Calgary vs. Edmonton: Who has the best river valley parks? 

Recently I tweeted out that Calgary may well have the best urban river public spaces in the Canada - maybe even the world. While many agreed with me, one response from an Edmonton follower shared an excerpt from Wikipedia saying:

Edmonton has the largest urban park system in Canada with 20 major parks and attractions.”  

Screen Shot 2018-08-18 at 10.45.19 AM.png
 The City of Edmonton's website.

The City of Edmonton's website.

Really?

Quick mental calculations made me think Calgary could easily match or exceed that with our three amazing river valleys – Bow, Elbow and Fish Creek.  And Calgary easily has over 160 kilometres of river pathways. 

So, I tweeted back, "The challenge is on!” 

And I immediately started doing the math to see if Calgary’s river valley could beat 20 parks and attractions.

Bow River Valley Parks

  1. Bowness Park
  2. Bowmont Park
  3. Edworthy Park
  4. Douglas Fir Trail 
  5. Shouldice Athletic Park
  6. Shaw Millennium Park
  7. Prince’s Island Park
  8. St. Patrick’s Island Park
  9. Calgary Zoo and Botanical Garden 
  10. Inglewood Bird Sanctuary/Fish Hatchery  
  11. Harvie Passage 
  12. Sue Higgins Park 
  13. Carburn Park 
 William Hawrelak Park is perhaps Edmonton's signature urban park. 

William Hawrelak Park is perhaps Edmonton's signature urban park. 

 Prince's Island is Calgary's signature urban park. 

Prince's Island is Calgary's signature urban park. 

  Edmonton's North Saskatchwan River Vallery is a place to escape from the city.

Edmonton's North Saskatchwan River Vallery is a place to escape from the city.

  The Douglas Fir Trail is just one of the many places in Calgary's river valley where you can escape the city.   

The Douglas Fir Trail is just one of the many places in Calgary's river valley where you can escape the city.  

Elbow River Valley Parks

  1.   Weaselhead Flats
  2.   Glenmore Reservoir
  3.   Heritage Park
  4.   North & South Glenmore Parks
  5.   River Park/Sandy Beach
  6.   Riverdale Park
  7.   Stanley Park
  8.   Lindsay Park
  9.   Stampede Park 
  10.   Fort Calgary Park

And then of course there is the massive, Fish Creek Park that encompasses the entire creek valley within the city’s boundaries. One of the largest urban parks in North America, it stretches 19 km from east to west. At 13.5 square kilometers, it is over three times the size of Vancouver's Stanley Park.

  S.S. Moyie on Calgary's Glenmore Reservoir.

S.S. Moyie on Calgary's Glenmore Reservoir.

  Early morning walk along Calgary's Elbow River. Can you spot the walker?

Early morning walk along Calgary's Elbow River. Can you spot the walker?

  Elbow River Camp at Stampede Park.

Elbow River Camp at Stampede Park.

Attractions along the river

Edmonton’s Kinsmen Centre and Calgary’s Repsol Sport Centre (in Lindsay Park) are probably on par with each other as recreational facilities, but ours is an architectural gem. 

Calgary can’t match Edmonton’s Convention Centre, but our equivalent would be Stampede Park, which includes the BMO Centre.

Edmonton has a baseball diamond in their river valley, Calgary has the Saddledome on the Elbow River. 

While Edmonton has riverboat cruises, Calgary has the S.S. Moyie paddlewheeler on the Glenmore Reservoir.  In addition, Calgary has thousands of floating rafts, kayaks, canoes and paddle boarders something I understand Edmontonians don’t do as much. Oh, and what about river surfing at Louise Bridge and some the best fly-fishing in the world all along the Bow River.

What does Edmonton have to match the Calgary Zoo, Fort Calgary, Heritage Park and Shaw Millennium Park?  Fort Edmonton for sure and the Muttart Conservatory? Anything else? 

Edmonton has the 100th St funicular (an elevator for small groups of people and bikes) that links downtown with the river valley.  Calgary’s river valleys are more accessible so we don’t really need a funicular.  Calgary has the Crescent Heights staircase that we have turned into a unique recreation experience. 

Edmonton’s Folk Festival in Gallagher Park is definitely more internationally renowned than Calgary’s.  But we do have that world’s “Greatest Outdoor Show on Earth” happening at Stampede Park which just happens to be along the Elbow River.

What about golf courses within the city limits? Calgary has six: Valley Ridge, Inglewood, Calgary Golf & Country Club, Lakeview, McKenzie Meadows and Blue Devil. Edmonton also has six: Windermere, Royal Mayfair, Victoria, Riverside, Rundle Park and Raven Crest.

  Calgary's International Folk Festival's home is Prince's Island which is located on the edge of downtown in the middle of the Bow River.

Calgary's International Folk Festival's home is Prince's Island which is located on the edge of downtown in the middle of the Bow River.

  Edmonton Folk Festival in Gallagher Park (photo credit: CTV News)

Edmonton Folk Festival in Gallagher Park (photo credit: CTV News)

  Edmonton's Shaw Conference Centre is built into the bank of the North Saskatchewan River. 

Edmonton's Shaw Conference Centre is built into the bank of the North Saskatchewan River. 

  Muttart Conservatory is one of Edmonton's architectural gems.

Muttart Conservatory is one of Edmonton's architectural gems.

  Repsol Sport Centre is one of Calgary's architectural gems. 

Repsol Sport Centre is one of Calgary's architectural gems. 

  Edmonton's High Level Bridge at night.

Edmonton's High Level Bridge at night.

  Calgary's Reconciliation Bridge at night.

Calgary's Reconciliation Bridge at night.

  Edmonton's new Waterdale Bridge.

Edmonton's new Waterdale Bridge.

  Fort Edmonton Park.

Fort Edmonton Park.

  Calgary's Heritage Park.

Calgary's Heritage Park.

Public spaces along the river

Does Edmonton have the numerous natural pebble beaches along their river valley that Calgary has?  

What about urban promenades like Calgary’s Eau Claire or East Village? Can Edmonton match these urban gems?

Can Edmonton’s downtown workers easily walk to the river and back at lunch hour?

Can Edmonton match Calgary’s iconic river bridges – Centre Street, Peace Bridge and George King Bridge? Yes, Edmonton has the High Level Bridge.

Can Edmonton match Calgary’s Elbow River Camp (formerly Indian Village) at Stampede Park? What about a theatre space like Calgary's Pumphouse Theatre?  

What about river island parks? Does Edmonton have anything to match Prince’s, St. Patrick and St. George’s islands?

  Edmonton's downtown beach.

Edmonton's downtown beach.

  The green beach in Calgary's Stanley Park. 

The green beach in Calgary's Stanley Park. 

 The pebble beach in downtown Calgary's St. Patrick's Park is a popular family spot. 

The pebble beach in downtown Calgary's St. Patrick's Park is a popular family spot. 

  River surfing has also become a popular activity in downtown Calgary.

River surfing has also become a popular activity in downtown Calgary.

  Paddling along the Bow River has become a very popular summer activity in Calgary. (photo credit @surrealplaces) 

Paddling along the Bow River has become a very popular summer activity in Calgary. (photo credit @surrealplaces) 

Second opinions

I decided to send my unscientific analysis to a couple of friends who live in Edmonton but have lived in Calgary to see if I was being fair. Both were adamant I wasn’t.  

Terry Bachynski who had lived in both cities for about 18 years each wrote:

“Calgary has a great river valley, but Edmonton's river valley is spectacular. 

Comparing the two river valleys against one another is not an apples to apples thing.  The two cannot be compared and "winner" identified.   The two valleys are completely different, not only in their geography, but how each river valley relates to and is integral to the respective city.   

Edmonton's river valley is a sharp, well defined river escarpment running through the heart of the city with very little commercial or residential development. Calgary's river valleys are much more tapered.  The entire downtown and beyond is built at the bottom of the escarpment, right on the river flood plain.  You don't even climb out of the south side of the Bow River Valley until you climb up to the green on the first hole of the Calgary Golf and Country Club.  

 Calgary's river valley is integrated into the rhythm and flow of the urban downtown experience because the downtown is in the river valley.  While Edmonton's river valley is more an escape from the city right in the heart of the city.  

 Being a veteran of 60 marathons and a dozen ultra-marathons, I have logged a lot of miles in both river valleys.  I have run literally thousands of kilometers in Calgary and Edmonton along the rivers and I have to concede that Edmonton's river path system is second to none.  You can literally run for hours and not even be aware there is a city all around you.  Edmonton's River Valley is a near continuous, uninterrupted park experience. 

Not so with Calgary's trails.  There are constant reminders of the city confronting you all along the trail, from Fish Creek Park all the way to Bowness Park.  Calgary's river valley is urban by necessity and design."  

 Ice Castles in Edmonton's Hawrelak Park. 

Ice Castles in Edmonton's Hawrelak Park. 

To each their own!

Terry continues, "Both work for both cities.  But, if I had my choice, the escape from the city is preferred.  

 In your analysis you kind of skimp on the other pluses of the Edmonton River Valley.  The Muttart Conservatory, three river valley ski hills inside city limits, the sandy beaches that pop up every summer to enjoy, The Edmonton Zoo (granted, it can't hold a candle to the Calgary Zoo, but for a day's outing with a young family, still very rewarding), the Equestrian Centre just down the road from Fort Edmonton, where you can go horseback riding along the river, mountain bike trails (also great for ultra-marathon training), canoeing and the many, many parks offer everything you can think of.  

So, in my mind, both river valleys really reflect the cities and both work for both cities.  Neither wins.  To say one is better than the other is like saying golf is better than baseball.  To each his/her own.  

Chris White (no relation) wrote “I would say your draft is not "fair" but very enjoyable none the lessYour blog talks about "things," but people don't have things, they have experiences. Of course, your challenge is that experiences are subjective. But we shouldn't pretend that "things" are objective. If I were to sum up the difference for me, I would say the Edmonton valley is a more private experience. I’m very glad the two cities don’t try to duplicate each other. I don’t want to sound harsh, but a point-for-point comparison seems misguided, even un-Canadian.”

  Edmonton's spectacular new funicular and stairs is a lovely urban public space.

Edmonton's spectacular new funicular and stairs is a lovely urban public space.

  Roof top patio in Calgary's East Village offers great views of the Bow River. 

Roof top patio in Calgary's East Village offers great views of the Bow River. 

  Likewise, Calgary's new West Eau Claire park with the Peace Bridge is a great place to sit. 

Likewise, Calgary's new West Eau Claire park with the Peace Bridge is a great place to sit. 

 Edmonton's Quarters redevelopment. 

Edmonton's Quarters redevelopment. 

  Calgary's massive East Village redevelopment next to the Bow River.

Calgary's massive East Village redevelopment next to the Bow River.

Best For Who?

Fair enough! One can never say something is the “best” as it really depends on each individual’s perspective and interests. While my friends love how Edmonton’s river valley is an escape from the city, I love to embrace the urban experience.  

Perhaps the Canadian thing to do is say both Calgary and Edmonton have great river valley experiences, Calgary’s being more urban while Edmonton’s is more natural.

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

Battle of Alberta: Urban Design

Edmonton/Calgary: Let's Plan Together?

Brewery Districts: Calgary vs Edmonton

Atlanta vs Calgary: Coca-Cola vs Oil & Gas

Whenever I told people I was going to Atlanta for 14 days of flaneuring, I was warned I would need to rent a car. Not true! Even on Day 14, I was discovering new fun things to see and do within walking distance of my Midtown Airbnb. 

Metro Atlanta, the fifth largest U.S.A. city with 5.8 million residents is the primary transportation hub of the southeastern U.S.A. It boasts the busiest airport in the world.  Home to the headquarters of Coca-Cola, Home Depot, UPS, Delta Air Lines and Turner Broadcasting; it is the business capital of southeastern U.S.A. It hosted the 1996 Olympic Summer Games.

While Calgary is obviously a much smaller city (1.3 million), we share many of the same characteristics – a major transportation hub, business capital of Western Canada, and former Olympic host city. I found myself often comparing the two cities.

  Atlanta's midtown skyline, with Piedmont Park in the foreground.

Atlanta's midtown skyline, with Piedmont Park in the foreground.

  Downtown Calgary with Prince's Island Park in the foreground.

Downtown Calgary with Prince's Island Park in the foreground.

Atlanta’s Midtown vs Calgary’s Downtown

  Atlanta's Symphony Tower.

Atlanta's Symphony Tower.

Over the past few decades, many of the amenities you would expect in a traditional downtown have migrated from Atlanta’s old downtown to Midtown, about 3 km north. Today, Midtown has over 20 million square feet of office space (Calgary’s downtown has 43 million) with over 23 new office buildings in the past 15 years. 

The 41-storey Symphony Tower, completed in 2005 by Pickard Chilton Architects is a sister tower to Calgary’s Eighth Avenue Place, designed by the same firm.

Midtown is where you will find the Woodruff Arts Centre (5 performance spaces; 3,400 seats), and High Museum of Art.  Calgary’s equivalent would be Arts Commons (5 performance spaces; 3,200 seats) and The Glenbow. 

Midtown also is home to the historic 4,665-seat Fox Theatre, as well as 14th Street Playhouse, Museum of Design Atlanta and Centre for Puppetry Arts.   Calgary’s Theatre Junction GRAND, Lunchbox Theatre and Vertigo Theatre and Palace Theatre would match Atlanta’s performing arts scene.

Midtown is also home to 24,000+ postsecondary students attending Georgia Tech, Emory University Hospital, Savannah College of Art & Design, John Marshall Law School and Westwood College.  Calgary’s equivalent would be Bow Valley College, and SAIT/ACAD with about 10,000 students in all.

Advantage: Calgary (office vitality); Atlanta (student vitality)
  Atlanta's Woodruff Arts Center, combines theatre, concert hall and art museum. 

Atlanta's Woodruff Arts Center, combines theatre, concert hall and art museum. 

  World Events is a 26-foot high sculpture by Tony Cragg at the entrance to Atlanta's Woodruff Arts Center's concert hall.  

World Events is a 26-foot high sculpture by Tony Cragg at the entrance to Atlanta's Woodruff Arts Center's concert hall.  

  Calgary's, Wonderland, by Jaume Plensa on the plaza in front of the Bow office tower designed by Norman Foster. 

Calgary's, Wonderland, by Jaume Plensa on the plaza in front of the Bow office tower designed by Norman Foster. 

  Typical Midtown streetscape in Atlanta.

Typical Midtown streetscape in Atlanta.

  While most of downtown Calgary's streets are lined with office towers like Atlanta, Stephen Avenue Walk is a pedestrian mall by day and road at night. It is  a very popular place for office workers to stroll at lunch hour. It is lined with patios and street vendors in the summer, creating a festival like atmosphere.

While most of downtown Calgary's streets are lined with office towers like Atlanta, Stephen Avenue Walk is a pedestrian mall by day and road at night. It is  a very popular place for office workers to stroll at lunch hour. It is lined with patios and street vendors in the summer, creating a festival like atmosphere.

  While Atlanta's Midtown does have two subway stations, it has nothing to match Calgary's LRT system and it 7th Avenue SW Stations.  Atlanta also can't match Calgary's FREE fare zone in the downtown. 

While Atlanta's Midtown does have two subway stations, it has nothing to match Calgary's LRT system and it 7th Avenue SW Stations.  Atlanta also can't match Calgary's FREE fare zone in the downtown. 

  Altanta's MARTA subway stations are dark and dingy. Note the street is lined with above ground parkades vs Calgary's underground parkades.  

Altanta's MARTA subway stations are dark and dingy. Note the street is lined with above ground parkades vs Calgary's underground parkades.  

Piedmont Park vs Calgary Urban Parks

Midtown’s 200-acre Piedmont Park is the South’s greatest park and Atlanta’s “backyard.”  It encompasses the Atlanta Botanical Garden, a huge playing field area, a lagoon, outdoor swimming pool, pub/restaurant, paved pathways, trails, two dog parks (one for large dogs; one for small dogs) and lots of places to sit. It hosts several signature festivals – Dogwood, Jazz, Food & Wine, Road Race, Arts, Music Festival, Gay Pride and Kite. A lamppost banner said there are over 3,000 events annually in Midtown.

Calgary could counter with its four signature urban parks - Prince’s Island, St. Patrick’s Island, Riley and Central Memorial Parks.  Add in Stampede Park and Shaw Millennium Park with all of their festivals and events and Calgary matches Atlanta’s Midtown for parks and festivals.

Advantage: Tied
  An outdoor science fair in Piedmont Park, is a popular annual family event.

An outdoor science fair in Piedmont Park, is a popular annual family event.

  Piedmont Park is also a popular place for people to read, picnic and play.

Piedmont Park is also a popular place for people to read, picnic and play.

  Calgary's Prince's Island Park is transformed into a huge "love-in" during the Calgary International Folk Festival. 

Calgary's Prince's Island Park is transformed into a huge "love-in" during the Calgary International Folk Festival. 

  Calgary's St. Patrick's Island has recently been transformed into a popular public space for Calgarians of all ages. 

Calgary's St. Patrick's Island has recently been transformed into a popular public space for Calgarians of all ages. 

 Murdoch Park in Bridgeland is a popular family park even in Calgary's winter.

Murdoch Park in Bridgeland is a popular family park even in Calgary's winter.

  Shaw Millennium Park is one of the best skate parks in North America. It also has a festival area, beach volleyball and basketball courts.   

Shaw Millennium Park is one of the best skate parks in North America. It also has a festival area, beach volleyball and basketball courts.  

Atlantic Station vs East Village

Like Calgary, Midtown is undergoing an urban living renaissance with 8,000+ new mid and highrise homes under construction or about to break ground. 

On the northwestern edge of Midtown sits Atlantic Station, a mega 138-acre redevelopment of an old steel mill.  It includes a multi-block midrise condo town center with ground floor retail above a mega 7,200-space underground parking garage. It has grocery store, Dillard’s department store, 16-screen Regal movie theatre, as well as 30 other retail stores and 20 restaurants.  It also includes office and hotel towers, with a Target and Ikea store nearby.  When completed, it will have 12 million square feet of retail, office, residential and hotel space as well as 11 acres of public parks.  It will be home for 10,000 people.

Calgary’s equivalent would be the 120-acre redevelopment of East Village, which will also be home to about 10,000 people when completed.  It too will have a grocery store, retail and restaurants and hotel. Instead of office towers it will have two major public buildings – New Central Library and National Music Center.  It includes the 31-acre St. Patricks’ Island, 40-acre Fort Calgary Park and the 2-km RiverWalk.

While Atlantic Station is further advanced development-wise than East Village, it is not as well connected to its neighbouring communities and its public spaces are not as attractive.  It has nothing to match East Village’s Bow River. 

Advantage: Calgary
  Sunday morning church service in Atlantic Station's Central Plaza

Sunday morning church service in Atlantic Station's Central Plaza

  One of Atlantic Station's several shopping streets. 

One of Atlantic Station's several shopping streets. 

  Setting up for Sunday artisan market at Atlantic Station. 

Setting up for Sunday artisan market at Atlantic Station. 

  Atlantic Station and Georgia Tech are both separated from downtown and midtown by huge highway. However, the overpasses have very large pedestrian sidewalks. 

Atlantic Station and Georgia Tech are both separated from downtown and midtown by huge highway. However, the overpasses have very large pedestrian sidewalks. 

  Calgary's East Village is a massive master-planned urban village project on the eastern edge of the downtown.   

Calgary's East Village is a massive master-planned urban village project on the eastern edge of the downtown.  

  Roof-top dining on the Simons Building on the banks of the Bow River in East Village.

Roof-top dining on the Simons Building on the banks of the Bow River in East Village.

  In addition to East Village, Calgary's City Centre has several other major condo projects along the Bow River in Eau Claire and West Downtown, as well as Kensington, Beltline, Inglewood and Bridgeland. 

In addition to East Village, Calgary's City Centre has several other major condo projects along the Bow River in Eau Claire and West Downtown, as well as Kensington, Beltline, Inglewood and Bridgeland. 

Shopping & Dining

Atlanta is missing a main street like Stephen Avenue in its urban core (25 sq. km.). Other than Atlantic Station and Ponce City Market, there is no retail in downtown or midtown. Calgary's Eau Claire Market pales in comparison. 

However, Atlanta has nothing to match Calgary’s mega downtown shopping mall - The Core - or the main street shopping and patio dining of  Kensington, Inglewood, Beltline or Mission.   

Advantage: Calgary
  Ponce City Market is a massive Sears Roebuck & Co. retail store, warehouse and regional office.  Today it is home to restaurants and shops.  It is surrounded by new condo developments.

Ponce City Market is a massive Sears Roebuck & Co. retail store, warehouse and regional office.  Today it is home to restaurants and shops.  It is surrounded by new condo developments.

  Ponce City Market is a popular place on weekend to meet up with friends.

Ponce City Market is a popular place on weekend to meet up with friends.

  Ponce City Markets massive outdoor patio. 

Ponce City Markets massive outdoor patio. 

  Calgary's The Core is a three-block long retail centre with The Bay and Holt's department stores anchoring the two ends.  It also has a major indoor park. 

Calgary's The Core is a three-block long retail centre with The Bay and Holt's department stores anchoring the two ends.  It also has a major indoor park. 

  The historic Hudson's Bay department store in downtown Calgary.  

The historic Hudson's Bay department store in downtown Calgary. 

  Calgary's 17th Ave SW is lined with patios, cafes and shops from 2nd to 14th Street.

Calgary's 17th Ave SW is lined with patios, cafes and shops from 2nd to 14th Street.

Rivers & Pathways

Atlanta also has nothing to match the natural beauty of Calgary’s Bow and Elbow Rivers and their lovely multi-use pathways.  However, Atlanta does have an old abandoned railway line called the BeltLine, which has recently been converted into a promenade attracting tens of thousands of pedestrians and cyclists on weekends. It has already been a catalyst for several mid-rise condo developments and mega pubs.  It has a huge potential to create a vibrant urban corridor.

Advantage: Calgary
  Atlanta's BeltLine is a popular multi-use pathway that has been a huge catalyst for development. 

Atlanta's BeltLine is a popular multi-use pathway that has been a huge catalyst for development. 

  There are huge pubs along Atlanta's BeltLine. 

There are huge pubs along Atlanta's BeltLine. 

  In summer, Calgary's Bow River pathway on the edge of downtown is a special place to stroll. 

In summer, Calgary's Bow River pathway on the edge of downtown is a special place to stroll. 

  The Peace Bridge is a popular spot to cross the Bow River for cyclist, runners and walkers.

The Peace Bridge is a popular spot to cross the Bow River for cyclist, runners and walkers.

Centennial Park vs Olympic Plaza

Atlanta beats Calgary when it comes to creating a tourism legacy from the Olympics.  Their 21-acre Centennial Olympic Park located downtown includes the Fountain of Rings, a dancing fountain that families love to run through, a Ferris wheel and playing fields.

In addition, it is surrounded by the World of Coca-Cola museum, Georgia Aquarium, CNN Centre and National Centre for Civil and Human Rights. It is a huge year-round tourist attraction.

The vitality of Calgary’s Olympic Plaza pales in comparison except when the Calgary International Children’s Festival or some other major event is happening.

Advantage Atlanta
  Every city needs to have more dancing fountains. 

Every city needs to have more dancing fountains. 

  Even though there was nobody on the Ferris Wheel, it creates a playful sense of place.

Even though there was nobody on the Ferris Wheel, it creates a playful sense of place.

 Gotta love the Coca-Cola sponsored funky information booth at Centennial Olympic Park, that looks like a Claes Oldenburg sculpture. Note the cafe and aquarium in the background. 

Gotta love the Coca-Cola sponsored funky information booth at Centennial Olympic Park, that looks like a Claes Oldenburg sculpture. Note the cafe and aquarium in the background. 

  Calgary's Olympic Plaza has little urban vitality except when an event is taking place, despite being surrounded by a major library, City Hall, municipal building, arts center, museum and convention centre. It has limited tourist appeal. 

Calgary's Olympic Plaza has little urban vitality except when an event is taking place, despite being surrounded by a major library, City Hall, municipal building, arts center, museum and convention centre. It has limited tourist appeal. 

Arena, Stadium & Convention Centre

Atlanta has clustered their new Mercedes Benz Stadium, Phillips Arena and World Congress Center (convention center) around a large plaza just south of its Centennial Park. Unfortunately, it is not well connected to either Centennial Olympic Park or downtown. And with no everyday amenities, it was like a ghost town the April afternoon we visited. 

Calgary’s equivalent is Stampede Park with its two arenas, Grandstand and the BMO exhibition centre. Hopefully, the new Stampede Entertainment District Plan will create a mix of everyday uses and connect the district with its neighbours – 17th Ave, East Village and Inglewood.

Advantage: Tied
Screen Shot 2018-05-25 at 1.26.47 PM.png
  Atlanta's lovely plaza that links the stadium, arena and convention centre is devoid of any animation most of the time.    Clustering large single use special event facilities is a big "No No" in Jane Jacob's book.

Atlanta's lovely plaza that links the stadium, arena and convention centre is devoid of any animation most of the time.  Clustering large single use special event facilities is a big "No No" in Jane Jacob's book.

  Calgary's Stampede Park is amazing public space during the 10 days of Stampede.  It is also home to numerous other major events.   

Calgary's Stampede Park is amazing public space during the 10 days of Stampede.  It is also home to numerous other major events.  

  Stampede Park can be a desolate place when there are no events happening.   

Stampede Park can be a desolate place when there are no events happening.  

  Calgary's Saddledome arena with downtown skyline in the background.

Calgary's Saddledome arena with downtown skyline in the background.

Last Word  

While Atlanta might be five times bigger than Calgary, its urban core (25 sq. km) is no match for Calgary’s. Almost all of its large buildings have huge multi-floor, above-ground parkades that destroy street life on three sides.  Calgary is fortunate most of its urban parking is underground, sometimes even with a park on top e.g. James Short Park.

Calgary is also fortunate its urban core is compact. Olympic Plaza Arts District, Stephen Avenue National Historic District, Financial District, Music Mile, urban parks and shopping districts are all within easy walking distance.

What Atlanta’s City Centre does have that Calgary could definitely use more of is postsecondary school campuses. What a great use for downtown’s empty office space. I am sure somebody is on it!

  One of dozens of above ground parkades in Atlanta's urban core that destroys the street life. 

One of dozens of above ground parkades in Atlanta's urban core that destroys the street life. 

Screen Shot 2018-04-27 at 1.12.44 PM.png

Stampede Park 2025

During the 2017 Stanley Cup playoffs, Nashville received a lot of attention for how its downtown came alive on game days as the Predators strived to win the Cup. On game nights, tens of thousands of fans who didn’t have game tickets flooded their downtown to watch the game on huge screens outside the arena. 

Nashville’s arena and the next door convention centre were thought by some to be the model for what a new arena and expanded convention centre could do for Calgary’s Stampede Park and City Centre.  

I had to see this for myself, so I planned to be in Nashville for the opening home game of the Predators’ 2017/18 season.

Note: An edited version of this blog was published in the Calgary Herald (New Condos section), titled, "Nashville is wrong model for reviving Stampede Park" on Feb, 3, 2018. 

  Bridgestone Arena plaza that open up to Lower Broadway is empty most of the time even though it is also home to Nashville Tourist Information Centre. 

Bridgestone Arena plaza that open up to Lower Broadway is empty most of the time even though it is also home to Nashville Tourist Information Centre. 

What I found

I spent 12 days in Nashville, wandering the area around the arena and convention centre almost every day. 

What I found was the streets next to the arena and convention centre were dead except on game days.

  Gold Walk, Nashville Predator hockey players

Gold Walk, Nashville Predator hockey players

Only once did I find the arena plaza animated and that was for the annual “Gold Walk.” That’s when, before the first home game of the season, at around 4 pm the Predator players walk into the arena along a gold-coloured carpet.

Lined with fans and cheerleaders, it’s a bit like how football players enter the stadium before a game.  Though, it seemed a bit hokey to me, the few hundred Nashvillans in attendance clearly enjoyed it.

But, on opening game night, it was not hockey but the 50th anniversary celebration of the nearby Tootsie’s Orchard Lounge that drew thousands of people to the street outside the arena.  The block of Lower Broadway - across from the arena - was closed for an all night outdoor concert with free live music by the likes of Alberta’s own Terri Clark.

  There was no street animation at any time on three sides of the arena that are blank walls to the street. 

There was no street animation at any time on three sides of the arena that are blank walls to the street. 

For the entire 12 days, the cavernous 2-block long convention centre was empty, or at least it appeared so from the street. I did go in several times but nothing significant was happening and it certainly did nothing to create street vitality.

The Bridgestone all-purpose arena was built in 1996. However, only now, 20 years later are new private sector developments happening around it – Bridgestone and Pinnacle office towers, a mixed-use building (including the National Museum of African American Music) under construction, as well as numerous hotels.  

It is the new convention centre, Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum and the growing popularity of the live music experience along Lower Broadway that are the real catalysts for new downtown developments like the impressive Omni hotel.

Nashville’s main street, Lower Broadway is a gritty street lined with of loud honky-tonk bars that offer free (no cover charge) live music from 10 am to 3 am. The bands play at the front the bars with the windows open so you can hear the music and see the musicians as you stroll along.  Think of it as one long street party 365 days of the year. 

Over the past decade or so, Nashville has done a good job of revitalizing its downtown by making it a major tourist attraction.  The key to the revitalization is the free music 365 days of the year (similar to Las Vegas’ gambling and shows). Note: The NISSAN stadium, home of the NFL Titans, is across the river from downtown sits vacant most of the time. Opened in 1999, to date there has been no other development around it. That should be a “red flag” to anyone thinking a downtown stadium is an automatic catalyst for other developments.

  The new convention centre looked lovely, but I never saw anyone use this patio during our 12 days stay, not did I see the centre full of people at any time.

The new convention centre looked lovely, but I never saw anyone use this patio during our 12 days stay, not did I see the centre full of people at any time.

Lessons Learned

As Calgary contemplates the development of an expanded BMO Centre and new arena at Stampede/Victoria Park, we need to be realistic with our expectations. Calgary’s ability to become a mega urban tourist attraction is limited by our accessibility to major tourist markets.  For example, there are 12 million people within a 2.5 hr. drive of Nashville and 250 million within a 2-hour flight. In comparison, Calgary has but a small fraction of that – one million within a 2.5 hr. drive and maybe 15 million within a 2.5-hour flight.

Our weather is also a factor.  In North America, the peak convention and trade show months are from September to June, which for Calgary means cool if not downright cold weather.  In Nashville, even in mid October it was warm enough for shorts - daytime and evenings.

And to be brutally honest, Calgary also lacks a unique sense of place or history essential to becoming a year-round urban tourist attraction.  Nashville is well known internationally as the birthplace of country music, which it has capitalized on to become a year-round music destination. Unfortunately, the Calgary Stampede, a 10-day event, doesn’t allow for a year-round tourist experience.

If Calgary is serious about becoming a tourist city, albeit not on the scale of Nashville, we need to transform Stampede Park into vibrant Sports Hospitality Entertainment District (SHED) for locals first and then tourists.

  Stampede Park has been trying to expand for over 20 years.  Will a new arena and expansion of the BMO Centre be the catalyst to create a vibrant year-round sports, entertainment, hospitality district (SHED)?

Stampede Park has been trying to expand for over 20 years.  Will a new arena and expansion of the BMO Centre be the catalyst to create a vibrant year-round sports, entertainment, hospitality district (SHED)?

  Does it really make sense to spend $500M+ to build a new arena just a block away that will have less seats for public and more seats for corporate fans?

Does it really make sense to spend $500M+ to build a new arena just a block away that will have less seats for public and more seats for corporate fans?

What is needed?

  • Expand the BMO Centre and repurpose the downtown Calgary TELUS Convention Center. We can’t afford to market and manage two similar facilities.
  • Create a vibrant Main Street (live music venues, pubs, restaurants, cinemas, cafes, shops) along 4th Street SE linking East Village, Victoria Park and Stampede Park. 
  • Build a new arena or an upgraded Saddledome and manage it as a major entertainment/events facility not just a sports centre.
  • Build a Stampede Museum/IMAX where tourists and visiting family and friends can enjoy the history and “spills and thrills” of the Stampede experience year-round.
  • Open up Stampede Park along Mcleod Trail so passers-by can see into the park. 
  • Open up the 17th Avenue entrance to vehicular traffic.
  • Remove guard huts at the entrances to allow free flowing traffic through the park 24/7
  The next evolution of Stampede Park will be from restricted gated-community to an open community where people are free to walk, cycle and drive through like any other community in Calgary. 

The next evolution of Stampede Park will be from restricted gated-community to an open community where people are free to walk, cycle and drive through like any other community in Calgary. 

Stampede Park: A place to live?

Given Calgary doesn’t have access to a large tourist market, the key to a vibrant Stampede Park SHED will be to surround it with thousands of condos that are attractive and affordable to Calgarians of all ages and means. 

Stampede Park must become the front yard, back yard and outdoor living room for thousands of Calgarians living in East Village, Victoria Park, Erlton, Inglewood and Ramsay.  It must become a year-round urban playground.

We need residential projects like Lamb’s The Orchard (485 units), Anthem’s Crosstown (874 units + grocery store) at Erlton Station and Cidex’s HAT@Elbow River (1,200 units) on the Elbow River Casino site to happen sooner rather than later.

  Anthem Properties has plans to build four condo towers next to Stampede Park and the Erlton LRT station in the future.  Stampede Park would be their playground. 

Anthem Properties has plans to build four condo towers next to Stampede Park and the Erlton LRT station in the future.  Stampede Park would be their playground. 

  Lamb Corporation has plans for two towers along 11th Avenue and 5th St SE. 

Lamb Corporation has plans for two towers along 11th Avenue and 5th St SE. 

  This is a conceptual plan developed by Sturgess Architects for the redevelopment of the land next to Erlton Station with the Anthem towers included.

This is a conceptual plan developed by Sturgess Architects for the redevelopment of the land next to Erlton Station with the Anthem towers included.

  Remington Developments owns the land south of the CPR tracks that was at one time earmarked for the mega Railtown development that would have included office, condos, shops, LRT and high speed train station.  

Remington Developments owns the land south of the CPR tracks that was at one time earmarked for the mega Railtown development that would have included office, condos, shops, LRT and high speed train station.  

Last Word

Calgary will be hosting 25,000 International Rotarian Convention attendees in 2025.  What a great opportunity to showcase Calgary’s new 21st century Stampede Park as a year-round tourist destination to the delegates.

There’s no time to waste. The Stampede Board, Mayor, Council, Calgary Municipal Land Corporation and Calgary Sports and Entertainment Corporation must begin working quickly to develop an exciting share vision for Stampede Park.

We MUST work together if we want to make our city a major year-round tourist attraction.

Richard White can be reached at rwhiteyyc@gmail.com or follow him on Twitter @everydaytourist

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

Linking East Village & Stampede Park: The Next Step

Calgary Wants Vs Needs: Arena, Convention Centre, Stadium

Flamesville vs Stampede Park