Does the average Calgarian really care about urban design? David Down, Architect and Chief Urban Designer at the City of Calgary thinks we do.
Down feels the level of public interest in urban design has increased significantly over the last decade and it is not just an interest in mega projects like the Peace Bridge, Bow Tower or TELUS Sky, but at the residential level as well. “There is now, more than ever, a critical mass of residential buildings, both single and multi family, designed by both large and small local architectural firms, which are pushing the design envelope in a way that didn’t exist in the late 20th century.
In addition, new public forums focussing on urban design like Dtalks and Baconfest are attracting capacity crowds,” points out Down.
“Calgary has undergone significant positive physical change over the past ten years in the quality of the design of its buildings, streets and public spaces and the improvements are continuing to occur,” he notes.
“Also Calgary’s improved urban design is beginning to be recognized globally” adds Down, “for example, Calgary will be hosting the prestigious Walk21 September 19 to 22 (previous locations for this conference include Vienna, Berlin, Melbourne and Hong Kong).” Calgary will also host the International Play Association World Conference September 13 to 17th.
“Urban Design” Defined
Urban design is the design of individual buildings, groups of buildings, master planning of new communities, redevelopment of established communities, as well as the design of parks, plazas, pathways, public art and streetscapes. It is an inter-disciplinary practice that includes architects, landscape architects, planners, engineers and community engagement.
The first evidence of the rise in importance of urban design in Calgary came in 2003 when the City created an “Urban Design Review Panel” to review major City Centre projects to ensure they would enhance the quality of living for Calgarians. Then, in 2005, the City hired David Down as Senior Architect/Urban Designer to advocate for better urban design within the Planning Department.
Also in 2005, the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada (RAIC) instituted the Urban Design Awards program, inviting Canadian cities to participate in a two-tiered (in odd years there is a local award competition; in even years the local winners are eligible for national awards) Urban Design Award program to recognize excellence in urban design in Canada and demonstrate its importance to the general public at both the local and national levels. Both David Watson, then General Manager of the City’s Planning Department and then Mayor Dave Bronconnier were supportive of the staff’s request to join the RAIC program.
Calgary became one of first cities to join the program.
Past National Award Winners
In 2016, Calgary’s The Bench Project won the National Award for Community Initiatives (after winning the local award in 2015). This grass roots initiative involved an anonymous group of Calgarians leaving colourful handmade benches around the city with the intent of“creating spaces for Calgarians to have a seat and enjoy our city.”
Two years earlier, in 2014, The Marc Boutin Architectural Collaborative Inc. won the national Civic Design Projects Award for “The Landscape of Memory: Poppy Plaza” project.
And in 2012, Broadway Malyan with Roland Berger Strategy Consultants won for their East Village Master Plan in the same category. In 2010, Stantec Consulting Ltd. won a national award in the category of Urban Design Plans for The River Walk Master Plan.
How the Mayor’s Urban Design Awards Program Works?
David Down, the City of Calgary’s Chief Urban Designer, in collaboration with the Mayor’s office, manages the program.
Anyone can make a submission for consideration by the jury, but it is usually someone from the project team who submits. Detailed submission requirements are on the City of Calgary website (link http://calgary.ca/PDA/pd/Pages/Mayors-Urban-Design-Awards/Mayor-Urban-Design-Awards.aspx?redirect=/muda). In any given year, about 50 to 60 submissions are received.
Suggestions for jury members are solicited from a group of design industry “advisors” and a list is created of experts from the fields of urban design, architecture, landscape architecture, planning, community advocacy, arts and media.
Jury members are from Calgary and elsewhere to ensure a balance of local knowledge and “outside” best practice experience.
Funny Jury Story
Down says it is fascinating to watch the jurors in action - some are quick to make their selections, while others are slower and more considered. The best example was in 2007. “The late Bing Thom, arriving late from Vancouver, made all of his choices in less than 10 minutes; others took two days,” says Down adding, “the jurying process can be both entertaining and exhausting as juries often ask to tour their shortlist of winners and in a few cases, have been convinced for or against a selection by seeing it in situ.”
The RAIC determines the categories, which includes some strange and ambiguous names like Civic Design Projects, Approved or Adopted Urban Design Plans, Conceptual/Theoretical Urban Design Projects, Urban Fragments, Student Projects and Urban Architecture.
Fortunately, Calgary has added some additional categories to better reflect our City’s unique urban design culture and simply make more sense. These include:
The Mawson Urban Design Award
Building(s) that achieve urban design excellence and creativity through awareness of the Calgary culture.
City Edge Development
Urban design plans, architecture and landscape designs that respond to needs in newly developing areas of the city (This award was created to encourage more suburban projects submissions as in the past, the awards were very City Centre-centric).
Great City, Great Design
Building and infrastructure designs, urban design plans, landscape designs, planning studies and individual site elements that contribute to the quality of life in Calgary.
Building(s) that achieve sustainable design while seeking to reduce energy and resource consumption of buildings.
Residential design projects, constructed or approved, of any size or scale, which demonstrate innovation in the areas of accessibility, affordability, and “aging in place.” This is a new category this year
I am told there will also be a People’s Choice award this year, but the City is still working out the details. The deadline for all submissions is September 5, 2017, with the gala awards ceremony happening on November 15, 2017.
Down thinks (and I agree) that over the past decade, Calgary’s local urban design community - with the assistance of signature international designers - have created a critical mass of good urban design projects that have captured the attention of the international design community.
Diverse projects, like the futuristic Rocky Ridge Recreational Centre, the stunning SAIT Polytechnic Parkade, the glowing SETON Gateway feature, the playful Alberta Children’s Hospital and St. Patrick’s Island all demonstrate how Calgary’s suburbs, inner city and City Center communities are all experiencing enhanced urban design projects. The days of the public accepting a boring concrete box building are history.
It will be very interesting to hear what urban design professionals from around the world think of our city when they visit this September. Stay tuned!
Note: An edited version of this blog appeared in the Calgary Herald's New Condos section on Saturday, August 12, 2017.
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