exploreCalgary’s Public Spaces

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mC:t    2015.06.04      #makeCalgaryexplore      #makeCalgarytalk


I set out yesterday morning with the idea of exploring some of Calgary’s public spaces. I was interested in seeing what kinds of spaces the city has to offer, and to try to get a general impression of the city from the kinds of spaces that it provides for its residents. What I found, in walking around for a day, was that there are generally three types of public spaces in the city: Parks, Plazas, and Thoroughfares. Below, I have tried to describe how I think each of these kinds of spaces fit into our City, and how I experienced them.



Calgary’s parks can be seen either as urban parks – those parks that are located within the city’s downtown – or suburban ones – those parks that generally expand into the city’s suburbs or beyond them. Suburban parks tend to be longer and more expansive, and bordered by the suburbs on at least one side. Parks such as Fish Creek, Nose Hill, and Edworthy offer many of the same amenities that people tend to leave the city for, such as walking and biking trails, places to take their dogs off-leash, and places to spend time relaxing with their families. Suburban parks offer a means of escaping the city, while also offering a chance to see the city as a whole from a bit of a distance.


Edworthy City Perspective

Edworthy Park gave me the opportunity for a different perspective of Calgary


One of the things that I enjoyed the most about Edworthy park, where I started my exploration yesterday, was the chance to immediately step away from the city without actually leaving it. Walking for two minutes into the Park, still a literal stone’s throw from the busy Bow Trail/Sarcee Trail intersection, completely eliminated the city noise and the busyness of the streets. Despite being a ten minute drive from the city centre, I got to experience a vista of the city that, despite living here for the better part of my life, I rarely get to see. It was the chance to get a fresh perspective of the city, and to remove myself without actually having to go anywhere.


Edworthy Trail by Sarcee

A literal stone’s throw from Sarcee Trail, this path in Edworthy Park leads to an amazing view of the city.


Urban parks accomplish the same kinds of things, but at a smaller scale. Like their suburban counterparts, they offer an escape from the city, but without as much travel. They offer the opportunity to walk around in a more natural environment than the concrete of the downtown, and the opportunity to meet with people outside of the office. Despite the vast difference in scale, urban parks also offer a view of the city from a removed vantage point.


Central Memorial Park

Central Memorial Park offers a local escape from the city.




Calgary’s plazas are the privately maintained and operated, yet explicitly public, parts of the downtown’s streetscape. Found adjoining skyscrapers and office towers, these spaces serve, at the same time, as open public spaces and the points of first entry into the adjacent buildings. Because of this dual private/public role, they can feel a bit confused or divided in what they are trying to accomplish. Whereas park spaces are explicitly public and inclusive by nature, there is a level of exclusivity for plazas—say, for a soaking student who has been misconstrued as a loiterer while taking photos on a Wednesday afternoon—that is not present in park spaces. To be fair, these spaces are not designed for public enjoyment alone, but with specific, private aims in mind as well. What is interesting in these spaces is seeing how the often competing influences of these two groups are resolved in a plaza.


Banker's Hall

This plaza does a great job of creating an impressive entry into the adjoining buildings, but has much less of a focus on the human scale.


Banker's Hall Plaza

The plaza as an extension of the entryway.


I found, in my own exploration, that the more welcoming plazas in Calgary had two common elements; firstly, they had some devices to help distract from the height or imposing stature of the skyscrapers surrounding them, and bring the space back down to a more human scale. Secondly, they had a variety of different places for people to stay or settle into. In the Eighth Avenue Place plaza, for example, trees, shrubbery, and benches create a human scale that distracts from the height of the two towers beside it. A giant fin running between columns creates a canopy to stand or smoke under, and even the cantilevered glass wall on the North side provides some cover from the rain.


Eighth Avenue Plaza

An understandable, human scale.



In Calgary, thoroughfares are the pedestrian-oriented streets where people flock to when they are not working. Usually lined with bars, restaurants, art galleries, and coffee shops, these public spaces have a much stronger bias towards cultural or commercial activities, and so consist more of things to do, rather than places to be. Whereas plaza spaces are defined by the buildings they belong to, there is a much more symbiotic relationship between thoroughfares and the businesses that line them. The public parts of thoroughfares, by themselves, are fairly straight walks, without a lot of places for stopping or congregating. The businesses along these thoroughfares offer places to stop, to be distracted, and to enjoy. Of course, the individual businesses depend on the success of the thoroughfare at creating a kind of reputation or association with a certain type of place, and so each depends on the other.


Stephen Avenue

Stephen Avenue, one of Calgary’s pedestrian-oriented thoroughfares.


Finally, I would like to observe that the most successful public spaces in Calgary incorporate elements of all three of the categories I have discussed above. As an example, I found the Central Memorial Park to be a great example of good public space. Like a good thoroughfare, it has created a relationship with nearby businesses—the Boxwood Café, as well as a number of food trucks that frequent the park—that draw people to the area, and like a good plaza, it has a variety of places for people to settle once they get there. It brings some of the greenery expected of an urban park into the Beltline, as well as some public amenities such as the library and the First World War memorial. In short, it does a good job of creating a variety of different conditions, so that it can be used flexibly by a large number of people.


Central Memorial Park

Central Memorial Park


I would love to hear what you think about my exploration of the city. What do Calgary’s public spaces say about Calgarians?



Next: Coming soon…
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