Buzz grows with pollinator garden sprouting from concrete on Stephen Avenue

First test steps of Stephen Avenue transformation take root in downtown corridor

Stephen Avenue's new pollinator garden is filled with plants rich in pollen, including Astrantia major, often referred to as Great Masterwort. Photo: KIRSTEN PHILLIPS / FOR LIVEWIRE CALGARY

Bees receive an official invite into the heart of Calgary’s concrete jungle.

A new pollination garden combines environmental benefits and aesthetics during the first phase of the City of Calgary’s Activate and Experiment initiative.

The initiative, part of the Future of Stephen Avenue project, will help revamp the popular pedestrian corridor from City Hall to 11 Street SW.

In August 2019, Gehl, a San Fransisco consultant, and Stantec, a local engineering and landscape architecture firm, were onboarded to the project and conducted a public realm study. 

The study ran for a year, ending in late 2020, which set the vision for the project.

“The project will be a complete redesign, but in the meantime we’re looking at testing different elements,” Ward 7 Coun. Druh Farrell said.

Prior to COVID-19, the street saw 16,000 pedestrians a day.

“The street [has] really reaching the end of its lifecycle,” Michael Magnan, the project manager with the City of Calgary, said

Broken bricks on the avenue were to be replaced with concrete by the City’s roads department – until the idea of a planting bed was suggested.

“[They] thought it was a good idea. It saved them a little bit of money with having to replace concrete – dirt’s a little bit cheaper,” Magnan said.

The two=year program has received $300,000 from the Council Innovation Fund to try new things on the iconic downtown street.

Magnan said they’ll monitor how the projects are received. They’ll engage with the public to determine if this is something that should be incorporated into the street’s long-term transformation.

Pollinating the avenue

Vibrant native ornamental plants found a new home on the avenue on June 9, with the hopes of creating a pollinator friendly design to the popular street.

“There’s a lot of increasing awareness of some of the challenges that our native pollinators have. The populations are sort of declining and there’s a lot of theories over why that is but one of them is a lack of access to pollen [and] plants that attract pollinators,” Magnan said.

The plants were specifically chosen by the City of Calgary’s Parks Department to attract pollinators. KIRSTEN PHILLIPS / FOR LIVEWIRE CALGARY

Stephen Avenue was chosen because it is Calgary’s showcase street with the best pedestrian experience.

“It’s both beautification, piloting a new approach, as well as improving biodiversity for pollinators,” Coun. Farrell said.

“We can be positive partners to nature rather than at war with nature. It’s just a new way of thinking and a new way of operating.”

There’s hope for a symbiotic relationship to blossom between the honey bees in East Village and the TELUS Convention Centre just down the road from the new pollinator garden.

“Pollinators need networks, and there are a remarkable number of beehives in the core,” Farrell said.

“This is just one way to improve the connectivity with private companies and individuals who are incorporating honeybees into our public realm.”

Risk versus Reward

The Activate and Experiment phase of the project is to determine what works and what doesn’t. Then they’ll refine the design and implementing it permanently.

“The avenue [will be a] kind of living laboratory for the next two years,” Magnan said.

Although vandalism and damage to the garden is anticipated, it should never prevent us from doing nice things, Farrell said.

Projects such as this aim to foster a public sense of respect for the space.

The fence will come down in about two to three weeks, after the plants begin blooming. Photo: KIRSTEN PHILLIPS / FOR LIVEWIRE CALGARY

“Will someone walk through the planting bed and step on a plant? Probably. Is that part of the experiment? Absolutely. So, rather than designing for the worst case scenario, we’re going to see what happens,” Magnan said.

The Parks Department has been designated to maintain the garden and monitor for damage.

As part of the nine-block initiative, the City of Calgary and Calgary Downtown Association integrated the Downtown Ambassador project into the Future of Stephen Avenue project. They’ll also keep an eye on the garden and other updates.

For now, a fence stands around the plants so they have a chance to bloom and settle into the ground.

“People are gonna pick flowers … but just like the hanging baskets or any of the beautiful planters that are downtown, I think fundamentally people respect them,” Magnan said.

Upcoming changes

Renewing the avenue will take time, but benches are expected to be reintroduced in the near future.

Calgary Downtown Association will be replacing and repainting the old benches that were removed from the avenue over the last couple of years to give people places to sit, Magnan said.

Magnan said they’ll incorporation mini-plazas, perhaps with planters along the corridor.

“They’ll be more oriented towards social uses and things like that, particularly as COVID restrictions start to relax a little bit we can start to create outdoor gathering spaces that are a little more intimate,” she said.

“But then our consultant team is then going to go in and build something a little more designed, a little bit more playful. Almost more sculptural and isn’t just a bench in its traditional form … the idea being to try something that challenges the traditional shape of a bench or how it works.”

The next iteration of the pollinator area may see signs with a QR code directing people to a survey so they can give feedback on the design.

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