York Urbanist

Calgary – A City Taken by Storm

A city taken by Storm
My visit followed the flood of the century, greater than 100-year storm, and preceded the Calgary Stampede, that event that defines the cultural centre of the city. For five days, there was cleanup and preparation, causes and celebrations. Living in the downtown means no warrant for a car but an understanding that one cannot go far without certain resources.
Remnants of the storm
The grid of the downtown defined the extent of the June 2013 flooding in two dimensions. Roaming the downtown, we looked at the third, vertical, dimension. There were grey-brown lines that showed how high up walls and windows the flood affected certain neighbourhoods. Interestingly, it was the historic Fort Calgary that remained undeterred by the flooding as our predecessors planned the fort at the high ground near the confluence of the Bow and Elbow Rivers. Good thing too, because this was the marshalling area for the coming Stampede parade and without it, the defining moment may have been pushed back. Mayor Nenshi ensured that the fort was secured for this initiation of the Stampede, and it was confirmed by Sara Gruetzner, CEO.
Everywhere the silt brown colour was engrained in the crevices of the streets, between bricks and on the cars being towed from formerly flooded basements. And on the first full day of the Stampede, a rogue storm re-flooded the streets, creating agony for the mis-named Sunnyside, on the north side of the Bow River.

Streets have been and were used during the Stampede for proving the will of a city. The Stampede lasts 10 days and it started on time, but not without compromises. Major concerts were rescheduled or eliminated, but the Main Event, the Rodeo, proceeded. The only shadow cast was a small animal rights demonstration on a nearby street, and it was unsustainable. You see the people of this City tend not to appreciate so-called left wing causes. Character streets like 13th Avenue lead to the Stampede grounds on the southeast corner of the downtown. City planners understand the importance of the Stampede not only during its celebratory 10 days, but throughout the year.
The floods appear to have strengthened community identity and camaraderie, at least for the short-term. This fast growth, fast-paced city has many from elsewhere and perhaps the flood brought them closer to the natural Calgarians. In that is a celebration of integration. Non-whites are more evident in the downtown, but it seems natural that they also wear Western garb and the essential Stetson.
Fitness is in the Calgary vocabulary. This is a youthful downtown, recipient of the recent “Go West Young Man” mentality. In contrast, another oil town, Houston, exudes poor physical body health and people represent sedentary lifestyles.

The icon for the City has long been the Saddle Dome and Calgary Tower, red and white, symbolic of the city. But this is changing. New architecture is invigorating the skyline and distracting from the previously tallest structure. The Bow is a curved, in plan, tower that has itself become iconic. And soon the Telus Sky building will introduce Calgary to the trend in multiply curved structures. http://www.dezeen.com/2013/07/08/telus-sky-by-big-with-dialog/
Indoors there are places to shop and work, a park in the fourth floor of the downtown mall tops CORE, a mall akin to Toronto’s Eaton Centre. The botanical interior garden pulls patrons up through the three floors of commerce, although on my one visit, the area was not resolutely active. Top floors of most malls are similarly lethargic, hence urbanists’ desires to see emergence of street level commerce in any community. Eau Claire is trendy and an entertainment space on the waterfront that relates well to the water’s edge, but is not as active as it should be. A redesign of the spaces of the indoor mall would be appropriate.

On the StreetCalgary-20130705-00963
Streets have been transformed for different purposes: transit; pedestrians; and waterside routes. Unlike Pittsburgh, the river was not used as a vehicular route and the river may be revered. The waterfront trail connects the various river crossings including the Peace (Calatrava) Bridge. Sunnyside may be sunny, but it is also wet, within the floodplain. Yes, it was inundated by the flood, but a single intense thunderstorm also created wet basements. Close by, Kensington is one of the most attractive neighbourhoods of Alberta, if not Canada. Housing is recently renovated throughout the streets that flank the main commercial avenue, a slow moving but vital axis through the community.
Emergence of transit has followed the rules of proper city planning. The C-Train creates the spine(s) of the system. It is mostly ground-related but goes underground for parts of its routes. It was affected by flooding as an Elbow River crossing has compromised the south leg of the Light Rail Transit.
The C-Train in the downtown follows 7th Avenue bringing suburbanites to the centre of the city. Blue and white Car2Go Smart cars litter the curbs of downtown, an easy way to get around if you are Calgarian. One block south, Stephen Avenue is a primarily pedestrian way with limited vehicular traffic flanked by CORE shopping centre and terminated on its east end at City Hall Plaza. This linear space is active day and night, not just an office day retreat but honestly fun to be on.

But what of the flooding? Cities are often founded on water, but this city was courageously built on the flood plain! It may happen again and the City will be readier, but there is a cost. Two weeks after the flood there are still thousands of displaced residents and areas lacking electrical power. In addition to the billions of dollars for capital works to reclaim property, Calgary needs to invest in bold planning for the inevitable return to wet conditions. It will be interesting to see what evolves from the Planning and Engineering Departments. It will take both to resolve the future crisis.