White: Oh the Urbanity! sees much to celebrate in Alberta's cities

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Recently I was surfing X (formerly Twitter) and found a video titled Oil Country Urbanism by a group called Oh The Urbanity!, of which I had never heard. I couldn’t resist clicking on the video and I am glad I did. It was an excellent third-party look at Calgary and Edmonton and how both cities punch above their weight compared to other cities their size when it comes to urban density and public transit. This is contrary to what most urban planners say and might even shock a few people.

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Turns out Oh The Urbanity! is a Montreal group of urbanists who “traverse cities by foot, bike and public transit and aims to make informative and (hopefully) entertaining videos combining streetscapes and demographic data. We are based in Montreal but enjoy exploring other cities and highlighting urbanist projects and endeavours.”

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They sound like my kind of people. Perhaps it helped that they echoed many of the things I have been saying for decades — in particular, Calgary gets no respect from urbanists as a progressive urban city.

What impressed me most was how they were able to put aside some of the urbanist sprawl bias about Calgary and Edmonton and show how even our edge suburbs are denser than the typical North American suburb. Upfront they recognize both cities are young and so most of their development has been post 1950s when the automobile began to shape city building in North America.

Their aerial photo of Calgary’s suburbs with their densely packed homes with small yards, streets and driveway, were a stark contrast to American cities. I loved it when they said “we couldn’t help but wonder why they don’t just build row homes in their suburbs” as from an aerial view Calgary and Edmonton’s new suburban street filled single family homes that look very much like row homes.

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They also give Alberta’s two urban centres top marks for being early adopters of light rapid transit and having ridership numbers that exceed those of cities with much larger populations. Calgary gets the gold star for having the highest LRT ridership in Canada and the United States. They thought it was ironic how many of Calgary’s downtown office workers, who are predominantly oil and gas employees, take transit to work, not cars. However, they didn’t make any mention of the fact Calgary’s LRT has been powered by wind for decades. Yes, Calgary is more progressive than many people think.

Oh the Urbanity! captured a cargo bike in action on Stephen Avenue Walk. Photo by Supplied /Postmedia

Cycling and Walking

Oh The Urbanity!, though not as excited by our cycling networks, were optimistic about Edmonton’s plans to enhance its and admitted they didn’t spend much time on Calgary’s bike lanes. Too bad they didn’t have time to explore even a few of Calgary’s more than 1,000 kilometres of pathways across the city and realize how they contribute to creating a unique urban experience by connecting our suburbs with the inner-city and downtown. But they were impressed to see a cargo bike on Stephen Avenue Walk in the middle of downtown. They also noted Calgary has a great Plus-15 walkway system, which they thought was much nicer than underground systems like Montreal’s as one gets to enjoy the sunlight.

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Like most urbanists, they are big on cycling, public transit and walking as the best modes of transportation for the future of cities. Yes, they are anti-cars, but they didn’t dwell on this.

Missed Opportunities

I was surprised that as urbanists, they didn’t talk more about Calgary’s amazing infill housing culture and how the city has and is building several new master-planned, inner-city, urban villages — Bridges, Currie, East Village, Garrison Woods, Quarry Park, University District and West District.

They didn’t note that approximately 40 per cent of Calgary’s new homes are now being built in established communities which is slowing urban sprawl significantly compared to 25 years ago. Or, how Calgary is outperforming Vancouver and Toronto when it comes to new home building on a per capita basis. Yes, Calgary is punching above its weight when it comes to home building — in diversity, density and infilling.

I think they also missed out on visiting Calgary and Edmonton’s amazing parks. They briefly mention Edmonton’s River Valley, but there is no mention of Calgary having 7,000 parks and green spaces and two of the biggest urban parks in North America — Nose Hill and Fish Creek. Neither was there mention of our great urban parks — Prince’s Island, St. Patrick’s Island, Shaw Millennium Park, Stampede Park or the Bow River Promenade.

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I think, too, they overlooked one of Calgary’s most popular urban walking experiences — our off-leash dog parks. We have more than 100 of them, including the iconic River Park Dog Promenade. I am always impressed how many people are out walking their dogs even in the middle of winter in River Park or any of the city’s dog parks.

They also skipped how Calgary and Edmonton drivers routinely stop to let pedestrians cross the road — another unique feature of Alberta’s urbanism.

Please Come Back In Summer

Oh the Urbanity! visited Calgary and Edmonton in the winter (fortunately the weather was nice), but I would encourage them to come back in the summer so they can see Stephen Avenue Walk at lunch hour, the Bow River Promenade on the weekend, the patio culture on 17th Avenue or a festival at Prince’s Island, Shaw Millennium Park or Fort Calgary Park. Maybe catch a cricket game at Riley Park or try lawn bowling in Inglewood. Or take a bike ride from Edworthy Park to Harvie Passage, or around the Glenmore Reservoir, maybe even enjoy the 145-km Greenway that circles the city. Calgary has a unique sense of urbanism that often goes unnoticed by planners looking for more traditional “city centre” urban benchmarks like street-life, walkability and nightlife.

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Last Word

Calgary’s unique urbanism is often misunderstood by urbanists with a bias for European urbanity and early 20th century North American urbanism. Calgary is a hidden gem when it comes to integrating driving, cycling, walking and transit as a means of fostering an attractive place to live, work and play. That is why we are often ranked as one of the Top 10 places to live in the world. Yes, we have our problems (what city doesn’t these days), but we are actively working to address them.

Here’s the link to the video Oil Country Urbanism. Have a look and let me know what you think.

Richard White, aka The Everyday Tourist, can be reached at [email protected] and you can follow him on X @everydaytourist.

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