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City, UCalgary partnership to spur improvements to under-used downtown spaces

They’ve catalogued roughly 1,600 under-utilized spaces in the downtown and Beltline areas of Calgary.

Now, with a $350,000 investment from the City of Calgary, the University of Calgary’s School of Architecture, Planning and Landscape (SAPL) will develop innovative ways to bring them to life.

The Civic Commons Catalyst Initiative (CCCI) focuses on research and solutions for economic recovery, downtown reinvention and the transformation of under-used private and public space.  In this phase, they will identify and design potential projects.

It’s a data-driven exercise that will whittle down the spaces where maximum downtown benefit will be gained, according to Alberto de Salvatierra, Director for the Centre for Civilization and Assistant Professor at SAPL.

“While it is the whole of civilization that finds itself at a critical inflection point, it is cities where these challenges will unfold,” de Salvatierra said.

“Therefore, cities must be the fulcrum upon which bold solutions are found.”

Ward 7 Coun. Terry Wong, who represents the downtown, said the data-driven approach is key.

“The partnership between the University of Calgary and the City of Calgary will help move these research- and innovation-driven solutions from idea to design,” Wong said.

Wong said that in 30 years working with the city, using data modeling was more of a distant idea.

“This is now something that will transform the way we do city planning going forward,” he said.

SAPL Dean John Brown said there’s an evolution underway in architecture and planning. It’s no longer about just creating beautiful buildings or spaces. That’s what’s seen with the displays at the city of a thousand planets exhibition at the SAPL building downtown.

“There has been a shift towards evidence-based design, towards using data to drive decision making,” Brown said.

Mapping urban attractors

Alberto de Salvatierra, Director of the Centre for Civilization and Assistant professor at the UCalgary School for Architecture, Planning and Landscape, speaks at a Civic Commons Catalyst Initiative event on Sept. 8, 2022. DARREN KRAUSE / LIVEWIRE CALGARY

As part of SAPL’s baseline research, they’ve catalogued roughly 1,600 under-used spaces.

de Salvatierra said that they’ve also digitally mapped the urban attractors. This includes bars, restaurants, parks, galleries, hotels, places of interest and combine that with transportation infrastructure.

By combining the catalogue and the mapping, they can best determine the spaces where transformation would have maximum benefit.

“It gives us a baseline understanding of where these things are and how to network them together in order to again, facilitate that economic development and impact investment,” he said.

That’s music to the Calgary Downtown Association’s ears. It fits with their focus on the interconnectivity of downtown spaces.

“This is a key catalyst for everything that we’re going to focus on, and the geographic area that we’re responsible for, and why we’re going to make investments in specific areas of downtown,” said Downtown Association Executive Director, Mark Garner.

It may take a while to see the fruits of this work, Garner said. There are some projects that you can tackle in the short term and see the impact. Others are 15 to 20 years away.

“We need to sort of humanize that and make sure that the community understands the evolution and the investments we’re making to sort of make sure that they resonate with the average public or community,” he said.

On Thursday, SAPL also announced a pilot project with parking operator REEF. Over the next six months, they’ll look at more than 100 lots in Calgary to see how they could be transformed to meet future community needs.

The CCCI’s Phase 1 and 2 were funded through a $460,000 grant from the Alberta Real Estate Foundation.