Airdrie: The Drivable City

Unlike Calgary’s other satellite cities - Cochrane, Canmore, High River, Okotoks and Strathmore - Airdrie doesn’t have a traditional downtown Main Street lined with historical buildings that once  were (and in some cases still are) shops, banks, hotels, pubs, post office, City Hall and Court House lining the sidewalk. 

Rather, Airdrie’s downtown Main Street is lined with free surface parking next to the sidewalk. The shops (including a grocery store) and services (City Hall, Library and Medical Centre) are all set back from the sidewalk in suburban, strip mall fashion.  It is a bit like International Avenue along 17th Ave SE in Calgary. 

If you drive five minutes south (next to the lovely Nose Creek Pathway) or north along Main Street you arrive at two new power centers with the classic mix of big box retailers (restaurants, hardware and grocery stories) to meet resident’s everyday needs. 

In 2007, six handcrafted totem poles were donated to the City of Airdrie by Gwacheon, Korea to commemorate the 10th year of sharing a sister city relationship. They are now located in Airdrie's  Gwacheon Park. 

In 2007, six handcrafted totem poles were donated to the City of Airdrie by Gwacheon, Korea to commemorate the 10th year of sharing a sister city relationship. They are now located in Airdrie's  Gwacheon Park. 

Creative Airdrie is very active fostering art projects like this mural wall. 

Creative Airdrie is very active fostering art projects like this mural wall. 

Transit Oriented Development

But, if instead you walk a few blocks west from downtown, over the railway tracks and across Nose Creek environmental area, you arrive at what looks like a future Railtown.  Several new low-rise condo buildings sit next to the tracks, while across the street is a power centre with a Sobeys grocery store and other amenities including a Good Earth Cafe.  It is just waiting for a train station to be built to take commuters to and from  Calgary – yes, 25% of Airdrie’s workforce commutes from Calgary.

To help meet commuter needs, Airdrie currently has four very successful bus commuter routes.  One that links Airdrie workers to CrossIron Mills and McKnight LRT Station, two that are express routes to/from downtown Calgary (one from the east side and one from the west side) and an Airdrie to Crossfield route.  The City is also experimenting with a local transit service.

QEII highway which links Alberta with Mexico divides Airdrie in half. 

QEII highway which links Alberta with Mexico divides Airdrie in half. 

Adapting To Families

While all the talk these days in the urban planning world is about making cities and new communities more walkable, cycleable and transit oriented, nobody is talking about how to make urban places more driveable.  We have walk scores and bike scores that measure a communities proximity to various amenities 5 or 10 minutes away by foot and pedal, but nothing that measures the amenities that are within a 5 or 10 minute drive.

In today’s busy world, of two income families with lots of extracurricular activities (parents and kids), walking and cycling is in reality, mostly a recreational activity, not a form of transportation.  Walking and/or cycling, as a part of everyday living is just not practical for the average family, no matter how close they are.  The automobile is not going the way of the dinosaur anytime soon, no matter what the urban evangelist say.

For Airdrie, it is even more critical that its urban design adapts to the needs of the families with young children - a whopping 24% of the population is under the age of 14 (16% in Calgary).

Having recently driven and walked around Airdrie, it seemed to me everybody lives within a 5-minute drive to one or more major grocery stores, probably the most important amenity to a growing family.  It also seemed the Rocky View School Division has been able to locate schools as needed in its new residential communities.

Airdrie's Canada Day Parade

Airdrie's Canada Day Parade

Airdrie's Festival of Lights

Airdrie's Festival of Lights

Place to play

Kudos to the City of Airdrie and Rocky View School Division for collaborated along East Lake Boulevard on the city’s east side by co-locating the Bert Church High School, Bert Church Theatre and Genesis Recreation Centre (Pool, Gyms, Twin Arenas and Fieldhouse) next to each other so the facilities can be shared.  This should be the model for every high school site in every region- also include a public library.  In the future, all school sites should be community/ meeting places. 

Airdrie boasts an ambitious schedule of annual family festivals - a Santa Claus Parade that attracts over 20,000 people (Calgary doesn’t have one), Festival of Lights (older than Calgary’s Zoolights), New Year’s Eve Fireworks, Canada Day Parade and Spring Music Festival (with over 400 musicians).  The Airdrie Pro Rodeo is one of the top 10 pro rodeos in Canada with $146,000 in prize money.

Today, Airdrie boasts 1,200 acres of parks, 104 km of pathways, 63 playgrounds and 5 off-leash dog parks.  For those who want to walk or bike, Airdrie has lovely pathways and parks along Nose Creek and the many canal communities in the city. Everybody is just 5 minutes away from a park, playground or a pathway.

The city also a thriving Farmers’ Market in Jensen Park, which was the site of the historic Jensen family farm - that’s authenticity.   Every Wednesday from June to Thanksgiving, from 3:30 to 7pm dozens of vendors sell fresh produce, food trucks serve up good grub and artists entertain, creating a fun, family food festival.

“Airdrie goes beyond the typical chain-only style of many bedroom communities. Certainly there is no shortage of chain restaurants in Airdrie but there are many high-quality independent places too such as Thai Charm, Abe’s Restaurant, Sushi Haru and Taj that satisfy a very sophisticated market,” says Calgary food and restaurant critic John Gilchrist.

Genesis Centre, Airdrie's Recreation Complex

Nose Hill Creek creates a pastoral setting in the middle of the city. 

Place to work

While most people think of Airdrie as a bedroom community of Calgary, in reality only about 50% of Airdrites work in Calgary.  Airdrie has over 20 companies that employ over 100 employees - Propak Systems Ltd. being the largest with 1,000 employees. 

One of the biggest employment sectors is the grocery industry (I counted 6 major grocery stores with another under construction - I may have missed one or two) currently employ over 2,500 people.

As well, Airdrie has 1,300 home businesses (out of 21,000 homes) partly as a result of an innovative program that proactively encourages the development of home-based businesses.  It consists of an online course for starting, running and growing a home business, as well as a mentorship program with an existing business leader.

Over that past 10 years, Airdrie’s commercial development has been growing as fast as its residential development as the ratio of commercial to residential tax assessment values has maintained its 17% commercial to 83% residential split.

Airdrie is more than just a bedroom city.

Good Earth Cafe and patio part of a car-oriented big box power centre, is also walkable from several major condo complexes a block away. 

Good Earth Cafe and patio part of a car-oriented big box power centre, is also walkable from several major condo complexes a block away. 

Modern new condo complexes a few blocks from downtown Airdrie. 

Modern new condo complexes a few blocks from downtown Airdrie. 

Airdrie At A Glance

It’s young: The median age group is 30-34 years of age, 83% of the population is under 65 years old with the majority, 64%, under 45 years old. The median age in Airdrie is 32.4 compared to Calgary (36.4) and Canada as a whole (40.2) years.

It’s growing very quickly: Airdrie is one of the fastest growing communities in Canada; population growth for the past sixteen years has exceeded 5.5%. Between the census years of 2006 and 2011, the population of Airdrie increased by 47.1%. The City is projected to grow a further 75% by 2030 to reach a population of 90,000.

It’s recent: Over half of Airdrie residents have lived in Airdrie for less than 5 years. According to 2014 survey, of those who have been at their residence for less than 1 year, 38% moved from Calgary and 32% from within Airdrie.

It’s mobile: Over 90% of Airdrie residents report that their primary mode of travel to work is single vehicle transportation (for Calgary its 72%. While a large number of residents commute to the City of Calgary for employment, 50% work within Airdrie or places other than Calgary.

(Source: Great Places Plan, 2016, City of Airdrie)

Last Word

It is important urban planners adapt their thinking to the needs of the contemporary family life, rather than expecting families to adapt to planner’s urban utopian ideals.

Kudos to Airdrie’s planners, politicians and business leaders for daring to be different, for embracing “driveability” as the key element to enhancing the quality of life for everyday living for its citizens.

An edited version of this blog appeared in the Fall Edition of Loving Airdrie magazine. 

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Kansas City here we come....

Who knew Kansas City was a hot bed of art and architecture?  Sometimes strange things just happen. 
The Thinker thinks about badminton?

The Thinker thinks about badminton?

First I get a website comment from an Everyday Tourist reader saying, “you have to go to Kansas City!” The next day, while having dinner with Saskatoon friends at the boisterous Cannibale Barbershop + Cocktails, they tell us Kansas City (KC) is a hidden gem and one of their favourite cities (both have travelled the world and love cities).  Then a few days later, I pick up Walter Cronkite’s autobiography from my pile of thrift store book finds and he begins by singing the praises of Kansas City where he grew up. Somebody is telling me something!

I thought it might be fun to blog about a city I have never actually visited using comments and photos from three fellow everyday tourists and the Internet.  

In the words of Wilbert Harrison who wrote the song Kansas City -  “I’m going to Kansas City, Kansas City here I come.” Interestingly, the lyrics talk about taking the train, plane or even walking there but not about driving to KC. 

Here we go…

Country Club Plaza

“I have just returned from Kansas City, Missouri. Its downtown shopping area, called "Country Club Plaza," is a redevelopment that started in 1923. It is several blocks wide and long and it is like Britannia Plaza (he had just read my blog about Calgary’s Britannia’s 21st century transformation) on steroids. The angle parking, the Boulevard, the wide sidewalks all appeal to shoppers. Our Inglewood and Kensington areas could certainly benefit from these design elements,” so GB comments on Everyday Tourist website.

I immediately thought, “What a strange name for a downtown plaza - sounds like a golf course development.”  Turns out it is a 15-block area that some call the “Rodeo Drive of the Midwest” with its Seville, Spain-inspired architecture, statues and fountains.  Who knew?

I love the story on the Internet about how a single stand of Christmas lights over a store entrance in 1925 has become a 15-block holiday spectacular called Plaza of Lights.  That is surely something Calgary’s downtown could use.  Imagine lighting all of the buildings, +15 bridges from Eau Claire up Barclay Mall to Stephen Avenue then over to Olympic Plaza and finally River Walk in East Village.  Or what about lighting up the silhouettes of all the historical buildings along Inglewood’s Main Street.  Maybe someday?

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Nelson-Atkins  Museum of Art

Both GB and my Saskatoon scouts tell me I have to visit the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art when in KC.  Yikes, I have never heard of this place and I spent 20 years as an artist, curator and Executive Director of a public art gallery.

Their photos immediately reminded me of Buffalo’s Albright-Knox Art Museum which we visited earlier this year. The story is that in 1915, William Rockhill Nelson, founder of The Kansas City Star, left his estate to a trust to purchase artwork for the public. At the same time, schoolteacher Mary McAfee Atkins, relatively unknown in the community, left one-third of her million-dollar estate to purchase land for a public art museum.  The two estates were combined and in 1933 the art museum opened it doors.  Gotta love those American philanthropists.

Today, the museum has over 35,000 works of art and welcomes over 500,000 visitors a year.   The playful “shuttlecocks” that sit on the vast lawn in front of the museum by Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen, make for a fun entrance.  

Wouldn’t the Glenbow love that kind of attendance (currently they have about 125,000 per year)? Perhaps is has something to do with the free admission?

Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art

KC… was a hot bed of art?  The Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art (KMCA) designed by Gunnar Birkets is s sleek, angular building in the vein of Calgary’s TELUS Spark. KMCA holds an amazing collection of Chihuly, Warhol and O’Keefe to name a few renowned artists. Free parking and admission make it very public-friendly. 

Calgary missed a big opportunity to create a museum of contemporary art when the Nickle Museum opened in 1979 at the University of Calgary.  Today it is seems all but forgotten having been integrated into the Taylor Family Digital Library a few years ago.

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Architecture Tour

Kansas City – a great city for architecture?  Here are some samples from the Internet – you decide.

 

The Kauffman Performing Arts Centre by Canada’s iconic architect Moshie Safdie. 

Another view of Kauffman Centre.

Another view of Kauffman Centre.

Kansas City Central Library parking garage is called the "Community Library." The facade consists of 22 huge books whose titles were suggested by the public and chosen by the Library's Trustees.  

Kansas City Central Library parking garage is called the "Community Library." The facade consists of 22 huge books whose titles were suggested by the public and chosen by the Library's Trustees.  

Zahner Head Office.  

Zahner Head Office.  

Sprint Centre, designed by HOK

Sprint Centre, designed by HOK

Kansas City Convention Centre designed by HNTB Architects was built over a 6-lane freeway. Perhaps Calgary should build a new convention trade centre overtop of the downtown CPR rail tracks. 

Kansas City Convention Centre designed by HNTB Architects was built over a 6-lane freeway. Perhaps Calgary should build a new convention trade centre overtop of the downtown CPR rail tracks. 

Bartle Sky Stations. Located in downtown Kansas City, artist R.M. Fischer worked with Zahner to produce the stainless steel and aluminum sculptures which rest upon massive pylons at the intersection of three major highways. After completion in 1994, these four sculptures quickly became icons synonymous with Kansas City's downtown cityscape.  These sculptures are inspired by 1930s Art Deco style, which can be seen throughout the Municipal Auditorium's chandeliers and decorative designs at Bartle Hall. 

Bartle Sky Stations. Located in downtown Kansas City, artist R.M. Fischer worked with Zahner to produce the stainless steel and aluminum sculptures which rest upon massive pylons at the intersection of three major highways. After completion in 1994, these four sculptures quickly became icons synonymous with Kansas City's downtown cityscape.

These sculptures are inspired by 1930s Art Deco style, which can be seen throughout the Municipal Auditorium's chandeliers and decorative designs at Bartle Hall. 

The Kansas City Power & Light Bridge  This project is not a bridge for people or cars, but for the primary electricity conduits that feed downtown Kansas City. Designed by the architects at  Helix , utilitarian truss structure is cladded with a perforated black zinc skin which fills with pulsing lights during the evening. The 165 foot-long utility structure bridges the gap over the interstate highway, connecting the Crossroads Art District with the Power & Light Entertainment District, two of Kansas City’s hubs for arts & entertainment.

The Kansas City Power & Light Bridge

This project is not a bridge for people or cars, but for the primary electricity conduits that feed downtown Kansas City. Designed by the architects at Helix, utilitarian truss structure is cladded with a perforated black zinc skin which fills with pulsing lights during the evening. The 165 foot-long utility structure bridges the gap over the interstate highway, connecting the Crossroads Art District with the Power & Light Entertainment District, two of Kansas City’s hubs for arts & entertainment.

Power & Light District

Between 2005 and 2008 a new downtown entertainment district was created around the art deco Kansas City Power & Light Building.  Today, it includes the multi-use Sprint Centre Arena (home to no professional sports teams), a covered outdoor plaza, Almo Drafthouse Mainstreet Theatre (cinemas), Midland Theatre (3,500 capacity music hall) and numerous bars, restaurant and offices including H&R Block world headquarters. 

Maybe this is something the Calgary Flames might want to look at for West Village i.e. drop the stadium and field house and focus on the arena, entertainment activities with perhaps a hotel and numerous condos. 

Better yet, could the Calgary Stampede and Flames collaborate to create something like this at Stampede Park?

Crossroads Arts District is delirious….

Our Saskatoon friends sing the praises of the Crossroads, a historic district south of downtown, which is animated by dozens of art galleries, housed in repurposed warehouses and industrial buildings.  It is also home to several restaurants, cafes, housewares shops, designers’ shops and live music venues.

HOK, a global design, architecture, engineering and planning firm has their headquarters there. (They are the architects for Edmonton’s’ new Rogers Place arena). Speaking of Edmonton, KC is also home to A. Zahner Company, an innovative architectural metal & glass company that was responsible for the Art Gallery of Alberta.  Their website’s portfolio page is like eye candy for designers. Who knew (not me, anyway) that the massive ribbon of stainless steel that wraps around and through the AGA represents the northern lights and is officially called “The Borealis.” Furthermore, the form of the roof’s canopy that then drops to the ground serves as a “snow cone” collecting snow and ice.  Where do they get these ideas?

“Delirious” was how those two Saskatoonites described themselves after flaneuring the Crossroads.

Link: Zahner Portfolio

City of Fountains

Beginning in the late 1800s, Kansas City started erecting fountains to serve dogs, horses and birds.  Then in 1910 the J.C. Nichols Memorial Fountain, built in Paris, was near the iconic Country Club Plaza.  The larger-than-life equestrian figures represent four rivers: the Mississippi, Seine, Rhine and, Volga (Europe's longest river).

Then came the Meyer Circle Sea Horse Fountain, purchased in Venice, Italy in the early 1920's and named for the three mythological sea horses perched atop the stone pyramid.

Still later, the Northland Fountain, flowing year-round, features an 80-foot circular base and center geyser that can propel water 35 feet high. This fountain is especially popular because the frigid winter temps transform it into a spectacular ice sculpture highlighted by a wide array of frozen shapes. This I gotta see!

Every year, on the second Tuesday in April, the city celebrates Greater Kansas City Fountain Day, when all 48 publicly operated fountains spring back to life.  I have always loved the idea of fountains in urban spaces.

Last Word

It always amazes me how much second and third tier cities in North America have to offer.  It is not all about New York, San Francisco, Chicago, Vancouver or Toronto. 

Did you know that KC has the second most boulevard streets in the world after Paris and is nicknamed “Paris of the Plains?” Kansas City wasn’t on our list of cities to visit, but it is now.  Kansas City, here we come!

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Nations Fresh Foods: Where East Meets West!

While Whole Foods Market (often called Whole Paycheck) is the darling of most urbanists across North America (me included) I might have just found a better option. 

Back in 2013, my Mom spoke of a new grocery store opening up in Hamilton’s downtown Jackson Square shopping centre.  She checked it out for me, but wasn’t impressed when the customer service people didn’t speak English.  She was so disgusted she didn’t even remember the name of the store. Since then I have never heard anything about an innovative new flagship grocery store in Hamilton.

Hamilton has had a downtown Farmers’ Market since 1837 and is where I like to go whenever I am in town.  However, on my recent visit, my Mom suggested I also check it the now not so new Jackson Square grocery store, which is on the same mega block as the Famers’ Market, Central Library and First Ontario Arena.

WOW

I was immediately blown away by its size and vibe - even on a Monday morning there was a great mix of people shopping in the huge (55,000 square feet) store.

I had to look to find the name of the store as the entrance is from the middle of a ‘70s indoor mall, so there is no big box signage.  Eventually, I figured out it was Nations Fresh Foods.  I had never heard of it. Where have I been? Later I checked with some other urban retail colleagues and they hadn’t heard of it either. 

Turns out the parent company is Brampton based Ocean Fresh Foods Market and Nations is their upscale grocery store concept with two stores, with a third opening in Toronto later in 2016.  The motto for their stores is “Where East meets West” which means they offer food and produce as well as take-home cooked meals from around the world. While the stores have an European design the aisles are filled with products from around the world to serve southern Ontario market one of the most ethnically diverse places in the world.

Both Quality AND Affordability!

At the entrance was a lovely coffee station with pastries and gelato – I immediately thought my love of evening walks for gelato in Florence.  

The more I wandered, the more impressed I became with the selection. I loved the wall of teas, the seafood market full of live fish, the huge in store bakery, large sushi station and very fresh-looking fruits and vegetables.

I am told Nations carries lots of exotic foods like mungosteen, rambutan and dragonfruit; this is definitely not your average grocery store.

And the prices were good - three chocolate croissants for $1.99, artisan breads for $2.69.  Reviews of the store on the Internet were overwhelmingly positive - many saying they preferred it to Whole Foods.   Several people commented that Nations offers good quality at affordable prices; this almost never happens for other grocery stores.

While Nations’ by-line is “Where East Meets West,” I think I would use “Where old world meets new world.” 

Last Word

While I doubt Nations is looking at expanding to Western Canada anytime soon, a Nations’ grocery store would be a welcome addition in Calgary.  Perhaps as part a new development planned on the old Calgary Co-op site in the Beltline.  It would be perfect for the proposed mega development in Chinatown.  Eau Claire Market, University District or Currie would also be ideal locations.

I can’t help but think if Nations’ flagship store was in downtown Vancouver or Toronto, the urban planning world would be all over it as “god’s gift to urban villages,” but because it is in downtown Hamilton, it has been effectively ignored.

Oh, and after our visit, even my Mom was impressed enough to say maybe she would give Nations a second chance.

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