Calgary's SoBow Trail: One Of The Best River Banks In North America!

I bet you have never heard of Calgary’s SoBow Trail? That’s probably because it isn’t an official trail, but it should be.  What is the SoBow Trail, you ask? It is the 12 km long south bank of the Bow River from Edworthy Park to Harvie Passage. 

While some of the land acquisition started in middle of the 20th century, the transformation of the Bow River’s south bank into an urban gem has accelerated over the past 25, to become an amazing collection of 20+ parks, plazas, pathways and bridges. 

In my estimation it has evolved into one of the best urban river banks in North America…maybe in the world. It is one of the reasons Caglary is the 5th best city to live in the world.

Don’t believe me? Read on…

The Bow River’s south bank as it enters the downtown’s western edge.

The Bow River’s south bank as it enters the downtown’s western edge.

No Master Plan 

To my knowledge, there hasn’t been a master plan for this development.  Rather, it’s been an organic evolution of several master plans - from Calgary Municipal Land Corporation’s River Walk and St. Patrick’s Island plans to the City of Calgary’s Prince’s Island master plan and West Eau Claire and Public Realm Plan.

It seems like every few years, a new public space has been added to the Bow River’s south bank. 

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Let’s Take A Walk Along The SoBow Trail

The 169 hectare Edworthy Park (which also includes the Douglas Fir Trail, the most easterly site that the Douglas Fir tree grow and historic Lawrey Gardens) at the western edge of Calgary’s city centre will be our starting point..  It has a popular natural pebble beach and is a popular family picnic spot with hundreds of firepits and BBQs.  The park, once part of the huge Cochrane Ranche, was purchased by Thomas Edworthy in 1883 for the Edworthy homestead that included not only the family farm but sandstone quarries and other agricultural activities. It was later purchased in 1962 by the City of Calgary for the development of a park at the edge of the city.

The 169 hectare Edworthy Park (which also includes the Douglas Fir Trail, the most easterly site that the Douglas Fir tree grow and historic Lawrey Gardens) at the western edge of Calgary’s city centre will be our starting point..

It has a popular natural pebble beach and is a popular family picnic spot with hundreds of firepits and BBQs.

The park, once part of the huge Cochrane Ranche, was purchased by Thomas Edworthy in 1883 for the Edworthy homestead that included not only the family farm but sandstone quarries and other agricultural activities. It was later purchased in 1962 by the City of Calgary for the development of a park at the edge of the city.

The natural pebble beach at Edworthy Park.

The natural pebble beach at Edworthy Park.

John Lawrey settled in the area Calgary in 1882 buying the land east of Edworthy’s where he created a market garden to provide fresh fruit and vegetables to the railway crews and other homesteaders. He died in 1904, but left the property to his nephews who continued to farm the land until the end of World War 1.  Today, it is a natural area with forest, meadows, ponds and a spectacular gravel bar that lets you walk out to the middle of the river.

John Lawrey settled in the area Calgary in 1882 buying the land east of Edworthy’s where he created a market garden to provide fresh fruit and vegetables to the railway crews and other homesteaders. He died in 1904, but left the property to his nephews who continued to farm the land until the end of World War 1.

Today, it is a natural area with forest, meadows, ponds and a spectacular gravel bar that lets you walk out to the middle of the river.

The huge gravel bar in the Bow River is a popular spot for people to create rock formations like this one.

The huge gravel bar in the Bow River is a popular spot for people to create rock formations like this one.

As you continue walking east and you will discover a hidden sculpture park and beach volleyball courts. You have arrived at Pumphouse Park whose  name pays tribute to the , Bow River Pumphouse No. which was an integral part of the City’s water supply system form 1913 to 1933.

As you continue walking east and you will discover a hidden sculpture park and beach volleyball courts. You have arrived at Pumphouse Park whose name pays tribute to the , Bow River Pumphouse No. which was an integral part of the City’s water supply system form 1913 to 1933.

Keep going east and you will walk under the Crowchild Trail bridge where you will find the charming Dave Freeze pedestrian bridge.

Keep going east and you will walk under the Crowchild Trail bridge where you will find the charming Dave Freeze pedestrian bridge.

Continue eastward, go under the 14th Street bridge and you arrive at Nat Christie Park, a narrow strip of land between the pathway and 4th Avenue SW, that has been converted into a sculpture park. Here sits about a dozen artworks carved by members of the Stone Sculptures Guild of North America using local 60,000 year old Paskapoo sandstone. The Park is a legacy of the Group’s symposium held on Prince’s Island in 1998.

Continue eastward, go under the 14th Street bridge and you arrive at Nat Christie Park, a narrow strip of land between the pathway and 4th Avenue SW, that has been converted into a sculpture park. Here sits about a dozen artworks carved by members of the Stone Sculptures Guild of North America using local 60,000 year old Paskapoo sandstone. The Park is a legacy of the Group’s symposium held on Prince’s Island in 1998.

And just across the street is Shaw Millennium Park, a popular festival site and home to one of the largest public skateparks in the world - at 75,000 square feet. Other amenities include basketball and beach volleyball courts.

And just across the street is Shaw Millennium Park, a popular festival site and home to one of the largest public skateparks in the world - at 75,000 square feet. Other amenities include basketball and beach volleyball courts.

Here too you will notice the dome of the old Centennial Planetarium (designed by Calgary architectural firm McMillan Long and Associates in 1967) which recently reopened as a contemporary art gallery with plans for a major expansion and renovation.

Here too you will notice the dome of the old Centennial Planetarium (designed by Calgary architectural firm McMillan Long and Associates in 1967) which recently reopened as a contemporary art gallery with plans for a major expansion and renovation.

There is also the historic red bricked Mewata Armoury building built between 1915 and 1918. It is still home to local Militia Units, chiefly The  King's Own Calgary Regiment (RCAC)  and  The Calgary Highlanders , but also 15 (Edmonton) Field Ambulance Detachment Calgary, the 41 Canadian Brigade Group Influence Activities Company (attached to The King's Own Calgary Regiment (RCAC)) and various cadet organizations.

There is also the historic red bricked Mewata Armoury building built between 1915 and 1918. It is still home to local Militia Units, chiefly The King's Own Calgary Regiment (RCAC) and The Calgary Highlanders, but also 15 (Edmonton) Field Ambulance Detachment Calgary, the 41 Canadian Brigade Group Influence Activities Company (attached to The King's Own Calgary Regiment (RCAC)) and various cadet organizations.

But let’s keep going as there is lots more to see.  

Soon, we you’ll arrive at the historic Louise Bridge built in 1921 and named after Louise Cushing, the daughter of William Henry Cushing, Calgary’s Mayor from 1900 to 1901 (yes, just one year). Under the bridge is The Wave, where the Bow River current creates a natural wave perfect for river surfing. The Alberta River Surfing Association is working with Calgary-based Surf Anywhere to develop the area a world class river surfing park.

Soon, we you’ll arrive at the historic Louise Bridge built in 1921 and named after Louise Cushing, the daughter of William Henry Cushing, Calgary’s Mayor from 1900 to 1901 (yes, just one year). Under the bridge is The Wave, where the Bow River current creates a natural wave perfect for river surfing. The Alberta River Surfing Association is working with Calgary-based Surf Anywhere to develop the area a world class river surfing park.

A bit further and you are at new West Eau Claire Park at the south entrance to the iconic Peace Bridge designed (the latter by world renowned bridge designer Santiago Calatrava).  The $10.6 million park (30% of the budget was used for flood mitigation) designed by Calgary’s O2 Planning + Design is meant to simulate a river delta with cyclist, runners, walkers and now e-scooters being the “water” flowing off the Peace River onto the Bow River pathway using different streams.  The park also contains a subtle public artwork was created by Calgary-based artists Caitlind R.C Brown and Wayne Garrett who installed 12,000 brass “survey monuments” i.e. loonie sized brass coins throughout the delta each have simple messages collected by asking Calgarians along the pathway “where they are going or where they want to be?”

A bit further and you are at new West Eau Claire Park at the south entrance to the iconic Peace Bridge designed (the latter by world renowned bridge designer Santiago Calatrava).

The $10.6 million park (30% of the budget was used for flood mitigation) designed by Calgary’s O2 Planning + Design is meant to simulate a river delta with cyclist, runners, walkers and now e-scooters being the “water” flowing off the Peace River onto the Bow River pathway using different streams.

The park also contains a subtle public artwork was created by Calgary-based artists Caitlind R.C Brown and Wayne Garrett who installed 12,000 brass “survey monuments” i.e. loonie sized brass coins throughout the delta each have simple messages collected by asking Calgarians along the pathway “where they are going or where they want to be?”

You’ll also find here a new pebble beach with lovely lounge chairs to sit and watch the river flow by. It truly is a special place and a good example of how sophisticated Calgary’s urban design has become in the 21st century. The beach offers the perfect view of the Peace Bridge.

You’ll also find here a new pebble beach with lovely lounge chairs to sit and watch the river flow by. It truly is a special place and a good example of how sophisticated Calgary’s urban design has become in the 21st century. The beach offers the perfect view of the Peace Bridge.

The promenade from the West Eau Claire Park to Eau Claire Plaza is popular with Calgarians of all ages and background. Recently mega long benches were added as part of the new flood mitigation design.

The promenade from the West Eau Claire Park to Eau Claire Plaza is popular with Calgarians of all ages and background. Recently mega long benches were added as part of the new flood mitigation design.

But time to move on – and only a few strides away from the formal entrance to Prince’s Island and Eau Claire Plaza. Prince’s Island Park is named after Peter Prince who, in 1886, built the Eau Claire Lumber Mill at this site. He dug a channel in the river to bring the logs from the Bow River to the mill. The channel is now the Prince’s Island lagoon and it was instrumental in converting what was once a migrating gravel bar to more permanent island, resulting in the creation of the park. The City purchased the land from the Prince family in 1947 for a park.  The Park hosts many festivals not the least of which is Calgary’s International Folk Festival. As well you’ll discover the Chevron Learning Pathway, a small sculpture park and one of Calgary’s oldest and best restaurants - River Café. Urban Epicentre

But time to move on – and only a few strides away from the formal entrance to Prince’s Island and Eau Claire Plaza. Prince’s Island Park is named after Peter Prince who, in 1886, built the Eau Claire Lumber Mill at this site. He dug a channel in the river to bring the logs from the Bow River to the mill. The channel is now the Prince’s Island lagoon and it was instrumental in converting what was once a migrating gravel bar to more permanent island, resulting in the creation of the park. The City purchased the land from the Prince family in 1947 for a park.

The Park hosts many festivals not the least of which is Calgary’s International Folk Festival. As well you’ll discover the Chevron Learning Pathway, a small sculpture park and one of Calgary’s oldest and best restaurants - River Café. Urban Epicentre

Prince’s Island lagoon is a popular place to sit especially when the Calgary Folk Festival is happening on the island.

Prince’s Island lagoon is a popular place to sit especially when the Calgary Folk Festival is happening on the island.

Eau Claire Plaza, developed in the early 90s as park of Eau Claire Market is also home to numerous festivals and events including A Taste of Calgary food festival. It also has a popular wading pool and spray park for young families. It is the gateway into the downtown.

Eau Claire Plaza, developed in the early 90s as park of Eau Claire Market is also home to numerous festivals and events including A Taste of Calgary food festival. It also has a popular wading pool and spray park for young families. It is the gateway into the downtown.

Just a few steps eastward and you encounter a large propeller-like artifact the middle of the pathway. Indeed it is a propeller from a nameless arctic ship. The plaque explains that the propeller which served many years in the Arctic was donated to the City of Calgary by the Society of Naval Architects and Marine Engineers (SNAME) in 1993 to commemorate the fact that Arctic section of SNAME, was started in Calgary in 1980 to support arctic oil and gas exploration.

Just a few steps eastward and you encounter a large propeller-like artifact the middle of the pathway. Indeed it is a propeller from a nameless arctic ship. The plaque explains that the propeller which served many years in the Arctic was donated to the City of Calgary by the Society of Naval Architects and Marine Engineers (SNAME) in 1993 to commemorate the fact that Arctic section of SNAME, was started in Calgary in 1980 to support arctic oil and gas exploration.

Prince’s Island sculpture park.

Prince’s Island sculpture park.

Prince’s Island lagoon with Jaipur Bridge. The Jaipur Bridge which links  the Eau Claire Plaza to Prince’s Island, was built in 1968 to honour Calgary’s sister city in India. Plans are currently being developed to replace the bridge in 2020 to accommodate the increased traffic.

Prince’s Island lagoon with Jaipur Bridge. The Jaipur Bridge which links the Eau Claire Plaza to Prince’s Island, was built in 1968 to honour Calgary’s sister city in India. Plans are currently being developed to replace the bridge in 2020 to accommodate the increased traffic.

Next stop - Sien Lok Park on the northern edge of Chinatown. This park, created in 1982 is Chinatown’s only green space. The cone-shaped sculpture in the middle of it, titled “In Search of Gold Mountain,” was sculpted by Chu Honsun using 15 tonnes of granite from Hopei Province in China. The park has several other interesting artworks and two majestic Chinese Lions. The park is very popular with the Canadian Geese, so be careful where you walk or sit!

Next stop - Sien Lok Park on the northern edge of Chinatown. This park, created in 1982 is Chinatown’s only green space. The cone-shaped sculpture in the middle of it, titled “In Search of Gold Mountain,” was sculpted by Chu Honsun using 15 tonnes of granite from Hopei Province in China. The park has several other interesting artworks and two majestic Chinese Lions. The park is very popular with the Canadian Geese, so be careful where you walk or sit!

The iconic 1916 Centre Street Bridge with its lions modelled after the bronze lions at Trafalgar Square, London, and then to the popular Jack & Jean Leslie RiverWalk, which winds its way along the Bow River’s edge to where it meets the Elbow River.

The iconic 1916 Centre Street Bridge with its lions modelled after the bronze lions at Trafalgar Square, London, and then to the popular Jack & Jean Leslie RiverWalk, which winds its way along the Bow River’s edge to where it meets the Elbow River.

As you pass under the Centre Street bridge don’t miss the decorative Chinatown fence.

As you pass under the Centre Street bridge don’t miss the decorative Chinatown fence.

As you stroll along the RiverWalk, you will also pass by the 1910 Reconciliation Bridge, originally named the Langevin Bridge after Hector-Louis Langevin, a founder of Canada’s confederation and one of the architects of the nefarious residential schools. It was decided in 2017, as part of Canada’s attempt to reconcile the injustices done to First Nation peoples to rename the bridge. The bridge is beautiful in the evening when it is lit up.

As you stroll along the RiverWalk, you will also pass by the 1910 Reconciliation Bridge, originally named the Langevin Bridge after Hector-Louis Langevin, a founder of Canada’s confederation and one of the architects of the nefarious residential schools. It was decided in 2017, as part of Canada’s attempt to reconcile the injustices done to First Nation peoples to rename the bridge. The bridge is beautiful in the evening when it is lit up.

East Village Renaissance

Continuing along the way you will find several lookout platforms, street art and sculptures before arriving at the historic Simmons Building, where you can get a Calgary-roasted Phil & Sebastian coffee, a tasty sandwich, something sweeter at Sidewalk Citizen Bakery, or an upscale meal at Charbar, which has a spectacular rooftop patio offering great views of the Bow River.     

Immediately east of the Simmons building, sits the George C. King Bridge, sometimes called the skipping stone bridge, as its arches remind some of a stone skipping across the water.  Cross the bridge and you will discover the exquisite St. Patrick’s Island that has been a public space since the 1880s.  Today it has popular man-made pebble beach, playground, picnic and play areas and public art.  It is a popular spot for those floating the river to end their trip.   

RiverWalk as seen from the Charbar roof-top patio.

RiverWalk as seen from the Charbar roof-top patio.

East Village is an outdoor gallery with numerous sculptures and street artworks.

East Village is an outdoor gallery with numerous sculptures and street artworks.

George C. King bridge aka Skipping Stone Bridge connects the SoBow Trail with St. Patrick’s Island.

George C. King bridge aka Skipping Stone Bridge connects the SoBow Trail with St. Patrick’s Island.

RiverWalk Plaza is a popular meeting and lingering place.

RiverWalk Plaza is a popular meeting and lingering place.

St. Patrick’s Island’s pebble beach.

St. Patrick’s Island’s pebble beach.

Bow & Elbow Confluence

But let’s keep going, as the confluence of the Bow and Elbow Rivers awaits you. This is where  Calgary was first settled in 1875 by the North West Mounted Police, who built Fort Calgary which grew into the Calgary Barracks and by 1914, a flourishing city was developing.  The site eventually became an industrial area for the Canadian National Railway until 1974 when the City bought the site and in 1978, the Fort Calgary Interpretive Center opened.   

In 2006 a three-phase revitalization and redevelopment plan was adopted.  The first phase involving the restoration of the Deane house (one of Calgary’s best fine dining spots), restoration of the Hunt House and Metis Cabin (which was moved back to its original location from Calgary Brewery sit) have been completed. Phase 2, an interpretive art piece by Jill Anholt that references the walls of the original fort is also completed. Phase 3, currently underway includes an upgrade to the current museum and renovations of the 1888 Barracks. 

But let’s not linger too long as we still have 5 km to go.  Cross the Elbow River Traverse Bridge (opened in 2014) into Inglewood, Calgary’s oldest community, which today has many century old homes interspersed with modern new infills.  

Fort Calgary Barracks

Fort Calgary Barracks

Don’t be surprise if you find some people fishing in the river.

Don’t be surprise if you find some people fishing in the river.

You will also encounter a major bronze sculpture titled “Mountie on Horseback” done by Harry O’Hanlon in 1995 for Fort Calgary but moved to this site in 2015. It is placed high-up on a plinth giving the Mountie a commanding view Fort Calgary the birthplace of Calgary.

You will also encounter a major bronze sculpture titled “Mountie on Horseback” done by Harry O’Hanlon in 1995 for Fort Calgary but moved to this site in 2015. It is placed high-up on a plinth giving the Mountie a commanding view Fort Calgary the birthplace of Calgary.

Keep walking east and soon you will be at the new Zoo Bridge (opened 2017) that takes to the St. George’s Island and the Calgary Zoo and Botanical Gardens.

Keep walking east and soon you will be at the new Zoo Bridge (opened 2017) that takes to the St. George’s Island and the Calgary Zoo and Botanical Gardens.

However we are heading east, but not before checking out “The Wolfe and Sparrows” sculpture by Brandon Vickerd, a piece inspired by the 1898 statue of General James Wolfe sculpture by John Massey in Calgary’s Mount Royal community. From a distance, it looks like a typical realistic figurative bronze figure, but get up close to see \ the top of the sculpture is actually a flock of sparrows. The piece was conceived based on many conversations with community members who wanted something historical, yet contemporary. (Ironically General Wolfe never visited Calgary and his fame as the victorious British general in the Plains of Abraham in Quebec City in 1759 has nothing to do with Calgary. In 1759, the confluence of the Bow and Elbow River was a temporary summer meeting place for local First Nations.)

However we are heading east, but not before checking out “The Wolfe and Sparrows” sculpture by Brandon Vickerd, a piece inspired by the 1898 statue of General James Wolfe sculpture by John Massey in Calgary’s Mount Royal community. From a distance, it looks like a typical realistic figurative bronze figure, but get up close to see \ the top of the sculpture is actually a flock of sparrows. The piece was conceived based on many conversations with community members who wanted something historical, yet contemporary. (Ironically General Wolfe never visited Calgary and his fame as the victorious British general in the Plains of Abraham in Quebec City in 1759 has nothing to do with Calgary. In 1759, the confluence of the Bow and Elbow River was a temporary summer meeting place for local First Nations.)

Heading further east will take you through a nature area and eventual to Pearce Estate Park. This park, situated at the point where the Bow River takes a sharp turn south, is home to a large reconstructed wetland, as well as the Sam Livingston Fish Hatchery and the Bow Habitat Visitor Centre.  A trout pond allows kids to try their hand at fishing, while the Discovery Centre’s aquariums where allow you to come eye-to-eye with over 20 of Alberta’s fish species, as well as other educational displays and a theatre.

Heading further east will take you through a nature area and eventual to Pearce Estate Park. This park, situated at the point where the Bow River takes a sharp turn south, is home to a large reconstructed wetland, as well as the Sam Livingston Fish Hatchery and the Bow Habitat Visitor Centre.

A trout pond allows kids to try their hand at fishing, while the Discovery Centre’s aquariums where allow you to come eye-to-eye with over 20 of Alberta’s fish species, as well as other educational displays and a theatre.

Proceed further and you find yourself at the 36-hectare Inglewood Bird Sanctuary where you can wander and see how many of the 270 different birds known to frequent the area (Bald Eagles and Osprey) you can find. The Nature Centre is currently being expanded with completion expected in September 2020.

Proceed further and you find yourself at the 36-hectare Inglewood Bird Sanctuary where you can wander and see how many of the 270 different birds known to frequent the area (Bald Eagles and Osprey) you can find. The Nature Centre is currently being expanded with completion expected in September 2020.

The Sanctuary also includes the 1910 house of Colonel Walker, an officer of the first NWMP detachment that came to Calgary, who became one of the most influential civic figures in the City’s early years. He was declared Calgary’s “Citizen of the Century” in 1975. “Inglewood” was Walker’s name for his home and the moniker was soon applied by the public to the surrounding community.

The Sanctuary also includes the 1910 house of Colonel Walker, an officer of the first NWMP detachment that came to Calgary, who became one of the most influential civic figures in the City’s early years. He was declared Calgary’s “Citizen of the Century” in 1975. “Inglewood” was Walker’s name for his home and the moniker was soon applied by the public to the surrounding community.

The final destination is the Harvie Passage, a world-class white water passage recently rebuilt after the 2013 flood destroyed it. It now has two channels - one a low-water channel for inexperienced or novice rafters and paddlers and a high-water channel for experienced users. It is a place to see young kids developing their skills and Olympic calibre athletes perfecting theirs.

The final destination is the Harvie Passage, a world-class white water passage recently rebuilt after the 2013 flood destroyed it. It now has two channels - one a low-water channel for inexperienced or novice rafters and paddlers and a high-water channel for experienced users. It is a place to see young kids developing their skills and Olympic calibre athletes perfecting theirs.

And don’t miss the impressive public artwork by Lorna Jordan. Titled “Bow Passage Outlook,” it looks like a bunch of railway ties tossed on a hill. Kids love climbing the sculpture; couples and families love to sit on the beams, which if you climb to the top, offers a great view at the top of the majestic Bow River.

And don’t miss the impressive public artwork by Lorna Jordan. Titled “Bow Passage Outlook,” it looks like a bunch of railway ties tossed on a hill. Kids love climbing the sculpture; couples and families love to sit on the beams, which if you climb to the top, offers a great view at the top of the majestic Bow River.

The City of Calgary has a master plan called “Bend in the Bow” that will integrate the Inglewood Bird Sanctuary, the Inglewood Wildlands, Pierce Estate Park, River Passage Park and Harvie Passage into one regional park. 

Last Word

The SoBow Trail is indeed a special place that deserves to be named and officially recognized as one of the best and most unique urban experiences in North America. It should be up there with San Antonio’s River Walk as a tourist attraction.

I love how SoBow Trail includes elements of Calgary’s past and present to create an urban sense of place within a nature setting. It is not a tacky contrived Disneyesque park, but something authentic and unique to Calgary. 

It’s high time to start promoting the SoBow Trail to locals and tourists alike as a “must do” fun day activity.

See YOU on the SoBow Trail….

See YOU on the SoBow Trail….

List of SoBow Parks, Plaza, Bridges etc: 

  1. Edworthy Park

  2. Douglas Fir Trail 

  3. Lawrey Gardens

  4. Pumphill Park

  5. Nat Christie Sculpture Park

  6. Shaw Millennium Park

  7. Contemporary Calgary 

  8. Louise Bridge

  9. The Wave

  10. West Eau Claire Park

  11. Peace Bridge 

  12. Prince’s Island Park 

  13. Eau Claire Plaza

  14. Sien Lok Park

  15. Centre Street Bridge

  16. Jean & Jean Leslie River Walk

  17. Reconciliation Bridge

  18. RiverWalk Plaza

  19. George King Bridge

  20. St. Patrick’s Island 

  21. Fort Calgary

  22. Elbow River Traverse Bridge

  23. St. George’s Island / Zoo

  24. Pearce Estate Park

  25. Inglewood Bridge Sanctuary

  26. Harvie Passage 

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

A Brief History Of The Bow River Islands

Calgary: Saturday Afternoon Bike Ride Fun

Calgary: City of pedestrian bridges

Calgary: Needs to foster more "Transit Oriented Communities"

One of the things I was most impressed with during my month long visit to Vancouver was the amazing Transit Oriented Development (TOD) that has happened in that city over the past 15 years.  I couldn’t help but think the future of urban living in North American cities is linked to creating vibrant, dense communities next to LRT stations. 

Followed by, why isn’t Calgary fast tracking TOD development next to existing LRT Stations, rather than expanding LRT to the north and SE edges of the city. And why hasn’t anything happened at Westbrook Station which open in December 2012?

So I decide to ask David Couroux (City of Calgary’s TOD planner), Joe Starkman (a developer with TOD experience) and Gary Andrishak (a planner with 25+ years of TOD planning experience across North America, who lives in Vancouver) why Calgary isn’t a leader when it comes to TOD development?

The answers were very insightful and informative….

FYI: A shorter version of this blog was published by CBC Calgary as part of their feature “Caglary At A Crossroads.” It didn’t include Andrishak’s thoughts on why he has stopped using the term “TOD.” And, the photos are all different.

Calgary’s Chinook LRT Station is in the bottom right hand corner and Chinook (shopping) Centre is in the top left corner. (sorry couldn’t figure out how to mark them using the new Google Earth). The land use around the Chinook LRT Station is dominated by surface parking lots, which is the poorest use of the land.

Calgary’s Chinook LRT Station is in the bottom right hand corner and Chinook (shopping) Centre is in the top left corner. (sorry couldn’t figure out how to mark them using the new Google Earth). The land use around the Chinook LRT Station is dominated by surface parking lots, which is the poorest use of the land.

Google Earth image of Calgary’s Anderson LRT Station (see red mark, not sure why it worked on this one) surrounded by surface parking lots and major roads. There is poor pedestrian connectivity to the Southcentre shopping mall, Fish Creek Library and surrounding neighbourhoods. .

Google Earth image of Calgary’s Anderson LRT Station (see red mark, not sure why it worked on this one) surrounded by surface parking lots and major roads. There is poor pedestrian connectivity to the Southcentre shopping mall, Fish Creek Library and surrounding neighbourhoods. .

Vancouver’s Metrotown not only includes the SkyTrain station and the mega MetroTown Mall, but numerous high-rise condos, office buildings, public library and several park spaces. There is very little surface parking.

Vancouver’s Metrotown not only includes the SkyTrain station and the mega MetroTown Mall, but numerous high-rise condos, office buildings, public library and several park spaces. There is very little surface parking.

What is TOD?

Transit oriented development (TOD) is commonly defined as high-density, mixed-use development within a 15 minute walk of a transit station. TOD provides a range of benefits including increased transit ridership, reduced regional congestion and pollution, and healthier, more walkable neighborhoods. TOD neighborhoods have a mix of affordable and market-rate housing, as well as a mix of commercial amenities – grocers, restaurants, cafes, shops, fitness studios and professional services.  

Every TOD needs to be a mixture of uses and a mix of housing types.

Every TOD needs to be a mixture of uses and a mix of housing types.

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Calgary lags behind

I was gobsmacked by the numerous high-rise residential towers next to the Metrotown SkyTrain station and Metrotown Mall in Burnaby.  I couldn’t help but wonder why there hasn’t been major residential development next to Calgary’s Chinook and Anderson LRT stations as they have much the same conditions as Metrotown i.e. both have major malls and major road nearby. The Metrotown SkyTrain didn’t open until 1985, while Chinook and Anderson opened in 1981.  

The more I rode Vancouver’s Skytrain train the more impressed I was with how almost every station is surrounded not only by mid and high-rise residential, but with grocery stores and other amenities to create an urban village.  

By clustering a large share of the region’s population and employment growth and new major public spaces, community facilities and cultural amenities in locations well-served by public transit Vancouver has become a being a leader in the development of walkable, transit oriented communities throughout the region not just in the City Centre.  Metro Vancouver currently has nine major town centres and 18 smaller ones, each with its own LRT station. 

Recently the Daily Hive an online Vancouver newspaper published a list of 21 mega transit-oriented developments in the works for the lower Main Land. These are not just one or two towers next to an LRT station but entire new communities like Calgary’s East village, University District and Currie.  Some of the plans are so big they include four separate LRT Stations. 

While Calgary has its share of 21st century TOD happening – Bridgeland, East Village, Brentwood and Dalhousie, we are lagging behind cities like Vancouver and Portland who both opened their LRT after us.  

Upon arriving home, I contacted several planners and developers to try to understand why Calgary hasn’t seen more TOD development.  I was especially curious why TOD along the South Leg - Chinook, Anderson, Stampede Park, Manchester (39th Street) hasn’t happened given they are all surrounded by underutilized land perfect for mixed-use TOD development 

Link: 21 Major Developments Plan Near SkyTrain Stations

Metrotown Station lets you off across the street from the Metrotown Mall, three office towers and numerous residential buildings.

Metrotown Station lets you off across the street from the Metrotown Mall, three office towers and numerous residential buildings.

The Metrotown Station is very inviting at ground level.

The Metrotown Station is very inviting at ground level.

Metrotown office towers.

Metrotown office towers.

Metroopolis shopping centre has mostly underground parking.

Metroopolis shopping centre has mostly underground parking.

Metropolis entrance by car.

Metropolis entrance by car.

Metrotown has sky bridges over busy streets.

Metrotown has sky bridges over busy streets.

Here’s what I learned…

I first met with David Couroux, the City of Calgary’s TOD Planner, and he informed me the biggest barrier to TOD development in Calgary is funding for the infrastructure needed to undertake TOD development – everything from upgrading water and sewer, to the need for better sidewalks, parks and integrating bus services with trains i.e. a transit hub.  

He said with a smile, “creating policy and plans is cheap, it is the implementation that is expensive.”   

Indeed, the City often gets bog down in creating endless policy and plans that often act as a barrier to development vs an incentive.  And, while many think infill projects in established communities are free to the City i.e. no need for more roads, water, sewer, parks, police and emergency services, that is not true as all of the infrastructure is old and won’t support more development. 

That being said, Couroux noted Calgary has seen significant new TOD development in East Village, Bridgeland, Brentwood and Dalhousie and Stampede Station over the past 15 years. 

He pointed out in 2009 the City approved the Hillhurst Sunnyside ARP Transit Oriented Development and almost immediately mid-rise developments began to happen – St. John’s on Tenth, Ven, Pixel, Lido and Kensington with the new Memorial Drive and Annex condos currently under construction and Theodore being marketed.  

Couroux thinks The Bridges is perhaps the best example of TOD in Calgary. It has proceeded slowly but steadily and there are only 2 or 3 parcels of land left to develop. It features all the characteristics of TOD one would expect, higher density, mixed-use development, a pedestrian focus to the mobility network, parks, mains street and upgraded public realm.   

Anderson station remains an unrealized opportunity, as do other south-line station areas like Heritage and Southland. The requirement to maintain park and ride spaces adds significant cost to the redevelopment of these site for TOD because it would need to be accommodated by an expensive underground parkade. 

Couroux is optimistic that redevelopment around stations like Brentwood and Dalhousie and get long-awaited projects at stations like Anderson and Heritage will get off the ground in the near future.

Link: TOD Bridgeland

The Bridgeland LRT Station sits in the middle of Memorial Drive making it difficult to integrate it into the community. Many of Calgary’s LRT Stations are in the middle of busy roads, resulting in lots of stairs to climb to bridges over the road and long walks before you get into the community.

The Bridgeland LRT Station sits in the middle of Memorial Drive making it difficult to integrate it into the community. Many of Calgary’s LRT Stations are in the middle of busy roads, resulting in lots of stairs to climb to bridges over the road and long walks before you get into the community.

Another view of the Bridgeland LRT Station illustrating how isolated the station is from the community with major road on either side.

Another view of the Bridgeland LRT Station illustrating how isolated the station is from the community with major road on either side.

The Crowfoot Station which opened in 2009 sits in the middle of Crowchild Trail freeway. It is going to be impossible and expensive to integrate this station into the community. Perhaps in the future we will built a new community over-top of the roads at LRT stations?

The Crowfoot Station which opened in 2009 sits in the middle of Crowchild Trail freeway. It is going to be impossible and expensive to integrate this station into the community. Perhaps in the future we will built a new community over-top of the roads at LRT stations?

By contrast Calgary’s Sunnyside Station is integrated into the community with grocery store next to it, shops just a block away and homes right next to it. This is the ideal way to design TOD redevelopment into an existing community. Even the station design has a home-like look to it.

By contrast Calgary’s Sunnyside Station is integrated into the community with grocery store next to it, shops just a block away and homes right next to it. This is the ideal way to design TOD redevelopment into an existing community. Even the station design has a home-like look to it.

Developer frustrations…

Joe Starkman, President of Knightsbridge Homes, expressed in a telephone chat his frustration with the City’s focus on creating plans and policy vs implementation.  Starkman who is responsible for the playful yellow, red and green condo towers at the Brentwood station, says he wouldn’t do TOD again. Why? Because it takes too long to get approvals - it took four years and one million dollars to get University Village approved.  He said he wouldn’t go to the City for a “rezoning” today as it is too costly and there is too much uncertainty if you will get approval.  

He pointed out Westbrook Station’s “Request For Proposals” was 400 pages making it too arduous to review and understand.  In his opinion, the red tape at City Hall is getting worse not better. 

He is frustrated by the City’s double talk i.e. they say they want more density near transit corridors, but when a developer comes to them with a proposal instead of being fast tracked it, it gets bogged down in endless reviews and community engagement.  He noted “it is often City Roads and Water engineers who are barrier to TOD development, not the planners.”  

Other developers have shared similar experiences with me over the years.

Google Earth image of University City condos next to Brentwood Mall and Coop grocery store with Brentwood LRT station in the bottom left hand corner.

Google Earth image of University City condos next to Brentwood Mall and Coop grocery store with Brentwood LRT station in the bottom left hand corner.

TOD Planner says….

I then contacted Gary Andrishak, Director, IBI Group in Vancouver, who has over 30 years of experience in TOD planning in North America to get his insights into Calgary’s TOD history and future.  Given has been involved in the development of many of Calgary’s TOD plans (including the new Green Line) so he knows Calgary’s situation well.  

Andrishak was indeed insightful and forthright in his comments.  He said upfront comparing Calgary is Vancouver is unfair as “Vancouver is as good as it gets when it comes to TOD development in North America and it is a very different city than Calgary.”  He quickly added “a city that can sprawl will sprawl, “which is Calgary’s problem as there are no barriers to sprawl like the ocean or mountains in Vancouver.  

One of the biggest failures in Calgary is Council hasn’t linked transportation and land use planning, i.e. all of the land along transit corridors and near LRT stations has be zoned for mixed-use, multi-family development to stream line TOD development.

He also suggested that early on the City treated rapid public transit as a utility rather than the “glue that can hold a city together. Calgary lost a generation of TOD over cities like Portland, who saw the synergies of building density adjacent to transit back it he ‘90s.”

Some of the other barriers to good TOD development in Calgary include the fact that too much TOD development is still negotiated between the Councillors and the developers, shutting out the planners, which leads to complications later. 

He also noted most of Calgary’s TOD developments are not well designed when it comes to the mix of uses and the incorporation of mid-rise buildings.  Andrishak thinks Calgary has a tendency “to go too big, too quickly.”  He said in Vancouver developers understand the importance of investing in quality useable public realm that creates a more attractive walkable pedestrian experience; that is not the case for most developments in Calgary. 

With respect to the South Leg of the LRT, Andrishak thinks the decision to use the CPR right-of-way has resulted in making TOD development difficult as people simply don’t want to live next to heavy rail lines due to noise and safety concerns.  

Similarly, the decision to run the NW leg in the middle of Crowchild Trail is also a barrier as you need to be able to build right up to the station to have good TOD development.  Building LRT in next to or in the middle of a freeway just doesn’t work in Andrishak’s experience. 

The New Westminster SkyTrain station is right next to heavy train tracks, like the south leg of Calgary’s LRT but they have managed to still create urban village next to the tracks.

The New Westminster SkyTrain station is right next to heavy train tracks, like the south leg of Calgary’s LRT but they have managed to still create urban village next to the tracks.

The train tracks separate the downtown from the river’s edge requiring several pedestrian bridges.

The train tracks separate the downtown from the river’s edge requiring several pedestrian bridges.

The SkyTrain station is integrated into a huge parking lot and high-rise development with a grocery store as the anchor.

The SkyTrain station is integrated into a huge parking lot and high-rise development with a grocery store as the anchor.

There is a lovely linear park between the tracks and river creating a mixed-use recreational destination. TOD must include creating public spaces where people can meet, relax and play.

There is a lovely linear park between the tracks and river creating a mixed-use recreational destination. TOD must include creating public spaces where people can meet, relax and play.

Transit Oriented Communities 

In fact, Andrishak has stopped using the term Transit Oriented Development and instead says we should be focused on “Transit Oriented Communities,” as transit is just one element of a creating good communities, which should be the ultimate goal.  

He thinks there are three keys to successful TOC development are: 

  • Public/Private collaboration

  • First/Last Mile connectivity

  • Real Community Engagement in the planning process 

Good public/private collaboration includes respecting each other’s needs, willingness to negotiate trade-offs, understanding with density comes amenities and a willingness to work together.  

In the urban planner world “First/Last mile connectivity” refers to the fact that most important part of the transit experience happens as you get on and off the bus/train - be that driving to the station/bus stop and finding a place to park or walking/cycling to the station/bus stop and waiting for the transit.  It refers to what everyday amenities are available within walking distance of transit so you don’t have to make extra stops.   

Andrishak thinks “real community engagement” happens when you combine EQUALLY the best insights of planning professionals, with best practices from committed local knowledge.”   

Finally, as Andrisak noted, “the car – no, make that the pick-up truck - is still king in Calgary,” adding “Calgary has one foot in the city and one in the country; there is still lots of room to grow.  You can still see the downtown from the edge of the city, so people think What’s the problem.” 

I wonder when Calgary will be able to wean itself off of its addiction to suburban “park and ride” lots and convert those parking lots into mixed-use town centres, rather than being so downtown centric.  

Calgary’s Sunalta Station is perhaps the most similar to Vancouver’s Skytrain as it has an elevated station next to railway tracks and major roads.

Calgary’s Sunalta Station is perhaps the most similar to Vancouver’s Skytrain as it has an elevated station next to railway tracks and major roads.

This is not a pedestrian friendly place.

This is not a pedestrian friendly place.

This is the ramp network on the north side of the Sunalta station to get to the, old Bus station and the future West Village community.

This is the ramp network on the north side of the Sunalta station to get to the, old Bus station and the future West Village community.

 Calgarians love their single family homes

Not only do Calgarians love their cars and pick-ups but they also love home ownership and living in single family homes.   

One of the key factors driving the incredible demand for new condos in Vancouver is the high cost of single family homes. "Single family homes, generally speaking, are beyond the reach of most households that don't already have very significant savings or a home of their own," said University of British Columbia economist Tom Davidoff in a September 2018 CTV Vancouver digital post based on a Zoocasa blog (Canadian real estate blog). 

A 2018 survey by Mustel Group for Sotheby’s International Realty Canada found 78% of Metro Vancouver’s young families reported they would like to own a single-family home, however, only 46 percent actually bought a detached house, with 27 percent buying a townhome and 27 percent a condo. The survey also found that 55% of those who don’t own a single family home today have given up any plans to do so.  

The same study found “the preference for single family home ownership (91%) is higher in Calgary than in any other metropolitan area in Canada. In addition, the rate of single family home ownership is significantly higher than any other city at 74% as the price of home ownership is more accessible in Calgary than other major cities. 

Link: https://mustelgroup.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/11/2018-Modern-Family-Home-Ownership-Trends-Mustel_Sothebys-International-Realty-Canada.pdf 

The fact Calgary has the highest home ownership of any major city in Canada and the most affordable single family home prices means our market for TOD development which is exclusively mid to high-rise multi-family residential is smaller than any city in Canada. 

 Something to think about?

After all of these discussions, I couldn’t help but wonder would it be better for the city, province and federal governments to fund infill projects at LRT stations in major cities vs constructing new LRT lines.  

Rather than taking the LRT out to the edges of Calgary i.e. Green Line, which will just encourage more developments in places like Airdrie, Cochrane and Okotoks and more new edge community development in Calgary, wouldn’t it be better if we invested in the infrastructure needed to create more housing where we already have LRT and bus service? 

FYI: Calgary actually has a long history of TOD development dating back to the early 20th Century. For more information on this check out these links:

LInk: How Calgary’s Historic Street Car Network Shaped Our Inner-city

Link: Calgary’s Great TOD Neighbourhoods

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

Eveyday Tourist Transit Tales

Love it: On It Regional Transit

Calgary Transit: The Good & The Ugly