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!

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

TELUS Spark sparks reflection

Shame on me! Why? Because until today (January 26, 2016) I had not visited the stunning TELUS Spark building which opened in October 2011.  In my defense, I have no children. Nor had anybody said to me “you must see TELUS Spark.”  

That is until Erin Christensen, TELUS Spark’s Marketing & Communications Coordinator emailed me an invite last week to ask if I might be interested in doing a blog about their new exhibition, BODY WORLDS Vital.

I jumped at the chance. 

Close up image of the incredible intricacies of the human body. It will be a long time before we forget this exhibition.  Yes in some ways human flesh does  look like bacon.


On a grey winter day TELUS Sparks blends into the sky and the parking lot.

I do love the tension created by the various angular shapes of the building’s exterior seemingly piled on top of each other.  The steel grey skin seems a little dull by day but becomes a wonderful canvas for the nightly illuminated colour show that makes the building look like a brilliant gemstone to those travelling by on the adjacent Deerfoot Trail.  

Once inside the building, it is very bright, open and very functional, not distracting like so many contemporary, “weird & wacky” buildings.  The entrance is spacious and inviting without being overwhelming. I loved the fact that immediately upon entering, the joyous voices of children playing and having fun could be heard.  It was alive.

The gallery spaces also seem spacious and synergistic with the programming and exhibitions.  As a former public art gallery executive director and curator, this is exactly what you want. Kudos to Calgary’s DIALOG architects.

At the entrance I found this strange juxtaposition of shapes, colours, angles and letters. 

Body WORLDS Vital 

TELUS Sparks bills Vital as “One of the world's most ground-breaking travelling exhibitions at Calgary's science centre. BODY WORLDS Vital celebrates the living human body in its optimal state - healthy, vibrant, vigorous and in motion. The exhibition presents the leading health concerns of contemporary times, the causes of these conditions and diseases and ways to prevent or manage them.”

This human head has an eerie stare. It looks like something Salvador Dali might have done.

This human head has an eerie stare. It looks like something Salvador Dali might have done.

Upfront, they caution visitors this exhibition is not for everyone given the exposure of complete, real bodies including genitalia, prenatal development, (including embryos and foetuses) and on Thursday nights “a representation of sexual intercourse.”

Erin explained that, “we do have a coupling exhibit at BODY WORLDS Vital. It’s open on Thursday evenings starting in February. This includes the Thursdays we have Adults Only Night as well as the Thursdays we are open for extended hours from February to May for all ages.


The exhibit is placed in its own room with a door that can be closed. There is carefully placed signage noting that this is a discretionary section. We wanted to make the coupling exhibit available, while also being mindful of our regular family visitors and school groups. We do not have any photos of this exhibit as there is a photography ban put in place by BODY WORLDS on this particular exhibit.”

The exhibition consists of real human bodies that have been skinned allowing viewers to see every bone, muscle, nerve, organs etc.  In many cases, parts of the body cavity have also been “peeled back” so one can see deeper inside.  The end result in many cases is a very abstract perspective on the human body.

This head reminded me of some of the Inuit sculptures I have seen. 

For some, I can imagine this could be very disturbing, hence their wise warning, but for me, I was simply left wondering what all the fuss was about. And, I did not hear anyone gasping in horror at what they saw.  Because of the process called plastination everything looks plasticized; there is no sense of the messy blood or guts, and it all seems very sanitized.  As a former artist and contemporary art curator, it looked more like art than science.  This is not a bad thing.

I loved the athletic shapes the bodies were placed in - from ballet dancer to soccer player – giving them a sculptural sense of shape and form. Some of the cut-aways looked like something by Picasso or his cubist colleagues or works by one of the surrealists artists or maybe the work of an Inuit carver. 

The first full figure you are confronted with is this jumping male ballet dancer in mid-air. The piece is held up by the peeling back of the spinal cord to reveal all of the inner organs and muscles. It is a very powerful piece. 

I spent about 90 minutes in the exhibition and could have spent more.  We’d recommend getting the audio guide as we found many of the information panels a little light on information. However, there is a roving educator on site to answer questions that enquiring minds might have.

Though I am not sure of the scientific or educational value of the exhibition (most of the information being readily available and with videos much more explicit and realistic).

At the same time, it does provide a unique and amazingly 3D visual look at the almost infinite intricacies and complexity of the human body.  






Up Close And Personal

This close up further documents the astounding/mindboggling complexity and fragility of the human body. 

It was enlightening to see how all of our internal organs fit together so neatly and compactly.  

This is the body of a female gymnast on the pommel horse.

Other On-site Fun

While on-site, I took advantage of the opportunity to quickly explore other parts of TELUS Spark.  I loved the other exhibition areas. And we weren’t alone as there were many enthusiastic (some squealing with delight) children both with their parents and school groups. I was pleased to see lots of Calgary/Alberta-centric information especially on our oil, gas and wind power industries. 

This climbing object is full of climbing "holds." It is very sculptural and can be used by kids of all ages, as well as adults.

What really surprised me was the space and content devoted to young adults and adults.  It was nice to see so many young couples in the galleries on a Tuesday afternoon.  I had been told by parents that TELUS Spark really only appealed to children aged 4 to about 10 and while would agree that is the “sweet spot” for visiting, there is something for almost everyone. 
Erin told me, TELUS Spark routinely attracts 2,000 visitors for their Adult Only nights! We did not take in the films in the Dome Theatre, which would have no doubt added another dimension to our experience.

I love the Top Ten Tips for Saturdays on TELUS Spark’s website which outlines an entire day of activities.  Though it was posted November 2015, I expect it is still valid and might even work for a Sunday.

I was also impressed by the unique outside playground for kids aged 5 and up. It has none of the traditional equipment and seemed a lot more challenging than the colourful, cookie-cutter playgrounds you see around town. I liked the fact that while it would interest toddlers, it would also be challenging and fun for teens, something missing from most playgrounds.

Love this contemporary teeter totter. 

Value For Money

I think you might need a science degree to figure out all of the pricing for TELUS Spark. I have two science degrees and I am not sure I understand it.

Regular Price

Adult (18-64) $19.95 | Senior (65+) $17.95 | Youth (13-17) $15.95 | Child (3-12) $12.95 | Admission for children under 3 is free.

I believe there is normally and additional charge for films in the Dome Theatre but couldn’t find the price online.  I believe that if you want the “full meal deal” and see two films (they are short), the cost for an Adult would be in the $30 range, Senior $25, Youth $20 and Child $18 depending on the film.

BODY WORLDS Vital + other exhibitions + one Dome show

Adult (18-64) $30.00 | Senior (65+) $28.00 | Youth (13-17) $26.00 | Child (3-12) $23.00 | Admission for children under 3 is free.

I won’t even try to explain how the membership works and what is included in the various options. But I expect it is the best deal if you have kids and plan on visiting on a frequent basis.

For context purposes, the regular prices are pretty much in line with similar Calgary venues such as the Calgary Zoo and Glenbow. Scotiabank Theatre Chinook charges $16.25 for a regular film and as much as $24.25 for a D-Box UltraAVX movie (whatever that is).

Gas Exchange - Cross Section of the Thoracic Cavity. 

Last Word

Upon reflection, the best lesson learned from this exhibition is an appreciation for how well my old body works given all the things that could go wrong. 

Erin tells me TELUS Spark is hoping to attract 100,000+ to this special exhibition. If you are into science or art, you are in for a treat.  Body WORLDS Vital is on exhibit at TELUS Spark until May 31, 2016.

If you like this blog, you might like:

Calgary: Military Museums

Paintball: Game or Cult?

Canadian Museum for Human Rights: Money Well Spent?






2015: Everyday Tourist's Best Playground Photos

My 2014 Christmas gift to myself was a Sony RX100 camera which, along with two iPhones, were put to good use (some might not agree, particularly my Redwood golfing buddies who were always asking “what are you taking a picture of now?”) last year taking 12,682 photos.

I love surfing through my photos on an almost daily basis. It is like a visual diary of both being both a tourist in other cities and an everyday flaneur in and around Calgary. It is fun reliving and rethinking where you have been.

As 2015 came to a close I started to reflect on the highlights of 2015.  After spending hours reviewing my photos and wondering if I could reduce 2015 to just 10 photos.  (I love top ten lists) I came to the conclusion that was impossible for me. I have never been a good editor. 

I then thought maybe I could do a couple of top ten lists based on certain subjects and activities with some common denominators.  After identifying about 250 favourite images (about 2% of the 2015 portfolio) seven subjects surfaced.

So rather than one large blog with dozen of images, I created seven subject specific blogs that reflect the fun and surprises of being an everyday tourist and flaneur in 2015.  

Black & White Narratives

I was surprised at how many black and white photos I took in 2015 and how many still captured my interest.  There is something about black and white images that elevates the drama of everyday life. While some readers have said the black and white images are depressing and sad, others love the quality of light and sense of the narrative that is revealed in them.

Architecture As Art

My architectural photos rarely isolate a single building into a static documentary image, but rather focus on the interplay of design, styles and built forms.  I am always looking for a different perspective that captures an artistic interpretation of architecture.

Flaneuring Fun

I love wandering the streets wherever I am, looking for urban surprises and usually I am not disappointed.  It could be anything from a dandelion gone to seed illuminated by a setting sun to fun doorway.  I love the thrill of the hunt.


I have always loved the colour and sense of joy that happens at community playgrounds.  This year I bonded with the little guy next-door (he will be 2 years old in January 2016) and explored literally dozens of playgrounds all within a short walk of our house.  As a result I have made a point over the past year to visit as many playgrounds as I can both in Calgary and beyond.

Street People

One of my goals for 2015 was to capture the everyday urban life of the street, plaza, park and pathway, while respecting everyone’s privacy.

Street Art / Public Art Surprises

Expect the unexpected as my street art and public art photos are not just about sculptures and statues, rather how art can be found in strange places like amazing collages created in the reflections of storefront windows.


Over the past year, I have been treated to some some amazingly works of art created by Mother Nature.  For the most part these are not your romantic sunsets and sunrises, but rather dramatic moments that are part of one’s everyday experiences.

Last Word

I hope you will enjoy these compilations as much as I have in putting them together.   As always, comments are welcomed.  Feel free to share with me some of your favourite photos of 2015.

Editor’s Note: I will be posting a new 2015 Best Everyday Tourist Photos blog each Sunday beginning January 3rd.

Making Roads, Grand Trunk Park playground

Peek-a-boo. King George School, Calgary

Colour and Shadow Fun, West Hillhurst, Calgary

Another Day At The Office, West Hillhurst Community Centre Playground, Calgary

Oasis, Inglewood, Calgary

Artwalk maze playground, Victoria

Colour & Shadow Play, Hillhurst Community Centre, Calgary

Look what we found. West Hillhurst, Calgary

Bucket Seat Swings, Seattle

Bucket Seat Swings, Seattle

Alien space craft? West Hillhurst, Calgary 

Interplay: Sky, Tree & Playground, Riley Park, Calgary

Learning to tightrope walk, St. Patrick's Island, Calgary

Who needs a playground when you can play under the LRT bridge in Eau Claire?

Who needs a playground when you can play under the LRT bridge in Eau Claire?

The plaza behind the McDougall Centre makes for a great skateboard park. These guys travelled all the way from Edmonton to check out downtown Calgary's hot skating spots. 

Snowboarding near 14th Street across from the Jubilee Theatre. Another hidden gem playground.

This sure beats my Fisher Price garage at home. 

If you like this blog, you might like: 

Playgrounds vs Public Art

Rome: Playground Lunch 

 Front Yard Fun