Feeling lost? Calgary Plus 15 network getting wayfinding update

The Plus 15 network is a well-worn path between offices and shops for some, while others see it as a convoluted maze with dead ends leeching life from the street.

City hopes a new plan and better signage will draw people into walkway network

Calgary's extensive network of Plus 15 walkways has been around since the 70s. (Helen Pike/CBC)

The Plus 15 network is a well-worn path between offices and shops for some, while others see it as a convoluted maze with dead ends leeching life from the street.

Love or hate the pedestrian walkway, the bridges are built. 

And instead of lamenting the network's shortcomings, some believe it's time to embrace the Plus 15. 

"If you step back, it's actually quite the network," said Dialog Architect, Tracy Liu.

"The attitude from it, in terms of it being a convenient way to get from point A to point B, it certainly has potential to be something so much more interesting."

The walkway developed through a 30-year-old policy, that the city is now updating.

In the new policy, project manager Jennifer Black said they will look to standardize the network's wayfinding, policies and hours.  

"It's really about bringing the policy into this decade," Black said. 

The network was first conceived in the 1970s by city planner Harold Hanen, who was recognized with the Vincent Massey Award for Merit in Urban Planning for his idea. 

Quickly the conversation turned from positive and visionary to negative.

Editorials toiled over how the network created a divided downtown and was detrimental to the street level shops — dubbed an urban dichotomy. 

But the network is already a sunk cost. 

A 'little economy'

Today, the 86 bridges join 16 kilometres of walkways through the downtown — originally named Plus 15 because the network hovers 15 feet up.

The publicly accessible walkways connect through private office buildings, shopping centres, apartment complexes, hotels and post-secondary institutions. 

"It's a little economy," Black said. 

Pedestrian traffic counts range from 10,000 to 20,000 per day during the busy season: winter.

Altogether, the network is worth more than an estimated $500 million. 

Growing up, Liu always felt the Plus 15 took pedestrians away from the sidewalk — making the core feel unsafe. 

She moved away for school, but eventually returned home and found herself seeing the network in a different light. 

A stick figure in what appears to be a cowboy hat is part of the current signage to indicate where walkers can access the Plus 15 (Helen Pike/CBC)

Asking: What if the Plus 15 could be an asset to the core? 

Liu reimagined the network for the Walk 21 International Conference held in Calgary in 2017. She then examined placemaking opportunities in the walkway as part of a City of Calgary commissioned study.  

"What is it that we need to make the Plus 15 places that are contributing more to a person's happiness or their well-being?" she said. 

Instead of expanding the bridges and walkways, Liu suggested investing in the existing network. Creating green spaces, destinations, experimenting with pilot projects and investing in downtown's vibrancy as a whole.

With work, Liu believes the Plus 15 could be a destination. 

While some of the network is open from 7 a.m. until midnight, hours vary, making the network harder to navigate in the evening, and sometimes on weekends. 

From the street, the 5th Avenue walkway appears to be gated in. (Helen Pike/CBC)

Using the network to cross downtown can be a frustrating experience with dead ends and confusing links. 

For those living with disabilities, the network could serve as a sheltered and heated route away from the snowy sidewalks — but some of the walkways aren't up to today's standards. 

The existing wayfinding signs aren't serving people, Black said. 

"Regular users of the network who are looking to venture a little further from their usual route, even they find it confusing," she said. "This is a missed opportunity." 

The Plus 15 network is made up of 16 kilometers of walkways connected by 86 bridges in Calgary's downtown core. (Helen Pike/CBC)

On Stephen Avenue, between the Core and Bankers Hall, many pass the blue Plus 15 signs, a cowboy-hat stick figure walking up a set of white stairs. 

They choose Stephen Avenue, instead of venturing indoors. 

Shaun Hanrahan says despite living downtown, he rarely takes the walkways.

"I prefer the walk on 8th avenue, fresh air, the walk outside," he said, adding he's been turned around trying to use the bridge and walkway network. 

New signs coming soon

When Nora Kotkas visits downtown, she finds the walk between the train and the Core shopping centre easy.

"It's pretty simple, it's marked quite well," Kotkas said.

She's stunned to learn how extensive the 16-kilometer long network is.  

"What? Why?" Kotkas said, laughing. "I didn't know our [downtown] was that big." 

The updated wayfinding could come in the form of new signage, an app or even a mix of the two, Black said. 

"What we really want is just more people exploring downtown, navigating it by foot," she said. "There are two networks and I think that's great. And we just want to see more people using both. And I think this will really help." 

Black expects Calgarians will be able to see some new signage in action by the end of the summer. 

Consultations close on April 8th for the wayfinding portion of the project, but there will be another round of feedback opening up in late spring.

By June, the new Plus 15 policy is coming to the Transportation and Transit committee.


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