Calgary at a Crossroads

Ken Greenberg is an architect who has worked on design projects in many of the largest cities around the world, including New York, Paris, Amsterdam and Washington, D.C.

Greenberg has also worked here in Calgary over many years on several significant neighbourhood design projects. In this way, his advice and architectural philosophy has help shaped our city.  

As an urban designer, Greenberg focuses on the revitalization of downtowns and neighbourhood planning. He speaks of cities having "souls."  

Read his reflections on Calgary, and his advice on how we can think of our city and what we can do to make it better.

Ken Greenberg

Ken Greenberg is an urban designer, teacher, writer and former director of urban design and architecture for the City of Toronto. He is now the principal at Greenberg Consultants. (greenbergconsultants.com)

Q: What was your first impression of Calgary?

A: My first impression was of a city within a "nature" much bigger and more powerful than itself: the long views, proverbial big sky, the view of the snow-capped Rockies and the fast-flowing mountain rivers and streams coursing through the city — the distinctive colour and shape of the land. In short, an omnipresent sense of a grand and quite beautiful natural setting within which the city seemed to be hosted.

The downtown where I spent most of my time seemed a little blown apart, but starting to coalesce in a few places. My occupational wiring makes me look for opportunities and I began to see them — like what was only then an idea for the East Village: the stirrings on the Beltline, the presence of Fort Calgary and the Stampede Grounds and the charm of some of the nearby neighbourhoods.  

Calgary's new central library

Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi has said in the past that the new central library in the East Village will be an icon for the city. (Calgary Municipal Land Corporation)

If I squinted my eyes I could see a new kind of city emerging from a much lower, somewhat tentative and somewhat modest foundation, but it was not just about the shiny new office towers. There was a sense also of emerging new civic spaces and the potential for a more lively and inhabited core.

On the other hand, outside the core and older near-neighbourhoods, I was struck by a vast and growing suburban landscape of ubiquitous conventional, auto-oriented subdivisions, power centres and strip malls populated with franchise outlets and very difficult to distinguish from anywhere else

Q: You've been coming here for years, what have you seen change in Calgary over that time?

A: Each time I have returned to participate in events and work on various projects, I have seen progress contributing to an overall transformation and mostly in a good sense.

  • The extension of light rail transit (LRT) lines.
  • The filling in of vacant lots. 
  • More life downtown and in new nearby neighbourhoods.
  • New bridges [and construction] in Kensington, along the Beltline and the East Village.
  • The adaptive reuse of the Simmons building and many new things coming rapidly.

Calgary Peace Bridge

The Peace Bridge in Calgary has become a destination for both commuters and photographers alike. (Submitted by Larry Slinger)

I am very gratified by the final results for the two projects I worked on: the Riverwalk and St. Patrick's Island.

The downtown feels more walkable and coherent, with more amenities and less forbidding gaps as the pieces begin to stitch together. The Peace Bridge also gave a very positive jolt in forging these connections.

Q: You've spoken of the "soul" of a city. What do you mean by that?

A: We go through waves and cycles common to many cities due to larger global forces — economic, social and environmental imperatives.

We may be on similar trajectories but each city experiences these through its own lens, its own unique DNA footprint. This is built up of many layers: the geography and its defining features, original inhabitants, particular waves of in-migration, the weather, shared experiences, food, culture, history and social mores.

si-midway-460

The Calgary Stampede draws hundreds of thousands of people to the city each summer. (Rachel Maclean/CBC)

Over time we develop our particular ways of telling our "urban story" — our self-definition and mental maps.

A city's identity is also shaped by special events like the Stampede, the crises and challenges we experience [like floods], the special places we gather to celebrate or express ourselves collectively. Out of all this comes particular flavours and accents. And this identity is fluid, varied and never fixed.

Q: If you had to pick a few locations in Calgary that you believe speak to our soul, which locations and why?

A: I keep coming back to the confluence of the Bow and Elbow rivers, perhaps because I know it best and am continually drawn there.

Standing on the new bridge to St. Patrick's Island, looking around 360 degrees, I see the foreshadowing of a city in nature, respecting and celebrating it. 

St. Patrick's Bridge

It's called the "skipping stone bridge," which is a concept imagined by designers RFR Halsall. (Scott Dippel/CBC)

A city getting out of its cars and back on foot, people of all ages walking and cycling, punctuated by the passing of the LRT.

New daily rhythms seem natural, the East Village forming next to Fort Calgary, framed by the power of the pulsing river, is also a constant reminder of its risks and our fragile relationship to the natural world, underscoring the urgent need for a new reconciliation and respect as we move from the hubris of a conquest of nature to respect and embrace.  

Q: What parts of Calgary do you have concerns about? What things have we built that you would like to see un-built, as it were?

A: The vast, sprawling, low-density, auto-dependent areas cannot be unbuilt and need to evolve.

But Calgary's future will be to a large extent defined by what comes next at the urban fringe. Will there be limits to low-density growth on the periphery?

Calgary Real Estate 20150514

A file photo of aerial views of Calgary housing in 2013. (Jonathan Hayward/Canadian Press)

Can the new suburban expansions be made denser, more compact and walkable with better transit access?

Can the underdeveloped lands in and around downtown and already developed suburbs fill in? How equitable and accessible will the city be for all its inhabitants?

Q: You've written that the very idea of "city" has changed over the last years. Can you explain what you mean by that, and why you think it has changed?

A: The city is once again on top of the agenda in Canada. 

Cities, at their best, provide a sense of community — places of culture and business that we can walk to, or take mass transit, with a wealth of amenities that couldn't be supported without a city's density.

Unidriveway Calgary

Unidriveways, made for optimal parking, were all the rage in the suburbs of northeast Calgary until a crackdown by the city. (CBC)

New, more dynamic models for city building are emerging that stress mix, overlap, shared space and flexibility and integrating concepts at the intersection of economy, community and environment (identified by Jane Jacobs and others). 

At the core of this transformation is an increased focus on the concept of place and the quality of the public realm. 

Q: If Calgary were to start over from scratch, a clean slate, what changes would you recommend to how the city is constructed?

A: For me it is about the land and the rivers: Very practically based on working with natural process and a better understanding of vulnerability — witness the floods of 2013.

But what if the river valleys and hydrology had been the starting point in defining a green, urban infrastructure, providing more room and amenity but also a powerful riverine identity?

Calgary flooding June 2013

Calgary was one of 30 'local state of emergency' communities in the flooding of June 2013. (Jonathan Hayward/Canadian Press)

Imagine a city defined by greenways not highways.

But of course that is 20/20 hindsight and to be sure it is only one aspect of what would make a great diverse, prosperous and equitable city. 

Much more important than what might have been is what comes next, and this reflection may still be useful in pointing the way.

Q: Here in Calgary, to what extent are city planners, architects and others attempting to overcome a previous generation's poor designs and planning flaws. What shift are we seeing in thinking?

A: The 2015 Mayor's Urban Design Awards, for which I was privileged to be a juror, provide many clues as the how the city of Calgary is attempting to shift its priorities and modus operandi.

It is in the combination of these innovating projects — ranging from very large to very small, from corporate and institutional to intimate, individual and personal —  that it is possible to see signs of a renewed Calgary on the horizon. 

Orange Crush

Part of this year's Beakerhead, Orange Crush was a playful installation on Stephen Avenue and won first prize in the Urban Fragments category of the Mayor's Urban Design awards. (City of Calgary)

From Lineside Park, which cleverly appropriates the no-man's land under an elevated LRT as recreational space, to long-range plans to make the University District a more sustainable and complete neighbourhood; from the glorious aforementioned St. Patrick's Island Park to a new approach to the suburbs in City Edge Development, or aging in place in the Laneway Housing Research Project.

These forays are often the advance parties breaking the conventional moulds that have handicapped our ability to make desirable changes.

The sign of a great city with "soul" is the critical mass and proliferation of such probes. Not all will be totally successful, but many will as they enlarge our thinking. In this respect Calgary seems to be richly endowed.  


Calgary at a Crossroads is CBC Calgary's special focus on life in our city during the downturn. A look at Calgary's culture, identity and what it means to be Calgarian. Read more stories from the series at Calgary at a Crossroads.