A Retrospective on Public Life and Urban Form in Calgary

By Celia Lee, re-posted from FFWD, March 2015.

From the sanctioned to the unsanctioned, private, public or community-led, loved and hated, momentum is growing in Calgary when it comes to public spaces and public art.

Benches, little libraries, guerilla signage; Wreck City and the ContainR park; a cycle track, the Peace Bridge, the River Walk, overhead hoarding in construction sites; installations from the City’s WATERSHED+ public art program that speak to our relationship with water; Nuit Blanche; artwork that now covers the entire electrical box rather than the prescribed rectangle; murals, graffiti; buildings and entire neighbourhoods designed for mixed use, for aging in place, for bumping into your neighbours.

Calgarians are not only seriously producing, they are changing how we think about public life and public spaces in the city.

These kinds of projects — the ones that promote public life, that make us more active physically and socially, that engage us in dialogue —can improve our happiness, health, environment, democracy, governance, innovation and the local economy. Who knew? (The answer is Napoleon. Napoleon knew.)

Public life, according to architect Jan Gehl is “everything that takes place between buildings to and from school on balconies seated standing walking biking etc.” Public life involves people on foot or on “slow wheels”, such as bicycles, wheelchairs and scooters. Cars are private space bubbles - which I can certainly get into. I am at times the one in the rental car making your brain vibrate to the Mash Out Posse. But I’m also much less likely to make eye contact, smile, insist “no, no you go first” or communicate in any way other than to flash a… signal.

So there’s the implication that public life is more interactive. There’s also the implication that communication is not just in the words we speak but the clothes we wear, our pins and badges, the things we do, the transportation we choose, the things we buy, the art we make, the buildings and streetscapes we create. Clothes are more ephemeral, while buildings speak for decades and centuries.

According to Gehl, public life took a substantial hit when we started designing for the vehicle. The advent of the car encouraged planners to think about cities in wholly different ways, excited about new technology and “clean” suburbs. But in so doing we left behind wisdom we’d designed into cities since cities began.

The unintended consequences are that sedentary lifestyles are making us sick, physically and mentally.

The unintended consequences are that sedentary lifestyles are making us sick, physically and mentally. The amount of time we spend in cars decreases not just our trip satisfaction but our life satisfaction, and significantly raises our odds of becoming obese. Our children are at higher risk of diseases related to sedentary behaviour. Our seniors have a hard time aging in place. Increasingly we’re bowling alone — participating less in group activities being less engaged in local issues become more estranged with the practices of democracy and governance.

The projects we’re seeing in Calgary counteract these trends. They create more walkable communities, which are are correlated with more walking even among those who “aren’t that into walking.”

They also start conversations. The Bench Project makes me reflect on bylaws related to street furniture; Ralph Klein Park about preserving our natural spaces for crucial city functions such as water filtration; the community-led ContainR park about the role of communities in making their neighbourhoods their own and what that means for policy. Typically the built environment reflects and perpetuates dominant norms values and behaviours but as we’re seeing in Calgary it can also engage us to change them.

Why promote public life? To me this is like asking “Why talk to other people? Why hang out? Why create? Why celebrate? Why music? Why art? Why democracy? Why empathy?” We’re social. We’re creative. We’re interdependent. We have opposable thumbs. But from a policy perspective the question is perhaps more specifically “what is the return on investing in great public spaces that enhance public life?”

We’re social. We’re creative. We have opposable thumbs.

The benefits of enhancing public life don’t stop at health, happiness and engagement — there’s a strong economic component as well. The most innovative places have a strong public life where people are connected on multiple levels. This is referred to as institutional thickness and in cities it’s more easily achieved in walkable, mixed-use neighbourhoods. These vibrant neighbourhoods can attract talent to the employment pool. Efficient travel and more active transportation saves dollars and emissions. Getting more people off the road means those remaining can get where they’re going faster, including goods. Helping seniors age in safe walkable communities may be more cost-effective than the institutional model alone. Sedentary lifestyles incur real bottom line health implications to the province.

In Calgary we’re experiencing an aging population that will need quality alternatives to driving; millennials who are driving less; a city that needs to continue attracting talent and foster innovation; and growing environmental responsibility. This to say we not only have a sense of what the future will bring, but we know what our responsibilities are. We know what to build for.

So where are we headed?

Calgary is a city well-known for impressive ambitious and comprehensive plans when it comes to city visioning and planning; we’re less well-known for remaining accountable to them. But some parts have “stuck.”

New mixed-use developments — with walkable streetscapes, bike storage and local sense of place — have proven desirable to developers, citizens, community associations and government. Pop-up patio pilot projects, while still somewhat cumbersome bureaucratically, are all the rage. Little libraries are officially on Google Maps. A guerrilla bench project — “made for you with love” — was termed a “delightful mystery” by the Huffington Post and has been welcomed by business owners.

Collectively it appears we’re doing a great job of experimenting. This is noteworthy.

To keep this momentum going we need to be deliberate about next steps. What will it take to change a system as well as a park or a street corner?

Calgary has garnered discrete successes through pilots and policies, and we seem to be finding common ground across diverse stakeholders. Now we need to build deliberately on what we’ve learned. This may be the biggest trap we fall into in Calgary — we seem to want to start from scratch and prove old findings anew.

We need to create space for citizens and business to continue doing their thing. In this regard we need to re-examine the “mound” (à la John Ralston Saul) of bylaws that may no longer serve our purposes or even their original intents: bylaws on street furniture for example. We need to reduce bureaucracy around projects we’ve deemed acceptable, as is underway with pop-up patios.

We need to commit to partnerships between communities, government, developers and researchers aimed at creating the highest quality neighbourhoods based on the best available information: communities that are accessible, ecologically sensitive, efficient and beautiful. We need to minimize bureaucratic delays for doing things differently.

And then we need to think bigger towards policy frameworks and funding allotments. At the provincial level we should work towards a preventive health policy that supports active forms of transportation and complete communities. Sitting is, after all, the new smoking.

As a growing city that would benefit from a more diverse economy we need to commit to the city’s current vision: a prosperous city a city of inspiring neighbourhoods a city that moves a healthy and green city a well-run city. We’re on our way if we can hold ourselves accountable — through the Municipal Development Plan, the new Complete Streets guide and the coming Pedestrian Strategy. Investing in walkable, vibrant, mixed-use communities as an economic development strategy could get us further — help us attract talent, encourage innovation and free up room on the roads for the efficient movement of goods.

Finally we need to encourage governments to provide leadership. Governments are not simply tasked with predicting and managing demand over the next decades. Cities provinces and countries are tasked with making decisions for the public good and a collective future. We rely on and need to push for their leadership in synthesizing competing desires and needs.

To join in conversation on these topics, RSVP to our launch of Healthy Places: Designing for Health in Alberta, March 27 at 7PM in the Community Wise Common Room.

Celia Lee