Dec. 6, 2023

Public installation aims to foster social inclusion and connection in downtown Calgary

Researchers at School of Architecture, Planning and Landscape discuss Strata Project
Strata pictured during summertime on its site on Stephen Avenue.
Strata during summertime on its site on Stephen Avenue. Max Krewiak, Center for Civilization

A new project involving the partnership between UCalgary and United Way of Calgary and Area aims to provide new ways to address social isolation in the heart of the city. 

Strata, created by the Center for Civilization (CFC) at UCalgary’s School of Architecture, Planning and Landscape (SAPL), is a unique public installation intended to facilitate urban activity in the heart of downtown Calgary: Stephen Avenue. Part of a broader transdisciplinary research project helmed by Alberto de Salvatierra, associate professor and associate dean (undergraduate) at SAPL, Strata was designed, produced, built and installed by a team of graduate researchers at the CFC led by Tom Brown, MLA’23, an artist and landscape designer. 

“Strata brings together the functionality of a bench, a bike rack, a leaning implement [or apparatus], a play structure and a sculpture,” says Brown, who served as project lead during the final year of his Master of Landscape Architecture degree. “We are thankful for the funding and support from The City of Calgary and the Calgary Downtown Association [CDA] that permitted this project.”  

Enabling a variety of uses, the installation aims to respond to the needs of both cyclists and pedestrians. It creates a space to lock bicycles, to rest and to facilitate public interconnection. Its infrastructure takes inspiration from the geological formation of the building material used for many of the street’s historic structures — sandstone — thus allowing it to serve another purpose as public art. 

Creating space for connection 

“Strata is informed by the CFC’s Civic Commons Catalyst Initiative, a transdisciplinary research and innovation platform that synthesizes research methodologies from multiple disciplines including sociology, strategic foresight, human geography, critical cartography, public policy, finance innovation and urban design,” says de Salvatierra. “Its goal is to reinvigorate the public realm through catalyzing development of underutilized spatial assets in urban spaces.” 

Adds Brown: “We identified segments of underutilized urban space and gaps in the network of amenities that existed on Stephen Avenue. Sifting through geospatial data and performing analysis on that data, we homed in on unmet needs.”   

A group of students sitting on "Strata" a multi-purpose bench.

Graduate researchers at the Center for Civilizaton enjoy the Strata bench. From left, Tom Brown, MLA'23, Chris Lin, Francisco Labastida, Connie Tran, MLA'20, Soumya Shashidharan, Yiming Yang.

Max Krewiak, Center for Civilization

Social isolation a growing concern 

Lack of social inclusivity in Calgary and area has become a widespread issue that many are not aware of. People who are socially isolated are at higher risk of experiencing health problems, mental-health challenges and poverty. Only 50 per cent of Canadians under the age of 35 feel a sense of belonging in their neighbourhood, while 25 per cent of Calgarians say they feel stress due to social isolation. Notably, 50 per cent of Calgary's Black and Indigenous populations believe other Calgarians are not accepting of people from diverse backgrounds.

Social inclusion means that people feel like they belong in their community and feel connected, welcomed and valued. UCalgary’s partnership with United Way invests in removing barriers to social inclusion and creating more opportunities for people to participate meaningfully in their community and form new social relationships.

Together, we are working to establish inclusive communities to live, play and work, and create communities where everyone belongs.

Reactions from the public 

Brown notes the differing, yet positive, reactions the public had during the installation of Strata last July at 2nd Street S.W. and Stephen Avenue.  

“Many people were excited to see a group of students installing something, taking time to ask us questions and engage in conversation about the urban realm, or wish us well,” Brown says.

“A notable response was from several senior citizens who lamented the absence of benches on Stephen Avenue, and in urban centres in general, and were relieved that we were installing a bench. They reminded us of the importance of resting places, as they still had the desire to walk Stephen Avenue, but needed places to stop and sit.” 

Members of the public began to interact with Strata in several ways outside of the piece’s initial intention, such as posing for photos with the installation or using it as a backdrop for busking. 

Strata's dichromic plates foreground pedestrians walking along Stephen Avenue.

Strata's dichromic plates in foreground as pedestrians walk along Stephen Avenue.

Max Krewiak, Center for Civilization

Collaboration for change 

After the success of Strata, de Salvatierra notes the continuing communal effort to create socially inclusive spaces by CFC, The City and CDA.  

“With CDA, we are currently investigating how to revitalize alleyways and facilitate inclusive, vibrant spaces that can bring together people that enhance those communities,” de Salvatierra says. “We have also received interest from other community groups interested in increasing accessibility about creating urban furniture pieces for them, or using our transdisciplinary approach to advise on larger design interventions that aim to centre community.” 

Brown and de Salvatierra emphasize the importance of integrating a socially inclusive framework while continuing to revitalize downtown spaces.  

“We envision a city where human-centred design allows everyone to fulfil their needs safely and comfortably, and to feel a sense of belonging,” says Brown. “Meeting this mandate is an open question, though, and is most likely beyond the purview of any one discipline. This is why conversations like this are important — to link the knowledge and labour of disparate disciplines and ultimately unite in our efforts.” 

Adds de Salvatierra: “Cities will only succeed when they are designed for everyone. Inclusivity lies at the core of that mission. When everyone is welcomed, communities flourish.” 

Get involved — donate to United Way

By making a donation to UCalgary’s 2023 United Way Workplace Campaign, you can support removing barriers to social inclusion and creating more opportunities for people to participate meaningfully in their community, form new social relationships, and establish inclusive communities to live, play and work. To donate, log in with your UCalgary email address and password before Dec. 15.

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