An afternoon on Stephen Avenue in Calgary, Alberta
Contrary to common belief, Calgarians go outside. Since the first settlements took hold here in the late 1800s, Calgarians have been developing their own unique relationship to the outdoors and to the use of their public spaces, joining a league of northern cities that enjoy a great public realm.
The first step to debunking the myth that Calgarians stay indoors is to better understand the climate. The city is subject to wild and abrupt weather fluctuations with warm chinooks sometimes causing a 30 degree Celsius swing in a matter of hours. You never can quite guess when it will be appropriate to head outdoors. All you know is that you don't know.
The erratic weather led architects to convince the town fathers during Calgary's late twentieth century boom to give way to the modernist response with an elevated, interconnected system of enclosed walks called the +15. Just as the case has been in Minneapolis, however, the city is moving on. People and the business owners that cater to them have returned to the street and ditching the skywalks.
It has taken the city a while to figure it out. To quickly respond to the rapid changes in weather, street-facing shops have evolved to easily open fully to the street but quickly be buttoned up should the weather shift. Restaurant owners have also taken liberties with where they choose to locate their outdoor seating and how it is articulated. Oftentimes the seating is separated from the building front to allow for greater sun exposure and to preserve the pedestrian-shopfront relationship in those times that the outdoor seating is impractical and therefore empty. As a result when weather does not permit, one is not walking along empty patios but, rather, against the awnings and protection of the building frontage. The outdoor seating islands also are highly flexible zones, sometimes completely or partially covered to maintain their usefulness despite weather.
The epicenter of the street revolution in Calgary is Stephen Avenue (8th Ave SW). A rare example of a successful pedestrian street, Stephen Avenue is a linear market square. Keys to it's success:
- Consistent crossing with north-south traffic streets preserves visibility for retailers and other uses fronting the street
- The street cannot be more than 20 meters wide. This yields tremendous compression for shoppers and diners to see across.
- Flexibility in which storefronts can pull into the space and the ability in some cases for two-storey restaurants to double the window seats.
- Incredible concentration of upper storey office and employment uses. This generates the 9-5 life in droves but, as noted below, it comes at a cost.
- Proximity but not adjacency to transit. Stephen Avenue sits one full block south of the City's LRT street, 7th Ave SW. A common transit-oriented development tendency is to conjoin transit and streets that want to offer the performance of a Stephen Avenue. The fact of the matter is that no matter how sleek the transit vehicles are, most people feel more comfortable when they don't have to compete with them. A walk down 7th shows how this has deteriorated over time.
The street also has some drawbacks that if one were to lay it out differently, may try to correct:
- It's east-west orientation leaves the southern side dark most of the year
- City Hall is a monstrosity that terminates its eastern edge, severing the life on Stephen Avenue from the City's East Village and giving one disappointing terminus to an otherwise pleasant walk.
- Like Pittsburgh and many other North American downtowns, Calgary is a Central Business District and not yet fully formed as a neighborhood. The city is still figuring out what urban living means but as of now, the critical mass does not exist to animate the space or make it feel welcoming outside of business hours and festivals.
When we are designing and programming open spaces in northern climates, we must not be so heavy handed as to say it is cold therefore outside is off limits. Rather, we'd be doing well to use the well-honed practices of northern cities across the globe in developing a meaningful public realm responsive to the needs of the weather and the people that inhabit them.