First published Feb. 16.

Calgary at a Crossroads

What colour is Calgary?

Not in a rhetorical sense, with respect to cultural or racial diversity, but in a metaphorical, chromatic sense. You know ... our hue.

If you were to pick a colour that represents our city, what would you choose?

Maybe the red and white of the Stampeders and Flames. Or maybe something more political depending on your own stripe: red, orange, blue, green. Or while we're at it — Nenshi purple.

Sam Bennett

When you think of Calgary's colours, does Calgary Flames red come to mind? (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press)

Calgary brown

Being a born-and-bred Calgarian, I pay tribute to our city through colour. So, I've decided to lobby the Crayola folks to introduce a new crayon. Yep a Calgary-themed crayon, and I call it Calgary brown.

Why such a dull colour? Glad you asked. Let me peel off the wrapper off this crayon and reveal what's inside.

In colour psychology, brown represents "down to earth" nature and stability. Brown is not a primary colour. It's a composite. Composed of nuances, shades, hints of other colours. Calgary brown is a whole palette.

Nose Hill Park in Calgary

Looking over a sea of Calgary brown on Nosehill Park. (davebloggs007/Creative Commons)

When I say brown, picture a slightly pale, earthy tone like prairie grass in early spring or fall, around harvest time: beige, tawny, sandstone.

Before Calgary was known as the Stampede City, our nickname was the Sandstone City. After the great fire of 1886, city officials recommended that major public and commercial buildings be made from sandstone rather than wood. Go check out Old City Hall at the east end of the downtown core. 

Old city hall Calgary

The original city hall is one of the old sandstone buildings that helped established Calgary's early hue. (davebloggs007/Creative Commons)

But Calgary brown is also based on our seasons.

Anyone who's ever spent a year here will know that from October to May, there is a distinct hue across the city landscape.

All year round, the downtown has kind of a khaki concrete complexion, and the suburbs are, well, beige. Sure, in summer (the season Calgarians call "getting ready for winter") our city goes green. But when the wrath of winter arrives, and after the first white snow has fallen, Calgary bleeds brown.

Snow and dead grass

Snow and brown grass mix throughout Calgary's winter, adding to the urban palette. (Drew Anderson/CBC)

Dead lawns and dead parks all with a grey overtone of road salt gravel and leafless tress.

Okay, that sounds grim. But anyone who's ever coloured with crayons knows there's magic deep inside them. The more you use a crayon, the more you notice other colours secretly appear on the page. And that's how it is with Calgary brown: the more you use it, just like the more time you spend in our city, the more you discover other subtle yet magical colours across our city landscape.

Calgary colours by the river

Sometimes you have to look closely to see the colour in Calgary's landscape. (Drew Anderson/CBC)

Chicken-on-the-Way Yellow

Like flecks of prairie crocus purple from the flower that shows up ever so briefly in springtime. How about shades of Peace Bridge red? Or streaks of Chicken-on-the-Way yellow. Then there's also the subtle tones of green in Riley, Confederation and Prince's Island parks. And, in our oh-so-short summer, outdoor pool blue.

Chicken on the Way

Chicken on the Way's yellow is part of Calgary's palette. (Grant Hutchinson/Flickr)

And then there are hints of moonlight silver in our crayon.

The next time you find yourself out at night, make your way to some high ground, like Crescent Heights just north of the river, and gaze downtown at our skyline. I've always thought our downtown is like one big lighthouse. The core sparkles and casts a ghostly light over a sea of brown.  

Chinook orange

And lastly, should you ever find yourself colouring with Calgary brown late in the afternoon, you might just notice that the whole page glows with a Chinook-arch orange.

Anyone who's spent some time here in the winter will know what a magical time it can be in the late afternoon. The day may have been grey and overcast but when the setting sun peaks under the cloud cover of the Chinook arch, the whole city is cast in an orange warm glow.

So Crayola, Calgary brown. Have I got a crayon for you.

Chinook arch

The Chinook winds often bring their own hue, splashing orange across the prairie sky. (@Thebradcates/Twitter)


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.