Is Calgary ready for REAL urban living?

Calgary has a long, long, long way to go before it can say it has created its first real urban community. 

After spending a month living like a local in Berlin’s hip Kreuzberg community I have a much better appreciation for what urban living is all about.  While some Calgarians might think the Beltline, Bridgeland, Downtown West End, East Village, Eau Claire, Inglewood and Kensington are urban communities in many ways they are just modified suburbs. 

It is hard to believe that this streetscape is in the Beltline, Calgary's densest residential community. It has a very suburban aesthetics with its front lawns and porches.  

It is hard to believe that this streetscape is in the Beltline, Calgary's densest residential community. It has a very suburban aesthetics with its front lawns and porches.  

In Sunnyside/Hillhurst most of the streets have a very attractive but suburban character. 

In Sunnyside/Hillhurst most of the streets have a very attractive but suburban character. 

The General Hospital site in Bridgeland has been redeveloped with condos that increase the density but still have a suburban character with townhomes that include front yards and porches. 

The General Hospital site in Bridgeland has been redeveloped with condos that increase the density but still have a suburban character with townhomes that include front yards and porches. 

The same is true of the Princeton in Eau Claire.  In urban streetscapes the ground level spaces would be offices, daycares, shops, restaurants, bakeries etc. 

The same is true of the Princeton in Eau Claire.  In urban streetscapes the ground level spaces would be offices, daycares, shops, restaurants, bakeries etc. 

Not everyone gets a balcony in urban neighbourhoods.

Not everyone gets a balcony in urban neighbourhoods.

There are no gaps between buildings in urban communities. 

There are no gaps between buildings in urban communities. 

When and if Calgary's City Centre becomes truly urban, this is what streets like 10th, 11th, 12th and 17th Avenues will look like with retail at ground level and 5+ storeys of residential above. The same for 10th and 14th Streets and Kensington Road in the northwest.  Atlantic Avenue or 9th Avenue in Inglewood will also have this kind of look, as will 1st Street NE in Bridgeland and 4th and 5th Streets in Mission. 

When and if Calgary's City Centre becomes truly urban, this is what streets like 10th, 11th, 12th and 17th Avenues will look like with retail at ground level and 5+ storeys of residential above. The same for 10th and 14th Streets and Kensington Road in the northwest.  Atlantic Avenue or 9th Avenue in Inglewood will also have this kind of look, as will 1st Street NE in Bridgeland and 4th and 5th Streets in Mission. 

Chaos in the streets

The first thing you notice about living in Kreuzberg is the chaos in the streets, as pedestrians, cyclists, cars, strider bikes and strollers, bob and weave around each other. While there are bike lanes, cyclists often ride on the wide sidewalks, especially parents with young children. 

Cyclists never use bells to warn you they are about to fly by you at full speed and drivers do not stop for pedestrians.

Yet in the 300+ hours we spent on the streets we never saw one collision of any kind. Somehow it just works.

While not all of the streets in urban neighbourhoods are animated like this one, the sidewalks and parks often full of people of all ages hanging out.  There is not much grass in the public spaces as they are so heavily used. 

While not all of the streets in urban neighbourhoods are animated like this one, the sidewalks and parks often full of people of all ages hanging out.  There is not much grass in the public spaces as they are so heavily used. 

Calgary's City Centre streets are too often devoid of people, too decorative, too pristine.

Calgary's City Centre streets are too often devoid of people, too decorative, too pristine.

Families & Urban Living

Good urban communities are full of families - we couldn’t walk a half a block in Kreuzberg without encountering a stroller or two.  There were daycares on almost every block, tucked away in buildings you would never imagine suitable for a daycare. 

There were also playgrounds on every other block, which included not only equipment for younger children, but often a multi-purpose fenced in area for soccer, basketball and skateboarding. 

We saw these hipsters carry the bench out of the shop (located in the basement) to the sidewalk so they could enjoy their morning coffee. 

We saw these hipsters carry the bench out of the shop (located in the basement) to the sidewalk so they could enjoy their morning coffee. 

In Kreuzberg, even side streets will have at least one cafe, a few restaurants that spill out onto the sidewalk. 

In Kreuzberg, even side streets will have at least one cafe, a few restaurants that spill out onto the sidewalk. 

Instead of backyard, kids play in the local playground which is surrounded by mid-rise residential blocks. 

Instead of backyard, kids play in the local playground which is surrounded by mid-rise residential blocks. 

Goodbye Single Family Homes 

There were no single-family homes, most of the buildings opened right onto the street.  There were also no skyscrapers, rather density was horizontal, so there was no feeling of being dwarfed by tall buildings and less wind tunneling. It was like taking a 40-story tower and laying it on its side.

You have to go a long way from the City Centre before you find a single family home in cities like Berlin or Montreal. 

You have to go a long way from the City Centre before you find a single family home in cities like Berlin or Montreal. 

Smaller is better

There was a plethora of grocery stores to choose from.  Not the mega 40,000+ square foot stores we have but  five to 10,000 square foot neighbourhood grocery stores that fit seamlessly into the community.  There were one or two grocery stores near every train station.  Even though they were much smaller than our grocery stores, they seemed to have everything we needed. 

Goodbye Car 

I also learned Transit Oriented Development doesn’t mean building tall residential towers at transit stations. In Berlin transit stations are often located in he middle of large open urban spaces called platzs. The platzs are great places to hang-out or meet up, and are often used for local markets.

Urban living also means you are never far from a transit station or bus stop that offers 5-minute or less service all day, not just rush hour. Urban living means a car is optional.

I also learned there is no correlation between how clean a community is and how safe it is.  Kreuzberg is very gritty with a ribbon of graffiti covering most of the buildings from the sidewalk to above the doorways.  The sidewalks are like huge ashtrays, as it seems like the majority of locals smoke. There are also beer bottle caps and broken glass everywhere as it is legal to drink on the street and in the parks.  As well the sidewalks are often full of garbage waiting to be collected.  

Yet at no time did we feel unsafe.  One night after clubbing in one of the seedier looking areas of the city we walked 2 km at 2:30 am (even though transit was available) home and never once felt unsafe. 

While fewer people own cars, the streets are still lined with cars as their is little to no underground parking for residents, retail or restaurants. There are no fancy curbs, bike lanes, crosswalks, speed bumps - they just make it work.   

While fewer people own cars, the streets are still lined with cars as their is little to no underground parking for residents, retail or restaurants. There are no fancy curbs, bike lanes, crosswalks, speed bumps - they just make it work.   

Last Word

Living in Kreuzberg I learned creating vibrant urban communities isn’t about banners, planters, fancy street furniture, new sidewalks and public art, nor is it about keeping the area graffiti and litter free. In fact, in Berlin it seemed the more graffiti and litter the more vibrant the streets and public areas. I had the same observations in Mexico City, Austin and Montreal. 

I wonder if Calgarians are ready for urban living? I know that I'm not.  I love my front porch and garden, love my own garage and our backyard where the neighbour kids love to play. 

Note: This an edited version of this blog was originally published in the May edition of Condo Living Magazine. 

If you like this blog, you might like:

What is urban living and does anybody care?