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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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