Is Calgary too pristine? Should we be fostering messy urbanism? Are we doing it all wrong when it comes to city building?
These are few of the many questions I am pondering after two weeks in Montreal (December 2016) and especially after a month in Berlin (March 2017).
While Calgary is struggling to adapt to the new realities of the 21st century, Montreal and Berlin are firing on all cylinders when it comes to attracting young creative professionals and capitalizing on the economy of new technology
Kreuzber Grafitti Capital of Europe
While Calgary is still keeping up the good fight against graffiti, Montreal and Berlin have seemingly given up. Throughout Berlin’s Kreuzberg community (ranked one of the world’s top 10 hipster communities) there is a literally a ribbon of graffiti (from sidewalk to above the doorways) on the buildings along most sidewalks.
It seems like their motto is “why bother cleaning it up when someone will just paint over it.”
In fact, in one case I saw someone clean up the graffiti on their building and it was back the next day. Montreal is much the same, with the difference being they have embraced street art and murals, which are more refined and decorative than graffiti.
Pick your battles!
When it comes to repairing sidewalks, it seems like Montreal and Berlin have also given up the fight against nature and just let them crack, heave and crumble. While Calgary is busy spending millions on sidewalk and streetscape improvements in Kensington and 17th Avenue SW, Montreal and Kreuzberg’s pedestrian streets are just left to age gracefully and in some cases, not so gracefully.
And don’t get me started on litter and garbage. Kreuzberg’s streets are filthy and Montreal’s are not great either.
FYI: If you just hang out in Berlin’s tourist hot spots (and there are many), you don’t get to see the “real” Berlin. That is the case in most cities.
In Kreuzberg many of the streets are like one long flop house with cigarette butts, beer and liquor bottles, bottle caps and pizza boxes everywhere. Many locals love that they can just buy a beer in the corner store, drink it while they walk along the sidewalk or hanging at the park and then just leave it wherever. And garbage cans there are too few and too small in my opinion so they are often overflowing with garbage. But it doesn’t seem to bother anyone.
Embracing Messy Living
Though both Montreal and Berlin are big cycling cities, I didn’t see any multi-million dollar bike lanes requiring their own traffic lights. Especially in Berlin, they just adapted the existing sidewalks and roads to create bike lanes that are often very difficult to distinguish from the sidewalk. It was chaos - people were walking in the bike lanes and cyclists riding along the sidewalk, but somehow they make it work. We did not see a crash or even a near crash.
As well in Berlin, I saw no fancy new multi-million dollar pedestrian bridges over their river and canals, nor did I see much in the way of public art. Rather than investing millions in public art, they have free public art from local graffiti and street artists.
Forget investing hundreds of thousands of dollars in creative colourful new playgrounds to attract young families. In Berlin, their sand (yes they are all sand) playgrounds, with unpainted or extremely fainted wood equipment from the ‘50s are just as busy as any Calgary community playground. Some of the riding animals on springs looked surprisingly like something from an ancient Haida totem pole. The schoolyard playgrounds were often also old and tired looking, Calling them vintage is being kind, most of them have no grass, it is asphalt or mud. But the kids were just as active and happy as any playground I have seen in Calgary.
I did see a couple of dog parks in Berlin; they were disgusting as they were just all dirt, or should I say “mud” as it rains a lot in Berlin. With the use of doggie poop bags seemingly optional along the streets, I was afraid to venture into the dog parks. There was nothing like Calgary’s new Connaught dog park with its lovely wrought iron gate, grass and seating areas.
I also didn’t see any lamppost banners, evidence of hanging baskets or fancy street furniture either. In Berlin, one enterprising restaurateur made outdoor lounge furniture from wooden pallets - A sharp contrast to the expensive lounge chairs along East Village’s Riverwalk and St. Patrick’s Island.
I saw nothing either to match the designer community gardens that are popping up all over Calgary. Certainly, nothing to match East Village’s community gardens, which is probably one of the most elaborate and expensive in the world. What I did see though were Kleingartens that date back to the mid-19th century in Leipzig, Germany when municipalities sold or leased small plots of land to apartment dwellers to grow food. Today, some look more like shantytowns, with an array of old cabins (before tiny homes became trendy), sheds and overgrown gardens.
Let’s take the plastic off?
So while Calgary is spending multi-millions trying to keep our city pristine, people in Montreal and Berlin are embracing messy urbanism. While Calgary is struggling, they are thriving.
The thinking in urban planning and placemaking these days is that streets, plazas and parks should be the community’s living room, i.e. a community meeting place where locals hang out and chat. Metaphorically, Calgary is still in the ‘60s, maybe '50s when mothers would keep the plastic slipcovers on the living room furniture to maintain its pristine look, the result being nobody used them.
So, “are we doing our city building all wrong? Perhaps it is time we stopped trying to create a pristine city, stop lusting for the new and just “live a little.”
Perhaps part of Calgary’s new future is adopting a new urban aesthetic? But maybe not to the extent of Kreuzberg!