Vibrancy and the Street Wall


mC:t 2015.02.12

Vibrancy has become an urban buzzword that is used extensively when referring to Calgary’s way of living. However, as with many buzz words, it is often used without a definition. Vibrancy is defined as a multitude of varying components working simultaneously that creates a sense of place where people learn to live, love and enjoy. The built environment plays an integral and often underrated role in the synthesizing of the harmony of these urban gems. The built street wall plays an arguably key role in the establishment of a prized urban streetscape; it is the development of a continuous urban built form, with minimal divides and gaps that creates an enclosed boundary flanking the street. The most successful of these street walls pay careful consideration to human scale, a scale in the public environment that focuses on pedestrians and not the automobile. These are streets that do not dominate an individual, but rather welcome and invite the urban wanderer. It is, however, not only the scale of these buildings that is of importance but also the fineness, or appeal, of the urban grain. The urban grain being the degree to which the patterning of the size, arrangement and use of buildings is comprehended; the finer the grain the more intensity occurs on the street. Among the most valued urban areas of Calgary is the community of Inglewood, 17th Avenue South West stretching from 14th Street to 4th Street and the Kensington district, which all contain varying degrees of street walls.

It is the desire of many Calgarians to affect an increased intensity in the vibrant culture of urban living, something that has become more evident as Calgary has matured over the past ten years. However, as one carefully examines the built environment found on many of our main streets, it can be quickly concluded that the break down of the street wall may have stymied the potential for cultural growth. People enjoy window shopping, popping in and out of cafes, pubs, and boutique stores as they move along the street wall. However, with a breakdown in the continuity of the experience, often due to surface parking along the most interesting streets, the urban vibe is quickly lost. As a result, where do we see the most vibrant Calgary culture? It seems to exist in Calgary’s shopping malls where the shopping experience is continuous in its designed form. That is not to say that a vibrant Calgary culture is based on shopping; but, it is to arguable that people are attracted to shopping malls because of a continued immersive experience that is uninterrupted by parking structures and vacant lots.

With a comparison between Calgary’s main street of 17th Avenue South West and Robson Street in downtown Vancouver, the importance of the street wall can easily be seen. The images show the length of an existing street wall and the points where a breakdown of the street wall will occur. In Calgary, can it be said that by filling in missing urban spaces would that be enough to further grow and nourish a budding vibrant culture? A multitude of factors are involved with urban vibrancy; Calgary has the social components required to become such a place, it only needs the built environment to house the vibrancy. The extensive establishment and growth of the street wall may be a vital component.

Street walls