Calgary is at a crossroads – do we want more or do we want better public spaces?
It seems everyone I talk to these days, wants another park or an upgrade in their community. I was surprised recently when Calgary Herald columnist and fiscal conservative Mike Milke in his March 19th column recommended the City of Calgary use the $86 million surplus from 2015 as seed money to create a major park along the Bow River west of Shaw Millennium Park in future new downtown community called West Village.
Do we need more parks?
The west end of downtown already has Shaw Millennium Park, as well as Pumphouse Park and the Bow River Pathway that goes all the way to Edworthy Park. Along the way you pass through the 40-acre Lawrey Gardens and Douglas Fir Trail.
One could also question if there really is a need for more parks anywhere in Calgary, the American National Recreation and Parks Association recommend that a city should have 10 acres of parks for every 1,000 people. At present, Calgary has 5,200 parks totalling 25,000 acres, which for a population of 1,200,000, means we have 20 acres/1,000 citizens or twice the recommended amount (City of Calgary website).
When it comes to parks, more is not always better. In fact, less could be more - fewer parks mean more money to spend on maintenance and renovation of existing parks, making them healthier, more beautiful and more attractive. Fewer parks mean more money for equipment in the parks, better pathways and more plantings. Fewer parks mean more people using the same parks, which would increasing social interaction with neighbours and help make our parks safer.
Sure there are some communities that have more and some less park space, but there is hardly a shortage of parks in our city.
Do we need more plazas?
I am also not a big fan of creating plazas next to busy streets. The City of Calgary invested $31.5 million for Poppy Plaza at the busy corner of Memorial Drive and 10th Street NW. Yet, I rarely see anyone in the plaza despite having passed it hundreds of times. Surely, there was a better way we can pay our respects to those who have served our country than an empty plaza.
We already have Memorial Drive, Memorial Park and the second largest military museum in Canada. For $31.5 million we could have built two schools (Cranston elementary school cost $15.6M) with a military name and mural.
The new East Victoria Park, on the east side of Macleod Trail between 11th and 12th Avenues SE, looks more like a plaza than a park (to me). It looks nice and there is an area designated as a possible event space, but I really wonder if anyone will want to linger, watch or listen in the park given the traffic noise of three major roads. I hope I am wrong.
Did we need to spend $1.85 million to create a new plaza for a public artwork in the community of Parkdale where 34A St. meets the Bow River? When I sit on the benches the artwork actually blocks my view of the river vista and doesn’t allow me to make eye contact with others in the plaza. I am not convinced the artwork enhances the space or the river experience.
Do we need more promenades?
While recently in Austin, Texas (population 1,000,000) and wandering its extensive Colorado River pathway system, I was impressed by not only how busy it was, but that it was a simple (no separate lanes for cyclists and pedestrians), dirt pathway that follows the contours of the shore.
It was a very different experience to Calgary’s formal, hard-surfaces promenades with separate lanes for pedestrians and cyclist in some places. It was a free for all and yet is seems to work even though it is as busy or busier than our promenades, riverwalks and pathways.
What about the $5 million 13th Ave SW Heritage Greenway? If you haven’t heard about it, or seen it, you are not alone. The idea was to link the 13th Avenue heritage sites (Haultain School, Memorial Park, Lougheed House and Calgary Collegiate) from Macleod Trail to 9th Street SW with a wide sidewalk lined with trees, grasses and street furniture to create a “complete street” that would accommodate pedestrians, cyclists and personal motorized vehicles. It looks pretty, but I haven’t noticed any increased in pedestrian traffic and don’t expect any. Now we have bike lanes on 11th Avenue SW I wouldn’t expect many cyclist to use it.
I am all for beautifying our city, but lets do it where people will see it, use it and enjoy it.
I am not alone in thinking that perhaps more parks, plazas, promenades and public art are not the best way to enhance community vitality. Jane Jacobs, author of “The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961),” which has become the bible for many urban planners and community activists wrote, “parks, plazas, promenades, pedestrian malls should not automatically be considered a good thing. Most downtowns have too many.”
Jacobs also wrote, “Human beings are what interest us most; it is the richness of human variation that give vitality and color to the urban setting…people watching is the best urban activity. People attract people.”
I’m with Jacobs on this one. If we want to create more community vitality, we need fewer parks, playgrounds, plazas, promenades and public art.
We need to make better use of what we already have - make them places where people want to linger and meet their neighbours.
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