This blog is another excerpt from Jan Morris’ 1990s book “City to City,” subtitled, Canada through the eyes of the greatest travel writer of our day. The book is a series of essays commissioned by Toronto’s, Saturday Night Magazine. Link: Jan Morris
The title for Morris’ Saskatoon essay is “The happy surprise” and her first sentence is “Saskatoon struck me as Canada’s best surprise,” followed by “I expected the worst.” She said her 10-day visit taught her a lesson not to jump to conclusions. Having recently visited Saskatoon I was surprised at how her observations rung true even today.
Morris found Saskatoon in the early ‘90s to be “intellectually vivacious, physically it was invigorating, and aesthetically I thought it, in certain lights as least, in certain moods, very beautiful.”
She loved the name Saskatoon, loved enunciating it, but otherwise she thought Saskatoon and most Canadian cities have “too many prosaic imported names e.g. European saints names that have no reference to Canada or names inherited from Scottish estates or other European places.” She liked that Saskatoon is “allegedly derived from the Cree word for a local berry, misaskwatomin, it is as indigenous a name as one could wish for, besides being euphonious, exotic and slightly comical.” Overall, Saskatoon struck her as the “most thoroughly Canadian of Canadian cities” but doesn’t really say why.
She then lists Saskatoon’s various monikers over time – The Wonder City (in its youth), the Hub City (when the railway arrived), the Fastest Growing City on Earth (which it once claimed to be) and City of Bridges (it has seven).
It is one city in Canada that “does not seem greatly interested in the affairs of the United States.”
Saskatoon reminded her of Aberdeen, Scotland given its role as the powerhouse of the Saskatchewan hinterland, sustaining the economy of hundreds of thousands of square miles (its own terrestrial ocean) not just for the wheat fields but for potash, uranium, and gold mines.
Morris acknowledges “while there is a majestic beauty to Saskatoon’s lonely per-eminence, there are cruel oppressions, too. As artists in particular have observed before me, that infinite horizon is a kind of tyranny – one feels that even trying to challenge it, in soaring art or architecture….would be no more than a senseless impertinence.”
She recognized 21stStreet at an “architectural gem” where you can see a fair cross section of local society, economically and socially. The street is home to the chateau-style Bessborough Hotel, the modernist Canadian National building, the Saskatoon Club and the old Eaton’s store that is now an Army & Navy store.
“Saskatoon is a patchwork of rich and poor, rough and smooth. Its history has fluctuated from boom to bust and back again, and its social fabric is correspondingly interwoven.”
“Nearly all the people, it seemed, rich or poor, scholar or scavenger, Scottish, Russian or Cree by origin, had something specifically Saskatonian in common. During my 10 days in this city, I experienced no single instance of unfriendliness – not a single annoyance. Saskatoon claims to have more PhDs per capita than anywhere else in Canada, is full of lively theatre, and is a very hive of gifted writers.”
“Saskatoon also has a powerful instinct for communal duty, communal purpose. An almost intimate sense of fellowships seems to characterize the city.
Its public institutions are often named for still living local worthies and its University Bridge built by local engineers.
The Mendel Art Gallery is not only open 363 days of the year, twelve hours a day, but attracts an annual attendance almost as great as the entire population of the city (note the Mendel is now closed having been replaced by the controversial Remai Modern which is not open 363 days of the year or twelve hours a day.)
If you build a new house, the city gives you two free trees. And everywhere there are commemorative plaques.”
Morris was not big fan of Saskatoon’s restaurants saying “seldom have I eaten more depressingly” even though the city claimed to have more restaurants per capita than any other Canadian city. She thought the city was cosmopolitan, with its fertile ethnic melange and constant infusion of outsiders, but remarkably introspective.
Saskatoon’s restaurant scene has changed significantly since Morris’ visit with award winning chef Dale Mackay’s three signature restaurants - Ayden Kitchen & Bar, Little Grouse on the Prairie and Sticks & Stones. If you don’t believe me check out this link: 17 Bucket List Restaurants You Need To Try In Saskatoon.
She notes, “Physically the place depends for all of its charm upon the river, and this Saskatoon has used magnificently. The seven bridges do give a noble flourish to Saskatoon, while its river banks have been fastidiously exploited as trail and parkland, unobtrusively equipped with the standard educational displays, and mercifully embellished, as far as I discovered, by only two pieces of sculpture – one depicting a gambolling group of Saskatonian adolescents, some of them upside down, the other depicting a Metis slumped on his horse.”
Morris observes, “almost everything seems new in this mise en scene, and this is hardly surprising, because Saskatoon is one of the most sudden of all the world’s cities….The thirty-odd blocks of downtown are like the rings of a chopped tree…the solid red-brick emporiums of the early boom years, the years of the Wonder City.
Here is the glass and steel of the 1970s, when a spurt in several of Saskatoon’s industries made it POW City, meaning the city riding the boom in Potash, Oil and Wheat. And in between these emblems of success are the symptoms of successive relapses, stores that never quite made it, building lots never quite built upon.”
Later she laments about the removal of the rail yards and train station from the City Centre, “To this day the absence of the yards gives the city centre a sense of lacuna and deprives it of symbolism.”
She also comments about the suburban development “thousands of houses built in the first half of the century create a ring around the city centre with hardly any two alike as they have been embellished with every kind of decorative caprice, equipped with all permutations of gabling, pillaring, shingling and verandering, ranging from mock Tudor to glimmering modernism.”
I was surprised when she commented that the boom of the 1970s that created the sprawling malls, industrial estates and housing developments is “where one still feels a sense of pioneering vigour.” She adds, “If you really want a sensation of the frontier in Saskatoon, probably the best place of all to go is to the big industrial zone in the northern part of town, which looks as though it has just been off-loaded piecemeal from a container train and is remarkably like photographs of pioneer Saskatoon in the earliest days of Wonder City.”
I love Morris’ sense of urban humour. “Saskatoon is short on bravado, and, in its social being as in its contemporary architecture, seems anxious not to shock, or even surprise…while all this does not make the city feel disappointed, exactly, it does make it feel a little resigned – like a woman in middle age who, contemplating her husband across the dinner table, realizes without rancour that life’s romantic possibilities have come and gone.”
Heroic to banal
Near the end of the essay she summarizes her feeling about the city, “But then excitement is not what Saskatoon purveys. It is part of the civic genius – part of the Canadian genius, too – to reduce the heroic to the banal.”
I recently visited Saskatoon and found it was a great long weekend getaway, not sure how I would spend 10 days there. I am happy to say the restaurant scene has improved, as it has in most Canadian cities since the ‘90s. Saskatoon, like most North American cities, has caught the craft beer bug with the north industrial area providing some fun beer tasting spots. The City Centre is currently undergoing a slow renaissance with new shops, restaurants, bars, fitness studios and condos popping up everywhere. The river valley continues to be a popular public place for people of all ages with new publics spaces, trails and events.
From an architectural perspective, the University of Saskatchewan has perhaps the best blend of old and new architecture in Canada. The new Remai Modern art gallery is a definite attempt to create a modern architectural statement with its cubist, container-like design.
The architecture and programming are diametrically opposed to what the Mendel Art Gallery used to offer. Like it or not, it is a move away from the banal, the prosaic towards the “bravo” that Morris’ said was missing in Saskatoon’s sense of place.
I agree with Morris that Saskatoon has a lot of commemorative plaques, statues and monuments. However, what impressed me most were the provocative murals and street art - some of the most thoughtful and appropriate images that I have seen anywhere.
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I love flaneuring through the books in thrift stores and used bookstores to see if I might find a hidden gem. That is exactly what happened recently at J.H. Gordon Books on King St. E in Hamilton, Ontario.
Often, I find books I didn’t even know existed, like Jan Morris’ “City to City” which is subtitled “through the eyes of the greatest travel writer of our day.” I have a couple of Morris’ books in my collection but had never seen this one.
A quick check found it was published in 1990 and the cities ranged from St John’s and Saskatoon to Yellowknife and Vancouver, as well as a few cities in between. I thought it would be interesting to see how an outsider saw Canada and our cities almost 30 years ago (a generation). Needless to say, I bought the book.
Jan Morris, born in 1926, is a Welsh historian, author and travel writer who has written extensively about cities around the world since the ‘60s. She has an amazing ability to observe, ask questions and articulate her thoughts on the underlying character of a city – good, bad and ugly. These are not fluffy travelogues, but urban character studies.
She first visited Canada in the early 1950s, getting to know its cities and its people better than many Canadians ever do.
Her comments about Canada and Canadian cities are often not very flattering and sometimes I wonder how, in such a relative short visit, she can feel so confident about her ability to capture the pulse and sense of place of a city accurately. Perhaps I am jealous?
By the end I was amazed at how many times she used the word “prosaic” to describe Canada, and our cities. However, that being said, she does make some very thought provoking observations.
Over the next few months I will share excerpts from her essays that were commissioned for Saturday Night magazine.
Toronto the capital of the Ice Kingdom
Morris’ Toronto essay was written in 1984 when she visited the city for its sesquicentennial. She acknowledges the city has become more metropolitan now (i.e. 1990) more Americanized and more assertive as evidenced by….wait for it… “the increasing number of jay-walkers!”
In her opinion, Toronto is one the most highly disciplined and tightly organized cites of the Western World. Morris also notes she had never heard of the word “multiculturalism” or “heritage language” until she visited Toronto. She writes “Far more than any other of the great migratory cities, Toronto is all things to all ethnicities. The melting-pot conception never was popular here, and sometimes I came to feel that Canadian nationality itself was no more than a minor social perquisite.”
She thought the word multiculturalism is to Toronto, what “ooh-la-la” is to Paris, “ciao” to Rome, “nyetto” Moscow and “hey you’re looking great” to Manhattan.
But she also noted “Toronto was not all brotherly love and folklore, saying wherever she went she heard talk of internecine (destructive to both sides) rivalries, felt a darkly conspiratorial side to multiculturalism and that one could easily stumble into cafes in which plotters organized distant coups.”
One of the main themes of the essays is the role of the transcontinental train as Canada’s iconic experience, as evidenced by this paragraph:
“And best of all, early one morning I went down to Union Station to watch the transcontinental train come in out of the darkness from Vancouver. Ah, Canada! I knew exactly what to expect of this experience, but still it stirred me: the hiss and rumble of it, the engineers princely in their high cab, the travel-grimed gleam of the sleeper cars…the grey faces peering out of the sleeper windows, the proud exhaustion of it all, and the thick tumble of the disembarking passengers, a blur of boots and lumberjackets and hoods and bundled children, clattering down the steps to breakfast, grandma, and Toronto, out of the limitless and magnificent hinterland.”
Oh, how Toronto and Canada HAS changed. The transcontinental train is iconic no more, and Union Station is filled with day commuters, with briefcases, backpacks and coffee cups from edge cities, not people from the hinterland.
Hard to believe the west was still thought of a Canada’s hinterland in the mid ‘80s by outsiders.
I love the strange and insightful questions Morris asks of cities. In the case of Toronto, it was “What were the intentions of this city?” She then links this question to her observation of the “mural sculpture on the wall of the stock exchange ‘Workforce” by Robert Longo and she begins to contemplate its significance. The mural has eight figures, ranging from a stockbroker to what seems like a female miner, none of which look happy.” Whereupon she exclaims, “the pursuit of happiness, after all is not written into the Canadian constitution.” She also notes, “Nor do they look exactly inspired by some visionary cause…. they are marching determinedly, but joyously, arm-in-arm, upon an undefined objective. Wealth? Fame? Security?” Interesting contradiction here, as earlier she says they don’t look happy but later they are “joyously, arm-in-arm.”
Morris then poses the question, “Do cities have to have destinations?” And answers with “Perhaps not, but most of them do, if it is only a destination in the past, or in the ideal. Toronto seems to me, in time as in emotion, a limbo-city. It is not, like London, England obsessed with its own history. It is not an act of faith, like Moscow or Manhattan. It has none of Rio’s exuberant sense of young identity. It is neither brassily capitalist or rigidly public sector. It looks forward to no millennium, back to no golden age. It is what it is, and the people in its streets, walking with that steady, tireless, infantry-like pace that is particular to this city, seem on the whole resigned, without either bitterness or exhilaration, to being just what they are.”
Morris also perceived, “Among the principal cities of the lost British Empire, Toronto has been one of the most casual (rather than the most ruthless) in discarding the physical remnants of its colonial past. In Sydney, in Melbourne, in Wellington, even in Capetown, not to mention the cities in India, where the imperial memorials remain inescapable, sometimes even dominant…
Nobody, could possibly mistake this for a British City now.” “There is no mistaking this for a city of the United States, either….it is not a free-and-easy, damn Yankee sort of city – anything but,” she adds later.
Morris observes that while government authority is strong and respected in Toronto you could hardly call it “Orwellian – it seems without malevolence; but at the same time nobody can possibly ignore it, for it seems to have a finger almost everywhere (she hates the Liquor Control Board stores).”
She notes how public art is not only the work of the artist, but has to be authorized and approved by several government bodies before it is installed, or how it is the government that sells you a bottle of scotch and how well-mannered we are addressing criminals in course as “sir.”
She postulates that if a nuclear bomb was to go off nearby, Torontonians would wait for the lights to change before running for cover.
Later she notes “Only in Toronto, I think, will a streetcar stop to allow a pedestrian to cross – surely one of the most esoteric experiences of travel in the 1980s? (Hmmmm, in Calgary cars stop all the time to let pedestrians cross the street, I wonder what she would make of that) Only in Toronto are the subways so wholesome, the parks so mugger-less, the children so well behaved.”
She also recognizes Toronto isn’t a “provincial city” describing it as a huge, rich, splendid city, a metropolitan in power, a money centre of universal importance.
“Toronto is Toronto and perhaps that is enough….it is a city clean, neat, and ordered, built to a human scale, unhurried and polite. It has all the prerequisites of your modern major city – your revolving restaurants, your Henry Moore (today, that might be a Santiago Calatrava Bridge or a Jaume Plensa sculpture or a Norman Foster or BIG building), your trees with electric lights in them, your gay bars, your outdoor elevators, your restaurants offering deep fried pears stuffed with ripe camembert on a bed of nutmeg-scented spinach.”
Yet, by and large it has escaped the plastic blight of contemporary urbanism.
She adds later “Everywhere has its galleria nowadays, Singapore to Houston, but none is quite so satisfying as Toronto’s Eaton Centre – just like one of the futuristic cities magazine artists like to depict in the 1930s.”
Morris says “Only the greatest of the world’s cities can outclass Toronto’s theatres, cinemas, art galleries, and newspapers, the variety of its restaurants, the number of its TV channels, the calibre of its visiting performers. Poets and artists are innumerable.”
“What has not happened to Toronto is as remarkable as what has happened. It ought by all the odds to be a brilliant, brutal city, but it isn’t. Its downtown ought to be vulgar and spectacular, but is actually dignified, well proportioned, and indeed noble. Its sex-and-sin quarters, are hardly another Reeperbahn, and the punks and Boy Georges to be seen parading Yonge Street on a Saturday night are downright touching in their bravado, so scrupulously are they ignored.”
Morris is not a big fan of the city’s street life, “Toronto is the most undemonstrative city I know, and the least inquisitive. The Walkman might be made for it. It swarms with clubs, cliques, and cultural societies, but seems armour-plated against the individual. There are few cities in the world where one can feel, as one walks the streets or rides the subways, for better or for worse, so all alone.”
She likes Toronto’s underground PATH walkway better than the streets saying “Among the innumerable conveniences of Toronto, which is an extremely convenient city, one of the most attractive is the system of tunnels which lies beneath the downtown streets, and which, with its wonderful bright-lit sequences of stores, cafes, malls and intersections, is almost a second city in itself. I loved to think of all the warmth and life down there, the passing crowds, the coffee smells, the Muzak, and the clink of cups, when the streets above were half-empty in the rain, or scoured by cold winds; and one of my great pleasures was to wander aimless through those comfortable labyrinths, lulled from one Golden Oldie to the next, surfacing now and then to find myself on an unknown street corner far from home, or all unexpectantly in the lobby of some tremendous bank.”
She adds, “But after a time, I came to think of them as escape tunnels. It was not just that they were warm and dry; they had an intimacy to them, a brush of human empathy, a feeling absent from the greater city above our heads.”
No Joie de vivre
She later says, “Sometimes I think it is the flatness of the landscape that causes this flattening of the spirit – those interminable suburbs stretching away, the huge plane of the lake, those long grid roads which deprive the place of surprise or intricacy. Sometimes I think it must be the climate, numbing the nerve endings, or even the sheer empty vastness…Could it be the underpopulation; ought there be a couple of million more people in the city, to give it punch or jostle? Could it be the permanent compromise of Toronto, neither quite this or altogether that, capitalist but compassionate, American but royalist, multicultural but traditionalist.”
When Morris asked immigrants what they thought of Toronto they said the “people are cold…they just mind their own business and make the dollars…neighbours don’t smile and say hullo (sic), how’s things…nobody talks.”
To this she adds her own observations “in the course of its 150 years of careful progress, so calculated, so civilized, somewhere along the way Toronto lost, or failed to find, the gift of contact or of merriment…even the most naturally merry of the immigrants, the dancing Greeks, the witty Poles, the lyrical Hungarians seem to have forfeited their joie de vivre when they embrace the liberties of this town.”
In the end she concludes, “Your heart may not be singing, as you contemplate the presence around you Toronto the Good, but it should not be sinking either.
Cheer up! You have drawn the second prize, I would say, in the Lottario of Life.”
Toronto the “Capital of the Ice Kingdom” is Morris’ term, not mine. However, it would seem to capture her view of Canada and our cities as cold, conservative and controlled places with little merriment. Hence the prolific use of the word “prosaic.”
I have to admit I have never been a big fan of Toronto, but then most Canadians other than those living in the metro Toronto area seem to despise the city that thinks it is the “centre of the universe.” I am probably even more anti-Toronto than most as growing up in Hamilton we hated “Hogtown!” I was surprised on a recent visit to Hamilton how much the anti-Toronto sentiment still exists.
While reading the essay I couldn’t help but wonder what she might think of Calgary with our indoor +15 walkway, our brutally cold winters, beautiful icy rivers and huge parks. What would she think of Stephen Avenue, the Calgary Tower or our iconic recreation centres? I got a sense of what she might have thought in her essay on Edmonton, entitled “A Six-Day Week!”
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.”
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
- Bowness Park
- Bowmont Park
- Edworthy Park
- Douglas Fir Trail
- Shouldice Athletic Park
- Shaw Millennium Park
- Prince’s Island Park
- St. Patrick’s Island Park
- Calgary Zoo and Botanical Garden
- Inglewood Bird Sanctuary/Fish Hatchery
- Harvie Passage
- Sue Higgins Park
- Carburn Park
Elbow River Valley Parks
- Weaselhead Flats
- Glenmore Reservoir
- Heritage Park
- North & South Glenmore Parks
- River Park/Sandy Beach
- Riverdale Park
- Stanley Park
- Lindsay Park
- Stampede Park
- 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.
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.
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?
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."
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 less. Your 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.”
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.
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With the completion of the West Eau Claire Park, Calgary now has one of the best urban river shorelines in North America, perhaps even the world.
What’s so special about the Bow River as it passes through the City Centre (Edworthy Park to Harvie Passage) is that it is still more or less natural - no concrete, canal-like retaining walls; no theme-park bars and restaurants lining the shore. You can still walk to the river, throw stones, dip your toes in, go fishing, launch a small water craft or even river surf.
The Bow River is one of Calgary’s key urban differentiators.
Bow River Promenade
Over the past two decades, the City of Calgary has invested over 100 million dollars to create a pedestrian-friendly urban edge to the Bow River – complete with parks, plazas, promenades, pathways, public art and bridges. Today, it has ten bridges including three signature ones - the historic Centre Street Bridge, Peace Bridge and King Bridge. It also links to several parks – Prince’s Island, St. Patrick’s Island, Fort Calgary, Sien Lok, Shaw Millennium and Nat Christie.
Perhaps it is time to come up with a unifying name for the 4+ km south shore public spaces - at present, it has a collage of names. In East Village segment is officially called the Jack & Jean Leslie RiverWalk, most people know it simply as RiverWalk.
From Chinatown to just past Eau Claire Market, it becomes the Bow River Pathway and then changes to West Eau Claire Park for the section west of St. Patrick’s Island at the base of the Peace Bridge till the 10th Street bridge where it becomes Bow River pathway again until you get to the Nat Christie Park just east of the 14th Street bridge.
From both a local and tourist perspective, the entire pathway should have one name. I don’t suggest RiverWalk as it would be seen as if we are trying to imitate San Antonio’s famous River Walk – nothing could be further from the truth.
What about Bow River Promenade? Bow River Stroll? Bow River Parade? Maybe even Bow River Loop (as you can loop back along the north shore and take in Poppy Plaza and get a better view of the Calgary’s ever-changing downtown skyline which is quickly becoming dominated by new condo towers)?
Urban Living Renaissance
As a result of all the public improvements, the Bow River’s south shore has become a mecca for urban living. Since the mid ‘90s, new condos on or near the Bow River have been completed every few years creating an interesting urban design history lesson.
The earliest is Eau Claire 500, the two, dark brown brick buildings designed with the enclosed courtyard and completed in 1983 by SOM, one of the world’s most renowned architectural firms.
The complex literally turns its back to the pathway and river - no townhomes face the promenade, just a blank wall. This would never happen today.
Neither would the River Run townhome condos completed in 1995 behind Eau Claire Market with no set-back from the promenade. At that time, the City was desperate to see some residential development in downtown so they approved this low-density project that looks like it has been imported from the suburbs.
The 21st century has seen the completion of the two Princeton towers on Riverfront Avenue with low rise buildings facing the promenade (which minimize shadowing on the promenade and park) with its timeless red brick façade and sandstone coloured accents. East Village is home to several contemporary condos facing St. Patrick’s Island Park.
The two newest condos are the Concord at the Peace Bridge and the Waterfront at Sien Lok Park, both with glass facades that step-down to the river to maximize views of the river, pathway and downtown. Anthem Properties’ ambitious Waterfront project is the biggest condo project in Calgary’s history with 1000 homes in ten different buildings.
Today, the Bow River’s south shore is one of Calgary’s most desirable places to live and one of North America’s best examples of the 21st century urban living renaissance.
It Almost Didn't Happen?
The postwar oil boom resulted in hordes of head offices moving to Calgary which led to a huge increase in traffic into the downtown. By the early ‘60s, civic leaders felt part of the problem was that downtown was hemmed in by the Bow River to the north and the Canadian Pacific Railway tracks to the south so they pitched the idea of moving the CPR tracks to the river so downtown could spread out into what is now the Beltline.
However, by 1964, City Council killed the relocation of the rail lines amid bickering and cost issues and came up with a new Downtown Plan.
Then in 1968, a transportation study called for several new Calgary highways - Crowchild Trail, Blackfoot Trail, 14th Street West freeway, Anderson Trail, and the Downtown Penetrator (Yes, that was the name!).
The Downtown Penetrator was a proposed major freeway that would have extended from Sarcee Trail into the downtown along what is now 2nd and 3rdAvenues SW.
The plan called for demolishing 400 homes, many in low-income areas that were considered skid rows. The Centre Street, Louise and Langevin (now Reconciliation) bridges would have been replaced with new bridges. Chinatown would have been relocated and much of East Village, (called Churchill Park then), would have been destroyed.
Fortunately, the Downtown Penetrator died as a result of public protest (especially from Chinatown) creating the opportunity to rethink our connection to the Bow River.
Many developers and urban planners in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s said downtown residential would never happen in Calgary. It was a time when the single-family reigned and most Calgarians turned their noses up at the idea of communal condo living.
Calgary’s corporate executives lived in houses along the Elbow River in Roxboro or “on the hill” (aka Mount Royal), not along the Bow River. Eau Claire, Chinatown and East Village were mostly old homes, skid rows and a prostitute stroll. Eau Claire 500 sat alone for almost 15 years before another condo tower joined it.
It is amazing what can happen over a few decades.
The Bow River, its islands and riverbank have gone from a neglected jewel in the ‘70s to a vibrant urban playground in the ‘10s. I can see the promenade extending all the way from Edworthy Park to Harvie Passage in the future.
It’s time to give our unique collection of urban public spaces along the Bow River a meaningful and memorable name! In addition to promenade, stroll and loop, perhaps the Makhabn Passage (Makhabn being the Blackfoot name for the Bow River) might be an appropriate name?
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West Hillhurst is about a 45 to 90 minute walk to Stephen Avenue depending on where you live and how fast you walk. It is on the edge of the City Centre by my definition i.e. anywhere that is about a 30 to 40 minute walk from the middle of the Central Business District.
That makes West Hillhurst an inner-city neighbourhood.
For most Calgarians, the image of inner-city neighbourhoods is one of tree-lined streets with a mix of small, mid-20th century bungalows and large new two story infill homes. There might be an old school or two and a small shopping plaza and but not much else.
Living in West Hillhurst for 25+ years I have come to appreciate the hidden diversity of my community, which I expect is true for many other inner-city neighbourhoods in Calgary.
Let's go for a West Hillhurst adventure, as my four and two-year old neighbour boys would say when they want me to take them for a walkabout of our neighbourhood. We always find something new even after over 100 adventures.
Parks & Recreation Amenities
Art & Culture
Diversity of Housing
Best Calgary Neighbourhoods?
Recently, Avenue Magazine published their Calgary Best Neighbourhoods for 2018 and the results were surprising. The methodology involved surveying Calgarians re: what is important to them (restaurants, cafes and bars, walk and transit scores, community engagement, crime rates and access to parks, pathways and recreational opportunities) and then all 185 neighbourhoods were ranked based on relevant data from various sources.
This was not a popularity contest as is often the case with neighbourhood rankings.
The top ten were:
- Arbour Lake
- Signal Hill
- Crescent Heights
- Eau Claire
Interestingly, Hillhurst ranked #27 and Inglewood #50, both of which have been ranked as some of the best neighbourhoods in Canada by professional planners. Hmmmm....what does that say?
West Hillhurst was ranked #105, just ahead of Collingwood (106), North Glenmore Park (107) and Midnapore (108) and behind the likes of Glendale (102), Southview (103) and Britanna (104).
For me is having great neighbours, which we have had for the entire 25+ years we have lived here. It is also about great accessibility to all of the things like to do, some in walking distance, some just a 5 or 10 minute drive. We have never been big transit users.
I am not about to question why West Hillhurst was ranked so low. But, perhaps it is because what makes a great neighbourhood isn't really measurable. It is personal!
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I love Calgary’s summers – warm days, cool evenings, no humidity, no bugs and big blue skies.
What’s not to love?
46 Minutes Took 4 Hours
Last Saturday, I took a bike ride to enjoy Calgary’s great urban outdoors along the south shore of the beautiful Bow River, to check out the reopened Harvie Passage.
It was a lovely ride - along the way I encountered the Nat Christie sculpture park, Shaw Millennium Park, Eau Claire Promenade, Prince’s Island Park, Eau Claire Plaza, Sien Lok Park, Riverwalk, East Village Plaza, St. Patrick’s Island, Fort Calgary Park, Calgary Zoo on St. George’s Island, Harvie Passage, Bow Habitat Station and Inglewood Bird Sanctuary. I am sure I missed something.
It is a 7-km ride that Google Maps says should take 23 minutes each way - it took me four hours round trip.
Shaw Millennium Park
Harvie Passage Fun
Harvie Passage has both a Class 2 and Class 3 rapids for public use.
- Eastern (river left) passage: This is considered a Class 3 passage. This passage should not be used by inexperienced or less-experienced boaters as the risk is significant. Experienced boaters should still exercise caution while navigating this passage.
- Western (river right) passage: This is a Class 2 passage. The waters are slower moving; however, caution is still required when navigating through this passage.
There are also opportunities for less-experiences boaters to exit the river before the passage and portage the major water features.
Additional benefits of the project include the new shoreline spaces along the passage that have been developed for people wishing to enjoy the beauty of the Bow River from land. There are tree-lined walkways and pebble beach areas for the public.
The passage recently opened up after being destroyed by the 2013 flood.
Bow River Living
Since the mid '90s new condos have been completed every few years along the Bow River from West Downtown to East Village. It is hard to believe that in the mid 20th century the Bow River's shoreline was almost completely ignored as a place to live and play - both Eau Claire and East Village were best known for their prostitute strolls.
This ride confirmed my view that Calgary has ONE of the best and most unique urban river edges in the world. I love the fact that it has three outdoor concert venues, while at the same time has numerous lovely places to be alone and just sit and relax. I love that it is a place where locals of all ages and means can bike, skate, board, fish, surf, float and paddle. It is an urban recreational paradise.
Yes some cities might have more touristy restaurants, bars and hotels, including floating ones along their river, but I love the fact our river isn’t “tarted-up” for tourists.
And it is getting better every year!
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I really do need to get out more. Specifically, to the edges of the city, to see what is happening in Calgary’s new frontier. Recently, I was reminded of this when driving some buddies (inner-city boys) out for a round at Canals of Delacour golf course, which meant we had to drive past the airport. Who does that?
Our immediate reaction as we passed the airport was to marvel at all of the development happening east of the airport. After a bit of chatter, one buddy said “Who would want to live out here?” My response, “That is exactly what people said when Lakeview, Lake Bonavista and Dalhousie were built at the edge of the city 40+ years ago.”
He smiled and sheepishly admitted that when he moved to Charleswood in the early ‘60s, it too was treeless, there was no University of Calgary, no Brentwood Mall or LRT station and indeed, people asked him “Why do you want to live so far out?” The other buddy agreed that it was the same for him when he moved to Calgary 40+ years ago and chose to live in Beddington before moving to the inner-city.
When I pointed out people living in these new northeast communities have easy access to Stoney Trail, the airport, CrossIron Mills (shopping and cinema), Lowe’s Home Improvement and the New Horizon shopping centre opening this summer – and of course, Costco.
I then hit them with buddy’s motto “If Costco doesn’t have it, I don’t need it,” which resulted in agreement all around. I also reminded them that with the popularity of online shopping for groceries, clothing, electronics and other everyday needs, having stores nearby isn’t as important as it once was.
Both admitted living out here might not be that bad after all and that getting a bigger home by living further from downtown was one of the reasons they chose to live on the edge of the city when they moved to Calgary and had young families. One even said, “who needs to live near downtown. I never go there anyway.” Ouch!
Not your parent’s suburbs
However, what is different about these new suburbs, compared with those 40 or 50 years ago is they are not a sea of single-family homes on huge lots, but a diversity of housing options including, single-family homes, duplexes, row houses and mid-rise condos (4 to 6 storeys high).
Two days later, when heading out to play another round at Canal at Delacour, (yes, I love the course) I decided to leave early to explore these new communities and see for myself what was happening.
I was gobsmacked by Truman’s Orchard Sky project with its cluster of seven condo buildings totalling 423 new homes within walking distance of a school, park and pathway in the new community called Skyview Ranch. I also saw what looked to be a large, 6 storey wood frame residential building nearby, as well as other four-story residential buildings along the main corridor. While it might not be the Beltline or East Village, it is certainly not the low-density suburbs of the mid to late 20th century.
It can all get a bit confusing when you read the marketing information and learn there is a new community in the northeast called Savanna that is actually in the community of Saddle Ridge. Or, when there is both a Cornerstone and Cornerbrook community in the northeast. I think one might be within the boundaries of the other, but it wasn’t clear. As if the naming of the streets wasn’t confusing enough with all of the street names looking the same, now the community names also overlap.
It is not only at the northeast edge that Calgary’s condo invasion is happening. It is also in the southwest, southeast, west side and directly north up Centre Street. A quick check with the City of Calgary and there are currently 23 condo construction sites in new communities creating 2,693 new homes for Calgarians.
Condo living is not only just starter home for young Calgarians in the suburbs. It is a lifestyle option for people of all ages and backgrounds in in the 21st century.
Note: An edited version of this blog was published in the July 2018 edition of Condo Living Magazine.
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For 50+ years Calgarians have watched numerous master-planned communities get built at the city’s edge. Only recently, have we begun seeing them pop up our inner-city neighbourhoods
First there was The Bridges on the old General Hospital site in Bridgeland/Riverside in 2005, followed by the development of East Village, where its first condo was completed in 2015. Both projects were City of Calgary-led initiatives and both are in the City Centre.
Today, there are three master-planned, urban villages (low, mid and high rise condos) reshaping Calgary’s older suburbs – Currie by Canada Lands Corporation (CLC) on the old Canadian Forces Base: University District by West Campus Development Trust on vacant University of Calgary lands; and West District by Truman Homes on the western edge of the city ,in the community of Wentworth.
What is a master-planned urban village?
It is a community with a comprehensive land use plan that focuses on predominately mixed-use, multi-family buildings with significant office, retail, restaurant, recreational and other uses where most of the residents’ everyday needs are within walking distance. They also offer accessibility to enhanced transit, bike lanes, multi-use pathways and a central park. Urban villages are often part of, or next to, a major employment centre allowing residents to walk, cycle or take transit to work.
Currie, a 400-acre mega infill project that includes Garrison Woods and Garrison Green, will transform the historic Canada Forces Base that straddled Crowchild Trail at Richard Road/Flanders Avenue into a city within a city.
Currie’s 15 mews (i.e. side yards between buildings won’t be dead space but activated with small cafes, shops and bistros) when added to the street retail, restaurants and urban grocery store, will make Currie’s town center a pedestrians’ paradise. Currie will also offer the most diverse housing types of any new Calgary urban village, from estate homes to high-rise residential towers, from townhomes to mid-rise condos, all within walking distance to 23 acres of parks and plazas
Currie is within walking distance to Mount Royal University and Lincoln Park Business campus. Ultimately, the SW BRT and several existing bus routes will provide residents with several transit options. Cyclists will enjoy the Quesnay Wood Drive dedicated cycle lanes.
A strategic partnership between CLC and Embassy Bosa will see the later build approximately 2,500 condo homes and the majority of Currie’s retail in 2019.
Currie received the Charter Award for Neighbourhood, District and Corridor by the Chicago-based Congress of New Urbanism for its application of new urbanism principles.
University District (UD) is a new inner-city community surrounding the Alberta Children’s Hospital. Unlike other master-planned communities where the land is sold to developers who then build the homes, UD land will be developed based on a 99-year prepaid land lease, based on the successful UBC Properties Trust model in Vancouver.
UD’s townhomes and mid-rise residential buildings, will be designed to appeal to families, seniors, young professionals and empty nesters. Already under construction are townhomes by Brookfield (Ivy) and Truman (Noble). Construction begins later this year on Truman’s Maple condo for independent seniors’ living and Brenda Strafford Foundation’s Cambridge Manor, an assisted living and long-term care facility. As well, Avi Urban launched its August condo project in March. Just over 1,000 residential units will be under construction by fall of 2018, with the first residents moving in beginning late 2018.
Also under construction is Gracorp’s Rhapsody, a six-storey mixed-use building with a Save-On-Foods grocery store on the main level and residential above. Rhapsody will anchor the nine-block main street designed to create a “Kensington-like” pedestrian experience.
University District will become the heart and soul of Calgary’s second largest employment hub that includes University of Calgary, Foothills Medical Centre, Alberta Children’s’ Hospital, Market Mall and University Research Park.
UD is a LEED ND Platinum certified community, the first in Alberta and the largest in Canada.
While Currie and University District have government affiliations, West District is a legacy project for Truman Homes a private Calgary developer. The inspiration for West District was the human-scale, walkable neighbourhoods of Portland’s Pearl District and Vancouver’s False Creek.
West District will be a mid-rise community with a diversity of mixed-use residential and commercial buildings from 6 to 9 storeys (aka human scale.) Led by Calgary’s CivicWorks Planning + Design, it will be a model for “smarter growth” showcasing how walkable, dense and diverse communities can be achieved without high rises.
The 7-block long main street, will not only integrate shops, bistros and cafes, with office, financial, recreation and medical hubs, but also enhanced sidewalks and a dedicated bike lane to maximize pedestrian and cycling accessibility.
Central Park, its 8-acre public space will include a 500-seat amphitheater, skate park, skating rink, spray park, basketball court, playground, dog park and a large amenity/event building will be a year-round, all ages urban playground.
West District won Calgary’s 2015 Mayor’s Urban Design Award for City Edge Development.
The biggest challenge facing North American cities today is how to reshape their older residential dominated, auto-centric suburbs into mixed-use, multi-modal (driving, transit, cycling and walking) 21st century communities.
In November 2017, I blogged about why I think Calgary is the infill capital of North America when it comes to inner-city single-family, duplex and row housing.
Currie, University District, West District and their two forerunners - East Village and The Bridges, as well as projects like Quarry Park, SETON, Medicine Hill and Greenwich - put Calgary at the forefront of North America’s current urban densification revolution.
My challenge for this blog was to capture the past week in seven photographs. It was pretty much a typical spring week for me in Calgary focused on golf, garden and the kids next door.
I have chosen photos that connect to previous blogs as a means of broadening the scope of the images as being indicative of the everyday tourist approach to urban living.
I hope you enjoy.
It is amazing how successful James Robertson, CEO and President West Campus Development Trust has been quarterbacking the development of University District (vacant land west of University of Calgary, next to Alberta Children’s Hospital) community in the midst of a major economic downturn.
It is impressive how he has developed a game plan totally different from East Village and Currie, Calgary’s other inner-city, master-planned urban villages.
He has completed “passes” to several condo developers for touchdowns, early in the game, just like East Village and Currie. But he has thrown touchdown passes much earlier in the game with the players like Save On Foods (grocery store), Brenda Strafford Foundation’s Cambridge Manor (seniors housing) and most recently, the ALT Hotel.
How he convinced Save On Foods to be part of the first quarter of the game is remarkable. Usually, a grocery store wants to see a critical mass of residents before they commit. Given University District is only minutes (by car) from three Safeway stores (Market Mall, Montgomery and Brentwood) and a Calgary Co-op (Brentwood), this was a long bomb completion.
Construction has begun of the 38,000 square foot Save On Foods as part of a mixed 288-unit residential development. The building - to include a coffee shop, restaurant, pet store and wine merchant - will be the anchor for University District’s main street.
It is scheduled to open in 2020 at approximately the same time as many of the University District’s first residents move into their homes. In comparison, residents in East Village had to wait several years before they got their grocery store and to get their own retail/restaurant, while Currie residents are still waiting.
All Ages Welcomed
While most master-planned urban villages start with mid to high-end condos as a means of creating a market for signing-up the retail, shopping and services players. University District committed to housing for seniors (not known to be big spenders) at the outset.
Construction of Cambridge Manor, a 240-unit assisted and long-term seniors’ care facility has begun. It is set to also open in 2020. Developed by the West Campus Development Trust in partnership with Brenda Strafford Foundation, the goal is to engage the entire University of Calgary campus in a multi-disciplinary approach to aging in place. How innovative and mindful is that?
By design, Noble (by Truman Homes) and Ivy (by Brookfield Residential), University District’s first two residential projects include larger townhomes as a means of attracting families to live and stay living in the district as their families “grow and shrink.” Robertson has heard and responded to the criticism that Calgary’s inner city condo development lacks larger units more suitable to the needs of families.
Work is also currently underway on University District’s three-acre Central Park led by Denver-based Civitas and Calgary’s Gibbs Gage Architects, with an anticipated opening in 2021. But beforehand, the two-acre North Pond and dog park will open this summer
Robertson believes the reason he has been successful in attracting developers in a recession is the “mindful integration of different lifestyles, combined with a remarkable location and community-based planning which has resulted in a complete community. The strong multi-generational community vision is what our development partners have been attracted to. Creating multi-generational homes offers major benefits for residents of all ages and might be the housing shift Calgary needs as a changing city.”
Robertson respects “the city we live in was built by seniors. It's important to us that there's a place for them in University District.”
While the game isn’t over yet, Robertson and his team are off to a fast start.
Note: An edited version of this blog appeared in the May edition of Condo Living Magazine.
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 vs Calgary’s Downtown
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)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
After spending 14 days living across the street from Atlanta’s mega 200-acre Piedmont Park, I have an even greater appreciation for the value of urban parks. Twitter is full of urbanists bantering about the value of parks and trees on the quality of the air we breathe, as well as on mental health and well. But seeing is believing.
For some, the urban concrete and asphalt jungle can be depressing, especially for those living in condos with no front or back yards – some don’t even have a balcony. The medical community has coined the term “nature deficit disorder” to describe people living in cities who suffer depression because of their lack of contact with nature.
Studies have shown that when humans are in large parks, their walking slows to a stroll and are more likely to take time to sit, relax, soak in the sun and watch the world go by. Personally, I find people are friendlier when they are in a park than on at street or plaza.
I experienced all of the above living next to Piedmont Park where literally thousands of people walked, biked and jogged along the tree-canopied pathways in my front yard from sunrise to sunset.
Link: Parks Improve Mental Health and Quality of Life
I thought Calgary was an active city but compared to Atlanta, we seem just average. I have never seen so many joggers and walkers – perhaps it was just Spring Fever. I was so impressed I almost went jogging myself.
Two Dog Parks!
And don’t get me started about the dog walking. I used to think River Park in Altadore was the best dog park in North America, until I saw Piedmont Park. It is just one huge dog park. Not only are there two off leash, fenced-in dog parks - one for larger dogs (with an agility course) and one for smaller dogs - but in reality, the entire park is an off-leash dog park (despite lots of signs saying otherwise) and nobody seems to mind.
Park / Art Park / Playground
Piedmont Park also offers huge playing fields, lots of funky art, historic monuments, meandering trails, a pub (which servers $1 beer if it is raining) and a quirky playground design by world-renowned artist Isamu Noguchi.
Who could ask for anything more?
It is no wonder there are several major condos going up in Atlanta’s Midtown district next to Piedmont Park as city dwellers clamour to try to be closer to nature.
Park-oriented development (POD) is also happening in Calgary. There is Qualex-Landmark’s Park Point next to Central Memorial Park (Beltline) and Birchwood Properties’ Ezra on Riley Park (Hillhurst), Anthem’s Water Front and Concord Pacific’s, Concord project next to Prince’s Island and all the East Village condo projects with their proximity to St. Patrick’s Island.
And in Calgary’s suburbs, Fish Creek Exchange by Graywood Developments and Sanderson Ridge near Fish Creek Park are two POD examples.
While the City of Calgary is focused on creating or enhancing 24 different “main streets” across Calgary, I couldn’t help but wonder if we shouldn’t be spending more time identifying how to capitalize on our 5,000+ parks and 850 km of pathways as catalysts for creating quality urban living opportunities across the city.
Hot Travel tip
If you are in Atlanta on a Saturday, don't miss the Saturday morning Piedmont Park free tours compliments of the Piedmont Park Conservatory. They are about 90 minutes long - very entertaining and very informative. Link: Piedmont Park Tours
Note: An edited version of this blog was published in the May 2018 issue of Condo Living Magazine.
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When it comes to cool communities in North America, Calgary’s Kensington Village has to be near the top. It truly is a village in the middle of the city with its two main streets 10th St NW and Kensington Road NW (most communities are lucky to have one) surrounded, until recently, by mostly single-family homes in the historic communities of Hillhurst and Sunnyside.
Today, Kensington’s mega-makeover means it is evolving from a quaint, early 20th century village to a bustling 21st century urban village with the addition of several low and mid-rise condos, as well as numerous infill houses.
Kensington is where professionals, empty nesters and students (ACAD, SAIT and University of Calgary) mingle. From coffee to curling, from cricket to cupcakes, from flea market to farmers’ market, Kensington is trés cool.
It is Calgary’s Left Bank!
(FYI: The term “left bank” references Paris’ bohemian district on the left side of the Seine River as it flows through that city).
Each year, volunteers transform an unused grassy knoll next to Memorial Drive just west of the Centre Street Bridge into a field of crosses to celebrate Remembrance Day. Even when driving by the Field of Crosses is truly a sobering and thought-provoking experience.
Hillhurst/Sunnyside Community Centre is home to numerous events year-round from rummage sales to a long-standing Sunday Flea Market.
Recently, it hosted Calgary’s Seedy Saturday event - a huge hit with gardeners across the city. It is also home to a weekly farmers’ market in the summer.
One of the most attractive things about Kensington is its abundance of independent boutique shops like Livingston Cavill Extraordinary Toys.
Owned and operated by two experienced museum professionals, it is part toy museum / part toy store. Definitely one-of-a-kind.
As is Hillhurst Hardware whose motto is “building Calgary since 1945.” This tiny hardware store at 134 - 10th St NW packs a lot of tools and hardware into a tiny space. Speaking of tiny spaces, Sunnyside Art Supplies next door stocks everything needed to become the next Picasso or Rembrandt. Kensington is also home to Pages Books on Kensington, Calgary’s best independent bookstore.
Kensington’s hippy past lives on at the corner of Kensington Road and 14th St SW where you will find Birkenstock Sandals and Futons for Less shops, located in two old houses.
Today, Kensington is home to two bike shops - Ridley’s Cycle and Lifesport (located in an old church) – keeping the bikesters happy.
Framed on Fifth is a hidden gem with exhibitions showcasing local artists, as well as a profession frame shop all packed into a tiny house. Yes, it is on 5th Ave NW (between 11A and 12th Streets NW). Next door is Pushing Petals, a funky neighbourhood florist. Sit on the bench outside these two shops and enjoy free Wi-Fi.
Kensington had a vibrant coffee culture long before the Starbucks invasion in the 90s. Higher Ground have been around forever as has The Roasterie (which, as you might imagine, still roasts its own beans on site.)
There are several new kids on the block with Vendome perhaps providing the coolest experience given its turn-of-the-century building in the middle of quaint Sunnyside and across the street from Container Park.
Kensington is blessed with a plethora of restaurants - from the iconic Chicken on the Way to the newcomers like Cotto Italian Comfort Food and Oxbow in the uber cool Kensington Riverside Inn. For Sunday brunch Vero Bistro Moderne is very popular and for Alberta beef, you can’t beat Modern Steak.
Kensington has one of Calgary’s signature pizza parlours too – Pulcinella’s. A member of the exclusive Associazione Pizzaioli Napolitani, it is almost like having the Pope bless your pizza!
Kensington is home to Calgary’s fledgling street art culture. Wander the alley behind the shops on the east side of 10th Avenue NW to find a street art gallery.
The Pixel condo with its funky bright yellow cube balconies and neon-coloured entrance has the village’s most contemporary architecture.
Kensington is also home to several historical buildings including the Hillhurst United Church (1907), St. Barnabas Anglican Church (1906) and the lovely St. John’s elementary school (1916) and the majestic sandstone Hillhurst School (1912).
Wander Kensington’s residential streets and you are sure to find some of the many “Free Little Libraries,” that are often fun folk art pieces.
In 1904, the Riley Family donated 8 hectares from their 146,000-hectare Cochrane Ranch to create Riley Park (north of 5th Avenue from 10th to 13th Streets NW). It boasts one of the oldest cricket grounds in North America, a lovely children’s wading pool and the Senator Patrick Burns Memorial Rock Garden. (FYI: The rock garden was created using 20,000 pieces of flagstone from Senator Patrick Burns’ mansion.)
Poppy Plaza, located at the corner of 10th St and Memorial Drive pays homage to Calgary and Canada’s war and peacekeeping efforts. It is a great place to enjoy the vista of the downtown skyline, the shimmering water of the Bow River and people walking, cycling, skateboarding and roller blading along the Bow River pathway. You may even spot a fisherman.
In addition to the Riley Park cricket matches, Kensington is also home to the historic Calgary Curling Club (established in 1888, it moved to its current location 1953) and Bow Valley Lawn Bowling Club (1932).
It is also home to several modern fitness clubs - Bodhi Tree Yoga Studio, 10th Street Boxing Gym, Orangetheory Fitness Studio, and Urban Fitness Studio to name a few.
The Plaza Theatre has been curating and showing indie films for over 40 years. No reclining cushy seats here, just thought-provoking movies and respectful audiences. There are lots of places to go before or after to eat, drink and debate current issues and the meaning of life.
Jubilee Theatre may not technically be within Kensington boundaries but it is on the border and offers Kensingtonians easy access to everything from Broadway shows to ballet performances.
During Calgary’s pre-World War 1 boom, Kensington developed as a working-class, largely Anglo-Saxon suburb - hence the British street names. It is home to one of Calgary’s best neighbourhood pub appropriately named “The Kensington Pub.” In 1983, the pub was created by combining the 1911 brick veneer residence of developer John Smith with the 62-year old duplex next door.
The Oak Tree Tavern, popular with the younger crowd, offers up “All You Can Eat Hot Dog Tuesdays,” as well as, comedy nights and live music.
For 26 years, Kensington Wine Market has offered a great selection of curated wines, beers and scotches. Their popular Saturday afternoon samplings make browsing the shelves too much fun. They also have one of the best seminar and tasting programs in the city.
Fun/Funky/Quirky (FFQ) Factor
It doesn’t get much quirkier than The Plaza Theatre, originally built in the 1920s as an automobile garage, then in 1935, converted into a neighbourhood theatre, before evolving in 1970s into Calgary’s first arthouse cinema.
Alpine Shoe Service is a walk back in time, when people fixed things rather than throwing out anything broken or worn out. It’s small, easy-to-miss display case next to the entrance has ever-changing, thought-provoking quotes.
While people in Hillhurst don’t think of themselves as living in a gated community, in fact there are several streets with decorative gates that not only keep cars from cutting through the residential streets, but also evoke a sense of being a private street. The gates serve as historical reference as they have the original names of the streets, before Calgary converted to numerical street names in 1904.
Jane loves Kensington
I can’t help but think the late great urban guru Jane Jacobs would approve of how Calgary’s Left Bank (aka Hillhurst/Sunnyside, aka Kensington) is evolving with its mixture of old, new and middle age; human-scale commercial buildings housing mostly independent enterprises.
She would also approve of the diversity of housing stock – everything from cottage homes to co-op housing, to low and mid-rise condo buildings.
NO high-rises along Calgary’s “Left Bank.”
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Downtown Calgary ‘flies under the radar” for most Calgarians when is comes to being a place to live. However, that is not true for the 9,000 people who live in what the City of Calgary calls the “Downtown Commercial Core” (i.e. from 3rd St SE to 9th St SW and from 9th Ave to 4th Ave SW.
Downtown vs Beltline
While the Beltline, Bridgeland, Inglewood and Kensington get all the attention as Calgary’s urban living hot spots, when you combine Downtown West End, Commercial Core, Downtown East Village (the City’s official names for these three communities), Eau Claire and Chinatown (together they are roughly the same geographical size as the Beltline) there are over 18,000 people living downtown vs. Beltline’s 21,357 and Hillhurst/Sunnyside’s 10,345).
While downtown's shiny office towers get all the attention – good and bad – downtown (using the broader boundaries) is definitely a cool place to live.
There is a festival or major event in downtown almost every weekend. Everything from the High Performance Rodeo to major international festivals (Children, Film, Folk and SLED) Downtown also hosts Calgary’s largest single day event - The Calgary Stampede Parade the first Friday every July.
Major outdoor concerts and music festivals also happen at Shaw Millennium Park and Fort Calgary Park every summer.
An amazing diversity of shopping opportunities exists in Downtown – department stores (Hudson’s Bay, Simons and Holt Renfrew) to the uber chic Core and grassroots Chinatown.
In addition there are shop at Bankers Hall, Scotia Centre and Bow Valley Square. Calgary’s downtown shopping not only surpasses anything Portland, Nashville or Austin have, but also rivals Calgary’s Chinook Centre (one of Canada’s top malls).
There are also off-the-beaten path shops like Map World with its incredible collection of wall maps, globes, travel and topographical maps. Or, if you are into fly-fishing, Hanson’s Fishing Outfitters in the Grain Exchange building has everything you might need. Bonus: you can walk from Hanson’s to fish in the Bow River in just a few minutes. How cool is that?
Downtown Calgary is blessed with an amazing array of coffeehouses. Alforno Café and Bakery is arguably Calgary’s coolest café. Phil & Sebastian Coffee Roasters has two locations Simmons Building and on Stephen Avenue. Calgary based, Good Earth Café also has two locations Eau Claire Market and 7th Avenue at 5th Street. Caffe Artigiano has two locations along Barclay Mall. Calgary’s Monogram Coffee can be found in Fifth Avenue Place.
Downtown also has a very unique Starbucks in Eighth Avenue Place with its minimalist open design with long communal tables rather than individual small tables for two and four.
Downtown Calgary offers both high and lowbrow dining. It includes four signature Calgary restaurants, the rustic River Café, classic Teatros, Murietta’s West Coast Bar & Grill, and Sky 360, the revolving restaurant at the top of the Calgary Tower. The new kid on the block is Charbar in the Simmons Building, its roof-top patio offers spectacular views of the Bow River and RiverWalk.
There is a kaleidoscope of ethnic restaurants downtown, Anatolia (Turkish), Atlas (Persian), Jonas (Hungarian), Pure Contemporary Vietnamese Kitchen + Bar to name just four. And of course, there is no shortage of Asian restaurants in Chinatown.
If you love Alberta beef, downtown offers five signature steakhouses – Buchanan’s, Caesar’s, Hy’s, The Keg and Saltlik. Buchanan’s Chop House is known not only for food, but for its its selection of more than 300 malt whiskeys from around the world.
The Fairmont Palliser offers a themed afternoon tea by reservation. The theme at the time of this blog posting was a Mad Hatter Tea Party that included Tweeledum Tweedeldee Yuzu tarts and Queen of Hearts red velvet cupcakes – very cool.
John Gilchrist, Calgary’s renowned food and restaurant critic has called downtown’s Stephen Avenue Walk one of the best restaurant rows in Canada.
There area few places in Canada let alone Calgary that can match downtown for its combination of architecture and public art all within a few blocks of each other. From the historic sandstone buildings (old City Hall and McDougall Centre) to the glittering glass office towers (Bow Tower, Eighth Avenue Place, Nexen Tower and 505 7th Avenue) to the three iconic bridges (Peace, King and Centre Street) and the National Music Centre.
Coming soon are two new architectural gems – the new Calgary Public Library and Telus Sky office/residential tower. The Library was designed by internationally renowned architectural firm, Snohetta from Oslo while Telus Sky’s was designed by the esteemed Bjarke Ingels Group from Copenhagen.
Downtown has literally hundreds of artworks along its streets, in its parks and plazas and along its pathways. You could easily stroll around downtown all say enjoying the art - from the Famous Five tea party at Olympic Plaza to the Wonderland on the Bow Tower plaza to the Conversation on Stephen Avenue Walk.
Did you know that there are artworks in almost every downtown office lobby? The Eighth Avenue Place lobby includes works of renowned Canadian painters Jean Paul Riopelle and Jack Shadbolt. There are also some fun contemporary paintings in relatively new Calgary Centre office tower.
Downtown Calgary is one huge public art gallery waiting to be discovered.
Calgary’s downtown is also blessed with some of the best public spaces of any city its size and age in North America. Any city would be hard pressed to match Prince’s Island (one of the best festival sites in Canada) and St. Patrick’s Island parks.
Add Shaw Millennium Park and Fort Calgary Park to the mix and you have four major downtown urban parks. Let’s not forget about Century (soon to get a mega makeover), Devonian and Hotchkiss Gardens, as well as James Short, McDougall and Sein Lok Parks. Impressive!
Downtown also boasts Eau Claire and Olympic Plaza, both with wadding pools in the summer, with the latter becoming a skating rink in the winter.
As for pathways, downtown offers easy access to people of all ages wanting to walk, run, board, blade or bike along the Bow River pathways. In addition, there is the a-mazing 20 km +15 elevated walkway.
The Eau Claire Y has been a very popular family fitness center for decades. Its proximity to the Eau Claire Promenade and Bow River pathway system has resulted in creating a busy year-round outdoor running track.
There is also Shaw Millennium Park's mega skateboard park and river surfing on the Bow River under the Louise Bridge.
Downtown also has several private fitness centres – Bankers Hall, Bow Valley Club and two Good Life Fitness Centres (including one in the historic 1931 Bank of Montreal building with its gold leaf ceiling on Stephen Avenue).
Downtown Calgary is home to Arts Commons with its 3,200 seats in five performing art spaces, as well as the Theatre Junction Grand, Palace Theatre, Lunchbox Theatre, Vertigo Theatre (two spaces). If you stretch the boundaries a bit, there is also the Pumphouse Theatre way on the west side. It is also home to the Globe Theatre and Cineplex Odeon Eau Claire for movie buffs.
Live music venues include The Palomino Smokehouse and Dickens Pub, as well as three churches – Knox United, Anglican Church of the Redeemer and Central United Church.
Downtown also is home to The Glenbow Museum, National Music Centre, Fort Calgary and Contemporary Calgary, as well as several private art galleries.
Culture vultures love living downtown as theatre, concerts and exhibitions are all within easy walking distance.
The James Joyce pub on Stephen Avenue is downtown’s quintessential pub, followed closely by Dickens, Fionn MacCool’s, Garage Sports Bar and Unicorn. In the summer the patios along Stephen Avenue Walk create one long beer garden.
Downtown is home to Calgary Co-op’s World of Whiskey Store with its 850 different varieties of whiskey. It is located on the +15 level at 333-5th Avenue SW. In East Village’s N3 condo, the Brewer’s Apprentice offers up 48 craft brews. Not only can you sample a few, but you can take home a freshly poured growler or crowler of your favourites.
I recently heard Caesar’s Lounge described as nearest thing to time travel in Calgary – think Mad Men. This family-owned Calgary institution hasn’t changed since it opened in 1972. It is known for its “Emperor” size cocktails, i.e. 3oz of your favourite spirits.
Fun/Funky/Quirky (FFQ) Factor
For some, POW (Parade of Wonders) is the best FFQ event in Calgary. Every spring as part of Calgary Expo, hundreds of Calgarians of all ages get dressed up in their favourite fantasy character and parade from Eau Claire to Olympic Plaza. It is literally a sea of vibrant colours and characters.
For others, Calgary’s Gay Pride Parade each August ranks as the best FFQ event in the City. It attracts thousands of colourful participants and tens of thousands of spectators.
Downtown Calgary’s “Power Hour” (term coined by a former downtown Hudson’s Bay department store manager in the mid ‘90s for the thousands of downtown workers who power shop at noon hour) is like a parade as tens of thousands downtown workers parade up and down Stephen Avenue.
It doesn’t get much quirkier than having an authentic bush plane hanging from the ceiling in the lobby of the Suncor Centre. Or does it? The Udderly Art Pasture on the +15 level of the Centennial Parkade is definitely FFQ. Here you will find a herd (10) of life-size cows with names like Chew-Choo or Moony Trader who have been put out to pasture.
Downtown Calgary is a hidden gem when it comes to urban living and it is only going to get better with several new residential developments in East Village, Telus Sky and the new West Village towers under construction.
I can’t wait to see the “Northern Lights” light show on the façade of Telus Sky developed by Canadian artist, Douglas Coupland. I have been advocating a Northern Lights inspired light show for a downtown office building for over 20 years.
I must confess Atlanta wasn't on my bucket list of cities to visit. But when I got an opportunity to go to Augusta, GA for a practice round of The Masters golf tournament via Atlanta, I thought why not.
I have often said, "I can find interesting things to see and do in any city!"
18,000 Step Program
Everyone I asked about what to see and do in Atlanta said, "You will need a car." As everyday tourist, we loved a challenge.
Brenda and I spent 14 days in Atlanta's City Centre and found lots to see and do either on foot (averaging 18,000 steps a day, highest was 27,000+) or using the MARTA train (Metro Atlanta Rapid Transit Association).
We found great vintage, antique and thriftshops along Chamblee's Antique Row and a great craft brewery HopStix. Living across the street from Piedmont Park (Atlanta's equivalent to NYC's Central Park) was a delight. While Atlanta's City Centre doesn't have any streets with contiguous retail and restaurants we did find some hidden gems.
We loved the buzz at Ponce City Market a repurposed Sears Roebuck Co. store and distribution centre. It made me rethink, "Why Calgary's Eau Claire Market didn't work? Would it work today?
Atlantic Station a reclaimed steel factory on the other side of the interstate highway from Midtown was also enlightening. Its grid of mid-rise brick condos with street retail and restaurants mimicking an early 20th century warehouse district was a very pedestrian friendly. It has many of the elements of Calgary's University District and West District. It made me wonder, "if East Village shouldn't of had more midrise buildings with street retail to create a more human scale?"
Beltline was bustling
I was gobsmacked by the number of people strolling Atlanta's Beltline a reclaimed railway line that has become a multi-use trail modelled after NYC's High Line without all the fancy furnishing and finishings. I bet there were 50,000+ people of all ages strolling the promenade on the 10km stretch that I experienced on a warm Saturday afternoon.
I was surprised they allowed cyclists (probably about 5% of the users) to use the concrete pathway when it was so busy. I can't believe how aggressive and inconsiderate many of the cyclists were. Brenda headed home early as it was too unpleasant for her liking.
After spending 14 days in Atlanta's City Centre, I am pleased to say the city was more fun, funky and quirky (FFQ) than I could have hoped for.
Check out this FFQing photo essay and let me know what you think. FYI. I have saved the best for last....