Baconfest: Calgary's chief planner on the city's urban design

Think Calgary's a bit rough around the ol' edges? Could use a little sprucing up? Head on over to Baconfest. Oh, and don't let the name fool you; this has nothing to do with our porcine four-legged friends.

A Q&A with Rollin Stanley on everything YYC could be

Baconfest 3, a film festival all about urban planning, runs February 3 and 10, at the John Dutton Theatre in the Calgary Central Library. (Michael Gil/Flickr)

It's called Baconfest, but don't let the name fool you — this has nothing to do with our porcine four-legged friends. It's a Calgary film festival going on right now that's trying to get people all ginned up about urban design. 

The name comes from Ed Bacon, a famed city planner in the U.S. (and father to actor Kevin Bacon, don't ya know). 

We all know Calgary can be a little rough around the edges, and there's always room for improvement when it comes to how we turn this jumble of buildings on the prairie into the place we call home. 

The festival is the brain child of Rollin Stanley, Calgary's chief planner and now the general manager of our city's Urban Strategy. 

Part of his portfolio will be redevelopment of places like The West Village and the area around City Hall.

Stanely has worked as a city planner in St. Louis, Toronto, and just outside Washington, D.C. We had a chance to ask him what he thinks Calgary needs to change, what works, and what we should all be talking about.

Q: How can we have a conversation about Calgary, and the city we want it to be, without it becoming a "we are a world class city" conversation? What are the dangers of boosterism?

I do not like the phrase "world class", it implies a city has an inferiority complex. 

Stand on Scotsman Hill and look in any direction, particularly toward the mountains. Many so called "world class cities" would love to have that backdrop, and we have two river frontages — another feature cities would love to have. 

A view of downtown Calgary from Scotsman's Hill. (Geoff Sowrey/Flickr)

I do not know how to define world class, but I do know how to talk about what I like about the three neighbourhoods I have lived in here in Calgary: Tuxedo, Ramsey and now Mission.

I know the local small candy shop on Ninth Avenue — where my grandfather would buy and mail us back in Northern Ontario those great licorice suckers they do not make anymore — is a terrific candy store.

I like getting my Italian tuna at Lina's, and though I gave up red meat, I can still enjoy the smells of the wonderful sausage they have. Sitting at the bar at Mercato having a Peroni on tap is world class anytime.

Does having a brand new sports facility make us "world class"? I don't know. I know that having major investments linked to the infrastructure to support and build on it ... [can] make an entertainment district amazing.

Q: What is one historical legacy planning decision in our city that you wish you could undo? (e.g. the rail line through downtown?)

Actually the rail line downtown is not something I would wish could be undone, otherwise our city would not be here. 

A quick answer would be the design of City Hall. Calgary is not alone in this area. The Boston and Dallas City Hall's also have designs that interrupt and challenge the surrounding public realm.

Ours certainly needs to be looked at in terms of the public interface, particularly with the new library coming into play at the back of City Hall. If the original design had looked to building all public-facing sides in an engaging manner, encouraging interaction with the public spaces, it would be a successful building and symbol of civic engagement.

Our challenge as the new library comes online will be to integrate Olympic Plaza, Macleod Trail and City Hall with the new library and the East Village. This means a new look at the open space in front of City Hall as well as the passageway through the building. This is on our radar screen.

Q: You've talked about the need to have an alternative conversation around our city, and our hopes for it. What would you like to see that conversation look like?

Well we have been having that conversation over the past several years, and Baconfest has been a big part. On the film side, we have seen hundreds of folks who have not been previously engaged in our film series come out, learn and engage. The conversations in the lobby before and after the films are terrific, and we know many of these folks are going back into their communities and continuing the dialogue.

Q: Baconfest is your baby. What do you hope people can take away from the films, and what do you hope it calls them to do?

The films cover a range of urban topics. Our hope is that having such diverse subjects, there will always be something of interest for participants. 

The big benefit to what we have been doing is inspiring people, particularly non professionals, to become engaged in the discussion about our city and its future.

Most of the people who first started coming, we had never seen at our events previously. Now we know them by name.

It is really exciting and I can say this about YYC. There is more interest here in what we show and discuss than any other city I have worked in.

5. What has your experience in dealing with cities like St. Louis and Washington D.C. done to shape your idea of what a city can be?

The expression "don't judge a person until you have walked a mile in their shoes" really means something when you have worked in such diverse places.

From St. Louis? Realizing it is important to not take anything for granted, realize that giving opportunity to all our citizens to participate in the benefits of the city was the big takeaway. 

Toronto? Don't sweat the small stuff. Try to keep focussed on the big ideas that can really make a difference. 

I remember my last day in Toronto after 21 years worrying about whether balconies projected over a sidewalk. That was on Friday. The following Monday was my first day in St. Louis. I walked out of the office building at lunch, and there was not one person on the street and most of the buildings were abandoned.

I realized then, whether or not balconies projected over a street was really unimportant. And that same street today is entirely different.

In D.C.? Big change requires participation and real stepping up by the private sector to create positive change, as well as the dangers of building too much infrastructure at such low densities.

And the opportunity to work on specific things like several major sports facilities, opera houses, financing models particularly south of the border, means the experiences can help direct positive changes here.

Q: What are some planning mistakes other cities have made, and how can we learn from them?

The list is too long to mention here, but it is also important to note the importance of trying new things without the fear of failing. The good thing is, there is nothing "new" in the word "urban."

Every city can learn from so many others. What is changing that we cannot look back for guidance on, is the shift to "Smart Cities." Smart Cities are about how technology can change how cities function, meet the needs of our residents and move us forward.

From enhanced apps for service delivery, like booking appointments for your cell phone, to integrated signalling, and for emerging economies in Third World countries, smarter stoves to reduce deforestation and reduce carbon emissions — the real future of cities is about how we can meet so many needs in a smarter, more efficient and sustainable way.

Perhaps the biggest takeaway I have though, is do not take anything for granted. 

Q: How will the economic downturn change the nature of the conversation around how we plan and build Calgary?

Calgary is perhaps in the strongest position of any city in North America with respect to capital infrastructure investment, and council and administration are moving swiftly to get the strategic infrastructure identified and built. 

We of course will work also with higher levels of government on projects like the Green Line LRT and are well into the public engagement phase of that project.

Every city needs to invest in the infrastructure that positions the city for success. The soon-to-open airport expansion for example is a critical investment. We are considering all the major ideas like the arena, putting into the mix our city-owned land, talking with the people who invest in our city to identify where we should be investing to position the city for the next phase of growth.

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.


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