Calgary deserves more respect from international planners!

While flaneuring Winnipeg’s Sherbooke Street on a cold day last December, I happened upon a copy of Ken Greenberg’s book “Walking Home” or “The Life and Lessons of a City Builder” in the Salvation Army thrift store for a buck. Who could resist? Greenberg, born and raised in Brooklyn, NY is a highly respected new urban designer for over 25 years, working on projects internationally with Toronto as his base.  In 2008, he was engaged by Calgary Municipal Land Corporation to be part of the River walk design team.

The book reads a like an autobiography, but unlike entertainment stars who talk sex, drugs, relationships and life lessons, Greenberg talks only of urban design which can be a pretty boring subject except to urban nerds like me. What surprised me was how little he mentioned Calgary (just three times to be exact) given our City has been one of the fastest growing cities, (downtown, inner city and suburbs) over the past 25 years in North America.  It seemed every time he made a point about how great other cities were, I could find as good or better example from Calgary.  

Collaboration

Early in the book, Greenberg identifies “collaborations as the lifeblood of successful city building.” Later, he talks about private public partnerships, identifying organizations like Cityscape Institute in New York City and Greater Toronto CivicAction Alliance both founded to foster the development of parks and public spaces citywide. 

Parks Foundation Calgary (PFC), founded in 1985, has been responsible for $150M in parks, playgrounds and pathway development. Greenberg can be forgiven for not mentioning PFC’s ambitious new project the 138 km The Rotary/Mattamy Greenway that will soon circle our city, given his book was published in 2011.

The historic Haultain School, home to the Parks Foundation Calgary, is appropriately located in Haultain Park and across the street from Memorial Park.

The historic Haultain School, home to the Parks Foundation Calgary, is appropriately located in Haultain Park and across the street from Memorial Park.

Public Spaces

Throughout the book he talks about the importance of rich and varied public spaces and the importance of the public realm (even devoting an entire chapter to “reclaiming the public realm”). He points to Scandinavian cities as having some of the best public spaces.   I was disappointed there was no mention of Calgary’s Stephen Avenue Walk and its evolution from a pedestrian only mall to an innovative flexible space that is a pedestrian mall by day and road at night. As a designer for the East Village River walk surely he was aware of the success of the Bow River Promenade in Eau Claire and Prince’s Island, one of the best downtown festival sites in the world. While I realize, Greenberg is more interested in urban spaces, I think it was a major oversight in my mind not to mention Calgary has the most extensive citywide pathway system in the world at nearly 1,000 km that links our suburbs, inner city and downtown communities.

When you talk about diversity of public spaces, you can’t get much more diverse than Calgary which offers everything from an urban skateboard parks to snowboard hills, from handicapped parks to Douglas Fir trail. Olympic plaza.  With over 5,200 parks and over 1,000 playgrounds, Calgary is the envy of almost every city.

The Stephen Avenue pedestrian mall is a unique experiment in urban placemaking. It is a pedestrian mall by day and one-way street by night. 

Century Gardens is a pastoral, urban oasis for downtown workers and residents. 

Century Gardens is a pastoral, urban oasis for downtown workers and residents. 

The Harley Hotchkiss Gardens is a popular meeting spot for downtown workers and shoppers. This public space is a good example of go urban design as it is built on top of a 700-stall parking garage, includes a major public artwork, has lots of seating and is directly linked to an LRT station. 

The Harley Hotchkiss Gardens is a popular meeting spot for downtown workers and shoppers. This public space is a good example of go urban design as it is built on top of a 700-stall parking garage, includes a major public artwork, has lots of seating and is directly linked to an LRT station. 

Urban Streets

Greenberg doesn’t even give Calgary a nod for the great work it has done in fostering the development of 9th Avenue in Inglewood, 10th Street and Kensington Road in Kensington Village; 4th Street in Mission, 17th and 11th Avenues and 1st Street in the Beltline.

Surely, Bridgeland’s renaissance as a result of the General Hospital’s “implosion” and plans for Calgary’s multi-billion dollar East Village mega-makeover (one of North America’s largest urban redevelopments) could have been worked into the text as urban experiments to watch.

The streets of Kensington Village are full of pedestrian oriented shops, making it one of Canada's best walkable urban neighbourhoods. 

The streets of Kensington Village are full of pedestrian oriented shops, making it one of Canada's best walkable urban neighbourhoods. 

One of the trendy ideas in North America these days it to transform street parking into pedestrian oriented spaces. Sometimes the parking spaces become patios or as in this case the patio is on the actual sidewalk and the parking spaces become a new sidewalk. 

One of the trendy ideas in North America these days it to transform street parking into pedestrian oriented spaces. Sometimes the parking spaces become patios or as in this case the patio is on the actual sidewalk and the parking spaces become a new sidewalk. 

Pedestrian oriented streetscapes exist in numerous Calgary communities like this one on 19th Ave NW in West Hillhurst.

Pedestrian oriented streetscapes exist in numerous Calgary communities like this one on 19th Ave NW in West Hillhurst.

Calgary also has its fair share of quirky cafes like this one in Ramsay's Industrial district. 

Calgary also has its fair share of quirky cafes like this one in Ramsay's Industrial district. 

Neighbourhood farmers' markets are also popular in Calgary. 

Neighbourhood farmers' markets are also popular in Calgary. 

Who says Calgary's City Centre isn't for families? The Beltline's Haultain Park is full of families using the playground, tennis courts and the playing field for a pick-up game of soccer. 

Who says Calgary's City Centre isn't for families? The Beltline's Haultain Park is full of families using the playground, tennis courts and the playing field for a pick-up game of soccer. 

Suburban Urbanization

While Greenberg talks endlessly about the need to urbanize existing suburban communities, he falls short on mentioning some efforts that have been made in cities like Calgary to create more diverse and dense suburban communities.  Calgary’s new master-planned communities are being created at a density that surpasses those of early 20th century communities with a mix of single-family, duplexes, four-plexes, town homes and condos designed with singles, families, empty-nesters and seniors in mind.

McKenzie Towne street.

McKenzie Towne street.

Surely too, he must have known about Calgary’s pioneering community of McKenzie Towne developed by Carma Developers LP, now Brookfield Residential in the mid '80s. 

Brookfield’s SETON project was also on the horizon in the late 2000s when Greenberg was busy researching and writing his book.  The idea of creating a new downtown at the edge of a major city with a mega teaching hospital as an anchor is both innovative and unique in North America’s quest to create a new suburban paradigm.

And what about Remington Development’s Quarry Park project? It definitely warranted a mention with its mix of office park, market place and residential development all linked to future LRT development. 

What city builds a transit-oriented village before the transit is even built e.g. Quarry Park and SETON!

Pancake breakfast in McKenzie Towne.

Pancake breakfast in McKenzie Towne.

Quarry Park is an ambitious 400 acre urban infilling project, given is was an old quarry in the '90s and today it is well on its way to becoming a mixed-use community with four million square feet of office space, for 20,000 workers (including the head office of Imperial Oil), home to 6,000 residents, 140 acres of nature space and a retail/grocery district.

Quarry Park is an ambitious 400 acre urban infilling project, given is was an old quarry in the '90s and today it is well on its way to becoming a mixed-use community with four million square feet of office space, for 20,000 workers (including the head office of Imperial Oil), home to 6,000 residents, 140 acres of nature space and a retail/grocery district.

Aerial view of Brookfield Residential's SETON with the new South Health Campus constructed on land sold to the province by the developer as the employment anchor for a new downtown that will serve all of the surrounding communities. One of the interesting partnerships is the YMCA's operation of the Wellness Centre as part of the Health Campus. It is the first YMCA to be integrated into a hospital setting. (photo credit: Peak Aerials)

Aerial view of Brookfield Residential's SETON with the new South Health Campus constructed on land sold to the province by the developer as the employment anchor for a new downtown that will serve all of the surrounding communities. One of the interesting partnerships is the YMCA's operation of the Wellness Centre as part of the Health Campus. It is the first YMCA to be integrated into a hospital setting. (photo credit: Peak Aerials)

City Building: A Two-Way Street

Greenberg talks about the important role the city and the private sector play in city building, focusing on Vancouver as the model city with the development of Yale town, False Creek and Coal Harbour.  It would have been nice to have included examples from other Canadian cities – like Garrison Woods in Calgary or the above mentioned new developments East Village, Quarry Park, Bridges and Currie Barracks that were conceived in '00s.

Garrison Woods streetscape (photo credit: www.mardaloopherald.com)

Beltline's yimbyism

Greenberg talks about his work in Paris with its arrondissements and New York with its boroughs. He talks of the important role of community boards to reconcile the needs of the whole city, while acknowledging the importance and individuality of the different parts of the city.  He notes that New York’s 59 community boards play a key role in shaping how that city has evolved and suggests it might be helpful to establish community boards in Toronto where there is a significant urban suburban divide.

I would suggest any urban planner interested in the “good, bad and ugly” of how community boards and community engagement is shaping a city today, should look no further than at how Calgary’s 150+ community associations are increasingly shaping our city.

Calgary’s Beltline community in particular is especially deserving of praise internationally for its uniqueness in welcoming density and mega mixed-use developments. Its community association has been known to demand developers build to the maximum density allowed. I think their motto is “leave no density behind” as they have turned “Nimbyism into Yimbyism (yes in my backyard)!”

Infill Development Gone Wild

Greenberg talks about the importance of selective infill development in the suburbs and need to increase density horizontally, as much as vertically.  Of all the 20 or so cities I have visited over the past 10+ years, Calgary is the leader when it comes to inner-city infill residential development.  

Nowhere have I seen the diversity and magnitude of old single family homes being replaced by larger single-family homes, duplexes, four-plexes or several homes being bought up and replaced by new within established neighbourhoods. I can literally say that they is a construction site on every other block in Calgary's inner city communities near downtown. 

A parade of new infill home in Calgary's trendy West Hillhurst just 3 km from downtown. 

University City is a multi-phase development that will convert a retail power center with a sea of parking into an urban village next to an LRT Station (middle of image far right side) across from the University of Calgary (other side of Crowchild Trail). 

University City is a multi-phase development that will convert a retail power center with a sea of parking into an urban village next to an LRT Station (middle of image far right side) across from the University of Calgary (other side of Crowchild Trail). 

New condo development at the Lions Park LRT Station with direct link to North Hill Shopping Centre, Safeway and public library. 

Suburban / Urban Divide

Greenberg remarks often about how Toronto and other cities’ struggles with forced amalgamation that often results in dysfunctional regional councils.  Or the flight of businesses and people to edge cities in the middle and late 20th century, leaving the old central city to crumble and die (e.g. Detroit or Hartford).  The suburban urban dichotomy is something that every city in North America is facing today as the continent becomes more and more urban.

I think it would interest Greenberg’s readers to know that Calgary has a unique uni-city model as a result of annexing smaller communities and land on its edges before they could become large independent competing cities.  As a result, the city’s tax base has not been fragmented and there is little regional competition for economic development amongst the various edge cities.  The city benefits from having a single Police, Fire and Emergency services, single transit and roads system and integrated water and sewer system.  While the city has a large environmental footprint, it also has one of the most contiguous growth patterns of any city in North America.

While Calgary’s uni-city model is certainly not perfect (I am convinced there is a no perfect model for city-building or city-governance), it is unique and should be studied internationally for both its pros and cons.

This image shows how contiguous Calgary's growth has been as a uni-city.  You can see the large spaces taken up by parks like Nose Hill, Bowness, Fishcreek and the rivers, as well  as the airport in the northeast.

Last Word

Perhaps by now you can sense my frustration that Calgary gets no respect from the international planning community for its leadership in city building over the past 25+ years.

Sorry Mr. Greenberg if I took too much of my frustration out on you and your book. Indeed, your book provides lots of interesting ideas to explore in my future columns and blogs. For example, I love the concept of  “social spaces vs. public spaces.”  I invite you to spend more time in Calgary, as many of the things you suggest cities need to be doing to enhanced urban living in the 21st century is already happening in Calgary.

We might not be the best at anything, but we are better than most at almost everything. 

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