"Without question, a tectonic shift in economic clout and influence from central Canada to western urban centres has been under way for almost two decades, fueled largely by a boom in commodities and surge in the oil and gas industries."
- Theresa Tedesco, "‘Toronto has less influence now':
How Canadian corporate power is making a big shift westward"
Financial Post, Dec 2014
Poppy Plaza, Landscape of Memory
marc boutin architectural collaborative
8,000m² (86,100 sq ft)
$31.5 million CAD (Landscape of Memory)
City of Calgary
TWO SIDES OF THE SAME CITY
Over the last ten years, Calgary has undergone a significant change, transforming from a nondescript, mid-sized prairie town into an cosmopolitan city, with aspirations to reach "world class" stature.
Young professionals have been drawn to Calgary, attracted by its low unemployment rate and high wages. In 2011, Calgary was the fastest growing city in Canada. Current growth rates show that the city receives more than 40,000 new residents a year.
In an effort to retain and attract more professionals, the city of Calgary has started to shift its focus to urban-based policies, investing millions of dollars into new transit infrastructure, public art and architecture. Led the city's mayor Naheed Kurban Nenshi, municipal leaders are working to curb suburban sprawl and encourage the growth of compact urban communities.
For years, Calgary's Downtown East Village neighbourhood was cut off from the rest of downtown. Starting in 2005, the city identified it as a key area of urban revitalization. Since then, it's run-down properties and vacant lots have gradually been replaced with luxury condominiums, restaurants, hotels, and art galleries, with plans for a National Music Centre and a new central public library underway.
Artist rendering of the planned New Central Library in Calgary's East Village.
(Illustrations: MIR. Architects Snohetta and DIALOG)
Despite these changes, Calgary's small-town character is still deeply embedded within its culture. Until the late 1970s, the majority of people moving to Calgary were from rural communities, accustomed to living in single family houses. Historically, infrastructure investment in Calgary has prioritized building new roads to ease car traffic and provide fast connections to the suburbs.
In recent years, Calgary's suburban home builders have clashed with city council members who are pushing for policies to curb suburban sprawl. Most notably, Mayor Nenshi has made it a priority to ensure that suburban developers pay levies for the growth costs of building on undeveloped land.
One suburban home builder, Cal Wenzel of Shane Homes, called city hall a "social engineering program," criticizing its attack on suburban development. Others have said that the cost of redeveloping the Downtown East Village neighbourhood has fallen on taxpayers, claiming a double standard in the city's strategy for funding development costs.
A city of only a million people, Calgary is the nation's leader in the oil and gas industry. It has the second greatest number of corporate office headquarters in Canada.
Entrepreneurs eager to make their fortune have long been attracted to the city, but fluctuating markets have caused investors to come and go, giving the city its “boom-bust” reputation. For years, the nature of this situation has meant little investment in architecture, urban design, and the quality of spaces between buildings in the downtown core.
To reverse this image, the city has been endorsing investment in significant works of architecture. The Bow office tower by British architect Norman Foster was completed in 2012, at a cost of $1.4 billion. In the same year, the Peace Bridge by Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava was opened, after two years of delays and a public investment of $25 million.
Public Art in at the entrance to The Bow tower.
Peace Bridge connecting the north Bow River pathway with downtown Calgary.
THE LANDSCAPE OF MEMORY
The City of Calgary has had a long and proud military history. In WWI, after many soldiers from Calgary died oversees, the road running along the Bow River was renamed Memorial Drive. In the 1920s the city planted over three thousand memorial trees along the road's edges.
Over the years, the city widened Memorial Drive and introduced expressways into the downtown core. Memorial Drive became a high-speed road that separated the river from the adjacent neighbourhoods. As a consequence, the roots of the memorial trees were compromised and began to die.
The city responded by implementing a plan called the Landscape of Memory, a $31.5 million multi-phase project to redevelop the Bow River pathway system. The first phase of this plan focused on median and boulevard improvements along Memorial Drive, which included the cloning and replanting of the beloved memorial trees.
The Landscape of Memory project has now expanded to include a network of bridges, pathways, memorials and plazas spanning over 9.5km, aimed at reconnecting the city to the Bow River and surrounding parkland. As described on the City of Calgary's website, one of the project goals was to "explore new and traditional ideas about memorialization within the context of the urban setting."
The Landscape of Memory was possible because of an initiative called the Enmax Legacy Parks Program. Enmax, a gas and electrical utility company based in Alberta, started a capital funding program in 2003. The initiative directs the annual dividend above $47.3 million that Enmax pays to the city towards paying for the city's new parks and upgrades, especially in areas that have been neglected.
Calgary's position at the intersection of the Bow River and and Elbow River, just east of the Canadian Rockies means that the city boasts nearly 10,000 hectares of parkland, along with an extensive pathway and bike system that is used heavily all-year round. The abundance of of well-loved park and recreation space has made some Calgarians question the need to invest public funds on revitalization of urban spaces.
In 2014, the City of Calgary dedicated an additional $75 million into Calgary's urban park fund through the Enmax Legacy Parks Program.
LANDSCAPE OF MEMORY
A NEW KIND OF PUBLIC SPACE
Poppy Plaza is one of the first pieces to be completed within the Landscape of Memory project. Opened in 2013, the 86,100 square foot park was designed by local architect Marc Boutin. It is a rare example of contemporary landscape architecture in Calgary.
Three years earlier, Central Memorial Park, the city's oldest park and the location of Calgary's Remembrance Day ceremonies, was restored to its original Victorian-inspired, Edwardian-era form. The renovation of Central Memorial Park was very well-received by Calgarians. In addition to being the official site of the city's Remembrance Day celebrations, it continues to be a well-used park year-round.
"When we started the design of Poppy Plaza, we took a close look at Central Memorial Park, the kind of beaux art planning about strolling, and a particular very orchestrated lifestyle," said Boutin.
"Although as much as we regard it with value, we didn’t want to do the same thing with Poppy Plaza. We acknowledge that we live in a very different time, a much more contemporary time," he said.
Boutin describes the use of weathering steel as an "armoring device", a metaphor for conflict and defense. The folding steel panel system links the hard surfaces of the city with the natural landscape of the river, connecting the level of boardwalk and plaza to the level of the water.
"If you look at the form of Poppy Plaza, the facets if you will, it has to do with the romantic ruin. The idea that we’ve left warfare behind us, but we’ve retained enough to internalize and signify the values of those sacrifices," he said.
It remains to be seen if Calgarians will come to value Poppy Plaza in the same way that they value Central Memorial Park. Some locals have complained that the weathering steel cladding has already rusted - a material that was, in fact, specially selected by the architect for its ability to patina, a visual reminder of the passing of time.
Since opening, Poppy Plaza has become a frequent stop for skateboarders who are drawn to the many faceted surfaces of the plaza. However, skateboarding has been banned at Poppy Plaza because of the damage that it can cause to the surface of the weathering steel cladding.
In his blog, Everyday Tourist, Richard White, an architecture and urban design columnist for the Calgary Herald, has twice reported that Poppy Plaza remains largely unoccupied. Passing by weekly over the past two years, he laments the millions of dollars that the city spent to build a park he believes few people use.
"Today was a beautiful early spring day and I thought for sure there would be lots of people on the plaza. I was wrong. I hung around for about 30 minutes and I saw one couple walk through and one guy on a bike use the seating area as a bit of an obstacle course for about a one minute," writes White.
Calgary city councilor Druh Farrell presides over Ward 7 - the district that is home to Poppy Plaza. She remains optimistic that with time, attitudes will shift in favour of more experimental examples of design.
"Poppy Plaza is quite stark and harsh and definitely a solemn place. But it also has the potential to be an interesting meeting place," said Farrell. "Calgarians didn’t recognize the importance of great public space because they had so little of it. Cities are defined by their public spaces, and Calgary is no different."