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Monday, July 9, 2012

Calgary – Coming of Age

By Amy Erixon

A number of us traveled out to Calgary last week for the Stampede.  The attendance for the 100th anniversary set a record.  The city looked great and the visitors were really enjoying themselves.   As I was doing my walking tour, admiring all the new buildings that have delivered post-financial crisis, I found myself comparing Calgary to another great North American city on the eastern slope of the Rockies – Denver – and on that score Calgary came up the winner. 
Calgary has one third the population of Denver, but walking around downtown, one would find that hard to believe.  With 80% of the region’s office space in the core (Downtown and Beltline), versus 30% in Denver, Calgary’s skyline is more impressive.  Calgary is growing up, developing a powerful sense of place, and the urban infrastructure, particularly the urban park investments, has a lot to do with that.  Great cities have great parks and public spaces, it’s as simple as that. 
A decade ago, when we were launching the World Winning Cities research, Calgary won the “Emerging Stars” category.  Denver scored well on education, connectivity, and other important criteria including quality of life, but chalked up a mediocre overall score for a city of its size.  On the physical side, both cities, like others in the West such as LA, Dallas and Phoenix, have the typical urban planning burdens:

  1. Oversized blocks
  2. Oversized streets
  3. A Core area so large that it is difficult to achieve quality and density of development given the population base.

What’s going right?  Calgary has the good fortune to be home to numerous oil and gas company headquarters that need very large footprint office towers, and several of those have installed public spaces around or inclusive of the ground floor of their buildings.    The “Plus 15”, the elevated skybridge system,  originally gave the downtown a sense of linkages and connectivity that other large block cities lack.  Minneapolis utilizes this system, but not to so robust an effect, with the big difference being street life between these two cities (also mismatched by size) is no comparison. 
To get there, Calgary borrowed a page out of the planning handbook for Portland, Oregon, Chicago and Boston, by focusing on finding a way to provide street life through “right sized” pedestrian street scapes, car-free zones and importantly, by investing heavily in the riverfront park, which rings 270 degrees around the core area.   Nothing in my experience is as impactful as a glorious waterfront, and Calgary’s shone in the 80 degree sunny days with festivals every 10 or 12 blocks.   Investing in this park infrastructure has revitalized downtown life.   No fewer than 60 or 70 mid to high-rise residential towers have been constructed in downtown over the past 10 years.   Today there islands in the river accessible from both sides containing sculpture, botanical gardens, a zoo and of course mile upon mile of hiking, biking and walking trails.  When combined with pedestrian malls, urban parks and a clean emerging light rail system the city is well along the way to achieving destination status.  Well done, it’s easy to see why people are happy living in Calgary, Alberta. 

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