Calgary: The World's Most Walkable City Center?

Note: After posting this blog on Twitter I got a lot of flak from a few of Calgary's urban advocates - perhaps a dozen or so.  But I also got lots of support via email and personal conversations. 

While I appreciate the statement is a bit of stretch it is in the form of a question. And while the naysayers had some good points, they didn't convince me that my statement isn't true.  While some thought European cities were more walkable and asked if I had been to Paris, Berlin or Dublin - yes I have. I would counter in Paris cars park on the sidewalks and the roads are often grid-locked with cars, buses and taxis creating a very hostile environment.  Yes Paris has great parks, but nothing better than Calgarians and I love our river pathways better than theirs.  I love that our rivers are still natural and not canal-like as they are in most European cities. 

Berlin and Dublin are nice but the streets are chaotic with pedestrians, cyclists, cars, buses, trams etc. Calgary's City Centre is very civilized.  I also find our grid street system much easier to navigate than European cities.  

Have a read and let me know what you think....

 The area inside the red oval is what I approximate to be Calgary's City Centre. 

The area inside the red oval is what I approximate to be Calgary's City Centre. 

One of the best things about Calgary’s City Centre is its walkability.  I have visited dozens of cities around the world from Hong Kong to Amsterdam and I haven’t found a city more pedestrian-friendly than Calgary. 

Here are eight reasons why I think Calgary’s City Centre is one of the most walkable urban places in the world.

  Even streets in the middle of Calgary's CBD are pedestrian friendly. 

Even streets in the middle of Calgary's CBD are pedestrian friendly. 

  Even the back alleys are pedestrian friend in the City Centre.

Even the back alleys are pedestrian friend in the City Centre.

#1 Drivers stop for pedestrians!

If you are new to Calgary or visiting, don’t be surprised if a driver stops in the middle of the road to let you cross the street. It won’t happen on busy downtown streets, but will definitely happen on side streets.

Pedestrians will also find our downtown streets (outside of rush hour) are not nearly as chaotic as European streets where pedestrians, cyclists, scooters, motorcycles, cars, trams and bus all compete for the same space.

  This car stopped to let these pedestrian cross the street.  Calgary has the most pedestrian friendly drivers I have encountered anywhere.  

This car stopped to let these pedestrian cross the street.  Calgary has the most pedestrian friendly drivers I have encountered anywhere.  

#2 Flat  & Compact

Calgary’s City Centre is a flat as a Stampede pancakes, making it easy to walk everywhere.  With our City Centre only about 4 km (from east to west and from north to south), you can walk from one end to the other in an hour.   

Our City Centre included several distinct neighbourhoods Beltline, Bridgeland/Riverside, Chinatown, East Village, Eau Claire, Inglewood, Kensington and Mission, each with their own main street, and each within walking distance of the downtown.

  This is probably the biggest elevation change in Calgary's City Centre. 

This is probably the biggest elevation change in Calgary's City Centre. 

#3 Pathways

Calgary’s City Centre has amazing pathways along both sides of the Bow River, with numerous pedestrian bridges allowing pedestrians to crisscross back and forth as desired.  You can walk the entire length of the City Centre, east to west without ever encountering a car.  The historic Centre Street Bridge with its iconic lions offers a postcard view of the Bow River and the City skyline, as do the Peace and King pedestrian bridges.

The downtown office core’s network of 60+ above ground pedestrian bridges (called +15 bridges as they are 15 feet above the street) link 100+ buildings to create an a-mazing 20 km walkway.  It is the longest in the world.

As well, during the day, Stephen Avenue (aka 8th Ave SW) is a pedestrian mall for the five blocks between Macleod Trail and 3rd Street SW.  Strolling along it at noon hour (aka power hour) when tens of thousands of office workers come out to stretch their legs offers great people watching.  

Barclay Mall (aka 3rd Street SW) is a very pedestrian-friendly connection to the Bow River pathway with its wide and winding sidewalks, planters and public art.

  Stephen Avenue can be busy even in the middle of winter. 

Stephen Avenue can be busy even in the middle of winter. 

  Stephen Avenue is one of the best pedestrian malls in Canada.

Stephen Avenue is one of the best pedestrian malls in Canada.

  RiverWalk in East Village has lovely places to stop and enjoy the majestic Bow River on your way to St. Patrick Island Park via the King Bridge. 

RiverWalk in East Village has lovely places to stop and enjoy the majestic Bow River on your way to St. Patrick Island Park via the King Bridge. 

  Moms living in the City Centre love to take the kids for a walk along the Bow River. This photo was taken in February i.e. the middle of winter. 

Moms living in the City Centre love to take the kids for a walk along the Bow River. This photo was taken in February i.e. the middle of winter. 

 Calgarians loves how the winter sun floods the +15 walkway connecting over 100 buildings via 60+ bridges in the downtown. It creates a lovely pedestrian experience with cafes, shops, food courts and amazing atriums. 

Calgarians loves how the winter sun floods the +15 walkway connecting over 100 buildings via 60+ bridges in the downtown. It creates a lovely pedestrian experience with cafes, shops, food courts and amazing atriums. 

#4 Parks & Garden Strolls

Calgary’s City Centre offers one of the best collections of urban parks in the world.  There’s Central Memorial Park, Calgary’s oldest park, opened in 1912. And Stampede Park with its numerous murals and sculptures, Parade of Stampede Posters along the pedestrian corridor from the LRT Station to the historic Coral arena, is a fun place for a walk-about.

At the west end lays Shaw Millennial Park, one of the world’s largest skate parks as well as popular festival site. Prince’s Island Park has lovely nature walk around its ponds at the eastern edge and small sculpture park, as well as boasting one of the best restaurants in the city – River Café.  St. Patrick’s Island Park, our newest urban park with its pebble beach has become a very popular family destination.

In the summer, you can also walk to Reader Rock Garden near Stampede Park, Beaulieu Garden at Lougheed House and Senator Patrick Burns Memorial Rock Gardens near Riley Park.  Speaking of Riley Park it is home to Sunday afternoon cricket matches in the summer and a popular wading pool making it a popular walking destination.

  Calgary's City Centre parks like Memorial Park offer lots of pathways for pedestrians to spread out. 

Calgary's City Centre parks like Memorial Park offer lots of pathways for pedestrians to spread out. 

  Stampede Park pathway stroll.

Stampede Park pathway stroll.

#5 Tour de Cafe

Pedestrians need their caffeine fixes, be that at the beginning, middle or end of the walkabout.  Calgary has a plethora of independent cafes; in fact one could easily take a day and just tour from one café to the next.  Some of the hot spots include: Gravity (Inglewood), Phil & Sebastians (Stephen Avenue Walk), Bumpy’s and Kawa Espresso Bar (Beltline), Purple Perk (Mission) Analogue and Café Beano (17th Ave SW), Vendrome (Sunnyside), Roasterie, Higher Ground and Regal Cat Café (Kensington), deVille, Monogram and Caffe Artigiano (downtown) and Alfrono Bakery Café (Eau Claire).

  Sidewalk cafes are scattered throughout the City Centre. 

Sidewalk cafes are scattered throughout the City Centre. 

  Even in winter you can still enjoy your coffee outside. 

Even in winter you can still enjoy your coffee outside. 

#6 Take An Art Walk Everyday

Art is everywhere in Calgary’s City Centre, from murals to memorials, from statues to street art – even on utility boxes.  Make sure you pop into the lobbies of the office towers as most have artworks on the main floor – Bankers Hall, Eighth Avenue Place and City Centre towers are perhaps the best.  An entire day can be spent wandering to look at the art and still never see them all.

The “temporary” abstract paintings on the façades of our glass towers, created by the reflection of one building on the façade of another are both spectacular and ever changing.  It is a bit like the northern lights.

Being able to enjoy art as you walk always enhances the pedestrian experience.

  The Famous Five sculptures on Olympic Plaza is a popular place to stop and take a photo. 

The Famous Five sculptures on Olympic Plaza is a popular place to stop and take a photo. 

#7 Window Licking While You Walk

One of my favourite things to do as a pedestrian is “window shop” or as the French say “faire du leche-vitrines” which translates to “window licking.” Calgary’s City Centre has several great pedestrian oriented streets for “window licking”  – 11th and 17th Avenue SW; 9th Ave SE; 10th Ave NW and Kensington Road NW.   Some of the windows are like mini art exhibitions.

  Window licking fun along 17th Avenue. 

Window licking fun along 17th Avenue. 

#8 Entertainment

You can easily walk to two art house cinemas (Plaza and Globe), two museums (Glenbow, National Music Centre), theatres (Big Secret, Engineer Air, Max Bell, Martha Cohen, Lunchbox, The GRAND, Vertigo) concert halls (Jack Singer, The Palace, Festival Hall), DJD Dance Centre, Convention Centre, BMO Centre, Saddledome and dozen of live music venues. 

No matter where you are in the City Centre, you can literally walk to dozens of restaurants, pubs and lounges within 10 minutes and probably 50+ in 20 minutes.

  You never know where you might find some entertainment along the streets of Calgary's City Center.

You never know where you might find some entertainment along the streets of Calgary's City Center.

Last Word

I would be remiss if I didn’t add the streets of Calgary’s City Centre are some of the cleanest and safest I have encountered.  At the same time there is lots of work to do to make our City Centre streets more accessible and barrier free. As well we need to do a better job of snow removal in the winter.  That being said, our City Centre is one of the most pedestrian friendly places I have ever visited.

  Even in the middle of winter, Calgarians love to bundle up and go for a walk.  

Even in the middle of winter, Calgarians love to bundle up and go for a walk.  

David Peyto wrote:

I have completed 530 walks, totally almost 4,100 km so far in my attempt to walk all of the sidewalks in Calgary. There is still quite a bit to walking yet to do as I decided with all the snow on the residential streets this winter to start walking in the industrial areas where the streets were better.

I agree with your comments about Manchester being a very interesting area. I was surprised how many small older houses are still in that area.

I find Calgary's sidewalks are usually in good condition in the winter. Sometimes I wait until the ice formed overnight from the previous day's thawing melts again.

I find the drivers to be very good. I have noticed that many are careful not to splash pedestrians when passing especially when walking along roads without sidewalks.

Overall I have found the city to be very walkable. There have been very few areas where I have found any problems. Once in awhile there are two adjacent communities where it is a bit of a challenge to walk from one to the other. A good example of this is crossing Shaganappi between Hidden Valley and Hamptons.

I read your article about the overpass by Hillhurst School being in poor shape. I think the city needs to replace some of the older ones such as the two over Crowchild near your home although they will probably be replaced when Crowchild is widened.

There are also some others in that aren't great such as on 16th Avenue NE by 19th Street and on Crowchild Trail near Garrison Green.

I don't know enough about walking in other cities to offer comments in comparison to Calgary.