Sunday in Bowness Park

Calgary’s Bowness Park has been a popular place for Calgarians to chill for over a century. 

The 74-acre park along the Bow River at the western edge of the City of Calgary was donated by John Hextall in 1911 - as part of a deal to secure the extension of the streetcar into Bowness Estates which he was developing as an exclusive new suburb.  The park was also conceived to entice Calgarians or those moving to Calgary to live in the new community of Bowness.  It was the Fish Creek or Nose Hill Park of its time.

Sound familiar? 

It is eerily similar to the current push to develop the Green Line today, linking new communities like Livingston and SETON to the City Centre.  It also has parallels to the East Village redevelopment where the River Walk and St. Patrick’s Island redevelopment were built first to entice Calgarians to move back to the community after decades of community decay. 

The Original Bowness Park

Bowness Park was indeed a gem with an outdoor swimming pool (closed in 1959) and lagoon for canoeing and boating.  The lagoon even had an Orthophonic (a phonograph in the middle of the lagoon) that played music which required someone to canoe out to change the records.  It stopped working in 1961.  There was also a large dance pavilion (closed in 1960) and even a carousel, whose home is now Heritage Park. 

It was the quintessential picnic site. Hundreds of picnic tables, some under shelters as well as several playgrounds with swings and teeter-totters.  Camping sites and even cabins that could be rented by the week or month (these were removed in 1946) we available for long stays.  There was even an informal “lovers’ walk” along the lagoon.

The Park was hugely popular with over 25,000 Calgarians visiting on summer weekends. It was so popular 28 streetcars were assigned to the route on weekends offering 15 minutes service from 1913 to 1950. 

Bowness Park Today

Despite the Bow River flood of 2013 which caused extensive damage, the Park has again become one of the gems of Calgary’s City Parks system after extensive clean up and redevelopment the park,

Today, not only are there canoeing and paddle boating in the lagoon, but the Park is popular spot for hundreds of rafters, kayakers and canoers to enter the Bow River for a lovely Sunday day-trip along the Bow River to downtown.

Hundreds of picnic sites (complete with fire pits and BBQs) attract families from all over the city - it is like a meeting of the United Nations.

The modern colourful playground is very popular and loud with kids shouting and squealing with glee.

The redeveloped park also includes the popular mini-train that was introduced to the park in the early ‘50s.

 

Toot Toot!

After being badly damaged in the flood, with silt covering the train from top to bottom, it has been restored. It got a new engine and a new silver, burgundy and yellow paint job modelled after the CP Rail’s luxury passenger train “The Canadian” that began cross-country trips in 1955. 

Seasons restaurant on the lagoon offers fine dining with a charming patio on the water. It has popular weekend brunch menu. As well there is a take-out café for those who prefer to stroll or sit with a coffee and snack. 

And yes, there still is an informal “Lovers’ Walk,” along the creek away from the crowds for those wanting to take a quieter more secluded quiet walk in the park with a special someone.

Sunday  Postcards

Last Word

Bowness Park continues to attract thousands of visitors on a nice Sunday afternoon.   While the weekend attendance numbers don’t match the 25,000 of its heyday years, it is still a vibrant urban playground people of all ages and backgrounds.  Perhaps the numbers are down due to the fact Calgary now has over 5,000 parks – that’s one park for every 250 Calgarians!

PS…The park desperately needs an ice cream vendor. Packaged, commercial frozen treats on a stick just don’t cut it.

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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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Calgary Transit: The Good & The Ugly

I couldn’t help but smile when surfing my Twitter feed and saw that @calgaryhester had organized a birthday party on Calgary’s LRT for her son Alec. What a great idea!

What kid doesn’t like a train? Add to that you get to go over a bridge, into a tunnel, check out an underground station, see all the tall buildings in the “tall city” (as my now 20-year old nephew liked to call downtown when he was very young). 

And, what a great way to introduce children at a young age that using transit can be fun. Research shows that habits (good and bad) developed when you are young  tend to stay with you when you get older.  But if all kids know is getting in the car and being driven everywhere (daycare, school, play dates and other activities) what is the likelihood they will become transit users later in life?

This brave mom took seven kids on the bus from Ramsay to get to the Erlton Station to 69th Street and back in -20 degree weather.  One of the biggest highlights was when the train entered the tunnel under the new downtown Library. One child even asked, if there was going to be a glass floor in the new library so you could see the trains - a future architect no doubt!

Another highlight was meeting the train driver at the 69th Street Station and learning he had to walk to the other end of the train to drive the train back downtown. They sat in the front car so they could look through the window and see the driver and track ahead.

Yes, there were a few curious looks from passengers and there were even two conversations with strangers (one younger one older) about their most memorable birthday party experiences.  @calgaryhester told me, “there was a wonderful sense of “togetherness” with fellow passengers that day while they rode transit. 

That’s the good part!

Maybe Calgary Transit should have a birthday party car on each leg of the LRT during the day on the weekend and promote it to Calgarians to use for kids birthdays. I bet it would bring smiles to thousands of Calgarians every weekend – young and old.

The UGLY!

A few days later, while waiting in line at 7 pm to purchase tickets for a High Performance Rodeo performance, I overheard a young woman telling her male friend about her horrendous experience getting to Arts Commons by transit. 

She was trapped in a train car with several thugs who were intimidating everyone with their very loud talking about being arrested and beaten up by the cops and dropping the “Fbomb” between every second word.  This is not the first time I have heard of this kind of horrible experience when riding the train, and I have personally experienced a couple of times and I don’t use transit much. 

I wish we could just stand-up to these bullies and say “STOP THAT…your language and behaviour is unacceptable.” But that could be a death wish! 

Survey Says...

A 2015 Centre City Citizen Perception Survey conducted by the City of Calgary found that indeed, starting at 5 pm Calgarians begin to feel more unsafe waiting at C-Train stations.  Before 5 pm, 57% felt very safe and 34% reasonably safe; but after 5 pm, it dropped to 24% very safe and 41% reasonably safe and by 10 pm (exactly when people are leaving downtown from theatres and restaurants), only 7% felt very safe with 24% reasonably safe… A whopping 69% feel unsafe!

Calgary Transit needs a more proactive safety program, not a reactive one that responds to issues when an emergency button is pushed – that is too late. 

If the City is going to spend several billions of dollars on more LRT service in the future, they must spend thousands to make both current and future service safer. Why not have a security guard on every train from 5 pm to the end of night who could move from car to car at each stop to make sure everyone is safe.

And that’s, the ugly part!

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