Dublin is a city steeped in history, dating back over 1,000 years when the Vikings first settled the area in 841 AD. However, while there are many buildings or ruins dating back to the Middle Ages, such as Dublin Castle founded in 1204 AD, most historical buildings are from the 18th century Georgian period and later. In the 18th century, for a short period of time, Dublin was the second largest city of the British Empire and fifth largest in Europe with a population of 130,000. Today, Dublin has a population of 527,612 with an urban population of 1,110,627, which is very similar to Calgary’s. But that is where the similarity ends.
By comparison, while First Nation peoples have visited the Calgary area for centuries, it was just a little over 100 years when a permanent settlement was established. And, it is only the in past decade or so that Calgary has really become a global city.
In 2012, while Dublin was ranked (based on global connectivity in the areas of accounting, advertising, banking, finance and law) as an “Alpha–“ city (Alpha++ being the highest ranking), Calgary is rated a “Beta-“city (Beta being the second highest ranking).
Anyone who visits Dublin can’t help but see that this city definitely puts the PLAY into the axiom “live, work, play.” The sidewalks, shops, restaurants and especially the pubs are full of locals.
Anyone visiting Calgary on the other hand, would think we are a bunch of workaholics as with our downtown sidewalks are empty except at lunch hour. Calgary’s urban streets are dominated by the hoarding of the construction sites not people.
Pub Culture vs Café Culture
One of the biggest differences between Dublin and Calgary is that Dubliners hang at pubs while Calgarians love their cafes. Dublin’s pub culture is one where people of all ages hang out, chat, listen to local musicians or watch sports – pubs are like a community living rooms. Hurling is my new favourite sport - an action-packed game that combines elements of lacrosse, field hockey, rugby, soccer and football. There is no hunching over the laptop while nursing a vegan soy peanut butter latte all day in Dublin!
There is literally a pub on every block, even in residential areas. What is also great about pubs is that they don’t close at 9 pm like most cafes. In fact, that is about the time things are just getting started with live music. One of our most memorable experiences was listening to a Saturday jam session of string players from our front row bar seats in a little pub on the edge of a plaza in Smithville district with people from 5 to 85.
Dublin has not one, but two pedestrian malls (one on each side of the river), both being magnets for locals and tourists looking to shop or people watch. These streets are filled with one of the quintessential sounds of Dublin - the clickity clack of luggage wheels being pulled along their streets (the other quintessential sound is that metal Guiness kegs clanging as they are rolled down the sidewalk to a pub). And it was not just one or two people; often dozens of suitcase-dragging tourists could be found along the Dublin malls. I can’t remember the last time I saw someone pulling luggage down Stephen Avenue.
On the south side of the Liffey River is the Grafton Street Mall that links St. Stephen’s Green with Trinity College and is home to an eclectic mix of local, national and international shops. On the north side of the river is the Henry Street Mall, dominated by department stores. Both malls had literally thousands of people on them any time of the day.
The fact that no tall office towers surround Dublin’s pedestrian malls could well be the key to their pedestrian vitality.
Indeed, most of the people are in downtown Dublin to play. Those who are there to work are serving those who are playing.
Parks / Public Spaces / Rivers
Though Dublin’s two urban parks - St. Stephen’s and Merrion Square are very nice, they are no match for Calgary’s Prince’s Island, Memorial Park, Shaw Millennium Park, Fort Calgary, Riley Park and the new St. Patrick’s Island.
Similarly, Dublin’s canal-like River Liffey, River Dodder, Royal Canal and Grand Canal, can’t compete with the natural beauty of the tree-lined shores and glacier water of the Bow and Elbow Rivers with their active pedestrian and cycling pathways.
Phoenix Park, at the northwest edge of Dublin’s city centre is a huge 1,762 acre park (for reference, Nose Hill is 2,780 acres) that includes the residence of the President of Ireland, the Victorian People’s Flower Garden, Dublin Zoo and a herd of free-roaming Fallow deer. Calgary’s equivalent would be the combination of the Calgary Zoo, TELUS Spark, Tom Campbell’s Hill Natural Park, Pearce Estate Park, Inglewood Wildlands Park and Inglewood Bird Sanctuary on the eastern edge of our City Centre.
I was most impressed with the 16 bridges that span the River Liffey along a 4 km stretch of Dublin’s City Centre. I loved that many of the bridges were named after key figures from Dublin’s rich history– James Joyce, Samuel Beckett, Sean O’Casey, and O’Connell.
The most popular bridge was the white cast iron Ha’penny pedestrian bridge, built in 1816 to replace the ferry service. Having had various names over the years, its current one reflects the ha’penny toll charged for first 103 years.
Today, over 30,000 people cross the bridge each day. Perhaps in a century or two, Calgary’s Peace and St. Patrick’s Island pedestrian bridges will have the same traffic.
Dublin’s city centre is comprised of several character districts, each easily worth a half-day of exploration. Although the International Financial Services Centre is a 12–block area of mostly new office buildings with a striking contemporary Convention Centre and new arena, it pales in comparison to Calgary’s 40-block downtown office core when it comes to daytime vitality. At night, both are relatively quiet, sterile places.
Calgary has nothing to match Dublin’s Viking/Medieval Area and Cathedral District with its St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin Castle and the Chester Beatty Library Galleries.
Temple Bar (originally St. Andrews Parish and a suburb of the medieval area back in about 1300AD) is home to hundreds of bars and ten of thousands of nightly party people (including many “stag parties” and “hen nights”) and spectators. The closest Calgary comes to having something like the Temple Bar nightlife was in the ‘80s when 11th Avenue SW was known as Electric Avenue.
Trinity College is considered by many to be the heart of Dublin with its famous Book of Kells (an illuminated manuscript Gospel Book in Latin, created in 800AD). And though Calgary’s downtown Bow Valley College is no match for Trinity College, the SAIT campus is. While SAIT can’t match Trinity College’s centuries of history, SAIT’s Heritage Hall, which opened in 1916, is as monumental as anything I saw on the Trinity College campus. This along with SAIT’s striking uber-contemporary Trades and Technology Complex, the Art Smith Aero Centre, Brawn Fieldhouse and parking garage and the spectacular view of downtown and Bow River Valley makes SAIT a more inspiring campus than Trinity College.
The Liberties, Dublin’s charming working class neighbourhood noted for its antique/vintage shops and street market, is no match for Calgary’s Inglewood community with its diversity of art galleries, shops, restaurants and music venues.
In addition, Dublin has nothing to match Calgary’s ambitious East Village urban renewal project. The closest comparison would be Smithfield with the renowned Jamieson Distillery as its anchor. It has a few new condos and a hotel, but most of the retail at street level is vacant, except for an urban grocery store. It would be great if East Village could attract a cinema complex like the funky Light House Cinema with its eclectic mix of arthouse and Hollywood movies, as well as special events.
Dublin’s trendy shopping streets like Camden, Rathmaines and Capel with their vibrancy day and night beat out Calgary’s 17th Avenue, 4th and 10th Streets and Kensington Road.
Comparing Calgary and Dublin is like comparing apple and oranges. Dublin flourished hundreds of years before Calgary, meaning it had to adapt to a completely different history of innovations in technology, revisions in urban planning theory, as well as economic and political changes. Like apples and oranges, I like both Dublin and Calgary.
For comparison images of Calgary's urban culture check out these blogs:
By Richard White, March 1 2015
Richard White has written urban development and urban living for over 20 years. He is the Urban Strategist at Ground3 Landscape Architecture. Email Richard@ground3.com follow @everydaytourist
This blog was published in the Calgary Herald titled "Let's Compare Calgary and Dublin" on February 28, 2015.