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

Austin's Kite Festival: Cheap, Colourful, Chaotic & Crazy!

For a long time I have been saying Calgary needs a kite festival. What the heck every city needs a kite festival.  Here in Calgary, a kite festival would be a great signature event for Fort Calgary and East Village.  When I knew we would be in Austin in early March, I was thrilled to discover we could attend their annual kite festival – the world’s oldest.

Each year Austin’s Kite Festival attracts over 20,000 people of all ages and is one of the city’s best-known annual events. Held on the first Sunday of March, (the second Sunday of March is the alternate day if weather doesn’t cooperate),

Family fun for everyone at the Austin Kite Festival.

 

It is the kick-off to springtime in Austin

Everyone is welcome – there is no admission to attend, no obligation to participate in the contests or even fly a kite.  Most folks do try their hand at flying a kite, but some just come to see the spectacular sight of thousands of kites in the sky and to enjoy a spring day in the park. It is perhaps one of the most inclusive events I have every seen.

Too Much Fun

The festival lived up to my expectations. There was lots of excitement in the air when I arrived at 11 am in the massive park (350 acres i.e. 16 times the size of Calgary’s Riley Park). 

I overheard one kite flyer say he was there at 6 am to get the best spot. (Hmmm – sounds like something one would here on Stampede Parade Day in Calgary.)  Another guy said he had driven six hours to get there and does so every year. Many young families, pulling wagons with food, coolers and assorted paraphernalia (some even with their dog) came out for the day.

The kids were all smiles with lots of room to run, twirl and look at all of the dancing kites. I was shocked at how many young kids were actually able to fly the kites.  And while it looked very chaotic with people scattered everywhere and invisible strings being manipulated at every which angle, I saw only a few injured kites and no injured kids.  It was a Sunday miracle.

I think the photo and video speak for themselves.

A sense of the chaos that is the Austin Kite festival. 

Photographers love to get just the right perspective.

The kite festival is pure joy for little ones. 

Bubble making fun is also part of the kite festival.

It is not just kids and families that enjoy Austin's Kite Festival. 

History 

The ‘Kite Tournament’ was created in 1929 by a men’s service club called The Exchange Club of Austin with a mission to encourage creativity in children. Exchange Club President Ed St. John came up with the idea to give kids a constructive activity the community could participate in. The first Tournament was held in Lamar Park, which is thought to have been close to the intersection of Congress Avenue and 1st Street in the middle of downtown.

In 1936, the Exchange Club partnered with the City of Austin Parks and Recreation Department to bring the event to newly opened and larger Zilker Park. In 1956, the Kite Tournament was opened to competitors of all ages, and to this day contest events have changed very little.

Austin’s Zilker Park Kite Festival is the longest continuously running kite festival in the United States and continues to be sponsored by the Exchange Club and the City of Austin Parks and Recreation Department every year. Its lead corporate sponsor for 2016 was ABC Home and Commercial.

Last Word

Austin’s Kite Festival is cheap, colourful, chaotic and crazy – all in a very good way. 

Wouldn't it be great if this open field at Fort Calgary became the home for an annual kite festival and perhaps an informal kite flying park when not in use for festivals. 

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."