Mexico City vs Calgary / Public City vs Private City

Recently, I embarked on an 18-day adventure in Mexico City to see what could be learned about city building from a mega city. “How can you compare Calgary, a city of 1.2 million and just 100 years old, with Mexico City, a city of 21 million that’s five centuries old?” you ask.  While there were many differences and some similarities, the biggest revelation was an appreciation for how people in Mexico City experience personal and public space.

Personal Space

Calgary is a very private city - we love the privacy of our cars, our single-family homes (often with six-foot fences and attached garages), our 6,000+ parks, playgrounds, green spaces, plazas and 800+ km of pathways all of which give us the option of not having to mingle with others.

Mexico City is the complete opposite - families work, play and even dine on busy sidewalks and 75 percent use a very crowded pubic transit as their primary mode of transportation. A typical home or apartment is a third the size of an average Calgary home.  Young children quickly learn how to live without much personal space.  Babies are carried (no humongous strollers) until they can walk, then they just walk alongside their parents everywhere.

In Mexico City a popular activity is reading the newspaper on the sidewalk. 

Family dining on the street in Mexico City.

In Mexico City you don’t live in the entire city, but one of the 16 boroughs (ranging in size from 116,000 to 1.8 million), which are further divided into 160 colonias. While this is somewhat like Calgary with its four quadrants and 200+ communities, the density eight times greater than Calgary’s.  

How is that accomplished? Surprisingly, not with a lot of highrises but rather with homes having no front yards, backyards or driveways, as well the average home being 70% smaller than Calgary’s. In fact, many homes are called “informal homes,” i.e. self-built on “found” vacant land.  Only recently has the City adopted more formal zoning and building permit processes.

Also there are few schools with huge playing fields, large community playing fields, green spaces and no dedicated dog parks.  I didn’t see a single huge surface parking lot anywhere. 

Public Space 

Like Calgary, homes in Mexico City’s inner city are the most expensive, but unlike Calgary, its suburbs are where the low-income, transit-dependent, working class live. Mexico has one the most extensive and well-used transit systems in the world; the subway and buses are packed from 7 am to 10 pm, a far cry from Calgary where its transit is only heavily used for a few hours in the morning and afternoon on weekdays.  Transit fare in Mexico City is ridiculously cheap at 40 cents per trip.

Despite being packed in like “sardines-in-a-can,” sellers jump on the subway trains, pawning everything from USB keys to BIC pens. Backstory: Vendors are literally everywhere on sidewalks, including in front of new iconic office buildings.  Can you imagine The Bow or Eighth Avenue Place’s plazas/sidewalks being occupied by dozens of haphazardly placed vendors?

A crowded subway car with vendor selling trinkets for Day of the Dead in Mexico City, mid-afternoon.

Upscale vendor sheds on the sidewalk in front of one of Mexico City's newest office towers. 

Street Vitality

Having transit operate at capacity all day long does not mean less road traffic road in Mexico City; the main streets are probably 20 times more crowded with cars, buses, taxis and delivery trucks than Calgary.  A constant, ear-piercing symphony of honking and traffic police whistling accompanies the dance of pedestrians and vendors on crowded, narrow and uneven sidewalks and roads. 

Mexico City’s historic district (a 150-block rectangle) has several pedestrian malls that are crowded all the time - on the weekends it’s like Stampede time in Calgary. These malls have no seating, but do allow cyclists and in some cases, even cars (only to access parkades). One street has 200,000 pedestrians per day! On one street I counted 30 different shops on just one side, not including the street vendors – no wonder they are busy. It is a free-for-all on many Mexico City sidewalks; in comparison Calgary is a pastoral place.

Mexico City’s historic district (a 150-block rectangle) has several pedestrian malls that are crowded all the time - on the weekends it’s like Stampede time in Calgary. These malls have no seating, but do allow cyclists and in some cases, even cars (only to access parkades). One street has 200,000 pedestrians per day! On one street I counted 30 different shops on just one side, not including the street vendors – no wonder they are busy. It is a free-for-all on many Mexico City sidewalks; in comparison Calgary is a pastoral place.

Check out the video below for a sample of Mexico City's street symphony.

Mexico City’s historic district (a 150-block rectangle) has several pedestrian malls that are crowded all the time - on the weekends it’s like Stampede time in Calgary. These malls have no seating, but do allow cyclists and in some cases, even cars (only to access parkades). One street has 200,000 pedestrians per day! On one street I counted 30 different shops on just one side, not including the street vendors – no wonder they are busy. It is a free-for-all on many Mexico City sidewalks; in comparison Calgary is a pastoral place.

Sidewalk dining on a side street in Mexico City.

Mexico City has lots of market streets like this one that are a free-for-all, while at the same time full of life and energy. 

Sterility vs Vitality

Whoever coined the term “messy urbanism” must have had Mexico City in mind.  There is garbage everywhere, partly due to no garbage cans anywhere and to the streets being filled with thousands of food and retail vendors with all their accompanying waste. The City has also lost the battle with graffiti; it exists on pretty much everywhere. There is a totally different urban aesthetic in most of Mexico City. The streets are a beehive of activity with people coming and going, setting-up or taking down their stalls, cooking, eating, selling and buying – messy, but alive!

Head to Avenida Presidente Masaryk in Mexico City’s upscale Polanco district and you discover a typical Calgary urban street scene – wide, clean sidewalks, trendy boutiques, larger restaurants and patios and no street vendors. Here, like Calgary, the sidewalk is devoid of people - even on a nice Saturday afternoon.  Could Calgary’s streets be too sanitized to create the vibrant street life the late urban lobbyist Jane Jacobs called the “sidewalk ballet?”

Avenida Presidente Masaryk in the upscale Polanco district is devoid of people, like many of the sidewalks in Calgary's urban districts. Could it be that pretty streets are empty streets?

Crowds quickly gather waiting to cross the street in Mexico's historic district's pedestrian malls. 

Typical Mexico City sidewalk ballet.

Public Space: Keep It Simple

Like Calgarians, people living in Mexico City love their public spaces.  The Zocalo square, the second largest plaza in the world (Moscow’s Red Square being the largest) is always crowded. Calgary’s equivalent would be Olympic Plaza. In the 18 days I was there, it was used for a huge book fair, world archery championship, major concert and Day of Dead activities. The Monumento `a la Revolucion plaza is also huge with the monument/viewing platform in the middle, underground museum, two huge flat plaza areas as well as sunken, flat hard-surfaced areas activities like soccer and dog play. Calgary’s equivalent might be Shaw Millennium Park.

Check out the video below of how Revolution Monument plaza is used for an outdoor dance studio.  We also saw it used for a street performance and wedding photos and lots of other informal activities. 

People trying to get to and from Monumento a la Revolucion plaza for a major event. 

Public Affection = People Friendly 

Mexico City is home to one of the world’s great urban parks – Bosque de Chapultepec.  At 1,695 acres, it is 1,000 acres smaller than Nose Hill or Fish Creek Park. One third of the park is home to numerous museums including the world class Anthropology Museum, a zoo, castle, walkways, garden and ponds while the rest is a natural area.  It was amazing how refreshing it was to walk in this and other Mexico City parks - you get a real appreciation for parks being the “lungs of the city.”

Boulevard road in the middle of Bosque de Chapultepec.

Mexico City’s parks are more urbanized than Calgary’s with buildings, attractions, vendors, formal walkways and lots of benches, while their plazas are simple, open spaces with little ornamentation allowing them to be multi-purpose spaces.  In contrast, Calgary has lots of parks, most left natural, while our plazas are heavily ornamentalized.

The "art of sitting" is popular everywhere in Mexico City. 

While Calgarians always seem to be on the move (walking, cycling or jogging) in our parks and pathways, Mexicans have mastered the art of sitting, talking, people watching and engaging in public affection. (Couples young and old love to hug, cuddle and kiss in public and people of all ages hold hands in the streets.) I was surprised too at how they loved to have their pictures taken by strangers.  Collectively, this created an unexpected and lovely pedestrian friendliness in a harsh urban environment.

Delivering toilet paper takes on a different perspective in Mexico City.

Last Word

Mexico City’s public spaces not only serve as a community living room, but also as their kitchen, dining and bedroom. It is not unusual in the evening to see a family dining at a street vendor, young children playing on the sidewalk while older children do their homework. In Mexico City the majority “live, work and play” in public, not in the privacy of a home. 

Let’s remember Calgary is only 100 years old. We have grown very rapidly in geographical size based on 20th century planning and regulations (good and bad) not organically and without public engagement and regulations over centuries, as is the case for Mexico City and many other vibrant urban cities. 

For Calgary, the 21st century will be one of infilling development projects (big and small), which will dramatically change our personal and private spaces.  It has already begun and it is to be expected many will “kick and scream” about losing their privacy and personal space.

Editor's Note: An edited version of this blog appeared in the Calgary Herald's New Condo Section on November 21, 2015. 

If you like this blog, you might like:

Calgary vs Denver

Calgary vs Seattle

Calgary vs Salt Lake City 

Seven Reasons To Visit Mexico City

Recently, I spent 18 days in Mexico City with my 84-year old mom flaneuring Mexico City and was truly amazed by what I found.  Our two key reasons for going - she wanted to see the Guadalupe shrine (she has travelled the world to see Roman Catholic sacred places) and I love cities but had never been to a mega-city, i.e. one with a population over 10 million.

While Mexico City has a reputation of being smoggy, unsafe and gritty, what we found was a city that was safe, bustling with activity and had clean air except for two days.  Yes it was gritty, but that seemed authentic for a city 500+ years old.  We loved the unpretentious nature of the city and its people. 

Here are our top seven reasons why you should visit Mexico City:

 

#1 The History

Anyone who is into history will love Mexico City. The historic center is 150 blocks (give or take a few blocks) of historic buildings - some immaculately restored (Post Office Building and Palacio de Bellas Artes concert hall), some left to age gracefully (Palacio Nacional) and others in an advanced stage of decay.  The City centre is chock-a-block full of monumental buildings oozing an mind-boggling amount of history.  Today, we can build big buildings but I am not convinced they can be described as monumental. 

The literally sinking Cathedral Metropolitana, is the heart of the world’s largest Catholic diocese, took almost three centuries to build (1525 to 1813 AD) and is the second largest church in the world (only St. Peter’s in Rome is bigger) and you can just walk right in. You can even climb to the bell tower to look out over the Plaza de la Consititucion commonly known as Zocalo, the second largest plaza in the world (Moscow’s Red Square being the largest).

There are even the remains of Templo Mayor, a 14th and 15th century Aztec temple unearthed in the 1970s - right in the middle of the historic centre of the city and another ruin on the edge of the historic district.  

An hour outside of the city lies Teotihuacan, one of the world’s most impressive cities of the ancient world. Founded before the Christian era, the city housed 125,000 people and covered 20 sq. km. It dominated the region until AD 650 before being destroyed (possibly by its own people) and abandoned. The name means “the place where men become gods” and it was later held sacred by the Aztecs.  You can climb to the top of the Pyramid of the Sun one of the biggest pyramids in the world (the base is of similar dimensions as the Great Pyramid of Egypt but only half as high at 65 meters).

Our day at Teotihuacan was memorable, not only for the two pyramid climbs (Sun and Moon), the walk along Avenue of the Dead, Jaguar Mural and Temple of Quetzalcoatl, but also for the mini-history lessons from our very enthusiastic tour guide.  The tour also included demos for locals on carving, getting water from cactus plants and using plants for colour.  It was mentally exhausting and exhilarating.

Palaciao de Bellas Artes' Art Nouveau facade is equalled only by its impressive Art Deco interior that includes murals by some the greatest Mexican artists of the 20th Century. The concert/theatre space is magnificent and home to Mexico's iconic ballet company - Ballet Folklorico. 

The Palace Postal still functions as a post office and includes a contemporary art gallery space as well as a post office museum.  The interior may well be the most elegant space I have every experienced. 

  Climbing the Temple of the Sun was one of the most memorable experience of my life - I didn't think it would be a big deal.  

Climbing the Temple of the Sun was one of the most memorable experience of my life - I didn't think it would be a big deal.  

Just one of the many powerful carvings that remind you of human cultures that have existed in North America for centuries. It changed my perception of North America. 

#2 The Muralists

Today every city seems obsessed with acquiring iconic public art, yet much of it is generic, i.e. it could be anywhere. For example, Anish Kapoor’s Cloud Gate sculpture in Chicago’s Millennium Park could easily be in Calgary’s Olympic Plaza or any urban plaza for that matter. 

In Mexico City, you won’t find a lot of modern public art but what you will find is the work of early 20th Century muralists – Diego Rivera, Jose Clemente Orozco and David Alfaro Siqueiros. From the 1920s to the 70s, these three Mexican artists created hundreds of murals documenting the historical, nationalistic, social, political and everyday living messages of the Mexican culture.   I was captivated by the power of these murals in conveying a sense of the human struggles (work, passions and violence) that took place in Mexico before and after the arrival of Europeans.  There is a wonderful sense of humanity and story telling in the murals, something that is often missing in modern public art.

In good urban design, we talk about the importance of human scale of buildings (i.e. buildings that don’t dwarf people, usually under 10 or 12 storeys).  Similarly, I think good public art should connect with local history and have a sense of humanity too.

A segment of one of Diego Rivera's murals titled "In the Arsenal."  Both the National Palace and the Secretaria de Educacion Publica are filled with Rivera murals that tell the stories of violence and passion of the Mexican people (both have free admission).  At the end of our visit my mom commented, "Did you notice that most of his murals have a gun and military in them."

#3 The Museums/Churches

There are supposedly over 250 museums in Mexico City and I don’t doubt it.  It seems like there is a church and/or a museum on every block - sometimes both.  Our favourite four museums were: Archeology Museum, Museum of Popular Art, Soumaya Museum and the Toy Museum.

The Archeology Museum is huge with 23 galleries that tell the story of Mexico history from the arrival of man to present day.  The artifacts and displays are perhaps some of the best I have ever seen.  It is at least a half-day visit and possibly a full day if you want to really try to take it all in.

The Museum of Popular Art is housed in a wonderful art deco building – a perfect setting for folk art.  And the Soumaya Museum, outside the historic centre in Polanco, is an uber-modern architectural gem that houses the art and artifacts of Carlos Slim, the richest man in the world. It houses one of the largest collections in the world of Rodins in the top floor sculpture gallery. 

A hidden gem is the Toy Museum, otherwise known as Museo del Juguete Antiguo Mexico.  Located outside the historic centre in a non-descript, four-storey office building, it is jam-packed with 55,000 toys.  This is not a real museum in that the work is not curated or labeled with accompanying didactic panels.  It is more like a flea market, with displays and vignettes from floor to ceiling – everything from foot-peddle cars to dolls, from robots to games.  It is guaranteed to make you smile.

Plaza de Santo Domingo is home to the Santo Domingo Church with its red volcanic rock a Tuscan colonnade for vendors and while we were there a modern art artwork with video inside.  Funny story - the artwork in the plaza we had seen before in workshop space next to the Toy Museum where is had been the focus of some sort of artists' party the night before. 

I had a peddle car as a kid but not a cool as this one. 

#4 Parks/Plazas/Boulevards

When you think of Mexico City, you probably don’t think of great parks, plazas and boulevards – but you should! Bosque de Chapultepec is one of the great urban parks in the world. A public park since the 16th century, today it is home to numerous museums (Architectural, Tamayo and Modern Art), Castillo de Chapultepec (once home to Emperor Maximilian), a zoo (free) and botanical gardens.

As well, Paseo de la Reforma, a 3.5 km boulevard (that connects downtown to Bosque de Chapultepec) once lined with beautiful houses, is today home to numerous skyscrapers (offices and hotels), as well as monumental traffic circle with a magnificent statues commissioned in the 19th century to commemorate prominent Mexicans. On Sunday mornings, the street is closed to traffic, allowing thousands of cyclists, joggers and walkers to use the street.

Then there is the Monumento a la Revolucion plaza. It includes Porfirio Diaz’s unfinished congress building which was turned into a monument, museum and plaza.  A glass elevator to the roof top deck offers outstanding views of the city.  At night, the monument is surreal as it is lit up pink or blue.  The plaza is used for numerous events from outdoor conferences to concerts. When we were there, it hosted six hours of Beatles tribute bands one Saturday and a lineup of Mexican bands including Jenny and the Mexicats the following Saturday.  It was also used for some sort of convention for a couple of days during the week.  

A highlight of our trip was heading to the plaza on Sunday nights to watch people of all ages run through the colourfully lit dancing fountains. The shrills of excited, soaked kids will be a lasting memory of Mexico City.

Monumento a la Revolucion towers above the surrounding buildings.  The plaza encompasses a super block that provides space for a variety of activities and event. The museum is underground at the base of the monument. 

Enjoying a Sunday morning ride along Passeo de la Reforma.  Note the playful, colourful sculptures in the backbround. They helped created a carnival atmosphere that will be the subject of a future blog. 

Young couple enjoying the temporary installation of red house shaped objects that supported a single hammock for Design Week. 

#5 The Villages

You definitely don’t feel like you are in a city of 21 million people when you visit one of Mexico City’s suburban villages.  While most tourists just check out the Historic Centre village, there are many other interesting villages to explore. 

We especially loved the artists’ village of San Angel with its Saturday artisan market in the lovely Plaza San Jacinto, lined with cafes, galleries and restaurants. 

Coyocacan, its sister village, to the east is home to Museo Frida Kahlo, Museo Estudio Diego Rivera and Casa/Museo Leon Trotsky.  I think every city should have a designated artists’ village.

Though Xoxhimilco lies 20 km southeast of the city centre, it is definitely worth the trip.  We joined six others from the hostel to catch the subway to the end of the line and then a train to this once lakeside village. Today, it is home to canals and semi-floating flower and vegetable gardens built originally by the Aztecs.  Here you can rent a colourful punts (wooden roofed boats with a table down the middle) with a local boatman who poles the bunt along the canals. Beware: you will be accosted by other boats trying to sell you beer, food, trinkets and live music. The village is also home to a thriving farmers’ market, charming park and Iglesai de San Bernardino, a fortified monastery built by the Franciscans in late the 16th century. While travelling to this quaint village, along the way you will see what the working class suburbs of Mexico City are like and get a better appreciation of what a city of 21 million looks like.

The Saturday Art Market in the Plaza San Jacinto hosts dozens of artists working in many different genres.

There are hundreds of colourful punts at Xoxhimilco. Once you are on the canals it becomes a wonderful kaleidoscope of colour with the boats, the flowers and the reflections. 

# 6 The People

There is something endearing about the people of Mexico City that I have never felt in any other city.  The first hint of this came when walking through Alameda Park. Located in the city centre, it was once an Aztec marketplace. Today, it is 75 percent park (with restful pathways, huge trees and decorative fountains) and 25 percent tented vendors selling food, clothing, CDs and trinkets. 

It was here that we first began to appreciate how Mexicans have mastered the art of “sitting.” The park is full of ornate benches where people of all ages sit, talk, cuddle and kiss.  While all around them is the hustle, bustle and honking of a big city, the park holds a tranquility that is almost surreal. 

Soon we began to notice that handholding is also very popular in Mexico City, not only with parents holding kids’ hands on busy streets, but also by couples (young and old), mothers and adult daughters and just friends.  Somehow this handholding on busy sidewalks created a wonderful, subtle sense of tenderness and caring in what is definitely an intimidating, alienating urban environment.

Finally, after visiting many churches and attending several masses, my mother observed that people of Mexico City had a spirituality that she has never experienced in any city she has ever visited - including Rome. She was impressed not only that every church had multiple masses every day, but that they were full.  She also noted churches embraced a diversity of people from homeless to rich and were open all day long.  One day a homeless man, in need of good bath, sat next to her at mass. He was respectful throughout the service and even found a coin in his pocket to give a donation. 

My mom befriended another homeless man who sat slumped on the sidewalk all day just a few doors down from our hostel. She would go out each morning and say Hi and he would wave to us each day as we headed off on our journey.  Before we left for home,  she said good-bye and gave him some money for which he gratefully thanked her.

In an email to family after our trip, my Mom said, “I went with the idea of seeing and feeling something at the Shrine of our Lady of Guadalupe, but found it instead at the Church of St. Jude.”

The streets of Mexico City are full of couples of all ages holding hands. Count the number of couples holding hands in this photo. 

Benches come in all shapes and sizes in Mexico City.  One of the things we observed early were the number of families who love to hang out together in their public spaces. 

Two young girls crawling on the Revolution Plaza during the Zombie Walk.  Everyone was keen to have their picture taken that day and everyday in Mexico City. 

#7 Mexico is a bargain

Where in the world can you ride the subway for $.05 USA (yes, that is five cents), or get into a world-class museum for $5 USA or less (many of the museums are free). We stayed at the Hostel Suites (Youth Hostel) for $40 USA a night, which included a huge private room with two beds, breakfast, a full bathroom with a huge shower, daily housekeeping, two lounges/patios and the best staff I have ever experienced (their concierge services matched those at any 5-star hotel).  Meals are cheap and you can get a beer for under a $1 USA.  The all day tour to Teotihuacan was great value at $45 USA and front row seats at the Lucha Livre wrestling cost only  $12 USA.

Last Word

After spending three weeks in Florence and Rome last year and 18 days in Mexico City this year, I would have to say Mexico City has more to offer historically and culturally than both of these major European cities combined. I encourage everyone to visit Mexico City at least once in their lifetime.

Over the next several weeks, I will be blogging in more detail about Mexico City. I hope you will find the blogs interesting and intriguing.

If you like this blog you might like:

Dublin: FAB Fun in Libertines!

Rome: A surprise playground lunch!

Florence Markets: Flea, Food & Fashion

Summer 2015: Sunlight (a photo essay)

Over the summer I have become intrigued by the different qualities of light I have encountered during my everyday walkabouts along the streets of cities and towns, parks, pathways and golf courses. I thought it would be fun to create a photo essay focusing on the diversity of light we encounter everyday. In the spirit of a photo essay I have decided not to include any text or captions with the photos, rather I will let each photo speak for itself. I have also tried to include only photos that have not appeared in any other blog.  The photos have been chosen from the 5,000+ photos I took this summer and are not in any particular order - there is no attempt to create a narrative. 

I hope you also find this photo essay intriguing. Let the photo flaneuring begin...

trail
water
Eight Ave Place
Stephen Ave window
front garden
sky cloud
figure
IMG_0410.JPG

Seattle vs Calgary: Capturing the urban tourists' imagination?

For years now friends and colleagues have been telling me “You have to go to Seattle. You will love it!” In May, we did visit Seattle (we have been there before but it was 12 years ago) and yes we did love it, but I couldn’t help but wonder why people love Seattle so much when Calgary has as much urban culture to offer.

Seattle, like Calgary, is a corporate city - Amazon, Microsoft, Starbucks are all headquartered there.  However their downtown doesn’t feel as “corporate” with downtown blocks having a good mix of hotel, residential and office buildings, with some street level retail and restaurants thrown in.  In fact, on Seattle’s downtown neighbourhood map, they refer to it as the downtown retail core.  In contrast, Calgary has 40-blocks filled with two, three and sometimes four office towers per block and no street retail except for Stephen Avenue.

Downtown as a tourist attraction

Perhaps the biggest difference is Seattle’s downtown is perceived as a major tourist destination. Great tourist cities have iconic attractions.  In Seattle, hands down, the icon is Pike Public Market.  But Seattle also has converted their 74-acre, 1962 World’s Fair site into a year-round attractions district, clustering the Experience Music Project, Chihuly Gardens, Science Centre, Children’s Museum, Space Needle, IMAX and Key Arena into an area called Seattle Centre. Calgary’s equivalent would be Stampede Park - if we added the Calgary Tower, TELUS Spark and the new National Music Centre.

To visualize what the Calgary Flames are proposing for West Village, Seattle would be a good place to visit given its side-by-side baseball and football stadiums at the south end of downtown along the water’s edge, next to the LRT and Amtrak tracks.  We explored the area a couple of times (when there were no games going on) and it was like a ghost town. I hope the Flames do better.

From an urban design (architecture, public art and public spaces) perspective, Seattle and Calgary are similar, both having early 20th century historical buildings districts (Pioneer Square vs. Stephen Avenue) as well as many shinny late 20th and early 21st century towers.  Seattle’s free Olympic Sculpture Park along their waterfront includes a who’s who of international public art, while Calgary’s entire downtown is a sculpture park with over 100 artworks. 

The Seattle Art Museum (known as SAM), like Calgary’s Glenbow, is both an art and history museum.  We lucked out on the day we went - SAM is free on the second Thursday of the month. The place was packed – making me wonder why the Glenbow doesn’t offer one day free per month like most museums and galleries in major cities. 

Seattle, with its huge convention centre, makes Calgary’s look very minor league.  I loved that the public areas have hundreds of artworks that are free for all to explore.

Loved the psychedelic reflection of the Seattle Needle in the facade of the futuristic Frank Gehry's Experience Music Project building.

Seattle Convention Centre has a galleria over the road connecting the large exhibition spaces and meeting rooms.  Inside there are hundreds of artworks that create a free public art gallery.  A similar galleria was proposed for Stephen Avenue in Calgary connecting Bankers Hall and TD Square but never got built. 

The Seattle Central Library is an iconic architectural gem that is popular with both locals and tourists.  Hopefully Calgary's new Central Library will have the same popularity. 

Like Calgary Seattle has public art everywhere.  This piece that using water from the roof of the building caught my attention. In addition, Seattle has a massive Art Park with a "who's who" of public art artists. 

Hotel Fun

The hotel culture in Seattle seems very different from Calgary’s, focusing much more on the leisure tourist vs. the corporate traveler.  In “sleeping around” downtown Seattle, we discovered a delightful commonality - a vibrant “Happy Hour scene.” The historic Mayflower Park Hotel (famous for their martinis) offers guests free appies in their intimate Oliver’s lounge. The hipster Hotel Max offered free local craft beer in their lobby/living room (as well as great art and several large picture windows for catching the city’s “sidewalk ballet”). The playful Hotel Monaco offered a wine tasting with very liberal pours.  Seattle could well be the Happy Hour capital of North America, with 600+ happy hour listings in “The Sauce “magazine.

Mayflower Park Hotel is full of historic charm and character.  It is perfectly located for shoppers just a block away from Nordstrom and Macy's. 

Hotel Monaco had the most colourful hotel rooms we have ever stayed in.  The yoga mat was a nice touch.  

Every room at the Hotel Max had a door with a large photograph on the door by a local artists.  On our floor all of the doors had photos of Seattle musicians.  Very cool!

Like Calgary, Downtown Seattle lacks a real Main Street for shoppers.  From a tourist shopping perspective, I was surprised at not only how fragmented their retail is, but also that Nordstrom’s flagship store wasn’t more grand and upscale. Calgary’s The Core shopping center surpasses anything Seattle has to offer shoppers and Holt Renfrew is grander than anything in Seattle.

Urban Living

Urban living is exploding in Seattle - 58 residential projects will add 10,000+ residential units in their City Centre over the next few years. In comparison, Calgary has 7,194 units approved or under construction in its City Centre. Like Calgary, trendy urban communities surround Seattle’s downtown core. 

Dozens of highrise condos dot Seattle's urban landscape.  Seattle's monorail provides a futuristic perspective of the city for tourists, as does Calgary's 20 km +15 elevated walkway. 

Cafe Culture 

Belltown is Seattle’s Beltline with lots of new highrise condos, trendy restaurants and its link to the Seattle Centre (1962 World’s Fair site) i.e. their Stampede Park. 

Capitol Hill and First Hill communities are separated from Seattle’s downtown core by the I-15 interstate. Capitol Hill is the city’s hipster district with several new low to mid-rise condos and restaurants opening weekly.  It is home to Starbucks’ mega new Reserve Roastery & Tasting Room and several other local roasteries. Calgary’s equivalent would be Mission/Cliff Bungalow with its 4th Street restaurant row or Kensington with its abundance of coffeehouses and roasteries.

This Coke machine appeared mysteriously over 15 years ago, outside of the Broadway Locksmith near the corner of John and Broadway in the trendy Capitol Hill district.  Nobody knows who it belongs to, where the money goes or who restocks it.  It seems pretty popular as two people stop to buy a beverage while I was taking photos. 

The Denny Triangle is an extension of the downtown core, much like Eau Claire is in Calgary with a mix of office and condos. Amazon purchased three blocks in the district to create its highrise campus, which will be analogous to Eau Claire’s campus-like collection of dark blue glass oil patch towers - Devon and Centennial towers soon-to-be joined by Calgary City Centre and Eau Claire towers.

South Lake Union, Seattle’s newest urban community, anchored by a Whole Foods store is quickly becoming surrounded by condos, restaurants and shops.  Bridgeland would be Calgary’s equivalent.

Whole Food patio in South Lake district creates a wonderful street buzz. 

Urban Living Test Drive 

For anyone thinking of moving to one of Calgary urban communities and wondering what urban living is all about I’d recommend a trip to Seattle and staying in a couple of different hotels. Our penthouse (12th floor) suite at the Mayflower was equipped with two bathrooms, a lovely living room area with city and sea views and Macy’s and Nordstrom across the street.  If you like old world charm, this is your spot.

If you want some fun new home décor ideas, check into Hotel Max or Hotel Monaco.  At Max, each room door features a full, door-size local photographer’s work. Walk the hallways and enjoy the free photography exhibition. Our room had original art, as well as a record player with local musicians’ records. How cool is that?

Hotel Monaco is like living in an Andy Warhol or Roy Lichtenstein 60s Pop Art artwork with its use of bright colours and bold patterns. It is amazing how big 500 square feet can look and feel when the city lies outside your front door.

Seattle is know for its coffee, what surprised us were the scrumptious biscuits and jam that on many menus. Yum! Yum! 

Last Word

Creating a vibrant city centre is more than just making it a place to “live” (new condos) and “work” (new office towers).” It is about creating a fun urban playground – shops, museums, galleries, restaurants, cafes, concerts, pubs, festivals, theatre, parks, public art and architecture. Calgary’s city centre has much to offer urban tourists as Seattle, Portland or Denver, but for some reason it hasn’t captured the attention of urban tourists. 

It is certainly not from a lack of trying by Tourism Calgary!

Click on links below for Calgary blogs that connect to statements made in this blog about Seattle vs Calgary: 

Beltline: North America's best hipster neighbourhood?

Kensington: One of North America's Healthiest districts

NoBow: Jane Jacobs could live here!

Ramsay: Calgary's FFQ Industrial District

St. Patrick's Island: The Good, The Bad, The Nice To Have

Note: I have received several emails and tweets supporting the ideas and comments in this blog.  Thought I would share this one with you from architect Tom Tittemore which I think provides an informed perspective on the Island and East Village design and development. 

TT writes: "Carol and I walked the upgraded St Patrick's Island yesterday - Sunday - and we concur with most of your observations. The public art piece is a clever amalgm of largely highway-scaled light fixtures, but we, as your blog noted, merely observed and walked on.  However, I would like to see it at night to finalize my opinion.  It may also perform better during cold, icy winter days. For us, the Island and George King Bridge, the River Walk, renovated Simmons Building, East Village etc., makes for a most pleasant stroll or powerwalk or bike ride …While New York has its Highline, I must say that the Island / River Walk makes great strides (that's a pun) towards a similar urban pedestrian experience that enables people to view the City with fresh eyes."

Blog: St. Patrick's Island: The Good, The Bad, The Nice To Have

It is with much anticipation that I have been waiting for St. Patrick’s Island to reopen.  On July 31, 2015, after being closed for two years of renovations, St. Patrick’s Island opened again to the public just in time for the August long weekend to much fanfare.

For two-years before the closure, Calgary Municipal Land Corporation (CMLC) conducted a comprehensive public engagement process to determine what Calgarians wanted to see in their new urban park.  Open houses, social media and an on-line survey collected ideas, which were clustered and prioritized for further public engagement to finalize the wish list.

CMLC’s call for proposals then went out to local and international landscape architect firms. Seventeen proposals were received and CMLC awarded the contract for the $20 million makeover to the joint team of New York-based W Architecture and Denver-based CIVITAS.

Loved

I love the mix of uses on the island. From quiet seating areas near the river to a hill with a fire pit on the top. From a children’s playground to pebble beach and wading pond. There is even a site-specific artwork. 

Knowing one of the public’s requests was to keep the island as natural as possible, I was pleased to see many areas where the river, trees, shrubs and rocks have been left undisturbed.

There is also a welcoming sense of arrival, be that from the elegant George C. King Bridge on the west side or from the zoo parking lot on the east. 

I was very impressed with the toboggan hill called The Rise, which was created in the middle of the island using soil from the reclaimed lagoon filled in during a previous renovation. The grass on The Rise was as lush as anything I have ever seen in Calgary. It was inviting people to just tumble down the hill – and some did!  This would be a great site for a permanent “slip and slide,” allowing year-round use.  

The children’s playground is not your cookie-cutter community playground that looks like it was built from a box of Crayola Crayons.  While the slides are bright red, most of the equipment is wood. The wobbly low bridge seemed particularly popular with people of all ages.

Overall, I love the new St. Patrick’s Island and how it has been divided up into smaller public spaces for different interests and uses.

The wobbly bridge/steps are popular with children and adults. 

At various points on the Island there are information panels that tell the history of the island. 

On of the several natural areas still on St. Patrick's Island.

Collectively these benches have a contemporary sculptural look with the mix of wood, concrete and lines. The design is very clever as one person can be lying down on one side while two people can be sitting on the other side of the back support.  

Room for Improvement

I am not sure how many people will use the larger seating area with the arboretum over top of the chairs and tables at the east entrance. It feels too much like you are sitting in a parking lot and you have limited view of the Bow River.  I realize when the water levels are higher, the area might be more animated with rafters getting off the river at this point, but I am wish this lovely seating area was closer the river with unobstructed views of the river and city skyline. 

I assume and hope Food Trucks will be allowed to park next to the East Entrance as the Island has no café or restaurant (there were no trucks on the Monday of the August long weekend).  Something like Boxwood (in Memorial Park), River Café (in Prince’s Island) or Angel’s Cappuccino & Ice Cream Cafe (at Edworthy Park) would be a good future addition to the St. Patrick’s Island. 

There is a need for way more bike parking in almost all areas of the park. I overheard this comment several times on both opening day and the holiday Monday.

The stairs up to the top of The Rise for tobogganing (and hopefully “slip & sliding”) are very steep and will not only be difficult for young children or seniors to climb and will be difficult to shovel in the winter. Might a ramp have worked better?

At the east entrance is this wonderful bistro seating area, but in my three visits to the island I saw very little use.

Climbing the stairs to The Rise will be a bit of a challenge for some, especially with in the winter.   

These picnic tables don't look that inviting and are too far removed from the playground nearby. Parents need to be able to see their kids. It is surprising that the seating is fixed, it would be great if families could move table and seating to suit there needs.

Back to nature

I was surprised there wasn’t more use of natural materials for people to sit on.  The concrete slab seating seemed out of keeping for a park with huge trees and natural areas. In a couple of cases, the concrete slabs did have wood backs for seating and lounging that was very attractive. Similarly, there is a long metal pathway that seems totally out of context.

I was also surprised the children’s playground didn’t incorporate some of the new thinking on playground design that invites children to explore more natural areas and objects – logs, rocks and trees - to climb over, jump off or crawl under.  The playground seems to focus only on young children, given the family nature of the Island it would benefit from more activities for older children and even teens.

These spring loaded stepping platforms didn't get any use when I was hanging out on the Island.  I am thinking they are too far from each other for kids to jump from one to another.  I saw something similar in Rome but the platforms were closer and they were very popular. 

This long metal walkway over a wetland area, seemed out of context on the Island.

This bench found in Parkdale would be great on St. Patrick's Island as kids could climb all over it and others could sit on it. A nice to have?

This fun modern playground can be found at Las Vegas' Container Park.  It is popular with kids by day and young adults at night. Playgrounds should be designed for all ages. 

The Beach

As promised, the new St. Patrick’s island has a beach. Though not a sand beach but a pebble beach, it was very popular with families on the hot August long weekend. However, what I had envisioned (hoped for), was a green beach like in Frankfurt, Germany along its River Main where a long stretch of grass along the river offers families, teens, young adults, seniors and couples a lovely place to sit, picnic and people watch.  I was hoping it would be integrated into the south side of the island where you could look out over the Bow River to Fort Calgary, East Village and downtown.  I believe the idea of a “green beach” was one of the more popular ideas with citizens as part of the Master Plan process. I hold out hope for a green beach in the area under the new public artwork.

St. Patrick's Island's pebble beach with wading pond. 

The lush grass at the bottom of The Rise is a very attractive place to sit and linger. It has some of the elements of a green beach.

Frankfurt's green beach is a people magnet. In the foreground is the outdoor bar serving up draft beer for the beach. How civilized?

It would be nice to have a green beach right on the river like this one in Calgary's Stanley Park on the Elbow River.

Bloom or Bust?

St. Patrick’s Island’s a new piece of public art called Bloom is by Montreal artist Michel de Broin.  To date, most social media attention has been positive, interestingly as the piece has much in common with both the controversial and much hated, “Travelling Light” aka “giant blue ring” by the airport (which is actually a fancy street light) and the equally controversial big white metal trees on Stephen Avenue.

Bloom is an assemblage of nine industrial grey street lampposts, three forming a tripod on the ground to support the other six (with actual streetlight fixtures that light up at night) sticking out in different directions like stamens and pistils of a flower.

By day, the artwork seems awkward, or as one passerby said to me “out of scale with the island.”  It also lacks the colour associated with a flower in bloom and competes negatively (in my humble opinion) with the elegant and playful George C. King (“skipping stone”) pedestrian bridge.

It is my understanding the idea behind the artwork is to connect natural elements of the island with urban street life. For me it is all urban, nothing natural. As it is, people seem to give bloom a glance and move on, it doesn’t really capture the public’s imagination.  

I couldn’t help but think this would have been perfect for some sort of interactive artwork like Chicago’s Millennium Park.   Something like, Jaume Plensa’s, 50 foot glass block tower Crown Fountain would have been perfect for St. Patrick’s Island as would Anish Kapoor’s 12 foot high 110 foot long reflective “Cloud Gate.”  Something, created by Calgary’s Jeff deBoer’s in the same vein as his “When Aviation was Young” in the West Jet wing of the Calgary International Airport would have been perfect. 

Bloom artwork with George King bridge in the background.  While the location is next to a high traffic walkway, people stop, glance quickly at the artwork and move on.  

Crown Fountain with its wading pond attracts thousands of visitors a day to stop, watch and play, seven days a week, daytime and evening. I would have been nice to have an interactive artwork like this on St. Patrick's Island. 

Cloud Gate's curved, reflective surface captures the imagination of people of all ages and backgrounds.  It is a very popular "selfie" location. 

Last Word

It is too early to judge the success of St. Patrick’s Island $20 million mega makeover. That will be determined in several years when the lust of the new has worn off. However, I am optimistic St. Patrick’s Island will, quickly loved by Calgarians as much as St. George’s Island and Prince’s Island are today. 

In many ways the combination of the Simmons Building, Riverwalk and St. Patrick’s Island redevelopment with the condos and offices, parallels what happened in the ‘90s with Eau Claire Y, Market, Promenade and Prince’s Island redevelopment. How St. Patrick's Island and East Village stand the test of time will be interesting to see.

If you like this blog, you might like: 

Vegas Crazy Container Park 

Public Art vs Playgrounds in the 21st Century 

Rome: A Surprise Playground Lunch 

Does Calgary need an urban beach? 

 

Myth of Excellence

Editor's Note: Earlier this week I participated in a twitter debate about the importance of striving for excellence in city building with two Councillors and several twitter followers.  It all started when I questioned the need strive for excellence in "urban design" with projects like Paskapoo Slopes, when so much of master planning is subjective and changes over time. I became the lone wolf in the debate which went on for several hours.

Afterwards I started thinking about the book "Myth of Excellence" I had read several years ago and wondered if I could find my book report.  Not only did I find the book report, but also my Calgary Herald column I wrote on the this very enlightening book, so I thought I'd post it for you to read and comment on. 

Myth of Excellence (Calgary Herald)

In 2001, Fred Crawford and Ryan Mathews published “Myth of Excellence” that recommended businesses should not get caught up in the pursuit of excellence in all aspects of their business. Their research showed companies that pursue excellence at everything ended up not being “world-class” at anything. Their research recommended businesses focus on being excellent in one key management area, above average in one or two other areas and just average for others areas.  It was their conclusion that it is a myth that you have to be excellent at everything to succeed!   

What has this got to do with cities you ask? Personally, I think a lot.  Too many cities are trying to be “world-class” or “best of class” in too many areas. Too often you hear politicians and special interest advocates say – we must have “world-class” architecture, parks, sports and recreation facilities, tourist attractions, airports, roads, transit, bike paths, libraries or recycling programs.   Too often we are commissioning “Best Practices” studies which then leads to Best Practices Syndrome. 

Today we seem obsessed with city ranking. Every week there seems to be a new ranking - which city is ranked highest for liveability or walkability, which is the most attractive to the creative class, families or retirees, which city is the most affordable or most expensive, which is the most wired or has the lowest taxes, which is most business friendly. These rankings are then used by politicians and advocates to lobby for more funding to improve their cities ranking. Note - Calgary often ranks very high in most world-wide city reports, but it is not usually at the top, except for being the world's cleanest city!  

Rather than beating ourselves up because we don’t have the best recycling program, the best bike lanes, the best snow removal program or the best contemporary architecture. We should accept that these are not our priorities.  Calgary can’t be all things to all people.  As the book states,  we only need to be average in most areas and excellent in one or two.  

Let’s not fool ourselves, people live in Calgary because there are lots of jobs here, in particular private sector jobs, not because we have the best library, art gallery or bike paths. Yes there are nice to have but the key to Calgary’s past and future success will be our ability to foster an environment that will continue to attract business investment to Calgary.  For example, Calgary doesn’t have the history, climate, geography or proximity to major markets to be a major year-round tourist city.  

In many ways Calgary is still a frontier city, looking for pioneers who will come and invest in the development of our natural resources for profit. As such Calgary, must be focused on being a “Business First” community.  Calgary must be excellent at Economic Development. 

We also need to be above average in the area of City Planning. A rapidly growing boom/bust city like Calgary must have a robust planning department able to meet the needs of a very diverse and discerning population.  Planning that is decisive, that can conduct the analysis and consultation to make good decisions quickly re: suburban planned communities, new urban villages, urban renewal programs, business parks, downtown office developments, road and transit planning. All these things must happen at the same time in a complex and coordinated manner that will enhance the quality of life for Calgarians.  

New Rocky Ridge Recreation Centre 

Excellence in Parks & Recreation 

One of Calgary’s key differentiators should be our Parks/Recreation.  I think these two areas go hand-in-hand in a young family-oriented city like Calgary. In the summer parks of all sizes and in the winter indoor recreational facilities are critical to making Calgary an attractive place for  families to live.  Calgary should be a “Families First” community (that doesn't mean we ignore singles, DINKS and seniors).

Calgary’s moniker should be “The City of Parks and Pathways” as we have an amazing collection of parks from Fish Creek to Nose Hills, from Stampede Park to Heritage Park, from Prince’s Island to the Calgary Zoo.  Calgary is blessed with one of the world’s best recreational pathway systems and one of the most unique urban pedestrian systems - +15 walkway – both need to be celebrated.   

From a recreational perspective, yes we have a lot of needs and wishes – more arenas, more soccer fields - but we also have a lot to be thankful for like our excellent recreation centres.  We also have some very unique recreational facilities – Olympic Oval (speed skating), Canada Olympic Park (luge, bobsled, centre of excellent for Winter Olympic athletes), Spruce Meadows (equestrian), Calgary Polo Grounds and Riley Park (cricket). 

New SETON Recreation Centre 

When do we just say "No!"

In all other areas of city management we just need to be average, OK, good enough. We have to make choices we simply can’t be excellent at everything. When do we say - “No?”  When do we say - “enough is enough?”

Do we really need a new airport tunnel that won’t be needed for several years and some say will never be needed with a $300+ million price tag? Do we really need two iconic pedestrian bridges at $25 million each over the Bow River? Do we need a signature Central Library at another $200+ million?  Do we need a comprehensive commuter bike path system for a few thousand people most who will use it for only six months of the year at $28 million?  Just asking!

Calgary Herald, February, 2011

New Quarry Park Recreation Centre 

Last Word

This Herald Column was written in early 2011, while the airport tunnel debate was top of mind. Since then we have completed or started construction on most of the projects listed above.  At the same time we have also started construction on four new recreation centres - Rocky Ridge (opens in 2017, cost $191M), SETON (opens in 2018, cost $200M), Quarry Park (open in 2016, cost $63M) and Great Plains (opens in 2016, cost $33M). In addition, the has created several new parks and renovated others both in the suburbs and City Centre - Barb Scott Park, ENMAX Park, St. Patrick's Island Park, Bowness Park and Ralph Klein Park, as well as the 132km Rotary Mattamy Greenway.  

Collectively, these investments enhances Calgary's reputation as "The City of Parks & Recreation.   

If you like this blog, you might like: 

Calgary: Needs vs Wants?

Calgary: Preservation vs Prosperity Perdicament

Calgary: The City of Parks & Recreation 

Calgary leader in addressing urban issues?

In May Huffington Post published a list of ten cities that are frequently mentioned as innovators in addressing urban life issues – specifically, environmental, social, transportation and urban design. While there were no real surprises in the list of cities identified and what they have accomplished or were attempting to accomplish, I was immediately struck that Calgary could and should be on the list. Yet again, Calgary flies under the radar of the international news media for the incredible work the public and private sectors have done to create a city with one of the highest standards of urban living in the world.

What Other Cities Are Doing?

Vancouver makes the list for its work in creating policies that allow more families to live in the city centre, its mandatory composting program and supervised safe injection site.  Stockholm is praised for its “Walkable City” plan that focuses on making all streets pedestrians and cycling-friendly and “Vision Zero” plan to reduce road deaths.

New York City’s $20 billion plan to defend the city against future storms was on the list. Reykjavik’s unique geology allows for its use geothermal heating to produce electricity and heat 95% of its buildings. Berlin’s claim to fame is its ability to repurpose old buildings like power plants into nightclubs and the Nazis Tempelhof Airport into a giant public park.

Singapore has introduced free subway fares to riders who leave the system before 7:45 am as a means of unclogging both street and transit traffic during peak commuter hours.  Hong Kong has created a very handy service where airline passengers check their bag sat a designated station along the Airport Express subway line and it gets taken right to the plane.

Paris’ tentative plan will give the City first right of refusal on 8,000 new apartments being built which they plan to turning into subsidized housing to help eliminate gentrification of communities helps it make the top 10 list.

Copenhagen is noted for its plan to be completely carbon neutral by 2025 through the use of wind power, biomass fuel and other alternate energies.  San Francisco’s DataSF project collects comprehensive data for use by citizens and businesses to foster a better quality of life and increase accountability. For example, Yelp uses the data to give its users information on restaurants’ latest health inspections as a means of reducing food bourne illnesses.

While these are all commendable projects and some are innovative, when it comes to innovative urban living initiatives, Calgary is providing as much leadership as any of these cities. Don’t believe me? Read on!  

Calgary’s Environment Leadership

Not only is Calgary is currently ranked at the cleanest city in the world (and has consistently ranked in the top three for many years) of Mercer Global Financial and HR Consulting “world’s cleanest city.” The ranking is based on water availability and drinkability, waste removal, quality of sewage systems, air pollution and traffic congestions.  The $430-million Pine Creek Wastewater Treatment Centre is one of the most technologically advanced and environmentally-friendly wastewater treatment plants in the world.

When it comes to responding to perils of Mother Nature, Calgary’s Emergency Management System shares data from 32 partner organizations from the police to Calgary Board of Education, as well as draws information from social media sites.  The system has been praised as the best in the world and was instrumental in the highly successful response to Calgary’s great flood of 2013.

Did you know Grow Calgary has an 11-acre farm just west of Canada Olympic Park, where a group of volunteers manages Canada’s largest urban farm - all of the fresh produce being donated to the Calgary Interfaith Food Bank?

 Grow Calgary farm within the city limits. (photo credit: paulin8@blogspot.com)

Grow Calgary farm within the city limits. (photo credit: paulin8@blogspot.com)

Pine Creek Water Treatment Plant (photo credit: City of Calgary)

Calgary’s Urban Design Leadership

Calgary is arguably the “Infill Capital of North America.”  When it comes to redevelopment of established communities, Calgary boasts several mixed-use urban villages – Currie Barracks, East Village, Quarry Park, SETON, University District and West District.  What other city builds Transit-Oriented Development before the transit has been built – SETON and Quarry Park? Our downtown is surrounded by vibrant urban communities experiencing a renaissance due to dozens of infill condo developments. And thousands of  new “family friendly” homes being built in ALL of our inner-city neighborhoods. 

Green spaces have been identified as critical to healthy urban living.  Calgary boasts over not only 5,000 parks, two being the among the largest in the world (Fish Creek and Nose Hill), as well as one of the world’s longest urban pathway systems that is quickly closing in on being 1,000 km. 

The Calgary Parks Foundation is working on the 138 km Rotary/Mattamy Greenway project that will create a network of parks and pathways around the perimeter of the city connecting over 100 communities.

Our City Centre has recently completed or in the process of completing at least six new or renovated parks and plazas including the St. Patrick’s Island mega makeover.

  Map of the Rotary Mattamy Greenway.

Map of the Rotary Mattamy Greenway.

Calgary’s Transportation Leadership

Calgary was an early adopter of “Light Rapid Transit” in 1981 and in 2001, was the first public transit system to claim all of its electricity from emission-free wind power.  Today, Calgary’s LRT ridership is the third highest in North America, behind Toronto and Guadalajara, both cities having w a population five times that of Calgary and ahead of cities like Vancouver and Portland twice our size.

The Pembina Institute report “Fast Cities: A comparison of rapid transit in major Canadian Cities” (2014) states Calgary leads Canada in rapid transit infrastructure per capita (53km/million citizens) and has, over the past decade built the most rapid transit 22 km. 

For decades, Calgary has implemented some of the most restrictive downtown parking bylaws in North America, including allowing developers to build only 50% of the estimated required parking for new office buildings.  As a result, 60% of downtown commuters use transit, an impressively high percentage and one unheard of in North America except for places like Manhattan. Further to that, City Council recently unanimously approved Canada’s first condo with no parking – N3 in East Village. 

In my mind, Calgary is one of the most pedestrian and cycling-friendly cities in the world. Where else do drivers routinely stop so pedestrians and cyclists can safely cross the street?  I am constantly reminded of this when visiting other cities.

  Cars routinely stop to let cyclists and pedestrians cross the road in Calgary.  

Cars routinely stop to let cyclists and pedestrians cross the road in Calgary. 

  N3 condo in Calgary's East Village will have no parking stalls for residents. 

N3 condo in Calgary's East Village will have no parking stalls for residents. 

Last Word

Calgary doesn’t get the respect it deserves from the international media and planning communities with respect to the numerous, significant, successful and innovative urban living initiatives recently or currently being implemented by both the private and public sectors. Sure, we have our problems and our urban sense of place isn’t for everyone.

But when push comes to shove, Calgary is at the top of most quality of urban living lists and should have been included in the “top 10 cities shaping the future of urban living.”

This blog was published in the Calgary Herald's New Condos section on June 27th titled "Calgary a top-ten city." 

If you like this blog, click on these links for related blogs:

Calgary deserves more respect from international planners

NYC's High Line vs YYC's +15 Walkway

The suburbs move to the City Centre in Calgary

Calgary: The importance of a good mayor!

 

Playgrounds Gone Wild?

Editor's Note: Looks like the Everyday Tourist is wrong on this one. Majority of readers say "can't have enough playgrounds! 

As spring arrives and I start to wander my neighbourhood streets more, I especially love walking by the many colourful playgrounds just to hear the happy shrieks and shouts of kids and parents enjoying Calgary’s great urban outdoors. We are blessed with a plethora of playgrounds in Calgary’s northwest inner city communities; it seems like there is one every few blocks.

As well, over the past few years, there seems to have been an explosion of playground renewal renovation in our area - from the uber-popular Helicopter Park to the not quite yet completed Riley Park playground.

It is the latter which got me thinking. Perhaps we have too many playgrounds? “How is that even possible?” you ask?  Well, it is possible when there are four playgrounds all basically on the same block – yes, FOUR! And, where you ask is that?

  Hillhurst Community Centre playground's play window for kids to look down and adult to look up at each other.

Hillhurst Community Centre playground's play window for kids to look down and adult to look up at each other.

It’s on the Hillhurst Community Centre block (6th Ave. on the south, 7th Ave. on the north, 14th St. on the west and 12th St. on the east). There is one at the west side of the Community Centre (next to the community garden/orchard and easily visible to those walking, cycling and driving by on 6th Avenue NW).

There are two playgrounds just north at the Hillhurst School - one on the west side of the school and one on the east.  I am sure there is a good reason for two playgrounds, but I am afraid to ask. I suspect one is for younger children and the other for older ones. If this is the case, I wonder what this teaches children about sharing and interacting with different age groups.  I went to kindergarten to grade 8 school and we all shared the same playground and I don’t recall any major problems. Lessons taught, or not taught, at an early age can result in unintended consequences later in life.

The yellow pins indicate the location of the four playgrounds.  The white shape in the upper right corner is the wading pool in Riley Park. The orange pin is in the middle of the block where a major condo complex is currently under construction. 

The fourth playground is at the extreme southwest corner of Riley Park, across the street from Hillhurst Community Centre. It is a strange location given how far away from it is from the park’s popular children’s wading pond.  The old playground has been removed and a new playground is currently being constructed on the same site, which will soon be almost in the backyard of a new Ezra condo complex. (Backstory: Ezra Hounsfield Riley who once had a huge ranch that encompassed most of what is now Hillhurst, West Hillhurst, Parkdale and Montgomery, donated the land for Riley Park.)

The new Riley Park playground.

I can just hear it now -  “Who’s bright idea was it to totally rebuild a playground next to a residential block with three playgrounds just steps away?”  This would have been a good time to perhaps relocate the playground to the wading pool area or perhaps remove it entirely and let families use the school or community playgrounds a half a block away.

After a recent yoga class at the Bodhi Tree on 14th Ave NW across from the Hillhurst School, I paced out the distance between the playgrounds.  It was about 60 steps from the playground on the west side of the school to the one on the east. From there it was 252 steps to the new Riley Park playground and then another 189 steps to the Hillhurst Community Centre playground.

Playground on west side of Hillhurst School. 

Playground on the east side of the historic sandstone Hillhurst School. 

I realize we can’t have young children walking from the schoolyard to a playground a half a block away or have daycare children walking to a playground across the street.  Yet somehow it seems wrong to have four playgrounds - with a total cost I estimate at well over $500,000 - all within a few steps of each other. Especially given playgrounds are relatively empty most of the time. (When I walk by rarely do I see more than two families at a time, except in school grounds at recess and lunch.)

I heard somewhere that the public isn’t supposed to use school playgrounds on school days. Is that true? I have always thought schoolyards to be public spaces as schools are funded by taxpayer dollars and the land is government-owned. I think any school that wants to ban the public from their schoolyard should also be banned from receiving any of my tax dollars.  I have never seen a no trespassing sign on a schoolyard, so I am thinking and hoping it is a shared public space! 

 Last Word

Shouldn’t playgrounds be meeting places for young families? So, wouldn’t fewer playgrounds encourage more walking and more interaction with others? Isn’t that a good thing? I am thinking one large central community/schoolyard playground would be best?

Perhaps herein lies an important urban planning lesson i.e. we need to link schools, daycares, parks and community centres so they can share playgrounds and playing fields to maximize the interaction of people of all ages and backgrounds.  This is an important step in helping create a sense of community.

Are their other communities in Calgary where we have “gone wild” in creating too many playgrounds?  Drop me a note and I will add it to this blog!

If you like this blog, you might like:

Public Art & Playgrounds  

Rome: A Surprise Playground Lunch

Plaza Design: Dos & Don'ts

Calgary's newest historic district?

Calgary is about to get a new historic district, can you guess where? When it comes to local history most people’s first thoughts are probably the Glenbow, Heritage Park, Fort Calgary or Military Museums, maybe places like Stephen Avenue, Inglewood or Kensington.  Bet you didn’t guess Currie Barracks!

Currie Barracks History 101

The Currie Barracks land just east of Crowchild Trail at Richard’s Road was first designated for military use in 1911, when the City of Calgary’s population was 43,704 and the southwest edge of the City was Mount Royal.  It wasn’t until 1933 when a new Canadian military base was announced and named after Sir Arthur William Currie one of Canada’s most decorate military figures.

The area around Currie Barracks remained undeveloped until 1948, when the Department of Defence purchased the neighbouring land for the Currie Married Quarters. In 1968 the Royal Canadian Navy, Canadian Army and Royal Canadian Air Force became the Canadian Forces and Currie Barracks was designated the Canadian Forces Base Calgary (CFB Calgary).

Currie Barracks has been home at various times to the Calgary Highlanders, the Seaforth Highlanders of Canada, Lord Strathcona’s Horse (Royal Canadians), 1st Battalion, Princess Patricia’s and Canadian Light Infantry.

In 1995, when the Government of Canada announced the closure of the CFB Calgary, Canada Lands Company (CLC), a self-financing federal Crown corporation and real estate development company took on the task of transforming this site into a 21st century model mixed-use community by creating the CFB West Master Plan, which includes Currie Barracks along with Lincoln Park Permanent Married Quarters (now Garrison Green), Mount Royal College, ATCO and Westmount Business Park.

Currie Barracks gate opening onto Parade Square, facing 24th Street SW, now Crowchild Trail. (Photo Credit: Canada Lands Corporation). 

Hidden Gem

Most Calgarians know little about Calgary’s first gated community, unless we had some connection with the Canada’s Armed Forces.  At best, it was that curious asphalt plaza with cast iron fence thingy that we whizzed by along Crowchild trail.  

It wasn’t until 2004, that Calgarians began to appreciate the hidden gem that was Currie Barracks with the opening of several temporary uses in various existing building - Calgary Farmers’ Market, Wild Rose Brew Pub and J. Webb Wine & Spirits, several movie and television production companies, Riddle Kurczaba Architects and several charter schools.  It even hosted Calgary’s first Cirque du Soleil extravaganzas.

For the first time, Calgarians could freely roam the barracks and appreciate the history of the place especially Parade Square surrounded by several distinctive wide low-rise, white stucco, cottage-style red shingled roof buildings.

Preservation vs. Prosperity

Over the past 10 years, CLC has been strategically developing all of the land around Currie Barracks in preparation for the ultimate mega-makeover project that will create a new 21st century urban village.  While the new Currie Barracks will be home to new buildings – condos, townhomes, office, hotel, grocery store, shops, cafes and pubs – it will also include the preservation of all the Provincially designated historical buildings, sites and landscaping.

Parade Square

Designed in 1935, Parade Square was the site of inspections, drills and training exercises; it was literally the heart of the daily activity of the Barracks for several decades, as well as special ceremonies.  It is surrounded by several 1950s historical buildings (Athlone, Bennett and Besborrough), which frame the Square and give is a homogenous, formal and symmetrical boundary.

Parade Square is 207 meters by 119 meters (the size of two CFL football fields) and was once the largest square in the British Empire.  It was the largest Depression-era public works program in Alberta.

Parade Square will become a large central multi-purpose gathering space for major community events with links to the many park spaces scattered throughout Currie Barracks. The historical buildings surrounding the square will be converted into multiple modern uses (e.g. schools, offices and restaurants). 

Currie Barracks circa 1941 (photo credit: Canada Lands Corporation) 

Other Historic Buildings

The Officers’ Mess and formal garden are located in the southwest edge of Currie Barracks away from the structures associated with daily operations of the base, which was typical at the time.  The Mess is an X-shaped building with the same red cottage style shingled roof and with stucco façade.  It is connected to the Officers Precinct by the formal tree-lined Trasimene Crescent and has an enclosed veranda on the south side to a formal garden. Inside are two luxurious ballrooms that hosted formal events from homage to fallen comrades to celebrating achievements. 

Ramshead House, simplified English Cottage style home with pitched roof and white rough cast stucco facade and cut stone entry. (Photo Credit: Canada Lands Corporation)

Ramshead (1936) and Brad (1938) houses are examples of simplified English Cottage style architecture with it pitched roof structure, white rough cast stucco façade and cut stone entry. Ramshead House was originally built as the residence for the commanding officer of the Royal Canadians. Brad House was the residence of the District Officer Commanding Military District #13.  Their cottage-style design conveys a sense of domesticity that contrasts with the barracks-style residences that housed the majority of the men stationed at the base.

The Stables Building completed in 1936 is a K-shaped structure with four symmetrical wings that each could accommodate 25 horses. It was a horse stable from 1936 to 1939, then became training centre and finally accommodation space for new recruits.

Officer's Mess and Formal Garden, completed in 1936. (Photo Credit: Canada Lands Corporation) 

Currie Barracks at a glance

  • First LEED-ND Gold Neighbourhood District approved in Canada
  • Largest LEED-ND Gold Project in the world (at the time of approval in 2009)
  • 10,000+ residents
  • 3,000+ workers
  • Flanders Point a pedestrian-oriented retail/restaurant activity node
  • Walkable community
  • 8 different open spaces totalling 21.4 acres or 14.6% of site 

Last Word

The decision to build Currie Barracks in Calgary in 1933 reflected in part the personal influence of Prime Minister Richard Bennett, whose home riding was Calgary West, as wells as significant recognition of Alberta’s growing status as a full partner in Canadian Confederation. 

While in the past Calgary has torn down its old buildings to make way for new ones, CLC has worked hard to develop a plan that will preserve historical buildings and a public spaces, but find new uses for them as well.

Kudos to the CLC team for creating a unique sense of place for Calgarians to live, work and play.

This blog appeared in the Calgary Herald's Condo section on March 14, 2015 titled "Where a gated community meets with history." 

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

If you like this blog, you might like:

Calgary's MAC attack 

Calgary: Military Museums 

Is Calgary too downtown centric? 

Sydneysider loves Cowtown?

Guest Blog: Marissa Toohey

I grew up in Australia’s biggest city, Sydney, well known for its surf culture and miles of coastline. A few years ago, I set my sights on North America and was fortunate enough to find my way to Calgary in October 2012. I had heard it was a city with bright job prospects, lower taxes than other Canadian cities, a welcoming community and a lovable mayor. And, of course, cowboys. I have to admit I was nervous about winter weather though, having watched the airport scene of the Cool Runnings movie too many times before my arrival.

These days, I spend my free time playing hockey and skiing the Rocky Mountains, rather than going to the beach or firing up the barbie. In chatting with Calgary’s Everyday Tourist, we thought it would be interesting for me to compare the two cities from a Sydneysider’s perspective.  

To provide some context, Sydney was founded by the British in 1788 and it attracted a significant number of immigrants. Today, Sydney is one of the most multicultural cities in the world, with around 4.8 million residents spread across an area about 12,368 square kilometers. It is divided into over 30 local government areas with elected councils responsible for functions delegated by the state government.

Calgary’s history, on the other hand, as a city begins in about 1875 or one hundred years later. It is a city of 1.2 million and covers an area of 825 square kilometers for the city proper and if you add in some of the satellite cities and towns it is an additional 704 square kilometers. Calgary is famous for its rivers, parks and access to the Rocky Mountains.

Calgarians love to stroll Stephen Avenue Walk. 

Sydneysiders love going to the beach.

Parks & Recreation

In Sydney, the weather is always warm and the landscape is dominated by waterways and bushland making for an incredible selection of natural attractions - some iconic ones being Hyde Park, The Royal Botanic Gardens, Sydney Harbour and the Bondi to Coogee Coastal Walk. Local councils maintain a multitude of free public beaches and rock pools, while volunteer lifeguards keep swimmers safe.

The innercity offers some excellent play areas too, such as the Darling Quarter community with its climbing ropes, swings, slides, and a flying fox (zip line). It’s surrounded by hip restaurants, wine bars and often has festivals and outdoor movies, making it a great area for the entire family to enjoy day or night.

Similarly, Calgary has many natural attractions including the world famous Rocky Mountain playground.  I love the city’s great urban outdoors - Fish Creek Provincial Park, the pathways along the Bow and Elbow rivers, Canada Olympic Park, as well as the many outdoor ice rinks throughout the city in winter. I still can’t get enough skating at Prince’s Island surrounded by fairy lights and listening to friendly tunes.

In the summer, my favourite thing to do is float lazily down the Bow River. In fact, just getting outdoors any time of year is a treat because you can see the environment adapting with the change of seasons.

Sydney's botanical gardens is an urban oasis next to the City Centre.

Calgarians love their 800+ kilometres of walking, running and biking pathways.  The red pedestrian bridge in the background is the Peace Bridge designed by the world famous Santiago Calatrava. This is lunch hour downtown!

Calgary's Fish Creek Park is one of the world's largest urban parks.

Calgarians love to float down the Bow and Elbow Rivers enjoying the sandstone cliffs, Douglas Fir forest and downtown skyline. 

Urban Design

There are many examples in Sydney where art installations have transformed underused areas and attracted more people. The City of Sydney is implementing a laneway regeneration program, investing in infrastructure that turns hidden laneways into pedestrian thoroughfares, while using public art displays to create more welcoming spaces.

One of the more interesting projects is the new paving, lighting and stunning permanent birdcage art installation (it plays the songs of 50 birds once heard in central Sydney) in downtown’s Angel Place laneway. Today, an average of 4,000 visitors pass through the laneway every day, double the number from 2007.

Calgary’s also has some great public art pieces.  I love the Chinook Arc, Promenade (next to the Drop-In Centre), and Wonderland at The Bow.  But for me,

the real standouts - from a creative city perspective - have been Calgary’s temporary installations and unique festivals. Wreck City last year transformed an entire residential block into a massive work of art before it was demolished. Exploring dramatically transformed homes was a lot of fun. Beakerhead, an event where citizens interact with a smash up of art, science and engineering over the space of a week in September feels distinctly Calgarian.

When it comes to great architecture, Sydney has its Opera House and the Coathanger Bridge (named because of its arch-shaped design).  Not to be outdone, Calgary has the Peace Bridge and The Bow. Sydney has the Opera House, Calgary has the Saddledome. Both cities have strong central business districts dominated by office tower and corporate headquarters architecture.

Forgotten Songs was created by Dave Towey, Dr. Richard Major, Michael Thomas Hill and Richard Wong.  The piece commemorate the songs of 50 birds once heard in central Sydney, before they were gradually forced out by European settlement. The calls, change as the day shifts to night; the daytime birds' songs disappearing with the sun, and those of the nocturnal birds, which inhabited the area, sound into the evening. 

One of the signature things to do when visiting Sydney is to walk across the Coathanger bridge. 

Calgary's Saddledome arena is located in Stampede Park (the greatest outdoor show on earth) on the southeastern edge of the City Centre. 

Transportation

Sydney has one of the longest reported commute times in the western world, with residents navigating a dizzying system of highways, tolled freeways, main streets, laneways and a growing cycle network. The 3-kilometre drive across the City Centre in peak traffic can take up to an hour and driving in Sydney often costs a considerable amount of money in tolls at the Harbour Bridge, Harbour Tunnel, the Eastern Distributor and several other freeways. The alternative to driving is utilizing an extensive public transit system made up of ferries, light rail, buses and trains that extend to the outer suburbs. A free inner-city shuttle circuit connects visitors to tourist attractions.

In contrast, Calgary’s clever downtown grid of roads and the ring road that connects the outer suburbs are extremely easy to navigate. The fact that many roads are numbered rather than named makes it foolproof to find your way around.

Best of all, the roads are free too. The fare-free C-Train zone downtown is brilliant. As a young city, Calgary’s public transit system still has a lot of room to grow and City Council and administration have the opportunity to learn from other cities and to implement new infrastructure in ways that are conscious of future growth.

I believe better transportation to and from the airport as well as easier connections to more tourist attractions would help in attracting some of Banff’s visitors to stay in the city as well. My brother has visited from Australia three times in the last 15 months to ski and hike the Rockies and to eat, shop and relax in Calgary. Unfortunately, he had to drive to destinations like Canada Olympic Park, Heritage Historical Park and CrossIron Mills shopping centre because of limited transit. But he happily explores the innercity by foot and has discovered some lovely little art galleries around Inglewood that even I wasn’t aware of.

Map of Sydney's public transit system. 

Despite a comprehensive transit system, traffic jams like this are a common occurrence in Sydney.

Urban Living

Residential architecture in Sydney has evolved over many years evidenced by the variation in styles along innercity and suburban streets. A lot of Sydneysiders live in heritage housing styles such as terrace houses, workers’ cottages and federation homes. After World War II, the “Great Australian Dream” of home ownership produced a sprawl of detached homes, often with wide verandas and swimming pools in the backyard. High-rise and mid-rise buildings were erected in transit hubs during the following years to increase density.

Nowadays, it’s common for residents to buy an old home or land in a more affordable area in order to build a new oversized “McMansion” that doesn’t quite fit with its surroundings. Yet, the co-existence of conflicting styles adds to the character of many neighbourhoods.  It is very similar to what is happening in many of Calgary’s older communities.

These days, Sydney’s housing prices are among the most expensive in the world, with the median house price around $850,000 (Canadian and Australian dollars are currently at par with each other). That will get you a detached home around 1,200 square feet 30 km from the City Centre or a small two-bedroom inner-city apartment with no view and no parking. The average rent for a small one-bedroom, apartment is around $2,000 a month. With the cost of living in Sydney, it’s not surprising that many people share accommodation or are long-term renters with no plans to ever own a home.

The variety in Calgary’s housing stock both in the innercity and suburbs is impressive, with row houses, laneway housing and mid-rise condominium developments on the rise. The former Calgary suburban trend of building tidy rows of beige homes seems to be shifting as many new communities are featuring bright colours and walkable amenities. The city is also increasing density with infills, resulting in new homes being built alongside older homes in existing communities.

The relatively reasonable cost of living in Calgary was one of the things that attracted me to the city but with the average house price now approaching $500,000 and monthly rent over $1,200 for a decent sized apartment, the landscape is quickly changing. Fortunately, community leaders (private and public) seem focused on improving the mix of housing and affordability for all citizens, with several innovative home ownership programs.

Small cottage homes are being replaced my McMansions in both Calgary and Sydney. 

A parade of new infills on one inner city block in Calgary just 3 kilometres from the downtown core. 

New high-rise condos are changing the skylines of both Calgary and Sydney. 

 Last Word

While Sydney has diverse cultural, recreational and creative offerings, the commute times and cost of living detract from its many upsides.

If you’re not afraid of living with arctic temperatures for a few weeks, it is hard to beat Calgary’s lifestyle and employment opportunities even with the downturn in the energy sector.  I had no job when I landed in Calgary, but within a week I had secured a great position.

I could live anywhere.  I choose Calgary. The city is doing a good job of attracting people here for work and play. But one of the challenges I now face is staying here, as it is not easy to renew a visa.

 Calgary has the advantage of being young enough to learn from the mistakes made by cities like Sydney.  And, with its ambitious and infectious energy, I am confident Calgary will only get better and better as it grows up. I can’t wait to explore the new St. Patrick’s Park this summer.

 While the grass is greener longer in Sydney, the sky is bluer in Calgary. 

If you like this blog, you might like:

Calgary vs Paris 

Olympic Cities: Calgary vs Salt Lake 

Denver vs Calgary: A Tale of Two Thriving Downtowns 

 

 

Editor's Note: Marissa Toohey is currently the Communications Manager at Attainable Homes, in Calgary, Alberta. She has travelled extensively around Asia Pacific, Europe, and North America and her career includes a stint in Vietnam working for Habitat for Humanity International.  She loves to live, work and play in Calgary, not necessarily in that order. 

NIMBYism gone wild?

Seems like we can’t do anything these days without a group of citizens shouting “not in my backyard.” There seems to always be a loud minority who can’t accept that Calgary’s urban landscape has always been evolving and will have to continue to evolve if we want to be a viable and vibrant city for everyone. Let’s stop the madness.

School Yard Bullies

In Scenic Acres, you can’t build a school on a site that had always been intended to be used for a school because some neighbours thought is was going to be a park forever. 

In Varsity, 30 residents launched a lawsuit against the Calgary Board of Education to prevent the relocation of the Christine Meikle School for 120 special needs students on land that has been designated as a school site since 1971.

Back story: Since 1957, the Christine Meikle School has successfully operated in Bridgeland with some students even giving back to the community, through its volunteer program.  The new site near the Alberta Children’s Hospital means not only a better school to meet the needs of today’s students, but importantly allows as access to special therapy these students often need.

Who are these “schoolyard bullies?” Calgary is lucky nobody lived in Varsity in the mid ’60s when the University of Calgary was being proposed. Can you imagine the stink they would have raised at the thought of building a university for 30,000+ students next to them?

We may never have gotten a university! 

School yard bullies vandalizing sign announcing new school illustrates just how childish some adults can be sometimes. Living in a city means sharing space with others. 

Living on the Edge

And then there's Edgemont where some residents feel you can’t build a skatepark in a park because there are houses nearby.  What’s next - maybe we shouldn’t modernize and expand playgrounds in parks because there are houses nearby? Don’t we WANT skateparks built where there are homes close by so the community kids can walk to the park and play unsupervised?

Sure skateboarding is noisy, but so are lawnmowers, kids jumping on backyard trampolines and dog yapping at all times of the day – perhaps we should ban these also.

While there are 500 people on the petition against the skatepark, there can’t be more than a dozen homes that are actually within earshot of the proposed skatepark.  Interesting that in this case the Community Association is onside, but not the immediate neighbours – truly a “not in my back yard” issue. 

Skateboarding is one of the most popular activities of young Calgarians. The City has mobile skate parks around the city in the summer but what about the other three seasons.  When we have a winter like this one, the kids would be using the park year-round.

Live on the edge; let the kids play!

As you can see there are no houses in immediate proximity to the skatepark site. The closest are those across a busy street and then they are set back by large setback.  

Evolve or Die

In Bridgeland, some community members don’t want the 1921 Bridgeland School, which has been sold to developers to be turned into lofts surrounded by townhouses.  Personally, I think converting old school sites into mixed residential sites (lofts, townhouses, low-rise condos) is a great idea.  It will attract new people to the community something needed continue Bridgeland’s wonderful revitalization.  The townhouses will be ideal for young families, who can’t afford the million dollar new infills, yet want to live closer to the city’s downtown.  This project is more about diversifying the communities housing stock than density.

The protesters are probably the same people who complain that we can’t close inner-city schools because of declining enrollment, yet they won’t let the community evolve to attract young families.  You can’t have it both ways.

Communities must evolve or they die!

The proposal takes two surface parking lots and turns them into town homes, isn't that a good thing? Adds new tax revenues so the City can reinvest in established communities. 

Cougar Attack 

And then there’s the “Save The Slopes” residents group (mostly Cougar Ridge) up in arms over the Trinity Hills project east of Canada Olympic Park along the Paskapoo Slopes.  If you check out the proposed redevelopment, you’ll find out the land is privately owned and people have be using it as recreational space ONLY because the owner has allowed them to do so.

I drive by the site almost daily in the summer and most times never see anyone there.  The proposal has 69 hectares of the upper slopes (the most sensitive land) becoming a true park with public access to proper trails for biking and walking that will preserve the slopes.

The proposed village with hotel, retail, restaurants and residential is very synergistic to all of the year-round activities happening at Canada Olympic Park. Seems to me this one is a win-win!

Thank God there was no Cougar Ridge community in the early ‘80s when the city was making its bid for the 1988 Olympics.  Can you imagine how they would have attacked the idea of building Canada Olympic Park on the Paskapoo Slopes? We can’t preserve everything!

We would never have gotten the Olympic games, which put Calgary on the international map.

The Outline Plan clearly illustrates how the sensitive upper slopes will remain as green space with all of the development along the bottom with links to Canada Olympic Park. 

Six Month Limit

Too often it is the developer who gets pummeled by the community for proposing new developments with new uses and higher density.  But in reality, increased density and diversity of uses in established communities has been mandated by City Council, based on extensive research showing that a more compact city is more cost effective to manage.

Recently attending the City’s Open House for the proposed new Currie Barracks development, I was surprised to learn that since September 2013, 39,050 flyers have been distributed to surrounding community residents, and 230 hours of community engagement and four previous open houses had taken place.  And still people who weren’t happy. Obviously no matter how much community engagement you have you can never may everyone happy.

While I am all for public engagement, Council needs to realize they can’t please everyone no matter how long we take. The City needs to place a six-month limit on a well-planned public engagement process, integrating community ideas that are feasible based on accepted urban design principles, economic realities and the overall City’s Master Plan. Random personal opinion of what is appropriate should not make for endless debate.

Last Word

There are many different public(s) living in Calgary. Given that, it’s to be expected that people’s wants, needs and wishes are diametrically opposed.  Community consultation is currently costing the City and the development community millions of dollars each year in unnecessary unproductive, endless engagement.  This cost results in higher taxes and higher housing costs. I’m guessing, few if any of us want that.

Let’s stop the madness now!

If you like this blog, you might like: 

 West District: Community Engagement Gone Wild?

Make Multifamily a permitted use! 

Reform Calgary's Development Appeal Board 


NYC's High Line vs YYC's +15 Walkway

By Richard White, February 18, 2015 (This blog was commissioned by Source Media for Condo Living Magazine.)

In the January 15, 2015 edition of Metro Calgary, columnist Mike Morrison lamented that when he was recently in New York City (NYC) no one had heard of Calgary. I too have lamented at the lack of awareness of Calgary when visiting other cities, but then my friends at Tourism Calgary are also quick to remind me of some facts - Calgary was ranked #17 on the New York Times “52 Places to Go” and Alberta #9 on the UK’s Guardian “Holiday Hotspots” in 2014.   Another fact - in 2014 Calgary was added to the Ultimate Sports City shortlist the de facto benchmark of top sport cities around the world.  Now, Calgary has joined Vancouver as the only two Canadian cities on the list.  

Perhaps we are being a bit too hard on ourselves.  Perhaps we are being too impatient. As the Guardian said, “Calgary has gone from cowboy town to cosmopolitan cool.” YES! People are starting to notice!

High Line vs. +15

Morrison, like many others who have visited NYC recently are “gaga” over the city’s new iconic High Line project, an abandoned railway track converted into an elevated linear park with a great urban vibe. 

People of all ages enjoy strolling along the High Line a linear park that provides a unique perspective on the streets and sidewalks of NYC. (Photo credit: Lelia Olfert)

Evidence of the old elevated railway is evident in this photo.  Note the streets are not packed with people or traffic. (photo credit Leila Olfert).

The narrow park offers lots of resting spots for people watching or to study the urban design of a city. 

I like to remind people Calgary created its High Line in 1970, over 40 years before NYC. While some like to criticize the +15 system (60 bridges connect over 100 buildings to create a 20 km elevated walkway) for sucking the life out of the streets, I say it is the one really unique urban element our downtown has and it should be something we embraced not apologize for.

Why is it everybody raves about Montreal’s underground system, but not our 20km walkway? Both are full of cafes, shops and restaurants, but the +15 also offers more - public art, a mega indoor garden and amazing urban vistas.  Harold Hanen, the +15 visionary, saw it as a logical adaptation to our long cold winter. 

The +15 system could become a great tourist attraction if we would stop “bashing” it and start promoting its unique views of our every-changing downtown.  It could become our postcard like the canals of Venice or the alleys of Melbourne – it is all about how you look at it.

 

  One of 60 glass bridges that are 15 feet off the ground connect buildings at the second floor over a 50-block area of the downtown core. 

One of 60 glass bridges that are 15 feet off the ground connect buildings at the second floor over a 50-block area of the downtown core. 

Along the walkway pedestrians find numerous quiet places to sit like this winter garden with a living wall, infinity ponds and bamboo plantings. 

There is even a formal 2.5 acre garden which is a popular meeting place.  It even includes an indoor playground for families. 

The +15 system connects to The Core shopping centre at the second, third and fourth floors. 

Each bridge offers a unique experience; this on connecting the Municipal Building to Arts Commons is like walking into a stain glassed window.  Kids love exploring the +15 with the huge windows onto the "Tall City" as my 3-year old nephew called it. 

This +15 connected to a 600+ stall parkade, offers pedestrians beautiful sunshine 12-months of the year, along with a parade of cows.  Unlike Montreal's underground and Toronto's PATH, Calgary's +15 offers downtown workers and visitor a chance to see what is happening outside.  

Just one of the many public art experiences along the 20-km +15 walkway. 

Visionaries

Stephen Avenue Walk pulses with new blood at noon hour. 

Morrison shuddered to think what Calgary would look like without visionaries like Councilor Druh Farrell (Peace Bridge, Memorial Drive, East Village and new Library), Andrew Mosker (National Music Centre) and the people at Canada Municipal Land Corporation (East Village, St. Patrick’s Island and Riverwalk).  

He laments that too many people are standing in the way of these visionaries and questions all of the petty squabbling about bike lanes, transit and disabled schools.  I choose to focus on what we have accomplished to attract what he calls “new blood.”   

For example, Myrna Dube, Calgary Parks Foundation’s President & CEO, was visionary for the new Rotary/Mattamy Greenway, a 138 km pathway that will circle the city connecting over 100 suburban communities (over 300,000 people, 25% of the city’s population). It is easily the equivalent of NYC’s High Line, just more suburban in nature.

What about the visionaries for Stephen Avenue walk or Calgary's amazing parks and city-wide pathway system (now the largest in the world). 

Or perhaps the visionaries at Brookfield Residential who are creating a new urban village that will be very attractive to the  "young blood" working the medical field at SETON.  

Attracting new blood

This leads to Morrison’s question, “Has anyone moved here because of it is super car-friendly or because of its endless suburbs?” and his opinion is “probably not.” In fact, one of Calgary advantages over Vancouver and Toronto (there are many) is that newcomers can buy a large family house for hundreds of thousands of dollars less and be just 30-minute car commute from work. Remember - not everyone can - or wants to - walk, cycle or take transit to work.

And, though it might be a tough pill to swallow for urban missionaries not everyone wants to live in dense high-rise communities like Manhattan. People are surprised when I tell them that on a per capita basis, Calgary has as many people living within 4 km of its downtown - 7% of the metro population.

But not to worry urban evangelists, Calgary has one of the most aggressive urbanization programs of any city in the world with a population under two million - Bridges, Currie Barracks, East Village, Greenwich, Inglewood Brewery, Quarry Park, SETON, Westbrook Station, West Campus and West District.   Collectively, they will provide urban homes for approximately 100,000 people and work places for 60,000+ in diverse, dense, vibrant urban neighbourhoods.

All of this is in addition to Calgary’s existing urban districts – Beltline, Eau Claire, Downtown West, Mission, Kensington and Inglewood, the latter of which was named Canada’s greatest neighbourhood by the Canadian Institute of Planners in 2014 (with Kensington being a finalist).

Great cities provide a diversity of communities for people to choose from.

I would argue the Calgary region has a nice mix of urban, established, master planned suburban communities, acreages and small towns for a city its size.

We must be doing something right as Calgary is consistently ranked as one of the top 10 livable cities in the world - NYC is not in the top 10.  In 2014, the Economist had Calgary tied for 5th only 1 point out of first place as of the world’s “most livable” cities.

Main Street, West Campus by West Campus Development Trust, it just one of many new urban villages planned for Calgary in the next few years.   West Village will be attractive to the "young blood" working at the University of Calgary, Foothills Medical Centre and Alberta Children's Hospital. 

Last Word

Obviously, what makes a city attractive is different for different people, and different at different times in their life. No city can be all things to all people. Calgary still in its formative (teenage) years, so yes, we still have a lot of growing up to do.

But, we should also be proud of what we have accomplished! 

If you like this blog, you might like:

Calgary: The City of Parks & Pathways

Calgary deserves more respect from international planners

Calgary's got its mojo working

Calgary: GABEster capital of North America 

Tale of Three Calgary Pedestrian Bridges

Calgary is blessed with almost 1,000 km of pathways (one of the world’s largest urban pathways) used by pedestrians, runners and cyclists year-round.  One of the key elements of the pathways system is its pedestrian bridges which range from “plain jane” functional bridges to multi-million dollar iconic bridges designed by world renowned architects and engineers.  Some have been created with much controversy, while others have flown under the radar.  

This is the story of three recently completed pedestrian bridges that I have been following for several years – Bow Trail, Peace and St. Patrick’s Island bridges.

 Calgary’s “Other Red Bridge”

While the Peace Bridge and St. Patrick’s Island bridges got all the media attention, the new pedestrian bridge over Bow Trail at the western entrance into the downtown just quietly got built. As a minor element in the massive billion-dollar West LRT project, there was no international design completion, nor any elaborate public engagement process. The design was given to two local engineers - Edmund Ho and Monty Knaus of Calgary’s MMM GROUP.

In their 2014 Transportation Association of Canada (Structures Session) Conference presentation, the bridge is described as a “rotated-ellipse arch,” but most people just see it as a representation or interpretation of Calgary’s iconic Chinook Arch. In my mind, there couldn’t be a more appropriate design for one of the downtown’s key gateways, seen by 100,000+ Calgarians and visitors who pass under it, cross over it or by it (Crowchild Trail) every day.

Its Canada Flag red colour helps make it stand out against the dramatic Calgary sky that can range anywhere from pure white to deep blue. Usually I am the guy asking for more ornamentation, but in this case, the simplicity of the design works well. Who says engineers have no sense of urban design? It also offers one of the best views of Calgary’s stunning downtown vista, which becomes visible at exactly this point when travelling east.

This bridge is an important connection in Calgary’s pathway system as it provides a connection to the Bow River pathway for all of the communities west of Crowchild Trail and south of Bow Trail, for both leisure and commuter use. It also provides access to a bus stop on Bow Trail.

The bridge spans all six lanes of traffic as well as the LRT track, with a span length of 50 metres from end-to-end of the half ellipse and another 12 metres of deck supported by steel props on the south end of the bridge. Narrowest of the three bridges at only 3 metres wide; this means it has no room for segregated bike and pedestrian traffic.  It also has no lighting on the bridge itself; though there are street lamps that lights up both the bridge for nighttime use. Note: The City was unable to give me the cost of this bridge as it was buried in the cost of the West LRT project, but in chatting with engineers the thought is the cost would be in the $6M range (this is the smallest of the three bridges).

The Bow Trail Bridge opened in December 2011, if you haven’t visited it, you should check it out for its spectacular view. 

  The sky view from the Bow Trail bridge. 

The sky view from the Bow Trail bridge. 

  Currently the bridge connects an old seniors cottage village and park, as well as being a key link in Calgary's nearly 1,000 km pathway system.  Plans are currently being developed to transform the seniors site into a more mixed-use urban village with seniors as the focus. 

Currently the bridge connects an old seniors cottage village and park, as well as being a key link in Calgary's nearly 1,000 km pathway system.  Plans are currently being developed to transform the seniors site into a more mixed-use urban village with seniors as the focus. 

  The bridge spans the river of buses, trains and automobiles entering and exiting the Downtown along Bow Trail. 

The bridge spans the river of buses, trains and automobiles entering and exiting the Downtown along Bow Trail. 

  A Chinook Arch which was the inspiration for the Bow Trail bridge. 

A Chinook Arch which was the inspiration for the Bow Trail bridge. 

  The city vista from the Bow Trail bridge is stunning.

The city vista from the Bow Trail bridge is stunning.

Peace Bridge 

The Calatrava (the world famous Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava was the designer) Bridge, which later became the Peace Bridge had very strict requirements because of the environmental sensitivity of the Bow River (one of the great fly fishing rivers in the world), no piers in the water (in an effort to minimize the ecological footprint) and restricted height (due to the nearby  heliport).  The bridge also had to meet the following specifications:

  • Withstand Calgary's one-in-100 year flood cycle (who knew this would happen only one year after its completion)
  • Minimum 75-year life span
  • Barrier free access for people of all mobility types
  • Sufficient light so public felt comfortable and secure at all times

Calatrava’s Peace Bridge is unique in that it is doesn't incorporate his signature asymmetric monochromatic white forms with anchored high masts and cables.

  Calatrava's Chords Bridge for pedestrians and trains in Jerusalem. 

Calatrava's Chords Bridge for pedestrians and trains in Jerusalem. 

The candy cane red Peace Bridge name references the fact the bridge’s north side is on Memorial Drive, a boulevard that pays homage to Canada’s war and peacekeeping efforts over the past 100+ years. At the same time as the bridge was being built, Memorial Drive received a major makeover, creating a much more ceremonial street complete with the new Poppy Plaza, public art and ornamental lighting and decorative boulevard.

The bridge was steeped in controversy from day one for several reasons.  The cost ($20M+ was deemed too high by many for a pedestrian/cycling bridge). Why was it sole sourced? Why no pubic engagement? Was it even needed?

And then there were the delays. An independent inspection company was engaged to inspect all of the welds completed in Spain. Red flags were raised about the aesthetics and safety of the welds, which resulted in all the welds being ground down and redone on site. The bridge sat on the riverbank for months - covered in orange tarps like some Christo artwork - while welders redid all of the welds.

Funding for the Peace Bridge was provided through the City of Calgary’s Transportation Infrastructure Investment Program (TIIP), which defines the priority and timing of major infrastructure construction projects. One of the key elements of this program is to foster more pedestrian and cycling opportunities in high-density areas where these modes are more efficient at moving people, supporting land use and lessening environmental impacts. 

The final costs were $19.8M for construction, $3.45M for architectural and structural design and specialized and $1.25M in administration, quality assurance and insurance for a total of #24.5M.

The Peace Bridge is 126 meters long and 6 meters wide, making it twice as wide as a normal pedestrian bridge, allowing separate pedestrian and cycling lanes (not that you would know it as pedestrians walk wherever they want).  It is well lit to promote nighttime use.  The bridge originally to be opened in fall of 2010 didn’t open until March 2012.

  Peace Bridge looking south into downtown over the glacier waters (green) of the Bow River. To me the bridge dominates the river, creating a bold "look at me" statement that takes away from the natural beauty of the setting and blocks rather than enhances the view of the city skyline and Prince's Island. 

Peace Bridge looking south into downtown over the glacier waters (green) of the Bow River. To me the bridge dominates the river, creating a bold "look at me" statement that takes away from the natural beauty of the setting and blocks rather than enhances the view of the city skyline and Prince's Island. 

  The Peace Bridge is a popular place for a noon hour stroll or workout - it is an outdoor gym.  The skeleton-like structure creates interesting viewing vistas for those who stop, while at the same time blocking an expansive view of the river, the sky, park and skyline as you proceed along the bridge.  Visually it seems antagonistic, rather than synergistic with the natural setting. 

The Peace Bridge is a popular place for a noon hour stroll or workout - it is an outdoor gym.  The skeleton-like structure creates interesting viewing vistas for those who stop, while at the same time blocking an expansive view of the river, the sky, park and skyline as you proceed along the bridge.  Visually it seems antagonistic, rather than synergistic with the natural setting. 

  Peace Bridge links the north and south side of the extensive Bow River pathways system for walkers, joggers and cyclists. It is like an impromptu parade at noon hour in the summer, which creates a wonderful urban vitality. 

Peace Bridge links the north and south side of the extensive Bow River pathways system for walkers, joggers and cyclists. It is like an impromptu parade at noon hour in the summer, which creates a wonderful urban vitality. 

St. Patrick's Island Bridge

While the cost of the St. Patrick’s Island Bridge was similar to the Peace Bridge, everything else about this bridge’s design and construction were different.  There was an international design competition attracting 33 local, national and international concepts. All designs were shared with the public - over 2,000 Calgarians participated in the engagement process. Kudos to Calgary Municipal Land Corporation (CMLC) for managing what has become the public engagement model for major public projects in Calgary.

Eventually, the design of two engineering firms - RFR from Paris and Halsall Associates from Calgary – was chosen.  Their design was nicknamed the “skipping stone” bridge as its three arches reminded people of a child playing at the edge of the river skipping a stone off water - a fitting image for the urban playground image being fostered by CMLC for East Village, Riverwalk and St. Patrick’s Island.

In September 2012, construction crews began work, putting in place temporary berms, extending into the Bow River from the north and south banks, to support the base and bridge deck structure. The steel arches were manufactured by ADF Group Inc. in Montreal. The arch sections vary in size (32 to 99-metres long) and weight (70,000 kg to  200,000 kg), were then shipped by truck to Calgary where they were welded together on site and eventually lifted in place with a 250-tonne capacity crane. 

The bridge connects East Village to the charming Bridgeland neighbourhood, as well as provides a new attractive cycling commuter path to downtown from the northeast quadrant of the city.  It is also a key element of the mega-makeover currently underway on St. Patrick’s Island, which is currently being to transform it into a year-round meeting and activity place. It replaces an existing bridge near the west end of St. Patrick’s Island, which did not offer a direct connection to the north bank of the Bow River (all of the materials from the old bridge have been recycled in various ways).

Like the Peace Bridge, St. Patrick’s Bridge has been designed with sufficient width for pedestrians and cyclists, but it doesn't have segregated lanes. It does have purpose-built lighting on the sidewalk of the bridge, but not lighting on the arches which would have been beautiful against the dark river especially in the winter.  The total length of the bridge is 182 metres with a maximum bridge width of 10.7 metres and minimum width of 7.3 metres, making it the longest and widest of the three bridges. 

The St. Patrick’s Island Bridge opened in the fall of 2014 after a one-year delay due to the 2013 flood and with no controversy from beginning to end.

  People of ages and backgrounds enjoy the East Village Riverwalk for various activities. The St. Patrick's Bridge is in the background under construction. 

People of ages and backgrounds enjoy the East Village Riverwalk for various activities. The St. Patrick's Bridge is in the background under construction. 

  St. Patrick's Bridge has become a popular meeting place for walkers, joggers and cyclists.  It has some similarities to the Bow Trail Bridge with its Chinook Arch shape and great views of the dramatic downtown skyline and the prairie sky. The bridge has an elegance that seems to frame the river, skyline and sky without being overbearing. (Photograph by Mark Eleven Photography, extended in courtesy of CMCL.)

St. Patrick's Bridge has become a popular meeting place for walkers, joggers and cyclists.  It has some similarities to the Bow Trail Bridge with its Chinook Arch shape and great views of the dramatic downtown skyline and the prairie sky. The bridge has an elegance that seems to frame the river, skyline and sky without being overbearing. (Photograph by Mark Eleven Photography, extended in courtesy of CMCL.)

  View of bridge from one of the Riverwalk platforms. You can see the three arches aka skipping stones, with one under the bridge. There is an elegance and fluidity in the design that works even in a winter sky. 

View of bridge from one of the Riverwalk platforms. You can see the three arches aka skipping stones, with one under the bridge. There is an elegance and fluidity in the design that works even in a winter sky. 

Last Word

There are many lessons learned from the tale of these three bridges. First, engineers can design engaging urban structures.  Second, it is critical to have local representation on any major Calgary design project, as they will bring a critical eye to reflecting Calgary’s unique sense of place. Third, there must be an effective public engagement process.

As well, a fourth lesson might be that it is not necessary to have an international design competition to ensure high quality urban design. Calgary has a strong, diverse, competent and experienced design community capable of creating great buildings, bridges and public spaces. I am convinced that if we really want to celebrate and express Calgary’s unique sense of place we will have to do it by engaging designers locally who understand and appreciate our urban culture and not import it form elsewhere.  

My personally favourite of the three bridges is the Bow Trail Bridge for its Calgary red colour (think Stampeders, Flames and Calgary Tower), uncomplicated design and subtle reference to one of Calgary’s signature differentiators - the Chinook Arch. 

If you like this blog, you might like:

Poppy Plaza Review

Plaza Design Dos & Don'ts

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. 

If you like this blog you might like:

The importance of a good mayor.

Intelligent Infilling

MAC attack 

Community Engagement Gone Wild

 

Parks: Calgary vs Dublin, Florence & Rome

It’s true - you have to travel to appreciate what you have back home.  After six weeks in Europe, specifically Dublin, Florence and Rome, I have a much better appreciation for Calgary’s parks, especially those in and around our downtown. 

While Dublin had several nice parks including St. Stephens Green and St. Patrick’s Cathedral Park, it had nothing to match the quality and quantity of Calgary’s urban parks.  The public parks in Florence and Rome, are in a word, “disgusting” with their uncut grass, weeds, muddy pathways, tired playgrounds and dog crap.

  The river pathway in downtown Florence. 

The river pathway in downtown Florence. 

  A weed infested playground in Rome.  This was the norm for public playgrounds in both Rome and Florence. 

A weed infested playground in Rome.  This was the norm for public playgrounds in both Rome and Florence. 

Not only does Calgary have great parks, but also on the verge of getting even better. Recently, the City of Calgary announced $75 million in park funding from the ENMAX Legacy Parks program for 18 parks, including mega makeovers of Century Gardens in downtown’s west end, the Beltline’s Thomson Family Park (the former Calgary Lawn Bowling site on 16th Avenue at 11th Street) and Hillhurst/Sunnyside’s Bow to Bluff Park.

In addition, to the park improvements being completed using ENMAX funds several other urban parks have been recently completed or in the process of being completed.

  The site of the new ENMAX Park at Stampede.

The site of the new ENMAX Park at Stampede.

Rendering of what ENMAX Park will look like.

  Century Gardens today looking from the top of the fountain on the northeast corner of 8th Street and 8th Avenue SW.

Century Gardens today looking from the top of the fountain on the northeast corner of 8th Street and 8th Avenue SW.

  The iron gate to Calgary's historic Calgary Lawn Bowling field. 

The iron gate to Calgary's historic Calgary Lawn Bowling field. 

  Plans for renovations of Century Gardens Park (image credit: City of Calgary)

Plans for renovations of Century Gardens Park (image credit: City of Calgary)

  Information panel informing residents of plans for new park space with a mix of uses. 

Information panel informing residents of plans for new park space with a mix of uses. 

  Information panel.

Information panel.

  Concept plans developed by Ground3 Landscape Architects for the old Calgary Lawn Bowling site.  This is just one of several information panels on the fence allowing everyone to know what is being planned. It doesn't get more transparent than this.  

Concept plans developed by Ground3 Landscape Architects for the old Calgary Lawn Bowling site.  This is just one of several information panels on the fence allowing everyone to know what is being planned. It doesn't get more transparent than this. 

New Urban Parks

This past May, the City completed the new Barb Scott Park on the west side of the Calgary Board of Education headquarters on 12th Avenue at 9th Street.  It has added much needed green space to Calgary’s most densely populated community and is home to the popular “Chinook Arch” public artwork.

The City is also in the midst of creating a new park in a somewhat strange location - Macleod Trail and 11th Avenue SE.  Enoch Park will incorporate the historic Victoria Park Queen Anne house built by clothing entrepreneur Enoch Sales in 1905. The new park will hopefully become a meeting space for the many new condo dwellers surrounding the park.

  Aerial view of Enoch Park looking west. 

Aerial view of Enoch Park looking west. 

Signature Urban Parks

Prince’s Island is currently Calgary’s signature urban park, but soon it is going to have to vie with St. Patrick’s Island for that stature.  St. Patrick’s Island is getting a seasonal beach, an outdoor amphitheater, tobogganing hill, firepit and picnic areas as well as a wetland area. Calgary Municipal Land Corporation, after extensive public consultation, has delivered on almost everything on Calgary’s wish list for this park.  

And let’s not leave out Fort Calgary, which is in the middle of multi-million dollar upgrade and expansion. Shaw Millennium Park too has to one of the most unique urban parks in North America as a combination festival/skateboard park.

  Kudos to CMCL for its community engagement and ability to incorporate almost everything on my wish list for St. Patrick's Island. 

Kudos to CMCL for its community engagement and ability to incorporate almost everything on my wish list for St. Patrick's Island. 

NoBow Parks

The north side of the Bow River also has its fair share of urban parks.  Riley Park is over 100 years old and is unique with its cricket pitch. Plans for the Bow to Bluff Park will see the public corridor along the Sunnyside LRT line from the Bow River to the McHugh Bluff transformed into a linear urban park.

Also in NoBow is the 6th/5th Avenue Parkway, from 10th Street to 26th Street, where there is a park/playground space every few blocks – Riley Park, Hillhurst/Sunnyside Community Centre Park and Community Gardens, Queen Elizabeth School Park, West Hillhurst Park/Bowview Pool, Grand Trunk Park and Helicopter Park. 

  Bow to Bluff Park along the Kensington/Sunnyside LRT line. (image credit: City of Calgary)

Bow to Bluff Park along the Kensington/Sunnyside LRT line. (image credit: City of Calgary)

  Detail of one of the nodes of the Bow to Bluff Park (image credit: City of Calgary)

Detail of one of the nodes of the Bow to Bluff Park (image credit: City of Calgary)

Playground Parks

It is crazy how many cool urban playground parks there are in the greater downtown.  I expect there are over 30 vibrant relatively new playgrounds in the schools and parks from Mission to Crescent Heights and from Inglewood to Parkdale.  

Did you know that there are over 1200 playgrounds in Calgary - that averages out to about 6 per community.  Since 2010, the Parks Foundation of Calgary through the Playgrounds and Communities Grant Program, has funded over 100 new playgrounds valued at $15 million.

Last Word

These are only some of Calgary’s awesome array of urban parks.  I haven’t even mentioned lesser-known parks like Humpy Hollow Park, the tiny Paget Park, Chinatown’s Sien Lok Park, the Nat Christie (sculpture) Park along the Bow River. Indeed, when it comes to parks and playgrounds, Calgary doesn’t take a back seat to any city in Canada or around the world.

Our beautiful parks are a big reason Calgary is the 5th Most Livable City (Economist Intelligence Unit’s 2014 Global Livability Index) in the world and Canada’s Best Place to Raise Kids (Money Sense Magazine, April 2014).

When it comes to making Calgary a better place to live, work and play (downtown or in the suburbs), the investment of $75 million into new and improved parks across the city will pay dividends for decades to come.  I think it is wise for a city to build on its strengths.

By Richard White, January 11, 2015

If you like this blog, you might like:

Dublin: St. Stephen's Green vs Cathedral Park

Beautifying the Beltline

Calgary: Dog park capital of North America

Rome: A Surprise Playground Lunch

 

La-Z-boy Tourist: Colour in the Canadian Rockies

You don’t always have to leave home to be a “tourist.” Recently, I curled up with a book I bought on a whim in a used bookstore in Salt Lake City (they have some of the best used and rare bookstores). Entitled “Colour in the Canadian Rockies” this 1947 book was authored by Fredrick Niven with full colour illustrations by Walter J. Phillips. 

Regular readers know I am mostly an urban guy, but once in awhile I like to get beyond the glitz, grit and grid of the street and experience the pastoral pathways of nature. 

I had never before heard of Niven, but I did know Phillips and just looking at the 32 full-page, full-colour reproductions of his watercolours of the Canadian Rockies is like taking a trip to the mountains without leaving your La-Z-Boy (the book also has 33 of Phillips’ fine pen and ink drawings).  I later learned that he was commissioned to do the watercolours to illustrate Niven’s prose as opposed to just a selection of his works.

Mount Rundle

I am also not usually drawn to wordy, flowery, poetic prose but for some reason Niven’s descriptions of the sense of places as he travelled up, around and through the Canadian Rockies seemed authentic and appropriate for the magic and majesty that is the Rockies.

I was immediately captured by “Sometimes they are the colour of ripe plums and seem immense. Sometimes they are just a low wavering inky smudge along the horizon…Sometimes they are smoky-hued mountains of illusion, clouds, and peaks blending in the eye….they give a sense of eternal permanence that makes the sound of bells ringing down the quarters of hours over Calgary, and the honking of motor cars in the streets, and the cough of trolley cars’ warning seem vague, unreal.”

On the opposite page was Phillips’ painting of Mount Rundle, which at first glance is a straightforward tranquil painterly realism representation, but upon further portrays the clouds in the sky and the reflections in the water as wonderful colourist abstractions.  

Cloud abstraction 

I immediately thought of Georgia O'Keeffe when I saw the Phillip's Lake Louise: Dawn - symmetry, sensuality,  abstraction, expression and rich colour.  

For several hours over a few days I was quickly transcended back in time and place to when the Canadian Rockies were first being discovered by Europeans on foot, by horse and by canoe.  Niven tells his personal tales of exploring the hills, rivers, and peaks, as well as the people of the mountains in a philosopher’s prose. Phillips would paint the sense of space, place and silence.

There were even a few history lessons, like was makes a good guide, "A good guide is one who breaks his dude (client) in slow, if he sees he's not in form, without letting him know it, and brings him in to camp just reasonably and healthily tired and with an appetite on him. 

Below Lake Oesa 

Sample Prose

“the names of the creeks and peaks had for me the quality of ballad music.”

“the still reflection of the spire-like trees that stood, as in tranced stillness…an effect of eternal imperturbability on the mountains…lonely projections into radiant space…two pyramidal, very majestic slashed with moonlight and shadow.”

“memory also I have of how the sense of immediacy fell away and yielded to a sense of timelessness.”

“a sense of loneliness inevitably enfolds us in these great solitudes”

“In the tree-tops down Sheol Valley, beyond the awesome slide, little winds sigh and pass and leave profound silence. The tom-tomming of creeks only accentuates the silence.”

“A forest of pillared quiet.”

“They rode on. Immediately we were again alone. Such is the effect of these places when others are encountered and pass. Loneliness enfolds us. The meeting takes on a quality of unreality. Human beings seem transient. They were here; they are gone; they are ghosts; we are all but as ghosts travelling through that quiet.”

Seven Sisters Falls, Lake O'Hara

About Niven

Frederick John Niven (born March 31, 1878, in Valparaíso,  Chile, died died January 30, 1944, Vancouver, B.C., Can.), regional novelist who wrote more than 30 novels, many of them historical romances set in Scotland and Canada. Three of his best-known novels - The Flying Years (1935), Mine Inheritance (1940), and The Transplanted (1944) - form a trilogy dealing with the settlement of the Canadian west.

Educated in Scotland, Niven worked in libraries in Glasgow and Edinburgh before immigrating to Canada about 1900 and working in construction camps in the Canadian west. Returning to the British Isles, he was a writer and journalist in England until after World War I, when he settled permanently in British Columbia. He also published verse and an autobiography, Coloured Spectacles (1938).

Hamilton Falls, full of wonderful colour, shapes, textures and subtle lines, makes further links to O'Keeffe, abstractionists and colourfield painters. 

About Phillips

Phillips was born in Barton-on-Humber in LincolnshireEngland. As a youth, he studied at the Birmingham School of Art. After studying abroad in South Africa and Paris he worked as a commercial artist in England. In June 1913, he moved to Winnipeg, where he lived for more than 28 years. Phillips died in Victoria, British Columbia, in 1963.

Phillips is famous for his woodcuts and watercolours. His artistic career spanned from the 1900s through the 1940s, during which time his work was exhibited throughout North America and Great Britain. Common subjects for Phillips included the lakes of Manitoba, the prairies and in his later years, the Rocky Mountains where his ashes were scattered.

In 1940 he was asked to be a resident artist at the Banff Centre, then known as the Banff School of Fine Arts, where he played an important role in the development of their visual arts program. The  Walter Phillips Gallery, in Banff, which focuses on contemporary, is named after him. The Glenbow Museum in Calgary holds an extensive collection of Phillips art and a research archive.

Lake Louse: Dawn, right-side-up

Last Word

To paraphrase Niven, “it is not only scenery that the forest and mountains offer, but their memories, experiences, restlessness, peacefulness, solitude and companionship.”  

If you like this blog, you might like:

A 24-hour quickie in Santa Fe

BVAS: Still Burning Exhibition

Free Trip to New York (Almost)

Flaneuring Bow Valley College