the biggest immediate impact. Not only is this area where we see the most cyclists, but also the most pedestrians.

As mentioned before, the bike infrastructure that is being proposed benefits pedestrians and cars by creating a more orderly and predictable integration of all three modes of traffic.

One reader this week also reminded me that significant investments have been made in cycling infrastructure in recent years by the City and private sector in communities like Brentwood, Sundance, Strathcona, along the West LRT and near the University. 

And then there is the mega 138 Rotary/Mattamy Greenway that will circle the city, headed up by the Parks Foundation Calgary, but with significant City assistance that will benefit many of the suburban communities.   

Last Word 

In the early ‘90s when Calgary’s politicians and planners envisioned a change from a 60/40 car vs. transit split between cars and transit for downtown commuters, to a 50/50 split there were a lot of naysayers. Yet that vision has not only been met but transit now exceeds the car as the primary mode of commuting into the downtown.

Downtown Cordon count changes: 1996 / 2013

Occupants/day           1996          2013              % Change  

  • Vehicles*        418,551      385,245                  -8%
  • Transit**          117,987      248,390                  111%
  • Pedestrian      30,963          61,610                  99%
  • Bikes                5,254            11,441                 122%
  • Total             572,655     706,686                  23%

*cars and trucks / **buses and trains (16 hour day total, inbound and outbound)


Focus on Pedestrians & Cyclists?

Cycling and walking to work is also on the rise, both increasing by over 100% since 1996.  Did you know, Calgary is already one of the leading downtown bike commuter cities in North America? Our 6,000-commuter cyclist for 160,000 downtown workers is on par with Minneapolis (considered one of North America’s leading cycling cities) 6,670 commuters for its citywide 197,791 workers (Minneapolis Bicycle and Walking Commute Date, 2011 Update).

However, I think we can do better because Calgary boasts one of the most active inner-city infilling housing markets on the continent.  We have a young and highly educated workforce and a dense downtown that is still growing; these conditions are ideal for creating a strong year-round cycling and walking commuter population.  For the past 25 years, we have been focusing on improving transit I would suggest for the next 25 years we should be looking at how, we can increase walking and cycling to work and play in our inner city communities. 

I am thinking the new vision for Downtown should be a 35% car, 35% transit, 20% walking and 10% cycling modal split. If I was on Council I would vote for a phased-in implementation of the City Centre Cycle Track plan over the next five or six years; this would allow time to learn from each track what works and what doesn’t. However, we must stop this paralysis by analysis; this issue has been studied and discussed to death.

The investment of $20 million to improve cycling (with spin off benefits for pedestrians, drivers and transit users) in our increasingly congested city center is worth the experiment.  

After all, city building is just one big ongoing experiment!

The blue line is the new 7th Ave cycle track.

The green lines are the proposed new cycle tracks which have been chosen based on their direct connectivity to key places people want to go. It is also more effective to create cycle tracks on one way streets than two way streets.  It is interesting to note that just a few years ago planners were advocating for changing one-way street back to two-way streets, now it looks like we want to keep the one way streets and add bike lanes.  Urban planning is not an exact science.

The yellow line is the 8th Street Public Realm Plan which is separate project from the cycle tracks. 

The orange line is Stephen Avenue Walk which will require further study to determine if some cycling could be allowed. 

King Edward Village?

By Richard White, January 12, 2014

Note: An edited version of this blog was originally published in the Calgary Herald's Neighbours section, on January 9 2014 with the title, "Sewing the seeds that will help a community grow."

Community Development vs Urban Development?

All too often planning professionals and the media use the term “urban development” when referencing everything from new residential, retail, recreational and office developments, when they should be using the term “community development.” 

While the difference may seem subtle, it is important to remember the end goal of any new development should be to enhance the sense of community felt by the people who will live, work and play around it. I am guilty as any; my title at Ground3 Landscape Architects is Urban Strategist when in fact it should and from now on will be from now on “Community Strategist,” to best reflect my passion to foster a stronger sense of community - be that downtown, inner-city, established communities or new suburbs

This is one of the additions to the sandstone King Edward School that will soon become part of a new 21st century arts incubator. 


The light bulb went on when early in December when I checked the 100-year old King Edward School in South Calgary that is about to be transformed into a multi-purpose arts centre called cSPACE King Edward (1720 30th Ave SW).  cSPACE (“c” stands for creative) is being touted as an arts incubator, with 45,000 square feet of production, exhibition and rehearsal spaces for dozens of small arts organizations.  The vision is to create a flexible space where artists of all ages and genres will collaborate to create exciting and interesting experiences for everyone (both artists and public).

cSPACE Projects, is a wholly owned subsidiary of Calgary Arts Development Authority and the Calgary Foundation that is using a social enterprise model to develop spaces for the arts across the city.  King Edward School is the first of what will hopefully be many future projects. For more information on the King Edward School Incubator project, check out cspaceprojects.com.

Market Collective took over the space from hallways to classrooms and made it like one giant art studio.  How fun is that?

Pop-up Community Building

What I found was an old, tired majestic sandstone school with two “big box” ugly additions.  But once inside, the place was full of largely young Calgarians participating in a Christmas market-like event by Market Collective (a co-operative of artisans).

There was a wonderful community buzz (a reinvented old church bazaar buzz if you will) that shouted out “COMMUNITY.”  

The main floor housed a pop-up café with Café Rosso (possibly testing the area for a new location?) offering coffee, as well as a DJ playing music.  On the second floor, local artisans had converted the classrooms into pop-up retail outlets selling everything from art to jewelry, clothing to artifacts. 

The third floor was like an art gallery with figure drawings pinned from floor to ceiling (some even on the floor) from the life drawing classes held there. Once could already see how Calgary’s arts community was taking over the dying space and creating life. 

Figure drawing from floor to ceiling give the space a studio/school sense of place.

DJ cranks out the tunes 

New condos next to the King Edward School that will be home to GABEsters who are infiltrating the community.

GABEsters are taking over?

Wandering around the South Calgary where the King Edward School is located, you would think you were in a new suburb based on the amount of construction on every block.  Residential neighbourhoods must evolve; if they stagnate, they die. 

South Calgary’s new community development is a nice mix of new homes, townhouses, and small-scale condos that will make this a very attractive place for Calgary’s next generation of young professional GABEsters (Geologists, Accountants, Bankers, Brokers, Engineers) to live.   In fact, this is already true as 33% of the community’s population is 25 to 34 years old - twice the City’s average.

Over the next 10 years, these GABEsters will start having families and then look out. South Calgary will blossom into a vibrant urban village.  cSPACE will provide a wonderful diversity of classes, workshops and performance for both the children and parents, as well as become a regional art centre for all the southwest inner city communities.  

Think of if it as a recreation centre for those who love the arts.


Diagonally, next to the cSPACE block, is South Calgary’s existing recreational block that contains the community centre building, playing fields, an outdoor hockey arena and the Alexander Calhoun Library. 

If the synergies between arts and recreation activities are capitalized on, South Calgary could become a model for community redevelopment across the city, given Calgary has many old and under-utilized school sites just waiting to be transformed into new community activity hubs. Not all will be arts centres.  

This is an artist's rendering of what the renovated sandstone school and its two additions will look like once renovated. 

Upper 14th Street shops are a mix of consignment stores, hair salons, liquor stores, salons and barber shops.  There are even two old fashion gas stations and a mechanic making this an authentic mid-century Main Street. 

Two High Streets

South Calgary is also blessed with two emerging pedestrian streets.  On its southern edge along 33rd Avenue lies the trendy Marda Loop shopping district (the name being a combination of the street’s old Marda Theatre and the fact the Calgary’s early 20th century street car used to go to 33rd Ave and 20th St. SW before looping around to head back downtown) with its growing list of popular restaurants, diners, cafes, yoga studios, record store and wine shops. Including one of Calgary's signature coffee joints - Phil & Sebastians Coffee Roasters. 

And on its eastern edge, is the Upper 14th Street district (29th to 26th Street SW), which is slowly evolving into a new community hangout with a neighbourhood pub, shops, salons, a soon-to-open Starbucks, as well as two gas stations and a mechanic’s garage.


Marda Loop is full of pubs, diners, yoga studios and shops including the very popular Phil & Sebastian coffee house.


South Calgary, established in 1914 (when it actually was the southern edge of the city) has recently linked up with Altadore (1945), CFB Calgary (1945) and Garrison Woods (1998) Community Associations to form the Marda Loop Communities Association. 

The old boundaries for just South Calgary were Crowchild Trail on the west, 14th Street S.W. to the east, 34th Ave to the south and 26th Ave to the north. 

Last Word 

Who knows…perhaps sometime in the future, they might even rebrand themselves the King Edward Village.

If you like this blog, you might like:

Postcards from cSPACE

Calgary: North America's Newest Music City

Calgary: The GABEster Capital of North America 

Iconic Canadian Art hidden in office lobby

The Green Bug has been an icon on 14th Street for as long as I can remember, it has to be at least 30 years old.  You gotta love a community with something this fun, funky and quirky!

The addition of new young professionals to established communities results in new pubs, cafes and diners.