Calgary’s City Centre: One Of North America’s Best?

Ever since the Calgary Herald published my column “Does Calgary Have The World’s Most Walkable City Centre?” in March, I have been criticized by some urbanists for being a “Calgary cheerleader” who sees my city with rose-coloured glasses. 

Link: Does Calgary have the most walkable City Centre in the world?

Brent Toderian, a former City of Calgary Planner for our City Centre, then Director of Planning for Vancouver and now an international planning consultant even asked his 49,000 Twitter followers “What in their opinion is the most walkable City Centre in the world?” As one would expect cities like Paris, Barcelona and Melbourne topped the list and Calgary wasn’t included. No surprise Calgary flies under the radar for national and international urbanists.

  Rainbow underpass pathway

Rainbow underpass pathway

  The Chinese Cultural Centre is an architectural gem.

The Chinese Cultural Centre is an architectural gem.

Calgary’s City Centre is very cool

Over the past few months I have posted a number of blogs on my everydaytourist.ca website documenting why Calgary’s major City Centre communities, i.e. Beltline, Bridgeland, Downtown, Inglewood, Kensington and Mission, are all very cool places to live, play and visit. 

In each blog, I documented how over the past decade or two, our City Center with the addition of dozens of new condo complexes and thousands of new infill homes, improved public spaces, new festivals, as well as new shops, restaurants, cafes and pubs has evolved to be on par or better than what other North American cities.  These blogs were also dismissed by some national and international urbanists as simply “cheerleading.”

Here is why I think “Calgary’s City Centre is one of the best in North America” and perhaps the BEST for any city with a population under two million people.  The rationale is not based on stats and figures, but on decades of personal observation of various key elements of urban vitality in dozens of cities in North America and Europe.

  Gotta love this life-size Victor Cicansky chair at the Glenbow Museum. I have a much smaller version with a potato! 

Gotta love this life-size Victor Cicansky chair at the Glenbow Museum. I have a much smaller version with a potato! 

Shopping 

Very few City Centers in North America under two million people still have major department stores and shopping centres. Calgary boasts three department stores – Hudson’s Bay, Holts and Simons and The Core, Bankers’ Hall and Scotia Center combine to create one of the largest indoor shopping malls of any City Centre in North America. 

Our City Centre is also blessed with six major pedestrian streets (Main Streets) – Stephen Avenue, 4th St SW, 10th St NW, Kensington Road, 9th Ave SE and 17th Ave SW, as well as, four secondary ones – First St SW, 11th St SW, 11th Ave SW (Design District) and 1st Ave NE (Bridgeland).  Most City Centres are lucky to have two or three.

It also has four major grocery stores – Safeway (Kensington, Connaught and Mission), as well as Midtown Co-op.  In addition, Sunterra (Victoria Park), Community Natural Foods (Beltline), Bite (Inglewood), Sunnyside Organic Market and Bridgeland Market, Luke’s Drug Mart and Blush Lane Organic Market (both in Bridgeland) serve as niche grocers. And, while Calgary doesn’t have a year-round central market, we do have weekly summer markets in Hillhurst and Bridgeland. 

  The Core shopping centre's skylight is impressive as are the shops, if only they could get the public garden to stop leaking.  

The Core shopping centre's skylight is impressive as are the shops, if only they could get the public garden to stop leaking.  

  Calgary's City Centre has lots of pedestrian oriented streets. 

Calgary's City Centre has lots of pedestrian oriented streets. 

  17th Ave aka Red Mile is a mix of retail, restaurant and residential buildings of all sizes and shapes. 

17th Ave aka Red Mile is a mix of retail, restaurant and residential buildings of all sizes and shapes. 

  It also has great places to browse. 

It also has great places to browse. 

  Calgary's City Centre as several large grocery stores, as well as several boutique ones. 

Calgary's City Centre as several large grocery stores, as well as several boutique ones. 

  Keynote combines a market, cafe, liquor store with an office tower and two residential towers.

Keynote combines a market, cafe, liquor store with an office tower and two residential towers.

Coffee Culture

Calgary has had a strong independent coffee culture long before Starbucks was even thought of.  Kensington has been home to two independent coffee houses - Higher Ground and the Roasterie since the ‘80s.  Café Beano has been a hipster hangout since before the term hipster was popularized in the 21st century.  Mission’s Purple Perk has also been around for decades.

Recently, a plethora of Calgary-based coffee houses have invaded the City Centre – Alforno, Analog, Gravity, Monogram, Phil & Sebastian, Rosso and Vendome to name a few.  Indeed, you are never far from a café in Calgary’s City Centre.

  There are literally new coffee shops popping up ever month.  This one is in the a-mazing 20 km indoor +15 pedestrian system. 

There are literally new coffee shops popping up ever month.  This one is in the a-mazing 20 km indoor +15 pedestrian system. 

  Cafe Beano a Calgary landmark.

Cafe Beano a Calgary landmark.

Restaurants

Like most North American cities, the restaurant scene has exploded in Calgary’s City Centre over the past 20+ years.  EnRoute Magazine’s list of top new Canadian restaurants list has routinely included one or more Calgary City Centre restaurants including Bar Von Der Fels (2017), while Pigeon Hole was ranked their “The Best New Restaurant” in Canada (2015).

John Gilchrist, Calgary Herald food and restaurant writer and author of “My Favourite Restaurants Calgary and Banff,” had 49 favourite restaurants in downtown alone and over 150 in the City Center in his last book.  He points out Calgary’s City Centre offers both upscale dining -Teatro, Blink and Charcut – as well as many ethnic dining spots – Falafel King, Pure and Jonas. Gilchrist also notes Calgary’s Chinatown is small, but has some great dim sum spots, and Stephen Avenue has an abundance of pubs and restaurant patios. 

  It doesn't get much better than al fresco dining on Stephen Avenue under the Bay's colonnade. 

It doesn't get much better than al fresco dining on Stephen Avenue under the Bay's colonnade. 

  If you are into funky places Re:Grub where you can dine in a barrel...how appropriate is that. 

If you are into funky places Re:Grub where you can dine in a barrel...how appropriate is that. 

  Patio dining on the river is always an option.

Patio dining on the river is always an option.

Art & Architecture

Over the past two decades, Calgary has upped its game when it comes to urban design. Calgary’s City Centre boasts a major office tower by Norman Foster (The Bow), a mixed office/residential tower by Bjarke Ingles (Telus Sky), a bridge by Santiago Calatrava that is unlike any other he has designed (Peace Bridge) and an iconic new Central Library by Sinohetta. There is also Pickard Chilton’s two tower Eighth Avenue Place and London’s Arney Fender Katsalidis Brookfield Place office tower, both featuring cathedral-like public lobbies. 

  BIG's Telus Sky but it is quickly becoming known as The Twist. Can't wait to see Douglas Coupland's light show on the side of the building.  

BIG's Telus Sky but it is quickly becoming known as The Twist. Can't wait to see Douglas Coupland's light show on the side of the building. 

  Stephen Avenue an eclectic mix of shops, office towers, pubic art and architecture (both old and new).

Stephen Avenue an eclectic mix of shops, office towers, pubic art and architecture (both old and new).

Calgary also has an early SOM architects residential tower (Eau Claire 500 built in 1979) and a new SOM office tower (707 Fifth Street, built in 2017). SOM, one of the largest and most influential architecture, interior design, engineering, and urban planning firms in the world designed the iconic Birj in Dubai, the tallest building in the world.

When it comes to public art, Calgary boasts 100+ artworks in its City Centre including “Wonderland” by internationally acclaimed artist Jaume Plensa. Some of Calgary’s best public art is by local artists like Ron Moppett’s huge mosaic “THESAMEWAYBETTER/READER” made up of 956,321 tiny glass tiles and Joe Fafard’s stampeding horses titled “Do Re Me Fa Sol La Si Do.”  

  New public artworks are being installed almost monthly. 

New public artworks are being installed almost monthly. 

  Giving Wings to the Dream, Doug Driediger, east wall of old CUPS building on 100 block of 7th Ave SE. This mural has held up well given it is 20+ years old.  Again I like the fact the piece relates to the site, which was home to Calgary Urban Projects Society (helping people in need) when it was first commissioned. I think it talks nicely about Calgary as a caring city. 

Giving Wings to the Dream, Doug Driediger, east wall of old CUPS building on 100 block of 7th Ave SE. This mural has held up well given it is 20+ years old.  Again I like the fact the piece relates to the site, which was home to Calgary Urban Projects Society (helping people in need) when it was first commissioned. I think it talks nicely about Calgary as a caring city. 

  Calgary also has a budding street art culture. This piece "Eyes on the Street" was done by a teenager who lives in the Hillhurst/Sunnyside community. 

Calgary also has a budding street art culture. This piece "Eyes on the Street" was done by a teenager who lives in the Hillhurst/Sunnyside community. 

Calgary’s City Center is also home to many historical buildings including dozens of early 20th Century sandstone buildings. Stephen Avenue is a designated National Historic Site with its collection of early 20th century buildings.  Atlantic Avenue aka 9th Avenue SE - Calgary’s original main street - also has an important collection of early 20th century brick buildings. Other important historical sites include the Lougheed House with the Beaulieu Garden, Reader Rock Gardens and Senator Burns Rock Gardens.

When it comes to the arts, Arts Commons is one of the larger performing arts centres in North America (3,200 seats in 5 performance spaces), Glenbow is one of Canada’s largest museums and Lunchbox Theatre is longest running noon-hour theatre in North America.  There is also Theatre Junction Grand and Decidedly Jazz dance studio offering diverse programming while two arthouse cinemas – The Globe and Plaza offer alternative and main stream films. Yes, I know we don’t have a major contemporary art gallery -  you can’t have everything!

  The Glenbow has developed a very insightful curatorial program linking past and present. 

The Glenbow has developed a very insightful curatorial program linking past and present. 

Public Spaces

Calgary’s City Centre boast an impressive best collection of parks - from the 100+ year old Memorial Park to the new St. Patrick’s Island park complete with pebble beach. Few City Centres can boast a park with an active cricket pitch (Riley Park) or one with a family toboggan hill (Murdoch Park).  Prince’s Island has been called one of the best music festival sites by many Calgary International Folk Festival performers.  

And then there is Stampede Park. It hosts not only “The Greatest Outdoor Show On Earth” but also is home to a major arena (hockey, lacrosse, ice shows and concerts), a major trade and convention facility as well as numerous other buildings that host hundreds of events year-round.

When it comes to pathways, Calgary’s Bow River promenade from 14th Street Bridge to Fort Calgary is truly in a class of its own.  The enhancement of the West Eau Claire section of the promenade this year will make it truly one of the great urban strolls in North America. 

The +15 system with its 60+ bridges connecting 100+ buildings helps make our City Centre one of the most walkable in the world.  Not only does it make walking more attractive in poor weather, but it also means you can walk without worrying about crazy drivers and cyclists.

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  Calgary's Olympic Plaza is a colourful oasis in the summer.  

Calgary's Olympic Plaza is a colourful oasis in the summer.  

 Chillin' on Riverwalk in East Village.

Chillin' on Riverwalk in East Village.

  containR Park in Hillhurst Sunnyside is home to numerous planned and unplanned events. 

containR Park in Hillhurst Sunnyside is home to numerous planned and unplanned events. 

Fitness/Recreational Opportunities

The Repsol Sports Centre, opened in 1983, is one of the busiest recreation centers in North America today. It is interesting to note its pure white translucent Teflon roof – shaped like a turtle - predates the current obsession for creating strange-shaped public buildings by 20 years. 

Shaw Millennium Skateboard Park is not only one of the largest free public skate parks in the world, but also offers beach volleyball and basketball courts.  Haultain Park has a tennis courts, a playing field and popular children’s playground. 

The Bow River pathway system is a very popular running route morning, noon and night, evenings and weekends year round. 

The City Centre is also home to dozens of private fitness centers and yoga studios including the busy Eau Claire Y.

  Calgarians are good at improvising when it comes to recreational infrastructure. 

Calgarians are good at improvising when it comes to recreational infrastructure. 

  Family fun in downtown.

Family fun in downtown.

Pubs & Clubs 

Calgary, has a budding music scene with Mikey’s, Ironwood, Palomino and Blues Can offering live music seven days a week.  The new National Music Centre with the King Eddy enhances Calgary claim to be North America’s next music city.

Every Calgary City Centre community has its signature pub, from James Joyce on Stephen Avenue to Kensington Pub in Kensington, as well as the Ship & Anchor to Trolley Five on 17th Ave SW. 

  The Ironwood Stage & Grill is just one of several music venues in the City Centre. 

The Ironwood Stage & Grill is just one of several music venues in the City Centre. 

  There is a sense of authenticity at the Blues Can in Inglewood.

There is a sense of authenticity at the Blues Can in Inglewood.

  17th Avenue is lined with pubs and patios. 

17th Avenue is lined with pubs and patios. 

Festivals

Another defining element of a good City Centre is its signature festivals. Here is a list of Calgary’s major festivals that take place in our City Centre with a national or international component.

  • High Performance Rodeo (January)
  • Big Taste (March)
  • Calgary Expo (April)
  • Calgary International Children’s Festival (May)
  • Lilac Festival (May/June)
  • SLED Island (June)
  • Calgary Stampede (July)
  • Calgary International Folk Festival (July)
  • Beakerhead (September)
  • Calgary International Film Festival (September)
  • Wordfest (October)
 The Calgary Stampede is the mother of all Calgary festivals. It is more than just a rodeo, it is an agricultural fair, chuckwagon races, a midway, a music festival, a grandstand show and mega fireworks show. 

The Calgary Stampede is the mother of all Calgary festivals. It is more than just a rodeo, it is an agricultural fair, chuckwagon races, a midway, a music festival, a grandstand show and mega fireworks show. 

  Prince's Island and the Calgary International Folk Festival is a magical experience.

Prince's Island and the Calgary International Folk Festival is a magical experience.

  Calgary hosts one of the biggest and best cosplay festivals in Canada.

Calgary hosts one of the biggest and best cosplay festivals in Canada.

FFQ Elements

Great City Centers have fun, funky and quirky things to see and do.  Calgary’s offers Friday Night Drumming Circles in Inglewood, to Sunday afternoon cricket matches in Riley Park, to three Saturday afternoon blues jams Calgary’s City Centre. Family fun can be had at Canada’s second largest Zoo on an island in the middle of the Bow River and next door is the quirky looking TELUS Spark science center.  Wander the lobbies of downtown’s office buildings and you will find a real bush plane hanging from the ceiling of an office building (Suncor Centre), or a bison skeleton in the Sun Life Plaza or lobby full of masterpieces of Canadian Art by the likes of Shadbolt and Riopelle (Eighth Avenue Place).  Need I go on?

  Old school outdoor shoe shine fun in Kensington!

Old school outdoor shoe shine fun in Kensington!

  Saturday afternoon dancing in Tomkins Park anyone? 

Saturday afternoon dancing in Tomkins Park anyone? 

  Sunday afternoon fishing in the Bow!

Sunday afternoon fishing in the Bow!

Last Word

I am not alone in thinking Calgary has a great City Centre.  In 2014 the Canadian Institute of Planners chose Inglewood as “Canada’s Best Neighbourhood,” with Kensington being one of the runner-ups.  Both have gotten better since then with exciting new condo projects.

While I recognize our City Centre isn’t perfect, I stand by my observation that it is one of the best in North America. In fact, based on the City of Calgary community profiles, over 75,000 Calgarians (6% of overall city population) live in our City Centre and 5,600 (7.5%) are children under the age of 14 (based on 2014 Census). These are healthy numbers on a per capita basis and are on par with Vancouver, considered by many urbanists to be one of the world’s best places for urban living.

Every time I visit another North American city, I develop a better appreciation for Calgary’s City Centre as a clean, safe and interesting place to live. While it is hard for Calgary to compete with larger and older cities like Montreal, Boston, New York, Chicago and San Francisco, I would put Calgary’s City Centre communities up against those of Vancouver, Portland, Austin, Nashville or Denver anytime. 

Oh, and if you still want to call me a “Calgary cheerleader,” I am OK with that.

If you want to learn more about Calgary City Centre checkout these links:

Calgary's Coolest Neighbourhoods: Inglewood

Mission is marvellous

Beltline: Calgary's Hipster/Nester Community

Bridgeland/Riverside's Rebirth

Kensington: Calgary's Left Bank is cool!

Downtown Living is cooler than you think!