Winnipeg's Old World Charm

One of the things we loved when travelling recently in Italy, was the abundance of artisans and small craftsmen with studios on the street - everything from furniture upholstery to musical instrument repair.  It was a constant reminder of the past when people fixed things rather than just throwing them away; a time when things were handmade vs. mass-produced. 

Certainly, one of the cultural differences between Europe and North America is our relationship with objects.  You are hard pressed to wander the streets of Europe without being reminded of the sense of craftsmanship, be it the construction of buildings or the creation of handmade fashion items. That’s not the case in most North American cities.

On a recent trip to Winnipeg, I was delighted to discover a little of that city’s old world charm.

We met this happy couple in Florence. They had a leather shop at the end of the block where we were staying. I saw a belt in the window I liked, but they didn't speak English, nor did I speak Italian.  Luckily there was a lady in the shop who did speak some English and I got my belt. 

We met this happy couple in Florence. They had a leather shop at the end of the block where we were staying. I saw a belt in the window I liked, but they didn't speak English, nor did I speak Italian.  Luckily there was a lady in the shop who did speak some English and I got my belt. 

We passed by the shop several more times during our visit and we always stopped in to say Hi. They were always busy, but still they had big smile for us.  

We passed by the shop several more times during our visit and we always stopped in to say Hi. They were always busy, but still they had big smile for us.  

Wilder Goods

One day, I decided to check out Winnipeg’s West Broadway district, my old stomping grounds back in the mid’70s. After wandering for a bit (loved Zed books, Stella’s Café & Bakery and the Salvation Army Thrift store), it was time for coffee and perhaps some work on my laptop.  I was intrigued by Thom Bargen Coffee & Tea shop, which just happens to feature Calgary’s own Phil & Sebastian coffee.  However, not finding any free Wi-Fi, there I was ready to leave when I fortunately noticed what looked like another shop at the back.

Wandering up the stairs, I discovered a showroom of handmade leather bags, belts and leather accessories.  Behind it, was a backroom with two young guys in aprons surrounded by sewing machines and other gadgets. My curiosity was aroused. Soon Brendon Friesen and Nate Bezoplenko were chatting with me about their thriving business called Wilder Goods.

Utilizing a small backspace (it might be 500 square feet), that the Thom Bargen café wasn’t using, these two, self-taught craftsmen created a workshop which supports both of them working full time. They advertise on Instagram and sell via their showroom – old world meets new world!

The day I was there they were making denim aprons on spec from an end bolt of a 40- year old fabric sourced from one of Winnipeg’s historic fabric warehouses. They were both confident they could sell all the aprons they would make (I subsequently learned they made a limited run of 10 aprons and sold all of them in days to local chefs, a mosaic artist and Christmas presents for spouses).

When asked what was the weirdest thing they had ever made, they quickly said “a denim canopy for a 30ft by 16ft geodesic dome for a mobile performance venue for the Riel Gentlemen’s choir

Brendon and Nate’s creativity and enthusiasm was very refreshing, arguing well for the idea that old mid century urban spaces do indeed have a future, especially if they are not renovated into upscale franchised café and shops. It also supports the idea that more affordable cities are a haven for the young creative class.

Find out more about Wilder Goods at wilderwpg.com

 

Wilder Goods workshop with one of the denim aprons. 

The showroom.

The showroom.

The boys and their best friend.

Eric Shoe Repair

Brenda first discovered Eric in a non-descript ‘60s strip mall on St. Mary’s Road in Winnipeg’s St. Vital community, back in September when she needed her brother’s shoes fixed. Backstory: her brother has hard-to-fit feet so when you find a pair of shoes that fit him, you buy them.  In this case, they were actually new, “steal of a deal” leather shoes that fit but had a flaw, so she brought them to him with the hope they could repaired.

She learned of Eric Shoe Repair from the shoe salesperson at the nearby Hudson’s Bay department store at the St. Vital Mall where she had bought the shoes. After showing the problem to him Eric said “No problem. When do you want them?” And just a day later they were “just like new” for a mere $5.

Then, on our December trip to Winnipeg, we spent a whole afternoon footwear shopping with her brother; this time for new winter boots. We eventually found some that fit.

But given the old boots were in good condition, except for the tongues, Brenda decided to see if Eric could fix them so he’d have a “spare pair.” Both mesh-type tongues were being pretty much torn to shreds. Eric again said “no problem” explained that he would replace them with matching brown leather tongues, even showed her the leather he would use and what the cost would be and then asked, “When do you need them?” It was late Thursday and we were on a tight schedule, but he was even willing to come in on Sunday if need be to have them ready for first thing Monday morning, before we had to head back to Calgary.

This visit he also showed us that he makes moccasin-type boots and was quick to show off the ones he was wearing and another pair he had just completed.  On the back of his business card it says special prices for bikers and even includes a photo of leather chaps – Eric is full of surprises!

Who knew that in a little space of no more than 300 square feet in a North American suburb someone could create a thriving business using century old skills.

Eric's crowded workshop.

Eric showing off his new boots.

Eric showing off his new boots.

A sample of custom boots Eric made for a customer. 

A sample of custom boots Eric made for a customer. 

Last Word

Everyone knows that Winnipeg is home to one of North America’s best early 20th century historic districts – The Exchange.  However, there are examples of old world charm across the city (and most cities if you look for them) and when you find one, there is something fun and refreshing about buying directly from an artisan. 

Cities need to find ways to preserve and foster street level workshops and studios, as well as independent shops and cafes, for those like Brendon, Nate and Eric are part of the diversity that creates urban vitality.  

If they can do it in the old world, certainly we can do it in the new world. 

 

Getting my custom belt fitted in Rome's Monti district. This store was actually a warehouse where belt-makers come to get their supplies - everything from dyes to buckles. The green boxes in the background are full of different buckles. 

Getting my custom belt fitted in Rome's Monti district. This store was actually a warehouse where belt-makers come to get their supplies - everything from dyes to buckles. The green boxes in the background are full of different buckles. 

Calgary: 24 new main streets coming soon?

Though it doesn’t make any “best seller” lists, nor even have a catchy title, Calgary’s Municipal Development Plan is a recommended read for those living in Calgary now, as well as those seriously considering moving here. The Plan illustrates how our city will reshape itself over the next 30 to 60 years, during which an estimated 1.3 million more people call Calgary home. 

An idea that particularly intrigued me was the concept of creating enhanced urban corridors (think condos, shops, cafes, restaurants, patios, offices and small parks and plazas) corridors along major transit streets throughout the city.  This idea that has been incubating with City planners and politicians for a few years now, has now been rebranded as the Main Street Program (corridors sounded like a transportation initiative) and was approved by City Council in May 2014.

I have always loved the old main streets of Bowness and Montgomery and wondered why they haven’t changed much over the past 25 years as the City’s population doubled.  I also loved the Britannia and Parkdale loops with their shops and restaurants.  A good neighbourhood Main Street need only be a vibrant block or two long.

I also love the idea of the City working with landowners, communities and developers to create new vibrant Main Streets across the city where locals can walk for a coffee, yoga, dentist, and doctor or meet up with friends for a meal, a beer or a glass or two of wine.  Atlantic Avenue (9th Avenue) in Inglewood is a good example, 25 years ago it was a seedy place of pawnshops and hookers, today it is the heart of Canada’s best neighbourhood.

The City has identified 24 potential Main Streets across the city (excluding the City Center i.e. downtown and Beltline). Some are called neighbourhood main streets (1st Ave NW, Bridgeland) as the volume of traffic and the size of the road is more local, while others are known as urban main streets as the road handles much more traffic and is more regional in nature (e.g. 32th Avenue NE or 16th Ave N).

24 main streets

What will it take?

I am not the only one who has wondered why Calgary’s old retail streets have not shared in the prosperity of economic booms of the past 25 years.  I am told the land use and zoning are in place to allow for larger buildings with a greater mix of uses, but nothing has or is happening, even where there has been lots of residential infilling. Why?

A key reason is that current landowners are happy with their rate of returns, having bought the buildings many years ago for what seems like peanuts today, they are able to generate good revenue without having to invest any money in upgrading or expanding their buildings. Current owners are not motivated to sell when they are making money and the value of their land is increasing. It is the best investment in town!

The fragmented ownership of the land along these main streets also makes redevelopment difficult.  It can take years, maybe even decades, to assemble a big enough piece of land for the development of a new condo or small office building with some retail, café or restaurant space. 

A third reason for the lack of new development on retail streets in established neighbourhoods, is the difficulty in attracting new retailers and restaurants at they are surrounded by single-family homes, which means they don’t have the density needed to support new businesses.

Fourthly, the demographics in older neighbourhoods work against them as they don’t have a lot of young people (i.e. those in their high consumer years) living around them.

First Street SW is a good example of a City Centre Main Street revitalization with condos, offices, shops and restaurants, which the city hopes to duplicate in established communities (without the highrises).

First Street SW is a good example of a City Centre Main Street revitalization with condos, offices, shops and restaurants, which the city hopes to duplicate in established communities (without the highrises).

Early Public Engagement

Another barrier to redevelopment of retail areas in established neighbourhoods is the real potential of community opposition. When a new building is proposed, almost always the community has concerns about traffic, parking, crime and shadowing of nearby homes. Developers can take a year or two working with the community and City to get approval, which not only adds to the cost of the redevelopment, but the risk the project might not get approved, so they look elsewhere to invest.

Communities also often want a say in what retailers are welcome in their community. Who wants to have their community gentrified? The removal of longstanding family-owned and operated drugstore for a big chain drug store can be the cause of WWIII.

I am all for fostering mom and pop cafes, restaurants and shops as they create a unique sense of place.  Part of the charm of Inglewood (Canada’s Best Neighborhood in 2014) is that its Main Street, Atlantic Avenue, has no chain stores.

We must remember, that these tired and worn retail strips are in fact incubators for local entrepreneurs who need older buildings with low rents.  We need to find a way to include them in any Main Street redevelopment.

The additional time and money required for redesign and approval gets passed on to the tenants, making it almost impossible for “mom and pops” to afford the rent.  It also means delays in bringing the project to the market, which is why the demand for retail, office and housing currently exceeds supply in Calgary today, which in turn increases the cost to both the homebuyer and the retail tenants.

1st Street NE in Bridgeland is enjoying a renaissance as a result of new condos and new infills bringing in yuppies and empty nesters, who support increased amenities like the Bridgeland Market

Bowness has an existing Main Street, complete with angle parking. The goal is to enhance the street with more shops, cafes, restaurants,  residential and office development.

Bowness has an existing Main Street, complete with angle parking. The goal is to enhance the street with more shops, cafes, restaurants,  residential and office development.

Edmonton Trail is already a popular breakfast spot, with some shops and services, the Main Street program will encourage this to grow with more residential and commercial development on key sites. 

Edmonton Trail is already a popular breakfast spot, with some shops and services, the Main Street program will encourage this to grow with more residential and commercial development on key sites. 

14th Street SW is a prime candidate for a Main Street program on the west side of the street.  These single storey buildings could be replaced with 4 to 6 storey structures with retail, restaurants and cafes along the street. 

14th Street SW is a prime candidate for a Main Street program on the west side of the street.  These single storey buildings could be replaced with 4 to 6 storey structures with retail, restaurants and cafes along the street. 

Montgomery also has a Main Street that has great potential for increase density and diversity shopping, eating and services.

Inglewood's Main Street, aka 9th Avenue aka Atlantic Avenue is enjoying a renaissance as a result of new low-rise commercial and residential development. 

Inglewood's Main Street, aka 9th Avenue aka Atlantic Avenue is enjoying a renaissance as a result of new low-rise commercial and residential development. 

An example of affordable senior's housing that could be developed on adjacent streets near a Main Street to allow community members to age in their community. 

An example of assisted living complex in an established community that could be located next to Main Street as part of the community revitalization program. 

An example of assisted living complex in an established community that could be located next to Main Street as part of the community revitalization program. 

Early Private Engagement

At a recent meeting with developers and the City planners I heard the comment, “The City needs to help take out the front-end pain.”  To achieve this the private sector would like help with understanding the political and community support for the development of these Main Streets. Is the Councillor is on side?  We need the Councillor to become the Main Street champion.  

Everyone also agreed one of the first steps should be to prioritize which Main Streets have the best chance of success and focus on them first – building on success will be important.

Another key issue to redevelopment would be the capacity for the infrastructure to accommodate redevelopment.  One suggestion was for the City to do the infrastructure review studies for high priority Main Streets and then sell the information to perspective developers.

It was also recommended the Main Street Program not only at the actual Main Street, but also how residential redevelopment could happen along the streets flanking the proposed Main Streets to increase and diversify the market.

The development of a communication plan focusing on the benefits (e.g. aging in place, with new seniors housing) of the Main Street Program for each of the stakeholders was also thought to be a good idea.

The City planners liked the ideas and suggestions said they would discuss them with their colleagues and report back in the new year. What was really encouraging about this meeting was that the City’s planners and private sector were all singing from the same song sheet.   

What’s Next?

The City plans to form a Main Street Team (no date set) modelled after the City Centre Team which will work with the community, businesses, landowners and developers to foster the creation of new vibrant 21st century Main Streets across the city.   The 24 identified Main Streets border on 60 different Calgary communities, with a total population estimated at about 300,000 (25% of the city’s current population).

One of the key goals of our Municipal Development Plan (MDP) is to ensure established communities share future city growth.  To achieve this goal we must diversify our predominantly single-family residential established communities built from the ‘50s to the ‘80s.  These communities must evolve into more complete communities, which is defined in the MDP as “a community that is fully developed and meets the needs of local residents through an entire lifetime. Complete communities include a full range of housing, commerce, recreational, institutional and public spaces. A complete community provides a physical and social environment where residents and visitors can live, learn, work and play.   This is an ambitious goal, but if we work together we can make our city a better place for everyone. 

And wouldn’t it be great, if one day, instead of talking about NIMBYism (Not In My BackYard), we’re talking about BABBEism (Building A Better Backyard for Everyone).

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Canadian Museum for Human Rights: Money Well Spent?

The September 2014 opening of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights (CMHR) in Winnipeg was probably one of the most anticipated, new 21st century buildings in Canada. It is the first new national museum since1967 and the first outside the National Capital Region.  The design is strange, intriguing, and not just a big box museum. In the words of Antoine Predock, the architect, “ the abstract ephemeral wings of a white dove embrace a mythic stone mountain of 450-million year old Tyndall limestone in the creation of a unifying and timeless landmark.”

 Indeed, the building is a new landmark and tourist attraction for the City of Winnipeg and another wonderful new addition to the city’s urban meeting place, The Forks, which is on par with places like Vancouver’s Granville Island.

 On a recent visit to the Winnipeg, I had a chance to tour (two plus hours) the CMHR. And while I was initially impressed by the design and the exhibitions, something seemed to be wrong. At first, I couldn’t put my finger on it, but gradually I began to question whether Winnipeg - and Canada for that matter - got full value for the $350 million cost.

CHRM looking east is a strange juxtaposition of shapes.

The "Welcome Wall" video has a series of shadow figures who quickly enter write the word "welcome" in various different languages and then exit.

The entrance to the first exhibition hall is along this dramatic and sombre hallway. 

Museum without artifacts

 One of the things I associate with great museums and art galleries is allowing visitors the opportunity to see things you can’t see anywhere else.  CMHR has very few unique artifacts consist mainly of text and videos.  In many ways, this museum’s experience is like walking through a huge documentary film at your own pace.  This got me to thinking again perhaps a series of documentaries could have worked just as well.

 I was also struck by the fact there wasn’t much “new” in the museum; most of the information is available to anyone with a computer and Internet.  One really has to rethink the role of museums in the 21st century.

 Interesting to that the museum’s website has no video of the exhibitions – not even a short “teaser “one. I can’t but help but wonder if they realized that if they did a good video tour, there would be no need to go to the museum. 

There are quotes from individuals scattered throughout the museum. 

There are quotes from individuals scattered throughout the museum. 

IMG_7322.jpg
The first exhibition hall is dominated by a wall that documents the history of human rights on the left and video on the right. The wooden basket at the end is a small theatre space for a video.  

The first exhibition hall is dominated by a wall that documents the history of human rights on the left and video on the right. The wooden basket at the end is a small theatre space for a video.  

Detail of the history wall.

Detail of the history wall.

Several of the exhibition halls are dominated by a large billboard like video screen with words and images. 

Several of the exhibition halls are dominated by a large billboard like video screen with words and images. 

Children loved the interactive floor of colour. As each person stepped onto the floor they were surrounded by a ring of colour and as you moved closer to others your coloured rings joined.  If there are enough people, and you worked together you get the whole floor to light up. 

Children loved the interactive floor of colour. As each person stepped onto the floor they were surrounded by a ring of colour and as you moved closer to others your coloured rings joined.  If there are enough people, and you worked together you get the whole floor to light up. 

Opportunities Lost

Any museum that is focused on human rights is going to be controversial, and if it isn’t, it is not doing its job. This is an even larger issue when it is funded by the Federal government, with the many political considerations and constraints. This museum needs much more in the way of interactive and thought provoking exhibits.  There is no shortage of topical human rights issues in today’s world; it simply takes the freedom and courage to address them.

One of the most memorable exhibits is Jamie Blacks’ The REDress Project (see photo) that looks at violence towards aboriginal women.  Winnipeg and Manitoba have the largest First Nation and Metis population of any city or province in Canada and this population is rising at four times the overall rate of the city and province.  Governments at all levels are struggling with First Nation housing, education, health and crime challenges that are not being addressed. There is no shortage of aboriginal issues that could be dealt with in this museum in a thought-provoking and illuminating way.

Another of Canada’s most pressing current human rights issues is the chronic unemployment or underemployment of disabled Canadians who want to work but can’t find job.  Perhaps the money might have been better spent on job creation programs for the disabled.

And there are many other topical issues of today – violence against women, increasing government surveillance of the general population, the militarization of police forces, the role of women in today’s major religions, abuses of civil rights under the banner of the fight against terrorism, and on. This museum could be a beacon of light if it had some ideas for solutions.

Perhaps some of the space could be utilized for the topical issues of today, and allow outside organizations could develop the exhibits without bureaucratic or political interference.  The museum needed to focus more on how could we move from awareness to action. Now that would be a museum worth a visit.

 

Jaime Black, The REDress Project, 2010 to present, empty dresses collected by community donation with digital backdrop. The REDress Project is an ongoing public art installation. It is a response to the overwhelming number of missing or murdered Aboriginal women across Canada. The installation seeks to engage the public in discussion about the sexist and racist nature of violent crimes against Indigenous women. 

Jaime Black, The REDress Project, 2010 to present, empty dresses collected by community donation with digital backdrop. The REDress Project is an ongoing public art installation. It is a response to the overwhelming number of missing or murdered Aboriginal women across Canada. The installation seeks to engage the public in discussion about the sexist and racist nature of violent crimes against Indigenous women. 

Photo of residential school.  The information panel included the following quote: "I want to get rid of the Indian problem...Our objective is to continue until there is not a single Indian in Canada that has not been absorbed into the body politic..." Duncan Campbell Scott, Deputy Superintendent of Indian Affairs, 1913 to 1931. 

Photo of residential school.  The information panel included the following quote: "I want to get rid of the Indian problem...Our objective is to continue until there is not a single Indian in Canada that has not been absorbed into the body politic..." Duncan Campbell Scott, Deputy Superintendent of Indian Affairs, 1913 to 1931. 

Japanese

Big & Bold Architecture

 While the vastness of the building is part of its provocative statement, one can’t help but wonder, why there is so much empty space.  My guess is that less than 50% of the buildings’ space is utilized for exhibitions and offices.  This means incredible cost for heating and air-conditioning the building, especially with Winnipeg’s long cold winters and hot summers. 

One rumour I heard was that it will cost $100,000 a year just for window cleaning.

One of the biggest issues facing most major museums across Canada today is operating cost; this is not going to be efficient building to operate. 

The interior of the museum is dominated by a floor to ceiling atrium that filled with ramps that take you from floor to floor. The luminous walls are an interesting visual metaphor for the "enlightenment" that the museum is trying to foster.

While the ramps and atrium create a very haunting and perhaps uplifting space, it takes up 50% of the museum space.

The glass walls from the inside are an intricate and rhythmic pattern that fragments the visitors view of the city. 

Even when you look up to the tower, the view is blocked by all of the mechanical pipes and girders - there is no sense of awe that you might expect.

It is strange to have a glass wall that is blocked by so many lines.

Last Word

After a few days of mulling my CMHR experience over, I continue to think the $350 million spent to build a human rights museum and probably another $10 million per year to operate it, might have been better spent actually dealing with the human rights issues themselves.

I would highly recommend that if you are in Winnipeg that you visit CMHR and decide for yourself if it was "money well spent!"

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Readers' Responses:

CW writes: 

Your blog is written rather mildly. Perhaps the CMHR building could be repurposed as Museum of the Scams We Have to Endure in This Life: the CMHR structure, the Edmonton Oilers & Toronto Maple Leafs, Bre-X, the music industry for the last 40 years, and now the Wildrose Party of Alberta. Blog that one please.

KG writes: 

I asked myself this question as well and I do believe it's money poorly spent. From my perspective, the internet allows us to reach people with almost all the content contained in the museums walls – focussing just a quarter of the money on digital media content, rather than a lavish physical monument could have led to something exciting.  Now, granted that won't bring tourists. But, will the physical museum? I doubt it, especially not repeat visits.And don't even get me started on "starchitects" designing sculptures instead of functional spaces. How many human rights were violated to get all that steel just to tie the glass facade to the actual building.

JR writes: 

I fear that a third of a billion dollars was thrown down a rat hole. Question: what part of the money was raised from private citizens; from public companies; from “we the people”? Question: where does the $10M annual operation cost come from, speculate “we the people”? Question: how are they measuring the gigantic influx of tourists who are surely flying from all over the planet to see the museum?

Anyway the real depressing part is the annual cost. Assuming a “cap rate of 5.5”, I make it that there is a negative valuation ($181,000,000) i.e. to lose $10,000,000 annually“we the people” have to deploy $181,000,000 of capital earning 5.5% return to support it, all that after deploying $350,000,000 that makes no return. Poor bloody taxpayer.

WB writes: 

Great and inquisitive article on the CMHR. Many people I know in Winnipeg have little interest in visiting the museum owing to a litany of issues. You mentioned the $10m in annual operating costs but I believe e the figure is pegged at around $26m give or take a mill.

Why? No mention of Aboriginal genocide. No Palestinian causes represented. Only 4 of the 11 galleries completed? Why? ETC. "Controversial" starts with exclusions and lots of pink slips. The CMHR may be the first politically directed public cultural museum in Canadian history and that story has yet to be aired in public.

 

 

 

Calgary's got its mojo working!

A recent poll on Canadians’ perception of Calgary (Calgary Herald, Dec 10, 2014) wasn’t very flattering.  While Calgarians have tremendous community pride, we shouldn’t look at our city though “rose- coloured” glasses. However, at some point in time, we also must recognize our city can’t be all things to all people. 

In many ways, the results aren’t that surprising. Calgary isn’t going to appeal to people who don’t like winter - we have six months of it.  Our city won’t be loved those who lust after beaches and water – the Bow and Elbow Rivers, plus the Glenmore Reservoir just don’t compete. Calgary doesn’t have great retirement appeal, as retirement dollars won’t go further here.  That being said, many empty nesters will move to Calgary, largely to be closer to their children and grandkids who have relocated here to advance their career. 

Calgary is not a major Canadian tourist destination – Banff is! For some reason, Calgary and Banff have not been linked in the minds of Canadian tourists in the same way as Vancouver and Whistler are linked.

Calgary is most attractive to Canadians of all ages who want to “work hard and get ahead.”  In many ways Calgary is still a “frontier city.” Just like at the beginning of the 20th century when farmers and ranchers moved here, Canadians from the east are still migrating here to create a better life for themselves and their families.

Canada’s Young Career Class

“Why the West has won Canada’s youth” was the title of Mike Milke’s (Senior Fellow, Fraser Institute) Herald column November 22nd, 2014.  In it, he provided interesting facts about what he called “Canada’s young career class (YCC),” i.e. those 25 to 34-year olds who have finished their education and are seeking to establish their careers.  From 2003 to 2012, Alberta gained 60,855 YCCs on a net basis; British Columbia gained 10,643 and Saskatchewan 581. On the “losing” side, Quebec lost 24,355 and Ontario lost 27,451. He didn’t give numbers for Manitoba or the Maritime provinces except to say “Manitoba and Atlantic Canada also bled young adults but that’s been a constant for some time.” If you do the math, they collective lost a whopping 40,000+.

Calgary’s oil patch has been a magnet for Canada’s YCC for over 50 years - it is not a new phenomenon. Today, it is Calgary, Edmonton and Fort McMurray that are the magnets for young Canadians who want to establish their career, with Calgary being especially attractive for those wanting a career in Geology, Accounting, Banking, Brokering (stocks, land, commercial space) and Engineering or as I call them GABEsters.

Calgary has an fashionable cycling culture

Calgary has an fashionable cycling culture

Calgary's mojo includes some great nerdy shops.

Calgary's mojo includes some great nerdy shops.

Downtown Calgary's Power Hour

Downtown Calgary's Power Hour

Tourist love Calgary's laid-back urban culture.

Calgary's street culture.

Calgary's street culture.

Calgary’s got its mojo working

Since the beginning of the new millennium, Calgary has evolved significantly.  We have become a better “Festival City” with Beakerhead and SLED Island being two key examples. We are a better “Foodie City,” often placing one or more restaurants in enRoute Magazine’s annual Top 10 New Restaurants and our chefs are regular medal winners at international competitions.  Cowtown will also become more attractive to the YCC when the National Music Centre opens in 2016.

Calgary is also a leader in new community planning with new communities like Brookfield Residential, McKenzie Towne, SETON and Canada Lands’ Garrison Woods and Currie Barracks.  We have also become North America’s newest “Design City,” with world-renowned architects and artists creating work for Calgary – Calatrava (Peace Bridge), Foster (The Bow), Ingels (Telus Sky), Plensa (Wonderland sculpture) and Snøhetta (New Central Library)

We’ve also got some of the best urban neighbourhoods in Canada – Inglewood, Beltline, Kensington and Bridgeland/Riverside.  The Canadian Institute of Planners named Inglewood Canada’s Greatest Neighbourhood in 2014 and Kensington was a finalist.

We are currently ranked #5 as one of the world’s most liveable cities (Economist Intelligence Unit) and #1 in Canada for family living (MoneySense Magazine). And, one thing most Canadians probably don’t know is that Calgary has been ranked the “Cleanest City” in the world (Mercer Global).

Calgary has also diversified its employment base. We are now Western Canada’s financial centre and the distribution hub, which means more opportunities for YCC.

Calgary has also become Canada’s leading political city - the Prime Minister is from Calgary and our Mayor is respected internationally.

Many young Canadians come to Calgary for the job and stay for the lifestyle. I know that happened for us. We moved to the Calgary area in 1981 thinking it would be an interesting adventure never thinking that 33 years later we’d still call it home.

Calgary has a bustling cafe culture.

Calgary has a bustling cafe culture.

More street culture.

Yes, we sometimes live in our own little bubble.

Yes, we sometimes live in our own little bubble.

And, we can laugh at ourselves.

And, we can laugh at ourselves.

Last Word

In the words of iconic bluesman Muddy Waters Calgary has "got our mojo working, but it just won't work on you!"  And really, do we really care what Canadian's think of our city?  

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What is urban living and who really cares?

80% of Canadians live in cities, but only a small part live urban,” reads one of the tweets in a recent tweeter debate by a few of us urban nerds.

This got me asking myself “what really is urban living anyway?”  Can you live in a city and not live “urban?”

I tweeted the author asking what his definition of urban living was, but got no answer.  Indeed, too often people – including urban designers planners, architects, engineers, politicians, developers and yes, even myself use terms that even we don’t really have a shared meaning of and/or doesn’t make a lot of sense to others.

I have often thought the term “urban sprawl” should more aptly be called “suburban sprawl” as what is being referred to is the sprawl of low-density predominantly residential development at the edge of a city, areas commonly thought of as suburbs. But, I digress; perhaps a topic for another time.

Urban living is about diversity? Young and old? Bikes and pedestrians? Residents and retail?

Urban living is about diversity? Young and old? Bikes and pedestrians? Residents and retail?

Is this urban living?

Is this urban living?

What is urban living?

I admit – not only did I not have a handy definition, I could not recall ever seeing one.  It begs a number of questions, including:

  •  Do you have to live in or near downtown to “live urban?”
  • Do you have to live in a community with a certain density to be considered urban living? 
  • Is urban living measured by the percent of time you walk vs. take transit vs. drive?
  •  Does urban living mean not having a car? Or, is it driving less than the Canadian average of 18,000 km/year?
  • Is urban living about the size of your house, condo and/or vehicle?
  • Is urban living about residing in communities with a diversity of commercial and residential buildings?  

I thought a Google search might help, but I struck out. Unable to find a nice clear and concise, definition I went “old school” and checked some dictionaries. They all just said something about “living in a city,” much too ambiguous to satisfy me.

Urban living is about living on the streets?  Food carts in Portland's suburbs encourage street dining.  

Urban living is about living on the streets?  Food carts in Portland's suburbs encourage street dining.  

Urban living in Calgary's West Hillhurst?

Urban living in Calgary's West Hillhurst?

 

Statistics Canada says…

 Not one to give up quickly, I turned to our government, specifically (and logically) Statistics Canada.  I found out that, in 2011, Statistics Canada redesignated urban areas with the new term "population centre" a new term was chosen in order to “better reflect the fact that urban vs. rural is not a strict division, but rather a continuum within which several distinct settlement patterns may exist (their words not mine).”

Stats Canada went further, identifying three distinct types of population centres: small (population 1,000 to 29,999), medium (population 30,000 to 99,999) and large (population 100,000 or greater).

They go on to say, “It also recognizes that a community may fit a strictly statistical definition of an urban area but may not be commonly thought of as "urban" because it has a smaller population. Or, functions socially and economically as a suburb of another urban area rather than as a self-contained urban entity. Or, is geographically remote from other urban communities.”  Have I lost you yet - it is getting very muddy for me!

For example, Airdrie, with its population of 42,564, is a medium size population centre, but it is socially and economically a suburb of Calgary.  On the other hand, Medicine Hat, with its population of 61,180 is also a medium size population centre, but because it is the largest population centre for a large geographical region, it could be thought of as “urban.” 

Despite its change in terminology, Statistics Canada’s current demographic definition of an urban area is “a population of at least 1,000 people where the density is no fewer than 400 persons per square km” (which would include all of Calgary’s 200+ communities).

Dig a little deeper and Statistics Canada defines low-density neighbourhoods as those where 67% or more of the housing stock is composed of single-family dwellings, semi-detached dwellings and/or mobile homes.  A medium-density neighbourhood is deemed one where the percentage of single-family, detached or mobile homes is between 33 and 67%, while high density is where these types of dwellings comprise less than 33% of the housing stock.

By this, Stats Canada identifies six high-density neighbourhoods in Calgary (they didn’t name them), by far the least of any of Canada’s major cities.  Perhaps the author of the tweet meant only those Calgarians living in Calgary’s six, high-density neighbourhoods are living urban?

Urban living is about great public spaces, like this one in Strasbourg, France.

Urban living is about great public spaces, like this one in Strasbourg, France.

YYC Municipal Development Plan

Still not satisfied, I moved on. I wondered if the City of Calgary’s Municipal Development Plan has a definition of “urban living” or a related term in its glossary of terms. The best I could find were the following:

Intensity: A measure of the concentration of people and jobs within a given area calculated by totaling the number of people either living or working in a given area. 

Complete Community: A community that is fully developed and meets the needs of local residents through an entire lifetime. Complete communities include a full range of housing, commerce, recreational, institutional and public spaces. A complete community provides a physical and social environment where residents and visitors can live, learn, work and play. 

So, where does that leave me and others who are interested in a meaningful debate about how we work together to build a better city. What would be a useful definition of “urban living” that professionals and the public to agree upon as the on debate how best to “urbanize” Calgary continues?

Brookfield's SETON mixed-use community on the southern edge of Calgary will offer many of the same urban experiences as living in Calgary's City Centre. 

Brookfield's SETON mixed-use community on the southern edge of Calgary will offer many of the same urban experiences as living in Calgary's City Centre. 

Calgary's new suburbs are being as complete communities with both a density and diversity of residential dwellings (single-family, town homes and multi-family) that would make them a medium to high density community. It will take 15 to 20 years to achieve this; don't be too quick to judge!  

Calgary's new suburbs are being as complete communities with both a density and diversity of residential dwellings (single-family, town homes and multi-family) that would make them a medium to high density community. It will take 15 to 20 years to achieve this; don't be too quick to judge!  

Possible working definitions

One potential definition of “urban living” might be, “living in a place where you can comfortably walk, cycle or take public transit to 80% of your regular weekly activities (i.e. work, school, shop, medical entertainment and recreation).

As for The definition of “comfortable,” I leave up to the individual. For some, a comfortable walking distance might be 15 minutes; for others it might be 30 minutes. I know Calgarians who take the bus or even drive the two kilometers from Mission to work downtown, while others cycle 15+ km to work (and back). I myself used to walk 50 minutes to and from work downtown for 10+ years.  

A second possible “urban living” definition might be, “when you regularly use at least three of the four modes of transportation (walk, cycle, take transit and drive) to engage in your regular weekly activities.”

High-rise living in Edmonton's downtown.

High-rise living in Edmonton's downtown.

Downtown Calgary's West End.  Are condos just vertical suburban dwellings?

Downtown Calgary's West End.  Are condos just vertical suburban dwellings?

Low-rise condos on a residential street in Mission.

Low-rise condos on a residential street in Mission.

Last Word

But really, does the average Calgarian even care if they a live urban or suburban? Thanks for indulging me.  I hazard a guess to say most don’t. And there’s nothing wrong with that. I highly suspect they just want to be able to get to their activities in a timely, affordable manner.

Yet for us urban nerds, we are always thinking about how can we build a better city for everybody, one that is more cost-efficient, environmentally-friendly, affordable, integrated and inclusive. It’s what turns our cranks!

By Richard White, December 4, 2014

Reader Comments:

GG writes: "Initially the definition was applied to the rural/city divide, and has since become a true city ‘divide’. It doesn’t seem to matter than many of these ‘urban inner-city communities’ were the suburbs of a few decades back, and the reasons that people built there and moved there are no different than those today.  By virtue of Calgary’s rapid growth, they are now close to the city center and have developed a ‘cachet’. This was not a result of great urban planning, foresight, or any attempt at smart growth. The densities in many of these communities are less than they are in the ‘reviled’ suburbs that are being built today. They were the product of development methods of the day, and schools and community centers were part of the package.  Families were one car or even no car, and transit was a common denominator. And today, it is all too common to see perfectly liveable houses bulldozed so that the affluent can enjoy a big house but be environmentally and developmentally superior by being an urban dweller, an inhabitant of the inner city."

CW writes: "A most excellent column. Certainly people do care very much about their urban living, yet our language completely fails to capture how we choose to situate ourselves in life. Why would that be? Everybody knows it's not good manners to talk openly about class, but a definition of urban living should take into the account the ability to insulate oneself from undesirable situations of class. Most people love the city they choose to live in, but they also wouldn't be caught dead in some parts of it."

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Importance of comfort, convenience and privacy in urban living 

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University of Calgary: Can art change anything?

On Friday, December 5th from 11:15 to 11:50 am, artist Teresa Posyniak and the Law School at the University of Calgary invite Calgarians to attend the 20th anniversary of the installation of the sculpture "Lest We Forget." 

In conjunction with the National Day of Remembrance and Action on Violence Against Women, this event will be an opportunity to collectively reflect on Posyniak's installation LEST WE FORGET which was installed at The Law School at the University of Calgary (2nd floor of the Murray Fraser Hall) twenty years ago.

Installed in 1994, it is her personal response to violence against women starting with the Montreal massacre of 14 women on December 6th, 1989.  

Guest blog by Teresa Posyniak, November 30, 2014 

Building a memorial to murdered and missing Canadian women wasn’t something I’d thought of back in 1989.  At age 38, with a six-month old daughter and 2 year old son, I had delayed motherhood to pursue an MFA and establish a career as an artist and instructor at The Alberta College of Art and Design.   

My 80’s work, The Sanctuary installations - large, contemplative, full of metaphors relating to vulnerability and resiliency - never overtly reflected my social activism.  All that changed after the Montreal massacre of 14 women on December 6th, 1989 at L’ Ecole Polytechnique.  This tragic event and concern for my kids’ future pushed me to make a strong art statement about violence against women. 

Would my daughter Kaia ever be safe, even at university?  Would my son, Nick, grow up to be like his father, Clarence Hookenson - considerate and respectful of women? 

As I began exploring ideas about violence against women through drawings and paintings, I thought of my own experiences – of being sexually assaulted, of helping out girlfriends who’d been attacked, of growing up around an aunt, mother of 5, who lived in terror of my uncle’s rages, and of sexual harassment which nearly derailed my graduate studies at the University of Calgary.

Can art be a vehicle for social change? 

I was at a loss how to express these hopes and fears through art.  While I admired some political art of the past, I was also aware that socially engaged art sometimes sacrifices aesthetics for the big message or conversely, leaves the viewer bewildered, unaware of the artist’s ideas.  And there’s the big question, can art ever be a vehicle for social change?  

My inspiration came in early 1991 when I read a “femicide” list of murdered women compiled by Mary Billy of B.C. in This Magazine (formerly called This Magazine is about Schools).  I was fascinated by Ms. Billy’s idea that rather than focussing on the names of the men who murder women, we should instead remember the female victims’names, “make their deaths count for something”. 

With that in mind, I designed and built a sculpture upon which I wrote each woman’s name and age of death, adding more as they sadly appeared regularly in the local media.  After the names of the Montreal 14, I pointedly added those of nine local aboriginal sex trade workers (not identified as aboriginal on the sculpture) whose murderer(s) had not yet been found.  I felt strongly that not enough attention was focussed on investigating these unsolved murders. 

Was it because they were First Nations or Metis?  They were someone’s daughter, mother, aunt, sister or friend as well!  These questions continue to rage today.      

LEST WE FORGET - name side detail 1.jpg
Lest We Forget unfinished side

I was unprepared 

Lest We Forget, constructed with paper, wood, styrofoam, paint and leaves – all easily destructible materials- was never intended to be a public sculpture.  During its first exhibition, curated by Muttart Gallery  director Richard White in 1992, it attracted the attention of University of Calgary law school alumni Judy Maclachlan who felt that this sculpture, if placed in the Law School (then under construction), would serve as a reminder to lawyers and lawmaker of their responsibilities. 

Once Dean Sheilah Martin secured approval for the sculpture’s placement in the building’s airy main foyer across from the Law Library, the need for the protection of a glass and steel case posed another hurdle. 

Lest We Forget made it past the proposal stage due to the generosity of Bahaa and Emily Faltous of Moli Industries who designed, built and installed the protective case at a significant discount.  Fundraisers paid for the materials.  

Helen Zenith of Newzones Gallery of Contemporary Art (my representation at the time) convinced the The Alberta Foundation for the Arts to buy Lest We Forget and permanently loan it to the Law School.  It took almost two years and the efforts of many to see this project to its conclusion.    

I was unprepared for the depth of emotion and the exposure to the victims’ families’ trauma.  Some called me to tell me about the tragic deaths of their loved ones.  I added names to the sculpture when requested, even responding to a Calgary Sun reporter’s request to include the name of a mother of five who was randomly murdered in Pincher Creek while minding the family store alone.  

Before its installation, Suzanne LaPlante Edward, the mother of Anne-Marie Edward - one of the Montreal 14 - visited my studio while on a cross country tour to promote gun control.  I also received a visit from the extended family of an aboriginal woman murdered while working in the sex trade.  They brought the woman’s 18-month old son to see the sculpture and took his picture next to his mother’s name.  Ten years later, he left a rose and a card at the base of the memorial after the annual December 6th vigil. 

Lest We Forget

Sign of Hope 

I’ve always believed in the power of art.  Did Lest We Forget change anything? Did it increase anyone’s awareness?  I’m not sure. 

Twenty years after its installation, we will formally gather again to remember the women and to talk about ways we’ve moved forward and what needs to be done. 

To me, that’s a sign of hope.

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West District: An urban village in the 'burbs!

West District is a proposed new MAC (Major Activity Center) community on a 96-acre site that straddles the southwest communities of West Springs and Cougar Ridge by Truman Developments. The boundaries are north of 9th Ave., west of 77th Street, east of 85th Street and south of Old Coach Banff Road in the southwest.

 A MAC is a term from the City of Calgary’s Municipal Development Plan to describe an “urban centre for a sub-region of the city, which provides opportunities for people to work, live, shop, recreate, be entertained and meet their daily needs.”

West District is a unique infill MAC community, as the land surrounding it has already been developed for several years. Most new MACs are at the edge of the city with no surrounding communities.  As a result, Truman Development’s team of planners and urban designers have been able to respond to what currently exists, as well as what is missing for the West Springs and Cougar Ridge to become a vibrant live work play community.

They were also able to respond to the City’s guidelines for creating successful MACs, which were not in place or not possible given most of the previous developments in West Springs and Cougar Ridge were on small parcels of land with fragmented ownership making master-planning impossible.

Over the past year, Truman Development has embraced the City’s vision of creating a vibrant new mixed-use, mixed-density communities in consultation with the community.

This image illustrates how West District (the block of land in the middle of the image) is surrounding by low density development.  West District is essentially a mega infill project.  The concentration of trees in the middle will become part of the new communities Central Park. 

This image illustrates how West District (the block of land in the middle of the image) is surrounding by low density development.  West District is essentially a mega infill project.  The concentration of trees in the middle will become part of the new communities Central Park. 

Community Engagement

One of the first things Truman did right was to engage the existing community from the start, not after they had developed a comprehensive plan.  Rather than the old open house format where developers would present their vision after it was completed and then defend it when the individuals in the community raised questions and concerns.

They decided to open what they called the EngageHub in the spring of 2014, a purpose built 2,000 square foot building where people could visit, learn more and weigh in on some of the ideas being considered for West District. Since opening, the EngageHub has been open to the community 130+ hours  (weekdays, weekends and evenings) for people to drop-in to see how the West District plans were evolving based on community input.  

The pretty little EngageHub looks like a cafe. In reality it is the an open meeting place where the developers and the community can meet and discuss ideas, options and issues that will create a vibrant urban village that will be a win for the community, developer and the City.

The pretty little EngageHub looks like a cafe. In reality it is the an open meeting place where the developers and the community can meet and discuss ideas, options and issues that will create a vibrant urban village that will be a win for the community, developer and the City.

The EngageHub is full of books that people can read and get ideas from about what they would like to see in an urban village.  For me urban development and placemaking is an art not a science. 

The EngageHub is full of books that people can read and get ideas from about what they would like to see in an urban village.  For me urban development and placemaking is an art not a science. 

Density Dilemma

As with almost every new development in Calgary the biggest issue is always density. Too often the developer is put in an awkward situation as the City is demanding more density, but the existing community doesn’t want it.

For example, West District’s density is envisioned to be 36 units/acre, which is 10 times the current density of the surrounding developments.  However, when you average the density of the existing communities with the addition of West District the overall MAC density would be 5.3 units/acre, which is less than the City’s current goal of 8 units/acre for new communities and not that different from the 3.1 units/acre that currently exists. 

Too often the public hears the term density and immediately thinks 20 storey highrise condos, but in fact the density for West District and other proposed MACs will be achieved with a mix of single-family, town/row housing and some low and mid-rise condo bulidings.  This allows for a diversity of housing options that will be attractive and affordable for first homebuyers, families, empty nesters and seniors housing.

Indeed, vibrant communities include people of all ages and backgrounds. Truman Developments is Attainable Homes Calgary’s biggest multi-family partner and they are keen to see a healthy mix of market housing with some more affordable units in West District.

This is an example of the scale of the proposed condos with ground floor retail.  You can also begin to see the wide pedestrian friendly sidewalks and clear cross walks. 

This is an example of the scale of the proposed condos with ground floor retail.  You can also begin to see the wide pedestrian friendly sidewalks and clear cross walks. 

Central Park

Over the past seven months of community engagement one of the things Truman heard loud and clear was the need for a park to serve both existing and new residents. One of the community’s desires was to retain many of the existing and beloved Aspen Tree groves. As a result, the design team has developed large central park that balances passive natural areas with programmable activity areas, which will allow for year-round use.

West District Central Park

Traffic / Transit

Another key issue for existing residents when new developments are planned is the ability of roads and transit to handle the increased traffic.  While the West Leg of the LRT does provide improved transit service to the Calgary’s west-side communities, it is unfortunate that is it is surrounded by low-density communities rather than something like a West District. 

To capitalize on the City’s 1.4B investment in the West LRT, Truman Development is proposing a developer-funded express bus between West District and the 69th Street LRT Station, about four kilometers away. Kudos to Truman Development for taking this innovative initiative.

West District shuttle.jpg

Cost Effective Development

West District is an infill development and as such the area has already been serviced to urban standards for water and sewer, which means no addition costs for new infrastructure.   There is also a good network of existing major and arterial roads that will be further upgraded with the completion of the west leg of Stoney Trail.

In addition, West District will add an estimated $550M in new residential and business taxes over the next 50 years, which is significantly more than the $130M that would be generated by a typical low density suburban development. The additional half billions dollars can be used for new or enhanced parks, recreation centres, as wells as new buses or roads across the city – everyone benefits from mega infill developments like West District.

One of the barriers to creating new urban villages in established neighbourhoods, especially on the west side of the city is the fragmented ownership.  It becomes very difficult to assembly the large tract of land needed to develop an integrated plan of mixed-uses. The opportunity to create a new community like West District on the city's west side is very limited. 

One of the barriers to creating new urban villages in established neighbourhoods, especially on the west side of the city is the fragmented ownership.  It becomes very difficult to assembly the large tract of land needed to develop an integrated plan of mixed-uses. The opportunity to create a new community like West District on the city's west side is very limited. 

West District calls for low density residential on the south side next to single family homes, with low-rise condos and offices on the north side with a traditional grid street pattern which will server to create the Kensington-like community. 

West District calls for low density residential on the south side next to single family homes, with low-rise condos and offices on the north side with a traditional grid street pattern which will server to create the Kensington-like community. 

NUVO Kensington

In many ways, West District is like building a new Kensington community on the west side of the city.  In fact, the new condos in Kensington - Pixel, St. John’s, Lido and VEN – are very similar to what is being proposed for West District. There are also similarities between West District’s Central Park and Riley Park and West District’s main street and the mix of shops along Kensington Road and 10th Street.

While it might take a few years for West District to have the urban patina of Kensington, the goal is to create a community that has a wonderful outdoor culture of patios, parks and pedestrians. (there are not pedestrians in this photo as it was taken very early on summer morning.)

While it might take a few years for West District to have the urban patina of Kensington, the goal is to create a community that has a wonderful outdoor culture of patios, parks and pedestrians. (there are not pedestrians in this photo as it was taken very early on summer morning.)

Last Word

One of the criticisms I often hear from new comers to Calgary, especially those from major urban centres is we don’t have enough walkable urban communities like Kensington, Beltline or Inglewood.

No plan is perfect, however, I am thinking the City should be fast tracking the approval of West District if we are serious about providing attractive, affordable and accessible housing for both existing and new Calgarians.

By Richard White, October 27, 2014

West District At A Glance

  • 7,000              residents
  • 3,500              dwelling units
  • 20%                detached/attached homes
  • 80%                4 to 8 floor condos
  • 10                    acres of park space
  • 500,000         sq. ft. or retail (small scale with urban grocery as anchor)
  • 1.2                   million sq. ft. of (office, medical, satellite education)
  • 5,200              workers 

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80% of Calgarians must live in the 'burbs.

"When it comes to house prices, here's how much location matters" was the title of a Maclean’s article in their November 17, 2014 edition. The story looked at how Canadian homebuyers in Vancouver, Toronto, Montreal and Calgary can save thousands of dollars by buying a home further away from downtown. You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to figure that out. Most Calgarians and I expect those in other cities figured that out a long time ago.

But it was interesting to see that in all the cities except Calgary, the savings increased with every 10 minutes further you lived from downtown. But in Calgary, the price dropped from an average of $665,500 10 minutes from downtown to $515,900 if you lived 20 minutes from downtown and stayed in the $500,000 to $550,000 range until you got 50 minutes away.  Calgary’s big ring of established communities with similar housing stock in the 20 to 40-minute commute range to downtown, making them very attractive to downtown professionals with their higher than average salaries, stock options and profit sharing. 

Majority of Calgarians simply can’t afford to live in established neighbourhoods.

Do the math and you quickly find out the majority of Calgarians can’t afford to live in the established neighbourhoods. A family income of $100,000 (Calgary’s median family income was $98,300 in 2012, Statistics Canada) will support a mortgage of only $300,000. I am told 3 times your gross income is a good benchmark for how much mortgage you can afford.  If we assume a generous down payment of say 20%, that means 50% of Calgarians can only afford a house or condo under $360,000.

A quick review of the City’s average home sales costs by community shows that in the southwest has no communities with an average selling price in the $360K range and there are only two in the northwest.   In the southeast, there would are three or four, while in the northeast almost all of its communities are close to the $360K mark. I realize that even with an average selling price over $360K in established neighbourhoods there will be many homes under that price, but most of them will be smaller and in need of renovations that will bring the price over the affordability of most Calgarians. 

So While the City of Calgary wants to encourage more Calgarians to live in the established neighbourhoods in the inner city west of the Deerfoot Divide, most Calgarians simply can’t afford the $500,000+ cost.  In fact, only 21% of Calgary’s households have an income over $150,000 which in turn would allow them to have mortgage of $450,000 which combined with say a $100,000 down payment would, get them a $550,000 house.  

If only 20% of Calgarians can afford to live in established communities, this means we have to accommodate 80% in the suburbs until we can find a way to build affordable housing for the average Calgarian in established communities. 

A street of older mid-century homes in one of Calgary's established communities on 50 foot lots. Typically they sell for $500+ to developers who knock them down and build a two story infill that is 1,800+ sf and better meets the needs of a modern family. 

A street of older mid-century homes in one of Calgary's established communities on 50 foot lots. Typically they sell for $500+ to developers who knock them down and build a two story infill that is 1,800+ sf and better meets the needs of a modern family. 

A typical street of new infill homes in an established community. Prices start at $700,000 for older infills with new ones starting at $900,000.  

A typical street of new infill homes in an established community. Prices start at $700,000 for older infills with new ones starting at $900,000.  

A new duplex in the inner city starts at about $900,000 as they are about 200sf larger than detached infills. 

A new duplex in the inner city starts at about $900,000 as they are about 200sf larger than detached infills. 

These two new infills on a 25 ft lot sell for $900,000 for 1,800 sf. A similar size house and lot in the 'burbs sells for about $450,000. 

These two new infills on a 25 ft lot sell for $900,000 for 1,800 sf. A similar size house and lot in the 'burbs sells for about $450,000. 

New condos in established communities start at $300,000 for studio, $400,000 for one bedroom and $500,00+ for a two bedroom.  

New condos in established communities start at $300,000 for studio, $400,000 for one bedroom and $500,00+ for a two bedroom.  

Why are we always focused on downtown?

However, my biggest beef with this study - and most of these kinds of studies for that matter is they are only looking at the downtown commuters, which represents only 25% of Calgary’s commuters. For the majority of Calgarians, their decision where to buy a house isn’t governed by the commute to downtown, and that majority is getting larger every year.

The City’s most recent job growth numbers from 2006 to 2011 show that downtown job growth was only 11.5% of the new jobs in the city, while growth in the City’s industrial areas accounted for a whopping 77% of the job growth.  Is it any wonder there is a huge demand for homes and condos in the southeast and the northeast near the industrial and warehouse developments?  In the ‘90s GO Plan, the City’s goal was to get people to live closer to where they work.  That being the case, we need to build more communities near our industrial lands.

The majority of Calgarians don’t need to live near downtown.

Retired Calgarians can live anywhere; commuting time is not a factor.  Many retirees I know have a goal of not leaving the house until after 9 am and being home before 3 pm leaving the roads available for those who need them.   

For those working in and around the airport, the ability to live in the far northeast and northwest means minimal time on the Deerfoot and a shorter commute time.  Living east of the Deerfoot in the far southeast also results in a short, 10 to 20-minute commute for those who work there.

With only one leg of the LRT serving the NE and none the SE the quadrant, workers in our major industrial, transportation and distribution centres have limited transit access and so the majority must drive to work.

Unfortunately, the large tracks of land needed for industrial and warehouse operations don’t create the concentration of jobs in a small geographical area needed for effective rapid transit. Transit only works well for downtown, and a few other places like large employment centres (e.g. university, hospitals), but not for the majority of Calgary workers. 

Calgary’s urban planners and politicians must realize that today’s Calgary is as much a distribution warehouse city as it is an oil & gas downtown office city. Did you know that transportation & manufacturing (mostly east of Deerfoot) accounts for 125,000 jobs in the city, while oil & gas adds up to only 72,000?  The NE with growth of the Calgary International Airport has evolved into a major economic engine for the city and could in the future rival downtown. Did you know that there are more hotel rooms in the northeast than in downtown?

Why Calgarians love the burbs.

While many young urban singles are willing to live in a 500-square foot home and pay $450+ per square foot that won’t work for families.  A young family of four wants 2,000 square feet (the same 500 square feet/ person), which means they can not afford the $500,000+ an older established neighbourhood home, but the home doesn’t meet their needs.  As a result, the majority of young Calgary families are forced to go to the edge of the city where starter homes or larger condos can be had for $300,000 to $400,00 and don’t need any major renovations.

Did you know 67% of Calgary households have children and another 2.3% are multiple family homes? It is therefore not surprising 62% of Calgarians want a single-family home, 16% want a semi-detached home and only 22% desire a multi-family one (Calgary Growth Benchmark, 2014).  Currently, there are more multi-family homes being built than single or semi-detached. Obviously, since supply isn’t meeting demand, the cost of single and semi-detached homes will only increase, making them even less affordable.

I know some will ask, “Why does a family have to be raised in a single-family dwelling?” And, indeed some parents will choose a semi-detached or multi-family home but most desire a single-family home where the kids to run, play and make noise without disturbing the neighbours. As well multi-family buildings don’t meet the storage needs for an active family in a four-season city like Calgary.

Suburban population growth from City of Calgary's "Suburban Residential Growth 2014 -2018 Report.

Suburban population growth from City of Calgary's "Suburban Residential Growth 2014 -2018 Report.

Land Supply (City of Calgary, Suburban Residential Growth 2014 - 2018)

Land Supply (City of Calgary, Suburban Residential Growth 2014 - 2018)

Residential Building Permit Applications, City of Calgary, Suburban Residential Growth 2014 - 2018 Report)

Residential Building Permit Applications, City of Calgary, Suburban Residential Growth 2014 - 2018 Report)

The BIG Question.

Should we be pushing families to live in multi-family housing in established neighbourhoods they can’t afford and aren’t any nearer to work? I fact, if we get more people to move into the established neighborhoods west of Deerfoot, we will be encouraging more people to drive to work, creating more traffic issues as there is no effective transit to their jobs in the far northeast and southeast. 

Calgary needs more mixed-use, mixed density urban style development on the edges of the city like Brookfield Residential's SETON. 

Calgary needs more mixed-use, mixed density urban style development on the edges of the city like Brookfield Residential's SETON. 

SETON happy hour.

SETON happy hour.

A Radical Idea.

Instead of trying to get more people to live in the established communities (where the existing community members don’t necessarily want more density and the majority of Calgarians can’t afford to live there anyway), we should focus on how we can improve the live/work/play opportunities in Calgary’s northeast and southeast quadrants of the city.

In the 20th century urban thinking was to separate housing from employment centers so most of the housing was west of the Macleod and Edmonton Trails and the jobs east. By the late 20th Century the Deerfoot became the dividing line between living and working.  In the 21st Century, we need to look at integration, not separation of live/work centres. We need to rethink the balance between inner city and suburban growth. We need to think of suburban growth as mega infilling projects. 

We need to think of Calgary differently, as a federation of five different economic zones - NW, NE, SE, SW and Inner City.  Each one needs to have its own growth management strategy (land use, transit, roads, recreation, retail) that capitalizes on each zone’s unique aspects as a place to live, work and play. 

By Richard White, November 26, 2014.

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Public Art vs Street Art: Calgary, Florence, Rome

After six weeks of recently wandering the streets of Dublin, Florence and Rome, I was puzzled by the lack of new public art (approved by a public process), appalled by the abundance of graffiti and intrigued by the street art (no public approval).

There was really only one piece of what looked like new public art that caught my eye. It was in Rome, in the tiny off-the-beaten path Vicolo dell’Oro square. The piece “Personal/NonPersonal” by Simone D’Auria was commissioned by the Gallery Hotel Art which is located next to the square. A very ambitious piece that encompasses the entire square, it has 18 ghost-like man/animal figures strategically placed from the earth to sky, including several figures climbing the side of the building. 

The artwork represents an imaginary world populated by white creatures with a human body and the head of an animal. The inspiration has its roots in the past of those great men who have made the city of Florence and its history and who repesented themselves through emblems depicting the head of an animal followed by a motto that extolled the value and virtue of action. Some examples? The turtle with a sail for Cosimo I,  symbol of prudence combined with the power of action; a rhino for Alessando de Medici to symbolize his strength and strong will; a weasel by Francis I, the symbol of cunning.

"Today, in my work, those animals and the meanings they carry with them become faces of men and women, ironic caricatures in which they can identify themselves, visible expression of their deepest inner values; portraits, in fact," says D'Auria. The circus-like animation is a welcome relief in a city dominated by somber ruins of past cultures and statues of people long passed away.  It was definitely a refreshing and welcomed surprise.

I can’t help but think that an artwork like this would be a good addition to downtown Calgary.  It would be very appropriate for a space between the many two-tower office blocks or for the alley space between the towers of the Hotel Le Germain project on 9th Avenue SW. 

fying
climbing the wall
bums
flying figures
seated figures

Florence Street Art

While Calgary invests millions of public and private dollars into public art, in Florence and Rome, temporary free street art seems to be the rage.  Very soon after arriving in Florence, I started to notice the appearance of faceless, simple cartoon-like stick figures with balloons and words like “exit, freedom and resistance”.  For me, it soon became a fun game of spotting the next piece. And they were all over the place!

Later, I found out by googling that the no-name artist was from Pisa, Italy a hot bed for street art. The title of the project is “Exit/Enter” with the purpose being to tickle the imagination of street spectators, to be a catalyst for a smile or a smirk and maybe even be a bit thought-provoking as one tries to understand the ongoing narrative.  I thought the title was very appropriate as the streets and alleys of Florence are full of doorways and corners where people are always entering or exiting. 

CLET

While walking around Florence’s San Niccolo district we discovered a t-shirt shop with some very interesting street-sign decals so we popped in.  We quickly learned that they were the work of CLET, a very well-known, European street artist who has his studio in the area at Via Dell’Olono 8r. CLET cleverly alters road signs around cities with removable stickers. Seems the local authorities tolerate the work, which again adds humour to an urban landscape polluted with street signage.  Once, we knew about CLET we started to find the altered street signs everywhere. 

This is the entrance to CLET studio. The Fish sign is CLET's, the hear and stick figure is from the "Exit/Enter" project and the blue piece is by Blurb another street artist (see below) and butterflies by another artist. I am not sure who did the guns or the black figure with paint roller. 

This is the entrance to CLET studio. The Fish sign is CLET's, the hear and stick figure is from the "Exit/Enter" project and the blue piece is by Blurb another street artist (see below) and butterflies by another artist. I am not sure who did the guns or the black figure with paint roller. 

close up


collage
kisses
cross
t-shirt
blind corner

Exit/Enter Project

waste
Resistance
resistance 2
Exit bike
Lost
balloon
woman and child
ladder
natzi
fly away

Blurb 

A third street artist, Blurb, takes on major masterpieces of art and dresses them up in scuba gear.  The title of the project is “Art knows how to swim” and while I have no idea was the meaning is, they too added an element of fun to serious works of art like Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa and Michelangelo’s David.   Many of the works on paper are ripped and faded to the point where they blend right in with the urban patina of the city. 

david
Blurb
mona lisa
red hat

Rome Street Art 

In Rome, we didn’t find any new public art or graffiti street art like Florence (though we did find a few Exit/Enter pieces). However, in the graffiti-filled streets of the San Lorenzo district near the university, we found the motherlode of street art. 

Along the retaining wall of a playing field in an elevated park are two block-long linear art galleries with works by various artists intertwined to create a powerful statement about the area’s sense of place. 

These are not the refined, pretty, decorative street art works you see in some cities, but rather the evolution of graffiti and tagging into expressionist paintings full of social and political protests.  In some places, it was hard to tell where the graffiti ended and the street art began.

A typical streetscape in San Lorenzo.

A typical streetscape in San Lorenzo.

One side of the street art wall.

One side of the street art wall.

Detail from art wall

Detail from art wall

Detail from art wall

Detail from art wall


The second side of street art wall is devoted to the work of one artist.

The second side of street art wall is devoted to the work of one artist.

Street art on the security doors of a shop.

Street art on the security doors of a shop.

PsychoLAB

PsychoLAB

Need food not football?

Need food not football?

Calgary Street Art

Earlier this year, Calgary experimented with some street art on the retaining walls of the busy pedestrian (4th and 14th Street SW) underpasses connecting 9th and 10th Avenues.  And although in most cities street art is painted without permission on public and private walls and is permanent, most of Calgary’s street art is approved and temporary.

For example, this past May, as part of the Beakerhead, program Michael Mateyko and Hans Theiseen (also known as Komboh) created a pair of 27-foot long murals on 4th Street and 12-foot murals on 14th Street. Eco-chalk graffiti, an environmentally-friendly product that can be easily removed was used.  The murals consisted of several cartoon robot-like figures that mimicked people walking to work. 

The spontaneity, surprise and fun-ness of the artwork that appeared overnight was dampened by a large text informing everyone, “This temporary public artwork is created with eco-calk and application and removal process approved by the City of Calgary.”

As well, in East Village, Calgary Municipal Land Corporation organized two interesting temporary street art projects. The first “I am the River” by Derek Besant and the current “The Field Manual: A compendium of local influence” by Calgary’s Light & Soul Collective, both using the new RiverWalk’s bridge abutments, storage sheds and robo-bathrooms as their canvas.  

 

4th Street Mural from the other side of the underpass.

4th Street Mural from the other side of the underpass.

The 4th Street mural pedestrian perspective.

The 4th Street mural pedestrian perspective.

Example of one of the fun and clever cartoon characters. 

Example of one of the fun and clever cartoon characters. 

Love this cartoon of a woman walking with her briefcase and plugged in to the sky aka icloud.

Love this cartoon of a woman walking with her briefcase and plugged in to the sky aka icloud.

Somehow I felt this signage took some of the fun and spontaneity out of the work.

Somehow I felt this signage took some of the fun and spontaneity out of the work.

Last Word 

One has to wonder if Calgary and other cities would be better served by encouraging more temporary street art, both approved and unapproved, than expensive permanent public art works.  Not only is street art cheaper, it doesn’t have any maintenance costs and if the public doesn’t like it, well, it will literally disappear in a few months or years.

Found the juxtaposition of the bike and the skeleton figure quite provocative. 

Found the juxtaposition of the bike and the skeleton figure quite provocative. 

Calgary's MAC attack

Over the next few months, Calgary’s planners and politicians are going to experience a “MAC attack” as developers present plans for new Major Activity Centers (MAC) on the west and north edges of the city. 

What is a MAC you ask?  The City of Calgary Municipal Development Plan defines it as an urban center for a sub-region of the city providing opportunities for people to work, live, shop, recreate, be entertained and meet their daily needs.  

MAC is not a new idea

In the early ‘90s, the City’s Go Plan called for “mini-downtowns” at the edge of the city and in many ways a MAC is like a small city downtown with a main street and offices surrounded by low rise residential development.  Then in the early 21st century, planners started using terms like “urban villages” and “transit-oriented development (TOD)” for mixed-use (residential, commercial) developments that incorporated live, work, play elements.

The problem with TOD was that in many cases Calgary’s new communities were getting developed years before the transit infrastructure was actually in place. For example, Quarry Park and SETON in the southeast are both being developed today along the future SE LRT route, but the trains won’t arrive for probably another 15+ years away.

TOD also had other limitations, as MACs are not always right next to major transit routes, but more oriented toward major roadways in the city. For example, the Currie Barracks has all of the attributes of MAC but no major transit connections. Its focus is more on Crowchild Trail and Glenmore Trail, with Mount Royal University and the Westmont Business Park and ATCO site redevelopment as its employment centre.   

Currie Barracks Mount Royal University is just one of several Major Activity Centres (MACs) identified by the City of Calgary as places where vibrant mixed-use urban density developments should take place. The numbers refer to various amenities like parks, schools, shopping etc.

Currie Barracks Mount Royal University is just one of several Major Activity Centres (MACs) identified by the City of Calgary as places where vibrant mixed-use urban density developments should take place. The numbers refer to various amenities like parks, schools, shopping etc.

An example of a street in Currie Barracks where attached houses are nestled together with shared front lawns, narrow sidewalks and alleys. 

An example of a street in Currie Barracks where attached houses are nestled together with shared front lawns, narrow sidewalks and alleys. 

MACs have a enhanced sidewalks leading to public spaces and shopping areas, which make for more pedestrian and wagon friendly streets. Also note the open storm water area which allows for natural water run off for vegetation. 

MACs have a enhanced sidewalks leading to public spaces and shopping areas, which make for more pedestrian and wagon friendly streets. Also note the open storm water area which allows for natural water run off for vegetation. 

This is a back alley in Currie Barracks with a mix of traditional garages and laneway housing. 

This is a back alley in Currie Barracks with a mix of traditional garages and laneway housing. 

MAC 101

The City’s Municipal Development Plan has some very specific guidelines when it comes to what is a MAC, these include:

  1.  200 jobs per gross developable hectare (a hectare is approximately the size of two CFL football fields including the end zones).
  2.  Provide a business centre/employment center; this could be an independent office buildings or office/medical space above retail.
  3.  Range of housing types – single-family, town and row housing, medium-density condos (under 6 floors), rental and affordable housing
  4.  Large format retail (big box) should be at the edge of the MAC to allow access from other communities
  5. Pedestrian/transit-friendly design i.e. pedestrians and transit have priority over cars. For example, vehicle parking should design to minimize impact on transit and pedestrian activities, ideally underground.
  6.  Diversity of public spaces i.e. plazas, playgrounds, pocket parks and pathways.  Sports fields should be located at the edge of the MAC as they take up large tracts of land and are only used seasonally.  Planners want to keep as many higher uses clustered together near the LRT or Main Street.

While these are useful guidelines, they should not be prescriptive, as each site must be allowed to develop based on its unique site opportunities and limitations - no two MACs are the same.

 

This is an early conceptual computer rendering of Brookfield Residential's SETON showing the South Health Campus in the background with low rise condos and office buildings and a pedestrian oriented main street with shops, cafes, restaurants and patios.  

This is an early conceptual computer rendering of Brookfield Residential's SETON showing the South Health Campus in the background with low rise condos and office buildings and a pedestrian oriented main street with shops, cafes, restaurants and patios.  

Early conceptual rendering of SETON pedestrian street. 

Early conceptual rendering of SETON pedestrian street. 

Conceptual rendering of a mixed-use street in SETON.

Conceptual rendering of a mixed-use street in SETON.

SETON at might with street patios. 

SETON at might with street patios. 

Coming Soon

Earlier this year the City approved land-use plans for the University of Calgary’s West Campus an inner city MAC that was developed after extensive community engagement. 

Up next for Council’s approval will be West District that links the west side communities of West Springs and Cougar Ridge and Brookfield Residential’s Livingston at the northern edge of the city, both of which will be topics for future blogs.  

This is an artist's sketch of the central retail area proposed for Currie Barracks. Surrounded by offices and condos, this public space is designed to allow for a diversity of uses by people day and night, weekdays and weekends. Also note that designers are also taking into account Calgary is a winter city. (rendering provided by Canada Land Corporation) 

This is an artist's sketch of the central retail area proposed for Currie Barracks. Surrounded by offices and condos, this public space is designed to allow for a diversity of uses by people day and night, weekdays and weekends. Also note that designers are also taking into account Calgary is a winter city. (rendering provided by Canada Land Corporation) 

West Campus' main street has been designed as the community's focal point with spaces appropriate for boutiques, cafes, restaurants, pubs, a hotel and cinema. It will be a place that appeals to Calgarians of all ages and be accessible by pedestrians, cyclists and vehicles.  (computer rendering by RK Visuals provided by West Campus Development Trust 

West Campus' main street has been designed as the community's focal point with spaces appropriate for boutiques, cafes, restaurants, pubs, a hotel and cinema. It will be a place that appeals to Calgarians of all ages and be accessible by pedestrians, cyclists and vehicles.  (computer rendering by RK Visuals provided by West Campus Development Trust 

Last Word

As Calgary evolves as a city, so does the glossary of terms used by planners and developers to describe their utopian vision of what Calgary could and should be in the future.

Calgary’s development community has enthusiastically taken up the concept and challenge of creating MACs; this is a good thing for two reasons.  One Calgary needs to speed up its residential development approval process if we want to create affordable and adequate housing for the next generation of Calgarians. Second, more and more new Calgarians are looking for walkable urban communities.

While in the past developers and planners didn’t always see “eye-to-eye” on how new communities should be planned, more and more there is a shared vision of how to create pedestrian-friendly, mixed-use and mixed-density communities.  

Calgary’s planning department use to have the motto “working together to make a great city better.”  I am thinking this would be a good motto for all of the city’s departments, as well as the development community and the citizens of Calgary. 

By Richard White, November 22, 2014

An edited version of this blog was published in the Calgary Herald, titled "Big hopes for mini-downtowns" on Saturday, November 22nd in the New Condos section. 

If you like this blog, you might like:

Brookfield: Working together to make Calgary better!

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A Surprise Playground Lunch

After a fun day of exploring Rome’s hipster Trastevere district, we were getting hungry. So, as good flaneurs do, we started asking shopkeepers where to go to lunch with the locals. Following the suggestion to check out the restaurants along Via G.A. Bertani, we eventually ending up at triangular Piazza San Cosimato. 

 To our surprise, the piazza was animated with a pop-up farmers’ market and a few permanent food vendors.  We quickly spotted a butcher making some great looking fresh sandwiches.  We stood in line to get one.  When our turn arrived, we non-Italian speakers pointed and said “two.” A few minutes of charades later, we found out we needed to go to the bakery on the street behind the butcher to purchase the buns and then return to the butcher who would make us our sandwiches.

 Buns in hand, we were back at the butcher’s in a flash. While he was making our sandwiches, I realized I really wanted a beer, so in another round of charades, I asked if he had one.  At first he pointed back to the bakery/grocery store, but then he nodded, smiled, grabbed a beer out of the fridge (I expect it was his personal beer fridge) and handed it to me.

 After paying up, we went to find a place to sit and enjoy our big fat, paper-wrapped sandwiches.  The only obvious spot was the benches along the inside perimeter of the tiny playground at the tip of the piazza. 

 

Yes, Dads love to jump too.  This Dad is showing off his jumping skills to the entire family.

Yes, Dads love to jump too.  This Dad is showing off his jumping skills to the entire family.

One sister is keen, the other is not so sure.

One sister is keen, the other is not so sure.

Big brother helping sister.

Big brother helping sister.

Playground Fun 

It turned out to be the perfect spot, with dappled sunlight and a front row seat for the Cirque du Soleil-like performance by young children and their parents. As we ate, we were treated to a series of children hopping from one orange stationary, stool-like structure to another, spaced just far enough apart to make the jump difficult for younger children.  It was too much fun to watch as dads helped their kids and older siblings helped the younger ones.  We even had a couple of amazing performances by the dad – interesting to note that none of the moms gave it a try. It was amazing to watch how long the families jumped back and forth on this simple, low-tech playground equipment.

 The playground was also a great people-watching place. Locals of all ages and backgrounds came and went – it was a cast of characters.  I was even befriended by a little guy with a soccer ball who wanted somebody to kick it back and forth, which we did for few minutes until his Mom said they had to leave (or at least I think that is what she said as she smiled and said “thank you.”) As we left, I discovered what must be one of the largest blackboards in the world. Somebody had cleverly turned the concrete retaining wall along the edge of the piazza into a huge blackboard, probably close to 100 feet long.  I wish I had brought my sidewalk chalk.

 

The seven stepping stools, who would think they could be so much fun.

The seven stepping stools, who would think they could be so much fun.

The spectators bench. 

The spectators bench. 

The world's longest blackboard?

The world's longest blackboard?

A good public space attracts people of all ages. 

A good public space attracts people of all ages. 

Our friendly butcher, sandwich maker. 

Our friendly butcher, sandwich maker. 

Last Word

This was definitely a far cry from the $250,000+ mass-produced, mega colourful playgrounds being constructed in parks in communities throughout Calgary.  This playground was integrated into the community’s everyday pursuits with shops and restaurants surrounding it on all sides.  Yes, there was a fence around the park, but there were no Playground Zone signs and no isolating the playground in a park far away from pedestrian, bike, motorcycle and car traffic. Rather, it was an integrated part of the everyday activities of a community that embraced outdoor urban living.  It truly was a community meeting / hangout place.  

 We love urban surprises and the Piazza San Cosimato ranks high as one of the best surprise of our 7 days in Rome.

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Dublin: St. Stephen's Green vs St Patrick's Cathedral Park

I have always believed that great cities have great parks.  A recent visit to Dublin and its two urban parks reminded me or the importance of parks in creating attractive urban places for people of all ages and backgrounds. 

St. Stephen's Green 

Until 1663 St. Stephen's Green was a marshy common on the edge of Dublin, used for grazing. In that year Dublin Corporation, seeing an opportunity to raise much needed revenue, decided to enclose the centre of the common and to sell land around the perimeter for building. The park was enclosed with a wall in 1664. The houses built around the Green were rapidly replaced by new buildings in the Georgian style and by the end of the eighteenth century the Green was the urban playground for the city's rich and famous. Much of the present day streetscape around the Green comprises modern buildings (some in a replica Georgian style) with very little from the 18th and 19th centuries.

Today St. Stephen's Green is a green oasis for people of all ages and backgrounds  in Dublin's bustling city centre. The current park was designed by William Sheppard in 1880.  The park is adjacent to one of Dublin's main shopping streets, Grafton Street, and to a shopping centre named for it, while on its surrounding streets are the offices of a number of government office and the city terminus of one of Dublin's LUAS tram lines.  At 22 acres, it is the largest of Dublin's Georgian garden squares, others include nearby Merrion Square and Fitzwilliam Square.

Map of St. Stephen's Green

Map of St. Stephen's Green

There is a wonderful calmness in the park that invites you to sit and relax. 

Parks are great places to sit, chat and people watch. 

Parks are great places to sit, chat and people watch. 

Fusilier's Arch is located at the entrance/exit to the park from Grafton Street. Built in 1907, it is dedicated to the Royal Dublin Fusiliers who fought and died in the Second Boer War (1899 - 1902).

The Park's playground is very popular with the little people.. 

The Park's playground is very popular with the little people.. 

Stephen's Green has a wonderful pastoral ambience to it.

Stephen's Green has a wonderful pastoral ambience to it.

The park is surrounded by high dense hedges that serve as noise and sight barriers, which contributes to the sense of an oasis and privacy. 

The park is surrounded by high dense hedges that serve as noise and sight barriers, which contributes to the sense of an oasis and privacy. 

The Park is full of monuments, mostly formal statues, but this contemporary piece titled "Famine,"  by Edward Delaney caught our imagination.  Parks make great spaces for public art, as they allow people to contemplate the artwork and move around it.

St. Patrick's Cathedral Park 

I love that Baileys sponsored this information panel about the park and cathedral. 

I love that Baileys sponsored this information panel about the park and cathedral. 

The formal park is centred around a modest fountain. 

The formal park is centred around a modest fountain. 

Every park needs a playground. 

Every park needs a playground. 

Parks should appeal to people of all ages.  This little guy turned a ramp into his private playground.

Parks should appeal to people of all ages.  This little guy turned a ramp into his private playground.

Parks and public space should invite people to sit and linger.

Parks and public space should invite people to sit and linger.

Liberty Bell, by Vivienne Roche occupies a prominent spot in the park.

Liberty Bell, by Vivienne Roche occupies a prominent spot in the park.

At first I missed this peace of public art at is was so well integrated into the park I thought it was just another table and chairs. The location is perfect for looking out at the park or the cathedral. The piece is titled "Havel's Place" was designed by Borek Sipek and is dedicated to late Czech President and human rights advocate, Vaclav Havel. There are several of these monuments around the world. Click here for more info.

At first I missed this peace of public art at is was so well integrated into the park I thought it was just another table and chairs. The location is perfect for looking out at the park or the cathedral. The piece is titled "Havel's Place" was designed by Borek Sipek and is dedicated to late Czech President and human rights advocate, Vaclav Havel. There are several of these monuments around the world. Click here for more info.

Parade of Writers

Another fun element of the park an area set aside to recognize the tremendous contribution made by writers who have lived in Dublin. It is truly amazing that one city could be the home for so many influential writers over such a long period of time.

panel
famous writers
beckett

Last Word 

I am not sure if anyone has done the study, but I expect there is a direct correlation between the quality and quantity of urban parks and the vibrancy of the City's City Center. Think New York's  Central Park, Vancouver's Stanley Park or Montreal's Mount Royal Park.  

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Florence BFFs: Best Flaneur Finds

Florence with its 10+ million visitors annually is full of touristy places to shop, eat and people watch. You really have to dig deep to find the “real” Florence.  As avid flaneurs, we are always on the lookout for locals who have a hipster, modern, funky or designer look about them, as they are good bets for having the best insights into the city’s true culture. 

Once you have sussed out such people, good questions to ask them beyond the usual “Where is a good place to eat or shop? “are:

  •  Is there a design or galley district in your city.
  • Are there any retro, second-hand, antique or used bookstores nearby?
  • Where do the locals like to hang out?” 

After 10 days of flaneuring in Florence, we found three streets that offer a more authentic Florence experience – Niccolo, Pinti and Macci.  Yes, there are still lots of tourist traps on these streets, but there are also great local hot spots.

Borgo Pinti District (from Via Egidio to Via dei Pilastri)

Even though this street was just a block away from where we were living, it took us a couple of days to find it.  As there are no cars, it is a popular pedestrian and cyclist route into the core from the edge of the City Centre.

Here you will find several upscale shops (from kids to high fashion), bakery and restaurants catering to locals and off-the-beaten path tourists.  We loved the three vintage/retro boutiques – Mrs. Macis (#38), SOqquadro (#13), Abiti Usati & Vintage (#24) and a funky hat and jewelry shop, Jesei che Volano (#33).  Note the numbers in brackets are the street numbers, but Florence has a strange way of numbering homes and shops with different coloured numbers; even by the end we were not sure we had figured it out.  

The big flaneur find on Pinti was FLY (Fashion Loves You), which looks like a high-end fashion store, but is in fact a boutique run by students from the fashion department of the Florence University of the Arts. FLY has very trendy, well-made designer purses, jewelry and clothing created by the students.  It also has some of the friendliest and knowledgeable staff we have ever encountered.  We were immediately given information about other places to check out including their cooking school/restaurant on Via de Macci (more below).

 

This wall of scarves at FLY had the feel of contemporary art exhibition. 

This wall of scarves at FLY had the feel of contemporary art exhibition. 

Mrs Macis is a colourful, playful vintage shop. 

Mrs Macis is a colourful, playful vintage shop. 

Jesei che Volano is dominated by wall of hats on fish head hooks.

Niccolo District

On the other side of the Arno River, away from the main tourist traps, is an up and coming area anchored by Via di Niccolo, at the base of the hill to the Plazzale Michelangelo.  Already home to several good restaurants and artisan studios, and lots of construction, it might be too late to call this a hidden gem, but it is definitely worth checking out.

Vivaldi Cioccolateri (Via dei Renai, 15r) has a “North American meets Florence” atmosphere. The high-ceiling back room salon with an eclectic assortment of big comfy antique chairs and couches and classic music oozes relaxation. I had perhaps one of the best chocolate desserts I have had here - an unbaked chocolate torte, garnished with thin chocolate leaves.  Though we didn’t taste the gelato, it sure looked good!  And, while sitting enjoying your coffee and dessert, you can also enjoy some voyeuristic fun as the pastry chef’s kitchen is in the loft space above the salon.

If you are into luxury and love shoes, a visit to the Stefano Bemer studio is a must.  Here they make custom shoes from scratch and promise a perfect fit for both of your feet (few people have both feet the same size or shape). The front of the shop is both a showroom and workshop where you can see young artisans at work and view some of their samples (mostly men’s shoes, but some women’s flats). Don’t expect to walk away with new shoes; there is a six-month waiting list. Rumor has it Salvatore Ferragamo’s son buys his shoes here. Note: Be prepared to shell out 3,000 euros of a new pair of shoes, but this also includes the one time molds.

We were amazed at how friendly all the artists in this district are. Don’t hesitate to go in and chat. They all speak some English, were happy to talk about their art and often had interesting tips on what to see and do in the area. 

Stefano Bemer's wall of foot moulds each with the names of the owner created a visual delight.

Vivaldi Cioccolateri's cozy back room oasis. 

CLET is a Florence street artist who creates these fun street signs around the city, especially in the Niccolo District where he has his studio. 

CLET is a Florence street artist who creates these fun street signs around the city, especially in the Niccolo District where he has his studio. 

Collage of CLET signs.

Collage of CLET signs.

Via de Macci District

We found this street after checking out the area’s Ghilberti Market. Here you will find interesting artisan shops like Ad’a’s Studio (#46) with a great selection of knitted and crocheted handbags, hats, mitts and scarfs made right on site.

Brenda loved the L’Aurora Onlus charity (thrift) shop (#11) located in the decommissioned San Francesco al Tempio hospital, church and convent complex built in 1335 (open Wednesday, Thursday and Friday). Part of the church space has been converted into the most amazing thrift store space we have ever encountered, with its intact cathedral ceilings with their religious paintings on them.  Unfortunately, the lighting is poor so you might have to use the flashlight on your phone to look at things. And the fitting room is a tiny, back storage room with poor light and no mirror. Brenda says, “it is like shopping in the twilight zone!”

At the I Mosaici di Lastrucci (#9) workshop and gallery, you can watch amazing artisans painstakingly create amazing realistic mosaic artworks from very thin slices of different coloured rocks.  The art of natural stone inlaid work dates back to 15th century Florence. This is truly is a walk back in time, when everything was handmade by local artisans.

Danda Necioni’s (#27) is an etching and map shop that is literally jam packed with historic works – a great source for a unique souvenir from Italy. All of the works come with documented authentication, making them real collector items.

Based on the hot tip from the staff at FLY, we lunched at GANZO (#85), the restaurant owned by the Florence University of the Arts and run by students.  If you are looking for a break from dark spaces and ancient architecture, its bright white walls, contemporary furnishings and large black and white student photography provides respite from the dark and decaying places outside.

The food is “stellar,” says Brenda.  Her tuna steak on polenta cake with autumn pesto had us both wanting more. I loved my pumpkin puree soup with floating candied pumpkin; mint scented ricotta and an olive powder. The desserts were a work of art; mine a pumpkin tartlet and Brenda’s Sorrento lemon, Sicilian orange and tangerine scent mousse on a chocolate cookie base.  Our sweet teeth were happy!

GANZO: pumpkin dessert combined with salted caramel and balanced by the creaminess of goat cheese. Served in a cinnamon-flavoured pastry tartlet. Looks like a work of art to me!

Ad’a’s Studio is a fun place to explore.  Check out the surprise at the back?

Can you believe this is charity/thrift store? 

Other Finds:

We found Trattoria Ciacco after a morning of strolling one of the world’s longest flea market (3+ kilometers) in Le Cascine Park on the far west side of the City Centre. We were hungry. So we crossed the river, as that is where most of the people seemed to be headed and were willing to take more or less the first place we found. Lucky us, it was Ciacco!  The place was full of locals but we were welcomed and took the only table available.  (Note: if you are looking for a good restaurant, we always find the busier they are the better.) Noticing what the couple (our age) next to us ordered, we thought it might be a good idea to do the same (the only Italian menu board wasn’t helpful to two non-Italian speaking tourists).  Again, lucky us, as it was pasta with fresh truffles and it was delectable.

When our lunch arrived, the couple smiled and said “good choice” and we continued chatting getting lots of hot tips, including the name of another good restaurant popular with locals near the Piazza Della Passera called il Magazzino.

The Florence University of the Arts also has a photography school which we visited thinking they would have a public gallery of student works. Wrong! But the staff was extremely friendly and we learned the university offers cooking classes for small groups. There we got two hot tips for restaurants – IL Santo Bevitore and Dilladarno.

 BFF (Best Flaneur Find)

One of the great things about Florence is the vibe of its thousands of young university students.  One of the first things you notice about Florence restaurants is that they cater to the students – many offering discounts.  Every night while roaming the streets and alleys for on our daily gelato fix, we would run into a street where there were dozens of students all eating sandwiches and drinking beer or wine on the street.  After a few nights we realized (yes, sometimes we are slow learners) this must be the place for sandwiches and indeed it was.  If you are ever in Florence you have to check out All’ antico Vinaio located at 65/R Via De’ Neri.

students
All' antico Vinaio

 Last Word

The golden rule of an everyday flaneur is “Look for a local and when you find one, don’t be afraid to ask.”

By Richard White, November 9, 2014

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Calgary's Hidden Gem Restaurants

Recently, I got what I thought would be an innocent email from George Brookman, CEO of West Canadian Digital Imaging Inc. which I do from time to time re: his many amazing community initiatives, but this one was different. 

Earlier this year, West Canadian Digital Imaging Inc. and Culinaire Magazine teamed up for a fun contest called “Hidden Gem YYC.”  They invited Calgarians to submit the names of their favourite hidden gem restaurants where you can get a great meal, but isn’t something most people know about.  The response was overwhelming with sixty-five different restaurant nominated. 

The prize for the winning restaurant is a $25,000.00 makeover from West Canadian, signage, logo, decorating and menus, as well as social media and a complete write-up in Culinaire Magazine.  

A panel of judges including John Gilchrist, Julie Van Rosendaal, Angela Knight, Nicole Gomes from Nicole’s Gourmet and Linda Garson were challenged to pick just one.

After a fun and sometimes heated discussion INTI Restaurant Peruvian Cuisine at #208 – 3132 – 26th Street N.E. was chosen. In the view of the judges the food is outstanding but the décor is….. something less than wonderful.

When Hans Puccinelli the young owner and both his parents were informed they had been chosen and what the prize was they were in shock. The mother started to cry and I am told big George Brookman was also close to tears. 

In the words of John Gilchrist of “My Favourite Restaurants Calgary, Banff, and beyond” fame and one of the judges, “Hidden Gem YYC, is an incredibly generous opportunity for restaurants that don’t have promotion budgets. INTI is a great little Peruvian restaurant, one of only two in Calgary, run by a talented, under-funded couple. Western Canadian’s package will help elevate them into the next level of restaurants. The food is already there. Now the look will match the cuisine.”

Hans Puccinelli with his Dad and Mom.

Hans Puccinelli with his Dad and Mom.

The backbone of any city is its small businesses.  A thriving city must have thriving small independent business, including restaurants.  Kudos to West Canadian and Culinare Magazine for taking this initiative to support a small restaurateur, as well as to collect a list of great new restaurants to try.

Last Word

As an everyday tourist, I am always looking for hidden gems both in Calgary and when visiting other cities.  I think I have my work cut out for me to visit some of the 50+  (I am working on getting the complete list and if I do I will add it to this blog) hidden gems nominated by Calgarians over the next year.  First up, INTI Restaurant Peruvian Cuisine. 

Footnote: Oct 13, 2014

Last night we did indeed visit INTI for dinner and we weren't disappointed. In addition to the great food (we did the buffet so we could sample everything), we had a great chat with Mrs. Puccinelli aka Mom.  She shared with us the touching family story of life in Peru, moving to Calgary, not knowing any English, having to take a job as dishwasher (she was lawyer in Peru) and how much she now loves Calgary. It was indeed, an "everyday tourist" experience.  

 

Here is the complete list of nominees (some perhaps more hiddent than others) :

  • Extreme Bean
  • 5 Rivers Indian Cuisine
  • Yummi Yogis
  • The Roasterie
  • Well Juicery
  • Kings
  • Amici Italian Restaurant
  • Boogies Burgers
  • Ho Won’s
  • Greco’s Pizza
  • Longview Steakhouse (Longview)
  • Portofino’s (Cochrane)
  • The Rice Bowl
  • Saffron Mantra (x4 nominations)
  • Nottingham’s Pub
  • John’s Breakfast & Lunch
  • Tu Tierra
  • Inti Peruvian Restaurant
  • Calgary Shawarma
  • Calgary Italian Bakery
  • Rustic Sourdough
  • LDV Pizza
  • Sweet Life Crepes & Waffle
  • Twisted Tortes
  • The Rock
  • Los Chilitos
  • The Himalayan
  • 500 Cucina
  • Carino
  • Vie Café (x2 nominations)
  • Chockolat
  • Oriental Palace
  • The Coup
  • Food Court@ Crossroads Market
  • Mad Rose Pub
  • Dell Café
  • Heaven Artisan Gluten Free (X4 nominations)
  • Sanoma Market Café
  • El Charrito
  • Vina Pizza & Steakhouse
  • Aidas Mediterranean
  • II Forno (Airdre)
  • Season’s Gift Shop (St. Albert)
  • Codo Vietnamese
  • Kaffeeklatsch
  • Blackfoot Truck Stop
  • Atlas Specialty - Persian Cuisine
  • Cornerstone Café
  • The Restaurant at Lougheed House
  •  Mugshotz
  • Cerezo Cafe & Bar
  • White Elephant
  • Jalapenos
  • Mirichi
  • Café Maurno
  • Naina’s Kitchen
  • Lougheed House

Hans, George Brookman and Leah Pearson, West Canadian, Marketing Manager

Hans, George Brookman and Leah Pearson, West Canadian, Marketing Manager

Flaneuring Florence's Markets: Flea, Food & Fashion

By Richard White, November 5, 2014

Like most European cities, Florence's city centre has several markets, some are more focused on food, others on fashion and some even have a weekly or monthly flea market.  For example, when visiting Frankfurt, we always try to make sure we are there for their Saturday flea market along the Main River, as it is a great place to shop and people watch. In Florence, you have your choice of several different markets depending on the day of the week. 

Everyday Markets

Mercato Centrale is both and open air and indoor market. The open air area is full of vendors selling everything from socks to trinkets and like most Florence markets a plethora of leather goods.  The ornate two-story Mercato Centrale building was built in 1874, after the Mercato Vecchio was demolished to make way for the Piazza della Repubblicaa few blocks away.  Here you find lots of permanent vendors as well as upscale touristy restaurants and shops.  For those of you familar with Vancouver's Granville Island Market, or Seattle's Pike market there are many similarities.

Piazza Ghilberti Market (food and clothing) is also open everyday and given its location on the east side of the City Centre you get to mix a bit more with the locals than the Mercanto Centrale. It too has an outside stall area that is very animated and an indoor space.  Best to get there early, as it can get quite crowded later in the morning and most of the action is pretty much over by noon or 1 pm.

Specialty Markets

On your way to the Ghilberti Market you might want to stop by the small antique market on the Piazza del Ciompi which operates from Monday to Saturday opening about 10 am the best we can tell.  Seems like the vendors open whenever they like.  The entire piazza looks a bit ramshackled, but there is a good selection of second-hand stores to explore.  

The Flower Market takes place on Thursday morning under the colonnade of the Palace at the Piazza della Republic.  It is not a very large market, probably only a 15 to 20 minute "look see" for most people so combine it with some other activities that day.  It is very colourful and refreshing as Florence's City Centre has very little vegetation. 

On the third sunday of the month at the Piazza Santo Spirito is a craft and food market.  The crafts are very limited, but there are a few things you won't see at other markets, like the lady hand-weaving baskets or the hippy guy making hand-made shoes.  We were told this is where the local foodies shop.   

The third weekend of the month there is also an antique market at the Fortezza de Basso / garden.  Unfortunately, we didn't get there so can't comment on the quality of the experience.

World's Longest Flea Market

Every Tuesday from 7 am to 2 pm you will find the mother of all flea markets in Florence's Le Cascine Park along the Arno River. It is a linear market that goes for over 3 kilometres with vendors on both sides.  It took us almost two hours to do one side and we weren't looking at everything. While some vendors might stay there until 2 pm, we saw some beginning to pack up just after noon. There are a few food vendors, but it is most clothing vendors - not designer knockoffs, but rather mostly new cheap clothing, shoes, accessories, and kitchen products. This is not a "made in Italy" fashionista experience and not a place for vintage treasure hunters.  

That being said there were some treasures to be had if you were prepared to dig in the pile of scarfs. Brenda did manage to find two vintage scarves for 1 euro each and a modern Italian made sweater/coat for 40 euros.  

It was a great walk in the park, a chance to mingle with the locals and people watching. What more could you ask for? 

Postcards: Le Cascine Flea Market

The east entrance to the Le Cascine Park Flea Market is marked by this tear drop road marking. It was a drizzly day when we arrived, but the rain soon stopped and it was a very pleasant walk along the tree-lined market.  The linear market was easy to negotiate as you just go up one side and dow the other. 

Brenda checking out the racks of clothing.

I am looking for something for my sweet tooth.

I am looking for something for my sweet tooth.

Brenda had her eye on this cool dude for awhile. Yes that is his bike.

Brenda had her eye on this cool dude for awhile. Yes that is his bike.

Everyone loves a flea market

Everyone loves a flea market

Brenda spotted with pile of scarves and she was on it like a dog on a bone.

What's a flea market without The roasted chestnuts to enjoy.

What's a flea market without The roasted chestnuts to enjoy.

Postcards from Ghilberti Market 

The Bead Lady was doing a brisk business.

Inside the butcher was fun to watch. 

We loved the fact that people of all ages were enjoying the market.

Postcards from Piazza Ciompi Market 

Don't be put off by the appearance of the shops there are some treasures to be had.  

Postcards from Piazza Santo Spirito

This piazza dates back to 1252 when Augustinian monks built a monastery and church. Today it is a bohemian hang-out with restaurants, cafes and a market. 
 

We awarded this vendor the top prize for visual presentation. 

Shoe maker. 

Basket weaving. 

These bronze fragments are a war memorial.  German soldiers at the end of WWII conducting public killing of freedom fighters and political opponents in the piazza and streets surrounding it. 

Postcards from Mercanto Centrale

 

The indoor market is more like a food court in a mall or office building than a farmers' market. 

Looking down from the second floor restaurant you get a better sense that this isn't your quaint local farmer's market.  

Postcards from the Flower Market

 

The flower market has one of the prettiest spaces of any market I have ever seen.

Florence's flower market adds a burst of colour and plant life that is absent from most of the City Centre. 

Herb vendor

Last Word

One of the things all of Florence's markets have in common is that they are enjoyed by everyone from young children to seniors.  More and more urban planners and designers are cognizant of the 8/80 rule that states; if a place or space is attractive to kids 8 and younger, as well as 80 and older, it will be attractive to everyone in between.  While exploring the markets and streets of Florence, I have seen more seniors hobbling with canes along the busy and bumpy streets, sidewalks and piazzas than I have seen anywhere else in the world.  Kudos to them...I don't know how they do it.  

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Safety + Segregation + Space = Sterility

I have a theory. In fact, I’ve had it for some time. Simply stated, it is Safety + Segregation + Space = Sterility. I’m inspired to publicly share it after my recent conversation with Mel Foht, President and COO of Royop Development Corporation. Having just returned from his trip to Europe, we began talking about safety, segregation and public spaces as well as how Calgary differs from European cities in its approach to urban design. 

Street Safety

“Are Calgarians obsessed with safety? Are we making our urban spaces and places too safe?” These are questions I’ve often wondered. Though many readers may well disagree, I’d hazard a guess to say Mel and I aren’t the only ones who think we are correct.

If we want our streets to be safer, the first step might be to get all walkers, joggers, cyclists and drivers to unplug from their headphones.  We need to take a page from the peewee hockey players’ manual – “keep your head up if you don’t want to get hit.”  Whether on the sidewalk or street, we all need to look ahead and around to be aware of our environment.

Street safety is a shared responsibility.

In Salt Lake City, many of the cross walks have a reminder to look both ways. 

In Salt Lake City, many of the cross walks have a reminder to look both ways. 

Salt Lake City takes cross walk safety as step further by providing bright orange flags for pedestrians to use as they cross the street. Is this going too far?

Four-way stops are easier for pedestrians, cyclist and drivers to share the space and are a lot cheaper than round-abouts and speed bumps.  

Calgary roads for the most part have lots of room for pedestrians, cyclist and drivers if we respect each other and share the road. Share The Road signs are a good reminder that EVERYONE is responsible for sharing the road. 

Food Safety

And then there is food safety. Foht gives kudos to Mayor Nenshi and Council for fast tracking the licensing of food trucks a few years back. Calgary has about 45 food trucks (Portland, a city renowned for its street food culture, in comparison has over 500). It should be noted that Portland’s food carts are permanent street vendors (not trucks) and are often clustered on under-utilized parking lots. In fact, their downtown even has a block-long, surface parking lot ringed with food carts which creates a festival-like, outdoor food court. But as Portland, unlike Calgary, doesn’t have dozens of major office buildings each with their own food court, it is hard if not impossible to make any apple-to-apple comparison.

I am told Calgary once had the reputation for having some of the toughest food safety laws in North America. While on one hand that’s important and good, it basically restricted the food options by street food vendors to mostly hotdogs. If other cities can have rules that ensure food safety yet enable a wider variety of foods to be cooked and served on the street, we surely can too.

Portland has become a mecca for foodies partly as a result of the numerous food carts that transform surface parking and vacant lots into outdoor food courts - not just in the downtown but around the city.

Public Transit Safety

Safety also plays a key role when it come to the dominance of the car as the preferred form of transportation, not only in Calgary but I suspect in most North American cities. 

We experienced this firsthand in Memphis one morning this past winter when my wife Brenda planned to take a 20-minute bus ride from downtown to a shopping area. When ATM issues forced her to go into the nearby bank to talk to a teller, conversation ensued (which included an informal poll of all four tellers as to if she should take the bus or a cab) and a decision was made (solely by them) to call a cab - without Brenda’s permission and at her cost of 25 dollars! (Note: she took the bus back with no concern whatsoever re: her personal safety and at a cost of $3.)  This was not an isolated case – another day she was warned by locals (including a female tram driver nonetheless) to not take public transit alone. Clearly to us, whites in Memphis feel safer in their car than walking the streets or taking public transit. We also now better understand the current situation in Ferguson, Missouri. 

And safety is even shaping Calgary’s suburbs. The popularity of drive-thru coffee shops, ATMs and fast food stores is not only about convenience but also perceived safety.

Segregation

In many ways, by segregating the modes of traffic in Calgary’s downtown core - for example, 9th Avenue for cars, 8th Avenue for pedestrians and 7th Avenue for transit - we have virtually eliminated the urban vitality that comes from diversity and critical mass.  It is interesting to note that while in the early 20th Century, 8th Avenue accommodated street cars, vehicles and pedestrians, a century later we are arguing whether even pedestrians and cyclists can share the space.

 We have also segregated our activities in a way that chokes off vitality. Think about it. Most of Calgary’s cultural activities are clustered in the east end of downtown, creating a cultural ghetto away from the banks, offices, shops and restaurants. With most plays, concerts, shows, gallery events, festivals, etc happening on weekday evenings and weekends, there’s little need for most to go there during weekday days – other than to simply use it as a pass-through block to get to and from City Hall.

As well, most shops have been segregated to the +15 and +30 levels between the Hudson’s Bay and Holt Renfrew. Few small shops dot Stephen Avenue Walk itself. This stretch of 8th Avenue has become a restaurant ghetto, with vitality basically just around weekday noon hours. Recently, when touring a visiting architect from Holland and his family in the area, they couldn’t believe how the Walk changes at noon hour on weekdays. It is a phenomenon – not necessarily a great one though.

Early 20th century postcard of Stephen Avenue with street cars, vehicle and pedestrians sharing the space. 

Early 20th century postcard of Stephen Avenue with street cars, vehicle and pedestrians sharing the space. 

Salt Lake City allows cars, LRT and cyclist to share the road.

Salt Lake City allows cars, LRT and cyclist to share the road.

In Dublin, as in most European cities, the streets and sidewalks are shared by everyone. The sidewalks are narrow and the roads are crowded with pedestrians, cyclists, motorcycles and cars all interacting at close quarters. 

In Dublin, as in most European cities, the streets and sidewalks are shared by everyone. The sidewalks are narrow and the roads are crowded with pedestrians, cyclists, motorcycles and cars all interacting at close quarters. 

Space

Foht speaks of how Europe’s sidewalks and streets are animated with people doing lots of different things, going in lots of different directions and using lots of different modes of transportation.  It is not unusual, he says, “to see pedestrians, cyclists, scooters, trams, buses, cars and trucks all mixing and mingling on the same street at the same time.” Urban guru Jane Jacobs referred to this as “sidewalk ballet;” others call it “messy urbanism,” while yet others call it “critical mass.” Regardless of what you coin it, great urban spaces are crowded with people who access the space by a variety of transportation modes.

He also noticed that in Europe people were able to share the smallest space that allow “a zillion scooters and bikes to co-exist.” In Calgary, we can’t even seem to get the fact that the sidewalks on in the Peace Bridge are for pedestrians while the middle roadway is for cyclists.  And while European streets may look like a free-for-all to us, they in fact are very safe.

Does this mean they have more or better signage? Not necessarily. In fact, many European cities are experimenting with removing signs, allowing roads and public spaces to be self-governing. We seem to enact the polar opposite approach, ie. more signage and more complicated signage. Perhaps we are too busy trying to read and understand the signs instead of just having some basic signs and rules and then just using common sense.

For some reason, it seems that part of Calgarians’ psychological DNA includes the need for lots of space around us – big houses, big vehicles, big streets, etc. Granted, it is what we have had and in most cases, what we continue to have; it is what we are used to. For us, the extent of “crowded spaces” experience consists maybe of rush hour transit rides and at Stampede or major street festivals.

If we want to create street animation, we need to learn how to share our space. I am a big fan of “Share The Road” signs, four way stops and painted bike lanes as cost-effective traffic calming measures vs. speed bumps, roundabouts and separate bike lanes.  Why is it that Calgary always seems to find the most expensive way to manage the sharing of our streets? 

Last Word

If we really want urban vitality in Calgary, we can’t live in our own individual bubbles. If we really want a sense of community, we have to be aware of and connect with others, embrace sharing public spaces and avoid “safety-phobia.” Safety + Space + Segregation = Sterility – it’s definitely not an equation I want for Calgary.   

By Richard White, November 1st, 2014. An edited version of this blog appeared in the Calgary Herald's New Condo section on November 1st, 2014. 

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