OPINION | Calgary's public realm: The neglect is starting to show

While the City of Calgary continues to create significant improvements to the city’s public realm with new projects, it often comes at the expense of the maintenance of older and smaller public realm areas.

It's easy to get caught up in the lustre of the new and forget about the rust of the old

The state of some of Calgary's existing infrastructure: a pedestrian bridge in the north-west that hasn't seen a coat of paint in over 15 years, and the sidewalks along Centre Street that look like something from a developing country. (Richard White)

In 1913, William Reader, Calgary's superintendent of parks and cemeteries, stated, "I very much doubt if any other public improvement will tend to create and foster a civic pride in Calgary to the same extent as will the making of boulevards, and planting of trees on our streets, nor will any other feature of our city impress visitors so favourably." 

Reader's vision was to develop Calgary into one of the most desirable cities in Western Canada by creating great streets and parks. His intent was to illustrate that Calgary was a civilized city with high-quality public spaces. The City of Calgary is still embracing this vision with projects like the Peace Bridge, St. Patrick's Island, Ralph Klein Park and the Rotary Mattamy Greenway. 

But while the city continues to create significant improvements to its public realm with new projects, it often comes at the expense of the maintenance of older and smaller public realm areas. Today, Calgary has more than 5,600 parks and open spaces to maintain and this number is growing.

What is the public realm?

The public realm is defined as spaces that all of us can experience for free — streets, squares, parks, green spaces and pathways. More and more people see the design of the public realm as critical to fostering a sense of community, where people of all ages and backgrounds can mix and mingle.

Some examples of recently completed major public realm projects are the West Eau Claire Park at the south end of the Peace Bridge, the mega-makeover of International Avenue (17th Avenue S.E.), from 26th Street to 61st Street, and Dale Hodges Park.

All of them have been well received by the public. One can only wonder, however, how they will age?

Having built them, can the city afford to look after them too?

The lilac bushes along 6th Avenue N.W. haven’t been pruned for a long time. This photo was taken in early September. (Richard White)

Take, for example, one of Reader's principal initiatives, that of creating tree-lined streets, some with landscaped boulevards. Evidence of this can be seen in Hillhurst along Sixth Avenue N.W. (from 16th Street to 18th Street) and Bowness Road N.W. (from 14th Street to 17th Street) with their lilac-lined boulevards. For years, the lilacs have been ignored, allowing them to die a slow death. It would be an easy fix to prune them every few years, but it never seems to happen. Ironically, in October, the ones on Sixth Avenue were all cut down. 

Reader was also responsible for the Memorial Drive trees, a living memorial to those who fought in the First World War.

Planting began in 1922, along what was then Sunnyside Boulevard (Centre Street to 14th Street) and continued until 1928, resulting in a grand total of 3,278 trees.

A sickly looking memorial

In 2008, the city launched a $31-million "Landscape of Memory" project, which included planting new trees, upgrading the lighting, adding banners and creating a boulevard of trees along the middle of Memorial Drive. Today, many of these boulevard trees are dead or look sickly and the linear poppy garden is infested with weeds in many spots. 

Reader was also responsible for the development of Central Memorial Park (Calgary's oldest park), converting it from what chief librarian Alexander Calhoun called "an unsightly wilderness of sand and scrub" in 1913 to its current war memorial theme, with huge trees on the east side and the cenotaph on the west.

The park's major enhancements in 2009, aimed at making it a more attractive gathering place for all the new residents moving into the Beltline condo towers, has unfortunately resulted in it becoming a haven for the homeless and drug users. Many locals now avoid it as much as they can, as the city seems unable to make it safe for everyone. 

Then there are our bridges.

The rusted stairs of the No. 1111 pedestrian bridge over 14th Street N.W. (Richard White)

While the city is busy adding splashy, new, multi-million-dollar pedestrian bridges around the city (like the 61st Street Bridge over Macleod Trail to Chinook Centre, the one at Crowchild Trail at 54th Street, and the one over Bow Trail to Westbrook Mall) there are several old ones that could use a couple of coats of paint, at least.

My personal favourite is the No. 1111 bridge. (Yes, they all have a number.) It's the pedestrian bridge over 14th Street N.W. at Eighth Avenue that connects the west and east sides of Hillhurst. It currently has more rust on it than paint. An important link to the Hillhurst School, community centre and Riley Park, it's a sad commentary on the state of the city's bridge maintenance program.  

And don't get me started about Calgary's sidewalks.

An obstacle course

While the city is spending $90 million on upgrading Crowchild Trail for cars, it has made no improvement to the pedestrian crossing at Crowchild and Fifth Avenue.

In fact, they have made it worse, placing poles in the middle of ramps and next to a fire hydrant, creating an obstacle course for all pedestrians, but especially those with strollers or kids on bikes. Heaven help anyone in a wheelchair.

Waiting to cross Crowchild Trail at Fifth Avenue N.W. can be a scary experience. (Richard White)

And while I appreciate that Centre Street is going to get a mega-makeover of its own when (or, now, if) the Green Line happens, the current state of some of the sidewalks is deplorable. Elise Bieche, the president of the Highland Park Community Association, thinks all of Centre Street's public realm has been neglected for decades.

And you now need an ATV to negotiate the potholes in the back alleys of many inner city communities, as the city has cut back on the "once-a-year" grading program.

When it comes to LRT stations, many consider the 39th Avenue Station in Manchester to be one of the ugliest in North America. Opened in 1981, the station's metal design not only feels cold and unwelcoming, it still has only a few glass bus shelters for those waiting for a train. And this station is used by about 4,700 commuters every day — three times the volume of Bridgeland Station.

Commuters are blasted by a hailstorm at the 39th Avenue LRT station in this file photo, with little shelter to protect them from the elements. (@transittylo/Twitter)

I'm not alone in lamenting the lack of maintenance of Calgary's public realm.

I recently received an email from Calgary businessman George Brookman, who wrote, "Richard, I am on a bit of a rant regarding municipal maintenance and upkeep. Hundreds of trees that have cost us millions of dollars are not getting trimmed, watered or fertilized. Grass is allowed to grow too long. One of my pet peeves is the fence along Elbow Drive at 30th Avenue S.W.  It is six years since the flood, and we still have ugly concrete barriers where there should be a lovely ornamental fence. In my mind, it is an eyesore along one of Calgary's prettiest drives and looks like road repairs in a third-world country."

Indeed, it is easy to get caught up in the lustre of the new and forget about the rust of the old.

  • What's your pet peeve for city infrastructure in need of repair? Share it in the comments section below or on CBC Calgary's Facebook.


Richard White

Author Everyday Tourist blog

Richard White has served on the Calgary Planning Commission (Citizen at Large), the Calgary Tourism Board, the Calgary Public Art Board and the Tourism Calgary Board. He writes a blog called Everyday Tourist about the city, and has written extensively on Calgary's urban development.


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