Nov. 5, 2020

Student-designed test project aims to improve safety and vibrancy downtown

Canopy installation a big step forward in 9 Block program partnership

Earlier this week, The City of Calgary, the University of Calgary, the Calgary Downtown Association, Calgary Municipal Land Corporation and Bow Valley College shared progress on the 9 Block program, a series of safety initiatives to improve vibrancy and safety in the nine blocks that surround City Hall.

“The 9 Block program is about working collaboratively with our neighbours and community partners to make this area even better, and that’s exactly what we’ve done,” says Calgary mayor Naheed Nenshi. “We’ve been working with multiple organizations, students and businesses to make this a reality. I’m thrilled with the progress that’s been made, and I hope there are some ideas we can replicate in other areas of the city.”

A design-build student experience

The centrepiece of these improvements is the installation of a canopy and lighting at the bus stop in front of the University of Calgary’s School of Architecture, Planning and Landscape (SAPL) downtown campus. Mauricio Soto-Rubio, the research lead, and students from SAPL designed and fabricated the installation to improve the safety and vibrancy issues in their neighbourhood.

“It was exciting to conceptualize, design, and fabricate all components of the canopy with other students and under the guidance of the faculty," says student Jonathan Monfries. "We went through various iterations until we decided on the final design, ensuring we balanced the aesthetics, constructability, and available budget to make the project a success.

"Design-build experiences are fundamental to architectural education. As students, being able to work through various iterations of the design, to make real-world decisions, and to work with contractors to assemble the design we proposed provides a learning opportunity not possible in a classroom.”

The 9 Block program focuses on students and researchers at SAPL exploring how the nine blocks around City Hall could become a more welcoming, distinct and vibrant place through innovative design, planning and programming. Urban Alliance, the partnership between The City and UCalgary, supported the hiring of a group of SAPL students over the summer to design the bus stop installation.

“One of the reasons we created the City Building Design Lab in the heart of our downtown is to have a living lab for pilot projects like this one," says Dr. John Brown, SAPL dean. "This playful, interactive canopy for the 9 Block program is our largest project yet.

"Strong collaboration between our researchers, students, City of Calgary staff, as well as the public, helps us explore new possibilities for creative city-building. The canopy project demonstrates that a modest investment can go a long way to improve the quality of urban public space.

"In addition to creating an impressive new face for the Castell Building, the canopy explores the use of sustainable and recycled materials, and the interactive lighting system adds a playful element to downtown and challenges our collective understanding of urban space. The research findings from this project will impact the way designers and municipalities design for a safer and more vibrant city.”

“In addition to the unique educational experience, we wanted to design something that would benefit Calgarians," says Monfries. "Our project not only improves the visual aesthetic of the street corner, but also provides a sense of safety and vibrancy to a well-frequented area. We hope Calgarians enjoy the space as much as we enjoyed designing it.”

Downtown Ambassador pilot

One of the other cornerstone projects is the launch of a downtown ambassador pilot. The City of Calgary and the Calgary Downtown Association have partnered with stakeholders like Tourism Calgary and Alpha House Society to create the six-month pilot for the 9 Block/Stephen Avenue area. Since September, downtown ambassadors have been connecting Calgarians and visitors to information on services, places and supports. The primary focus for the ambassadors has been outreach, safety, and cleanliness.

There have been more than 600 interactions between ambassadors and Calgarians so far, including with more than 300 members of Calgary’s vulnerable population and more than 120 interactions with businesses. The interactions have been largely introductions to the program, wellness checks and connecting people with social services.

“The Downtown Ambassador program is a great opportunity to make all Calgarians and visitors feel at home,” says Jennifer Rempel, general manager of the Calgary Downtown Association. “It’s our priority to create a welcoming environment on Stephen Avenue and in the 9 Block area to attract residents and visitors for years to come.”

Increasing downtown safety is a priority

Beyond the downtown ambassador pilot, the city and more than 20 community partners in the area are have launched a co-ordinated safety and security strategy for the 9 Block area, focused on training, information sharing and co-ordinated communication.

The stairwell leading from the Calgary Police Building down to the City Hall C-Train platform was identified as a security and safety concern early this year. One of the focuses for the 9 Block program is creating better connections throughout the plus-15 network, so addressing this issue was made a priority.

"We took a small-scale approach to improve safety and vibrancy for this important connection to public transit," says Kate Thompson, president and CEO of the Calgary Municipal Land Corporation. "A mural was painted in this stairwell and improved lighting was installed, along with an improved security conduit for users. Safety and vibrancy go hand-in-hand with building a great community.

"We’ve partnered with The City, the University of Calgary and all the other 9 Block partners to create a safe and vibrant neighbourhood around City Hall, the SAPL campus and for all Calgarians who visit this important area.”

This program is a major piece of the city's Downtown Strategy and the commitment to support the recovery and diversification of Calgary’s economy. 

Urban Alliance is a strategic partnership between The City of Calgary and University of Calgary to promote the seamless transfer of cutting-edge research between The City and the university, for the benefit of all our communities.