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).

Mount Royal: City Beautiful or Man vs Nature?

Calgarians have a long history of being in love with building mansions. Long before there were Aspen Woods or McKenzie Lake Island, there was Mount Royal.

Back in the early 1900s, Mount Royal was just a treeless hill southwest of city limits, like many of the hills in today’s edge communities.  The land belonged to the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) part of the 25 million acres of land granted to them by the federal in government in 1885 as an incentive to build Canada’s transcontinental railway.

 It wasn’t until 1905 that the CPR decided to subdivide the “yet to be named” land into huge (some an entire city block) lots to attract the wealthy and make a healthy profit.  By 1907, seven mansions had been built on Royal Avenue and Hope Street for wealthy American businessmen attracted to Calgary by its bustling ranching and agricultural opportunities. As a result, the new community got the nickname “American Hill.” 

The first Mount Royal Homes were built on land devoid of any trees. This home was built by D.J. Young in 1910 at the corner of 8th Street and Durham Road. 

Mount Royal becomes American Hill and you can see some of the early trees. 

Mount Royal early 20th century. 

By the 1916, homes like the Coste House were starting to be more park-like with substantial trees. Credit: Vicky Williams " Calgary Then and Now" (1978) 

Found this on the gate of the Dower House.

Found this on the gate of the Dower House.

If this is what Calgary looked like 100 years ago, imagine what it will look like in 2114. 

If this is what Calgary looked like 100 years ago, imagine what it will look like in 2114. 

CPR: Calgary's Past & Present

The CPR executives in Montreal (CPR’s corporate headquarters) and Calgary lawyer R.B. Bennett (future Canadian Prime Minister) were none too happy with the nickname, so they lobbied to have Calgary’s newest suburb named after the exclusive community of Mount Royal in Montreal (the home of William E. Van Horne, president of CPR).  CPR even went as far as to give the new community Canadian character street names like – Wolfe, Sydenham and Durham, as well as French-Canadian names like Champlain, Frontenac, Joliet and Vercheres.  Local folklore has it that the Montreal executives joked “let them damn Yankees try to pronounce those names when they tell their friends where they live.”

Mount Royal developed rapidly during the 1910 to 1912 Calgary boom, becoming the home of such notables as Colonel James Macleod and the A.E. Cross family.

In an ironic twist of fate, by the end of the 20th century - 1996 to be exact - Calgary businessman David O’Brien orchestrated the relocation of CPR’s head office to Calgary, much to the shock of the Montreal business community.

Today, many of the early 20th century mansions still exist in Mount Royal alongside many contemporary new ones.  In local historian Harry Sanders’ book “Historic Walks of Calgary,” there is a great self-guided walking tour of the community with lots of interesting insights.

City Beautiful

Like master-planned communities today, Mount Royal is a product of the urban thinking of its time.  The “City Beautiful” movement was very popular in Canada in the early 20th century, with its principles of creating urban communities that were less grid-like and more park-like. This meant curved streets, irregular lot shapes, boulevards, an abundance of parks and architectural controls; this is not dissimilar to what we saw in Calgary’s late 20th century communities.

Just one of the many curved streets of Mount Royal. You can see the proximity to Downtown with the office towers in the distance. In the early 20th Century, Mount Royal was on the edge of the city. 

Many of the homes have huge lots that are like private parks. 

Many of the homes have huge lots that are like private parks. 

Many of the homes are located at top of a hill, giving them an enhanced sense of grandeur. 

Many of the homes are located at top of a hill, giving them an enhanced sense of grandeur. 

R.B. Bennett House was built in 1912.  Canada's 12th Prime Minister owned this home from 1917 to 1947, but never lived in it.  The rounded corner tower with its octagonal roof, it not typical of Georgian Revival homes (Calgary Walks, Harry Sanders, 2005).

R.B. Bennett House was built in 1912.  Canada's 12th Prime Minister owned this home from 1917 to 1947, but never lived in it.  The rounded corner tower with its octagonal roof, it not typical of Georgian Revival homes (Calgary Walks, Harry Sanders, 2005).

A carriage house that is now modest Mount Royal home.

Architecture 101

Sanders points out that while most of Mount Royal fits the “City Beautiful” mold, there is one exception. At the top of the hill between Prospect and Dorchester Avenues, from 10th Street to Carlton sits a grid-like development. This was the 10-acre site sold to Dr. Ernest Willis in 1904 for his hill-top sanatorium before the CPR’s design controls were in place.

Today, walking the streets of Mount Royal is like walking through a history book of home styles – English, Georgian and Revival, Art & Crafts, American Foursquare and more.  You will also see modern designs influenced by the likes of Frank Lloyd Wright.   

One example is the Katchen residence at 800 Prospect Ave. SW.  Built in 1954 it was the home of Mire Katchen, a successful cattleman who, with his brother Samuel, founded Canadian Packers. The house, designed by Clayton, Bond & Morgridge, is an excellent example of the International style with its post and beam wood construction, flat roof, open floor plan and private outdoor spaces that integrate with the interior living spaces.   

Katchen Residence.

Katchen Residence.

Another of the mid-century modern homes.   Note that there is no sidewalk on this side of the street and no massive driveway, creating a nice balance between man and nature. 

Another of the mid-century modern homes. Note that there is no sidewalk on this side of the street and no massive driveway, creating a nice balance between man and nature. 

One of the few homes in Mount Royal with an unobstructed view of the street. You don't get set-backs like this in new subdivisions, even on an estate lot. 

One of the few homes in Mount Royal with an unobstructed view of the street. You don't get set-backs like this in new subdivisions, even on an estate lot. 

It is hard to tell if this is a new house or a modernized turn of the century home. 

It is hard to tell if this is a new house or a modernized turn of the century home. 

What's in a name?

One of the things I love about the mansions of the early 20th century is that they took on the names of their owners.  Sanders’ book is full of names like Davidson Residence and Coach House, R.B. Bennett House, Coste House etc. each with their own story to tell. 

A quick scan of current MLS listings shows that you can still buy a modernized piece of history, i.e. a 1910 Mount Royal home on a one-acre lot complete with a heated 6 car garage and a Carriage House.  The average Mount Royal home sells for about $2.5 million for a 3,000+ square foot home.  It is also interesting to note there are lots of families living in Mount Royal - not just empty nesters.  In fact, 25.5% of Mount Royal’s residents are under the age of 19, which is higher than the city average of 24%.

If you are a gardener, Mount Royal is a great place to wander and see what survives in Calgary, as many of these gardens are 100 years old.  It truly is like walking in a park as the huge lots allow for many huge trees and shrubs, something that isn’t possible on the tiny lots in Calgary’s new subdivisions with all their underground services.

Back story: Developers and urban planners in the late 20th century buried the ugly overhead wires to make new suburbs more beautiful. However, the unintended consequence was that large trees could not be planted near the underground services making tree-lined streets in new suburbs a thing of the past. As you wander Mount Royal, you get the feeling of a nice balance between man and nature, something missing in new suburbs where the house, driveway and road dominate. 

As you wander Mount Royal you will discover historical artifacts like old fieldstone fences and old coach houses that have since become separate homes. Many of the huge lots have been subdivided allowing for new infill homes to be built. 

Yes even Mount Royal is being densified! 

One of the many river rock walls from the early 20th Century that add charm to the community. 

Coste House mailbox

Not everything in Mount Royal is conservative and historic, found these blue trees that have a wonderful luminous quality that is ver contemporary.  Could this be an environmental statement?

Just one of many infills in Mount Royal; this house could be in any one of a dozen or more inner city communities in Calgary. 

Just one of many infills in Mount Royal; this house could be in any one of a dozen or more inner city communities in Calgary. 

By Richard White, August 23, 2014 (An edited version of this blog appeared in the Fall edition of Domus Magazine.) 

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Suburbs move to City Centre


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. 

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Eau Claire Mega-Makeover

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.  

Cycle Tracks Revisited: Everyone Benefits?

By Richard White, March 1, 2014

R.W. writes: " 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. 

Drivers, Cyclists & Pedestrians need to learn to share!

By Richard White, February 13, 2014

Why can’t we all just get along when it comes to sharing the road, the sidewalk or the pedestrian mall?  Why does every new urban infrastructure project proposal become a battle?  The latest controversy is over the proposed City Centre Cycling Track Plan – seems like nobody is happy with what is being proposed. How can this be? Shouldn’t somebody be happy?

I attended the first Open House at Hotel Arts and I have to admit I was disappointed.  What was missing was a real debate to allow the public to share and discuss their various perspectives.  It seemed everyone came with their tribe, looked at the information panels and then left without any exchange of ideas between the opposing viewpoints.   I was looking for someone to lead a group discussion of the various pros and cons of the options being presented and how the proposed routes were determined, rather than a bunch of one-on-one discussions with various City representatives. 

Seems to me there would be value to having all of the ideas and opinions on the table via on open group discussion, rather than everyone going away and blogging their objections or chatting with the media. 

At last April's Calgary Underground Film Festival, many of the patrons came downtown on their bikes - even at night. 

Importance of experimentation

One of the more controversial proposals of the City Centre Cycle Track Plan is to allow bike traffic on Stephen Avenue Walk.  The Calgary Downtown Association is dead set against it and they were supported by a Calgary Herald editorial.  

I would like to remind everyone the introduction of vehicular traffic on Stephen Avenue was a controversial experiment in the early ‘90s to see if the addition of cars might help what was then a struggling, “pedestrian only” mall.  That experiment seemed to work and over the past 20+ years Stephen Avenue has evolved into one of Canada’s best restaurant rows. 

However, that doesn’t mean it couldn’t be better. There are lots of times you could shoot a canon down the middle of Stephen Avenue and not hit anyone.   To some, the idea that Stephen Avenue is a pedestrian mall first is sacred.  To me, city building is just one big experiment and we should continue to try new ideas to add more vitality to all of our public spaces. 

Obviously there are lots of cyclists using Stephen Avenue Walk as a means of getting to work. 

Eight Avenue Place offers its tenant over 300 bike parking stalls, with adjacent showers, lockers and a private ramp and access card control.  More and more the city is requiring developers to provide bike parking, which means we need to provide more cycling friendly streets to major new office developments.  

There is lots of room on Stephen Avenue Walk for cyclists and pedestrian to share the space. 

Even on the 300 block of Stephen Avenue Walk (SAW) there is lots of room for cyclists and pedestrians except for the busy lunch hour in the summer.  This block has one of the highest concentration of office workers in North America with 200+ floors of office space, it makes sense to allow them to access the SAW by bike. 

Pedestrian malls don't work?

Recently, I found a blog on the Urban Current website titled “The Failed Experiment of the American Pedestrian Mall” re: a new Downtown Fresno Partnership report that documented an 89% failure rate of American pedestrian malls. 

The report identifies five indicators that need to be present for a pedestrian mall to be successful:

  •     Attached to a major anchor such as a university
  •      Situated in close proximity to a beach
  •      Maximum four blocks long
  •     Located in small town/city (population under 100,000)
  •     Located in a major tourist destination city

The study goes on to state 90% of America’s pedestrian malls have been converted back into main streets with roads, sidewalks, parking and have subsequently seen significant improvements in occupancy rates, retail sales, property values and private sector investment.

While Stephen Avenue is a vibrant pedestrian area from 11 am to about 2 pm, Monday to Friday, from May to September, the rest of the time it could use more traffic. 

 Why not:

  • Allow cyclists to use the roadway as a means of getting to and from work during the week?
  • Allow weekend recreational cyclist to ride downtown for lunch on a Stephen Avenue patio or shop at the Core or Bankers Hall? Maybe Calgarians would like to cycle downtown for an afternoon at the Glenbow or a matinee performance at the Epcor Centre? 
  • Experiment with allowing cyclist on Stephen Avenue this summer and see how popular it is?  Then we could experiment next winter after the patios and vendors are gone with all day cycle access to Stephen Avenue.

I am not alone in my thinking experimenting bike traffic on Stephen Avenue is a good idea.  In chatting with David Bell, Senior Associate, Planning & Retail, Colliers International, Vancouver office he stated, “I agree with the value of urban experimentation when it comes to generating vitality. People don’t know what they don’t know until they experience it. We should be more willing to invest in trials. Pop-up parks, stores, restaurants, patios are cool to people because they shake up their staid notion of what a place is and stretch their imagination beyond the everyday. That’s exactly what excites people and it can be done anywhere, anytime, at relatively low cost, as a trial.”

Vibrant streets are accessible by as many different modes of traffic as possible.  One of the problems with North American’s downtowns is that we segregate, rather than integrate different modes of traffic.

Downtown Calgary is perhaps one of the worst examples of segregation as we have separate streets for transit, pedestrians and cars and now maybe cyclists?  Minneapolis’s Nicolette Mall for example is both a pedestrian and transit mall.  Many European malls allow all forms of traffic, but with a pedestrian first (not only) hierarchy.  In Paris, you will find the sidewalks used by drivers as parking spots!  We need to learn to share!

In Frankfurt pedestrian and cyclists share their "GREEN BEACH." Why can't we share our roads, pathways and other public spaces. 

 Cost/Benefit Analysis

Something that was also missing at the open house was a rigorous cost benefit analysis of the various options.  I really wanted to know what some of the different options were going to cost and how many people could really be expected to use the new cycling tracks. 

There was one prediction that the 1St SE cycling track would double the number of cyclists using that street in the first year and then add 15 to 20% every year after that.  However, I don’t know how that number was arrived at and I also wondered for how many years, might we see the 15 to 20% growth rate and at what cost.  

It is my understanding we currently don’t have good information on bike traffic because the numbers are collected only for one day or maybe one week of the year and so we don’t understand seasonal and weather variances.  To get real numbers we would have to collect data at several times during the year and over different weather conditions.  I read in one place only about 30% of the summer cyclists, cycle year round.

On February 11, Tom Babin in his Calgary Herald Pedal Blog shared with his readers results from surveys of downtown winter cyclists by students of the University of Calgary’s Dr. Farnaz Sadeghpour.   The students were able to survey 2,100 downtown winter cyclists, which means there must be at least that number if not more avid winter cyclists in downtown Calgary. 

There is no doubt in my mind there are more year-round cyclist in Calgary today than five years ago, no matter what the weather.  Even when it is -30C out and snow and ice on the road, I regularly see cyclist braving the conditions. The question is how much do we invest in improving the cycling infrastructure to maximize our number of cyclists.

The city has conducted various surveys asking Calgarians about what improvements would encourage them to cycle more:

  •  88% said more bike only lanes along side roads & sidewalks
  •  86% said more separate pathways for cyclist & pedestrians
  • 83% said more bike lanes on roads
  •  82% said improved education about sharing the road
  • 82% said better signage and maps
  •  82% said better snow and gravel removal

So, I am wondering why we are jumping to the most expensive solution - separate bike lanes -  when 83% of the people said more bike lanes on roads would be sufficient to encourage them to cycle more.

I am also thinking given 82% said better education would work for them, why don’t we focus on a “Share The Road” campaign which I am guessing would be cheaper and benefit all Calgarians, not just the ones commuting to downtown. Why are we always so “Downtown centric?”

I am always suspicious of human behavior survey results as humans are often guilty of responding with what would be their ideal behavior.  Just because people say separate bike lanes would encourage them to cycle more doesn’t mean that they actually will.  At some point we have to link vision with reality.

I know in my case every summer I say I want to cycle more, but I never do and I am a fearless cyclist i.e. I am not afraid of riding on the road beside the cars. My issue is I have too many things to do in a day to be cycling everywhere, so I cycle nowhere. My bad! 

Bike racks at transit stops.  We need to think about encouraging cycling across the city not just downtown. 

A weekday ride along the Bow River pathway downtown is fun for this family.  We need to think about fostering recreational cycling as much as commuters. 

Last Word

I thought I would give Tom Babin the last word for now in this ongoing debate.  In his February 13, 2013 Herald Pedal Blog he shared these lessons learned from attending the first Finland Winter Cycling Congress in Oulu, Finland:

Lesson 1: Bike paths need to be groomed not cleared of snow every day.

Lesson 2: Pathways are shared by pedestrians and cyclists.

Lesson 3: Pathways have to go somewhere i.e. grocery store/recreation centre

Lesson 4: Shorter is better. People aren’t going to cycle much more than 5 km in winter.

Lesson 5: Innovate Experiment! Think share the road, share the sidewalk.

Lesson 6: There is no template for making a city better for pedestrians and cyclists.

Lesson 7: Cities must adapt not adopt ideas from other cities to meet the specific needs of their community.  What is best for one city, isn’t necessarily best for another.

If you like this blog, you might like:

Calgary: Canada's Bike Friendly City 

Lyon's Sidewalk Ballet

Are we too downtown centric? 

Travels in small towns in North America

By Richard White, February 9, 2014

It is ironic that in December I picked up Stuart McLean’s 1991 book “Welcome Home: Travels in small town Canada” in a Maple Creek SK thrift store and the first story is in fact about his stay in Maple Creek.  It was also ironic as 2013 turned out to be “Year of Small Town Travel” in Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Montana, Idaho and Washington for Brenda and I.

For us, visiting a small towns is mostly just pulling off the highway and taking an hour or so to flaneur the streets, take some pictures, maybe grab a bite or a coffee and chat a bit with one or two locals.

McLean, much more strategic, carefully researched his small towns – Maple Creek (Saskatchewan), Dresden (Ontario), St. Jean de Matha (Quebec), Sackville (New Brunswick), Foxwarren (Manitoba), Naksup (British Columbia and Ferryland, (Newfoundland).  He chose carefully to ensure that collectively, the towns would reflect that diversity that is Canada’s sense of place.  

He also went and lived for a couple of weeks in each town, so he could meet the residents and truly understand the psyche of the people and place.  This all happened in early ‘90s over 20 years ago.

What I loved about the book was the great insights - his and others - that he quotes into understanding the ongoing evolution of our cities and towns, as well as better sense of our collective history as Canadians and North Americans. There are also amazing character sketches for those interested in people.

I thought I would share some of these insights with you accompanied by an image from one of the small towns we visited that related to the McLean’s observations.

From the introduction:

“If there is one aspect of towns and villages that we find remarkable, it is their persistence, their refusal to die out, their staying power.” G.D Hodge and M.A. Qadeer, 1983

“Eventually, I decided that we all live in small towns. Mine happens to be in the heart of a big city.” S. McLean

This is a house on our block just a few doors down.  Like McLean we live in a Calgary, a big city, however it is composed of over 200 small communities of about 5,000 people, each with their own parks, playgrounds, schools, recreation and community centres. Not that much different than the small towns McLean visited. 

Maple Creek, Saskatchewan

“Asians didn’t get the right to vote in Canada until the late 1940s.”

“When she was twelve, Pansy rode (horseback) five and half miles across the fields every day to a one-room schoolhouse…there were lots of deer, antelope and coyotes.” (And we complain about kids taking long bus rides to get to school today)

McLean talks about a Chinese restaurant in his book; this might be it.  Had a great soup and grilled cheese.  GA writes: "you may want to add the nearby winery, yep I do mean winery.  Most of the wine is made from berries and Rhubarb, but they also grow grapes.  The wines are certainly drinkable and it is fun to produce for visiting guests. Their wine tastings are professionally done."

Dresden, Ontario

“Dresden is where Aylmer manufactures all of the ketchup they produce in Canada.”

“Canada is not merely a neighbor to Negroes. Deep in our history of struggle for freedom Canada was the North Star. The Negro slave, denied education, de-humanized, imprisoned on cruel plantations, knew that far to the north a land existed where a fugitive slave, if he survived the horrors of the journey could find freedom.” Martin Luther King Jr., Massey Lectures, 1967

Did you know that Josiah Henson a slave who escaped to Canada and settled in Dresden was the inspiration for Harriet Beecher Stowe’s influential novel “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.”

“The bell at the firehall used to ring at noon and at nine in the evening to signal curfew for all those under the age of fourteen.  The bell at the old McVean factory rang at starting time and quitting time and, like all the other bells in town, at the noon break.  You don’t hear town bells the way you used to. It is too bad. A bell lends a certain orderliness to a town – anoints the noon meal with righteousness, resolves the end of the work day with dignity, infuses dusk with a sense of purpose.”

“There’s also a certain continuity that you don’t get anywhere else. Everyone in school knows everyone else. Most of the parents come from here. The continuum is passed along.”

While I didn't travel to Dresden, I did get to Clarkesdale, Mississippi which is home to the Delta Blues and to Memphis where Martin Luther King Jr. was shot. Both are cities in decline, but with a  proud history that they celebrate vigorously. 

This is the J.W. Cutrer Mansion in Clarkesdale.  The Cutrers and their home inspired the character names and settings in several works by playwright Tennessee Williams. This small town is an interesting study in contrasts between the rich and the poor that has existed for decades - it is not something new. 

Just one of many homes that are slowly peeling away. 

This is the entrance to Ground Zero Blues Club, one of the most authentic and famous blues bars in the world.  The entire inside of the club is like this with people signing their names on every wall, everywhere.  It is a work of art. 

Who knew when I picked up this used book in the spring of 2013 that I would be in the Mojo Man's home turf early in 2014.

St-Jean-de-Matha, Quebec

You can see winter in the architecture wherever you look – the old houses small because they were easier to heat; the brightly painted roofs, pitched steeper here than anywhere in the country, because if you let snow accumulate all winter your roof would collapse before spring.” 

We discovered the ghost town of  Washtucna, while on our way see the off the beaten path Palouse Falls Washington.  We don't usually seek out natural wonders, but we were encouraged to do so and in the process we found Washtucna. I did not realize the potlatch culture extended this far south or east, I had always associated it with Pacific Northwest first nations. Every small town has a story to tell. 

We tried to get into Sonny's but despite the sign it wasn't open. 


Ted's Garage has become the town's post office. In "Welcome Home" you will read how important the post office was in small towns even in the early '90s.

Sackville, New Brunswick

“This is a town that understands tradition…Mrs. Helen C. Beale wouldn’t think of going downtown to mail at letter without putting on a dress, white gloves and a hat.”  “the driving factor behind the new clock tower is that public’s displeasure with not having a clock in the downtown core.”

“Like all small towns, Sackville’s greatest export is her people.”

Our equivalent to McLean's Sackville was Moscow, Idaho, also a university town and this was one of our favourite breakfast spots. Check out the Huckleberry Zucchini Bread or the Lemon Poppy Seed french toast.  We will be back!

The students loved Bucer's Coffee House and Pub....we did too.  Great ambience

Every college town needs a quirky bike shop - Paradise Bikes was Moscow's. 

Yes there is a new clock tower on campus. It also has a great indoor football stadium and one of the world's best climbing wall facilities. Of the 9,000 students, 6,000 live on campus with an 18 to 1 student to teacher ratio. 

Our dinner at the Sangria Grill may well have been our best meal of 2013.  We could show you an image of our plate but the ceiling is way more exciting. Loved the circus dolls. The menu is very interesting e.g. Macadamia coconut halibut mango salsa fried banana rice.  Desserts are to die for e.g. sweet potato creme brulee or coconut bread pudding with lucuma ice cream. Yum Yum!

Foxwarren, Manitoba

“In western Canada, prosperity is calculated in units of verticality. Oil rigs, grain elevators and silos measure the land.”

“first grain elevator in Canada was built in Gretna, Manitoba, in 1881.”

“you hate to see your home town go. But there is nothing you can do to stop it going. You can’t survive on a small farm anymore.”

“Donna Hodgson is the postmistress, and she is the sixth person (three men, three women) to hold the job since the post office opened on August 1, 1889.”

The Foxwarren arena illuminates Foxwarren the way the Roman Catholic Church used to illuminate Quebec. Hockey in Foxwarren is a faith, a theology and a creed. In Foxwarren you don’t go tot eh game as much as you give yourself to The Game. You don’t enjoy hockey. You believe in it… if you live in Foxwarren you can’t escape the arena’s gravity.”

“Like many old men, Andy has become the embodiment of a better era – living proof that the stories everyone has heard actually happened. With his old age he blesses everyone else with youth.”

“At the turn of the century and for thirty years after that, the tracks on these prairies were haunted by the most romantic train in Canadian history – the silk train. Silk that arrived in Vancouver by boat had to be shipped to the Lakehead quickly… they were given priority over all other trains on the tracks.  Once a train carrying Prince Albert (later George VI) was shunted onto a siding to wait while a silk train burned past.”

Meeting Creek, Alberta was our encounter with the great spirit of the prairie Grain Elevator.  It was surreal to just be able to explore this perfectly preserved elevator and station with nobody around. 

You can't make something like this up.

Nakusp, BC

“Left alone in a museum, it doesn’t take much to make a grown man twelve. Wondering vaguely what I will say if someone walks in, I climb into the saddle and lean on the saddle-horn as I read the typed note pinned to the wall. The horse that Tom Thee Persons rode to fame was known as Cylcone.”  Who knew this piece of Calgary’s Stampede history is housed in the Nakusp Museum?

While we didn't have a saddle to sit on.  Brenda has a similar experience when we were exploring Twin Falls, Idaho and she found this pencil dispenser in the library.  She had to try it. Not once but twice.  It doesn't take much to make a grown women twelve. 

We also found this display of Red Rose Tea figurines at the library.  There were several series but the Canadian Series caught our interest. Who knew the Mongrel was a Canadian animal? 

These dolls were fastened to posts throughout the city, at first it was cute then just strange. 

Twin Falls is one of the few places in the world that you can BASE jump without a permit.  We had to wait around for a bit but we did see several guys jump.  If you look carefully you can see a speck of blue where the bridge shadow meets the steel arch at about two thirds of the way to the top of the image - that is a jumper. 

Ferryland, Newfoundland

“Maybe when death is all around you, maybe when everyone’s children are dying, maybe when the winter blows cold and the nights are dark and your ten-year-old daughter gives a little cough and your heart seizes and you look at your husband with frightened eyes and then the priest comes and then she dies, maybe you find a way to make sense of things. But how, after five have gone, could you have a sixth? And how, when your last boy dies, could you plant a crop, go to church, milk a cow, eat a meal, smile, laugh and carry on?”

“Essentially Albert Lawlor drives the Popemobile up and down highway 10 every day.” Yes the same popemobile Pope John Paul II used when he toured North America in September 1984.

“It was a big change. The more people got TV’s, the less you saw of them. Before the TV, everyone depended on everyone else…you visited. You helped each other.”

“If you really want to understand a place, you can’t do it from an automobile.”

One of our best small town experiences of 2013 was when we decided to park our car and walk the streets of Buhl, Idaho. Within seconds I looked over and saw this warehouse with something interesting in a bucket and  on the ground.  Wandering over, we found the warehouse was full of all kinds of antlers and mounted animal heads that were to be shipped all over the world.  We spent over an hour chatting with the guys with the owners.  The street art was the head and part of the carcass of an elk that had been shot by the owners son. Their trailer is perhaps the equivalent of the popemobile.  

Over 150,000 pounds of antlers are collected in this Buhl shop and then sorted and shipped to pet food plants, used for home decor objects etc.  All of the antlers are naturally shed, only the mounted heads are from animals that are shot with permits. 

The Clover Leaf Creamery was another find in Buhl, Idaho.  It is a fully operational dairy that uses the old glass bottles and has a wonderful old fashion ice cream parlour.  It is amazing what you find if you get off the inter-state highways and take the scenic route.  Buhl also had a great thrift store with mid-century artifacts from the community's past.  There was also a theatre converted into a Mexican restaurant which told the story of the present  economic realities. It is amazing what you find if you get out of the car. 

Brenda is in her happy place. 

Last Word

In “Welcome Home” over and over again you read stories about why people love their small towns - the common denominators being everybody knows everybody, nobody locks their doors, shopkeepers work on credit and lamenting the loss of jobs.

Full of everyday stories of everyday people, it is a fun read of what life used to be like whether you lived during that time or not.  I loved McLean’s comment when he was reflecting on the changes in the way hockey is played today vs 50 years ago, “somehow the game seemed purer when I was young.” I expect that applies to everything in the game of life.

We would like to thank the following for their assistance with our small town flaneuring in 2013:

If you like this blog, you might like:

Postcards from Moscow

Meeting Creek Ghost Town

Flaneuring Maple Creek 

Be a tourist in your own neighbourhood 

Winnipeg vs Calgary Urban Hot Spots (Part 1)

EDT Note:

Comparing Calgary to other cities is very popular with the readers of my Calgary Herald column. An edited version of this blog was in the Calgary Herald as a two piece column so I have kept the same format.  It should be noted that Brenda grew up in Winnipeg and I lived there for 14 months while I did a MSC in Agriculture at the University of Manitoba.  We hope enjoy our look at Winnipeg vs Calgary (where we have lived the past 30+ years).

Urban Hot Spots

Winnipeg wouldn’t be on too many people’s radar as one of North America’s urban hot spots. In fact, for many years, it has been brunt of cruel jokes like the “We’re going to Winnipeg” punch line from the 2005 Fountain Tire commercial that suggested Winnipeg was the Canadian equivalent of Siberia.  However, that wasn’t always the case. Early in the 20th century it was a boomtown, rivaling Chicago as the major mid-west city in North America and beating out Vancouver as Western Canada’s largest city (it had three times the population of Calgary).

Every city has its heyday.  Calgary shouldn’t get too smug about its current “flavour of the month” city status.  Cities can also rise up from the decay and baggage of their past and I believe Winnipeg is ripe for such a renaissance.  I thought it would be fun to compare Calgary and Winnipeg’s downtowns. The results might surprise you!

The Rivers

Both downtowns are blessed - and cursed - with being situated at the junction of two rivers that provide wonderful recreational opportunities but also are subject to mega flooding.  For both cities, their two rivers have become a focal point of their sense of place and play with major museums, parks, pathways, riverwalks, promenades, plazas and bridges located on or near the rivers. 

While Calgary’s Bow River is considered one of the best fly-fishing rivers in the world and a great place to float, Winnipeg’s Red River is a major catfish river and allows for major motor boating activities.

Winnipeg boast the longest skating rink in the world along their rivers. The colourful "pom poms" called "Nuzzels" are actually warming huts on the Assiniboine River - they add fun, colour, charm and functionality. (Photo credit: Raw Design).

Calgarians love their river also be it floating, paddling, fishing or swimming. 

Advantage: Tied

The Forks vs East Village/Stampede Park

While Calgarians are gaga about the potential of East Village’s mega makeover and Vancouverites’ Granville Island is the envy of the world, Winnipeg has quietly surpassed both of them with the development of The Forks on old railway land on the confluence of the Red and Assiniboine Rivers). 

The Forks boasts an upscale boutique hotel, a market, Johnson Terminal (boutiques, café, offices), Children’s Museum, Children’s Theatre, Explore Manitoba Centre, one of North America’s best small baseball parks and the soon-to-be-completed Canadian Museum for Human Rights (arguably Canada’s most iconic new building of the 21st century). Not bad, eh!

Winnipeg's Human Rights Museum will add another dimension to The Forks, one of North America's best urban people places.  


An artists rendering of the The National Music Centre at night. The museum is currently under construction. 

The baseball park at The Forks is a very popular place in the summer. 

It also has perhaps the best winter city programming with the world’s longest skating rink (yes, longer than Ottawa’s) in addition to the plaza skating rink, Olympic-size skating rink, 1.2 km of skating trails, snowboard fun park, toboggan run and warming huts designed by the likes of world renowned architect Frank Gehry.  They even have Raw: Almond the world’s first pop-up restaurant on a frozen river featuring the hottest chefs including Calgary’s Teatro.  Take that, Calgary!

Calgary’s East Village, after numerous false starts, is trying very hard to match Winnipeg’s eastside redevelopment with its National Music Centre, new Central Library, Bow Valley College, St. Patrick’s Island Park and bridge as well as Fort Calgary improvements. Stampede Park also has notable attractions with the BMO Centre, Saddledome, new Agrium Western Event Centre and plans for Stampede Trail shopping street, as well as the best festival in Canada i.e. Calgary Stampede.

Advantage: Winnipeg

GMAT Fun (Galleries, Museums, Attractions, Theatres)

Winnipeg’s Manitoba Museum is a large history museum on par with Calgary’s Glenbow from a visitor’s perspective with major permanent and temporary exhibitions.  The Glenbow also functions as our major public art gallery, while Winnipeg boasts one of Canada’s oldest public art galleries, which is located in an iconic contemporary building.

The Winnipeg Art Gallery was one of the first architecture as public art buildings. It The city has a wonderful diversity of old and new architecture. 

Both cities have major new museums with contemporary “weird & wacky” architecture slated to open in the next few years - Winnipeg’s Canadian Museum for Human Rights ($300+ million) and Calgary’s National Music Centre ($130+ million).

Calgary’s major downtown attraction would be the mid-century modern Calgary Tower, while Winnipeg’s would have to be historic Provincial Building with its intriguing Masonic Temple design.

In Winnipeg, the MTS Centre (arena) is a major attraction. While many cities (Edmonton) are building new downtown arenas, Winnipeg has a “Main Street” arena, literally right on Portage Avenue; this would be like the Saddledome being where the Glenbow is on Stephen Avenue. The MTS Centre has placed in the” top 10 busiest arenas in North America” list in the past, regularly selling more tickets to more events than Saddledome. 

The MTS Centre is located right on Portage Avenue aka Main Street Winnipeg.  It is one of the busiest arenas in North America. 

From a performing arts perspective, Winnipeg has its Centennial Concert Hall (home to the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra), the historic 1914 Pantages Playhouse Theatre, Burton Cummings Theatre, Tom Hendry Warehouse Theatre, Rachel Bowne Theatre and Prairie Theatre Exchange.  As well, their Royal Winnipeg Ballet complex is not only located right downtown, but also performs downtown, unlike the Alberta Ballet, which is off-the-beaten track and performs outside the downtown.

Winnipeg is home to three iconic Canadian rock and rollers - Burton Cummings, Randy Bachman and Neil Young. 

Winnipeg though has nothing match our three festival spaces - Prince’s Island Park, Shaw Millennium Park and Olympic Plaza.  And, while Winnipeg has a well-renowned folk festival, it doesn’t happen downtown. Winnipeg’s major festival Folkarama attracts over 400,000 people each year to over 40 ethnic pavilions that are located around the city.  The ‘Peg also boasts the second largest fringe theatre festival in North America (Calgary’s fringe struggle to survive) and their Royal Manitoba Theatre is Canada’s flagship English-language regional theatre company (you can’t just call yourself  “Royal”).

Calgary probably has the more impressive line up of theatres - EPCOR Centre with its five spaces, as well as the Grand, Pumphouse and the two theatres at the Calgary Tower (but rumour has it that the latter spaces will be closed, to accommodate a new office tower).

Calgary boasts the High Performance Rodeo as its only major theatre festival now that playRites is history.  However, downtown Calgary is also home to numerous live music venues including several weekend afternoon jam (WAMJAM) sessions at places like Blues Can, Ironwood, Mikey’s and Ship & Anchor that Winnipeg can’t match. In addition, YYC’s downtown is home Fort Calgary, which is has ambitious plans to become a major attraction.    

Calgary boasts a very active music scene with numerous venues like Mikey's offering live music seven days a week.  

Calgary boasts a very active music scene with numerous venues like Mikey's offering live music seven days a week. 

Advantage: Tied

SDC Fun (Shopping, Dining, Café)

Winnipeg’s Portage Place doesn’t hold a candle to Calgary’s The Core with its shiny new $200+ million renovation and mega glass roof.  Nor does Winnipeg have the wealth of restaurants that populate Stephen Avenue, 4th Street and 17th Avenue or the mega pubs – CRAFT, National or WEST.

Summer "power hour" (lunch hour) on Stephen Avenue Walk aka Calgary's Main Street. 

Winnipeg's Osborne Village is their bohemian quarters. 

Calgary's Design District offers great restaurants, galleries and design shops. 

Calgary’s downtown restaurants regularly make the in Top 10 List of new Canadian Restaurants by EnRoute Magazine, while Winnipeg’s restaurants have not. A quick check of Vcay’s Top 50 Restaurants in Canada lists eight downtown Calgary restaurants including Charcut Roast House #5 and Model Milk #7 in the top 10.  Winnipeg has only one on the list Deseo Bistro at #36.  This might be due to fact downtown Calgary is home to over 100 corporate headquarters with their healthy “expense account” dining. 

Winnipeg's Exchange District is full of fun, funky and quirky shops. 

Winnipeg boasts one of the most ethnically diverse cultures in North America. 

Both Calgary’s and Winnipeg’s historic Hudson Bay stores are in need of major exterior washing and interior renovations.  Calgary’s Holt Renfrew is definitely in a class of its own when it comes to upscale shopping.

The Hudson Bay Company is the oldest retailer in the world est. 1670, while Winnipeg's store is not that old, it is in need of a major makeover. 

Winnipeg's Portage Place is the hub for downtown shopping as is The Core for downtown Calgary

Calgary's signature Hudson Bay store on Stephen Avenue Walk, a pedestrian mall in the centre of the downtown linking the Financial District with the Cultural District. 

Winnipeg boasts the Stella Café (named after one of the owner’s cat) with its signature Morning Glory muffins in the uber chic Buhler Centre, as well as the unique News Café (owned by the Winnipeg Free Press, it hosts live interviews with Canada’s top newsmakers).   However, Calgary’s café culture has more depth with dozens of local independent cafes with multiple locations throughout the downtown.

The Winnipeg Free Press Cafe is a unique concept that allows for reporters to interview newsmakers and  file stories from their corner offices in the cafe. 

Advantage: Calgary


So far the score is tied. Next week: a look at Winnipeg’s and Calgary’s successes and failures in placemaking, architecture, urban design and downtown living. Also a look at how Calgary's GABEsters differ from Winnipeg's hipsters in what they are looking for with respect to urban living.

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Integration critical to new community vitality

Note: This blog was originally published in the Calgary Herald's Neighbours, January 30, 2014.

By Richard White, January 31, 2014

While there is much talk about the importance of densifying Calgary’s older residential communities (i.e. those built from 1950 to 1990), in reality, it makes good sense to create more housing on the edges of the city given that is where most of the new jobs located.  If we want to reduce the length of commutes for Calgarians and encourage them to walk or cycle to work, the best way to do that is to integrate –not segregate - residential and commercial development.

This concept harkens back to the early ‘90s, long before Imagine Calgary, when the City approved the “Go Plan” which focused on the planning and policy initiatives that would entice Calgarians to live closer to where they work as a means of enhancing the city’s mobility.  The idea at that time was to create mini-downtowns in the suburbs so people could “live, work and play” in their immediate area, rather than having to commute across town or to the downtown. 

Until recently, most of Calgary’s residential development was on the west side while the vast majority of the commercial development (industrial, warehouse and offices) was on the east side, meaning most Calgarians had to drive across the city to get to and from work every day.  However, with the creation of new communities like Cityscape, Walden, Seton and Legacy on the east side, more and more Calgarians can “live, work and play” without having to drive across the city or downtown.

New Suburban Home Design 

Early in 2013, the City approved a new master-planned community in Calgary’s far northeast called “Cityscape.” Already homes are being built and the new community is taking shape.  While there was controversy over its name, given it is so far from the “city,” developer Mattamy successfully argued the community name is appropriate given the “cityscape” vista the land offered.

Cityscape unlike suburban communities of the past has narrower lots, more variety of housing types, better connectivity with pathways and parks and retail centers.  Mattamy alone will be offering Village homes (small condos), Townhomes (the hottest housing type in the city these days), Laned homes (rear lane garage) and single-family homes (SFH).  And even the SFH are different from traditional suburban homes with front double car garages that are less protruding, allowing for a more attractive porches and a streetscape that isn’t dominated by big double garage.

When fully built out Cityscape will consist of 4,000 homes and a population of over 12,000 (similar to East Village) all within a few blocks of the 115-acre natural preserve encircled by a 2.5-kilometer pathway, with lookouts and nature interpretive areas at key places.  It will definitely enhance Calgary’s reputation as the “City of Parks and Pathways!”

An example of new community with home designed to fit on narrow lots, recessed garages and smaller front lawns and driveways. 

Integration of Commercial and Residential Development 

The development of StoneGate Landing, by WAM Development Group, on 1,100 acres north of 128th Ave and west of Metis Trail (next to Cityscape) is the suburban equivalent of a small downtown with its 10 million square feet of industrial space (the equivalent of 5 Bow Towers), 1.5 million square feet of retail space (the equivalent of Chinook Centre) and 2 million square feet of office and hotel space. 

StoneGate Landing is just one of several mega land development projects currently under construction north the Calgary International Airport and east of Deerfoot.  It is any wonder there is a strong market for housing in what could be called Calgary’s NNE neighborhood i.e. north of downtown, north of the airport and east of Deerfoot Trail.

If Calgary sticks to its current position of no more annexation, Cityscape, StoneGate Landing and other major land developments in the City’s far northeast could easily become a city within a city.  Cityscape and StoneGate Landing provide Calgarians with the opportunity to “live, work and play” in the new suburbs. Imagine living in Calgary and not having to use the increasingly gridlocked Deerfoot, Crowfoot or Glenmore Trails or ride the overcrowded LRT.


Calgary is quickly being fragmented into distinct smaller cities based on different economic engines.  The northwest is becoming the “Learning City” with SAIT, the University of Calgary and Foothills / Children’s Hospitals being its economic engines.  The southeast is evolving into a “Distribution City” with all of its warehouses and distribution buildings.  The billion-dollar expansion of Calgary’s International Airport with all of its neighbouring developments is quickly becoming our “Airport City.” The southwest is "Execuville" as it is home to most of Calgary's downtown corporate executives and exclusive communities.

It will be interesting to see how Calgary and other cities around the world evolve over the next 25 years at they adapt to the ever changing economic realities that dictate city development. Indeed, life is just a continuous series of adaptations.

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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. 


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Cowtown: The GABEster Capital of North America

By Richard White, January 2, 2014

Given my love of acronyms, I created the term “GABEster” (Geologists, Accountants, Bankers, Brokers and Engineers) as a bit of a joke in my Calgary Herald Neigbours column (titled White House) where I profiled Calgary’s hipster Beltline community.

"Calgary’s hipsters are unique as they are more likely to be clean shaven, Armani suit wearing, geologists, accountants, bankers, brokers and engineers, than bearded, skinny jeans and plaid shirt artists, writers and musicians.  But let it be understood they definitely love their Saturday music jams, bowling alley, craft beer drinking, gallery strolls, food trucks and festival fun as with any hipster. Perhaps we need to coin a new term  “gabesters” (Geologists, Accountants, Bankers/Brokers and Engineers)." Calgary Herald Neighbours, October 31, 2013.

The column reflected on my recent trips to Chicago’s Wicker Park and Bucktown, as well as Portland’s Pearl District – all three considered to be amongst the best hipster communities in the USA and how Calgary’s Beltline district was as good if not better than not only those three trendy urban villages, but also ones in Vancouver, San Francisco and San Diego.

I pointed out while Calgary has lots of hipsters (counter culture or bohemians types), our urban villagers are more likely to be professionals i.e. geologists, accountants, bankers, brokers and engineers than bohemians. 

Since then I have used the GABEster in various social and business circles, getting very positive responses suggesting that indeed the term is very useful in helping understand and articulate Calgary’s unique urban culture.


Calgary's GABEsters take over Stephen Avenue Walk at lunch hour to stroll the street, grab some lunch or people watch. Photo Credit: Jeff Trost 

The pocket protector is history!

 For several generations, Calgary’s oil patch has been a magnet for attracting the best young GABEsters from across Canada and more recently internationally.  A quick check of Calgary Economic Development’s website finds that Calgary currently has 22,500 engineers, 16,700 accountants and 5,300 geologists (though I couldn’t find any numbers for bankers and brokers, it has to be at least as many as the engineers i.e. 20,000+more) - and there is a critical need for lots more. 

 The Hill Strategies Research Inc. study of “Artists in Large Canadian Cities” (March 2006) identified that Calgary had 4,575 total artists based on 2001 census figures.  This number had increased by 46% since 1991 so the number today might be 7,000+ range, about 1% of the workforce.  

Obviously, Calgary’s GABEsters, outnumber hipsters by about 10 to 1.

Many of Calgary’s young GABEsters live in the residential communities surrounding the downtown core where the majority work in the 40+ million square feet of office space.  The common stereotype of engineers and high tech workers is that they lack social skills, have no fashion sense and are pragmatic loners.

Bankers, brokers and accountants may have a little more fashion sense with the suits and ties, however, more and more the tie has been lost and the suits are more trendy that traditional. 

They may all be right brain thinkers by day, but many of the current generation of GABEsters are just as much into fashion, music and street life as the so-called creative class. And yes, they are also just as likely to be wearing skinny jeans and funky glasses – maybe not at work, but after hours.

The days of the pocket protector have long disappeared! 

GABEsters are big bikers...Bow Cycle in Bowness is one of the largest bike shops in the world. 

Definition of a hipster (Urban Dictionary)

“Hipsters are a subculture of men and women typically in their 20's and 30's that value independent thinking, counter-culture, progressive politics, an appreciation of art and indie-rock, creativity, intelligence, and witty banter.

The greatest concentrations of hipsters can be found living in the Williamsburg, Wicker Park, and Mission District neighborhoods of major cosmopolitan centers such as New York, Chicago, and San Francisco respectively.”

“Although "hipsterism" is really a state of mind, it is also often intertwined with distinct fashion sensibilities. Hipsters reject the culturally-ignorant attitudes of mainstream consumers, and are often seen wearing vintage and thrift store and local boutique-inspired fashions, tight-fitting jeans, old-school sneakers, and sometimes thick- rimmed glasses.”

“Both hipster men and women sport similar androgynous hairstyles that include combinations of messy shag cuts and asymmetric side-swept bangs. Such styles are often associated with the work of creative stylists at urban salons, and are usually too "edgy" for the culturally-sheltered mainstream consumer.” 

Calgary is home to 60+ live music venues.

GABEsters checking out CUFF! Cowtown's Underground Film Festival. 

Cowtown's Counter Culture / Indie Activities 

Calgary’s downtown supports a café culture superior to both Portland and Chicago with independent cafes on almost every corner.  While some are upscale, tony places, others are more grass roots with some being off the beaten path.  Café Rosso, located on an old industrial site next to a chicken-processing factory in the southeastern edge of Ramsay, is perhaps the best example of Calgary’s GABEster coffee klatch culture.   

Calgary is also quickly becoming North America’s next great “music city” with numerous weekend afternoon jams, 60+ live music venues, one of North America’s best international folk music festivals and the increasingly popular Sled Island indie-music festival.  Calgary’s Mike Clark Band and Tim Williams  will be participating the Memphis International Blues Competition in Jan 2014.

GABEsters love homemade ice cream in "off the beaten path" villages.

GABEsters love homemade ice cream in "off the beaten path" villages.

Calgary is also home to the world’s second largest collection of keyboard instruments including one of Elton John’s first pianos and the first MOOG synthesizer. And our city will soon be home to Canada’s National Music Centre - 2015.  How cool is that.

Shaw Millennium Park’s was one of the first big outdoor skate parks in North America. Today, it is still one of the largest (75,000 square feet of skateable surface) and best. It doesn’t get more counter-culture than that.  

Inglewood’s Recordland houses between 500,000 to 1,000,000 records and is a regular stop for visiting DJs and bands. Just a block away, the Crown Surplus store has supplied equipment to the film industry for over 45 years – Little Big Man, Superman, Brokeback Mountain to name a few. Cher has also been known to shop there. It doesn’t get more hipster (whoops GABEster) that this. 

If looking for some music memorabilia, look no further than Heritage Posters and Music in Calgary’s newest trendy district SunAlta.  It is an easy spot to find, as the back wall is a mural of the Rolling Stones tongue logo made with actual records.

Flea Market 

The trendy Hillhurst Sunnyside community just north of the downtown core is not only home to many traditional hipsters given its proximity to the Alberta College of Art and Design, but is also home to an experimental container village. It is also home to a Sunday flea market, which has been operating for over 40 years.


If yoga studios are a key indicator of hipsters, Calgary’s may have one of the highest concentrations in North America. Within 5 kilometers of downtown, there is an estimated 30 to 40 yoga studios.  

I saw way more yoga mats being carried on the streets of Calgary than I did in either Chicago or Portland. 

GABEster fashions Cowtown style.

Lukes Drug Mart is part cafe (Stumptown Coffee), part record store, part grocery store and a post office.

Last Word

Cowtown has been called “a city built by engineers” in reference to the fact that much of our architecture and urban design from the ‘70s to the ‘90s was dominated more by function than form. 

Recently however, the tide has changed with projects like the Calatrava Peace Bridge, The Bow and Eight Avenue Place office towers, as well as the redesign of 7th Avenue LRT stations and the futuristic design of the West LRT stations. 

Cowtown's city centre has indeed become one of North America's gabest places to "work, live and play."

Don't believe me - check out Josh Noel's travel piece on Calgary in the Chicago Tribune: Calgary: Pedal to the metal Poutine at 3 am!!!

Pictures below don't lie...Calgary has a very vibrate GABE community. 


GABEsters playing Bocci Ball at lunch at the Courthouse Park. How cool is that? Photo Credit: Jeff Trost 

GABEster climbing Plensa's "Wonderland" scultpture at lunch...public art as urban playground for adults? 

Amy Thiessen and friends at Ironwood.  GABEsters love their local music scene. 

GABEsters at the folk festival.

GABEsters love their patio culture even in the winter. 

GABEsters heading to work...

GABEsters love Shaw Millennium Park and the new condos just across the street....

GABEsters love indie films...and festivals.

GABEsters love yoga...

GABEsters love to paddle! Undercurrents in Bowness is just one of many paddle shops.