Was Calgary TOO focused on making the new Central Library an iconic building?

Imagine being all excited about seeing the new Central Library but then you see a sandwich board that says “Elevator access for visitors using wheelchairs or with mobility challenges use the east side of the Library off 4th St SE,” (in other words, the back door). That is EXACTLY what happens to Calgarians with mobility challenges upon arrival at Calgary’s new Central Library.  

Note: An edited version of this blog was published by CBC Calgary as part of their online “Calgary At A Crossroads” feature. This blog is a much more in-depth look at the user-friendliness of Calgary’s new Central Library.

Anyone who needs an elevator to get to the 2nd floor entrance of the new Central Library must use the back door.

Anyone who needs an elevator to get to the 2nd floor entrance of the new Central Library must use the back door.

The new library is spectacular inside and has been very popular with Calgarians of all ages and backgrounds. It is more like a community centre than a library - which is a good thing.

The new library is spectacular inside and has been very popular with Calgarians of all ages and backgrounds. It is more like a community centre than a library - which is a good thing.

Sacrilegious

It is probably sacrilegious to say perhaps the Central Library building team was TOO focused on creating a new iconic building. And perhaps some City Council members and Calgary Municipal Land Corporation (a wholly owned subsidiary of the City Calgary that manages the implementation of the City’s Rivers District Community Revitalization Plan which includes East Village) are trying TOO hard to make East Village Calgary’s ‘poster community’ for Calgary quest to become an international design city.  

Yes, the library has received rave reviews internationally. But that is what you expect when hiring a “starchitect” firm like Snohetta.  Architectural Digest says it is one of the most “futuristic” new libraries in the world while Azure magazine calls it “one of the best Civic Landmark built in 2018.”  But did these out-of-town reviewers look beyond the design? Did they consider how the building functions for different users – mobility challenges, families with young children and seniors? 

As one Calgarian said to me, “at $1,000 per square foot, it should be spectacular looking and functional too!”  FYI: Cost was $245 million and the building is 240,000 square feet. 

The new Calgary Central Library glows at night.

The new Calgary Central Library glows at night.

The interior atrium and staircase is awesome.

The interior atrium and staircase is awesome.

The reading room is both futuristic and traditional.

The reading room is both futuristic and traditional.

I thought the facade of Calgary’s new library was unique until I learned of the York Bergeron Centre for Engineering Excellence at York University which opened in 2016 looks very similar to Calgary’s new Central Library. I assumed it was designed by Snohetta, but in fact it was designed by ZAS architects + Interiors and Arup Engineering. I wonder who copied who?

I thought the facade of Calgary’s new library was unique until I learned of the York Bergeron Centre for Engineering Excellence at York University which opened in 2016 looks very similar to Calgary’s new Central Library. I assumed it was designed by Snohetta, but in fact it was designed by ZAS architects + Interiors and Arup Engineering. I wonder who copied who?

Not Everybody Loves The New Library

Several Calgarians have shared with me concerns about the building’s functionality. Some were willing to let me use their name; others were not, (especially the architects as their professional ethics says they don’t criticize the work of other architects.) I also expect they also don’t want to jeopardize potential contracts with the City of Calgary or Canada Municipal Land Corporation (CMLC). 

Architect and mother of a young toddler, Erin Joslin in her email says, “The central core is an awe-inspiring space worthy of all the accolades being given in terms of aesthetics. An initial visit is a total architectural experience, where you want to meander and experience everything it has to offer. Where the new Library falls short is when you have a purpose and its meandering circulation around the central staircase becomes a huge hinderance.”   She also has concerns about how the stair railings throughout the building lacked lower bars for children, even in the children’s area. 

After touring the building on another visit with Debbie Brekke, professional interior designer and mother of an adult son who is in a wheelchair, says thought “both the interior and exterior design of the entire building forces those in wheelchairs to take the long route.” The landing areas by the elevators on the upper floors are also very tight and don’t accommodate a couple of parents with strollers and a wheelchair user trying to get on or off the elevator.” 

And one local architect, who I toured the building with became downright angered, by the sandwich boards directing those who needed an elevator to go to the back of the building. Given the future is transit-oriented, he was shocked more consideration wasn’t given to the connectivity between the library and the City Hall LRT station to the west. He told me, “Universal accessibility is one of the top five priorities for architects designing a building today. 

How could this have been missed?”  The access to the building’s front entrance is embarrassing and should never happened the 21st century! 

Definitely Not Wheelchair-Friendly

Let’s take a roll on a wheelchair from the City Hall side of the LRT Station and see what it is like. 

First, you have to negotiate the LRT station ramp with trees in the middle to get to the corner of 3rd St SE corner. Then, cross 3rdSt SE to the east side where there is limited access to the sidewalk ramp because a traffic signal post sits almost in the middle of it. 

Next, you have to negotiate the difficult-to-open LRT gates, traverse over the LRT rails then negotiate more LRT gates before you get to the sidewalk from where you can roll your way along a cold, grey concrete wall for three quarters of a block to a small elevator lobby. 

Once there, take the elevator to the second floor (aka entrance level), then go back outside to the plaza to get to the front door. 

I am exhausted just writing this. 

To be fair, a 125m long ramp (the length of a CFL football field) is at the main entrance. It is used by many parents with strollers and some wheelchair patrons.  But if you need an elevator, your only option is to go around the block to the back door.

This is what everyone who gets off the City Hall LRT station is faced with on their way to the library.

This is what everyone who gets off the City Hall LRT station is faced with on their way to the library.

On the other side of 3rd St SE. the small ramp area is made even worse with a sandwich board, concrete half-wall and street signal post.

On the other side of 3rd St SE. the small ramp area is made even worse with a sandwich board, concrete half-wall and street signal post.

These gate are very awkward for anyone in a wheelchair or walker to try to open.

These gate are very awkward for anyone in a wheelchair or walker to try to open.

Once across the LRT tracks you are greeted be a large blank concrete wall.

Once across the LRT tracks you are greeted be a large blank concrete wall.

Then a bank of concrete stairs….

Then a bank of concrete stairs….

Finally you make it to the doors to the lobby where the elevator takes you up one floor to the main entrance plaza.

Finally you make it to the doors to the lobby where the elevator takes you up one floor to the main entrance plaza.

Yes, some use the ramp to get to the second floor entrance doors, rather than going all the way around the building to the back door.

Yes, some use the ramp to get to the second floor entrance doors, rather than going all the way around the building to the back door.

Inside also has issues…

Once inside the lobby those with mobility challenges are again confronted with stairs. Note signage directs those in wheelchairs to go the long way around to get to the books and services.

Once inside the lobby those with mobility challenges are again confronted with stairs. Note signage directs those in wheelchairs to go the long way around to get to the books and services.

Even once you are inside, the elevator access to the upper floors is tight for those in walkers, wheelchairs and strollers.

Even once you are inside, the elevator access to the upper floors is tight for those in walkers, wheelchairs and strollers.

The interior ramp for those in wheelchairs or with strollers located on the perimeter of the building, is also very restrictive.

The interior ramp for those in wheelchairs or with strollers located on the perimeter of the building, is also very restrictive.

A simple solution not taken

Ironically, an elevator (it is for access to the theatre space from inside) exists inside the building just a few meters away from the stairs leading to the main entrance from 3rd Street SW (which is where most of the people enter the library). It is used to access the theatre from inside the building. Why couldn’t a handicapped entrance have been integrated into the façade of the building here?

When I pointed this out to Brekke, she quickly observed there is also adequate room for a street handicap drop off spot at this point which would further enhance the building’s accessibility (rather than having to take the convoluted route to the back of the building to drop someone off.)   

I met with Kate Thompson, Vice President of Development, at the Calgary Municipal Land Corporation (who was responsible for managing the design and building of the library) at the library to discuss the accessibility and other issues. She indicated having the theater elevator also be the main entrance for those with mobility issues was discussed but rejected by the library as they didn’t like the idea of having two access points to the library. She did say a retrofit could be done in the future and the City is looking at how it can improve access from the LRT station. 

I couldn’t help but share my architect colleague’s sentiments that “universal accessibility is a must for any public building today.”  

But let’s move on…

There are exit doors (window area) from the theatre on 3rd St SE that could be adapted to allow those who need an elevator to use the one located just a few meters inside. There is also room on the street here to have a drop off zone for those who need one.

There are exit doors (window area) from the theatre on 3rd St SE that could be adapted to allow those who need an elevator to use the one located just a few meters inside. There is also room on the street here to have a drop off zone for those who need one.

Where’s the +15? 

Several people have asked me why there is no +15 bridge to the Municipal Building and its huge parkade. Yes, there is a crosswalk with lights linking the building with the library but it means more stairs.  “Having a +15 to access the parkade would also help address the mobility-challenged issue” said Brekke.

Richard Parker, former City of Calgary Planning Director was shocked when he took his grandchildren to the library on a Sunday shortly after it opened to find out, after parking in the parkade, that the Municipal building is closed on weekends meaning they had to walk around the block to get to the library.  Parker isn’t alone. I heard similar comments from many others how stupid it was this winter not to be able to walk through the Municipal Building to the get to the library

Thompson noted a +15 connection had been discussed and could happen in the future. She added a new $80 million, 500-stall parkade on 9th Ave SE across the street from the Library is currently under construction; however, there will be no +15 bridge.  

FYI: In fact, East Village’s master plan has no + 15 bridges, so don’t expect to see one soon. 

There is an entrance to the Municipal Building on 3rd St SE that is at almost exactly the same height as the Library’s main entrance. A +15 link to allow for easy access between the two buildings and easier access to the Olympic Plaza Arts District and downtown would enhance the public friendliness of both buildings.

There is an entrance to the Municipal Building on 3rd St SE that is at almost exactly the same height as the Library’s main entrance. A +15 link to allow for easy access between the two buildings and easier access to the Olympic Plaza Arts District and downtown would enhance the public friendliness of both buildings.

East Village’s next signature building is an $80M state-of-the-art 500 stall parkade that will incorporate a floor and a half of office space. Some questioned the logic of adding new office space to the a downtown that already has a surplus of 10 million square feet. The parkade was heralded by others for its futuristic designed that allows it to be easily converted to other uses when it is no longer needed for parking. FYI: the cost of a normal 500 stall above-ground parkade would be in the neighbourhood of $20M.

East Village’s next signature building is an $80M state-of-the-art 500 stall parkade that will incorporate a floor and a half of office space. Some questioned the logic of adding new office space to the a downtown that already has a surplus of 10 million square feet. The parkade was heralded by others for its futuristic designed that allows it to be easily converted to other uses when it is no longer needed for parking. FYI: the cost of a normal 500 stall above-ground parkade would be in the neighbourhood of $20M.

Street Level Entrance: A Must

Personally, I think all public building entrances should be at street level, not only for universal accessibility, but to create the most welcoming pedestrian experience for everyone.  

Thompson, assured me they tried very hard to create a grand street entrance but just couldn’t make it work. The site’s huge hole in the middle - where the LRT trains emerge from the tunnel - meant the building had to be built 18 feet above the street over top of the tracks.  CMLC confirmed building over the LRT tracks added $20 million dollars to the cost. 

Because of the additional costs and limitations associated with building over the tracks and no ability to have underground parking, Thompson said the site wasn’t viable for private development, nor did it work as a park or plaza.  If nothing was built on the site, she and her colleagues were concerned the site was destined to be a haven for undesirable activity.  

This made me begin to wonder if this was the best site for a major public library. 

The LRT tunnel divides the library site into two narrow strips of land on either side. They were once a small park and surface parking lot.

The LRT tunnel divides the library site into two narrow strips of land on either side. They were once a small park and surface parking lot.

This is the 3rd St SE entrance (aka front door) to the new Central Library. Not only is it inaccessible for those who need an elevator it is not very inviting to anyone with its many stairs and the often dark forbidding plateau at the top.

This is the 3rd St SE entrance (aka front door) to the new Central Library. Not only is it inaccessible for those who need an elevator it is not very inviting to anyone with its many stairs and the often dark forbidding plateau at the top.

The 3rd St SE entrance from the south side is more inviting with the Chris Moeller’s two million dollar bobbing bird-like sculptures (a third bird is located at the back door). But the entrance is still very dark even in the winter when the sun is low in the sky.

The 3rd St SE entrance from the south side is more inviting with the Chris Moeller’s two million dollar bobbing bird-like sculptures (a third bird is located at the back door). But the entrance is still very dark even in the winter when the sun is low in the sky.

No better than Municipal Building

I think Thompson was offended when I said “I feel the Library turns its back on East Village, in the same way the Municipal Building does.”  

For years, urban designers have publicly lambasted the designers of the Municipal Building (aka Blue Monster) because not only did it cut off downtown from East Village, but its east side is pedestrian-unfriendly. 

CMLC’s website has a photo of the Municipal Building and new Library side by side that clearly shows the size and shape of the two buildings are amazingly similar with their concrete base and pointed “nose.” There are more similarities between these two buildings than people realize.

CMLC’s website has a photo of the Municipal Building and new Library side by side that clearly shows the size and shape of the two buildings are amazingly similar with their concrete base and pointed “nose.” There are more similarities between these two buildings than people realize.

Too many stairs

Yes, the new Library has a fun bobbing alien sculpture to greet you at the back door (aka 4th Street SE entrance), but only after you walk by the long blank concrete wall and confronted by poorly designed concrete stairs, not unlike the Municipal Building’s east side (aka back door) entrance.  

Having personally entered the new library several times by the back door (aka the east entrance), I have witnessed on several occasions someone saying “these stairs are dangerous.” Why?

Because the concrete stairs are next to concrete seating areas that look just like stairs, but a bit higher.  It is easy to inadvertently sway into the seating area and before you know it - you stumble. On one occasion, I did see a young women stumble and fall. Fortunately, she wasn’t seriously hurt. 

In my opinion, the east façade of the new library is not much better than the Municipal Building’s when it comes to being pedestrian friendly.

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3rd Street SE backdoor entrance to the Municipal Building has been criticized for being very pedestrian unfriendly because of its stairs and dark entrance.

3rd Street SE backdoor entrance to the Municipal Building has been criticized for being very pedestrian unfriendly because of its stairs and dark entrance.

This is the entrance to the library from 9th Ave SE which will link to the new parkade across the street.

This is the entrance to the library from 9th Ave SE which will link to the new parkade across the street.

Front Door Not Great

As for the front entrance (aka 3rd St SE), it isn’t much better with its 32 steps.  On one visit, I found an older lady huffing and puffing as she struggled to climb the stairs bouncing a small piece of luggage, stair by stair. She was most appreciative of my offered to help. Too bad she couldn’t use the elevator just a few meters away.  I doubt this is an isolated case. 

The stairs as the back door are too narrow to allow a group of people to go up and down them at the same time.

The stairs as the back door are too narrow to allow a group of people to go up and down them at the same time.

Even inside the library the lobby stairs are dangerous with no railing on the edge between the stairs and the seating. The railings should also have lower railings for children to hang onto.

Even inside the library the lobby stairs are dangerous with no railing on the edge between the stairs and the seating. The railings should also have lower railings for children to hang onto.

Last Word

While some might see these flaws as petty, for me the new Central library is hostile to pedestrians (abled bodied and mobility-challenged) and does little to help connect East Village with downtown. 

I can’t help but wonder if perhaps Calgary should have simply renovated the old central library (maybe with an addition) as Edmonton with their mid-century central library for $84 million), rather than spending $245 million for a new iconic building on a difficult site.  

The old site would have allowed for a better link to the street, LRT station and bus stops, as well as better linkages to downtown and East Village. And, we could have saved a whack of cash for other uses (and we sure have a lot of those.)  

Edmonton’s renovated Central Library which sits on a prominent site in Churchill Square, will join the Art Gallery of Alberta and their City Hall as signature architectural gems.

Edmonton’s renovated Central Library which sits on a prominent site in Churchill Square, will join the Art Gallery of Alberta and their City Hall as signature architectural gems.

Could the old W.R. Castell Library have been renovated and perhaps expanded to create a fun, funky new library that would anchor the north-east corner of Olympic Plaza? I was told, that option was looked at, but the City officials didn’t want to close the library for a couple of years of renovations.

Could the old W.R. Castell Library have been renovated and perhaps expanded to create a fun, funky new library that would anchor the north-east corner of Olympic Plaza? I was told, that option was looked at, but the City officials didn’t want to close the library for a couple of years of renovations.

Don’t get me wrong  

I love the playful façade, the warmth of the wood and the uplifting feeling of the interior staircase and skylight.  

But I hate climbing the stairs to get in and out.  And I feel sorry for those with mobility issues who have to take the long convoluted route to get inside.  

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

Calgary’s Audacious New Library

Fairy Tale Postcards from University of British Columbia’s Library

Dublin’s Chester Beatty Library - Look but don’t touch!

 

 

 

Fairy Tale Postcards from University of British Columbia

One of the things we love to do when visiting any city is to flaneur the university and college campuses. Why? Because we are almost always reward with a fun experience. A recent visit to the University of British Columbia’s (UBC) campus was certainly no exception.

We found some amazing fun fairy tales books and illustrations.  

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Looking for hidden gems

While most people visiting UBC would immediately head to the world renowned Museum of Anthropology (MOA), we decided to explore the rest of campus first – Student Centre, Alumni Centre, Arts Building, Belkin Art Gallery etc.  While we didn’t find any hidden treasures, we did get a private behind the stage tour from the Marketing Director at the Wood Theatre. 

We did end up at MOA but it didn’t grab our imagination so we continued to wander the campus as it was a lovely spring afternoon for flaneuring UBC’s inviting pedestrian malls. Soon we noticed dozens of students enjoying the sun in the amphitheatre space in front of what looked like the oldest building on campus. We decided to head in that direction, thinking old buildings often have interesting things to see inside.

To our disappointment only the façade was old, the inside had been renovated and added to.  

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Had we struck out?

Then we noticed two interesting display case in the lobby with some fun historical fairy tale books, from around the world with great illustrations. Looking around we realized there were six other display cases with more historical fairy tale books. This is exactly what we were looking for – something fun, quirky and unique.       

We continued to look around and found the dramatic John Nutting glass sculpture hanging from the ceiling in the staircase, but nothing else captured our attention so we headed for the exit.  Fortunately, as we were heading out we notice a sign saying Rare Book and Special Collections Library down stairs.   

We both immediately said “Let’s check it out” as we have been rewarded in rare book collection libraries before.  Eureka…not only were nine more display cases with curated fairy tale books vignettes from the UBC’s collection, but there was also a well curated exhibition of The Chung Collection chronicling early B.C. history, immigration and settlement and its link to the Canadian Pacific Railway.  

The Rare Book and Special Collections staff Chelsea Shriver and Hiller Goodspeed were amazingly helpful, sharing with us more information about the exhibitions, the library and the fact three graduate students at the UBC iSchool (Library, Archival and Information Studies) - Renee Gaudet, Karen Ng and Ashlynn Prasad - had curated the exhibition titled “Across Enchanted Lands: Universal Motifs in Illustrated Fairy Tales.”  Kudos to them as they did a great job creating vignettes that were entertaining, engaging, educational and enlightening.    

Here are some postcards from both exhibitions, I hope will give you a sense of the incredible scope of the exhibitions and detail of the illustrations. I apologize that some of the text and photos are cropped poorly but that was to avoid the glare from the lights and glass.

Each of the display cases had a text panel and then several books relating to the theme described in the panel. The displays also included hand painted red and gold colouring with origami like flowers and figures created by Dr. Kathie Shoemaker the exhibition supervisor.

Each of the display cases had a text panel and then several books relating to the theme described in the panel. The displays also included hand painted red and gold colouring with origami like flowers and figures created by Dr. Kathie Shoemaker the exhibition supervisor.

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The Chung Collection

When Wally Chung was just six years old he spent many hours in his father’s Victoria tailor shop. One thing in particular that fascinated him was a colourful poster of the Empress of Asia, the CP ship that brought his mother to Canada in 1919. It fired the boy’s imagination and inspired hime to start collecting.

Starting with clippings for his scrapbooks, Dr. Chung spent more than 60 years assembling on the most extensive collections of its kind in North America. The Chung Collection includes more than 25,000 rare items: documents, books, maps, posters, paintings, photographs, silver, glass, ceramic ware and other artifacts related to early B.C. history, immigration and settlement and the Canadian Pacific Railway Company.

(excerpt from the exhibition brochure)

Link: Video The Chung Collection (definitely worth watching)

Link: UBC Rare Books The Chung Collection

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Everyday Tourist Travel Tips

  1. If you are in Vancouver and have time you should definitely check out the Rare Book Library’s exhibitions at UBC.  The Chung Collection will probably still be there as it is a permanent exhibition, but the fairy tales book exhibition is only on until the end of May 2019. But I am sure it will be replaced by something equally as interesting.

  2. If you are visiting a new city you should always plan to spend a day at their major university or college campus wandering the buildings, opening doors and seeing what you can find behind them.

  3. And, if you haven’t visited the university or college campus in your city for a long time (or ever) you should think of doing so as they probably have some great things to see – rare books, public art, gallery/ museum exhibitions, architecture, gardens etc. 

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

UofC Hidden Gem: The Book Dissected

A-mazing University of New Mexico campus

University of Calgary’s public art gets no respect

University of Arizona: Resort or Research? 


Everyday Street Windows Talking

One of the highlights of February in Calgary is the annual Exposure Festival which showcases the diversity of photography being done in Calgary and beyond with 38 exhibitions across the city.

As most of you know in a previous life I was a bit of a painter and then a curator at a public art gallery and I consider the photography in my blogs as important as the words. In honour of this year’s Exposure Festival I thought I would self-curate a photo essay of windows with words from various cities and towns I have flaneured.

It is as if each of the windows is talking to those who pass by. I hope you enjoy….

Link: Exposure Festival 2019

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Street Talk

After I selected these photos and loaded them to the blog site, I began to wonder if they should be organized in some way. Then it occurred to me that perhaps collectively the words might create a poem or some sort of BEAT story.

I left them as they were and here is the story they tell:

Rise and shine,

WROX

beauti-tone experts

Let your walking do the talking

Live work play

wearing 50 hats

in the cycle district

meet me at the bar

sweat every day

I’m outdoorsy

I drink my wine on a patio

Forget the rules

Lady Luck

If you like it, wear it,

Synonym

heaven’s boutique

Crumbs Cakery and Cafe

eat good…

Three Sister’s Day Spa

Social Room

Embrace the outdoors

Live near the ocean

love of beauty is taste

creation of beauty is art

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

Exposure 2018: Double Exposure

Downtown Calgary: Black & White / Inside & Out

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