Monday, 30 June 2014

Urban Lessons from Ottawa to Calgary

The first part of my journey to Ireland and the green-fields beyond was a 6 day stretch in Ottawa for weddings, relatives and Canada Day festivities.

A few thoughts on my impression of Ottawa and what a city like Calgary can learn from it:

Parliament Hill preparations for Canada Day

One of the first feelings I have when arriving in Ottawa from Calgary is the change of pace. Calgary has progressively gotten busier, faster and louder. Ottawa doesn't share this rush. Everything from traffic, to construction projects, to the way that people move around in the city seems to be paced a notch or two below Calgary. Even though the two cities are of similar size, Calgary is noticeably more focused on change where Ottawa's change appears to happen gradually and almost imperceptibly.

That is not to say Ottawa is sleepy; it still after-all is the seat of the federal government, and centres a urban region of a dozen or so fringe cities equalling well over 1 million inhabitants. It is clear that the population and economic growth factors that are so often the principle factor influencing changes to the built form and urban environment are significantly less boom-and-bust than Calgary.

View of new downtown condo projects from the popular high-street, Elgin Street

Like many cities in Canada, the renewed focus and interest in living in the urban centre of Ottawa is very present. New condominiums, restaurants and shops are sprouting throughout the core and other increasingly popular urban strips such as Westboro.

Much more present than in Calgary is bicycle infrastructure and subsequently cyclists. There is clear support for cycling in Ottawa and it does not consist of just the beautiful Ottawa River pathways and Rideau Canal. Lanes, signals and spaces are designated throughout the city, on major arterial roadways and downtown roads. It is clear that the idea of cycling for transportation is considered on far wider swaths of the city than Calgary. Simple, cheap - and most importantly - present infrastructure is key to win public support for cycling initiatives. It is impossible to drive in Ottawa without seeing multiple pieces of cycling infrastructure. It legitimizes cycling in a way that Calgary is only just starting to with its own cycle-track network.

Segregated bicycle lanes on Laurier Ave in Downtown Ottawa. The simplicity and lack of frills is present throughout the cycle network; meaning more lanes and more kilometres of infrastructure; albeit less fancy than Calgary.

Patios are built for the summer along the Rideau Canal, immediately offering life and energy into the park setting. I passed this one on a rented bicycle at 9:00am, hence the lack of "life or energy" in this picture below.

Calgary should absolutely emulate this on every available space in summer months along the Bow River:

Summer patio setup on the banks of the Rideau Canal. The direct Calgary analogy would be temporary patios and beer gardens lining the Bow River Pathway from Kensington to Montgomery. A great idea to better utilize green space in sunny months that sit empty.
 As the capital, it is not surprising that Ottawa has clearly invested in parks and other institutions that are second-to-none in the country:
The Rideau Canal is one of the most beautiful waterways in Canada. A web of locks, parks and multi-use pathways stretch from the outskirts to Central Ottawa, a block from Parliament Hill.
 All of the focus on beauty and architecture gives Ottawa a much more romantic and personal side than the average Calgary experience. A lock-bridge has formed spontaneously over the Rideau Canal. The symbolism of connection that a bridge provides is combined with the symbolism of a lock's permanence. The key is traditionally thrown in the canal. Note the plethora of combination locks, suggesting that not all Ottawaians are convinced in the romantic side of the city:
A lock bridge forming over the Rideau Canal near University of Ottawa. A great way to add interest to an urban space.

Ottawa offers many vantage points to reaffirm it's commitment to being beautiful:

The view from behind the Parliament Buildings on Parliament Hill. The structure ahead is the National Gallery of Canada along Sussex Drive, also home to the trendy Byward Market area as well as numerous embassies and the Prime Minister's residence. 

Calgary and Ottawa offer a significant contrast for two cities relatively close together in size. Ottawa's offerings of architecture, bicycle infrastructure and park space is something that should be envied and emulated by any city that wants to attract people to it. It has a quiet confidence that hums along in the background, slowly changing the city and reaffirming it's own identity. As Calgary has grown so fast, it will need to come to terms with a new and ever-changing identity that has grown along with it.

Ottawa offers many ideas of how urban identity and our built environment are connected. I hope that Calgary can use some of the lessons Ottawa provides to strengthen it's own image, ideas and offerings as we continue to develop. There is much here that would be incredible to have in Calgary.

Also Ottawa has formal military marching bands all over the place, which never hurts a city's charm:

Wednesday, 25 June 2014

Sled Island 2014 - Day 4: A Festival, A Finale & A City

Saturday (June 21) started off slow. My feet were sore, my voice non-existent and many of my favourite frequencies replaced with a heavy case of (hopefully) temporary tinnitus. We took the bikes out again to make our way down to Olympic Plaza for the last big day of Sled. How did it go? This was taken towards the end of the night around 11:30pm. Bicycles and youth everywhere. A truly big city evening that Calgary is getting very good at:

But first:
We arrived at Olympic Plaza mid-afternoon. The rain-soaked splash-pool of the previous night's Joel Plaskett miracle was gone, replaced by beautiful sun and a few small puddles. The tinnitus was then replaced with The Shivas, our second helping of Sled 2014. Amazing surfy, momentum music building up to some seriously positive vibes: 

Next up was the White Lung. Very cool and punky, heavy rock. Not my cup of tea - the fact I use that expression gives you an idea - but I can see why so many others do. The crowd filled out immediately with the high-energy set. Watch for these gals (and a guy) because they are clearly onto something the people want: 

It was now early evening and Olympic Plaza was buzzing. Thousands of people were milling about and afforded some fascinating shots of urban life Calgary. The relaxed attitude of all-ages but beer(!) allowed kept things mellow and relaxed. A perfect scene in the centre of the city:

The Bow building a few blocks away looks unbelievably large from the Plaza. At a healthy 58 floors, The Bow represents the largest building outside of Toronto in Canada, 235 metres tall. My friend @bt04ku says hi:

The first head-liners of the evening re-focused attention onto the stage. Rocket From the Crypt makes live music look easy. These guys are pros at working the crowd with weird, nonsensical stories of being inadvertently aroused by the sound of babies crying during the night through the wall of their hotel. Strange, but their set was pure party-rock goodness that couldn't be stopped:

The finale featured a fire-work/light show capped, perfect set by Spiritualized; a super "big-noise" sound where it feels that a whole orchestra is delivering sound to you in huge sweeping 15-minute rock ballads:

We skipped the big-ticket St. Vincent concert of evening a few blocks further down on Stephen Ave, the buzzing pedestrian strip of downtown Calgary in favour of Outer Minds - again at Bamboo / Drum & Monkey . The loudest set I have ever seen in the tiny, tiki themed club featuring a set of four alt-electro-rock bands with Outer Minds capping the night and festival at close to 2am. Beautiful finish and definitely a band that Sled is perfect at showcasing:

Outer Minds - Give Me a Reason

My Sled 2014 Statistics in four days of music, urban bliss:

  • Number of shows: 30 shows
  • Number of bands: 27 bands (Mark Mills x 2, The Shivas x 2, Outer Minds x 2)
  • Venues Visited: 9
  • Estimated distance by foot: 25 kilometres
  • Estimated distance by bike: 32 kilometres
  • Number of Big Rock Saaz drunk: 21
  • Favourite Moment: Lightning Bolt - Joel Plaskett @ Olympic Plaza
  • Favourite New (to me) Band: Outer Minds
  • Runner Up Favourite New Band: The Shivas
  • Most hip-thrusts per show / Best Local Act: Mark Mills
  • Runner Up Best Local Act: Samantha Savage Smith
See you at Sled Island 2015. I need some sleep.

Saturday, 21 June 2014

Sled Island 2014 - Day 3: An Emergency Solved by the Joel Plaskett... Emergency

Day 3 was a bicycle-powered adventure. In more than one way. We ditched walking for the day and switched to two-wheels to get further afield. A gorgeous sunny day (to start at least).

First up! A quick stop at Local 510 early afternoon. A favourite, 510 has the perfect look and atmosphere for some indie music. A shockingly solid set by Outer Minds, a kind of electro-psych rock that is impossible not to enjoy. Seeing them again at Bamboo on Saturday, an incredibly engaging sound: 

Using our wheels, no problems making it over to Containr, a weird shipping container art-park in the ever-hip Sunnyside / Kensington area of Calgary. A very beautiful day. Bicycles, rock music, skyscrapers, reused shipping containers, and a constant stream of C-Trains cruising by. The music was even partially powered by bicycles, through a innovative idea by Open Streets for pedal-powered festivals. The scene was truly a Calgary urbanist's dream: 

Highlight of the Night: It was about that time that the news broke: Neko Case cancelled at the last minute for her headlining show at Olympic Plaza set to go early evening. In a surprise twist, Joel Plaskett Emergency stepped up. One of the festival's biggest draws was replaced with a free show by the festival's biggest draw. Huge!

One problem: Joel Plaskett is cursed. His much anticipated 2013 headliner show was a victim of Sled Island's cancellation due to the flooding that crippled the festival and the city. As soon as news broke a dark cloud appear over the city and on-again, off-again monsoon rains coated downtown as we made our way to Olympic Plaza for with 9pm show.

By the time we made it during a lull in the rain, Blitzen Trapper was rocking the rain-soaked plaza, now covered in about 2 inches of water:

But the word had gotten out, the city was decending on Olympic Plaza for crowd-favourite Plaskett. As Sled Island keeps saying, no one rains on our parade:

Except it definitely did. Joel Plaskett opening with one of his biggest hits, and a never-more-perfectly-timed-tune Lightning Bolt just as the skies opened up and thunder and lightning exploded across the sky. 

The crowd went into euphoric, ecstatic uproar that kept going the entire set of soaking-went, crowd-surfing goodness as the sunset illuminated downtown Calgary and the lightning storm above.

This will be the classic Sled Moment of 2014.

The adventure didn't end there on Day 3, but that's a moment I don't want to cloud with other awesomeness. 

Pun definitely intended.

Sled Island 2014 - Day 2: The Shivas, Killer Mike & Mission of Burma

Day 2 starts off with a trip to Palomino, to get some delicious pulled pork and another performance from Mark Mills. BBQ & Sex Pop is a good combination:

After being fuelled up with slow-cooked pulled pork, it was over to East Village for the Block Party on the Riverwalk Plaza to see some electronic dance with a few thousand others and a great selection of food trucks and Market Collective stalls. Pretty cool scene but nothing compared to The Shivas.

Highlight of the Night: The Shivas played a great set of surf-rock, west-coast sound. A perfect match for the Golden Age Club, a working seniors home that Sled Island re-purposes for evenings of rock and roll. Complete with a Bingo scoreboard and a floor painted with shuffle-board courts(?), the old-timey venue ties well with the surf-rock sound.  Fantastic surprise for a group I wasn't familiar with. Check them out next time you seen them on a bill somewhere:

A few more bands before a quick run to Republik for Killer Mike . A heavy dose of high-end, high-energy hip hop never hurt anyone:

Back over to the Legion for Mission of Burma Late night bikes everywhere. Sled is great for cycling:

Mission of Burma played to a full house at the Legion with their classic rock and roll goodness. Loud and plain awesome in one of the best venues in the city. A great finish to Day 2:

Friday, 20 June 2014

Sled Island 2014 - Day 1: A Local Tour of Fuzz Rock & Sex Pop

A few highlights from Day 1 of Sled Island 2014.

Local legend Danny Vacon in the HighKicks at Local 510 parking lot. Always a good sound and one of the local acts where all 200 attendees know all the words. A great show:

Followed up with a short was down to Republik for Catholic Girls, an electron-pop-rock outfit from Calgary. Smooth sound and a up-and-coming name in town:

Highlight of the Night: Mark Mills. If you aren't looking up the next show he plays and skipping whatever work, plans, weddings or funerals you were supposed to go to so you can go see this guy, you're doing it wrong. A one man performance infused with sexy electro-pop beats off his keyboard and IPhone. So much thrusting and gymnastic moves you feel you're getting a work out watching him. Pictures don't do it justice:

This is Mills' finale: straddling the staircase at Republik without missing a beat:

Followed it up with a very new ensemble (this was their 7th show ever) of members of other electronic indie bands called the Operators. Kind of like a electro-indie supergroup.  Definitely approaching new territory with their set, something different that the regular electronic alt-pop beats. Watch for them:

I will be a few days behind posting these but stay tuned for Day 2 tomorrow. Now off to a big Friday Day 3. 

See you all at Olympic Plaza for Neko Case and the highlight of the festival: Joel Plaskett's return at Flames Central tonight!

Thursday, 19 June 2014

The Meaning of Sled Island

It is finally upon us.

Source: Sled Island

Sled Island returns this week for 4 days (June 18 - 22, 2014) of music, comedy, arts and general celebration of life. Featuring over 200 bands, 30 venues and a healthy dose of pro-inner city attitude, Sled is one of Calgary's gem festivals. After being devastated by the 2013 Floods, there was talk of Sled Island not returning. They suffered enormously financial through cancelled shows and flooded venues. It took dedication and the donation of many ticket holders' deposits to keep Sled afloat in the rising waters. Another story of the Calgary spirit that helped the city recover from the destruction.

A festival like Sled is more than time to have a few beers and catch new music. It really comes to represent a counter-point to many of Calgary's perceived weaknesses. 

Tired of the corporate presence in the countless Stampede parties of giant oil companies and money being flashed around? Sled Island venues cost a fraction of a typical pub-crawl or beer garden and you don't have to talk about money or business. You also won't see a spike in 17th Avenue fist-fights, bro-culture and pointless aggression that is commonplace at a much more famous Calgary festival each July.

Tired of endless sprawl and the banality of suburban life? Sled Island doesn't have a venue further that a kilometre or two of the Calgary Tower. This is something that suburban lifestyle simply can't provide. The festival relies on the urbanites of Calgary to support it. Something with such a diverse and expensive schedule needs participants to travel to 5 venues in a night, not one and commute back to the sleepy burbs. A Beltliner may frequent 5 shows this week with no effort, spending money and making a diverse set of businesses successful. A commuter showing up for one evening - while still welcome - is not keeping these awesome venues profitable as they rarely will visit as often. Inner city residents will.

Local indie drug store Luke's Drug Mart pre-Sled Kick-off Show with
Shad, Tacocat, Night Committee, Deadsoft & Kris Demeanor.

Shad @ Luke's
Tired of pick-up trucks and frustrating commutes? Sled Island installs countless bicycle racks and is one of the largest promoters of the City's bicycle program. In fact, in years past the City of Calgary has used data provided by Sled Island on where the most bicycles were accumulating to guide their program of provide bicycle racks on inner city side-walks. Ever wonder why Ship and Anchor or Broken City have so many bicycle racks? Sled Island.

To compete a city has to be a place for everyone, with any interest or hobby. If a city fails to do this, it risks losing those people to other places who are doing it. Every person that leaves Calgary for some place "cooler" or "more interesting" is one less person to support local business, participate in festivals or create something interesting on their own. Sled Island is exactly the type of  event that can counter that; an event that promotes everything against mainstream Calgary. That is a good thing.

Calgary needs Sled Island. Sled Island needs you. Go out and do something weird, see some strange music and talk to the weirdos you'll inevitably see at any of the venues. 

Look at these weirdos I met at a Sled Island Bicycle Scavenger Hunt. Awesome.

Also the after party had fire-spinners and a guy in a tree. How cool is that?

Monday, 9 June 2014

Cycling at Night

There is something completely satisfying about seeing a city from the seat of a bicycle.

Calgary's beautiful network of recreational pathways lining the river valley is serene and peaceful even in the most bustling part of the city. This serenity abruptly changes to the high-energy, life-or-death "running with the bulls" on busy inner-city streets as cars, bicycles, buses and trains all struggle for space. On a bicycle this change is startlingly abrupt in a way that a runner or pedestrian doesn't really experience. Their shift occurs more slowly at walking speed and perceptions adapt. Bicycles move at a speed where this change happens instantaneously, switching from high-adrenaline (and stress) to serene quiet parkland and back before your mind can catch up.

At night it is different.

There is less sound, less traffic and less competition. Downtown through-fares are now empty and silent; a far cry from the life-or-death conflict of rush hour a few hours earlier. So much bitterly contested urban space that is now wanted by no one.

All the regular "rules" seem to melt away, you can comfortably cycle at your own pace, the air is brisk so you will never break a sweat, you can take any lane you want without having a glare or obscenity directed your way. Things like traffic and aggression are usually reduced to the occasional - peaceful - interaction.

Other minor nuisances of urban cycling become much more serious. That crack that you casually skim over by slightly tilting the angle of your handlebars? Try doing it now without being able to see it.

Night cycling makes you feel more free and yet somehow more constrained; free from the fear of traffic and the constant threat of aggressive 1-tonne metal beasts killing you at ever turn, while now hyper-vigilant of the humble crack in the road or speed bump you wouldn't think twice about in the daylight.

The combination of the two factors keeps me on the roads I know - most of the time anyway. The roads I struggle and fight for every inch on during daylight hours, I seem to know so intimately that I don't need to see them. I know every bump, every crack and every line that I need to skip, turn or bump over. The darkness is no obstacle in places you know.

Riding at night is a testament to intimate connection that cycling has to a city. A bicycle is connected to a city in a way that no other form of mobility seems to be. 

Plus the views are better from the seat of a bicycle than a seat of a Mazda.

Friday, 6 June 2014

Chinook Arc

Art is always a controversial topic. One man's Picasso is another man's 8 year old son's macaroni art that lasts the minimum amount of time on the fridge before it goes into the sock drawer with the clay ash-tray and a shockingly violent crayon drawing of dinosaurs and spaceships fighting in a techno-colour hell-scape they cannot escape.

Calgary's public art program has been under scrutiny as of late. Starting with the much-debated and eventually much-loved Peace Bridge connection the community of Sunnyside to downtown, the debate came to a head with the installation of Travelling Light - the infamous Big Blue Ring - the idea of art and the public's role in it has never been more at the forefront in this city.

Amid all the controversy, the City of Calgary has quietly installed a brilliant new piece. Check out this new public art installation in the Beltline at 12th Ave & 9th St SW, aptly named Chinook Arc:

Using art to activate and engage people in the public realm is an important tool that can help make cities more lively, unique and attractive. Chinook Arc certainly does this well.

The colours change with internal LED lighting display, giving a beautiful and vibrant range of colours:

Best part: in the interior is a smartphone-shaped lens with an activation button. The lens is actually a detector that interprets the images on the phone into the ring itself.  The result is the greatest date-night activity / public music video player this city has ever seen:

All of the Lights - Kanye West

Art can and sometimes should challenge perceptions; art can and sometimes should be controversial. 

Art can and sometimes should be simply fun too.

Time and Place

There is something ironic and peculiar about having a EURail Pass show up on your desk Monday afternoon at the office you work in. 

It represents a conflict: the only reason I had it delivered to my office in the first place is that UPS can only deliver in business hours. Having business hours of my own to adhere to meant that UPS, myself and my rail pass were always destined to meet here. There were no other possibilities that it could come to me. The time and place were destined to be fixed.

The rail pass itself represents the opposite of that. Flexibility. Freedom. Time and place are not fixed entities, but fluid - as long as I stay within Austria, "Benelux", France and Germany of course.

Three more weeks of fixed, regimented life where the combination of time and space are predetermined. Followed by 42 days where there is no answer for where I am and when I am there. Time and place will melt away into wonderful, free, ethereal bliss.

Or it will be a complete, unmitigated disaster from which I will never recover. But at least I'll have more interesting posts!