Calgary: Wake up and smell the lilacs!

Too often we forget – or never even give a thought to Calgary once having been mostly sloughs and prairie grasslands, with a few wooded areas along the rivers.  It wasn’t until William Reader, hired as Calgary’s Park Superintendent in 1913 that a vision of Calgary as a city of beautiful parks, streets and pathways was created.   Some of his most famous projects were Memorial Park (Beltline) and Reader Rock Gardens (on the hill on the southeast corner of Macleod Trail at 25th Avenue SE).

Reader was inspired by the early 20th century, international City Beautiful Movement, which envisioned the entire city planned as a beautiful place with a formal master plan.

Healthy lilacs add colour, charm and privacy to homes in many early 20th century communities in Calgary.

Reader’s Vision:

Unfortunately the historic lilacs along the boulevard of Bowness Road have not been properly cared for. 

His vision was to develop Calgary into one of the most desirable cities of western Canada. The intent was to illustrate that Calgary was a civilized city with high quality public spaces. One of his principal initiatives was the creation of streets lined with trees and developed with landscaped boulevards and medians. In 1913, Reader stated "I doubt that any other public improvement will tend to create and foster a civic pride in Calgary to the same extent as will the making of boulevards, and planting of trees on our streets, nor will any other feature of our city impress visitors so favorably." (Source: City of Calgary website)

Evidence of Reader’s vision is everywhere amidst Calgary’s early 20th century luxury residential communities like Elbow Park, Mission, Mount Royal, Roxboro and Scarboro all on the south side of the Bow River. 

On the north side of the Bow River, there is one street in particular that epitomizes Reader’s implementation of the City Beautiful Movement principles in Calgary. That is Bowness Road from 14th Street NW to 17th Street N. It is unique for its regularly spaced purple flowering Common Lilacs planted in 1932 along the street’s boulevard. 

In addition to the tree-lined street and lilac median, the 1700 block of Bowness Road is home to one of Calgary’s oldest lawn bowling clubs, also built in 1932 and including a lovely garden originally created by Reader himself in 1936.

Today lilacs have fallen our of favour for new flowering ornamental trees like these planted next to the Bow Valley Lawn Bowling Club. My friends at Ground3 Landscape Architecture tell me they are Amur Cherry trees. 

Why Lilacs?

Lilacs are very hardy shrubs, able to withstand the heavy frost, Calgary experiences every winter. They also grow rapidly and have an attractive early spring flower with a lovely fragrance (that was very alluring to early settlers after a long winter) and attractive green foliage when not in bloom. 

Lilac hedges and trees are popular in Calgary inner city communities.  It is not coincidental that the 4th Street Lilac Festival is one of Calgary’s most popular annual events attracting over 100,000 people to the Mission neighbourhood in late May.

Advocates of the City Beautiful Movement believed high quality designed streets and public spaces would foster a harmonious social order that would enhance the quality of life of its citizens and reduce undesirable social behavior.  It may seem far-fetched, but walking along these blocks of Bowness Road can be like a walk back in time; an ethereal tranquility may even come over you.

There are still many small cottage homes along the 1600 and 1700 blocks of Bowness Road that retain the small town charm that was once Calgary. 

A reminder of how modest homes were 100 years ago - hard to believe that a family of ten or more could have lived in a house like this. 

Last Word

It is truly one of Calgary’s beautiful places, especially in the spring when you can revel in stopping to smell the lilacs. Only a lucky few Calgarians can live on one of these three blocks.  While today there are many modern million-dollar homes on the street, it still retains a sense of when Calgary was a sleepy little prairie town. 

Editors's Note: This blog was commissioned by inner city specialist realtor Ross Aitken. I thought I would repost it in honour of this Sunday being Calgary's popular Lilac Festival. Perhaps the City should declare next week Lilac Week to celebrate the importance of lilacs in Calgary's early urban placemaking history. 

Colourful new infills have allowed Bowness Road in Hillhurst and West Hillhurst to evolve into a very attractive 21st century address.

Gone are the lilacs in favour of other ornamental tress and shrubs.