Calgary vs Halifax: Urban Playgrounds

I expect it would come as a surprise to many Calgarians (and Canadians) to learn there are a significant number of similarities between Halifax, a port city created as a military base in 1749 and Calgary, a land-locked, prairie city established as a Northwest Mounted Police Fort in 1875.  

Both are becoming fun urban playgrounds.

Halifax’s telephone poles are plastered with posters promoting various fun events. They create a playful streetscape.

Halifax’s telephone poles are plastered with posters promoting various fun events. They create a playful streetscape.

Halifax’s Sunday Flea Market at the old Forum, is very similar to Calgary’s Hillhurst/Sunnyside Flea Market also on Sunday.

Halifax’s Sunday Flea Market at the old Forum, is very similar to Calgary’s Hillhurst/Sunnyside Flea Market also on Sunday.

No Grand Street

The first similarity I found was the lack of a grand, ceremonial main street with a boulevard.  After a bit of wandering downtown, I stumbled upon Halifax’s Argyle Street which looks a lot like Calgary’s Stephen Avenue with its pedestrian-friendly sidewalks full of patios.  

It is home to Halifax’s shiny new convention centre and the iconic Neptune Theatre complex, not unlike Stephen Avenue’s Telus Convention Centre and Art Commons, our theatre complex.

Also, on Argyle Street is Halifax’s Grand Parade, a historic military parade square dating back to 1749, not unlike Calgary’s Olympic Plaza, albeit newer, anchoring the east end of Stephen Avenue. 

Halifax’s Argyle Street with its new convention centre office tower in the background has the mix of the old and the new reminded me of Calgary’s Stephen Avenue.

Halifax’s Argyle Street with its new convention centre office tower in the background has the mix of the old and the new reminded me of Calgary’s Stephen Avenue.

Historic information panels were scattered around the different City Centre neighbourhoods. It made for interesting flaneuring. Calgary does something similar on its electrical boxes.

Historic information panels were scattered around the different City Centre neighbourhoods. It made for interesting flaneuring. Calgary does something similar on its electrical boxes.

Hydrostone is charming neighbourhood with tree-lined boulevards and a quaint main street a fun place to flaneur.

Hydrostone is charming neighbourhood with tree-lined boulevards and a quaint main street a fun place to flaneur.

Urban Living 

Secondly, like Calgary, Halifax’s downtown is surrounded by several trendy residential communities each with their own main street, character and new condo buildings.   Spring Garden Road is a bit like Calgary’s Kensington, with its shops, restaurants and cafés along with its own urban park – Halifax Public Gardens, the equivalent of Kensington’s Riley Park.  

Then there’s Halifax’s North End Entertainment District, which has a lot in common with Calgary’s old Electric Avenue – a mix of bars, restaurants and cafes. The Local and Marquee Ballroom are popular live music venues, Propeller Brewing Company serves up some great beers and The Independent Mercantile Co would be right at home in Calgary’s design district. 

Quinpool Road, on the west side of Halifax’s downtown is like Calgary’s 17th Avenue SW in the 70s with its eclectic collection of “mom and pop” shops, many having been around since the 50s and 60s, yet on the cusp of change with numerous new shops opening and new condos in the works.   

Link: Quinpool is Cool

Then there is Halifax’s Hydrostone community, with the look and feel of Calgary’s Britannia Plaza, both feature an upscale one-block long main street of shops and restaurants, as well as a mix of new condos and old single family homes. It was named a Great Neighbourhood by The Canadian Institute of Planners in 2011.

The North End (not to be confused the North End Entertainment District) has much in common with Inglewood, with its mix of old and new shops including an Army & Navy Store that reminded me of Inglewood’s Crown Surplus store. And yes, the North End has craft breweries, a distillery and a cider shop that parallels Inglewood’s growing craft industries.

Spring Garden Road has a lovely mix of shops and architecture.

Spring Garden Road has a lovely mix of shops and architecture.

Halifax’s North End Entertainment District is in transition from a seedy to a funky street.

Halifax’s North End Entertainment District is in transition from a seedy to a funky street.

Agricola Street is Halifax’s hipster street.

Agricola Street is Halifax’s hipster street.

Halifax’s Public Garden is a lovely oasis in the middle of downtown even in late October. The Calgary equivalent is Riley Park.

Halifax’s Public Garden is a lovely oasis in the middle of downtown even in late October. The Calgary equivalent is Riley Park.

Downtown Attractions

Halifax’s Citadel shares much in common with Calgary’s Stampede Grounds/Fort Calgary area, both on the edge of downtown, each representing the historical beginning of their respective cities. While the Citadel sits on a hill overlooking the city and is impressive port, is certainly a more striking landmark than Fort Calgary, our Stampede Grounds are more integrated into the everyday life of its city with concerts, sporting and other events. 

Both cities have major waterfront attractions.  Halifax’s waterfront is home to the Canadian Museum of Immigration Pier 21, Seaport Farmer’s Market, Discovery Center, Cruise Ship Terminal and boardwalk shops.   

Calgary’s riverbanks (Bow & Elbow) are home to the Calgary Zoo, Telus Spark, Saddledome, Stampede Park and various river walks, promenades and pathways and three major parks (Shaw Millennium, Prince’s and St. Patrick Islands).

Halifax even has an iconic, funky new central library that is every bit as popular and spectacular as Calgary’s new central library.  With its at grade entrance and small plaza along Spring Garden Road, it is better integrated to its downtown.  It has two cafes, one at street level and a rooftop café with an outdoor patio that offers spectacular views of the city. Opened in 2014, it has already been the catalyst for two mixed-use developments, with street retail next door.  

The central library similarities don’t stop here. In both cities, the architects were not only chosen through an international design competition, but Scandinavian firms were chosen to work with a local firm.  Halifax chose local firm Fowler Bauld and Mitchell and Schmidt Hammer Lassen of Denmark and Calgary chose local firm DIALOG and Noregian firm Snohetta.  

At the Citadel these boys loved pretending they were soldiers.

At the Citadel these boys loved pretending they were soldiers.

Pier 21 Fun: Loved this installation at Pier 21 where you were invited to decorate your own mini piece of luggage and then hang it on the wall. Another installation was of luggage tags where visitors were invited to write their stories of immigration or thoughts about their Pier 21 experience and hang them on the wall.

Pier 21 Fun: Loved this installation at Pier 21 where you were invited to decorate your own mini piece of luggage and then hang it on the wall. Another installation was of luggage tags where visitors were invited to write their stories of immigration or thoughts about their Pier 21 experience and hang them on the wall.

Halifax’s Farmer’s Market is part of a huge urban renewal project that includes their Science Centre, Nova Scotia School of Art & Design, Pier 21 and Cruise Ship docks. It is the equivalent of Calgary’s East Village redevelopment.

Halifax’s Farmer’s Market is part of a huge urban renewal project that includes their Science Centre, Nova Scotia School of Art & Design, Pier 21 and Cruise Ship docks. It is the equivalent of Calgary’s East Village redevelopment.

Halifax’s new Central Library reminded me of shipping containers being stacked one on top of another, which is a perfect metaphor for the city as it is a major container port.

Halifax’s new Central Library reminded me of shipping containers being stacked one on top of another, which is a perfect metaphor for the city as it is a major container port.

Brenda loved the plum kuchen at the Gingerbread Haus Bakery (1138 Queen Street) so much we went there four times. They have the freshest sandwiches we have tasted in a long time and tasty soups.

Brenda loved the plum kuchen at the Gingerbread Haus Bakery (1138 Queen Street) so much we went there four times. They have the freshest sandwiches we have tasted in a long time and tasty soups.

I had to try the Red Coats pastry.

I had to try the Red Coats pastry.

Is 400,000 a magic number?

The more I wandered around Halifax, the more it had the feeling of Calgary in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s when our downtown was undergoing a mega transformation with construction on every block.  However, there is a big difference, instead of the 8 am to 6 pm weekday-oriented office buildings that dominate our downtown, Halifax is building residential right in the middle of its downtown.  

In addition, all of their urban pedestrian streets – Quinpool, Agricola, Gottingen and Spring Garden all have several new condos recently opened and more in the construction or planning stages on or nearby.  These new residential developments should enhance Halifax’s urban street life in the years to come. 

Everywhere we went in the City Centre, posted City signs notified neighbours of pending new mixed-use residential development applications. It was clear, Calgary isn’t the only place where tearing down 3 or 4 houses to build a new mid-rise condo in their place is happening.

It is interesting to note Calgary’s population in 1971 was just over 400,000 and Halifax’s today is also just over 400,000.  Perhaps there is something that happens when a city reaches the critical mass of 400,000 people that is the catalyst for urban renewal.  

The Halifax Commons is a huge park that has playing fields, a skateboard park and the Emera Oval that in is an ice skating oval in the winter and a roller blading, cycling oval in the summer. It even has FREE rentals for tourists who want to give it a try. The Caglary equivalent would be Shaw Millennium Park.

The Halifax Commons is a huge park that has playing fields, a skateboard park and the Emera Oval that in is an ice skating oval in the winter and a roller blading, cycling oval in the summer. It even has FREE rentals for tourists who want to give it a try. The Caglary equivalent would be Shaw Millennium Park.

Live music in the cafeteria at lunch at St. Mary’s University was a nice touch.

Live music in the cafeteria at lunch at St. Mary’s University was a nice touch.

Every Saturday afternoon Halifax’s Your Father’s Moustache restaurant hosts Joe Murphy and the Water Street Blues Band from 4 to 8 pm. and has been for 25+ years. It reminded us of the Mike Clark band at Calgary’s Mikey’s on 12th or Tim Williams at Blues Can.

Every Saturday afternoon Halifax’s Your Father’s Moustache restaurant hosts Joe Murphy and the Water Street Blues Band from 4 to 8 pm. and has been for 25+ years. It reminded us of the Mike Clark band at Calgary’s Mikey’s on 12th or Tim Williams at Blues Can.

Last Word

There is a definite sense of optimism in the air in Halifax. Posters were plastered on poles everywhere, advertising upcoming concerts, festivals and entertainment, sending a clear message that “things are happening here.”  

We got the feeling Halifax could well become Canada’s next “urban playground” - once they finish their mega makeover.

For more information on Halifax: Discover Halifax

For more information on Calgary: Tourism Calgary

Note: If you want to see photos and information on Calgary’s City Centre see the links below.

If you go:

We stayed a couple of nights at the Cambridges Suites Hotel which is very handy to downtown, Citadel, the waterfront and the Gingerbread Haus Bakery. Very comfy rooms and great breakfast.

We also stayed in a Airbnb on at 6034 Cunard St which was great for exploring the west and north sides of the City Centre - Quinpool and Agricola Streets and a lovely walk to Dalhousie and St. Mary’s universities and the Hydrostone district.

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

Calgary: The world’s most walkable city centre!

Calgary’s City Centre: One of the best in North America!

Calgary’s Everyday Tourist’s Off The Beaten path picks.