Urban Planning is not a science!

Recently, I have been criticized by several planners and urban lobbyists for saying; “urban planning is more an art than a science and vibrant streets, public spaces and communities happen more by chance than master plans.”  Ouch! 

My critics tell me current urban research on best practices around the world means planners today can develop plans that have a high probability of creating vibrant streets, spaces and new communities using accepted good urban design principles.

But I counter with the fact that for decades urban planners have been telling Calgarians they have the recipe for creating urban vitality. In the ‘60s, planners thought the idea of clustering a new hotel, museum, convention centre, observation tower, office and retail at Centre Street and 8th and 9th Avenues SW was just the ticket to revitalize the east end of downtown.  I trust they were using what they thought were the best urban design principles at that time. Today the blocks of 8th and 9th Avenue near Centre Street are still devoid of street life most of the time.

Calgary's 7th Avenue Transit corridor was recently enhanced with new stations and sidewalks, but it still lacks an urban vibe. 

This is the entrance to Calgary Telus Convention Centre and Glenbow Museum taken at Stampede time in 2015.

Marriott Hotel's 9th Ave entrance across from the Calgary Tower at Stampede 2015.

Let's Try Again

Then in the ‘70s, new planners (again presumably based on current best practices thought) transforming 8th Avenue into a pedestrian mall, 7th Avenue into a transit corridor and building a huge indoor shopping centre with a winter garden and two office towers above it would boost downtown vitality. 

Toronto was doing it - Eaton’s Centre, Vancouver was doing it - Pacific Centre, so Calgary should do it – hence TD Square. Later, we added our own mini Eaton’s Centre and more recently we combined the two renaming The Core.  Hamilton, Winnipeg and Edmonton also tried the downtown indoor mall experiment to create urban vitality with little success.

Eaton's Centre in Toronto is a major tourist attraction. 

The Core shopping mall in downtown Calgary is the city's fourth busiest mall. 

Two More Times

In the ‘80s, planners once again turned their attention to the east end of Stephen Avenue with a mega block development - the Performing Arts Centre (Arts Commons). Surely, building one of North America’s largest performing arts centres (five space and 3,200 seats) with a new civic plaza would be just the ticket to create some vibrant downtown nightlife.  

Then in the ‘90s, urban revitalization best practices indicated the key to adding urban vitality to a neighbourhood was to include a mix of uses.  The Eau Claire plan included a market, an IMAX, a (multi-screen cinema), restaurants, shops, the Eau Claire Y recreation centre, new condos, a new hotel, a promenade along the river and upgrades to Prince’s Island Park.

All of these ambitious plans were based on current urban planning best practices at the time yet all met with limited success in creating a vibrant and attractive urban sense of place for Calgarians over the long term.

Stephen Avenue Walk today.

Unfulfilled Promises

And it’s not just Calgary.  For decades, urban planners around the world have researching and creating new best practices theories for creating vibrant streets, public spaces and urban communities, but in most cases the promise of urban vitality is unfulfilled.

More than one planner has admitted to me that much of urban planning today is about undoing the bad planning of the past. Personally, I don’t think it is actually bad planning, but the fact that urban planning is more like an experiment, where you have a hypothesis and to test it you have to build something to see if it works.

And, like most experiments they fail (or don’t work out exactly as planned) more often than they succeed.

However, I wouldn’t get too depressed. Calgary’s isn’t as bad as some urban planners would have us think. 

Barclay Mall is an enhance pedestrian street linking Stephen Avenue to Eau Claire, Prince's Island and Bow River. 

In fact, Calgary is very healthy!

Every year the Calgary Foundation produces what they call Vital Signs. It is a report card on how Calgarians feel about their city as opposed to how urbanists feel about our city.

Each year the results indicate Calgary is very healthy city. For example the 2015 reports states:

  • 87% enjoy their quality of life in Calgary
  • 91% describe themselves as happy
  • 78% are happy with their job and satisfied with their work
  • 75% participate actively in their community of interest
  • 90% report they are surrounded by loving family/companions/friends
  • 83% rated their physical well-being as high
  • 86% rated their mental well-being as high
  • 77% rated Calgary as a vibrant, lively, appealing place to live

These are pretty positive numbers and tell me Calgarians overall are pretty happy with the quality of life Calgary affords them. What more can you ask for?

Olympic Plaza in winter attracts a few skaters. 

Last Word

 In 2012, Scientific America published Sarah Fecht's paper titled “Urban Legend: Can City Planning Shed Its Pseudoscientific Stigma?” The opening paragraph reads:

 “In 1961 urbanist Jane Jacobs didn't pull any punches when she called city planning a pseudoscience. ‘Years of learning and a plethora of subtle and complicated dogma have arisen on a foundation of nonsense’ she wrote in The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Fifty years later the field is still plagued by unscientific thought, according to urban theorist Stephen Marshall of University College London. In a recent paper in Urban Design International, Marshall restated Jacobs's observation that urban design theory is pseudoscientific and called for a more scientific framework for the field.”

Cities are very complex organisms, with way too many variables to be a science. City building is an endless experiment in adapting to new realities – economic, technology, citizen demands and urban design thinking.  

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Calgary's CBD is unique!

Recently I did a piece for CBCNews Crossroads about Calgary’s downtown being an office ghetto.  The two criticisms I received from several urban planners were: 1) what I was really talking about was not Calgary’s downtown, but its “central business district” (CBD) and 2) all CBDs are office ghettos and therefore ghost towns after office hours. 

CBD is an urban planning term that refers to the place near the centre of a city that is predominantly a place to conduct business. To confuse things, some cities like Toronto, called it the Financial District, as it is where the major national banks have their headquarters.

Calgary's CBD includes several blogs of early 20th century buildings that have been declared a National Historic District as well as several other historical buildings. 

Calgary’s CBD (Downtown Commercial Core, is City of Calgary’s official name for it) is defined as the area from 9th St SW to 1st St SE (behind Municipal Building) and from 9th Ave SW to the 4th Ave SW.  It is about 1.3 km by .6 km in size and excludes Eau Claire, Chinatown or East Village.  For most Calgarians, I expect this is also their definition of downtown give or take a few blocks.

Read: Fixing Calgary's downtown ghost town

All CBDs are ghost towns?

The critics were quick to point out, “in Toronto, the Bay and King Street area is dead outside of office hours; the same is true for the blocks around Manhattan’s Wall Street.”

I agree with their observation CBD’s are typically ghost towns outside of office hours, because they basically have nothing else but offices towers. 

However, Calgary’s CBD is different.  While it is 80% office buildings it also includes major shopping, entertainment, cultural, historic and residential elements, on a scale that most other major city CBDs don’t include.

For example, Toronto’s CBD, at about 2 square kilometers, though about the same size as Calgary’s, doesn’t include Toronto Eaton Centre, The Bay, their theatre and entertainment districts. Their major tourist destinations, Art Gallery of Ontario, Royal Ontario Museum and CN Tower are also not in their CBD.  The same could be said for Vancouver or Seattle, their tourist are not hanging out in their CBD.

Calgary's CBD has over 3 million square feet of retail space, twice that of Chinook Mall.  The Core shopping mall links the historic Hudson's Bay department store with a flagship Holt Renfew store.  It is connected to 9 office towers and to Stephen Avenue pedestrian mall and the 7th Avenue transit corridor.  It is also connect to a major indoor public garden.  It is one of the most dense and mixed-use three-blocks in North America. 

Calgary's CBC has two pedestrian oriented streets with wide sidewalks, planters, banners and other enhancements. 

Why Calgary's CBD is different?

In Calgary, our CBD includes the city’s largest concentration of retail shopping. At 3.6 million square feet it is more than twice Chinook Centre’s. It includes the flagship Hudson’s Bay and Holt Renfrew department stores, as well as the-uber cool The Core shopping center with the mammoth glass ceiling.

Calgary’s CBD also includes two major tourist attractions the Glenbow Museum and Calgary Towers, as well as our Convention Centre. While the historic districts in Toronto and Vancouver are outside of their CBD, Calgary’s Stephen Avenue (a designated National Historic District) and a major restaurant row sits at centre ice in our CBD.

Calgary is also unique in that eight performing art spaces with over 4,000 seats and an art house cinema are located in our CBD.  It is also home to two significant public spaces (Devonian Gardens and Olympic Plaza), over 100 public artworks and two enhanced pedestrian-oriented streets (Stephen Avenue and Barclay Mall). 

Our CBD is home to some of Calgary’s best restaurants, albeit many of them have “expense account” prices, making them more for special occasions only.  It also includes major nightclubs like Flames Central and smaller music venues the Palomino Room or Wine-Ohs.

And, it I home to major festivals like Calgary International Children’s Festival and High Performance Rodeo, as well as the Stampede Parade and Stampede’s Rope Square.  

Indeed, Calgary’s CBD is unique in North America offering a greater diversity and great concentration of things to see and do for tourists and locals than a typical CBD.

Read: Calgary's Downtown Power Hour

Calgary's CBD comes alive at noon hour in the summer when workers and tourist love to stroll Stephen Avenue Walk aka 8th Avenue. 

Calgary's 7th Avenue LRT station at Holt Renfew, opens to a lovely park that is popular with workers at noon hour.

Stephen Avenue is a major restaurant row, that is lined with patios from May to September. 

Calgary Telus Convention Centre is located in Calgary CBD.

Olympic Plaza is another public space located in Calgary's CBD. The red brick building is part of the Arts Commons complex that includes that entire block.  it includes four theatre spaces and one concert hall.  On the next block is the Glenbow Museum and the Telus Convention Centre with Hyatt and Marriott hotels. 

Thousands of people live in our CBD

Our CBD also has a significant residential population of 9,000 residents. In fact it is one of Calgary’s largest residential communities ranking 52 out of our 250+ communities in population. It is also includes 10 major hotels with over 3,000 rooms.

In comparison, Toronto CBD’s residential population is only 2,239 (Toronto Financial District Business Improvement Area).

Read: Calgary new downtown office towers catalyst for inner-city densification

One of several residential buildings in Calgary's CBD. 

Facing Reality 

Our CBD is our downtown in the minds of most Calgarians.  And it is generally perceived as a place to work - not live or play.

Calgary’s CDB downtown has not captured the imagination of Calgarians as a place to play, dine, shop, be entertained, wander, linger or hang out except on special occasions. Neither, has it captured the imagination of Calgarians as a “must see” place for visiting family and friends except for special events.  

Nor has it captured the imagination of tourists as a weekend urban playground – music, festival, events, food, pubs, clubs, gallery/museum browsing, shopping, theatre etc.

9th Avenue is a typical Calgary CBD street with office buildings lining the street allowing little to no light to the sidewalk creating an unfriendly pedestrian environment. 

Another example of a street in Calgary's CBD that is just a wall of glass from office buildings. 

Last Word

In theory, Calgary’s CDB/downtown has many of the ingredients urban planners say you need to have for a vibrant urban place – shopping, public spaces, pedestrian- oriented streets, museums, art galleries, iconic architecture, public art, cafés, restaurants and festivals. 

Despite the tremendous efforts (think billions of dollars) by the City of Calgary, the private sector and the Calgary Downtown Association to create a CBD that is attractive to office workers during the weekday and tourists and Calgarians citywide in evenings and weekends, it is still a ghost town after office hours.

Unfortunately, office buildings are urban vitality exterminators and they trump everything else.

Full Disclosure: I was the Executive Director of the Calgary Downtown Association from 1995 to 2006.