Beltline Embraces Density 

Calgary’s Beltline has been growing in leaps and bounds since the community took the rather unusual step to develop its own vision document, “Blueprint for the Beltline” in 2003.

The vision - to create a vibrant community of 40,000 people by 2035. 

Qualex-Landmark have completed six condo towers in the Beltline since 2006, with a total of 1,300 new homes.

Qualex-Landmark have completed six condo towers in the Beltline since 2006, with a total of 1,300 new homes.

Cove Properties built these four condo towers near the Stampede LRT Station in the early ‘00s in the east end of the Beltline aka Victoria Park.

Cove Properties built these four condo towers near the Stampede LRT Station in the early ‘00s in the east end of the Beltline aka Victoria Park.

Blueprint for success

Yes, the community produced its own vision, at its own cost and then presented it to the City.  And, while the “Blueprint for the Beltline” had no official status with the City, it served as the catalyst to get the City to approve a new Beltline Area Redevelopment Plan in 2006. Ultimately, it resulted in the amalgamation of Connaught and Victoria Park, two of Calgary’s oldest communities with a population base of 17,500.  

While the Blueprint identified the need for more amenities like green spaces, public realm improvements and character districts, it also embraced the idea that the community needed more density.  

Yes, you read right. They wanted more high-rises and mid-rises as a means of creating a vibrant community with lots of urban amenities - grocery stores, shops, pubs, clubs, lounges, galleries, festivals, bike lanes and great streets. 

So, while other communities protest new residential towers in their community, Beltliners have been embracing them for over a decade.  

The new Canadian Tire and Urban Fare stores on the Beltline’s 8th St promenade adds to the many new urban living amenities added to the community over the past 10+ years.

The new Canadian Tire and Urban Fare stores on the Beltline’s 8th St promenade adds to the many new urban living amenities added to the community over the past 10+ years.

17th Avenue is the Beltline’s Main Street.

17th Avenue is the Beltline’s Main Street.

Beltline is a walkable community….

Beltline is a walkable community….

Blueprint for success

Indeed, the Beltline’s evolution as Calgary’s premier urban neighbourhood has been outstanding.  It was Avenue Magazine’s Best Neighbourhood in 2015, 2016 and 2018 (slipping into second place in 2017). Last year, it was also Calgary’s fastest growing community with a population increase of 1,668, just edging out Saddleridge’s 1,656 newcomers.

This is definitely not a one year blip given the Beltline’s population has steadily increased by a healthy 3,530 since 2014 to 24,887.

Community events and festivals like the annual curling bonspiel make the Beltline a fun place to live.

Community events and festivals like the annual curling bonspiel make the Beltline a fun place to live.

Decorating party for Pride Parade float at the Beltline’s Aquatic & Fitness Centre

Decorating party for Pride Parade float at the Beltline’s Aquatic & Fitness Centre

Beltline Urban Mural Program party celebrated the addition of several new murals last summer.

Beltline Urban Mural Program party celebrated the addition of several new murals last summer.

Beautifying the Beltline

And yes, with the increased density has come a variety of improvements – including the new Barb Scott Park and Thomson Family, a lovely renovation to Memorial Park, a dedicated bike lane along 12thAve SW, infrastructure and sidewalk improvements to 17thAvenue SW and the 13thAvenue Greenway. As well, over the past two summers, the Beltline has been transformed into an intriguing outdoor art gallery with 11 major murals.  

Link: Beltline Urban Mural Project

In addition, all of the underpasses linking the Beltline with downtown are getting mega makeovers to make them more pedestrian-friendly, benefitting the many Beltliners who work downtown.  To date, the 8th and 2nd St SW and 4th St SE underpasses have been completed. 

8th Street SW underpass today

8th Street SW underpass today

8th Street Underpass before

8th Street Underpass before


Condo vs Rental 

In the early years of the Beltline renaissance, almost all of the new residential development were condominiums, of which some units were rentals.  However, over the past few years, most of the residential development has been purpose-built rental towers.  

And there are good reasons for the rise in rentals. 

Probably the major reason is that 74% of Calgary’s rental properties are pre 1979, meaning they lack the amenities today’s urban dwellers, be that an empty nester or young professional, are looking for. Things like an ensuite bathroom, larger closets, washer and dryer in the unit, high ceilings and an open concept layout.   Also, the new rental towers offer other desirable amenities like rooftop patios, BBQs and fire pits, games rooms, demonstration kitchens and even dog runs.

There are currently seven new purpose-built Beltline residential towers at various stages of development, representing about 1,500 new homes coming on stream over the next few years.

I toured the recently completed SODO tower (10thAve just west of 5th Street SW) and it is more like a hotel than an apartment.  Next up is One, Strategic Group’s 37-storey One tower with 379 new homes (201 - 10th Ave SE) including two luxury penthouse suites.  Also, under construction is phase one of Hines’ 500 Block two tower project (461 homes) at the corner of 4th St and 12th Ave SW and The Underwood, 192 homes at 202 - 14th Ave SW. 

Strategic Group is also finishing up the conversion of an older 7-storey office building across from the Midtown Co-op into a 65 funky residences, with rooftop amenities.  

All of these new purpose-built rental buildings are designed to meet the growing demand for urban rentals in Calgary’s fastest growing community.  

In addition, there are seven new condo towers, representing about 1,000 new homes, at various stages of development. This includes the recently completed Park Point, by Qualex Landmark (which has a second tower in the works) and the soon-to-be-occupied The Royal by Bosa Developments which includes a Canadian Tire urban format store and Urban Fare (opening soon).  The “new kid” under construction is Intergulf’s 11th+ 11thproject which, at 44-storeys will be the tallest building in the Beltline. 

Hine’s 500 Block residential development (the white ghost building is a second tower) in the middle of the Beltline is under construction.

Hine’s 500 Block residential development (the white ghost building is a second tower) in the middle of the Beltline is under construction.

InterGulf’s 11th and 11th residential tower on the west side of the Beltline is also under construction.

InterGulf’s 11th and 11th residential tower on the west side of the Beltline is also under construction.

Strategic Group’s One residential tower on the east side of the Beltline is under construction.

Strategic Group’s One residential tower on the east side of the Beltline is under construction.

Last Word 

The addition of purpose-built rental towers in the Beltline should be good news for condo developers and owners, as today’s renter is probably tomorrow’s buyer.  In fact, the Canadian Home Builder’s Association’s Earncliffe National Poll documented that 79% of Canadian renters would like to own their own home (April 2018).  And, BILD Calgary Region’s survey (June 2018) found 75% of Calgarians think owning a home provides greater financial security.  

Great communities provide a diversity of housing options (rental and ownership) for people of all ages and backgrounds. It would remiss not to acknowledge the Beltline’s vision as Calgary’s premier urban community includes its fair share of social housing and services including the expansion of the Mustard Seed, the Sheldon Chumir Health Centre and the relocation of CUPS to the Beltline. 

The addition of 2,500 new homes (for about 4,000 new residents) over the next few years will keep the Beltline on track to achieving its path to a population of 40,000 by 2035.

Note: This blog was published in the Calgary Herald’s New Condos feature on March 9th, 2019.

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

Beltline: Calgary’s Hipster/Nester Community

BUMP: Beltline Urban Murals Project

Beautifying the Beltline




Condo Living: The Missing Middle

Being a sucker for a good alliteration I love the new urban planning term the “missing middle.” What is “missing middle” you ask?  

The term coined by Dan Parolek (President, Opticos Design, in San Francisco) includes duplexes, triplexes, fourplexes, backyard suites, courtyard apartments, town/row houses, small multiplexes with five to ten homes and work live spaces. In Calgary’s established communities duplexes, triplexes etc have been common place for years. Backyard suites and small town/row and multiplexes are beginning to be seen more and more often these days.

photo credit Optics Design

photo credit Optics Design

What is missing in Calgary are mid-rise residential buildings, those between 6 storeys (low-rise) and 12+ storeys.  There are lots of wood-frame four storey condos (mostly in the suburbs) and lots of concrete high-rises in the City Centre, but not a lot of mid-rises which offer benefits both aesthetically and financially. One of the reasons they don’t get built is that those living in the single family houses nearby don’t want the extra height and traffic.

Let’s have a look at some the benefits….

The six storey recently approved Courtyard 33 in Marda Loop is a good example of how Calgary has evolved from cookie cutter 4 storey infill condos, to innovative mid-rise developments that offer a unique urban living experience with its interior courtyard where residence and neighbours will mix and mingle. Link:  Courtyard 33

The six storey recently approved Courtyard 33 in Marda Loop is a good example of how Calgary has evolved from cookie cutter 4 storey infill condos, to innovative mid-rise developments that offer a unique urban living experience with its interior courtyard where residence and neighbours will mix and mingle. Link: Courtyard 33

Affordability

Why is the “missing middle” important? Because these buildings provide inner city housing at a more affordable prices than row housing or low-rise buildings. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out, that if you add two or three more floors to a 4-storey building to allow for say 25 more homes you can spread the land and development cost to more buyers and thereby charge less per home.  

Mid-rise buildings also don’t create the same problems high-rise buildings. For example, they don’t stick out like a sore thumb in a sea of single family homes.  They are what urbanists like to call “human scale” buildings as they also don’t over-power the pedestrians walking by.  

As well, they are large enough to allow for retail at the street level which in turn enhances the pedestrian experience.  

European City Centers are full of them. It is what makes those cities so pleasant to explore on foot. 

Berlin mid-rise residential street.

Berlin mid-rise residential street.

In Berlin the river is lined with mid-rise residential development and the river becomes their front yard.

In Berlin the river is lined with mid-rise residential development and the river becomes their front yard.

Calgary Examples

In Calgary, we are beginning to see more “missing middle” projects like the AVLI condos in Inglewood and Pixel, LIDO and Ezra on Riley Park in Kensington. 

Perhaps one of the best and first examples of a new “missing middle” project on a high profile inner city site was St. John’s Tenth St. completed in 2014.  The 9-story Annex will be the next mid-rise in Kensington, with other mid-rise projects in the works for Bridgeland/Riverside, Winston Heights and West Hillhurst. 

Outside the inner city, Truman’s West District is almost entirely a “missing middle” community. While there will be a few townhouses on the edge of the community, the rest will be mid-rise residential, office and institutional buildings.  Truman is currently completing construction of Gateway the first two buildings of their ambitious project in the community of Wellington, on Calgary’s west side. Their Kensington Legion site condo is good example of a “missing middle” development in the inner city.

Bottom line - the “missing middle” is all about trying to create more diverse housing options in our inner city communities, at a lower price point.

The eight storey Gateway condo currently under construction in the new community of West District include one, two and three bedroom homes starting at $299,000.

The eight storey Gateway condo currently under construction in the new community of West District include one, two and three bedroom homes starting at $299,000.

Pixel in Kensington is a good examples of mid-rise residential development next to lots of urban amenities including an LRT station.

Pixel in Kensington is a good examples of mid-rise residential development next to lots of urban amenities including an LRT station.

Good News / Bad News

The good news is there are currently about 25 construction cranes scattered throughout the city building new multi-family residential buildings, ranging from 4 to 40 storeys.  This is a healthy sign.

The bad news is that BOSA Development has taken down the cranes that were supposed to build the two-tower ARRIS project above the retail podium that will include the long awaited City Market by Loblaws.  

The good news is the retail is still going ahead and is scheduled to open in early 2020.  The fact Truman hasn’t moved forward with the development of the Kensington Legion site is also bad news.  Is this a sign Calgary’s City Centre condo market is saturated at the moment? 

The good news is four new condo projects are being marketed south of the tracks. In the Beltline, Battistella Developments is marketing Nude and TAK Developments is selling Fifth. In Mission, Matrix is being actively marketed by Mission 19 Ltd. and a new developer Bowman Development needs to sell a few more condos and he will be able to proceed with The Nest on the Elbow River.

University District continues to share good news as they have signed up new tenants like Analog Café, J. Webb Market Wines, Cineplex VIP Cinemas, OEB Breakfast, Orangetheory and YYC Cycle for their main street.

Editor’s Note: An edited version of this blog was published in the March 2019 issue of Condo Living Magazine.

The Nest in Mission is offering new homes on the Elbow river starting in the low $200,000.

The Nest in Mission is offering new homes on the Elbow river starting in the low $200,000.

The Hat on 7th is mid-rise rental development in downtown’s West End is currently under construction right on the LRT.

The Hat on 7th is mid-rise rental development in downtown’s West End is currently under construction right on the LRT.

Calgary City Centre: Residential Development is blooming!

If you are like me, you may well have been asking yourself, “Why are developers still building more City Center residential towers when downtown employment is in decline. Doesn’t that mean the demand for living near downtown is also in decline?” 

Cidex’s West Village Towers project will set a new benchmark for urban living in Calgary’s Downtown West community.

Cidex’s West Village Towers project will set a new benchmark for urban living in Calgary’s Downtown West community.

Currently the first tower is under construction.

Currently the first tower is under construction.

The project will include space for commercial developments like an urban grocery store.

The project will include space for commercial developments like an urban grocery store.

Also next to the railway tracks is One by Strategic Group at the corner of 10th Ave and 1st St SE. It too will provide hotel-like accommodation for renters.

Also next to the railway tracks is One by Strategic Group at the corner of 10th Ave and 1st St SE. It too will provide hotel-like accommodation for renters.

Expert Advice

I thought it best to consult with someone who understands the dynamics of residential development in Calgary better than I. This led me to Urban Analytics (UA), a company specializing in maintaining data on current multi-family development projects in Calgary, Edmonton and Vancouver (available to industry stakeholders on a subscription basis).

Kimberly Poffenroth, VP Business Development and Andie Daggett, Market & Rental Data Analyst (Alberta) both shared some of their data on the 186 actively selling multi-family projects they track across the city. 

I was surprised to learn, “Calgary’s rental market has remained strong throughout 2018 with 95% occupancy in the third quarter of the year.”  Poffenroth added, “the new mortgage rules that came into play at the beginning of 2018 helped drive some success in the rental market, as many potential purchasers failed to qualify for a mortgage. This, in combination with the increasing number of amenities offered at new rental products, plus rental incentives offered at a majority of rental projects, helped maintain a strong new rental market across the city throughout 2018.” 

Daggett add, “as a result, new rental product in Calgary has been able to increase the average net rent per square foot while maintaining low vacancy rates.”  

Poffenroth, chimed in with “I don’t believe the end goal for most Calgarians is to rent forever. They want to buy a condo or a home. However, the new mortgage rules may push potential purchasers to rent for longer than they originally anticipated. Condo developers have responded appropriately to the changes in the current market conditions through launching price-sensitive product that allows purchasers to obtain home ownership at a more affordable price. There have also been a number of successful higher-end projects, appealing largely to a downsizer crowd, which have continued to show signs of success.” 

Indeed, the 2018 Calgary survey “Calgary Growth Perspectives Tracking Study” by ThinkHQ Public Affairs found 79% of Calgary renters say that if it were feasible, they would like to own their own home.  

Screen Shot 2019-01-15 at 1.50.02 PM.png

Rental vs Condo

It is important understand the condo and rental markets are closely linked when it comes to multi-family residential development.  The “waters are muddied” when you add in the fact that over the past few years, some condo developers have converted their unsold units into rental units for the time being.  

In addition, many condo buyers are investors who rent their units. It is not uncommon for a new condo building to have as many as 25% of their units for rent. 

Another factor linking rental and condo developments is that today’s renter could well become tomorrow’s buyer.  I often say “empty nesters and young professionals should rent before they buy to determine how much space they really need and if they like the urban lifestyle.” 

Renting also allows you to test drive the community to determine if it has what you want i.e. Inglewood is not the Beltline; Bridgeland is not Kensington.  

The first of two rental residential towers by Hines at 12th Ave near Memorial Park is currently under construction.

The first of two rental residential towers by Hines at 12th Ave near Memorial Park is currently under construction.

Hat on 7th is Cidex’s other project in Downtown West. It will be Calgary’s second residential development without any resident parking.

Hat on 7th is Cidex’s other project in Downtown West. It will be Calgary’s second residential development without any resident parking.

New Condos, Good News

For the first time in three years, new condo projects have been announced in the City Centre. 

Nude by Battisella is a 177-unit development in the end of the Beltline. They began selling units in September and have sold 35 units in the first three months.  Their funky condo INK in East Village is now complete and purchasers have moved in.  It has only 10 units left to sell.  

TAK Developments started to market “The Fifth,” their 48-unit boutique condo at the corner of 17th Ave and 5th St. SW in the Fall of 2018. This is the beginning of CEO Frank Lonardelli’s vision of converting 17th Avenue into a vibrant high street with a mix of new retail, restaurant and residential developments.  And just a few blocks away in Mission, Mission 19 Ltd. has launched sales of their 67-unit Matrix condo. Also, in Mission, Bowman Developments has sold 20% of the units in their recently announced 82-unit condo, The Nest.

Intergulf’s 45-story 11th & 11th project is under construction and will add a new dimension to urban living in the west end of the Beltline.

Intergulf’s 45-story 11th & 11th project is under construction and will add a new dimension to urban living in the west end of the Beltline.

Nude by Batisella is the first new condo start in Calgary’s City Centre in a few years.

Nude by Batisella is the first new condo start in Calgary’s City Centre in a few years.

The Nest in Mission will offer waterfront living (Elbow River) at very attractive prices, partly because there are no parking stalls for tenants. This is truly urban living.

The Nest in Mission will offer waterfront living (Elbow River) at very attractive prices, partly because there are no parking stalls for tenants. This is truly urban living.

The first of the three tower Curtis Block project is under construction on the east side of the Beltline.

The first of the three tower Curtis Block project is under construction on the east side of the Beltline.

Curtis Block rendering

Curtis Block rendering

Other City-wide hot spots

The new northwest inner city community, University District (by The University of Calgary’s West Campus Development Trust) has been a huge success to date. As of the end of November 2018, 128 residents have moved into Brookfield Residential’s Ivy and Truman’s Noble projects.  It was also a busy year for new starts – Maple by Truman (independent living for seniors), Rhapsody by Gracorp (rentals with Sav-On Foods + 10 retail units), August by Avi Urban (just broke ground) and The Brenda Strafford Foundation’s assisted and long-term care building.  As well, University District has a call for proposals for two mixed-use blocks across from the Cineplex complex.   

In all, a whopping 800 multi-family homes are currently at various stages of construction in University District.

Westman Village in Mahogany has also been very well received. This unique, resort-style community that opened its first phase this year already has 230+ residents. This number will grow to 1,200+ people when all 860+ residences are completed.  

Construction at University District is going like gang busters. (photo University District).

Construction at University District is going like gang busters. (photo University District).

Construction view of Westman Village. (photo Jayman website)

Construction view of Westman Village. (photo Jayman website)

Last Word

It would appear there is a lot to be optimistic about when it comes to living near downtown.  The 2018 census showed the Beltline was Calgary’s fastest growing community with 1,668 new residents over the past year.  Downtown West and Eau Claire also showed healthy growth, with all communities surrounding downtown experiencing some growth.  

So, while downtown is struggling as a place to work, its surrounding communities are continuing to bloom (not boom) as places to live!  

Many of the communities surrounding the downtown core are experiencing population growth.

Many of the communities surrounding the downtown core are experiencing population growth.

Edmonton is NOT kicking Calgary’s butt when it comes to urban revival? 

“It’s hard to say how Calgary fell so far behind Edmonton in downtown revival and major amenities. The trend just sort of crept up on us over the past half-dozen years, as Edmonton got a provincial art gallery, the Royal Alberta Museum, Rogers Place, massive additions to downtown MacEwan University, and much else. Not nearly as much was happening here,” wrote Don Braid in his December 19, 2018, Calgary Herald column.

Link: Braid: Calgary’s downtown is set to relaunch and maybe catch Edmonton

The concourse aka winter garden of Edmonton’s new Rogers Place arena is simply stunning.

The concourse aka winter garden of Edmonton’s new Rogers Place arena is simply stunning.

Calgary’s new Central Library is just as stunning and is busy seven days a week from opening to closing, not just during events.

Calgary’s new Central Library is just as stunning and is busy seven days a week from opening to closing, not just during events.

Bigger Picture

I was surprised by Braid’s observation. Where is this negativity coming from? Was I that out of touch with what is happening in Edmonton? I recently spent four days exploring downtown Edmonton to see for myself.

A new arena and a few other developments should not be the measure downtown renewal.   If we look at the bigger picture when it comes to urban living amenities, Calgary has projects that match or exceed those of Edmonton’s.

Let’s have a look at Edmonton and Calgary’s urban revival projects since 2010, when Edmonton adopted a new Downtown Plan – the catalyst for its revival. 

Link: Capital City Downtown Plan 

Summary of developments in Edmonton’s City Centre. orange is proposed surface lot, yellow is upcoming, blue is under construction and green is park & public spaces, red is proposed building demolished.

Summary of developments in Edmonton’s City Centre. orange is proposed surface lot, yellow is upcoming, blue is under construction and green is park & public spaces, red is proposed building demolished.

Buss Marketing’s map of Calgary’s current residential developments

Buss Marketing’s map of Calgary’s current residential developments

There are 50+ City led initiatives recently completed, under construction or in the works to make our City Centre a better place to “live work and play.” This does not include new residential, office or other private developments. Green = parks & public spaces Blue = streetscape projects Red = City Partners Light blue = underpass enhancements Yellow = other projects

There are 50+ City led initiatives recently completed, under construction or in the works to make our City Centre a better place to “live work and play.” This does not include new residential, office or other private developments. Green = parks & public spaces Blue = streetscape projects Red = City Partners Light blue = underpass enhancements Yellow = other projects

Stantec Tower vs Telus Sky 

 Edmonton’s Stantec Tower and Calgary’s Telus Sky are both mixed-use buildings. Stantec’s first 29 floors are office space with its 30th to 66th floors being residential (454 homes) giving it a height of 251 meters. Coincidentally, Telus Sky also has 29 floors of offices, but only 29 floors of residential (326 homes) for a height of 221 meters.  Architecturally, they are polar opposites.  And while the rectangular, translucent glass Stantec Tower may be taller, Telus Sky, with its bold cubist twisting shape that narrows as it reaches skyward will be an architectural gem.  But wait, Calgary’s new sleek modernist Brookfield Place glass tower, is perhaps a better match for Stantec Tower both architecturally and is just 4 meters shorter.  

Bigger is not always better!

The Stantec Tower with Roger Arena in the fore ground is an impressive addition to both Edmonton’s skyline and streetscape.

The Stantec Tower with Roger Arena in the fore ground is an impressive addition to both Edmonton’s skyline and streetscape.

Calgary’s new Marriott Residence Inn and SODO residential towers on 10th Ave at 5th Street SW.

Calgary’s new Marriott Residence Inn and SODO residential towers on 10th Ave at 5th Street SW.

Calgary has two new signature towers over 50 storeys, Brookfield Place and Telus Sky on the left with Suncor Centre and The Bow on the right.

Calgary has two new signature towers over 50 storeys, Brookfield Place and Telus Sky on the left with Suncor Centre and The Bow on the right.

ICE District vs East Village

Edmonton’s ICE District, with its glittery new arena, two office towers, hotel/condo and public plaza (under construction), along with a new LRT station hopes to have 1,300 new homes completed by 2021.  

East Village’s The Bow, (twice the size of the Stantec Tower in square footage), two hotels, award-winning Riverwalk, St. Patrick’s Island Park, a beautiful community garden and playground, six new condo buildings (1,264 new homes and more to come) blows away the ICE district.  And that doesn’t even include the stunning Calgary’s stunning new central library and music museum! 

Edmonton’s Ice District skyline January 2019.

Edmonton’s Ice District skyline January 2019.

Ice District is actually just a few blocks, but it has been a huge catalyst not only for new development, but also in enhancing civic pride.

Ice District is actually just a few blocks, but it has been a huge catalyst not only for new development, but also in enhancing civic pride.

This is an image of just four blocks of Calgary’s East Village with numerous new condo towers already completed and more under construction.

This is an image of just four blocks of Calgary’s East Village with numerous new condo towers already completed and more under construction.

Construction cranes in Calgary’s East Village, September 2017. Does this look like a downtown in decline?

Construction cranes in Calgary’s East Village, September 2017. Does this look like a downtown in decline?

Calgary’s East Village Riverwalk is outstanding.

Calgary’s East Village Riverwalk is outstanding.

Edmonton Centre vs The Core

There is simply no comparison between Edmonton’s tired indoor shopping centre and Calgary’s sunny, four-storey, The Core (redeveloped in 2011) which boast a dazzling, two-block long skylight and renovated Devonian Gardens.  The Core is home to a new Simons department store, while Edmonton’s two Simons stores are in the burbs. 

Edmonton’s City Centre is a multi-storey indoor shopping centre with a huge skylight.

Edmonton’s City Centre is a multi-storey indoor shopping centre with a huge skylight.

The Core in Calgary has a huge two and half block long skylight that links The Bay to Holt Renfrew with four levels of shopping, a mega food court and Devonian Gardens.

The Core in Calgary has a huge two and half block long skylight that links The Bay to Holt Renfrew with four levels of shopping, a mega food court and Devonian Gardens.

Quarters vs Bridgeland/Riverside 

Edmonton’s plans for the revival of The Quarters was more or less “put on ice” while the City focused on the ICE District.  One project was abandoned for 4 years, before Calgary-based Cidex Group recently came to the rescue and will build a 24-storey residential tower.

Calgary’s equivalent might be the master-planned redevelopment of Bridgeland, the result of the closing of the Calgary General Hospital.  Twelve new condos buildings will have been complete for a total of about 1,500 new homes that will accommodate 2,500 new residents, by the end of 2019.  Bridgeland/Riverside, with its revived main street, has evolved into one of Calgary’s most popular family communities over the past 10 years. Yes, families!

The Quarters has seen some public realm improvements and some new development, but nothing like Calgary’s Bridges.

The Quarters has seen some public realm improvements and some new development, but nothing like Calgary’s Bridges.

The Bridges project includes a new park that is popular year round as well as several new mixed-use residential developments and Main Street improvements.

The Bridges project includes a new park that is popular year round as well as several new mixed-use residential developments and Main Street improvements.

This new tree lined street mixes easily with the other single family home streets with their century old tree canopies.

This new tree lined street mixes easily with the other single family home streets with their century old tree canopies.

The Bridges Main Street enhancements have created an inviting gathering place.

The Bridges Main Street enhancements have created an inviting gathering place.

Churchill Square vs Olympic Plaza 

Both Edmonton’s Churchill Square and Calgary’s Olympic Plaza are the hearts of their respective city’s cultural district, as they are surrounded by a concert hall, theatres, museum, and City Halls.  

And while Edmonton has its funky new Art Gallery of Alberta building, I was not impressed by their exhibitions as I have been by Calgary’s Glenbow Museum’s recent exhibition programming.  The new $375 million Royal Alberta Museum was nice but didn’t impress me as much as I thought it might. Touring the lobby, I didn’t get the feeling this was a “must see” place.  For my money, the Glenbow offers the same art and history experience Edmonton has to offer. Programming trumps architecture. 

Similarly, Edmonton’s Win spear Concert Hall and Citadel Theatre and Calgary’s Art Commons offer pretty much the same experiences for those interested in the performing arts. When it comes to the literary arts, Edmonton is renovating its old library for $85 million into a shiny new building while Calgary spent $245 million on a new library building that has received international acclaim. 

Churchill Square is currently undergoing a mega makeover. Calgary is a few years behind with its cultural makeover, but a $400+ million makeover of Art Commons complex and Olympic Plaza is in the works.  There are also plans for a new public art gallery in Calgary’s old Science Centre/Planetarium at the west end of downtown. 

Conceptual image of renovated Central Library on the edge of Churchill Square.

Conceptual image of renovated Central Library on the edge of Churchill Square.

Calgary’s recently completed Central Library has been widely acclaimed internationally. It has attracted over

Calgary’s recently completed Central Library has been widely acclaimed internationally. It has attracted over

Edmonton’s new Art Gallery of Alberta is also located on the edge of Churchill Square.

Edmonton’s new Art Gallery of Alberta is also located on the edge of Churchill Square.

Calgary’s old planetarium / science centre is currently being redesigned to become a public art gallery.

Calgary’s old planetarium / science centre is currently being redesigned to become a public art gallery.

The new Royal Albert Museum recently opened a block from Churchill Square.

The new Royal Albert Museum recently opened a block from Churchill Square.

Calgary’s National Music Centre opened in 2016, just a few blocks from Olympic Plaza.

Calgary’s National Music Centre opened in 2016, just a few blocks from Olympic Plaza.

Conceptual image of Calgary’s new BMO convention centre which is current at the request for proposals stage.

Conceptual image of Calgary’s new BMO convention centre which is current at the request for proposals stage.

Edmonton’s Churchill Square has been a popular festival and gathering place for decades.

Edmonton’s Churchill Square has been a popular festival and gathering place for decades.

Calgary’s Olympic Plaza is also a popular gathering and festival site.

Calgary’s Olympic Plaza is also a popular gathering and festival site.

Northlands Park vs Stampede Park 

While, the future of Edmonton’s Northlands Park is uncertain, Calgary’s Stampede Park flourishes - not only as home to the “Greatest Outdoor Show on Earth,” but to numerous major events like Calgary Expo, one of Canada’s largest cosplay showcases.  

Quietly, Stampede Park has been evolving with new buildings like the Agrium Western Events Centre and its new Youth Campus that includes the TransAlta Performing Arts Studios, Calgary Arts Academy, BMO Amphitheatre and ENMAX Park.  

The construction of three major condo towers is also evidence of the district’s quiet revival. Next step a major expansion of the BMO Centre. 

Plans for the revival of Stampede Park and Victoria Park Calgary over the next 20 years are WAY ahead of those for Northlands Park district. 

Over the past few years, Calgary’s Stampede Park has been realizing its vision of a Youth Campus. There are also ambitions plans expand the BMO Centre, build a new arena, open up the park along 17th Ave and 4th St, as well as create more year-round public spaces.

Over the past few years, Calgary’s Stampede Park has been realizing its vision of a Youth Campus. There are also ambitions plans expand the BMO Centre, build a new arena, open up the park along 17th Ave and 4th St, as well as create more year-round public spaces.

New condo developments next to Stampede Park.

New condo developments next to Stampede Park.

Urban Parks

While Edmonton undoubtedly has the most dramatic river valley, it is not easily accessible from its City Centre communities.  

In contrast, Calgary’s Bow and Elbow rivers are both intimately linked to the everyday lives of those living in our City Centre thanks to constant improvement to the river pathways.  Edmonton has nothing to match Calgary’s Riverwalk, West Eau Claire Park and two spectacular pedestrian bridges.

Kudos to Edmonton’s City Council who boldly approved the expropriation of 18 lots in the middle of downtown to create a much-needed, 3-acre park, the equivalent of Calgary’s Harley Hotchkiss Gardens that opened a few years ago.  

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Calgary has some sunning new parks like the Eau Claire West Park.

Calgary has some sunning new parks like the Eau Claire West Park.

The revitalization of St. Patrick’s Island is truly outstanding.

The revitalization of St. Patrick’s Island is truly outstanding.

The Alberta Legislature buildings fountain and wading pond is a popular spot on Canada Day.

The Alberta Legislature buildings fountain and wading pond is a popular spot on Canada Day.

At noon hour Harley Hotchkiss Gardens it becomes a popular meeting place and perhaps play a little bocci ball.

At noon hour Harley Hotchkiss Gardens it becomes a popular meeting place and perhaps play a little bocci ball.

The new Thompson Family Park. Calgary’s City Centre is blessed with dozens of parks, plazas and pathways.

The new Thompson Family Park. Calgary’s City Centre is blessed with dozens of parks, plazas and pathways.

Urban Living 

In addition to the above comparisons, Edmonton has nothing to match Calgary’s funky Inglewood community with its historic main street, Esker Gallery and new condo developments.  Nor does it have anything to match Calgary’s Mission district or how Calgary’s Zoo and Telus Spark easily connect to our City Centre by LRT and pathways.  

Yes, I was impressed with how Edmonton has implemented its 2010 Downtown Plan which includes adding 12,200 new residential units by 2045.  To date an impressive 1500 new units have been completed and 858 are under construction with more proposed.

In Calgary one developer, Qualex Landmark alone has built 1300 units in the Beltline. Today, Calgary has a whopping 9,000+ residential units (75% of Edmonton’s goal) at various stages of development in its City Centre. 

Calgary’s historic Main Street aka Atlantic Avenue has a diversity of shops, cafes, restaurants, galleries and live music venues in early 20th century buildings.

Calgary’s historic Main Street aka Atlantic Avenue has a diversity of shops, cafes, restaurants, galleries and live music venues in early 20th century buildings.

Edmonton also doesn’t have anything to match Caglary’s Kensington Village with its new condos and animated sidewalks.

Edmonton also doesn’t have anything to match Caglary’s Kensington Village with its new condos and animated sidewalks.

New condo construction along Atlantic Avenue in Inglewood will add even more vitality to the street and community.

New condo construction along Atlantic Avenue in Inglewood will add even more vitality to the street and community.

The Atlantic Avenue Art Block includes a public art gallery, offices, restaurant, cafe, grocery store and boutiques.

The Atlantic Avenue Art Block includes a public art gallery, offices, restaurant, cafe, grocery store and boutiques.

I didn’t find anything in Edmonton to match Calgary’s public art.

I didn’t find anything in Edmonton to match Calgary’s public art.

Calgary & Edmonton both on the rise!

I am surprise at how a new arena can blind people into thinking Edmonton is booming and Calgary is declining because it doesn’t have one. For too long Calgary has measured the success of its downtown by the number of new office buildings and the number of people working downtown.  

A better measure of downtown revival is the number of new residential developments and the number of people choosing to live near the downtown core.  The fact the Beltline was the fastest growing community in Calgary last year and that there are several major residential developments under construction in our City Centre is testament to the fact Calgary’s downtown revival is on the rise, not decline. 

And, I am happy to report Edmonton’s downtown is also on the rise. In some cases Edmonton is ahead of Calgary when it comes to urban revival and in other cases Calgary is ahead of Edmonton.

Every city evolves in its own way.

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

Edmonton vs Calgary: Who has the best river?

Battle of Alberta: Urban Design

Brewery Districts: Edmonton vs Calgary

Calgary: Recreation Centre the new cathedral? 

With the opening of the 330,000 square foot Brookfield Residential YMCA at SETON Calgary now boasts the largest and second largest YMCAs in the world. Yes, the world!  The second largest is also in Calgary - Shane Homes YMCA at Rocky Ridge which opened in January 2018.   

 Both are more than just a YMCA, they serve as a mega community centers. 

The roof of the Repsol Sports Centre evokes a celestial sense of place.

The roof of the Repsol Sports Centre evokes a celestial sense of place.

The Shane Homes at Rocky Ridge entrance has a huge circular opening that links earth and sky.

The Shane Homes at Rocky Ridge entrance has a huge circular opening that links earth and sky.

Remington YMCA at Quarry Park has a heavenly glows at night.

Remington YMCA at Quarry Park has a heavenly glows at night.

Recreation: The new religion?

In my opinion, recreation amenities are the key to creating successful communities today. More so than a grocery store, retail or restaurants. Why? Because in Calgary, recreation plays the biggest role in our everyday lives.  Most families have their kids in two or three recreational activities at any given time and weekends are spent at one or more recreation centres. Singles and young couples love to go to the gym, swim or participate in a yoga or spin class several times a week.  

It is almost like fitness is the new religion. 

My parents and grandparent’s generation never went to a gym, but nearly all of my friends 55+ years of age are actively engaged in recreational activities several times a week.  As for grocery shopping, we fit that in once or twice a week often on the way to or from recreational activities. 

This is just one of several new private fitness studios that have opened up in Calgary’s trendy Kensington Village recently. The new University District community has already signed up a couple of fitness operators for their Main Street.

This is just one of several new private fitness studios that have opened up in Calgary’s trendy Kensington Village recently. The new University District community has already signed up a couple of fitness operators for their Main Street.

In addition to hundreds of private gyms across the city, the new mega recreation centres also have mega workout rooms that are use by all ages.

In addition to hundreds of private gyms across the city, the new mega recreation centres also have mega workout rooms that are use by all ages.

Calgary is also home to numerous specialize private recreational facilities like this major climbing centre. Facilities like this didn’t exist in Calgary or any Canadian city 40 years ago.

Calgary is also home to numerous specialize private recreational facilities like this major climbing centre. Facilities like this didn’t exist in Calgary or any Canadian city 40 years ago.

Recreation Centre: The New Cathedral

It is isn’t no coincidence the naming sponsor for many of Calgary’s new suburban YMCAs are real estate developers or home builders, as they realize the recreation center is to Calgary’s suburban communities, what the cathedral and historic town square is to European city centres. It is the gathering place for almost everyone living in the surrounding communities.  And like the European cathedral, the new centres are also architectural wonders. 

When I chat with suburban developers about urban development issues and trends they often remind me “they are not in the business of building homes, but developing communities.”  While having a park, playground and pathways used to be sufficient for creating new communities, today having a mega multi-use recreation centre is a must. 

In fact, I am surprised Calgary’s new inner-city communities - Currie, East Village and University District - don’t have a boutique recreation centre as part of their master plans. To be fair, both are very close to post-secondary campuses with large recreational facilities that might be used by residents.

Some of Calgary most contemporary architecture is its recreation centres, like Shane Homes at Rocky Ridge YMCA.

Some of Calgary most contemporary architecture is its recreation centres, like Shane Homes at Rocky Ridge YMCA.

Several older recreation centres have major plans for expansion like this one for VIVO, which will enhance its role not only as a regional gathering place for all ages and backgrounds, but as the most architecturally significant building in the community.

Several older recreation centres have major plans for expansion like this one for VIVO, which will enhance its role not only as a regional gathering place for all ages and backgrounds, but as the most architecturally significant building in the community.

Not A New Idea

Indeed, Calgary’s home builders have a long history with sponsoring community recreation centres.  The Trico Centre opened in 1983 as the Family Leisure Centre (they were called leisure centres back then), and was called that until 2008 when Trico Homes purchased the naming rights for $1.5 million.  Today, the 150,000 square feet building attracts over 1 million visitors per year. 

Backstory: The original building cost only $9.4 million dollars (there are single family homes that cost more today), but the 2010 addition of a new arena and other renovations cost $17.2 million.  While the Trico Centre doesn’t have a library inside, the Fish Creek Park Library sits next door and Southcentre Mall is across the street, creating a community hub. 

The South Fish Creek Complex, which opened in phases beginning in 2001, combines the Bishop O’Byrne High School, Shawnessy YMCA, Shawnessy Library, Chinook Learning Centre and South Fish Creek Recreation Association.  Then in 2015, the Association entered into a 10-year naming rights partnership with Cardel Homes, becoming Cardel Rec South.  

Cardel Place opened in 2004 in north-central Calgary and quickly become the heart and soul of Calgarians living in the city’s north central suburbs.  After the ten year naming relationship with Cardel Homes expired, both parties amicably agreed it was time for a new name. As a not-for-profit community facility, it was decided the new name needed to reflect its new vision of “raising healthier generations.” “VIVO” a Latin word meaning “with life and vigour,” was chosen with the subtext “for Healthier Generations.” 

In the northeast, the Genesis Centre opened in 2012 and quickly became the “living room” for over one million visitors each year from Calgary’s northeast communities. Genesis Land Corporation contributed five million dollars for the naming rights as part of the community’s $40 million dollar fundraising campaign for the $120 million, 250,000 square foot building. 

Another slightly more modest 94,000 square foot, Remington YMCA in Quarry Park opened in September 2016.  FYI: Remington Development is responsible for the ambitious vision of converting a gravel pit into a new master-planned, mixed-use urban community that integrates a major employment district (Imperial Oil moved its head office there in 2014) with a retail/recreational district and a residential district with a mix of single-family and multi-family homes.  

I am surprised a home builder hasn’t attached its name to the Westside Recreation Centre which opened in 2000 and ten years later completed a major renovation. 

Westside Recreation Centre’s indoor public skating rink.

Westside Recreation Centre’s indoor public skating rink.

While Calgary has no beaches, it does have numerous pools, many with waterslides and a few with wave machines.

While Calgary has no beaches, it does have numerous pools, many with waterslides and a few with wave machines.

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Last Word 

In the mid 20thcentury, separate buildings for arenas, indoor pools and other recreational activities were scattered around the city, rather than centralized. And, developers were busy building lakes and golf courses as the recreational amenities to attract home buyers. 

Today, there has been a paradigm shift to creating mega, integrated multi-user community centres that include not only an indoor arena with a couple of sheets of ice, but perhaps a curling rink, a couple of gyms, a pool, with separate areas for families and lane pool swimmers, as well as public library, art, dance, martial arts and yoga studios and meeting rooms.  

Caglary still has hundreds of outdoor community rinks like this one.

Caglary still has hundreds of outdoor community rinks like this one.

As one friend said to me recently, “we’ve come a long way from the neighbourhood outdoor skating rinks and pools with perhaps a small building as a change room.”  

Others have asked, “Is this a good thing?”

Today, the City and developers are thinking about community not as individual neighbourhoods based on subdivisions or even quadrants, but rather as districts based on logical boundaries like major roads, transit routes and geographic features.  

As Bob Dylan said in 1964, “For the times they are a-changin’.”  

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

Is Calgary the recreational capital of Canada?

Shane Homes Rocky Ridge YMCA: Architecture Gone Wild?

Calgary: Playgrounds gone wild

  

 

Singapore: Dare To Be Different!

Guest Blog: Harry Hiller is an urban sociologist professor at the University of Calgary.  He has travelled the world studying and speaking about city building from various perspectives.  He wrote the book “Urban Canada” in 2010, which is one of my go to reference books. 

A recent visit to Singapore shocked even this seasoned urbanist.

The outdoor Orchid Garden was one of the highlights of Hiller’s visit to Singapore.

The outdoor Orchid Garden was one of the highlights of Hiller’s visit to Singapore.

If you like pedestrian bridges, you will love Singapore; this is the Helix Bridge.

If you like pedestrian bridges, you will love Singapore; this is the Helix Bridge.

The Henderson Wave bridge is a unique experience.

The Henderson Wave bridge is a unique experience.

Singapore has been on our list for a long time because of its stellar reputation as a unique urban place so it was a must-see place to visit for me.  It has been said Singapore has been transformed completely from a third world city to a first world city in one generation and must be seen to be believed. 

 We are now believers.

So, what’s not to like? Singapore is the safest country in the world; the cleanest country in the world; the most expensive country in the world and the shiny newest country in the world with spectacular high rise architecture. 

It has also been called smartest city in the world because it has attracted such a highly creative labor force; is a hub for technology and research and has the third highest per capita GDP in the world. It is home the best airline in the world and the best airport in the world. Need I go on!

It is also a huge tourist destination and now we can see why.  This place has lived up to all our expectations and more.  It is the most English language friendly city in all of Asia.  

And, probably the most expensive.

Unparalled?

Singapore is the most spectacular post-modern city in the entire world with visitor opportunities that are unique and unparalleled.

As we have often said, you never really know a place until you have visited it. We really did not know much about Singapore and what we knew were vague generalizations.  

As most of you probably know, Singapore is a city-state island that is only 26 miles wide and 14 miles long.  It is one-quarter the size of Vancouver Island (which has about 750,000 people) whereas Singapore has 5.6 million people.  

It is bigger than Manhattan, but smaller than all five boroughs of NYC.  There is an incredible amount happening a small space.

It is mesmerizing. 

This is the Lotus Flower ArtScience Museum, designed by the Canadian architectural firm Moshe Safdie Architects.

This is the Lotus Flower ArtScience Museum, designed by the Canadian architectural firm Moshe Safdie Architects.

Unique Civil Servants

Our host from the National University of Singapore (just so you know I gave a couple of talks there) is a guy who is not only a sociologist but is also a Member of Parliament so he was able to give us many great insights into how this country works (both good and bad) as it is virtually a single party state and he is one of the few in opposition.  

One of the secrets according to him is the country has exceptional civil servants who work hard at being ahead of the curve when it comes to change, especially with commerce and technology. They have attracted head offices or regional head offices of hundreds of global corporations and the number of new impressive buildings to house them is not just impressive.

It is stunning!  

Link: Singapore: From Colonial backwater to high-tech city state

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Unique Housing 

Can you imagine that 90% of the population are home-owners (Calgary at about 72% is one of the highest in North America)? Most of them are flats in high rises where residents own their own unit (my friend’s place is 3 bedroom with 1500 sq. feet) but the land is owned by the government.  

Another spectacular thing I was interested in was a new experimental housing development called Pinnacle@Duxton that has been very successful and is being viewed as one answer to affordable housing issues in places where land is not readily available.  It is a series of seven 50 storey towers connected by skybridges and is home to about 10,000 people.  It may look gross to some but we visited it and it is aesthetically pleasing and very clean – as everything is in Singapore.

Link: Pinnacle@Duxton

Yes, this is public housing project.

Yes, this is public housing project.

Unique Religion

The government’s attitude to religion is also very interesting as they apparently go out of their way to ensure that all religions have suitable places to worship, as long as they don’t threaten the government in any way.  

We were particularly struck by the three Christian mega-churches that are based here, one of which is called New Creation with 40,000 members and the pastor is Joseph Prince who apparently is televised in North America now.  Their services are held in a performing arts center jointly constructed with the government since they need so much space and it is spectacular. Their cell group organization is apparently highly complex and efficient.  

Link: https://www.newcreation.org.sg/locations/#service-venues

New Creation Church makes a unique architectural statement that is both modern and traditional.

New Creation Church makes a unique architectural statement that is both modern and traditional.

Unique Attractions 

One of the almost unbelievable achievements of Singapore has been the ability to reclaim land from the sea to add 130 square kilometers of more territory to the city-state.  They have used this land for all kinds of purposes but one of the most stunning has been the construction of what is called Gardens by the Bay.

Words cannot describe it because it is so creative and post-modern that it knocks your socks off.  My jaw dropped to the ground.  

It includes Supertrees, a Flower Dome so unusual in layout and design that even a non-botanist like me can be impressed and a Cloud Forest is totally unique.  But that is not all.  

Remember earlier I had mentioned Singapore is a small territory with a densely settled population. Well we had two experiences with green spaces that were an unbelievable paradox.  First, the Botanical Garden and Park is the biggest park in Asia and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  

One of its biggest attractions is the 300-acre National Orchid Gardens.  In contrast to our previous experiences with botanical gardens that are indoors, Singapore’s is all outdoors and extremely elaborate. 

The other green space that blew us away was the nocturnal Zoo - it is unlike any zoo I had ever been to. We went on a night safari where we rode on a tram into the darkness for 40 minutes and observed everything from lions to elephants all in a natural unfenced environment.  It is only open from 7pm to midnight, but thousands of people show up every night. 

One of the highlights is a show called “Creatures of the Night” with a variety of animals taking part and a river safari.  

Link: https://www.visitsingapore.com/see-do-singapore/nature-wildlife/parks-gardens/gardens-by-the-bay/

Night Safari: Only in Singapore!

Night Safari: Only in Singapore!

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Singapore Botanical Gardens a 300-acre oasis.

Singapore Botanical Gardens a 300-acre oasis.

This man-made mechanical forest consists of 18 supertrees that act as vertical gardens, generating solar power, acting as air venting ducts for nearby conservatories, and collecting rainwater. To generate electricity, 11 of the supertrees are fitted with solar photovoltaic systems that convert sunlight into energy, which provides lighting and aids water technology within the conservatories below.

This man-made mechanical forest consists of 18 supertrees that act as vertical gardens, generating solar power, acting as air venting ducts for nearby conservatories, and collecting rainwater. To generate electricity, 11 of the supertrees are fitted with solar photovoltaic systems that convert sunlight into energy, which provides lighting and aids water technology within the conservatories below.

Unique Hotels

There is a new hotel there that is unlike anything you have ever seen before (and deliberately designed with a wow factor) including an infinity pool on the rooftop of Skypark hotel that looks like a surfboard perched above three 57 storey towers.

You can only use the infinity pool if you stay there, but we were allowed to go up to the observation deck if you promised to buy an outrageously expensive Singapore Sling.

LInk: https://www.visitsingapore.com/see-do-singapore/recreation-leisure/viewpoints/marina-bay-sands-skypark/

Skypark’s rooftop is out of this world.

Skypark’s rooftop is out of this world.

Singapore is definitely a futuristic city.

Singapore is definitely a futuristic city.

Last Word: Hiller

Singapore is leading the way when it comes to urban innovation. 

It is hard for us to think of Asian countries and cities leading the world when it comes to city building as we are so accustomed to thinking North America is the leader in everything. For me, Singapore brought home the point “the world is indeed changing, like we have never experienced before.”

Last Word: Everyday Tourist 

It should be pointed out that as a City State, Singapore is in a unique position when it comes to urban planning and economic development. They don’t have to deal with three levels of government, nor the extensive community consultation that Calgary and other cities have to deal with.

However, it is reminder Calgary must compete with places like Singapore for economic development, tourists etc. It means we must be more innovative than imitative when it comes to city building. Should we be imitating what other North American cities like Edmonton, Nashville, Denver or Columbus has or is doing, or should we DARE TO BE DIFFERENT!

How entrepreneurial is Calgary?

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

CBC: Design Wars Calgary vs Edmonton

Capturing the art in ARiTecture!

Chicago: Architecture River Cruise

 

Billion Dollar Question: Is Calgary the recreational capital of Canada?

The City of Calgary has invested almost a half a billion dollars (that’s $500,000,000) over the past three years in four major new recreation centres – Brookfield Residential YMCA at Seton (largest YMCA in the world), Shane Homes YMCA at Rocky Ridge (second largest YMCA in the world), Remington YMCA in Quarry Park and Great Plains Recreation Facility (eastern edge of the city).  

Given this huge investment, one could ask, “Is Calgary the recreational capital of Canada?”

However, the recreational capital isn’t necessarily the one with the biggest recreational facilities, it could have good facilities overall, with few strengths and no major weaknesses.  Or it could be the city with the best recreational programs with the most participation.  

Not only is Calgary’s new Rocky Ridge YMCA is the second largest in North America, but it is also a bold architectural statement for those living in new communities on the northwest edge of the City.

Not only is Calgary’s new Rocky Ridge YMCA is the second largest in North America, but it is also a bold architectural statement for those living in new communities on the northwest edge of the City.

Calgary has been building iconic recreation centres since the early ‘80s. This is the Repsol Sports Centre built in 1983 for the Western Canada Summer Games.

Calgary has been building iconic recreation centres since the early ‘80s. This is the Repsol Sports Centre built in 1983 for the Western Canada Summer Games.

Calgary’s 131 km Rotary Mattamy Greenway is a unique recreational experience.

Calgary’s 131 km Rotary Mattamy Greenway is a unique recreational experience.

And what do we mean by recreation? 

Judy Birdsell, one of the founders of IMAGINE Citizens Collaborating for Health, reminded me that the definition of recreation is “any activity done for enjoyment when one is not working.”  She thinks we shouldn’t equate recreation with sports and fitness, but include everything from dancing to gardening, from quilting to reading.” Hmmm, perhaps it should also include flaneuring and dog walking too?

Calgary shines when it comes to community gardens, not sure about gardening, dance or quilting.  We had 169 community gardens as of July 2016, (Calgary Horticultural Society website); Edmonton had 80 as of July 2018 and City of Vancouver (not metro Vancouver) 110. 

Calgary has 150 public off-leash areas in our multi-use parks for Calgarians and their dogs to enjoy. In fact, “Calgary may have the largest number of off-leash areas and combined amount of off-leash space (more than 1,250 hectares) in North America,” says the City of Calgary website. Perhaps this is not surprising as Calgary has the highest per capita dog ownership in Canada with 1 dog for every 12 people, just ahead of Winnipeg and Edmonton (CTV New Winnipeg, March 29, 2017). 

The City of Calgary website also says we have “the most extensive urban pathways and bikeway network in North America.” Mary Kapusta, Director, Communications at the Calgary Public Library says the number of visitors to our 20 libraries is one also one of the highest in North America with 6.8 million visits, 688,000 active members, 14.6 million items in annually. That’s a whopping 14 books per person per year.

If we add in the cost of the new Central Library and National Music Centre (Birdsell says it is growing international trend for physicians to prescribe social or recreational activities to help patients with certain illnesses) to the $500,000,000 investment in mega recreation centres, we are almost a BILLION dollars (not all City of Caglary dollars).

Just sitting and watching the Bow River flow could be considered a recreational activity by some.

Just sitting and watching the Bow River flow could be considered a recreational activity by some.

Calgary is his home to one of the world’s largest public skate parks.

Calgary is his home to one of the world’s largest public skate parks.

Strolling Stephen Avenue Walk at lunch hour is a recreational activity for many.

Strolling Stephen Avenue Walk at lunch hour is a recreational activity for many.

Stopping to make a snowman just because you the mood strikes you as this couple did is also a recreational activity.

Stopping to make a snowman just because you the mood strikes you as this couple did is also a recreational activity.

Or chilling at a music festival is a recreational for some.

Or chilling at a music festival is a recreational for some.

Or it could be puttering in your backyard garden.

Or it could be puttering in your backyard garden.

Is bigger better? 

This then opens the door to question, “Should we be building mega multi-million dollar regional multi-use recreation complexes, or should the focus be on local facilities and programs that foster everyday activities and socialization with one’s immediate neighbours?”  

Cynthia Watson, Chief Evolution Officer at Vivo (formerly Cardel Place) notes her facility is a “gathering place for the community.  We are the afterschool place, the youth space, the older adult social connector, the health services touchpoint, the social entrepreneur incubator, the healthy living collaborator...oh and yes - we do have swimming lessons and fitness classes too!” home to a diversity of community, cultural, sport, faith-based, education and recreation groups.  

She adds, “Vivo is home to several older adult groups like SPRY in the Hills. It is a Girl Guide clubhouse, a Spirit of Math classroom and the Dawat E-Islamic Centre Calgary’s Friday afternoon prayer group worship space. And we are a meeting space for Northern Hills Connect a group of 25+ social entrepreneurs.”  

She notes “you get better economies of scale and operating efficiencies when you combine multiple uses in one facilities vs scattering several single-use facilities in different communities.  Larger facilities are also more cost effective from a staffing perspective.” 

Multi-use facilities are also more convenient for parents when little Johnny has a hockey game, older sister Sally can go to the library and Mom can have a coffee klatch with other parents or perhaps even do her own workout.  Watson thinks “the City did a good job when they started to combine traditional recreation centres with libraries and other activities.”  

Vivo’s catchment started with 75,000 people in 2004 and has grown to well over 145,000 today. It includes established communities like Northern Hills, Sandstone MacEwan, Beddington, Huntington Hills, Hidden Valley, growing communities like Evanston, Kincora, Sage Hill and new communities like Livingston and Carrington. 

Today it has approximately 1.3 million visitors a year, with plans in place for an $60 million 85,000 square foot addition due to the popularity of its facilities and programs. The expansion will include an indoor park that can be used in the winter by seniors who just want to walk without fear of falling on the ice, while young families can enjoy the playground as they do in the summer. The park will also accommodate festivals and events like movie-in-the-park in the winter adding another dimension to the community’s socialization.   

Watson said users are telling them “they want more flexible, social gathering places where they can come and go base on their own schedule.  Places where they can just hang out or do things in a less structured way.” 

When I chatted with Glenda Marr, Business Development Manager for the Genesis Center in the northeast, the story was the same – programs are popular, operating at capacity and looking at expansion.  In fact, many of Calgary’s older regional recreation centres as so popular they are operating at or near capacity and have plans for expansion. 

Large facilities like the Genesis Field House not only host sporting event, but events like the annual mega Train Show that takes over the entire facility.

Large facilities like the Genesis Field House not only host sporting event, but events like the annual mega Train Show that takes over the entire facility.

VIVO expansion plans include an indoor park with playground and field for casual play and relaxation by all ages.

VIVO expansion plans include an indoor park with playground and field for casual play and relaxation by all ages.

Recreation can be meeting a friend for coffee.

Recreation can be meeting a friend for coffee.

So, what does the City of Calgary think?

In discussion with James McLaughlin, Acting Director of Calgary Recreation, I was surprised to learn “there is currently no standard benchmarking in Canada regarding the recommended amount of recreation facilities per capita.” I was hoping there would be some definitive measurements like number of hockey rinks, swimming pools or sports fields or total square feet of recreational facilities per 100,000 people.  

I was also told any comparison gets complicated by the fact no city has a comprehensive collection of all the private, city and community facilities and their program participation.  

I did learn Calgary has developed a unique partnership model where the City of Calgary builds these new regional recreation centers, but they are operated by others like regional community associations or the YMCA.  Speaking of the YMCA, perhaps one of the most innovative recreational partnerships in Canada is at the South Health Campus (hospital) which also includes a YMCA.    

McLaughlin shared with me that 93% of Calgarians are satisfied with the City’s recreation programs and 92% are satisfied with our recreation facilities based on The City of Calgary’s 2018 Citizen Satisfaction Survey.  That’s impressive, almost hard to believe. 

This surprised me as I have heard from numerous parents and grandparents, of how poor our playing fields can be in the summer with dandelion infestation that makes the fields slippery and dangerous.  Others have said the grass is sometimes so long when the younger kids kick the ball it hardly moves.  I have also heard the cost of ice time in Calgary is significantly higher than in other cities because of a lack of rinks.  And yet others have told me that when they go to other cities for soccer, hockey and ringette tournaments, they are often surprised at how much better their facilities are than Calgary’s. The high satisfaction rating is also surprising given over the past year two City recreational centres have been closed due to roof issues.  

 McLaughlin shared “comparing recreational participation levels from city to city is difficult due to different demographics Calgary being a younger city you might expect its citizens to be more active.  However, Vancouver and Victoria have more retirees who often have more time to be active than parents working and raising a family.  It gets complicated.” 

Perhaps the most enlightening learning from McLaughlin was that recreation leaders in Calgary and other cities are moving away from focusing on sports and fitness and towards a more active living wellness model.   

Guess, Birdsell was correct and Watson and her colleagues are on the leading edge.  

Calgary also boast numerous private recreation facilities like the massive new Rocky Mountain Climbing centre just west of Canada Olympic Park. It is one of three Rocky Mountain Climbing centres in Calgary.

Calgary also boast numerous private recreation facilities like the massive new Rocky Mountain Climbing centre just west of Canada Olympic Park. It is one of three Rocky Mountain Climbing centres in Calgary.

Recreation can also include an afternoon of painting in the park.

Recreation can also include an afternoon of painting in the park.

Learning to fish is another recreational activity.

Learning to fish is another recreational activity.

Calgary has 22 city-maintained toboggan hills with many more community hills like this one in Bridgeland Riverside.

Calgary has 22 city-maintained toboggan hills with many more community hills like this one in Bridgeland Riverside.

ParticipACTION

So, being the recreational capital of Canada shouldn’t just be about the quality and quantity of facilities, it should also be about citizen participation in everyday activities.  So, are Calgarians the most active Canadians?  

Remember the federal government’s ParticipACTION (launched in 1971 ceased in 2001 and relaunched in 2017) whose shaming message was “the average Canadian adult was like a 60-year Swede old when it came to physical fitness?”  Its goal was to get Canadians off the couch and do something, even if just for 20 minutes.  While there is lots of information on how successful ParticiACTION was as an awareness program, it is less clear if adult Canadians are gaining on the 60-year old Swedes.  

According to data from the Canadian Community Health Survey,  26.7 per cent of Canadians were obese in 2015, up from 23.1 per cent in 2004 - not a good sign.  Another study published in the scientific journal Nature in 2017, documented that Canada ranks third from the bottom in how much we walk per day by a group of researchers who looked at smartphone data to see how much walking people do in 111 countries and tracked their steps over an average of 95 days.

Link:  Nature Worldwide physical activity data

 Stats Canada last documented the prevalence of obesity in major Canadian cities in 2012 and Calgary at 22.1% was higher than Toronto (20.2%), Victoria (19.6%), Vancouver (17.4%) and Kelowna’s was the lowest at 17.0%. But this doesn’t say how active the rest of us are. 

According to The Conference Board of Canada’s 2016 City Health Ranking, which looked at such aspects as life satisfaction, healthy lifestyles and access to health care, Saskatoon came out on top as Canada’s healthiest city, with Calgary second.  

 An Expedia blog in 2018 attempted to rank Canada’s most active cities based on average number of marathons and hiking trails, access to bike paths, trails and races, per capita and abundance of outdoor activities such as kayaking, canoeing.  Calgary came in 4thbeat out by Whistler #3, Golden #2 and Vancouver #1. 

Link: Active Cities In Canada Ranked

As stated earlier, the City of Calgary doesn’t have comprehensive stats that would include both visits to City, private and community traditional recreation facilities, as well as other non-work pursuits. However, most of Calgary’s 26 major recreation centers are operating at or near capacity for most of the year with several having plans for expansion – suggesting Calgarians are indeed very active.

So, while Calgary is not at the top of every health and wellness ranking, it is near the top so it could be in the running for being the “recreational capital of Canada.”

Let’s dig deeper! 

It is impossible to track all of the neighbourhood events in Calgary or any other city for that matter.

It is impossible to track all of the neighbourhood events in Calgary or any other city for that matter.

For some people surfing the Bow River Wave is recreational.

For some people surfing the Bow River Wave is recreational.

This family is off to the Riley Park wading pool.

This family is off to the Riley Park wading pool.

Who ever heard of a dog park in the ‘70s?  

Today, literally tens of thousands of Calgarians religiously walking their dog(s), often more than once.  As stated earlier, Calgary is the dog park capital of North American and has the highest dog ownership in Canada. 

This is nothing to sniff at. 

Daily dog walking is one of the best active living habits urban dwellers can have and it is the cheapest one for the City to provide.  A British study published in the BMC Public Health Journal in 2017 showed the dog owners average 22 minutes more walking per day, than those who don’t have a dog. And while the study acknowledged some were just dawdling, many were walking at a pace that provide as much health benefits as running.  

Could it be that dog walking and dog parks, not the mega recreation center make “Calgary, the recreational capital of Canada” or should I say “active living capital of Canada.”  

Walking the dog in one of Calgary’s many dog parks might just be what qualifies Calgary as “the recreation capital of Canada.”

Walking the dog in one of Calgary’s many dog parks might just be what qualifies Calgary as “the recreation capital of Canada.”

Strong Case

I don’t think anyone knows definitively what Canadian city has the best overall recreational facilities and programs, or which city has the most active citizens.  

But I am guessing our old and new multi-purpose, mega recreation, community, leisure centres with their millions of visitors each year place Calgary near the top.  Add in 5,000+ parks, largest urban pathway system, community gardens and a library system that one of the busiest in Canada and Calgary could make a strong case for being “the recreational capital of Canada.”  

In addition, I challenge any major Canadian city to beat the 90+% satisfaction rating Calgarians give their recreation programs and facilities.  Even if I do find the number hard to believe.

It is no wonder Calgary is one of the most livable cities in the world.  

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

Community Gardens: The New Yoga Studio?

Calgary: The dog park capital of North America?

Calgary: Canada’s Bike Friendly City

Calgary: Best Places To Sit