Are We Winter Wusses?

For decades now, I have advocated that winter cities need to think differently when it comes to the design of buildings, streets, parks, plazas and pathways, as well as the height and positioning of buildings.

 I recently attended a "Winter City Design" forum hosted by the Alberta chapter of the Urban Land Institute at the newly renovated St. Louis Hotel in Calgary’s East Village.  I thought this would be a great opportunity to learn what’s new in the world of winter city urban design thinking. Unfortunately I came away with no new ideas!

  Winnipeg's warming huts for skaters along the river are a great idea that could easily be adapted to other cities for pathways and parks.  The warming huts were not even mentioned at the Forum. 

Winnipeg's warming huts for skaters along the river are a great idea that could easily be adapted to other cities for pathways and parks.  The warming huts were not even mentioned at the Forum. 

Winter Cities 101

A winter city is commonly defined as one where the average winter temperature is below freezing during the city’s coldest month and has an annual snow accumulation of more than 20 cm (8 in.).  This unfortunately doesn’t take into account things like wind chill factor or temperature fluctuation.

For example, Calgary can have a week or two where the temperature doesn’t get above -20C followed by a week where the mid-day high is over +10C every day.  Other cities like Copenhagen hover around the freezing mark during winter, but rarely get below -10C.  Some winter cities get lots of snow that stays all winter (Montreal gets the most snow of any major city in the world - 209 cm on average), while others get minimal amounts of snow, which melts quickly.  Not all winter cities are equal.  

The idea that winter cities should share ideas on what works and what doesn’t with respect to creating a quality of life for its citizens in the cold, dark winter months dates back to the ‘60s. Calgary’s Harold Hanen, a planner at the City of Calgary from 1966 to 1969, was one of the champions.  His “big idea” to make Calgary’s downtown more appealing in the winter was a series of above-ground pedestrian bridges linking downtown office, shopping, hotel and cultural buildings.

Today, there are 60+ bridges, known as +15 bridges named for the fact they are 15 feet above the sidewalk (it is the longest indoor above ground walkway in the world.)

Calgary's +15 walkway allows downtown workers to explore downtown without having to put on their coats and also without having to negotiate slippery streets and cars.  Planners don't like them as they say they destroy the street vitality.  Public loves them.  My observation is that public uses them when climate is harsh but once the weather is nice (winter or summer) people would rather be outside.  It is the best of both worlds.   

Nothing New To Report

I was disappointed all three presenters at the ULI event (two from Edmonton, one from Cleveland) really had nothing new to share about winter design guidelines or other insights.  Basically, what they had to say was common sense and already well documented. 

Winter cities need to:

  • Capture the sun
  • Block the wind
  • Use warm colours for building facades
  • Have better infrastructure (e.g. gas lines/electricity for lighting and fire pits)
  • Have better snow removal management
  • Avoid high-rise buildings (they block the sun and create wind tunnels)
 This diagram summarizes Edmonton's Winter Design Guidelines. 

This diagram summarizes Edmonton's Winter Design Guidelines. 

While the presenters showed lots of pretty artists’ renderings of winter scenes, they were fantasy images, not real-life photos. The best photo was one of someone trying to jump over a slushy puddle with large snow banks all around them. That’s winter! 

One interesting idea is to piling up snow from the streets into adjacent local parks for kids to play on. For more than a decade, Calgary’s West Hillhurst arena Zamboni drivers have piled up snow from cleaning the rink onto the playing field outside and kids have snowboarded, built forts, made snowballs and slid down all the time.  I love the idea of expanding this to more local parks.

I was struck by how the Forum’s presenters seemed fixated on winter design guidelines for creating vitality in urban (downtown) spaces. Given going outside in the winter is probably at best an hour long activity, not many people are going to travel 60+ minutes on a return trip from suburbia to downtown for an hour of outdoor activities. Would a less downtown-centric approach to enhancing winter vitality not seem a wiser approach?

I expected to hear about adding outdoor activities to new suburban new recreational centers where most city dwellers spend their winter leisure hours. How can we make outdoor playgrounds more attractive in the winter?  How can we incorporate more hills into our smaller urban parks for toboggans, snowboarding and sliding for young children? How can we create more snowshoeing and cross-country skiing opportunities in the city parks? It isn’t all about sitting on patios in urban plazas and patios.

And, what about ways to make winter cycling more attractive? Calgary’s Tom Babin has literally written the book on winter cycling -  “Frostbike: The Joy, Pain and Numbness of Winter Cycling.” Not exactly the best title if you want to get more people to experience winter cycling, the title is catchy and it would have been interesting to learn more about how to promote winter biking.

 I found this image of what you need for safe winter cycling. 

I found this image of what you need for safe winter cycling. 

  This snow slide in Winnipeg next to an old fashion outdoor hockey rink. I imagine it gets used by siblings who get tired of watching the good old hockey game.  I don't recall seeing one of these in another park.  

This snow slide in Winnipeg next to an old fashion outdoor hockey rink. I imagine it gets used by siblings who get tired of watching the good old hockey game.  I don't recall seeing one of these in another park.  

  Calgary's 17th Avenue is often bustling with pedestrians and patio patrons on a sunny day in the winter.  

Calgary's 17th Avenue is often bustling with pedestrians and patio patrons on a sunny day in the winter. 

Past Festival Failures

Recently, National Geographic Canada named its top 10 winter cities in Canada. Calgary did not make the list.  Edmonton did with its many winter outdoor festivals as did Winnipeg with its innovative “warming huts” along the world’s longest winter skating rink.  Backstory: Probably one of the most innovative new ideas I know for enjoying winter is Winnipeg’s pop-up warming huts (think ice-fishing huts, but nicer) along the frozen Red and Assiniboine Rivers that allow skaters to rest, get out of the wind and meet up with fellow skaters.  It is an idea that could work along Calgary’s Bow River and other pathways where there are lots of winter walkers and runners.

Calgary has experimented with numerous major winter events over the past 30+ years.  After the 1988 Winter Olympics, annual attempts were made to have a winter carnival in the middle of February.  Several locations were tried – Canada Olympic Park, Olympic Plaza, Prince’s Island and Calgary Zoo - but eventually organizers had to accept there was not enough support for it. 

Calgary has also experimented with a First Night Festival (New Year’s Eve), but again, the support for its winter celebration didn’t materialize - it died a slow death.  

 Instead of expensive festivals with fixed dates, why not develop impromptu winter festivals when the snow allows for it.  What about a snowman making weekend? This was on Oct 9th 2016, the early snow was perfect for snowman making and creating a maze the kids loved making and walking through.  DIY and KISS should be part of any winter design and programming plan. 

Instead of expensive festivals with fixed dates, why not develop impromptu winter festivals when the snow allows for it.  What about a snowman making weekend? This was on Oct 9th 2016, the early snow was perfect for snowman making and creating a maze the kids loved making and walking through.  DIY and KISS should be part of any winter design and programming plan. 

  The new park in Bridgeland is great as it is a safe family toboggan hill with nearby amenities like cafes. Perhaps a toboggan festival would be fun? Something simple as everyone going to their local hill and posting photos.  How can we create more hills in our local playgrounds - they don't all have to be huge? They are great for rolling, running and cycling down in the summer too. 

The new park in Bridgeland is great as it is a safe family toboggan hill with nearby amenities like cafes. Perhaps a toboggan festival would be fun? Something simple as everyone going to their local hill and posting photos.  How can we create more hills in our local playgrounds - they don't all have to be huge? They are great for rolling, running and cycling down in the summer too. 

Use Local Examples

I was puzzled as to why there wasn’t a speaker from Calgary (it is ULI Alberta), who could address our good (and not-so-good) winter city strategies.  For example, Stephen Avenue Walk is kept snow free in the winter, making it an attractive place to walk, shop and hang out.  It also has a lovely winter lighting program that creates a festive atmosphere - but does it work?

Calgary’s Bow River pathway too is plowed in the winter, allowing for various recreational uses.  How can it be improved? And lets not forget Bowness Park, with its lovely skating pond with fire pits, restaurant and huge outdoor patio.  It would also have been interesting to learn more about the Foothills Nordic Ski Club’s plans to enhance Confederation Park for cross-country skiing this coming winter.

There was talk about how in winter city restaurant patios work best on the north side of the street so you still capture the low winter sun.  I have great pictures of Calgary’s Ship & Anchor patio full people in the middle of February because it’s location on the north side of 17th Ave SW with no mid or highrise buildings on the south-side of the street.

For me, Calgary’s “big missed” opportunity was the Bow Tower plaza with its lovely southwest-facing plaza and home to the “Wonderland” sculpture. Why isn’t there a cafe opening onto the plaza with chairs and tables for people to sit and enjoy the ever-changing downtown landscape?

  The Bow Tower's southwest facing plaza is crying out for a cafe with table and chairs on the patio so people can soak up the winter sun and enjoy "Wonderland." 

The Bow Tower's southwest facing plaza is crying out for a cafe with table and chairs on the patio so people can soak up the winter sun and enjoy "Wonderland." 

  Some enterprising locals created this luge-like toboggan run in a nearby dog park.  How can we encourage more DIY winter play infrastructure?  

Some enterprising locals created this luge-like toboggan run in a nearby dog park.  How can we encourage more DIY winter play infrastructure? 

  This DIY outdoor rink is being used by two figure skaters, as well as a mom and her son playing hockey and several people watching.  Too bad City of Calgary limits the number of people who get access to fire hydrants for flooding the rink in any one community.  Why can't there be as many ice rinks as there is demand?   

This DIY outdoor rink is being used by two figure skaters, as well as a mom and her son playing hockey and several people watching.  Too bad City of Calgary limits the number of people who get access to fire hydrants for flooding the rink in any one community.  Why can't there be as many ice rinks as there is demand?   

  It is a shame this DIY fire pit has to be removed from a local park in Calgary.  Shouldn't we be encouraging this?  

It is a shame this DIY fire pit has to be removed from a local park in Calgary.  Shouldn't we be encouraging this?  

Mindset Change vs. Design Changes

It is going to take a huge paradigm shift in our attitude toward the cold to change the negative winter mindset of North Americans.  The evolution of urban living has been focused on avoiding the cold. For example, we have evolved from driveways to alley garages, to attached garages and then remote garage door openers and, remote car starters to avoid the cold.  Cars now come with heated seats and steering wheels.

In the middle of the 20th century, outdoor hockey rinks were the norm for minor hockey.  Today, all games are played indoors. Some arenas even have heated enclosed lounges so spectators don’t have to sit in the cold stands.

Yes, for most of us, we hate the cold!

For those who do embrace winter, it usually means a trip to the mountains, to Canada Olympic Park or the local dog park with a canine friend or two.

  What can we do to promote and improve dog parks for more uses? Dog parks get used seven days a week, year-round. There is a great sense of community at dog parks which should be capitalized on. 

What can we do to promote and improve dog parks for more uses? Dog parks get used seven days a week, year-round. There is a great sense of community at dog parks which should be capitalized on. 

Last Word

A speaker at the ULI meeting asked in jest, “Have we all become winter wusses?” I would answer a definitive “YES!” We hate the cold, even if it is a dry cold and there is lots of sunshine. 

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Downtown Calgary puts the PARK in PARKades

Calgary’s downtown has the dubious reputation as having some of the most expensive parking in the world! And there are several good reason for that. The most obvious is the city limits the supply of parking while the demand for parking by the 150,000+ downtown workers is very high (at least it was until recently).  But there are other reasons, like the fact Calgary has a greater percentage of underground parking than most cities. 

Above Ground vs. Underground?

That is not the case for other cities like Austin where almost all of their downtown parking is in above grade parkades that occupy the bottom 3 to 6 floors of their office, hotels and condos towers.  The further down you have to dig the more expensive the cost of underground parking.  It is my understanding that on overage an above ground parking stall costs about $20,000, while and underground stall averages out to about $60,000. 

In addition, the underground parking has to be heated which is not the case for above ground parking so they are more expensive to operate.  

Entrance to the underground parkade at James Short Park on a Saturday morning. 

Parkades as parks

The other big difference in Calgary downtown parking is that five of the parkades have parks above them – James Short Park, Civic Parkade, McDougall Centre, Harley Hotchkiss Gardens and York Hotel Plaza.  There is also a six park/parkade in the Beltline under the Haultain School Park that serves the Union Square condominium. 

Designing a parkade with a park on top increases the complexity of the design, engineering and materials, which in turn increases the cost of the project.  As each project is unique the cost can range from hundreds of thousands of dollars to millions.

James Short Parkade (880 stalls)

James Short Parkade built is located on the block between 4th and 5th Avenues on the west side of Centre Street.  It is the site of the James Short School, which was originally 1905 Central School – the cupola from the school can be found at the NW corner of Centre Street and 5th Ave NW.  The school was torn down in 1969, but the cupola was saved and moved to Prince’s Island. 

Backstory: The cupola was designed to have a clock but it never had a clock while it was part of the school. It wasn’t until the park and parkade was developed in 1995 that the clock mechanism from the Burns Block demolished in the early ‘60s was incorporated into the cupola as part of the new park.

This passive two-acre park is used mostly as a place to sit, with some of the neighbouring Chinese community using it for Tai Chi exercise.  Above the park is Calgary’s only curved +15 that links Suncor Place with SunLife Plaza.

James Short Park is a quiet oasis in a sea of office towers. It is a peaceful place to sit, relax and chat. 

The James Short School copula sit at the southeast entrance to James Short Park. 

Old photo of Central Schools which later became James Short School and now is a park and parkade. 

McDougall Centre Parkade (658 stalls)

The historic McDougall school (has been restored and converted in the Premier of Alberta and the Calgary Caucus’ headquarters.  It is probably most famous for hosting the annual Premiers Stampede Pancake breakfast.  It opened 1908 as the Calgary Normal School, a teacher training facility. It became the McDougall (named for Methodist missionary John McDougall) elementary school in 1922 and continued in that role until 1981. The provincial government purchased the building, demolished the additions and reopened it as Government House South (now McDougall Centre) in 1987.

As part of the renovation design for the McDougall Center an underground parkade, with a lovely park above was created. There are two lovely tree-lined promenades that meet at the front doorway.  The back of the school has a cascading waterfall and pond under a canopy of large evergreens that is a popular place to sit at lunch.  And, when there is no water in the pond it makes for a great skate park. 

One of two lovely tree canopied sidewalks at McDougall Centre Park. 

McDougall Centre parkade is under the entire block of the 100+ year old sandstone school. 

On the west side of the Centre is a larger water feature which becomes a skate park when there is no water in the fountain and nobody is looking. 

City Hall Parkade (640 stalls)

The City Hall Parkade is located underneath the Municipal Building affectionately know by some as the Blue Monster. It is a popular evening parking spot for those attending an event at the Performing Arts Centre (opps Art Commons).

Few Calgarians, realize there is park on top of the parkade on the northeast corner of 9th Avenue and Macleod Trail.  It is not a ground level but at the +15 level so it is not visible to those driving or walking by.  It is a bit of a hidden oasis for City of Calgary employees and those in the know.  It is also home most years to Calgary’s first tree to leaf out as there is a microclimate created by its southwest orientation and the heat trap created by the dark brown brick Edwards Place apartments and the Municipal building’s dark blue glass. 

City Hall Parkade is invisible from Macleod Trail.  It is also sadly closed after hours and on weekends. The City of Calgary should be a leader in keeping downtown public spaces open on the weekends.   

City Hall Parkade Park offers good views of downtown architecture and it a quiet place to chat. 

Harley Hotchkiss Gardens (770 stalls)

The 1.5 acre Harley Hotchkiss Gardens is locate above the Alberta Court of Appeal (Court House #2) parkade that encompass the entire block from 6th to 7th Avenues and 4th and 5th Street SW.  The stately sandstone building has severed many different purposes including the Glenbow Museum from 1964 to 1977. 

At ground level is the old Court House, a futuristic LRT station with a connection to Holt Renfew, a water feature and the grassland gardens that is home to the Joe Fafard’s eight stampeding horses titled “Do Re Me Fa Sol La Si Do” On the north side of the Court House building is Joanne Schachtel’s artwork/bench titled “Buffalo Trail;” this piece was in the park before the parkade was created and the judges demanded it be incorporate into the new park. When the judges talk, everyone listens.

Hotchkiss Gardens located in the middle of downtown Calgary. 

Hotchkiss Gardens is a popular lunch spot. 

Joanne Schachtel’s artwork/bench titled “Buffalo Trail" is meant to double as a bench for people to sit on.  Unfortunately it is often in the shadow of the Courthouse building, which makes it less popular as a place to sit.  

Haultain School Park

The Haultain School Park is a hidden gem in Calgary’s park system.  It includes the 1894 Haultain School (now home to Parks Foundation of Calgary) was Calgary’s first school. The park also includes tennis courts, a playing field and a busy children’s playground. 

When the twin Union Square condos (on 1st Street at 13th Ave SW) were proposed the developer worked a deal with the city to gain access rights build a parkade underneath the eastern half of the park for residents.  The money was used to upgrade the park for the entire community’s use.  The current residents pay a fee to the city each year for leasing the land rights.

Temporary Public Spaces

In addition to these permanent parks, there are two other parkades that have attractive public spaces at ground level.  There is a lovely plaza on the northwest corner of 7th Ave and 2nd St SW that is has been waiting since 1982 for the second tower of the First Canada Centre to be built. Each year the plaza is decorated with lovely grasses and flowers that make for a lovely outdoor lunch spot.

More recently, the site of the York Hotel, 7th Ave and Centre St. S, which was suppose to have a small office building as part of The Bow tower development has been converted into a temporary plaza.  Designed by Sturgess Architect, the plaza is constructed primarily of wood, to look like a huge deck, with benches and planters for trees and grasses designed specifically for the plaza and manufactured local.  All of the materials are recyclable. 

It could easily be another 25+ years before we see an office building on either site, in the meantime downtown Calgary has two public space to enjoy. 

A view of the First Canada Centre plaza from the +15 bridge over 7th Avenue.  In the summer, there are lots of planting creating a cheerful and colourful place to sit in the sun at noon hour. 

The flower boxes are actually support beams for the unbuilt office tower, they create wonderful private spaces to to sit and read or have a chat with a friend or colleague. 

York Hotel Plaza is a perfect spot to see tow of Calgary's iconic pieces of architecture and art - The Bow Tower and Wonderland sculpture. 

Like Poppy Plaza, it looks very inviting to skateboards, too bad it couldn't accommodate them as it would create some animation of the space, every time I pass by there is never anyone there. 

The York Hotel plaza fence decorative elements were inspired by the designs on the Art Deco York Hotel. 

Detail of York Hotel's decorative elements. (photo credit: Canadian Architectural Archives) 

Last Word

So the when it comes to creating public space in downtown Calgary, we can thank the City, the developers and designers who have sometimes willingly, sometimes reluctantly and sometimes creatively put the PARK in Calgary PARKades.

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Community Gardens: The New Yoga Studio?

Seems like everywhere I wander these days I encounter a community garden. In the past two weeks, I have happened upon amazing gardens in East Village at Fort Calgary Park, the backyard of the Banff Trail Community Centre and side yard of the Altadore School & Community Edible Garden.  I was literally gobsmacked by how healthy the plants at the Altadore School Garden were. 

East Village's community garden includes a funky shade structure that makes for a great place to sit and people watch.

The plants at the Altadore School &Community Edible Garden were humungous, twice the size of anything I have seen in other gardens.  

The Banff Trail community garden is a more typical community garden in my mind.

Community Gardens Gone Wild?

Not only does it seem like every school and every community centre in the City has a community garden, but more and more backyard and front yards being convert to or incorporating vegetable gardens also.  Is this just a trend or have the public become more and more aware of the value of eating healthy. Are community gardens the new yoga studio?

Pretty much everything you need to know about Calgary Community Gardens is at the Garden Resource Network hosted by the Calgary Horticultural Society. I was amazed to learn there are 169 (87 public and 82 private) community gardens in Calgary as of July 2016.  No wonder I am seeing community gardens everywhere I wander these days but didn’t in the past - there were only 12 community gardens in 2008 and 130 in 2010.

Link: Garden Resource Network

Past vs. Present

Interestingly 100 years ago in Calgary and most cities across North America, it was common practice to have a vegetable garden in your backyard and some might even have a pig, a few chickens and a cow. On a recent walking tour of West Hillhurst lead by David Peyto for Historic Calgary Week, he informed us it was common practice early in the 20th century for new homeowners to buy two lots - one for the house and one for the garden.  I can’t imagine anyone doing that these days. But who knows, “the times are a changin.” 

Fast forward a hundred years. Houses have more than tripled in size with a double garage as big as many of the cottage homes built in the early 20th century.  New homes sport huge concrete driveways in the front and big decks filling lots that are often half the size they once were. Room for a garden is minimal at best. In older communities, mature trees and tall infills create so much shade there isn’t much sun for a garden. In addition, more and more Calgarians are living in apartments and condos so there is no back or front yard, so it isn’t surprising that community gardens have become more popular.   Hence, the popularity of community gardens in the 21st century.

Using schools, community centres and parks for communal gardens is a great idea as it also fosters a sense of community as people learn gardening tips for each other and help each other with watering and weeding.

Here is a garden in the backyard of an older cottage home that illustrates how at one time the garden space too up more lot space than the house.  

Another lovely backyard garden in an established Calgary community. 

The front yard can work also for a vegetable garden, especially if it is on the southside where it will get more early spring sun - at least on this side of the equator it will.

Community Garden Generate More Taxes?

I wondered if anyone has looked at how community gardens impact house prices as has been done with proximity to parks, transit and bike lanes. Indeed, in 2008 Real Estate Economics (the oldest academic journal focusing on real estate issues) published “The Effect of Community Gardens on Neighboring Property Values” by Ioan Voicu and Vicki Been. The authors documented that homes near community gardens increased in value by up to 9% after five years of the garden being developed.  Furthermore the positive impact of community gardens was greatest in poor neighbourhoods and increased with the quality of the garden. The authors also noted that the increase in property values as a result of community gardens was worth billions in additional property tax revenues for cities.

Link: "The Effect of Community Gardens on Neighboring Property Values"

East Village's community garden would be a good example of a high quality garden with is ornamental fence and patio stone walkways.  

Altadore School also has many highend features like the metal vs wood raised gardens, poured concrete sidewalk and two large circular concrete areas that will become outdoor classrooms. 

Banff Trail has a wonderful orchard as part of their upscale community garden. 

Calgary Mega Community Garden

Did you know that Calgary has an 11-acre community garden just off of the Trans Canada Highway (you can see if you look south just west of the Stoney Trail intersection)?  Grow Calgary, a group of 50 dedicated volunteers (and hundreds more on a casual basis) have created Canada’s largest urban farm with all of the produce harvested going to Calgary’s Compassionate Food Access Agencies (16 different agencies).  The farm grows everything from carrots to cabbage, zucchini to turnips. Grow Calgary is currently waiting to hear from the Province if they can expand the farm by utilizing the transportation utility corridor along the Trans Canada Highway.  To me, this is a no brainer, but their 2014 application still awaits a response!

Last Word

Today, urban farming produces about 15% of the world’s food supply according to the United States Department of Agriculture. This is forecasted to increase as the world’s population continues to become more and more concentrated in cities.  Whether it is tiny backyard plots, community gardens, guerrilla gardening on vacant lots, indoor hanging gardens, rooftop growing or vertical gardens - urban farming is here to stay.

Could community gardens and urban farming be the new yoga?

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Banff Trail Flaneuring Postcards

It all started with the need for an oil and filter change!

As I drive a Nissan Altima and Stadium Nissan is five minute drive away and they had just sent me an email saying I could get an express oil and filter change for $49.99, I headed out for what I thought would be a 30-minute uneventful trip. 

Unfortunately (or fortunately depending how you look at it) they found a cracked belt of some sort and said they could fix it but would take an hour.  I said, “Go ahead and fix it. I will go for a walk and be back in an hour.”

Stadium Nissan is aptly named as it is beside Calgary’s McMahon Stadium home of the Calgary Stampeders.  My first stop on my walkabout was the pedestrian bridge over Crowchild Trail.  I am a sucker for taking photos of bridges and this one has a lovely blue tower in the middle that harmonizes nicely with the blue sky (regular readers will know that I have an obsession with Calgary’s blue skies). 

McMahon Stadium pedestrian bridge Calgary

A sense of place

After taking a few photos, the Banff Trail LRT station grabbed my attention. Immediately I was struck by what looked like several Stampede football players hanging out in full uniform at the station, or at least that is what it looked like from a distance.  I knew this couldn’t be true as they were in Winnipeg that night for a game.  However, the vinyl silhouettes looking very real from a distance, added an intriguing sense of place to the quaint station that looks a bit like a mountain hiker’s hut.   

Banff Trail LRT station design appropriately looks a bit like a hiking hut or shelter. 

From a distance these cutouts look like real players. Kudos to those responsible for this initiative.  I love the hashtag "whatever it takes" and think it could be expanded to apply to Calgary in general. 

I loved the playfulness of the light caused by the trees and the gate. 

Ghost town

Continuing walking into the community I was stuck by the huge mid-century, flat-roofed ranch style duplexes on the corners and how different they are to the two-storey infills being built today.   In fact the entire community felt a like a walk back in time.  It was also strange as it felt like a ghost town – there was nobody walking along the sidewalks, playing in the huge playing fields or playgrounds. In fact, there weren’t even any cars on the roads; it was deserted despite it being mid-afternoon on a beautiful July day.

 

I was soon struck by how on many of the corner lots there were this bungalow duplexes, which got me thinking about how housing design has evolved in Calgary over the past 50+ years. 

In this collage you can see mid 20th century duplexes that are dotted throughout Calgary's established communities. On the right you can see the two-storey duplexed that are replacing single homes in almost every Calgary community. 

Anywhere Anytime

For me, it was a lovely Thursday afternoon in July for flaneuring.  What I love about flaneuring is you can do it anytime and anywhere and you’ll almost always are rewarded with a few fun surprises.  You also don’t need any special clothing or equipment.

You just need to do it!

PS...Yes my car was ready when I got back to Stadium Nissan almost exactly an hour later. 

Found this mysterious grotto-like garden at the entrance to the Ecole St. Pius X School at the corner of 23rd Ave and 18th St. NW (technically in Capitol Hill as 18th Street is the dividing line)

Inside is a wonderful, eerie perspective on the outside world. 

This mural on the side of the Banff Trail Community Centre intrigued me to wander up for a closer look which is when I discovered their lovely community garden complete with an orchard. 

Community gardens are becoming the new yoga in Calgary. 

Wouldn't this make a great postcard?

Across the street from the community centre I noticed a new, hip, urban, window reflection and had to take a picture.  While it was closed, Jay's mom was in the store and she let me in for a tour.  I must go back to sample the pizza (both Greek and Neapolitan style dough) and perhaps pick up a charcuterie plate. Note: there is no seating takeout only.

I was almost back to Stadium Nissan when I discovered this calf wandering out of a backyard. I always love a surprise. 

Calgary's 7th Ave. Transit Corridor: Better But Not Great

It all began innocently enough. A tweet by Sonny Tomic, an international urban planner and the former Manager of Calgary’s Centre City in which he said “Great street today – not 10 years ago,” with a photo of the 4th Street LRT Station at Hochkiss Gardens.  I responded, “this block is nice, but some blocks are not that great.”

This immediately started a flurry of emails about 7th Avenue’s transformation over the past 10 years and if 7th Avenue truly is a “great street.”  Even Jermey Sturgess, one of the urban designers for the new LRT stations along 7th Avenue contacted me wanting to know more about my thoughts on 7th Avenue, as he is part of the design team for the LRT’s Green Line. 

Sturgess and I recently did a walkabout so I could share my thoughts on how I thought 7th Avenue’s station and sidewalk design could be improved. 

The 4th Street LRT station (designed by Calgary's Sturgess Architecture) that empties onto the Hochkiss Gardens and historic Courthouse building is the highlight of Calgary's 7th Avenue Transit Corridor.  The rest of the corridor still leaves lots to be desired as a pedestrian friendly public space.  

7th Avenue History

Originally 7th Avenue was called McIntyre Avenue. It wasn’t until 1904 when the city dropped street names in favour of numbers that it became 7th Avenue.  In some ways, 7th Avenue has always played second fiddle to 8th Avenue as Calgary’s best urban streetscape.  The original City of Calgary trolley system used 8th Avenue not 7th Avenue and given this was before mass car ownership this meant almost everyone arrived downtown on 8th Avenue.

In the ‘70s, the situation changed. 7th Avenue became Calgary’s downtown’s transit corridor when part of 8th Avenue was converted to a pedestrian mall and rebranded as Stephen Avenue Mall. At the same time, new office shopping complexes like TD Square and Scotia Centre turned their backs on 7th Avenue having their front doors on 8th Avenue.  7th Avenue has struggled for the past 35+ years to find its mojo.

But if you look closely, you’ll see 7th Avenue is more than just a transit corridor.  It is home to Old City Hall, W.R. Castell Central Library, Olympic Plaza, Hudson’s Bay department store, Core Shopping Centre, Holt Renfrew, Devonian Gardens, Harley Hochkiss Gardens, Calgary Courthouse complex, Century Gardens and Shaw Millennium Park.

Indeed, 7th Avenue has all the makings of a great street and has had for many years with parks, plazas, shopping, churches, major office buildings etc.  It is also currently being radically transformed by three major new buildings, sure to become architectural icons – TelusSky, Brookfield Place and 707 Fifth. TelusSky is notable also as it will bring much needed residential development into the downtown office core. 

The Hochkiss Gardens with its trees, public art and lawn is a very attractive public space in the heart of downtown Calgary along the 7th Ave Transit Corridor. There is literally a park, plaza or garden every two blocks along the corridor.

Brookfield Place when completed will add a new plaza to 7th Avenue with a grand entrance unlike office tower built along 7th Ave in the '70s and '80s. 

707 Fifth Office Tower will also have an attractive entrance and plaza onto 7th Avenue when completed. 

Great streets are pedestrian friendly

To me, a great street is a place with lots of pedestrian-oriented buildings and activities i.e. inviting entrances, open seven days a week, daytime and evening with pedestrian-oriented activities (e.g. shopping, eating, browsing, entertainment, and recreational activities) at street level. 

Great streets are where people like to meet, gather and linger. This is not the case for 7th Ave for many reasons:

The City Hall/Municipal Building complex turns its back on 7th Avenue.  Yes, there is an entrance to the complex off of the LRT station but it is a secondary one that looks more like an afterthought.

The Convention Centre snubs 7th Avenue with no entrance at all from 7th Avenue, only emergency doors.

Olympic Plaza too discounts 7th Avenue with its large coniferous trees blocking transit riders’ view of the plaza activities. I am no tree expert but the lower branches could easily be trimmed so people could see into and out of the plaza along 7th Avenue? It would also be good for public safety.

The Hudson’s Bay store also gives the cold shoulder to 7th Avenue with its glorious colonnade along 8th Avenue and 1st Street SW but not extending around to 7th Avenue. As well, its larger display windows on 7th Avenue are poorly utilized and the sidewalk looks like a patchwork quilt of repairs.  

The side walk along 7th Avenue at the Hudson's Bay department store is an embarrassment. 

This is just one of several blocks and corners along 7th Avenue that are not public friendly.

Pride of Ownership?

Scotia Centre’s main floor food court entrance is several steps above street level effectively making it invisible from the 7th Avenue sidewalk. And its stairs are in very poor shape - no pride of ownership here.

Historically, TD Square followed suit, turning its back on 7th Avenue with the entrance being more office lobby-like than one opening onto a grand shopping complex.  The recent LRT Station improvements nicely integrates the station with building by creating sidewalk ramps at both ends that stretch from building edge to street, but the entrance is still more lobby-like than grand.

As for Holt Renfrew’s entrance off of 7th Avenue – well, it looks more like a dull hallway than a stately entrance to downtown’s upscale fashion department store.

7th Avenue lacks the cafes, restaurants and patios most often associated with great pedestrian streets. There are also no galleries, bookstores and shops fronting 7th Avenue that are would attract browsing pedestrians.  Most of the restaurants and cafes that do front onto 7th Avenue are closed evenings and weekends.  

One of the biggest obstacles for 7th Avenue is the fact that it is lined with tall office buildings that allow little if any of Calgary’s abundant sunlight any light to shine on the sidewalks, making it a very hostile pedestrian environment, especially in the winter.

Getting off and on the trains is a challenge as the numerous canopy pillars are in the way.  

If it isn't a pillar in the way it is a shelter, garbage can, signage or benches that make movement on the stations very difficult to navigate especially at rush hours. 

7th Avenue at Olympic Plaza is hidden from view by pedestrians and riders by lovely trees. This creates a very narrow sidewalk and safety issue (good public spaces have good sight lines so people can see into and out of the space). This streetscape would also improve with some colourful banners.  

Other Observations

What’s with the tacky baskets full of plastic flowers hanging at the LRT stations? I recently did a blog about banners being a better alternative than flowers and, though not a scientifically sound survey, everyone agreed the plastic flowers suck – including Councillor Farrell.

And speaking of banners, there are hundreds of banner poles along 7th Avenue - but most of them are empty. What a missed opportunity. They could be used not only to add colour to the street (especially in the winter), but also in conjunction with arts and event groups to promote and showcase upcoming art exhibitions, theatre shows and festivals.  

Also, though the new LRT stations are a big improvement, they are very “cluttered” with pillars, benches and ticket machines positioned in a manner that not only negatively impacts pedestrian movement but also exiting and boarding the train. 

And whose idea was it to locate huge public art pieces in the middle of the sidewalk at the entrances to the stations on the west and east end stations and a heat ball thingy in the middle of station?

The new design 7th Avenue is not pedestrian friendly as the sidewalk an obstacle course of garbage cans, artwork, trees, posts and fences.  

Putting a heat ball thingy in the middle of the sidewalk was just a dumb idea. 

7th Avenue looks great with lots of people and banners to add colour to the street. 

Last Word

As Calgary continues to work on the design of the new LRT Green Line, I hope the station and streetscape design team will learn from the clutter on 7th Avenue and create a more pedestrian-friendly streetscape. 

Kudos to Sturgess - he seemed to get it!  

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10th Avenue Renaissance

Urban Design is not a science?

Banners are better than flowers?

Stampede Park: Calgary's best children's playground?

Call me crazy but I have always thought contemporary public art could make great playground equipment. From time to time I have seen children interacting with public art by climbing, sitting and sliding on it.  Imagine if “Wonderland (aka the big white head)” on the plaza of the Bow Tower was part of a playground and people could climb up and over it. Now that would be exciting public art!

I have talked to some artists and playground designers about my idea of commissioning public art for playgrounds across the city, but always got shot down by them saying, “it would be too expensive and time consuming to get it approved from a safety perspective.”

Until this past Sunday I didn’t realize Calgary already has a wonderful piece of public art that also serves as a playground.  “By the Banks of the Bow” is a giant artwork that includes 15 horses and two cowboys, located in a small park in front of the Agrium Western Event Centre. In the past I have seen families interacting with the piece, but it was nothing like I experienced this year on Family Day at the Stampede.

People of all ages and backgrounds were swarming around what is one of the largest bronze sculptures in North America.  Kudos to the Stampede for not posting signs everywhere saying don’t climb on the sculpture or a fence around keeping people out. 

By the Banks of the Bow 101 (Stampede website)

“By the Banks of the Bow celebrates one of mankind’s greatest living treasures; its wildness and spirit, strength, speed and dependability. It supported the people of the First Nations, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, farmers, town folk, prospectors and adventurers, cowboys and ranchers.

Today the horse retains a pride of place in the Calgary Stampede. In rodeo, the chuckwagon races, the heavy horse competitions or in the show ring, the horse is as iconic as the Stampede itself and is woven into its cultural fabric.

Created by local artists and ranchers Bob Spaith and Rich Roenisch, By the Banks of the Bow is a narrative in bronze that depicts our past, present and future, and reflects the Stampede’s many relationships with our community.”

Fun Facts

  •  From inspiration to installation, the sculpture took four years to complete.
  • The piece was cast in a foundry in Kalispell, Montana.
  •  Ten of the horses represented actually competed at the Calgary Stampede Rodeo.
  • The lead cowboy, Clem Gardner, was the Canadian All Around champion in the first Calgary Stampede Rodeo in 1912.
  • The total sculpture weighs approximately 14,500 pounds (seven tons).

Last Word

It is too bad this type of public art, i.e. art that invites you to interact with it, stop and take pictures of it, isn’t more prevalent in Calgary and elsewhere. 

I also noticed this week the big bronze sculpture of “Outlaw,” the Calgary Stampede’s iconic bull is back on the plaza of 5th Avenue Place but with a big sign saying don’t climb on it.  Too bad…a missed opportunity to add some fun to the downtown experience!

Hmmm…I wonder how I might get some playground public art for Phase two of Grand Trunk Park. The kids would love it!

If you like this blog, you will like these links:

Public Art vs Public Playgrounds

The End Of Grand Trunk Park Playground Envy

Putting the PUBLIC back into public art!

Does Calgary's City Centre have too many parks, plazas and promenades?

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.

Lawrey Gardens along the south shore of the Bow River between Crowhchild Trail and Edworthy Park. 

Calgary boast one of the largest urban pathways networks in the world. 

Edworthy Park is just one of over 5,000 parks in Calgary. 

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.

Poppy Plaza has amazing views of the downtown skyline, the Bow River and the Louise Bridge, but few people stop and linger, it is mostly a just a walk by plaza. 

This new plaza in Victoria Park, next to the busy Macleod Trail has limited use whenever I have visited. The most use I have seen is by skateboarders who probably shouldn't even be there, but you can't blame them for using it as it looks like a great skatepark. 

This is entrance to Parkdale Plaza for pedestrians looking west.  

Outflow is the title of the concrete artwork by Brian Tolle which is an inverted replica of Mount PeeChee, the third highest peak in the Fairholme Range just north of Canmore in the Bow River watershed.  It is linked to the storm water sewer that empties into the Bow River at this site via an outfall, so when the water travels through the sculpture It is suppose to serve as a reminder of the origins of the Bow River and how it has shaped our city. 

Unfortunately, most of the time there is no water so it looks like a strange and intriguing concrete vessel that seems to capture peoples' interest for a quick glance and then move on.  My biggest objection is that it blocks my view of the river.  This photo is taken sitting on one of the benches and you can't look up the Bow River to downtown. In my opinion the piece is too intrusive on what was a lovely spot to enjoy the river. 

To me this is a much more appealing and intimate way to enjoy the Bow River. 

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.

13th Avenue Greenway creates a promenade-like experience with wide sidewalk, trees and grasses in Calgary's Beltline community. 

13th Avenue Greenway at Barb Scott Park.  It looks lovely, but is hardly ever used. 

Austin's river pathway is mostly just a dirt path, with no separate paths for cyclists and pedestrians making it much more natural. It is heavily used by people of all ages and all forms of transportation. 

Last Word

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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Do we really need all of this public art?

Plaza Design Do's & Don'ts

Calgary: The City of Parks & Pathways 

The Famous Five at Olympic Plaza

 

 

 

 

 

 

The End of The Grand Trunkers' Playground Envy

In Calgary, communities are defined by their playgrounds.  There is even a website devoted to reviewing and ranking Calgary’s playgrounds (Calgary Playground Review). Given there were new playgrounds all around Grand Trunk Park  – Helicopter Park, Westmount Park, West Hillhurst Recreation Centre Park – the neighbours living near the Park with its ‘80s playground were silently suffering from a serious case of “playground envy.”

As you can see, Grand Trunk's old swing set required some creativity to make it fun for older kids. 

I have lived across the street from West Hillhurst’s Grand Trunk Park (west side of 23rd Street, between 5th and 6th Avenues NW) for over 25 years.  For many of those years, I didn’t even know it was called Grand Trunk Park as there was no sign a few years ago, then a one magically appeared a few years ago.  I began doing some research and realized the old house next to the park (which was the Maritime Reunion Hall in the ‘80s and ‘90s) began its life in 1911 as the Grand Trunk Cottage School.  I have a sneaking suspicion that 100 years ago the park served as the schoolyard for its students.

Fast forward to 2016. Grand Trunk Park is getting worn out and tired looking.  This is not surprising as the streets around the park are literally being taken over by young kids playing street hockey, skateboarding and shooting hoops.  I am told the 2300 block of 6th Avenue alone has over 25 children under the age of 16.  

Over the past year or so, the park has become a wonderful gathering place for the neighbours and the parents whose children go to the Honey Bee Daycare located on the northwest corner of the Park.  Families from blocks away mix and mingle at the park, getting to know each other while older kids play in the park unsupervised, just like in the 50s and 60s.  No helicopter parents here!

The old slide was good for practicing your snowboarding skills. 

Kubb Anyone?

We have never seen the Park used by more people for more activities. One day I counted eight different activities in the park - everything from kite flying to lacrosse, to some guy doing sprints. There were even some young adults throwing wooden blocks at wooden blocks - a poor man’s version of bocce perhaps?  When I asked what they were playing, they said “Kubb.” Turns out it is a Swedish lawn game where the object is to knock over wooden blocks by throwing wooden batons at them; kind of a combination of bowling and horseshoes.

Kubb could be the new darts

And I have seen as many as five different activities in the Park at one time – a mother hitting a baseball to her son, two young boys taking shots on each other using the soccer goal posts, young families playing in the playground, a dad and his son kicking the soccer ball around and me practising my chipping by hitting golf balls from one tree well to another.

Like Kubb, some other activities have me puzzled.  A couple of times I ventured out into the park to ask people what they are doing. In March, three people with long, large ropes attached to the soccer posts with a backpack attached to the ropes told me they were practising mountain rescues. Not sure if I should believe them but they came back a few times, so who knows. Another time, a guy also with huge ropes also attached to the soccer posts (yes, the posts are used for soccer too) was waving them up and down practising for some iron man competition.

Even with big trees and telephone poles and wires, Grand Trunk Park can be a fun kite flying spot. 

Grand Trunk Park Happy Hour

At about 10 o’clock on weekdays, the preschoolers attending the adjacent Honey Bee Daycare make a beeline to the playground. At about 4 pm on weekdays, Grand Trunk Happy Hour starts - parents pick up their children and many head to the playground, break out the juice boxes and snacks. The Park again becomes animated.  At Happy Hour, the 2400 block of 6th Avenue becomes a gridlock with cars; we love it. 

Happy Hour at the Grand Trunk playground!

Lottery Winners!

Where is this going you ask? Well, late in 2015, the City contacted the West Hillhurst Community Association informing them that they were going to replace the playground equipment (it had come to the end of its lifespan) and wanted to engage the neighbours. Word spread like wildfire (a “good” wildfire) - you would have thought we’d won the lottery.

A neighbourhood meeting was quickly called.  Enthusiasm for making Grand Trunk Park the envy of the inner city was high. But wait, we had no time to fundraise; no time to create a grand plan for our historic park as the City wanted to replace the playground equipment in June and so we had just over a month to “hurry up and agree on what equipment we wanted and get it ordered.”

Just another day at Grand Trunk Park

Community Catalyst

It’s unbelievable how the City’s decision to replace the aging playground equipment has been a catalyst for creating a real sense of community for families for blocks around the park. Some families are even from the other side (west) of Crowchild Trail (CT), which surprised us as most people think of CT as a barrier.

The outpouring of support for the playground revitalization was amazing. When the equipment quote came in higher than expected, a quick email soliciting donations exceeded expectations. When a call went out for volunteers to help with the two-day installation, there was no problem getting the bodies needed.

Even the Park & Play installation supervisor said we were great – in fact, the second best group of volunteers he said he had ever worked with on the 200+ playgrounds he has done! (A group of Martindale volunteers were  “best” because of special circumstances associated with their playground.) No big egos; no bickering when we had to re-dig the hole for the swings on Day 2 (it was two feet too high).  No panic or annoyance when we figured out late on Day 1 (after we re-dug the hole for the slide thinking the hole dug by the backhoe was in the wrong place) that they had sent us the wrong slide.

The aftermath of unpacking the playground equipment looked like we had just been to IKEA. 

Ladies at work!

Men at work!  In this case we found that in preparing the site one of the cement foundations from the old playground had not been removed. 

Measure twice dig once?

It is all coming together now!

Even with all of our team work, the 8ft slide wouldn't attach to the 7ft climbing wall structure.

The "Water Test!" Who knew you have to pour water down the slide to see if it would run off to know if it was installed correctly? We do now!

Just a few more inches!

Check out this video of the Grand Trunk Wheel Barrow Ballet

Kids Again

Perhaps the funniest thing about Day 1 of the installation was that while everyone really craved a cold beer by mid afternoon, we all quite happily settled for freezies.  The sight of 15 adults all eating freezies was very humourous. On the second day, we settled for watermelon as our refreshment.  Oh so appropriate for a children’s playground install!

Ironically, the second (final) day of the installation was Neighbours Day in Calgary so once done, we gathered for an old fashioned house party hosted by one of the neighbours.  Dozens of kids and adults had a grand time on the street in front of the house (using the basketball net bought by a neighbour who has no kids but thought a street with 25 kids needed a basket net), on the front porch (which was turned into “buffet central”) and in the big enclosed backyard that became a sports field. 

I overheard one parent say, “I imagine this must have been what it was like in the ‘50s when neighbouring families played together.” 

Ready for the gravel, inspection and then reopening of the playground.

Last Word

Calgary has over 5,200 parks, big and small.  I am pretty sure Grand Trunk Park will never be the best park in the city, but already the proud Grand Trunkers (what we are now calling ourselves) are talking about plans for more improvements.

In the meantime, we are working to expand our informal Tuesday Night “Drop By The Park to Play” and “Sunday Morning Madness” drop ins. A park toy box is now on our front porch so families can borrow balls, Frisbees, a tug of war rope and limbo stick as desired. 

It’s back to the future in Grand Trunk Park this summer.

It was a real team effort to get the Grand Trunk Park installed in two days. 

A Big Thank You To: 

  • City of Calgary
  • Parks Foundation Calgary
  • Donors 
  • Park & Play 
  • Leigha Pidde
  • Grand Trunker Voluteers

All downtowns must reinvent themselves!

While it is shocking Calgary’s downtown skyscraper “vacancy rate” skyrocketed to 20% at the end of March, (and that it could soon surpass the vacancy record of 22% set in 1983, twice what it was a year ago), we should keep some perspective.

These numbers are not unheard of in major corporate headquarter cities. Back in the ‘70s, New York City was in decline. By the mid ‘70s, New York City came close to bankruptcy and their office vacancy rate hit 20%. In 1993, Toronto’s downtown office vacancy rate hit 20.4% and Vancouver’s rose to 17.4% in 2004. And these may not even be records as data only goes back only to 1990 for those cities.

Today, New York City, Toronto and Vancouver’s downtowns are booming a testament to the fact that all downtowns go through periods of growth, decline and rebirth.

Montreal's St. Catherine Street has once again become a vibrant street with shops and street festival; this was not the case in the '70s when I first visited. 

Heyday and Decline

It might surprise some people to learn that in the early 20th century, Buffalo was one of the world’s leading cities. 

Home to America's first electric streetlights, it also had one of the world's first skyscrapers (Guaranty Building, 1894) and the world's largest office building (Ellicott Square, 1896). It hosted the 1901 Pan-American Exhibition and its beautiful park system was designed by none other than Fredrick Law Olmstead, the designer of New York City’s Central Park.

At the beginning of the 20st century Winnipeg was the fastest growing city on the continent. In 1912, a Chicago Tribune writer called Winnipeg “Chicago of the North” and described it as Canada’s most cosmopolitan and ethnically diverse centre, with most of its population under the age of forty. It was described as Canada’s liveliest city, full of bustle and optimism. In 1911, Winnipeg was Canada’s third largest city; today it is eighth. 

The downtowns of both these cities fell into decline in the middle of the 20th century and while they have not returned to the hustle and bustle of their heydays, both are enjoying a modest renaissance.

Buffalo's waterfront was once thriving industrial and shipping centre, today it is being transformed into a wonderful public spaces for locals and tourists. 

Buffalo's Canalside development development is animated year round. (photo credit: Joe Cascio)

The Forks (where the Red and Assiniboine Rivers meet in Winnipeg) has been transformed into a mixed-use public space with two museums, baseball field, outdoor performance space, winter skating, market and hotel.  

Decline and Rebirth

In the ‘60s, the case could still be made that Montreal was Canada’s business capital. Its downtown was a major office headquarters for Quebec’s natural resource industry as well as a thriving financial industry, including the head offices of the Bank of Montreal, Royal Bank of Canada and insurance giant, Sun Life.

In 1962, when the Place Ville Marie office designed by iconic architects I.M. Pei and Henry N. Cobb opened, it symbolized Montreal’s arrival as world-class city.  This was further reinforced with the hosting of Expo 67, the arrival of Montreal Expos baseball team in 1969, and the 1976 Olympics.

However, the ‘70s brought the threat of separation, which resulted in many corporate headquarters and their executives moving to Toronto. By 1971, Toronto’s population surpassed Montreal’s. The 1976 Montreal Olympics, the most expensive in history, plunged the City into a legacy of debt and decline for decades.

Today, Montreal downtown has reinvented itself as an international tourist destination and a major player in the gaming and music industries.

Old Montreal is one of Canada's best urban tourist attractions. 

Then there was New York City.  In 1975, it was on the brink of bankruptcy.

The gradual economic and social decay set in during the‘60s. The city's subway system was regarded as unsafe due to crime and frequent mechanical breakdowns. Central Park was the site of numerous muggings and rapes; homeless persons and drug dealers occupied boarded-up and abandoned buildings. Times Square became an ugly, seedy place dominated by crime, drugs and prostitution. 

Today, New York City is back as one of the world’s most successful cities, economically and culturally…and Times Square is again one of the world’s most popular urban tourist attractions.

In the '60s and '70s the area around Times Square was a "no go" zone for tourists and locals. (photo credit: Ilana Galed)

Today Times Square is bustling with people of all ages and backgrounds.  It has become a wonderful public space as a result of street closures. 

Calgary’s Future

Perhaps Calgary has already begun to reinvent itself.

The CBRE’s First Quarter 2016 Report states, “Not all commercial real estate in the city has been affected, though. Suburban office space held steady fro,m the last quarter, and the industrial real estate market is still robust because it’s not tied to oil and gas.” 

Indeed, Calgary has become one of North America’s largest Inland Port cities, including two state-of-the art intermodal rail operations.  Calgary is now the distribution headquarters for Western Canada a position once held by Winnipeg. Today, Calgary’s industrial sectors employ more people than the energy sector.  However, this new economic engine won’t help vacant downtown office spaces as it is not downtown- oriented.

Link: Calgary Region: An Inland Port

Calgary Economic Development is working with the real estate community to implement a Head Office/Downtown Office Plan with three action items.

One idea is the repurposing of smaller older office spaces as incubators and innovation hubs to attract millennials and/or entrepreneurs and the creation of incubation and co-sharing space.  A good example of this is in West Hillhurst, where Arlene Dickenson (a successful Calgary entrepreneur, venture capitalist and former start of the TV show Dragon’s Den) has converted an old office building at the corner of Memorial Drive and Kensington Road (once home to an engineering firm) into District Ventures, home to several start-up packaged goods companies.

New and old office buildings in downtown Calgary with multiple floors of vacant office space will be difficult to convert to other uses. 

Another “repurposing” idea would be to convert some older office buildings into residential uses. In the US, programs like “Vacant places into Vibrant spaces,” have been successful but mostly for office to residential conversions of older buildings with smaller floor plates.  They don’t work for offices buildings with floor plates over 7,500 square feet (which is the case for most of Calgary’s empty high rise office space), as it is expensive and difficult to meet residential building codes which are very different from commercial ones, making it difficult to compete with new residential construction.

In an ideal world, Calgary could become a “Global Talent Hub” where skilled workers who have been displaced from the energy and related industries continue to live in Calgary but become a remote workforce for energy projects around the world. Temporary and permanent satellite offices could be established in Calgary with teams of engineers, geologists, accountants, bankers etc. working on projects around the world.

The obvious strategy would be to woo international companies in the finance, insurance, transportation, agriculture, digital media and renewable resources industries to set up a Canadian or North American office in Calgary, maybe even relocate their headquarters here.   With cities like San Francisco, Seattle and Boston facing mega affordable housing crisis for millennial workers, Calgary could become a very attractive place for a satellite office for companies in those cities.

One “off the wall idea” postulated by George Brookman, C.E.O of West Canadian Industries, would be to promote Calgary as an International Centre for Energy Dispute Resolution, similar to the Netherland’s TAMARA (Transportation And Maritime Arbitration Rotterdam-Amsterdam) that offers an extrajudicial platform for conducting professional arbitration for settling disputes. However, this would take years and one wonders could Calgary compete with London and New York who are already leaders in International Arbitration business?  

Last Word

Calgary has reinvented itself before. It evolved from a ranching/agriculture-based economy to an oil and gas one in the middle of the 20th century, which was when our downtown came of age. The downtown core which is an office ghetto today would benefit immensely if incentives could be made to convert a dozen or so office buildings into condos, apartments or hotels to create a better “live, work, play” balance.

Note: An edited version of this blog was published by CBC Crossroads titled “Revitalizing Calgary’s core: Some possibilities for rebirth” on June 17, 2016.

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Calgary: Everyday Tourist's Off The Beaten Path Picks

 

When planning trips to other cities, one of the first things we do is Google phrases like: “off the beaten path, hidden gems and best kept secrets.”

You never know what you might find wandering the world's longest elevated indoor walkway in Downtown Calgary. 

With Calgary’s tourist season about to begin, here is the Everyday Tourist’s list of off the beaten path (OTBP) places in Calgary, our hometown for 25+ years.

You should know….

  • We tried to include a diversity of things to see and do that will interest visitors of all ages and backgrounds. 
  • In all cases there is a website link for more information about the place.
  • In several places we included a link to an Everyday Tourist blog for more information about the area.
  • Though for the most part the places are within a few kilometers of Calgary’s downtown, we have ventured a little further afield in a few cases.
  • This blog is in no way trying to underestimate the quality of Calgary’s many well-publicized tourist attractions, but merely offer some lesser known, fun alternatives.
  • Hidden gems are in the eyes of the beholder. Be open to discovering your own OTBP gems while you enjoy ours.

Calgary's Chinese Cultural Centre's ceiling is just one of Calgary's many off the beaten path, hidden gems. 

Most of the OTBP places in this blog are within the boundaries of this map which is 5 km west to east (14th St west side to 15th St east side) and 3 km north to south (from 16th Ave. northside to 25th Ave southside), with north being at the top of the map. Note the community names on this map as they will help locate the OTBP places in this blog.

Downtown

A-mazing +15 Walkway

If you are wandering the streets of downtown Calgary, you can’t miss the +15 walkways (called “plus 15s” by locals); there are 60 of them. “What is a +15?” You might know them as sky bridges i.e. structures that connect buildings over the sidewalks and roads.  Many downtowns have them but Calgary has the most and their name comes from the fact they are 15 feet above the street. Collectively, they create a 20-km indoor walkway that is on par with Montreal’s Underground.

While you won’t see them listed as a tourist attraction, it is great fun to wander the maze of office buildings, shopping centres, hotels, food courts, museums, public art and performing arts centre they connect. The view of Calgary’s modern architecture from the +15 is spectacular.

Despite maps and signage, you are bound to get lost, but that is part of the adventure. Just ask someone and they will be more than please to get you back on track.  Calgarians are very friendly. Link: +15 Map

Link: NYC High LIne vs YYC's +15 Walkway

Yes these are three Dale Chihuly sculptures and there is a huge living wall in the background of the Jamieson Place winter garden on the +15 level.  You can also find things like a real bush plane hanging from the ceiling of the Suncor Energy Centre, a bison skeleton at Sun Life Plaza lobby and much much more. 

Hidden Canadian Masterpieces

Tucked away in the lobby of the Eighth Avenue Place office tower hang paintings by iconic Canadian painters – Jack Shadbolt, Jean-Paul Riopelle and Jack Bush.  A five-piece Shadbolt in the lobby entrance off 8th Avenue is stunning; other masterpieces are located in the elevator lobbies on the main floor. 

While Eighth Avenue Place’s lobby has the most well known artists, the lobbies and plazas of almost every downtown office building (and there are over a 100 of them) have original art.  Downtown is like one giant art gallery.

Link: Iconic Canadian Art Hidden In Downtown Calgary Office Building

The Chocolate Lab

While exploring Calgary, you will surely find some of our many chocolatiers – Chocolatier Coppeneur (Stephen Avenue), Epiphanie Chocolate (11th St SW) and Olivier’s (Inglewood), the latter being one of Canada’s oldest chocolate and candy makers. 

But hidden (unless you go to Chinatown which you probably should do) is The Chocolate Lab in a tiny space at 202D Centre Street E.  Here you will find some of the best works of chocolate art in the city.  The artisan bonbons would make a tasty souvenir of Calgary - my personal favourite being “Scotch on the Rocks.”

Reaching for some colourful samples seconds....yummy!

Udderly Art Cow Pasture

Every downtown needs a fun place or two. In Calgary, one is the Udderly Art Cow Pasture (located on the +15 level of the Centennial Parkade along 9th Avenue between 6th and 5th Streets SW.) Here are a dozen cows put out to pasture from the 100+ cows that invaded Calgary in the year 2000.  The Pasture’s enormous information panels provide fun facts about Calgary’s biggest and best public art project to date - Udderly Art: Colourful Cows For Calgary. 

Link: FFQing In Downtown Calgary's Udderly Art Pasture

The +15 hallway of the Centennial Parkade is home to some strange looking dudes.  

NW of Downtown

Riley Park

A lot is written about Calgary’s great parks, from the big ones like Fish Creek and Nose Hill to the island parks - Prince’s and St Patrick. But as for the best OTBP park, we recommend Riley Park. Sundays are a great day to visit (but any summer day is good) as you can not only enjoy the Burns Memorial Rock Gardens and the kids’ wading pool action, but you can sit back, relax and watch a game of cricket.  The children’s playground in the southwest corner is always animated

There are lots of picnic tables and the Sidewalk Citizen Bakery across the street from the Safeway next to the Second Cup on 10th Street makes great sandwiches to go.

Riley Park is a wonderful urban oasis. 

SAIT

The Southern Alberta Institute of Technology’s campus is worth exploring for those into architecture as it has a wonderful combination of old and new architecture.  Check out the stately 1912 Heritage Hall, with its many vintage murals in the staircase, and then head over to one of the funky new buildings and the stunning parkade.  Yes, you must check out the parkade with the soccer field on top, that also offers a spectacular view of Calgary’s downtown skyline and the Rockies.  

Link: Calgary's Stunning Parkades Get No Respect!

The SAIT Campus is funky mix of old and new architecture. 

Hillhurst Flea Market

For over 40 years, the Hillhurst Community Centre has hosted a year-round Sunday (7am to 3 pm) flea market which, in the summer, overflows onto the courtyard outside. You will find a plethora of characters selling everything from books and records to antiques and collectables.  It is where we found many of the vintage Fisher Price toys for our collection.

The people watching is almost as much fun as the treasure hunting at the Hillhurst Flea Market. 

Crescent Height StairMaster 

For the billion-dollar view of Calgary and a bit of exercise, check out the Crescent Height stairs.  Find them just north of the pedestrian bridge over the Bow River and Memorial Drive at the north entrance to Prince’s Island.  At the top of the stairs (there are 167 by the way), you will be rewarded with a spectacular view of the Bow River valley, the Rocky Mountains and the downtown skyline.

And fitness fanatics might want to take the Olympic Challenge.  The steps are divided into 11 flights and while for most people, once is enough, but for Olympians, NHL and CFL players can do them 10 times in under 17 minutes. Give it a try.

The Crescent Height StairMaster is a great way to get your heart pumping and get a great view of Calgary's stunning skyline, river valley and mountains. 

Aquila Books

Who would think the non-descript little building with the blue awning on the Trans Canada Highway (aka 16th Ave N) is home to one of North America’s - if not the world’s - great antiquarian bookstores?  Aquila specializes in books dealing with Polar Expeditions, Western Canadiana, Mountaineering and the Canadian Pacific Railway.

It is as much a museum as a bookstore with antique maps, prints, photos, letters, postcards and scientific instruments. It even has an authentic Inuit kayak hanging from the ceiling.  Bibliophiles will want to do a “long browse” here!

Link: Flaneuring The Trans Canada Highway

Everything at Aquila is carefully curated for the serious book collector.  Note the two Inuit kayaks hanging from the ceiling. 

Livingstone & Cavell Extraordinary Toys

The buzzword of upscale retailers these days is to say they offer a “curated” collection. But when it comes to Livingstone & Cavell, it is more than just a buzzword. Owners Donna Livingstone (CEO, Glenbow Museum) and Edward Cavell have both been museum curators for decades.  Drop in and see their collection of toys for all ages – it truly is exceptional!

Livingstone & Cavell is simple charming. 

South of Downtown (Beltline/17th Ave)

Secret Heritage Trail

While Calgary downtown’s Stephen Avenue (8th Avenue SW) is a National Historic District and Inglewood’s 9th Avenue (Atlantic Avenue) has an official historical Main Street designation, 13th Ave SW between 2nd Street SW and 9th Street SW is a wonderful “walk back in time.” Calgary’s first school, Alberta’s first library and many more historical gems are yours to discover.

LInk: Discover Calgary's Secret Heritage Trail

Calgary is known as the Sandstone City, the Collegiate Institute built in 1908 is just one of many elegant sandstone buildings from the early 20th century. 

Stampede Art Park

Even if you are not in Calgary during the 10 days of Stampede, you should still visit Stampede Park to check out the many murals and sculptures and the new ENMAX Park.  If you are lucky, the Corral might be open allowing you to wander the museum-like hallways, full of historical photos.

If you go, check out The Grain Academy & Museum, located in the BMO Centre on the Plus 15 level (open Monday to Friday from 10 am to 4 pm).  Also, the walls of the +15 walkway from BMO Centre to Saddledome are lined with Stampede Posters dating back to 1912.  Kids will love the huge goalie mask on the side of the Saddledome’s NE entrance too.

Link: Stampede Park: Art Gallery / Museum

Stampede Park features 20 major public artworks. More info: Stampede Park Art Walk

Village Ice Cream

Not to be confused with Village Beer (which you should also try), Village Ice Cream’s flagship location is definitely “off the beaten path.” Its entrance and teeny, tiny patio is located in a parking lot of a non-descript building on 10th Ave. where it dead-ends at 4th St. SE.  The artisanal, small batch, hand-made ice creams are not to be missed. Our favourite is the salted caramel.

Village Ice Cream's tiny patio is soooooJ cute!

Heritage Posters & Music

Although Inglewood’s Recordland has one of the largest collections of vinyl in Canada, for my money I think Heritage Posters & Music is the place to hunt for vinyl (20,000 records are on site at any given time) and that rare poster you have always wanted. It is still settling into its new location, but we are told they have plans to make the exterior as eye-catching as the last.  Backstory: Its previous location had exterior walls decorated with thousands of records, the Rolling Stone’s toque street art and a mural of Calgary blues man, Tim Williams.

Just a few of the records available at Heritage Posters & Music.  When you get there be sure to look up as there are posters on the ceiling.  

11th Street Design District

When doing your research, you will undoubtedly learn about Kensington Village, 17th Avenue and 4th Street as Calgary’s best pedestrian streets.  But for those who like “everything design,” 11th Avenue SW (4th Street to 8th Street) is the place to go.  Here you will find several contemporary art galleries, as well as furniture and home accessory stores and the always-buzzing The Camera Store (worth checking out even if you aren’t a camera buff – check out the photography books section for great deals). Metrovino is a great wine and spirits shop tuck away in the back Paul Kuhn Gallery block. 

The Camera Store is always bustling with people, the staff are friendly and knowledgeable. 

Gravity Pope

Calgary has many independent fashion boutiques, but for our money, the one with the best space is Gravity Pope at the west end of 17th Avenue.  Not only are the fashions and footwear funky and quirky, so too is the space.  On a sunny day the place glitters with sunlight pouring through the skylights and bouncing off the mirrors and displays.  It is somewhat akin to entering a psychedelic dream.

Gravy Pope is fun, funky and quirky. 

East of Downtown

Bridgeland Market is a walk back in time. 

While most of the current attention on Calgary’s urban transformation is on the mega makeover of East Village, go a little further east and north (through the lovely new St. Patrick’s Island Park) across the river to Bridgeland (formerly “Little Italy”). Check out Lukes Drug Market (not your average drug store), Bridgeland Market, Blue Star Diner Whitehall Restaurant and Cannibale (barber/bar). 

The streets of Bridgeland are well worth wandering with their many churches and mix of older cottage and new infill homes.  Backstory: Calgary is the infill home capital of North America. For the past 15+ years literally hundreds of small mid-century homes being torn down each year to make way for new two and three storey mini-mansions mostly for young families.

Lukes is popular with Calgary hipsters as it has a popular coffee bar, sells records, record players and fashions.  Yes is is also a drug store and the basement is a mini-grocery store.  And each year it hosts a pre SLED Island festival party - it is very cool. 

Those interested in contemporary art shouldn’t miss the Esker Foundation Contemporary Art Gallery on the fourth floor of the funky Atlantic Avenue Art Block in Inglewood. This privately-owned gallery functions as a public art gallery (free admission) with thought-provoking curated exhibitions in a space that is an amazing work of art itself. It is a great place to start exploring the community of Inglewood.

Just around the corner sits Crown Surplus Store, a family-operated business since 1955.  Here you will find everything from military uniforms, tents, camouflage nets and helmets to great outdoor wear jam packed into a well-weathered wooden Quonset building.  It is a popular place for film and TV producers to shop.  Cher is also known to shop here when she is town.

Fairs’ Fair Books opened its flagship location in the basement of 1336 9th Street in 1988. Since then has sold over one million used books in its five locations.  The Inglewood location with its 9,000 square feet and 200,000 books is a major league used bookstore.

Calgary's Crown Surplus Store is a wonderful collage of artefacts, fashions and collectables. A must see. 

Renowned Calgary interior designer Alykhan Velji along with Kelly Kask, owner of Reclaimed Trading Company are passionate about salvaging and reclaiming materials from “off the beaten path” sources from OTBP places in the Prairies and BC.  Link: Ramsay is Rad!

Along with their colleagues, they either rework them into home décor items or make them available to artists and scavengers to work their own magic. Never before has the old adage “one person’s junk is another’s treasure” been so true.

Carly’s Angels is a riotous drag show has been running for over a decade in Lolita’s Lounge. This intimate OTBP place is for serious vacation planner, as you must book two to three months ahead to get tickets. (Note the Carly takes a hiatus for part of the summer).

Reclaimed Trading Company is a treasure hunter's dream spot. 

Rest Stops

When you think of cities with a robust café culture, Seattle and Vancouver likely come to mind.  Not to be outdone, Calgary’s café culture has also been thriving since the ‘80s with original coffee houses like Roasterie and Higher Ground (both in Kensington) and Café Beano (on 17th Avenue) still very popular with the locals. 

The new kids on the coffee block include Analog Coffee (17th Ave), Phil & Sebastian (East Village), Caffé Rosso (Ramsay), Gravity Espresso & Wine Bar (Inglewood), Vendome Café (Sunnyside), Purple Perk (Mission), Kawa Espresso Bar and Bumpy’s Café (both in the Beltline).

Note: In 2014, BuzzFeed ranked Analog 7th in a list of 25 Coffee Shops Around The World You Have To See Before You Die.  

And Alforno Café and Bakery is Calgary’s newest, coolest place to chill. It is located downtown near the Peace Bridge at 222-7th Street SW.

Calgary has some of Canada’s best restaurants. Calgary has placed one or more restaurants in enRoute Magazine’s best new Canadian restaurants almost every year since this award’s inception ten years ago.  In 2015, Calgary’s Pigeonhole restaurant was their #1 restaurant. Pigeonhole’s sister restaurant Model Milk on 17th Avenue (which placed #2 in 2012) has a wonderful Sunday Supper. For $40/person, you’ll leave comfortably full after a great family-style meal that is different every week. (Warning: the regular menu is not offered on Sundays.)

Sunday Supper is also served up at The Nash in Inglewood for $39/person.  It includes an appetizer, a main course and scrumptious dessert.  (Note: The Nash’s sister restaurant NOtaBLES (Montgomery) is a great “off off the beaten path” place to dine.)

And if you “miss” Sunday Supper, know that all these restaurants are very good choices any day of the week.  You might also want to visit: 

Link: Calgary Herald: John Gilchrist's Top New Restaurant 2015

Calgary is working very hard to become a music city. It hosts some great music festivals – Calgary International Folk Festival, SLED Island, X Fest, Honens International Piano Competition and International Blues Festival.  It even has a Music Mile (from the east end of downtown to Inglewood along 9th Avenue there are 20 venues that over live music Thursday to Sunday).

For blues lovers, Calgary offer three great Saturday afternoon jams. Take in all three if you start at the Blues Can at 3 pm, which is hosted by Tim Williams, 2014 winner of the International Blues Challenge in Memphis, then take a short walk to the Ironwood at 4pm and finally catch a short cab ride to Mikey’s Juke Joint at 5 pm (or do the reverse).  All are great places to stop for an afternoon beverage, listen to some great music and have a bite to eat (the food is good). If you are not around on Saturday, they all have live music in the evening seven days a week.

Tim Williams is Calgary's blues man. You can catch  him most Saturday afternoons at the Blues Can or Tuesday night at Mikey's. 

Outside the City Centre

 Museums

There is lots of tourist information about the Glenbow, Fort Calgary and the new National Music Centre, but two OTBP museums we’d recommend are The Military Museums of Calgary just off of Crowchild Trail SW and the Canadian Sports Hall of Fame just off the Trans Canada Highway. 

The Military Museums of Calgary, the second largest military museum in Canada, is a moving experience for anyone, any age, with lots of interesting stories and artefacts including a piece from the World Trade Centre that collapsed in 2011.  For Canadians, the museum is a poignant reminder of the incredible and important role our country played in both WWI and WWII.

The Canada Sports Hall of Fame is a comprehensive look at the accomplishments of Canadian athletes not only in mainstream sports like hockey, football, baseball, basketball and lacrosse, but also in the Olympics and minor league sports. Hands on activities make it great “edutainment” for all ages.

Link: Calgary Military Museum Fun

The Calgary Military Museums has not only a great collection of military items, but there are great story boards and videos. 

Cyclists love downtown Bowness

Avid cyclists should get to Bowness Cycle (an easy 25 km ride from downtown), which might just be the world’s largest cycle shop.  And, while in downtown Bowness, check out Cadence Café, Undercurrent and the WINS Thrift Store.

Link: Could Calgary have the biggest bike shop in the world?

Bow Cycle is 50,000 square feet on two floors. It is sight for sore eyes. 

Hikers love Douglas Fir Trail

Calgary boasts over 800 km of pathways, but the Douglas Fir Trail is special. It is the most easternly place the majestic Douglas Fir grows in Canada.  The Trail is located on the south shore of the Bow River just east of Edworthy Park.  Once the trail, it is hard to believe you are still in the city. It offers great views of downtown and is only 6 km away. 

Last Word

Though it is impossible to create the definitive list of “Off The Beaten Path” things to see and do in Calgary, we hope this blog will help you discover Calgary’s unique sense of place.

And if you find a hidden gem while exploring Calgary that you think we should add, let us know. We do plan to update the blog as we find more OTBP gems.

Last updated: June 14, 2016

Austin & Calgary: Sister Cities?

By the numbers, there are some amazing similarities between Austin and Calgary.  Both are young highly educated cities – Austin’s average age is 31 with 46% of Austinites having a postsecondary degree.  Calgary’s average age is 36, with 60% having postsecondary education.

Austin’s is a rapidly growing city. Its current population of 912,791 is growing by 150+ people a day.  Calgary with a population of 1,200,000 was the fastest growing city in Canada according to Stats Canada – growing 13% (from 2006 to 2011).

Like Calgary, Austin is young and active.  This is the pedestrian bridge over the Lady Bird Lake, aka Colorado River with Austin's 2nd Avenue condos in the background that look very much like Calgary's East Village. 

Like Calgary, Austin has a downtown skatepark, not as large as Calgary's but it definitely attracts some talented athletes. 

Calgary's Peace Bridge, designed by world famous bridge architect Santiago Calatrava is a popular playground for Calgary's young and restless. 

Love Their Rivers

Both Austinites and Calgarians love their rivers - the Colorado River and Barton Creek in Austin and the Bow and Elbow Rivers in Calgary.  Both cities have very busy river pathway systems packed with walkers, cyclists and runners when weather permits (not too cold in Calgary and not too hot in Austin). 

Austin's river pathways are very popular on weekends. 

It is very common in Austin to see boats of all types in Lady Bird Lake...in the distance is a fishing boat. 

Calgarians love their green beaches like this one in Stanley Park. 

Fishing on the Bow River in Calgary.  

River surfing on the Bow River. 

In the summer, thousands of Calgarians raft on the Elbow and Bow Rivers in Calgary. 

Party Towns

Austin’s infamous SXSW, a huge 10-day film, music, interactive media technology festival / trade show / conference generates $411 CDN million into the city’s economy in 2015 and attracted 140,000 participants.

By comparison, the 10-day Calgary Stampede annually attracts over 1 million (350,000 being out-of-town visitors) for concerts, rodeo, chuckwagon races, grandstand show, midway rides and agricultural exhibition.  Its annual economic impact is estimated at $350 CDN million.

Austin's Kite festival is an amazing site and a fun family party. 

Look carefully and you will see that most of the people are dressed up as they have just participated in Calgary's POW - Parade of Wonder as part of Calgary Expo aka Comic-Con. 

Music Cities

Austin bills itself as the “Live Music Capital of the World,” with 100+ live music venues and its world famous Austin City Lights music program.  Everybody gets into hosting live music in Austin from grocery stores to the airport.

The City’s historic music district is downtown along East 6th St. a grungy street resembles Calgary’s Electric Avenue (11th Ave) back in the ‘80s.  Home to numerous loud and seedy bars, as well as the 1929 Ritz theatre, it is more a tacky tourist street than a serious music district.  Today, the best music venues are in neighbourhoods outside of downtown.

Calgary is in its infancy as an emerging international music city boasting an International Folk Festival, SLED Island as well as numerous smaller emerging music festivals. Calgary has only a handful of live music venues and only a few that offer live music 7 days a week.  (Some of Austin’s venues offer 3 acts a day - happy hour, headliner and midnight band.)  The opening of the National Music Centre will definitely enhance our city’s reputation internationally.

Stephen Avenue is Calgary’s equivalent to Austin’s East 6th Avenue as downtown’s primary pedestrian oriented street.  However, Stephen Avenue is a more attractive and diverse street with its mix of shops, restaurants, concert and performance theatres, art house cinema and restored historical buildings. 

Just one of hundreds of live music venues in Austin offering a plethora of genres of music. 

Calgary's Tim Williams at the Blues Can. Williams won the International Blues Competition in 2014. 

Urban Living

Urban living in Austin is booming.  Although the current downtown population is only 12,000 it has been growing rapidly with 6,832 condos and apartments built since 2000 and another 2,000 currently under construction.  

However, this pales in comparison to Calgary’s 36,000 urban dwellers.  Urban living is also booming in Calgary with almost 15,000 new residential units since 2000 and 2,200 under construction.

Austin’s budding 2nd Street urban village, looks amazingly similar to Calgary’s East Village with several shinny new high-rise white condo towers, a new library and City Hall and sprinkling of shops, Whole Foods and Trader Joes grocery stores and a signature pedestrian bridge over the river. 

Austin’s 82,000 downtown employees work in 9 million square feet of office space (1.3 million square ft. under construction), 7,800 hotel rooms (2,140 under construction) and hundreds of restaurants, retailers and bars in 1.9 million square feet of commercial space.

By comparison, Calgary City Centre (downtown and Beltline) roughly the same size as Austin’s downtown) has 150,000+ employees occupying over 40 million square feet of offices, 4,000 hotel rooms (500 under construction) and 1,000+ retailers and restaurants in whopping 6.4 million square feet.

Downtown Austin has no department store, indoor mall or shopping street; shopping is scattered all over the place.  Austin has nothing to match Calgary’s historic Bay Store, Holt Renfrew or the stunning The CORE shopping centre. 

Austin also lacks a contiguous historic district like Stephen Avenue or Inglewood. However, Austin does a much better job of animating its downtown corners with outdoor patios, rather than the banks and office lobbies dominating Calgary’s corners.

A view of downtown Austin from South Congress aka SoCo.  SoCo is a an eclectic pedestrian street (despite being a major road) with shops, restaurants, music venues, great patios and numerous permanent food trucks on empty lots. 

Austin's 2nd Avenue District is blooming as an urban village with new condos, two grocery stores and shops. 

Austin's condo skyline. 

The Core in downtown Calgary is a three block long indoor shopping mall with 1 hectare indoor garden.  

Stephen Avenue is Calgary's downtown Main Street and a National Historic District linking the Olympic Plaza Cultural District with the Financial District.  Austin has nothing like Calgary's iconic Hudson Bay department store. 

Urban Street Life

Austin’s hip street is SoCo (South Congress Avenue), which, like Calgary’s Kensington Village, is on the other side of the river from downtown.  Even with South Congress Avenue’s six lanes of traffic, it supports a vibrant street life with a great mix of shops, restaurants, bars and live music venues.

What makes SoCo outstanding is its outdoor culture.  Austin’s climate allows Austinites to play outdoors year-round – there are patios everywhere, live music is played on the front lawns and empty lots and food trailers occupy what would be surface parking lots in Calgary.   Every weekend SoCo takes on a festival atmosphere!

Kensington’s container bar and a few outdoor patios pales in comparison. On the other hand, Kensington boasts a better café culture and more infill residential development.

While, SoCo provides Austinites with a vibrant street culture, it is the only game in town, with nothing to match Calgary’s 17th Ave, 11th Avenue or Inglewood.

On weekends Austin's SoCo takes on a festival atmosphere. 

Gueros on SoCo is famous for its free live entertainment. 

SoCo has numerous quirky shops. 

Austinites love their Tacos. 

Calgary's 17th Avenue is popular urban playground even in the winter; this photo was taken in February. 

Cafe Beano on 17th Avenue is perhaps where Calgary's cafe culture began back in the '80s. It is popular with both artists and CEOs. 

Analog Coffee on 17th Avenue the new kid on the block. 

Calgary's Kensington Village offers lots of urban surprises given its proximity to the Alberta College of Art and Design and Southern Alberta Institute of Technology. 

One of the best surprises in Kensington Village is the Container Bar. 

Kensington Village is also home to Calgary's year-round flea market and summer farmers' market. 

Big Differences

The biggest difference between Austin and Calgary is in transit use.  We never saw Austin’s LRT and bus service is limited.   Thank God for car2go, which allowed us to explore Austin’s outlying business revitalization zones by day and music venues by night.

We stayed in a lovely Airbnb in the upscale Clarksville community, which we thought would be convenient for walking. We quickly discovered sidewalks in poor condition (or non-existent), and very few streetlights making walking at night treacherous.

While there were some lovely homes, Austinites’ pride of home ownership seems much lower than in Calgary’s inner-city communities – even desirable neighbourhoods have lots of unkept properties, weed-infested lawns and gardens and crumbling sidewalks.

Calgary has one of the busiest Light Rapid Transit systems in North America. 

Austinites love to dance - as soon as the music starts people get up and dance. 

Austin condos have above ground parkades like this one, whereas Calgary condos and office buildings have their parking underground. 

Downtown Calgary has 40 million square feet of office space, making it one of the top 10 in North America, compared to Austin's 10 million square feet. 

Last Word

In my humble opinion, after visits to Austin and Portland (considered by many urbanists as two of the best emerging urban cities) Calgary offers as many - or more - urban amenities.

Unfortunately, Calgary continues to fly under the radar with planners and tourists as an emerging urban playground. 

Note: An edited version of this blog was published in the Calgary Herald titled "City Scenes: Austin vs Calgary," June 11, 2018

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Nelson BC: Fun, Funky & Quirky

A recent visit to Nelson BC, brought many smiles to our faces as we explored its streets and back alleys.  Nelson might just be Canada’s most bohemian community

It started right from the “get-go” when we checked in at the Adventure Hotel and were dazzled by the psychedelic carpet staircase - inspired by an “acid dream I am sure.” 

The staircase at the Adventure Hotel is like walking on a neon sign. 

After a day of driving (with stops to check out downtown Fernie and thrift stores in Creston), we were anxious to do some flaneuring. We immediately found the two-storey  Touchstones Nelson Museum of Art and History located in a former Post Office building built in 1902. Once inside, we were quickly immersed in a fantasy world of strange goblins and creatures from the imagination of artist Jude Griebel; this was a good start.  

The fantasy world of Griebel is weird and wacky, the head in the foreground is made of bones. 

Then after checking out Touchstones’ museum, we headed to Nelson’s Main Street (aka Baker Street) for some window licking fun as most of the stores had closed by then. We stumbled upon Relish - what a fun name for a restaurant!  The place had a good buzz, we were thirsty and hungry so in we went. 

Just one of the many fun window reflections along Baker Street.

A cold glass each of Harvest Moon Organic Hemp Ale from the Nelson Brewery Company (NBC) quenched our thirst.  I think NBC should win some type of award for the best beer names – Paddywack, Faceplant, AfterDark and Full Nelson!  My amazing burger with brie and apple still has me salivating.

After a little more street and alley wandering, we called it a day.  

The evening light filters through the tree lined downtown streets to create an eerie canopy. 

Day 2: I thought I was going to die!

Up early, we decided to check out the Oso Negro Café, which research told is the best place in town for breakfast. Expecting a small bohemian café, we were stunned by the amazing urban café atmosphere mixed with an enchanting garden setting.  Service was friendly and efficient so the long line up moved quickly.  The place was full of people of all ages - adults chatting, kids playing and nobody on their phone or computer.  How quirky is that?

The Oso Negro cafe has the most inviting garden I have ever encountered. It is both private and public at the same time. The light is magical. It may well be the best place to sit that I have ever experienced.  They even have a map that tells you what all the plants are. 

It was a beautiful day so I had to check out the local Granite Pointe golf course.  Being a single golfer, it was easy to walk on. What wasn’t so was to walk the golf course (even for a seasoned walker like me).  I had a quick debate with the Pro Shop attendant if the course was walkable and we agreed I could probably do it.  He showed me the hill at hole #10 and said that is the biggest climb. It was a gradual climb so didn’t look too intimidating. 

Walking down the 9th hole I was feeling pretty good about my decision to walk the course.

So off I went, clubs on my back, to enjoy what looked like a walk in the park. The front nine wasn’t bad - the views of the city, lake and mountains were spectacular.  I climbed the 10th but it was harder than I had imagined - going down 11 seemed just as hard as going up.  By the 14th I knew I was in trouble.  I was dragging my butt and wondering if I could finish; this had never happened to me before.  “Am I really getting that old?” I had to ask myself.  I finished - but just barely - as 18 was another climb up a hill to a green guarded by a huge granite rock. If I hit the rock who knows where the ball would go and I certainly wasn’t going to go looking for it.  Fortunately, I hit the green, parred the hole, got into my car and headed straight to the Adventure Hotel for a couple of those NBC beers. 

The hill climbing provided wonderful view of the lake and mountains. 

Dinner was at Itza Pizza across the street from the Adventure Hotel as I didn’t have the energy to wander too far.  The sign said best pizza in town and we also learned that back in 2011, Rick Nelson, Itza’s owner and pizza maker was one of four chefs across Canada to compete in Canadian Pizza Magazine’s (who knew there was a pizza magazine, let alone a Canadian one) best Canadian pizza contest. While Nelson didn’t win, he still makes a great pizza.  We had front row seats to Nelson’s street ballet on Itza’s street patio located on the parking spot in front of the restaurant – very urban.   We enjoyed our Harvest Pizza with pesto, sundried tomato, apples, smoked gruyere, roasted red peppers and pickled capers.

Unfortunately I had no energy left to check out the blues band playing across the street that night at Finley’s Bar and Grill across the street.  

Day 3: Caffeine Heaven

Rested, it was back to Oso Negro Café for a repeat breakfast.  By this time we were thinking this must be the best café in the world.

On the way, we noticed a sleazy looking mannequin standing in the back alley. We had to check it out.  It was in front of a funky looking hair salon, which we didn’t think was open at 8 am, but when I peaked in there were people inside and we were invited in to the “Chop Shop.”  Turns out this 50s themed salon/museum was featured on Slice Network’s “Chop Shop” Show.    

Who could resist checking out a barber pole like this one? Not us!

The Chop Shop the most unique and friendliest barbershop I have ever encountered. 

When we arrived at Oso Negro, we were again in caffeine heaven.  It is the perfect place to start the morning as the garden was bathed in early morning sunshine. We lingered for over an hour, people watching and enjoying our muffins and Oso Negro coffee, which we found out is roasted just a few blocks away.

  Another view of Oso Negro garden, sorry I don't think even if I included 10 photos I could capture the wonderful sense of place. 

Another view of Oso Negro garden, sorry I don't think even if I included 10 photos I could capture the wonderful sense of place. 

While Brenda went off to do more thrifting, I went to take photos of the buildings, streets, alleys and shops.  As I was wandering, I discovered the west end of Baker Street was closed for a flower street market.  The street was full of characters from the lady trying to sell worm farms to another lady giving her little dog a drink of water out of a baby bottle. I did say Nelson was fun, funky and quirky, didn’t I? 

There are many wonderful turn of the century buildings like this courthouse in downtown Nelson

Electric Circus books and records had this amazing collection of Beat books. It was a wonderful place to explore.

This flower shop in an alley has a wonderful European ambience. 

Found this wall of seeds in a quirky grocery/garden shop. 

The Baker Street Plant Market attracted an eclectic crowd to downtown.

Then it was off to check out Cottonwood Falls and adjacent Railtown district at the west end of Baker Street. The falls, a hidden gem, though small it packs a big punch -as the water crashing over the black rocks creates a mist that, combined with the sunlight, is ethereal.

Cottonwood Falls is tucked away in a small industrial park on the west end of downtown. 

We next met up with Alex, who toured us through the Nelson Brewery Company building, with all its shiny hardware and hoses creating what looks like a madman’s laboratory – there is even a door that says, “laboratory!” NBC is brewed in funky- looking old building that has been a brewery for over 100 years, so this isn’t some new kid on the craft brewery block, rather something that has evolved over the past century.

As all NBC beers are organic, you have to drink them reasonably quickly (they have a best before date), which I see as a bonus. If you want a tour, fill out the form on the website and they will get back to you quickly.

NBC's brewery is like a mad scientists lab.

Dinner was the Smokehouse BBQ, which is as authentic as you can get thousands of kilometers from southern USA with its plywood and corrugated steel interior. Order from the kitchen window and your meal is brought to you in a cardboard take-away box even if you are eating in.  We grabbed a window seat and chowed down on a finger licking good meal of ribs and pulled pork that was as good as anything we had in Austin Texas (unfortunately, it’s not licensed to serve alcohol).

El Taco is a very popular spot for locals. Did you know that on a per capital basis Nelson has more restaurants than New York City?

While there, we were treated to a steady stream of people picking up their Smokehouse BBQ orders as well as people heading to El Taco restaurant across the street.  As we left, we asked a young Nelsonian enjoying his pizza from Thor’s Pizzeria next to the Smokehouse what he knew about El Taco and he said it is very good and very popular with the locals.  He also added Thor’s has the best pizza in town.

Then it was off for an evening walk along the waterfront pathway. While the pathway along the West Arm of Kootenay Lake is lovely, the place was surprisingly deserted, even on a warm mid-May evening.

The waterfront pathway is a lovely walk along the lake which even has a beach at the bridge. We expected to find lots of people walking and cycling along the pathway, but it was deserted.   

One of the many lovely reflections of the boats in the water along the pathway. 

Last Word

We had a great time in Nelson; our only regrets are we didn’t have enough time to check out all of the great dining spots and that we didn’t do the Pulpit Rock trail which locals highly recommended for its great views. 

A big surprise was that while Nelson has a reputation of being a great art town, there aren’t  many art galleries and lots of the art (galleries, public art and street art) we saw was not as professional and contemporary as we expected. 

Street Art mixes with graffiti on this garage door. 

Perhaps the biggest surprise was that given Nelson’s reputation as the marijuana growing capital of Canada, we didn’t see or smell any evidence of it wherever we travelled in the city.

 

While we didn't see or smell the use of marijuana, there is a store on Baker Street next to the CIBC building where you can buy it, like you are buying an ice cream cone or perhaps some gelato. There were at least 50 flavours.  

Everyday Tourist Photos: Collage Fun

If it is true that every picture tells a story, what happens when you create a collage of pictures all on the same subject or from the same city.  Recently, I discovered an app for my phone called Layout that let you select up to nine photos and then it collages them into different "layouts" for you to choose.  

I have been playing with this new toy for awhile and thought I'd share some of the results. I have divided these fun little artworks into three categories: Everyday Places & Spaces in Calgary, Other Cities and Day Trips From Calgary. 

This blog will take you from Boise, Idaho to Buffalo, New York and from Colorado Springs, Colorado to Canmore, Alberta; with stops in places like Florence. It includes day trips to Canmore, Lethbridge and Nanton.  Along the way you get to visit some interesting alleys, pedestrian bridges, parks and people. 

I have added a relevant Everyday Tourist blog to most images if you are interested in exploring one or more places in more depth.

Have fun and love to hear your thoughts? 

Calgary's Everyday Places & Spaces 

17th Avenue (aka Red Mile, aka RED District for Retail Entertainment District) is Calgary's longest street of shops, cafes and restaurants.  

A collage of Calgary's many bridges, from +15 bridges that connect downtown buildings on the second floor to pedestrian bridges over the Bow River. Tale of Three Bridges Link

Calgary's mega makeover of East Village and St. Patrick's Island is creating a very bold statement about the future of urban living in Calgary. St. Patrick's Island: The Good, The Bad, The Ugly, The Nice To Have Link

SAIT campus is a hidden gem of old and new urban design. A-mazing University of New Mexico Link

Fort Calgary is another hidden gem that is getting a makeover.  Look for a new major piece of public art being unveiled this summer.  

Kensington Village is a pedestrian's paradise.  The sidewalks are currently being upgraded which when completed will make Calgary's oldest urban village even better.  Kensington: One of North America's healthiest urban villages link

This Inglewood collage captures the eclectic nature of the community.

Other City Places & Spaces 

Mexico City provides an amazing array of things to see and do, from palaces to cathedrals, from museums to public art. It is a "must see" city. Mexico City: Full of fun surprises! link

Boise Idaho is a hidden gem with a great downtown. Boise: Freakn Fun in Freak Alley

Seattle's downtown is full of fun surprises. Window licking in Seattle Link

Albuquerque had many hidden gems. A-mazing University of New Mexico Campus Link

Portland is perhaps more fun! Top Ten Flaneur Finds in Portland Link

Buffalo fun includes a Frank Llyod Wright house, early 20th century mansions, great art and winter ice bikes.Postcards From Buffalo Link

The streets of Florence are charming. Florence People & Places Link

Victoria, BC is one of favourite places for a quickie get-away. Thrifting Fun In Victoria Link

Las Vegas playground, pants, street art etc. Off The Beaten Path in Las Vegas Link

Colorado Springs is a hidden gem for art, animals and urban exploring. Colorado Springs: Funky, Funky & Quirky Link

Day Trips From Calgary 

Lethbridge Alberta (or LA as locals call it) makes of a great day trip from Calgary.

On our last trip to Canmore we checked out Main Street, a Tattoo Parlour/Art Gallery  (don't ask) and their disc golf course. Too much fun!

Nanton's Bomber Command Museum is a hidden gem. Fun for everyone! Nanton's Bomber Command Museum Link

I hope you have enjoyed the show!

It's Easy To Be An Everyday Tourist!

You don't have to try that hard to be an everyday tourist wherever you live.  You just have to get out and walk with a bit of curiosity and your eyes wide open.   

This week's highlights included:

  • An early morning walk in River Park with the morning sun glistening off the Bow River.
  • A dog walk with Rossi to the base of the Glenmore Dam
  • A trip to Evergreen to get my income taxes done
  • Downtown flaneuring
  • Walking home from yoga enjoyed a lovely evening chinook from the West Hillhurst bluff
  • A spectacular sunset from my backyard
  • Wandering Bowness Park
  • A morning walk in my community
  • Reading Jan Morris' book "Hong Kong" published in 1997

Here is my Everyday Tourist Week in photos....hope you enjoy.

Early Saturday morning walk with Rossi in River Park looking down on the sun glistening off the Elbow River. It was magical. 

With Calgary's early spring there are these lovely rag dolls everywhere. 

Sunday Rossi and I decided to go for along walk that took us to Calgary's Glenmore Dam, which use to have cars driving on top of it, but today it is a wonderful pedestrian bridge. 

Water rushing out of the Glenmore dam. 

Glenmore dam was built in 1932 for $3.8 million.  It has wonderful Art Deco elements. 

Found this debris still wrapped around a tree from the 2013 flood. 

These rocks haunted me with the way the light was reflecting off of them. 

A trip to the community of Evergreen to drop off paper work for income tax resulted in this photo. 

I am always amazed at what new things I can find when wandering downtown.  This fancy fence is part of a temporary plaza on top of the underground parkade where the York Hotel use to sit. The patterns on the fence are taken from the decorations on the facade of the hotel. 

Construction Impressionism in downtown Calgary.  For me downtown Calgary is just one big outdoor art gallery. 

Window licking collage in downtown Calgary. 

7th Avenue surrealism in downtown Calgary 

3rd Avenue downtown Calgary 

I had no idea I had captured this woman in this photo when I took it.  At the time I was cursing that the windows were dirty and I couldn't get clean reflections. Now I love the ambiguity of the narrative that this image suggests. Urban surprises come in many different ways. 

Coming home from yoga I notice the Chinook Arch forming in the west and decided to detour to the West Hillhurst bluff (aka dog park) to get a better view. I never get tired of Calgary's iconic cloud formation. 

While in the park I found this huge tree branch, which ironically mirrored the Chinook Arch formation.  What a great idea for public artwork?

Just a few blocks from my house I found this Horse Head tree swing.  For some reason it seemed very disturbing. (not that there is anything wrong with that) If you like this image you might like Front Yard Fun blog.

Also just a few blocks away is a house where the porch has become a bike rack. I love the fact that my community is filling up with young kids. 

Looking forward to Bowness Park this summer. It will be like a walk back in time with the renovations. 

One night as I am watching the NHL playoffs I notice a bright yellow light shinning in my backyard.  When I went outside this is what I found. 

Austin: Isamu Taniguchi Japanese Garden

From Zilker Garden website: "Opened to the public in 1969, the Garden was built by Mr. Taniguchi when he was seventy years old. Working without a salary or a contract, Mr. Taniguchi spent 18 months transforming 3 acres of rugged caliche hillside into a peaceful garden. As is often done in Japan, the ponds were designed in the shape of a word or ideogram. In this case, the ponds in the first half of the garden spell out the word "AUSTIN", reflecting the fact that these gardens were constructed as a gift to the city. The remains of the Mother Tree, which inspired Mr. Taniguchi to complete his building of the garden, overlooks the pond.

The Togetsu-kyo bridge or "Bridge to Walk Over the Moon" is theoretically positioned so that, when the moon is high, it reflects in the water and follows you across the bridge. The idea is that as you gaze at the reflection of the moon on the water's surface, ultimate universal beauty will be revealed to you."

Indeed, the Japanese Garden was the highlight of our visit to the Zilker Park's Botanical Garden. In fact, the rest of the garden was a bit of a disappointment even though irises and some trees and shrubs were flowers were out in the neighbourhood gardens there wasn't any flowers in the rest of the garden.  In fact, much of the garden looked like it needed a good weeding.  The children's garden was just sad.  Enough said!

Here are a baker's dozen of postcards from Isamu Taniguchi's Japanese Garden. Hope you enjoy!

under bridge

Dog Parks foster a sense of community?

Though I am not a dog owner, I have regularly dog sat for friends over the past few years. Every time I do, I become more intrigued by how dog parks foster a stronger sense of community than any other public space I know.

Most of my experience has been at River Park in Altadore, which until recently, I thought was a dog park. But apparently, a dog park is “a fully fenced and gated space designed specifically for owners to allow their dogs off-leash.” Calgary actually has no dog parks; rather we have “off-leash” areas in multi-use parks where dogs are allowed off-leash under the full control of the owner.  

Winter dog walking can be a community event. 

 

River Park Happiness

A dog park is a place to reflect.

That being said, I estimate 95% of the people using River Park are dog owners and I am always impressed by how friendly people are - often stopping to chat, sometimes briefly, sometimes longer.  Sometimes we even start walking with these strangers; this never happens in other parks, except playgrounds.

In fact, many sociologists and urbanists think dogs are “the new children.”  Simon O’Byrne, Vice-President, Urban Planning at Stantec in Edmonton strongly believes North American cities need to focus on building more infrastructures to accommodate dogs in urban centres.  O’Byrne sees dogs as a “social lubricant,” facilitating social interaction between strangers as one sees the same people at the dog park and after two or three encounters, they start to build friendships.

I am also always impressed by the diversity of people off-leash areas attract (young families with strollers to seniors in wheelchairs, kids learning to ride bikes to empty nesters to young adults with new dogs) – much more diverse than playgrounds.

In the summer River Park is full of people and their dogs, enjoying a relaxing stroll along it 1 km rolling terrain. 

An added bonus: dogs and off-leash areas get people of all ages out walking on a regular basis and at all times of the day. Recently on a dark cold Sunday night, I encountered dozens of people were walking their dogs and chatting in River Park as if it was summertime.

People in off-leash areas also seem happier than people I walk by on sidewalks or in parks, pathways and plazas – as measured by their aptness to saying “hi” or smile as they pass by.  Perhaps the happiness of the dogs (just say“walk” to a dog and see his/her reaction) rubs off on their owners - happy dog, happy owner?

In the spring River Park takes on a wonderful pastoral ambience for both dog walkers and non-dog walkers.

Even in the middle of the winter when it is bitterly cold, people are out walking their dog.

 

Research says...

This fire hydrant sits outside the private dog park (see in the background) across the street from Las Vegas' Container Park.  The hydant is interactive so kids can turn the water fountain off and on.  How fun is that?

I checked in with one of Calgary’s leading dog culture researchers Ann Madeline Toohey, a PhD candidate at the University of Calgary exploring public health aspects of dog walking, to see what evidence exists to support my observations.

Toohey pointed me to studies that showed people feeling more secure walking with a dog, especially women walking alone. Even people without dogs felt more trusting of a stranger who is walking a dog and more secure about frequenting public spaces when they know others (e.g. dog walkers) will also be using it.  In fact, Toohey’s research confirmed regular dog walkers are more likely to view their neighbourhoods in a positive light.

Another interesting finding, especially in light of our aging population, is that off-leash areas can be desirable destinations for older adults wanting to remain in close contact with dogs, even when they are unable to have their own dog.

Calgary's Best Practices

Calgary is a model city for dog culture research given about 30% of homes have dogs - consistent with other cities in Canada and elsewhere. Calgary has designated 150 off-leash sites in parks across the city (over 17% of all total public open space).

“The City is challenged to provide enough off-leash parkland to meet demand and to ‘spread out’ the use of off-leash areas to minimize the degradation of green spaces due to overuse. As a result Calgary may have more off-leash parks than any other city in North America,” says Toohey. She adds “many of Calgary’s popular off-leash parks are very large making them conducive to longer walks (healthier for both dogs and humans) moreso than some of the urban off-leash parks I’ve seen in Chicago and Portland.” 

Calgary has many of these wonderful treed spaces in inner-city communities that are fun places for humans and their dogs to explore.

Toohey and her colleagues applaud the City’s Off-leash Ambassador Program, which educates dog owners on the importance of complying with off-leash rules, and provide free on-site dog training skills. The program has caught the interest of other municipalities

As well, Calgary’s Responsible Pet Ownership Bylaw one of the most comprehensive of any city in North America aims to minimize conflict, nuisance, injury and exclusion. But because Calgary’s off-leash dog areas are spread across the city in shared public parks, it is challenging for Parks and Bylaw Services personnel to minimize conflict and infractions.

Naomi Lakritz, in a Calgary Herald editorial wrote a compelling piece last April about why she doesn’t take her dog to off-leash parks anymore.  She cited filth (i.e. dog owners not picking up after their dogs) as the number one reason, followed by people not controlling their dogs when they get aggressive. These two negatives are supported by Toohey’s citywide research, with other negatives being homeowners next to off-leash parks becoming frustrated by increased traffic, parking and noise.

River Park dog walkers add a personal touch to the park at Christmas.

Why can't we share?

I agree with O’Byrne - if we want to enhance street and public space vitality and safety, as well as get the biggest bang for our public space infrastructure buck, we should add more dog-friendly amenities.  He noted Edmonton’s first new downtown park in decades (formerly a small gravel parking lot) will incorporate areas for dogs and kids to play.

Dogs sharing water fountain as River Park.

Construction begins this spring on Calgary’s first truly urban dog park. The size of a hockey rink, it will be incorporated into Connaught Park Thomson ark (14th Avenue and 11th Street SW). Canada Lands Corporation, learning many potential Currie Barracks home purchasers wanted a dog park, is now redesigning one of the planned parks to incorporate one.

Personally, I wonder why we can’t convert more of our urban parks and playgrounds into children/dog parks (as dogs are the new kids and many families would love to be able to walk the dog and kids as the same time). I can’t help but think parks surrounded by condos like the Barb Scott Park in the Beltline (12th Ave and 9th St SW) would get more use if it included an off-leash area, as would Century Gardens (8th Ave and 8th Street SW), slated for redesign.

In Calgary, a recent proposal to create an official off-leash area, as part of the Westmount Park next to Memorial Drive off ramp to Crowchild Trail, was unsuccessful due to the existence of a playground and a temporary outdoor skating rink, despite the greatest current users of the park being dog owners (42%) vs. 34% for the playground.

Calgary’s bylaw explicitly prohibits dogs from playgrounds and playing fields. Toohey said, “As public health researchers, we are committed to exploring ways to create parks that accommodate multiple users (families, seniors and teens) and activities (playgrounds, field games, dog walking and sitting), while reducing potential negative interactions between different user groups. We don’t want to encourage one type of activity that is detrimental to another activity because of safety concerns.”

Last Word

Too bad we can’t find a way to safely share our parks!

It would sure help if  dog owners did a better job of picking up after your dog. My rule is when I am at the park I pick up one of my dogs and one other.  Just like in golf, you fix one of your ball marks and one other.  

And please, please, keep a close eye on your dog to make sure s/he is always on their best behavour. 

Note: An edited version of this blog appeared in the Calgary Herald, Feb 27, 2016 titled "Dog parks sniff out ways to share public space." 

 

 

 

 

 

Austin's Wonderful, Wacky & Weird Outdoor Art Gallery

I had read about and seen pictures of Austin’s Hope Outdoor Gallery (HOG), but they did not prepare me for the three-storey outdoor graffiti gallery located on an abandon inner-city lot on the side of hill over-looking downtown.

Backstory: I love graffiti art. I even travelled from Gleichen, Alberta to New York City in the early ‘80s to experience graffiti art in its heyday - from subway cars to upscale art galleries. I came back and created several graffiti murals on the sides of buildings in Gleichen as well as incorporated it into my studio painting.  That was another life.

The view from the top gives you a sense of the height and scale of the project.  

From The Top