Sidewalk patios in Kensington. Photo: Dave Robinson

Calgary city hall can change swiftly — when it wants to

Pandemic or not, this should be the new norm.

The bright yellow caution-tape covering playgrounds has come down. The one-way aisles in my neighbourhood’s grocery store are no more—plus, the toilet-paper aisle is fully stocked.

Yet as some images of our pandemic times fade, others remain.

The pedestrian “beg button” at a crosswalk I use often is still automated. It leads to Memorial Drive, where traffic lanes remain closed to vehicles and open for people, allowing more space for physical distancing.

To get there, I walk through a four-way stop that unexpectedly appeared last October.

It turns out a neighbour, Curtis Mah, had grown concerned with drivers cutting through the community, following the installation of a new traffic light on nearby Memorial Drive.

He wrote to his councillor’s office, requesting turning restrictions to stop the cut through traffic. He also called 311 to ask about painting a crosswalk at an intersection where drivers often rushed through.

Then, about 16 months after sending his initial letter, a four-way stop and newly painted crosswalk suddenly appeared.

But things seem to be moving faster in Calgary these days.

It's time for creative solutions

In its response to COVID-19 and efforts to limit spread of the virus, city hall has been nimble.

There’s a varied list of swift actions, including the aforementioned “beg buttons,” open streets at 18 locations, allowing patios on sidewalks and roads, as well as having interpreters translating city updates to American Sign Language, moving firefighters to 24-hour shifts, and public hearings happening over the phone rather than in-person at city hall.

They understood the need, and came to the table with very creative solutions.

Erica O’Gorman,

Co-founder, Annex Ale Project

This new nimbleness is something Erica O’Gorman and Andrew Bullied experienced firsthand this past spring. They’re the founders and owners of Annex Ale Project, a craft brewery that, early on in the pandemic, announced plans to make much-needed hand sanitizer.

Working with Raft Beer Labs on a recipe, and altering their entire business model, they did just that in an impressive two weeks.

But behind the scenes, O’Gorman and Bullied navigated regulatory mazes, working with the fire department, planning department and city councillors to address the safety hazards that come with transforming a brewery into a facility for hand sanitizer production.

“It took some real fancy footwork on everybody's part to get this done,” Bullied told me.

An engineer volunteered to help redesign Annex’s ventilation system, for example, and a well service company that typically responds to blowouts at oil wells solved the lack of a sprinkler system.

O’Gorman says city staff, who were also adjusting to the pandemic and working from home, were open to Annex’s project and willing to help the business owners figure out how it could be done.

“They understood the need, and came to the table with very creative solutions,” she said.

I was very happy to see that the bureaucracy was willing to be a little bit more agile.

Andrew Bullied,

Co-founder, Annex Ale Project

Ultimately, in addition to producing and selling hand sanitizer (which is still available for purchase), Annex donated $26,000 worth of hand sanitizer to local nonprofits and charities.

“I was very happy to see that the bureaucracy was willing to be a little bit more agile, because in many cases, they are gatekeepers for whether or not a lot of these projects get to go forward,” Bullied said.

Recently, the business owners have again experienced a less rigid city hall, this time while applying for a development permit to extend their existing patio.

Within the confines of physical distancing, Bullied thinks about three tables will fit on the patio extension. “It’s a huge help for a taproom like ours, to be able to just add this tiny bit to our capacity,” he said.

It’s striking to hear that just three tables will make a difference. But that’s true of lots of the changes we’ve seen. They’re small, swift ideas that can create big improvements.

Tactical changes for a better city

We’re in an in-between time, where some parts of urban life have reverted to pre-pandemic norms, while many others have not. It seems an apt moment to consider where we’ve come, and where we want to end up.

In “Take Back the Streets From the Automobile,” transportation planner Heather Thompson and former environmental reporter Justin Gillis write that, as the economy reopens, cities can make sure they hold onto their recent gains by considering tactical urbanism.

“The basic idea is to show people the benefits of a change, however temporary, in order to shift the political dynamic in favour of a more permanent alteration,” they wrote.

We’ve seen just how quick and adaptive our city can be.

Much of what we’ve recently seen in our nimble city could be classified as tactical urbanism. But such quick action doesn’t always work, as concerns over expanded patios and sidewalks on 17th Avenue S.W. show.

If understanding exists, however, that not everything will be perfect at first, and if there’s a willingness to improve alterations for all, why not give such efforts a quick try and see what happens?

Now, because of the pandemic, we’ve seen just how quick and adaptive our city can be. Let’s remember that as we move forward.

Cailynn Klingbeil is a freelance journalist based in Calgary. Her writing has appeared in numerous publications including The New York Times, The Guardian, The Globe and Mail and CBC.

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