N3: No parking! No cars! No worries!

I recently had a chance to tour Knightsbridge Homes’ and Metropia’s controversial new N3 condo in East Village, which has absolutely no parking for residents or visitors. While some saw the lack of parking as a huge risk in a city where most citizens can’t live without a car, Joe Starkman, President Knightsbridge Homes and his team did their research and realized while the market in Calgary for a condo with no parking was small, all he needed was 167 people in a city of over one million to sign up. 

  Looking west to downtown...

Looking west to downtown...

Turns out he was correct. The 460 to 620 square foot condos were quickly snapped up. Today, the building is fully occupied with residents who love living East Village where almost everything is - or soon will be - within walking distance or a quick transit ride away.

While the homes are small, I and the two other housing professionals I was with were very impressed with their efficient designed.  While one might think N3’s market would be a haven for millennials, many were empty nesters.   

  Communal living room...

Communal living room...

IKEA Connection

What I found really interesting too was that every buyer was given a $500 IKEA gift card to help outfit their condo, a Lifetime Car2Go Membership, $500 in Car2Go mileage credits and a $500 gift card to Bow Cycle. Obviously, N3 was destined to become a haven for walkers and cyclists, who only needed a car occasionally.  I also learned a special weekend IKEA bus (hourly service starting at 11 am) was established not only for N3 but all East Village residents and the City Center at the N3 condo show suite – it still operates today.

  Double decker bike parking...

Double decker bike parking...

Top To Bottom Appeal

Calgary’s GEC architects designed a handsome building, which includes a spectacular roof top patio, complete with kitchen facilities and workout space.  The patio has million dollar views of the downtown skyline, as well as great views of the new Central Library, the river and mountains. The rooftop patio was very well used this summer, becoming a communal living room for all residents. It is a view that will never disappear, as all of the surrounding buildings will never get any taller.

Its basement is probably the best bike storage in Calgary.  It comes complete with a bike repair and washing area.  There is direct access to the mews between N3 and St. Louis hotel with a bike friendly ramp and of course state-of-the-art secure storage racks.  The bike room is bright and airy, not a dark and dingy basement.

  Rooftop view looking NE...

Rooftop view looking NE...

  Rooftop view looking south...

Rooftop view looking south...

Mixed Use

Like all good City Centre condo developments, N3 includes commercial uses at ground level.  Tim Hortons has recently opened along the 4th Street SE street frontage while The Brewer’s Apprentice has opened in the mid-block mews that separates N3 from the historic St. Louis Hotel.  Apprentice is a unique, high-tech concept that offers 48 different craft beers from Alberta and beyond.  They offer tastings and in addition to buying beer in cans and bottles, you can get freshly poured growlers and tallboys.

Kudos to the GEC architectural team who chose to make the entrance to N3 from the mews and not from 8th Ave SE or 4th St SE, thereby allowing for better commercial space at street level and a funky, European-like space in the mews.

  Entrance to N3 is from the mews...

Entrance to N3 is from the mews...

  View from balcony....

View from balcony....

Last Word

While N3 offered the lowest cost new condo prices in East Village and probably in all of the City Centre, it is by no means a low cost building. The amenities rival those of luxury condos.  I chatted with several residents during my tour and everyone was very happy with their purchase.

N3 has been so successfully Starkman and his team are going to “do it again.” Well, not exactly. They are currently developing plans for the 14-storey Velo, which will have a mix of housing types including mico-suites (under 250 sq. ft.), seniors’ housing and housing for the ably-disabled all in one tower.  And yes it will have some parking but not the typical amount.

As for the significance of the name N3, officially it stands for New attitude, New vision and New lifestyle, my interpretation is No parking, No cars, No worries!

Note: An edited version of this blog was published in the Calgary Herald's New Condo section, Dec 23, 2017.

If you like this blog, you will like these links:

No parking! No Problem!

Condo Living: More Time For FUN!

21st Century: Century of the condo!

Calgary leads Vancouver in condo design?

Mesa: Viewpoint RV & Golf Resort Is Heavenly!

Recently, I was invited by a golf buddy to drive with him to Mesa, Arizona - to share the driving and get in some rounds of golf. A perfect win-win.

While I expected a fun week of golf, I didn’t expect to have my “view” of trailer park living in Mesa radically changed.  After a week at Viewpoint RV & Golf Resort, I thought I had died and gone to heaven.

  Don't Worry Be Happy is everyone's mantra at Viewpoint!

Don't Worry Be Happy is everyone's mantra at Viewpoint!

People-Friendly

No sooner had we parked the car, when the Iowa neighbours (you couldn’t miss their large Iowa University Haweyes’ flag on the front of the trailer) across the street came over and introduced themselves.  They immediately invited us to the Happy Hour block party that day – in fact, it happens every Thursday afternoon.  Turns out, everyone takes a turn hosting the weekly event. Everyone brings their own beverage and appies to share to this no fuss party.  Later, we also discovered every Monday is Burger Night at the on-site golf course restaurant for the 1700 block party people.

I love that everyone says “Hi” as they pass by - be it walking, cycling or in a golf cart.  I also love the fact almost everyone has a front patio/porch that is well used, with residents and visitors often “spilling out” onto their carport which can easily be transformed into a lovely outdoor living space. No hiding out in the privacy of a backyard here!

  Yes, I was a little tipsy when I took this pic.

Yes, I was a little tipsy when I took this pic.

Street-Friendly

No sidewalks, no problem! Everyone shares the road – cars, bikes, pedestrians and golf carts all on the roadways with seemingly equal status.  It was interesting to experience a community where the speed limit for cars is 25 km/hr.  Not only were the slow moving cars less intimidating, but it was much quieter.

  Sharing the road....

Sharing the road....

On site amenities

  Tennis anyone?

Tennis anyone?

As the week unfolded, I became more and more impressed with the amazing array of recreational amenities Viewpoint offers residents. Along with 18 and 9- hole golf courses on site, there are dozens of tennis and pickle ball courts, as well as shuffleboard, several swimming pools and hot tubs, two fitness centers and a very attractive softball diamond.

You can’t help but want to be active! If I were to winter here, my active living would definitely increase, maybe adding years to my life.

  You could of had the pool to yourself this morning!

You could of had the pool to yourself this morning!

In addition to recreational facilities, there is a large library, a huge mixed-use ballroom/banquet hall (live concerts, church services, dances, show and sales) and dozens of special interest clubs (e.g. aviator, creative writing, computer, Mah Jong, quilting, photography, hiking etc). I understand there is an impressive quilt show in the spring.

Pretty much everything you could ask for in the way of everyday needs is just a short distance away – an easy cycle to the grocery store and coffee shop, short drive to major shopping, cinemas and just off the #202 freeway, you have easy access to Mesa and Phoenix airports, other Phoenix area attractions and many hiking trails. 

  I'm going to knock this one out of the park....

I'm going to knock this one out of the park....

Mesa 101

Friends who have been going to Mesa for February and March every year tell me the city is definitely under-rated.  They love the free weekly outdoor concerts at the Mesa Art Centre, the fun bronze sculpture walk along Mesa’s Main Street, catching an Oakland Athletics and Chicago Clubs spring training ball game, visiting the mega Mesa Market Swap Meet, taking visitors to The Commemorative Air Force Museum at Falcon Field, Barleen’s Arizona Opry (dinner show) and Organ Stop Pizza.

They love that there are lots of reasonably priced golf courses and great hiking spots - Silly Mountain, Usery Mountain or Superstition Mountain are favourites – all less than a 30 minute drive away. Link: Hiking in Mesa

Mesa’s great freeways let you get to places like the Boyce Thompson Arboretum, Phoenix Zoo, Phoenix Botanical Gardens and the Musical Instruments Museum - annual “must-see” places for them and visitors.

  Phoenix's Botanical Gardens is a great walk in a park .  LInk:  Botanical Garden: Right Place! Right Time!

Phoenix's Botanical Gardens is a great walk in a park.  LInk: Botanical Garden: Right Place! Right Time!

 Scottsdale's Musical Instruments Museum has five exhibition space each the size of a Target store. Learn Why!   Link:     Postcards from the Musical Instruments Museum

Scottsdale's Musical Instruments Museum has five exhibition space each the size of a Target store. Learn Why! Link: Postcards from the Musical Instruments Museum

Living Options

Screen Shot 2017-11-23 at 6.11.41 PM.png

Currently, you can buy an existing trailer home for between $8,000 and $50,000US depending on size, upgrades and location (golf course sites command more money).  Or, you can buy a new manufactured home starting at $90,000US.  

Homeowners lease the site, so there is a monthly fee that includes lease, taxes and free access to all amenities (except golf – but green fees are very reasonable). 

My friend’s 900 square foot, circa 1980s one-bedroom midpoint-priced home, came completely furnished (including two flat screen TVs), as well as an upscale golf cart, two bikes and a grill. Just bring your clothes, toothbrush, clubs and move in!

It quickly became my friend’s home-away-from-home. 
  Jack's Place

Jack's Place

  Lovely side yard.

Lovely side yard.

Density & Diversity Revisited

Viewpoint is huge - over 2,000 sites.  The lots are small, each block lined with similar-looking homes with a single car carport.  To me, it seemed a bit like camping - all the sites lined up and you can clearly hear your neighbours’ conversations (but nobody seemed to mind). 

While suburban cookie-cutter homes have a very negative reputation in urban living and planning circles, I began to wonder what is the issue with having homes all lined up and looking alike.  Who decides what urban aesthetics are beautiful and what is ugly?  Why have trailer parks gotten such a bad rap?

The community spirit I experienced at Viewpoint was as good as any place I have ever lived or visited.  Perhaps it was because of the homogeneity - everyone being seniors, same socio-economic background and having similar interests.  At the same time it was interesting how easily the Americans and Canadians mixed given their different social and political beliefs.

Hmmmm…Is the importance of diversity in fostering community vitality over-rated?  And, why is the City of Calgary closing trailer parks, when perhaps it should be encouraging them?

I am all for integration and diversity, but perhaps we also need to accept and tolerate that humans love to live amongst people with similar life experiences and interests.  Isn’t that why most North American cities in the early 20th century had community names like Little Italy, Chinatown, Jewish Quadrant, Germantown? Food for thought!

  Typical Viewpoint streetscape at mid-day. Yes it looks sterile and deserted pretty much all of the time as everyone is out playing something. Perhaps street vitality is not always a great measure of community vitality. 

Typical Viewpoint streetscape at mid-day. Yes it looks sterile and deserted pretty much all of the time as everyone is out playing something. Perhaps street vitality is not always a great measure of community vitality. 

Fountain of Youth

Indeed, it was heavenly to be sitting out on the deck in shorts with a nice cold beer after golf, or having dinner and breakfast al fresco in early November, while knowing Calgarians were experiencing their first taste of winter.

It was also heavenly to go for a quick swim and sit in the hot tub before an afternoon siesta or to go to the free library and grab a book to read on the deck.  I would have loved to try pickle ball and perhaps take a few swings and shag a few balls on the baseball diamond.  In some ways, it took me back to my youth when all I wanted to do was be outside playing sports 24/7. 

Screen Shot 2017-11-23 at 6.14.39 PM.png
  November golf at Raven Golf course was heavenly!

November golf at Raven Golf course was heavenly!

Last Word

On my last day, while enjoying an evening glass of wine on the deck, my friend said to me “I love it here. Everyone is happy!”  I agreed!

If you like this blog, you will like these links:

A Country Estate Voyeur Adventure

Exploring Phoenix Without A Car?

Phoenix Must See: Wright's Taliesin

Phoenix "Last Chance" Shopping Frenzy!

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. 

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Is Calgary too pristine?

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

  Marheinekeplatz is a popular plaza in Kreuzberg next to a two storey farmer's market. It is also home to a children's playground and weekend outdoor flea market.  East Village's Simmons Building/Riverwalk plaza  's urban vitality pales in comparison. The garbage can was always full and the public art vessels were covered in graffiti. 

Marheinekeplatz is a popular plaza in Kreuzberg next to a two storey farmer's market. It is also home to a children's playground and weekend outdoor flea market.  East Village's Simmons Building/Riverwalk plaza's urban vitality pales in comparison. The garbage can was always full and the public art vessels were covered in graffiti. 

  No need for special seating along the water in Berlin, just sit anywhere. The river edge is not well groomed.

No need for special seating along the water in Berlin, just sit anywhere. The river edge is not well groomed.

  Yes, grab a beer and just sit anywhere, no need for a fancy Riverwalk with imported rocks to sit along the river.  The river bank is half grass, half dirt, from over use.

Yes, grab a beer and just sit anywhere, no need for a fancy Riverwalk with imported rocks to sit along the river.  The river bank is half grass, half dirt, from over use.

  Community playgrounds are packed. No need for fancy equipment, bike racks, special seating...just come and play.

Community playgrounds are packed. No need for fancy equipment, bike racks, special seating...just come and play.

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.

  Just one example of the ribbon of graffiti that exists along many of the streets of Kreuzberg. 

Just one example of the ribbon of graffiti that exists along many of the streets of Kreuzberg. 

  Typical Kreuzberg streetscape.

Typical Kreuzberg streetscape.

  A Kreuzberg elementary school streetscape a block from the subway station and luxury apartments. There is an interior courtyard big playground where kids play like any other elementary school. 

A Kreuzberg elementary school streetscape a block from the subway station and luxury apartments. There is an interior courtyard big playground where kids play like any other elementary school. 

  It is not uncommon to find the streets littered with garbage. 

It is not uncommon to find the streets littered with garbage. 

  Stickers and posters are plastered everywhere, creating a unique urban patina in Kreuzberg. 

Stickers and posters are plastered everywhere, creating a unique urban patina in Kreuzberg. 

  Recycling bins like these are common in Kreuzberg. 

Recycling bins like these are common in Kreuzberg. 

 Every wall is plastered with either graffiti or posters; this wall was around a park. 

Every wall is plastered with either graffiti or posters; this wall was around a park. 

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.

 Sidewalks are for sharing. It is very common to see cyclist on the sidewalk, especially families, nobody seems to mind.

Sidewalks are for sharing. It is very common to see cyclist on the sidewalk, especially families, nobody seems to mind.

  No need for fancy bike racks, just park your bike, scooter wherever. 

No need for fancy bike racks, just park your bike, scooter wherever. 

  Bergmannstrabe is a just one of several pedestrian streets in Kreuzberg. There are no banners, hanging baskets, no designer street furniture or lighting.  No need for patio fences just lots of shops, cafes and restaurants. 

Bergmannstrabe is a just one of several pedestrian streets in Kreuzberg. There are no banners, hanging baskets, no designer street furniture or lighting.  No need for patio fences just lots of shops, cafes and restaurants. 

  What looks like a shanty town by Calgary urban aesthetics, is in reality a popular restaurant/bar district along one of Berlin's canals.  Berlin's bohemian grass-roots creative-class culture is the opposite of Calgary's conservative, corporate culture.  

What looks like a shanty town by Calgary urban aesthetics, is in reality a popular restaurant/bar district along one of Berlin's canals.  Berlin's bohemian grass-roots creative-class culture is the opposite of Calgary's conservative, corporate culture.  

  It is not uncommon to see benches and garbage cans like this along Kreuzberg's pathways and in their parks and playgrounds. 

It is not uncommon to see benches and garbage cans like this along Kreuzberg's pathways and in their parks and playgrounds. 

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.

  A small pedestrian bridge becomes an impromptu evening and weekend beer garden - no permit, no tables, sit anywhere, bring your guitar and just hang out. 

A small pedestrian bridge becomes an impromptu evening and weekend beer garden - no permit, no tables, sit anywhere, bring your guitar and just hang out. 

  Make shift bench.

Make shift bench.

  Berlin dog park.

Berlin dog park.

  Berlin playground, soccer field. 

Berlin playground, soccer field. 

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!

  Even Calgary's back alley's next to the Mustard Seed are pristine.

Even Calgary's back alley's next to the Mustard Seed are pristine.

Berlin: The Playground Capital of the World?

I use to think Calgary had a lot of playgrounds, but not anymore. Berlin seems to have playgrounds on almost every block, sometimes two and three, especially in the Kreuzberg district.  Then I learned there are over 2,000 public playgrounds in the city, but that doesn’t include all the school and daycare playgrounds, which also seemed to on every block. 

Staying in Kreuzberg for a month was a unique urban experience given the multitude of children of all ages everywhere, every day.  One day kept track and I couldn't go a half a block without encountering a stroller.  But what made the experience most unique were the vintage playgrounds. 

  Found this primitive crocodile bench early and thought it might be a bit strange and scary for toddlers. This was only the beginning. 

Found this primitive crocodile bench early and thought it might be a bit strange and scary for toddlers. This was only the beginning. 

  Soon we encountered another playground with more mythical creatures.    

Soon we encountered another playground with more mythical creatures.   

  Almost all of the swings in Berlin have some sort of character at the top. In this case, it was a well-weathered cartoon figure, but in most cases it was an animal.  

Almost all of the swings in Berlin have some sort of character at the top. In this case, it was a well-weathered cartoon figure, but in most cases it was an animal. 

  These sculpture-like pieces of wood, reminded my of spinning tops. Note in the background is a small hard surface for soccer, roller blading or other activities. 

These sculpture-like pieces of wood, reminded my of spinning tops. Note in the background is a small hard surface for soccer, roller blading or other activities. 

  Liked the use of natural trees in this playground, with roots still attached to create a swing.  

Liked the use of natural trees in this playground, with roots still attached to create a swing.  

  Included this photo as it illustrates how the tree limbs of the playground mirror those in the trees behind.   

Included this photo as it illustrates how the tree limbs of the playground mirror those in the trees behind.  

Busy Busy Busy 

Not only are there a lot of playgrounds but also they are very busy. I initially thought it was because most people live in apartments with no backyards. However, the more I explored I discovered many of the apartment blocks actually have their own playgrounds and courtyards, although they didn’t seem to get as much use as the local playground.  I even encountered several places where there were sandboxes and/or a play area in the tiny front yards of ground level apartments.

And when I say busy, I am not talking about two or three families I am talking dozens.  It is like a mini festival with all of the shrieks of fun especially on weekends and after work on the weekdays.

  This was our local playground on the weekends and from about 3 pm to about 7 pm weekday depending on weathe.  It is also busy during the day as there are probably 6 or more daycares in the immediate area. 

This was our local playground on the weekends and from about 3 pm to about 7 pm weekday depending on weathe.  It is also busy during the day as there are probably 6 or more daycares in the immediate area. 

  This playground was busy even on a cool day in early March. It was part of a large complex with skatepark across the street, dog park and hard surface playing cages .

This playground was busy even on a cool day in early March. It was part of a large complex with skatepark across the street, dog park and hard surface playing cages.

  I don't think I have ever seen more strollers and young kids on striders, bikes and scooters than as I saw in Berlin's Kreuzberg district on an everyday basis.

I don't think I have ever seen more strollers and young kids on striders, bikes and scooters than as I saw in Berlin's Kreuzberg district on an everyday basis.

  It was probably two weeks before I saw a new playground which had the same elements as the old ones just more colour.  There is a strong sense of craftsmanship and being hand-made to these enchanting playgrounds. They look like something magical, out of a children's storybook. 

It was probably two weeks before I saw a new playground which had the same elements as the old ones just more colour.  There is a strong sense of craftsmanship and being hand-made to these enchanting playgrounds. They look like something magical, out of a children's storybook. 

  This playground had fun theme, including a snake on a spring for rocking back and forth and other exotic shapes and characters.   

This playground had fun theme, including a snake on a spring for rocking back and forth and other exotic shapes and characters.  

  This new playground had stumps and logs to walk along around the entire playground. It also served as seating.

This new playground had stumps and logs to walk along around the entire playground. It also served as seating.

  Hammocks are often included in Berlin playgrounds. 

Hammocks are often included in Berlin playgrounds. 

  There is a small playground behind the hill in the background, along with these three red sculpture like pieces that could be used to sit on or to climb over or jump off of.  Ping pong tables are also common in Berlin playground public spaces and yes they do get used. 

There is a small playground behind the hill in the background, along with these three red sculpture like pieces that could be used to sit on or to climb over or jump off of.  Ping pong tables are also common in Berlin playground public spaces and yes they do get used. 

Vintage Fun

Berlin’s playgrounds are also very different from North America’s as there is none of the Crayola meets Fisher Price, Ikea-looking playgrounds. Most of the playgrounds are pretty much void of any colour, which is totally the opposite of other elements of the city’s urban fabric, which is full of colour. 

In fact most of the playgrounds have vintage look, as the equipment and benches are all still made of wood, with twisted tree limb shapes as if they just cut off a few limbs and stuck them in the ground.  And while there are still some traces of the original paint, they haven’t been painted in decades, creating a grey weathered look.

Berlin’s playgrounds are like one mega sand box (no pea gravel or rubberized surfaces here), with strange looking forts, ships and other structures (by North American standards) that families are invited to climb, jump, bounce and play on. The most intriguing element are the mysterious carved animal heads on springs to rock back and forth on.  

They look like they belong in an anthropology museum – there are probably thousands of them.
 Soon the thrill of the hunt for me was to find old playgrounds and photograph their primitive creatures and characters.  Here are a few samples.

Soon the thrill of the hunt for me was to find old playgrounds and photograph their primitive creatures and characters.  Here are a few samples.

  Found this new hand carved creature which is very cute and charming today, would be interesting to document how it changes over the years. 

Found this new hand carved creature which is very cute and charming today, would be interesting to document how it changes over the years. 

  These family-sized rockers were very popular.  Mom, Dad and several kids could rock on them, or a bunch of kids could hop on and have fun. 

These family-sized rockers were very popular.  Mom, Dad and several kids could rock on them, or a bunch of kids could hop on and have fun. 

Caged in?

All playgrounds have a low fence that keeps the kids and balls in the area encloses all the playgrounds.  As well, many playgrounds will also have a high fenced-in hard surface nearby that can be used as both a place to play dodge ball, soccer and basketball.  The high fence that encloses the courts gives them a strange cage-fighting ring look, at least to this North American. These multi-use courts were well used by older children and adults.

  An example of a caged court for playing soccer with a basketball court next to it. 

An example of a caged court for playing soccer with a basketball court next to it. 

  Another example of caged arena-like play area.  Note it is typical for there to be lots of graffiti in and around the playgrounds, nobody seems to mind.

Another example of caged arena-like play area.  Note it is typical for there to be lots of graffiti in and around the playgrounds, nobody seems to mind.

Shade, Sit & Skate

Berlin’s urban trees are amazing. Huge six story trees line many of the streets and dominate the parks, creating lovely shade in the summer but letting in the sun in during late fall to early spring.  I was also impressed by the abundant places to just sit, and how Berliners have mastered the art of sitting. 

And we are not talking about fancy benches and seats; again they are usually old wooden benches that you would rarely see in North American cities.

The number of small neighborhood skate parks was also impressive. Sometimes I wonder if Calgary made a mistake building a mega skate park at downtown’s Millennium Park instead of creating several smaller neighborhood skate parks. 

  Loved this vintage curved bench with its weathered patina. It adds a lovely sense of character, charm and time that is Berlin. New is not always better?

Loved this vintage curved bench with its weathered patina. It adds a lovely sense of character, charm and time that is Berlin. New is not always better?

Last Word 

While Berlin’s playgrounds and parks are not pristine by any standards, they are well used. There is little to no grass in most of the parks, that is either because it is hard to grow grass in the sandy soil, or the parks and playgrounds are so heavily used the grass just gets worn out.  I believe it is the latter.

And while many of the playgrounds look old and dreary by North American standards, the kids don’t mind and the little ones love playing in the sand. 

It is a reminder to me we don’t necessarily need to always have the newest, brightest, cleanest public spaces to make them successful.

Note: Most of my time was spent in the hipster, bohemian areas of Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg, Mitte, Neukolin districts of Berlin, so these observations may not be indicative of all of Berlin.  It should also be noted these communities seem to be home to a disproportionate number of young adults who have young children. Berlin’s sidewalk ballet is a kaleidoscope of pedestrians, buggies, striders, scooters and bikes of all shapes and sizes weaving in and out trying to avoid each other.  It is chaos but it seems to work, we didn't see a single collision. 

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Richard Florida: I was wrong!

When Richard Florida, the 21st century urban guru, speaks lots of people listen. Ears really perked up when Florida admitted, “I got wrong that the creative class could magically restore our cities, become a new middle class like my father’s and were going to live happily forever after.  I could not have anticipated among all this urban growth and revival there was a dark side to the urban creative revolution, a very deep dark side.”  (Houston Chronicle, Oct 24, 2016).

Staging area for POW! Parade of Wonders at Eau Claire.

Jane Jacobs Revisited

Back in 2000, Florida published his first book “The Rise of the Creative Class” and immediately became a media star with his mantra, “if your city is attractive to the creative class, they will come.”

He quickly converted many urban planners and politicians to his dogma, which, in many ways, was just a reworking of Jane Jacobs’ key messages about the importance of bohemia and small-scale development in her 1961 book, “The Death and Life of Great American Cities.”

  Tim Williams and friends at the Blues Can in Inglewood, one of Canada's best communities. 

Tim Williams and friends at the Blues Can in Inglewood, one of Canada's best communities. 

Creative Class 101

Florida hypothesized a key paradigm shift in the employee/employer relationship was happening - no longer would workers move to where the jobs are, but rather employers will move to where employees want to live. He preached that if a city wanted new businesses to locate in their city, all they had to do was create a city where the creative class wanted to play, live and then work.

The creative class was a broad term that included software, computer game and app developers, 3D computer artists as well as painters and sculptors.  It also included architects, interior designers, graphic artists, actors, musicians, writers, chiefs, film and video makers. 

His research included creating indexes to measure a city’s attractiveness to the creative class – Talent, Technology, Bohemian, Mosaic, Gay (today, that would be the LGBT Index), and Tolerance Indices.

Container Bar in Calgary's Kensington district.

If you build it, they will come...

Florida’s research documented the creative class wanted things like a vibrant festivals, music and café culture. They also love places - to skateboard, play disc golf, fly a kite, bike ride, roller blade or just hang out.

Today, Florida, a University of Toronto professor admits appealing to the creative class won’t work for every city.  In fact, it will only work for a few.  And to add insult to injury where it has succeeded (Austin, Seattle, San Francisco, New York and Washington), it has resulted in skyrocketing house prices to the point where only the highly paid can live. 

Indeed, appealing to the creative class actually became a catalyst for gentrification not diversification and vitalization.

Ship & Anchor patio in March. 

Creative Class Loves Calgary?

At the turn of this century, Calgary’s City Centre had many of the ingredients Florida identified as those appealing to the creative class. We had great urban parks and pathways – Prince’s Island, Shaw Millennium Park and an extensive river pathway system.  Calgary’s construction of the world’s largest skateboard park in 2000 is exactly what Florida would have recommended to attract the creative class.

We also had a small but vibrant live music scene and a local café culture.  Our festival scene was taking off with the likes of SLED Island and our International

Film Festival and Underground Film Festivals.  We also had fun theatre festivals like the High Performance Rodeo, Animated Objects (puppet) and One Act Play festivals. In addition, Calgary’s cuisine scene was sizzling with the opening of Laurier Lounge, The Living Room and numerous sushi restaurants.  

The growth of Calgary’s cosplay festival (Calgary Expo) over the past 10 years into Canada’s second largest and our Pride Parade from a few thousand people to over 60,000 is evidence Calgary has been successful in attracting the creative class to our city.

However, Calgary’s creative class is unique as it is dominated by a strong GABEsters culture i.e. geologists, accountants, brokers, bankers and engineers.  Indeed, for the past 50 years, Calgary has attracted the cream of the crop of new GABEsters from universities across Canada and beyond to work in the oil patch.

Call them whatever you want young professionals began to revitalize the Beltline, Kensington, Bridgeland and Inglewood 20 years ago.  And it is still continuing today even with the downtown in the economy.  Places like Bridgeland’s

Luke’s Mart, Cannibale Barbershop & Cocktails and Bridgett Bar in the Beltline make Calgary’s City Centre very attractive to young hipsters. 

A big bonus for all of these communities is they are within easy walking and cycling distance to downtown, which even with all the vacancies has more occupied office space than Austin, Portland or Vancouver. 

Fortunately, Calgary seems to have the best of both worlds. We have been able to attract the creative class, while avoiding the skyrocketing City Centre home prices plaguing places like Vancouver, Toronto, Seattle and San Francisco.  

Bridgeland has been evolving for the past 10+ years into a very attractive place for the creative class to live and play with work just a short walk or bike ride away in downtown.

New Urban Crisis

In 2017, Florida will be published his new book “The New Urban Crisis” which will address affordable housing shortages in gentrified districts, need to link suburbs to inner city with mass transit and need to raise wages of service workers so the can afford to live near the City Centre where their jobs are.

Again, Calgary appears to be ahead of Florida with numerous affordable inner city housing programs (Attainable Homes) and several new mass transit programs linking the suburbs to the City Centre – Green Line, SW and Forest Lawn BRT.

Future map of Calgary's rapid transit routes.

Last Word

Despite all our faults, Calgary has perhaps the most diverse, attractive and affordable collection of urban and suburban communities in North America.

Note: An edited version of this blog was published in the Calgary Herald's New Condo section on Saturday, March 24, 2017 titled "Richard Florida could take a page from Calgary's urban songbook."

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