Saturday, 23 August 2014

A Calgary Summer

After many posts from the diverse, cultured centres of urbanity on the European continent, the travel bug is not quite out of my system. As I have used up all my vacation time -and then some - for the remainder of 2014 and I should probably attempt to stay employed for a while, my options for travelling abroad are limited.

Lucky for me I live in the most diverse, engaging and fast-changing city this side of the Rockies and before Montreal: Calgary!

I hope this will give a taste to some of my new friends around the world of what my city is like. Perhaps even a few locals might learn a thing or two as well. Let us begin!

Mural on 4th Avenue Bridge pier into Downtown Calgary, near the East Village District
Calgary is the largest city in the province of Alberta, and 4th largest in the country - behind Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver. Founded in the late 19th century, the city has grown quickly into a modern cosmopolitan city over the past 120 years. As of 2014, the city is  home to 1.2 million people, with several smaller satellite cities immediately surrounding the city, bringing the metropolitan area to nearly 1.5 million. It wasn't always this way: Calgary has doubled in size since 1980. An oil-fuelled economic boom is responsible for making Calgary the largest city within 700 kilometres.

Condominium towers in East Village, a redeveloped area of parking lots and empty fields a few blocks from the major business district of Calgary. Over 1,000 condos/apartments are being constructed here, with some 8,000 under construction elsewhere in the city centre in the next few years.
Calgary's Downtown is dominated by office towers; most of these built in the last 30 years as the economic boom continued. Calgary has more office space in the city centre than many larger cities: nearly twice as much as Vancouver, a city of more than 2 million people.

The Calgary skyline is below. The Calgary Tower no longer dominates the skyline, the office buildings around it reach up to 60 storeys and top out at 230 metres high, the tallest in the Canada outside Toronto. The towers in the foreground are residential towers in the Beltline district, the urban hub of Calgary where thousands of apartments, hipsters, bars and restaurants serve as the beating heart of the city:

The skyline from Ramsay, a inner city neighbourhood in south-east Calgary. The Saddledome was built of the 1988 Winter Olympic Games, an now hosts the professional hockey team the Calgary Flames. Noted for it's curved roof, the design was meant to reflect the western / cowboy history of the city (saddle) and save energy heating the arena in winter - yes it gets that cold here that we need to heat our hockey rinks in the winter.
An criticism that is often levied on urban Calgary is that as a business-only town everyone goes home after-working hours and the city centre is quiet in the evenings. While there may have been some truth to this statement in the 1980s or early 1990s, it could not be farther from the truth in 2014. The city centre has many lively and diverse districts, with bars and restaurants teeming with thousands of people to the early morning hours in areas like the Beltline, Mission, Stephen Ave and Chinatown amongst others.

Stephen Avenue during Sled Island, a indie-music festival of 200+ bands spread over 30 venues in the beginning of the summer. Sled Island celebrates urban life, music, bicycles and the arts; a true gem on Calgary's diverse and busy festival scene. Check out my daily play-by-play during Sled Island 2014 for more details.
Immediately surrounding the business core is where all the action is. In addition to the Beltline, popular districts include Mission, Sunnyside, Bridgeland and Inglewood. All are within a few minute walk of the largest office buildings that dominate the skyline and are home to thousands of Calgarians.

Mission neighbourhood, 15 minute walk south of the city centre on 4th Street SW. The Mission Diner is a popular breakfast place, one of several local favourites. Cafes, shops, bars and restaurants line this neighbourhood strip. 4th Street connects to the infamous 17th Avenue in the Beltline. 17th Avenue is long known as Calgary's prime night spot and is home to dozens of bars and restaurants.

My old apartment in the Cliff Bungalow-Mission area - looks like a house, but is restructure inside as 6 apartment units. The house was built in 1911 by the Canadian Pacific Railway for railway workers as the area was first being settled. Long before the oil industry, railways dominated the western Canadian prairie provinces. Calgary was a railway town much like places such as Brooks, Red Deer and Medicine Hat. Unlike places like Brooks, Red Deer and Medicine Hat, Calgary out-competed similar railways towns and became the predominate urban centre of the the prairies.

Only 3 minute walk from 17th Avenue, 15 minutes from the main office core. Most other houses like this have long since been replaced by apartment or condominium towers. Notice that the new tenants are not as cool as we were with the lack of vintage yard-sales and front-yard neighbourhood barbecue parties in this picture.
surrounding the city centre are two rivers: the Bow and Elbow. They are popular destinations for joggers, cyclists, walkers and general recreation activities. Unlike many cities, Calgary never had a large industrial base that polluted and channelled the local rivers into concrete canals. The result of minimal industrial usage, the length of the river valleys are filled with a series of pedestrian and bicycle pathways connecting many kilometres of parks and public spaces. Most parks place priority on preserving the natural look and environment of the riverbank. Natural enough that birds, muskrats, deer and beavers are common sights all along the river park system. Every once in a while even a moose makes it into the urban core of the city!

The East Village Plaza, connects to a new pedestrian bridge - opening Fall 2014 - to St. Georges Island, home of the Calgary Zoo. The Plaza hosts events year-round, currently the Calgary Opera in the large white tent in the centre is doing a summer series. This picture is only a few metres from the large condo projects in the earlier East Village picture.

Prince's Island is Calgary's "central park" and is one of the most loved public spaces in the city. Today it was hosting Carifest - a celebration to Caribbean-Canadian culture. Unfortunately it was a cloudy and cold day so it was otherwise quite quiet. On sunny days you will see thousands of people slack-lining, unicycling, sun-tanning, frisbee-ing and generally loving the outdoors in this pristine park at the heart of the city:

A new addition, but quickly becoming the place to see in Calgary is the Peace Bridge, a designer pedestrian bridge spanning the Bow River between the Sunnyside neighbourhood and Downtown. Wedding parties, buskers and photo-takers are always out in number here. It actually doesn't function well as a bridge because too many people stand in the way trying to get the perfect picture in the middle of the bicycle lane. I can't argue with them though it is an amazing bridge:

Inner-city Calgarians are typically a fashionable bunch but not this fashionable: this is definitely a prom/graduation photo-shoot. Picture from June 2014.
The view from the north bank of the Bow River. The Peace Bridge is a single span, gracefully crossing to the south bank with no support columns. A new landmark of the inner city:

One thing that these pictures cannot describe is the attitude of the city. While Calgary lacks the history and some of the human-scale elements I noted during my European urban posts, it makes up for it in the way that citizens deem their city. Unlike some of other places I have visited, Calgary is a place where people believe that they can change their city for the better. There is no stagnation here only relentless progress; the city changes faster and more extensively in a few years than many cities will change in a lifetime. Everything is renewed, questioned and challenged in the name of improving the city that so many here love. There are many challenges that come with the speed that Calgary changes, but many opportunities too.

Sunset at Olympic Plaza, during a concert for Sled Island. In the winter the Plaza hosts a skating rink.
Calgary made the transition from being a shabby fort of a few dozen settlers in the frontier of western Canada to a modern, diverse metropolis of a million people in 120 years. There are entire quadrants in Vienna, Amsterdam and countless other European cities that do not have a single building that was built after the first European settler stumbled across the intersection of the Bow and Elbow Rivers.

At this pace, imagine where Calgary will be in another 120 years?

This is only the summer: there is another whole season here called winter. That post might be a little bit longer :)


BONUS PICTURE: Hello friends from Munich! Guess what I found on the Bow River today?? Turns out the 2013 floods were not all bad when they diverted the river in unexpected ways. Bring your boards and come for a visit!

This is along the Bow River pathway system, looking across to Sunnyside from Downtown near the Louise Bridge.

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