Located on the rooftop of the Centre City Parkade, High Park is a new pilot project in the Beltline. Photo: Ximena González

I don’t love High Park — and that’s okay

In Calgary, we need to stop scorning criticism.

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How did Calgary end up like this? A sprawling city with a zombie downtown, helplessly reliant upon boom-and-bust cycles, yet with beautiful natural areas and parks scattered across its massive 825 km² footprint.

Calgary is a city shaped by an aversion to risk and bold design ideas. Any urban designer, architect or landscape architect can tell you this isn’t an easy city to work in. Calgarians do want innovation and change—but in small doses.

So when we actually get a project built that’s somewhat innovative or just barely out of the norm, said project immediately becomes a sacred cow—at least among Calgary civic boosters, who tirelessly push for a more inspired city.

And High Park seems to be Calgary’s newest sacred cow.

Riding High

Spearheaded by volunteers of the Beltline Neighbourhoods Association, High Park is a new pilot project designed by Public City Architecture. The project is a temporary multi-phase installation that repurposes the rooftop of the Centre City Parkade, taking 90,000 sq. ft. originally allocated to cars and giving them back to people.

Whether we say yea or nay, most Calgarians do want a better city.

Described as “an exciting destination for residents and visitors to the city alike,” the project is meant to show Calgarians (and visitors) how an underutilized parking area in a prime location can be reimagined as a public space.

With much fanfare, on Monday High Park made the rounds on social and mainstream media. But while many Calgarians expressed their support and excitement, criticism was met with the scorn of Calgary’s most hardcore boosters. As if, somehow, pointing out that the project is not perfect would impede the possibility of getting any innovative idea constructed ever again.

The thing is, when we push for innovation and creativity but fail to incorporate criticism in the process, the gap between yea- and nay-sayers widens. And as a result, instead of listening and learning from past experiences, from past projects or ideas, we end up repeating the same mistakes.

Whether we say yea or nay, most Calgarians do want a better city—but there’s no actual consensus on what a better city actually looks like. And without having the tough conversations with both sides, we’re not going to get close to any sort of understanding.

Rejecting criticism reduces the chances of creating spaces that are meaningful, loved and cared for by Calgarians.

Design is an iterative process in which creators and users alike add, take and modify elements to turn a space into a place. In other words, the design process of a place is never finished. Rejecting criticism reduces the chances of creating spaces that are meaningful, loved and cared for by Calgarians.

Interrogation is a critical component of the design process. What makes a space a good place? What makes High Park a destination worth visiting? It’s not just the intentions of those who produced it, nor a desirable aesthetic that will get Instagram attention. Ultimately, a good design is one that adapts and changes to meet the needs of its users—and users should be a heterogenous bunch.

When I visited High Park on Tuesday, I saw the potential to accomplish this—a much-needed wide open space in the heart of the Beltline. With brightly painted picnic tables and astro-turfed sections, this is a space that can potentially accommodate a wide array of users, uses and activities.

But it doesn’t—at least not yet.

From space to place

I understand that a space doesn’t become a place immediately. Users should experience a space first to then transform it into a place themselves—this includes the refusal to use a space, or a preference for derelict uses, for example.

The absence of on-site invitations for the public to interact with High Park is worrying. Spaces often have subtle cues acting as calls to action. While in a space that’s already become a place, all you have to do is look at what others are doing; in a new space users need to be nudged to do something fun so they come back and bring their friends.

A good design is one that adapts and changes to meet the needs of its users.

But despite the potential I saw, the only thing I felt invited to do at High Park was to take a few pictures for Instagram and go home. And I felt sad about it—because I truly wanted to like it and feel compelled to come back. And I do hope High Park becomes a “signature public space” in the coming months (pilot ends in mid-2021).

Part of the back-and-forth required by the design process is encouraging people to transform a space and taking note of what they do, or don’t do—what could be improved. Although High Park visitors are encouraged to submit their feedback on an online survey, there doesn’t seem to be a real openness to candidly discuss both the potential and the shortcomings of the space.

As is often the case in Calgary, for our city’s boosters you either praise a new project... or else.

If designers and boosters continuously pat each other on the back and disregard criticism by outsiders, they interrupt the process of creation of a place—and we end up with performative yet meaningless spaces.

As it’s often the case in Calgary, for our city’s boosters you either praise a new project… or else.

When it comes to innovative public spaces in Calgary, getting “something” done seems to be the only alternative to not getting anything done at all. And the anxiety this causes leads to a failure to integrate criticism into the design and place-making processes, resulting in spaces that, like High Park, don’t live up to their potential.

Maybe at some point this was the right approach to city building in Calgary. But as we continue to get more of the same mediocrity, when aiming low becomes the norm, we must stop patting each other on the back.

If COVID-19 has taught us anything, it’s that Calgarians are ready to be bold and to embrace changes that go beyond “better than nothing,” that we’re ready to accept truly innovative ideas that will bring Calgary into the future and solidify our city’s identity.

It’s time to welcome the growing pains. Calgary is ready to dream big.

Ximena is assistant editor of The Sprawl. She holds a master's degree in environmental design and is a licensed architect in Mexico, where she grew up. She also volunteers at the Hillhurst-Sunnyside Community Association.



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