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‘Tremendous increase’ in biodiversity on St. Patrick’s Island 10 years after redevelopment

St. Patrick’s Island, located on the Bow River across from Bridgeland and the East Village, has become a major site for urban biodiversity.

A decade on from its redevelopment as part of the East Village Master Plan, the number of species of plants, animals, and insects has increased by 68 per cent, to over 450.

In June, CMLC hosted a second BioBlitz after one held in 2013, to capture a snapshot of the biodiversity on the island.

“When I first went to St. Patrick’s Island 10 years ago, when we did the first BioBlitz, not many people went there—it was a little crime ridden, and people didn’t like to go there. It was thought it was dull, mostly-mowed lawns and scattered poplar trees,” said Dr. Steven Handel, Distinguished Professor of Ecology and Evolution at Rutgers University.

“When we did the new BioBlitz this June, just a few months ago, we found a huge number of species which now see the island as as a magnet for habitat, for food, for nesting.”

Dr. Handel described those results as “a tremendous increase.”

“But the 68 per cent was really more than I had thought, when we went into the project. I jokingly told the people at CMLC that if I come back 10 years from now, we may get another big bump simply because the plants are bigger and older,” he said.

Among the species that have become beloved to locals visiting the island, and recognized by Dr. Handel as important to the ecological health of the area, are the Ospreys that make their home on the Bloom—the light sculpture located next to the George C. King Bridge.

“The Osprey is using the river, and the water in the river is cleaner now because of various environmental policies,” he said.

“Nesting in that stick nest high on the Bloom sculpture everybody sees it. It’s a little beacon, a little announcement to people that Calgary can have really interesting ecology and biology in it. So that was thrilling to me.”

Dr. Handel said that various plants that were installed near the parking lot adjacent to the Calgary Zoo are also doing their part in increasing the amount of biodiversity for insect species.

“That’s a place where there are lots of insects and lots of wildflowers, and I think people enjoy it. There’s a walkway over it and there’s beautiful sitting area near it, so people sit there and relax and even learn something about that nature, he said.

Climate change likely to further evolve species diversity on island

Dr. Handel said that as Canada continues to warm due to climate change—Calgary included—it is likely that the number of insect species on the island will also increase.

He said that one of the surprising, and negative outcomes from the BioBlitz was the lack of moths found at night on the island. They had expected to find between 50 to 100 species of moths.

“Certain kinds of insects have gone down in numbers throughout North America, and we need more information about that. The [BioBlitz] entomologist was quite surprised,” he said.

The BioBlitz found that the number of daytime pollinators, including several species of native Alberta bees, had increased due to the number of flowers now on the island.

There were 263 species of insects and invertebrates identified, with 12 different bee species and four different lady bug species.

Those pollinator species originating from St. Patrick’s Island, said Dr. Handel, have real benefits for people in neighbouring communities.

“Many people have gardens. Urban ag is very important to help grow healthy food in our cities, particularly for poor people. So having pollinators who travel widely, many kilometers, is important for everybody’s home garden,” he said.

“Then, of course, the government plants things for beauty, as well as to clean and cool the air. By having all the pollinators there, we make sure that the flowers are making seed, and the seeds can drop and then start the next generation of plants.”

Bird species too, he said, also play a role in travelling from St. Patrick’s Island to elsewhere, bringing seeds to other parts of the city.

“In terms of persistence and sustainability, the pollinators are important to keep all these beautiful wildflowers and even some of the tree seeds around in the future. The last thing Calgary has to do is replant everything along its roadways and public spaces and public parks every year,” Dr. Handel said.

“The pollinators carry around natural seeds, and natural regeneration with no tax money—the pollinators work and they don’t have to be paid.”

Biodiversity in the plan from the start

Clare LePan, Vice President, Communications and Strategic Partnerships for the Calgary Municipal Land Corporation said that as stewards of the island, they have been familiar with the return of biodiversity, but were surprised by the actual numbers that came from the BioBlitz.

“We didn’t have the nuanced detail that came through the BioBlitz, and the partners that were part of it, to really help us take that baseline and understand how it’s grown across all the different species,” LePan said.

“So, it’s been rewarding and a new discovery for us as well, to see the numbers track out as much as they have.”

She said that biodiversity was one of the goals for the redevelopment from the start, which came through public consultations for the design of St. Patrick’s Island and then through the island’s master plan.

“We heard comments about people wanting to stick their toes in the river, which obviously for the Bow River isn’t always an easy thing to achieve. That drove a lot of, ‘how do we do that in such a way that it protects the habitat of the islands,’”LePan said.

“It resulted in this nature based approach called biophilia, which the landscape team had put forward, which is really trying to establish a space that prioritizes its natural habitat. We knew it was a space that was overgrown. We had a lighter touch on the island in terms of its rehabilitation.”

Scott Jordan, a Principal of Civitas—one of two landscape architecture firms involved with the island redevelopment—said that right from the start they wanted to return the natural environment to the island. The real natural environment.

“Our entire design approach was around both up around how could we take the island and make it a living island again, that had the ecological diversity it once had. So that was absolutely at the core of what we were thinking for the design from the very beginning,” Jordan said.

Part of that plan, and the part that Jordan worked on, was the redevelopment of the west end of the island, which is now the wading area where people can dip their toes into the Bow River.

“We looked back at the historical areas of the island and realized that used to be multiple smaller islands that were broken up by little waterways. When we looked at the site today, or as it existed, you can see where this one historic waterway used to flow through the island,” Jordan said.

“So, one of our big strategies was, if that’s how nature wanted it to be originally, let’s return it to what it could be originally. So, we added the breech of the water crossing that cuts through the middle or to the east end of the island.”

Prior to the redevelopment, that portion of the island had been filled in to create inner camping spaces.

The debris that was removed to restore the natural flow of water though St. Patrick’s Island was then used to build The Rise, which itself was another disturbed area of the island.

Jordan said that he wasn’t surprised by the return of biodiversity to the island, but nevertheless that the 68 per cent increase thrilled him.

“When humans are involved, whether we’re going to change the ecology of a place for the negative or positive—I think here we were able to change it for positive—I wouldn’t say I was amazed by the numbers because that was always our goal.”

“Am I excited by it? Absolutely. Thrilled that it happened and this happened? 100 per cent.”

Building the park(s) for the next decade.

Jordan laughed that when he was in grad school, he had a professor that said if you do cool design, go into architecture, but if you want to make a difference in people’s lives, go into landscape architecture.

“Landscape architecture is a public realm. It’s free and available and equitable to everybody,” he said.

“The idea of creating nature-based experiences in urban areas, in my mind, opens up these parks and these natural experiences to people that probably don’t have at times the resources to go out and explore the natural systems out outside of cities.”

He said that good design also serves to make a place more sustainable, with less effort required to maintain a park because nature will do that job for you.

LePan said that the results from the BioBlitz along with other stewardship teachings has informed how CMLC will program the park in the future, and also develop the next set of river adjacent parks in the Rivers District.

“This year was one of the first years where we’ve made some adjustments to programming to ensure that it isn’t programmed with events that are too large of a scale that have too much of an impact on the habitat,” she said.

“We’ll continue to monitor that in the years ahead, it also informs our design considerations and future park spaces in the Rivers District, when you look at how there can be investment that goes beyond the infrastructure of the space but how it can actually help establish a more naturalized base in the downtown.”

Part of that programming change was reduced large scale concerts for Canada Day 2023, but also the types of ongoing programming offered to Calgarians.

CMLC has stepped up the nature aspects of the island’s programming, with bird watching tours and smaller family-focused activities on Sunday Fundays.

Jordan said that St. Patrick’s Island was one of his favourite projects to work on thus far in his career, and was excited by the prospect of the redevelopment informing future work on the rivers.

“It’s probably the project I’m most proud of in my career. Some of that has to do with it being what I consider the big city that I went to growing up throughout my youth, but also because I have family [in Calgary] and I’ve seen what it’s done to the island,” he said.

“It really transformed a highly under-utilized island into a hub for all the residents that live nearby, and even regionally to use.”