Pickleball in Municipal Plaza helps activate dead space in Calgary

So-called pop-up labs are springing up in several city areas, including Sunalta, Marda Loop, Inglewood, the Municipal Plaza and a space right by the Genesis Centre in northeast Calgary.

City Hall plaza first of 6 locations being converted as part of city program

Calgary's Municipal Plaza is being transformed to increase usage as part of a city program. (Helen Pike/CBC)

Calgary's Municipal Plaza has been transformed into a pickleball club with lush Astroturf, seating areas and colourful chess boards.

It's part of an experiment the city is doing to see how public space can be better used. Data collected at the plaza and other locations will help the city design better spaces in the future — ones Calgarians will actually want to spend time in.

The plan is for pop-up labs to spring up in six areas — Municipal Plaza, Sunalta, Marda Loop, Inglewood and space right by the Genesis Centre in the northeast — between July and October. The sixth location is still being finalized. 

"We're testing out creative ideas," said city planner Kate Zago. "With Marda Loop, we're testing out what happens when you take two parking stalls and convert that into public space — and can you retrofit public space into these popular areas?"

Mark Stinson, with the Calgary Pickleball Club, says there's a lot of interest in the sport, and curiosity, too, as it's easily mistaken for ping-pong, tennis and other paddle sports.

The space at Municipal Plaza will be set up until July 24, giving the club a visible spot to show people what the game is all about and give interested passersby a demo and chance to play.

"I got involved with the pickleball club because I got addicted to the sport," Stinson said. "I used to play squash all the time but I blew my hip out. I find this a lot easier on the body than squash was. It's a game I can play with people of different calibres and have fun."

More planned

Zago said there's more planned for Municipal Plaza, including an outdoor library, space for yoga and other fun.

"We were really interested in trying out Municipal Plaza because it [is] a kind of vast concrete area a lot of the time," Zago said.

Already, she said, there's been a lot of interest in the Municipal Plaza takeover. As soon as the donated Astroturf was rolled out, chairs were put out and milk crates set up, people started seeing the area differently and using it.

But not all the pop-up locations are as involved. Some locales simply add some seating and outdoor furniture to an unexpected space without much programming to go along with it.

The city is not just adding pizzazz to urban spaces this summer and fall, it's also collecting numbers on how these public areas were used before the interventions were implemented and looking into what changed when the pop-ups came online.

Zago said it can help them test ideas and see what works and doesn't when it comes to designing spaces people will actually use.

But the pop-ups are also helping the department understand some of the barriers preventing community groups from taking on similar projects in their own neighbourhoods.

"We're already working with community groups to help them do these kinds of projects themselves," Zago said. "We are hoping this inspires communities to do similar projects."

The city is spending about $50,000 on the program. Zago said they will be able to use materials they've gathered to activate areas in the future — they may even lend some of it out to city communities.

The city said the program will run until fall 2018, and timelines are available on the city's website.