OPINION | New ideas tested to create urban vitality in Calgary neighbourhoods

The authors of a new book have identified six urban magnets to attract people to a place and encourage them to spend time there.

What can Urban Magnet Theory teach us about Stephen Avenue and East Village?

Urban Magnets sets out to identify the things that will attract people to a place and encourage them to spend more time there. But what can the theory tell us about Calgary neighbourhoods like the East Village (pictured). (Richard White)

This column is an opinion from Richard White, who has written extensively on Calgary's urban development.

Recently, I was given a book entitled Urban Magnets: How Activity Subcultures Can Be A Catalyst for Rejuvenating Cities.

My first thought was, "Oh Boy! Here we go again. More planners pontificating about how to save our cities."

What the heck is an "urban magnet?" And do we really need another urban term that the public doesn't understand?

However, as I began reading the book, I smiled, as it is a satirical yet serious critique of current "urban group think."

The three authors start out by writing, "We are planners and an architect, and we help design cities. One day we were looking at life over the rim of our beer glasses. The truth is, we were bored — with our work and our half successes with our work."

I found myself nodding as several of the authors' observations echoed things I have been saying for decades. It was a fun read — not too academic — with lots of very large text to highlight key points. And lots of white space to make notes.

One of the magnets identified by the authors is unique urban forms, like the historic architecture that lines Stephen Avenue. (Richard White)

Urban Magnets was written by Bruce Haden (architect, Vancouver), Mark Holland (planner, Vancouver) and Bruce Irvine (planner, manager of Affordable Housing with the City of Calgary).

The book was inspired by their thoughts on why the revitalization of Vancouver's Granville Island was successful, and how its success could be applied to other places. 

And while the authors say they didn't want to produce a checklist for creating urban vitality, that is exactly what they did by identifying six urban magnets. Six things that will attract people to a place and encourage them to spend time there.

  1. Activity Subcultures (culture vultures, fitness freaks, fashionistas, foodies, gamers, boarders, gardeners, etc.).

  2. Specialty Retail (linked to the above; for example, if art, then bookstores, galleries, poster shops, art supply stores, quilt supply shops).

  3. Visible Production (If art, then glass blowing, furniture making, set design shops, open studios, artists creating outdoor wall murals).

  4. Educational/Learning (If art, then art school, dance school, improv school).

  5. Programming Events (If art, then First Thursdays, Shakespeare in the Park, outdoor concerts).

  6. Unique Urban Forms (If art, then public art, museums, art galleries, library, performing arts centre).

The Urban Magnet authors believe that in order to create year-round, everyday vitality, you need to be attractive to more than one activity subculture — ideally two or three — with each supported by its own "magnets."  

In Granville Island's case, the three subcultures are foodies, arts lovers and boating enthusiasts — supported by a public market, restaurants, galleries, theatre and artists' studios, as well as boat manufacturing and sales.

These pop-up container shops in the East Village are an example of 'programming,' another of the urban magnets. (Richard White)

It is the synergy of the six magnets working together that attracts people of like interests in sufficient numbers at different times of the day, week and year to animate urban public spaces. 

I couldn't help but wonder what would happen if you applied the Urban Magnet Theory to Calgary's two most obvious urban redevelopment design experiments: Stephen Avenue Walk/Olympic Plaza and East Village.  

Stephen Avenue Walk/Olympic Plaza

If we apply the Urban Magnet Theory to Stephen Avenue Walk/Olympic Plaza, the biggest subculture would be "art aficionados" with Arts Commons and its five performance spaces as the anchor. Nearby are the Glenbow Museum and Art Gallery, Vertigo Theatre, Lunchbox Theatre and Grand Theatre.  It should be a vibrant arts district.

While Stephen Avenue provides lots of upscale restaurants and bars to serve the before and after theatre crowd, there are unfortunately no hangouts where artists can mix and mingle with the performers.

Missing, too, are the commercial art galleries, artist studios and bookstores that you might expect in a vibrant arts district. And while the arts groups provide some casual educational programming, there is no major educational centre attracting students to the district.

Corporate workers love strolling along Stephen Avenue at lunch hour on nice sunny days. (Richard White)

A second obvious subculture here is the "corporate workers" who love strolling along Stephen Avenue at lunch hour on nice sunny days and sitting, perhaps having lunch, at Olympic Plaza and listening to a noon hour concert, or popping into the Glenbow Museum to see what is on.

Too bad the museum doesn't have a special noon hour admission price.

There are lots of specialty retail stores for those who want to shop, and lots of programming during the week along Stephen Avenue and weekends at Olympic Plaza. There are also dozens of "happy hours" to entice downtown workers to stay after work for a drink or to have a meal before heading to the Saddledome (hockey games, concerts) or theatre.

And there are certainly lots of unique urban forms — historic buildings, contemporary architecture and a pedestrian mall.  

Yet Stephen Avenue Walk and Olympic Plaza struggle to have year-round, everyday vitality. Why? Because these two subculture magnets repel each other — as magnets do.

The corporate bourgeoisie culture is antagonistic to the bohemian nature of artists. Case in point — Arts Central (a block from Stephen Avenue) was a collection of 20-plus galleries and artists' studios that existed for a few years, but struggled to attract patrons. The building was sold to institutional developers who tore it down to build the uber chic, Telus Sky office/residential tower.

Fashion Central was an attempt to provide a 'visible production' magnet along Stephen Avenue, but today only a few tenants remain. (Richard White)

Another example was McNally Robinson bookstore. It was a magnet for a few years in the 1990s but it, too, eventually closed. The building was sold to an institutional investor (for a huge profit) and a national sporting goods chain store replaced it. (Side note: It also struggled and eventually closed and the building has stood empty for a few years now.)

The historic Bank of Montreal building was a destination stereo, music and bookstore in the 1980s, but it closed in the '90s, sat empty for years and now is a private fitness studio. 

Stephen Avenue should also be a magnet for Calgary's "fashionistas," given it has three departments stores (for now) and The Core Shopping Centre. The problem is that much of the shopping isn't unique and weekday parking costs (thanks to the corporate workers) are a huge barrier to shoppers who just want to browse.

Fashion Central, with its 20-plus independent stores, boutiques and designer studios, was an attempt to provide a "visible production" magnet, but like Art Central it has struggled and now only a few tenants remain.  

Unlike Granville Island, which has a single owner and manager (the federal government and Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation), who can subsidize the rents of studios with more commercial enterprises, Stephen Avenue has multiple owners and managers, each trying to maximize their profits.

While the landlords pay lip service to working together, in fact it is like herding cats to get them to do so. I know. I worked with them for over 10 years in the 1990s and 2000s.

East Village

East Village is perhaps a better comparison to Granville Island, given it is managed by the Calgary Municipal Land Corporation (a wholly owned subsidiary of the City of Calgary).

East Village is still a work in progress.

The developers of the East Village have been implementing the 'Urban Magnet' theory in reverse order, first creating unique urban forms like the RiverWalk and public art. (Richard White)

In many ways, the CMLC has been implementing the Urban Magnet Theory in reverse order, first creating "unique urban forms" (the RiverWalk, library, St. Patrick's Island Park and public art), followed by extensive "programming" (pop-up events, food trucks, runs, opera, etc.). The library itself has extensive programming as well, as does the National Music Centre.

These two magnets have been attracting Calgarians from all walks of life to East Village, with the goal of enticing some to move there. 

While there isn't much "visible production" to see in East Village, (unless you love watching new buildings being constructed), "specialty retail" is coming, and the recent opening of the new Real Canadian Superstore enhanced the walkability of the community for everyday needs by 100 per cent.  

East Village's most obvious "activity subculture" would be culture vultures attracted by the new Central Library, National Music Centre, historic King Eddy Hotel, the robust public art program and perhaps even the proximity to the Olympic Plaza Cultural District and Stampede Park. What is missing at the moment is specialty retail for them, such as a bookstore, commercial art galleries and a music store.

East Village’s most obvious activity subculture would be culture vultures, attracted by the new Central Library and the National Music Centre, shown here. (Richard White)

Another subculture would be "techies," as the library also functions as an innovation Incubator, as will the new Platform Innovation Centre in the new parkade on Ninth Avenue S.E. Will they bring with them more street level co-work spaces so popular with the digital generation?

A third subculture could be "fitness fanatics" — those who want to run, walk and cycle along the Bow River pathway. This should open up opportunities for various activity clubs, maybe a bike shop or two, fitness studios and, of course, sports equipment and fashion stores. 

A fourth potential subculture could be "urban seniors," as there is a large population of empty nesters and low income seniors who already live in the community.

There are opportunities to engage them with noon hour concerts at the museum, readings at the library and seniors hours at Superstore, restaurants, cafes and fitness studios. Could seniors volunteer or work in daycares? What about shared garden plots in the community? East Village could become a model for how to foster active living for seniors in urban communities.

Only time will tell if CMLC is successful in fostering East Village as a model 21st century urban village.

This column is an opinion. For more information about our commentary section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.

About the Author

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 our city, and has written extensively on Calgary's urban development.


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