Defensive Measures

Text Graham Livesey
Photos Stantec unless otherwise stated

The Bow River, while not large by most standards, is a volatile river that runs through hard and soft landscapes, beginning in the Rockies and ending as it merges into the South Saskatchewan River. It bisects the city of Calgary, and is joined by the smaller Elbow River at a confluence that was the location of Fort Calgary, an important North-West Mounted Police post. Looking back at historical records, it is evident that the Bow and Elbow flood regularly, with major events recorded in 1879, 1897, 1902, 1915, 1929 and 1932. Flooding is in fact vital to the ecosystems the rivers support. 

Calgary–along with other communities on the Bow River–felt the power of the rivers last June when the city experienced the worst flood in several decades, resulting in the most expensive natural disaster in Canada’s history. Large areas of downtown Calgary suffered significant damage, as did many other communities in southern Alberta, due to high volumes of water in both the Bow and Elbow Rivers. 

Was the city prepared for such a catastrophic event? In some ways it had grown complacent–reports written in 2002 and 2006 recommending flood controls were largely ignored. However, in other ways, the city proved itself well-served by its green spaces. During the last several decades Calgary has developed an enviable park system, much of which runs along the rivers and creeks that structure the city. These parks tend to preserve indigenous foothills and prairie landscapes, which provide some protection against flooding. When subject to catastrophic events, natural systems are often more resilient, or elastic, than engineered infrastructure systems, which tend to break and need costly repair. Damaged natural systems usually recover or find a new equilibrium. 

Can cities such as Calgary build more resilient infrastructure to defend themselves from the floods predicted to occur with greater frequency as climate change takes hold, and what would this look like? Two recent large-scale projects along the Bow River confront the often turbulent relationship between water and urbanization. The first project addresses river edge conditions in the East Village area, and the second provides upgrades to Memorial Drive.

Rivers District and St. Patrick’s Island
Since the development boom of the late 1970s and early 1980s, the older downtown Calgary district of East Village has been neglected and relatively dormant. In recent years, various master plans have been commissioned and concerted efforts made to lure developers. The establishment of the Calgary Municipal Land Corporation (CMLC) in 2007 spurred a $180-million investment in infrastructure upgrades, and new development is beginning to occur. Created under former mayor Dave Bronconnier, the CMLC is a wholly owned subsidiary of the City of Calgary with the mandate to implement revitalization plans encompassing East Village, Fort Calgary, Victoria Park and the Calgary Stampede Grounds. The CMLC is a nimble agency that works somewhat like a developer, taking projects through typical approval processes. When developed according to a master plan by UK firm Broadway Malyan, the East Village will be a thriving inner-city community, home to the National Music Centre of Canada (designed by Allied Works in partnership with Kasian) and the new central branch of the Calgary Public Library (Snøhetta in partnership with Dialog).

The area’s infrastructure upgrades include the RiverWalk park plan, designed by Stantec Consulting Ltd. with conceptual input from Toronto’s Moriyama & Teshima Planners. The scheme–a braided river pathway that combines pedestrian and bike paths with landscape–addresses four kilometres of river edge along the south side of the Bow River from Centre Street to Fort Calgary. A future phase extends along the Elbow River to the Talisman Centre. One of the historic stumbling blocks to the development of East Village is its floodplain location. The RiverWalk plan provides suitable flood control along the river by raising dykes above the 100-year flood level. 

Overall, the design is pleasant, seamlessly incorporating these flood controls while balancing the needs of various user groups. The landscape system is interspersed with lookout elements and public nodes, including a major public plaza adjacent to the historic Simmons building. Dramatic lighting upgrades have been provided to the Langevin vehicular bridge. The landscape design evolves as it moves around the Fort Calgary site, which has retained a more natural riparian edge. Here, bright red elements recall the military history of the area. RiverWalk generally employs well-selected furnishings, including benches and lighting elements intended to be durable for diverse inner-city populations. The scheme won a 2010 Canadian Society of Landscape Architects (CSLA) Design Award, received a 2011 Mayor’s Urban Design Award, and was a finalist for a 2012 Urban Open Space Award from the Urban Land Institute.

CMLC is also overseeing ambitious upgrades to the adjacent St. Patrick’s Island, one of Calgary’s oldest, and most neglected, public parks. The Bow River’s large islands–including St. Patrick’s Island, Prince’s Island and St. George’s Island (on which a large portion of the Calgary Zoo is built)–all suffered flood damage in June. The St. Patrick’s Island master plan, originally developed by Stantec, led to the final design by W Architecture of New York and Civitas of Denver. Currently under construction, the re-landscaped island includes gathering spaces, sports zones, enhanced bird habitats, and various public facilities. Neil MacKimmie, Senior Development Manager with CMLC, notes that very few adjustments were made to the scheme after last June’s flood, as the design team took into account the 100-year flood levels. 

Bridges play an important role in the fabric of a river city. In Calgary they tend to be effectively placed, but are largely unmemorable in architectural character. In 2008, the city decided to add two signature pedestrian bridges across the Bow River. The first was the controversial–and now iconic–Peace Bridge designed by Santiago Calatrava. The second is the St. Patrick’s Island Bridge, which will connect the island to East Village to the south, and to the Bridgeland community to the north. The design consultants for this bridge, RFR of Paris and Halsall Associates, were selected through an international competition; they describe the resulting design as a “skipping stone” scheme. In the recent flood, several older pedestrian bridges on the Elbow River were washed out, and the formwork and deck of the St. Patrick’s Island Bridge were compromised, delaying completion by a year. The Peace Bridge suffered no lasting damage. Finally, a smaller pedestrian bridge is being added across the Elbow River, connecting to the historic community of Inglewood. 

Memorial Drive and the Landscape of Memory
The second major scheme is a project entitled Memorial Drive: A Landscape of Memory. Like RiverWalk, the lead consultant on this project is also Stantec. The project restores a 9.5-kilometre commemorative parkway tracing the north side of the Bow River. Memorial Drive was established in 1922, and by 1928 citizens had planted 3,278 trees along the drive to remember local combatants lost in battle. Calgary Parks, the visionary client for the current project, has completed a host of forward-looking projects in recent years. 

Memorial Drive passes through several older communities, including Parkdale, Kensington, Sunnyside and Bridgeland. The master plan calls for landscape upgrades and the establishment of various nodes and gateways. To date, the Sunnyside section between the Louise and Centre Street Bridges has been completed. The initial phase–which included replacing trees th
at have reached maturity, and upgrading the street median with plantings and banners–was poorly executed. As an aside, it remains unclear as to why banners continue to be a favoured device, as they are rarely well designed and typically provide little real vitality. Subsequent phases have involved the Marc Boutin Architectural Collaborative (MBAC) as sub-consultant to Stantec, with improved results, collecting a number of Mayor’s Urban Design Awards in the process. MBAC has so far designed two major nodes: the Calgary Soldiers’ Memorial (in partnership with the Calgary Regiments) and Poppy Plaza. A further project awarded to MBAC, completed in 2012, involved upgrading the river pathway system joining the Peace Bridge to Poppy Plaza. 

The Calgary Soldiers’ Memorial is a striking piece of design that records the names of all members of Calgary regiments lost in combat. These are inscribed into six large white marble tablets that are integrated into a platform that hovers above the ground, shaped in weathering steel and balau wood decking. The memorial is carefully sited close to the river, yet visible to motorists on Memorial Drive. Visitors atop the platform enjoy a distant view to Mewata Armoury, from whence all Calgary-based soldiers departed for battle. 

Of all the recent river-edge projects, Poppy Plaza is the boldest and most satisfying. MBAC was given the opportunity to develop an ambitious scheme at the foot of the historic Louise Bridge. As its name suggests, the project continues the commemorative theme of the area, furthermore creating a gateway to downtown and establishing a new public space. As Marc Boutin states, it “sutures” together a diverse set of factors. All of this is handled in a sophisticated scheme that deftly employs weathering steel to evoke the machinery of war. Into the surfaces of the steel are cut an array of quotations that express the effects of combat. The steelwork provides, along with gabion baskets, a bulwark against flooding and winter ice buildup: the just-completed project was hardly damaged during the 2013 flood beyond some loss of electrical fixtures. The plaza itself is created out of balau wood decking that creates a topography carefully harmonized with the steel. Specially designed furniture and well-placed plantings complement the design. Finally, the Louise Bridge is given new signature elements, including two sentinels that stand across the river, providing a vital linkage to downtown. 

The addition of the Calgary Soldiers’ Memorial and Poppy Plaza have been well received by veterans and citizens alike; they strengthen the commemorative aspects of Memorial Drive in profound and provocative ways. 

Towards a New Resilience
In the wake of the 2013 flood, the City of Calgary will have to rethink its flood control strategies along the Bow and Elbow Rivers. There has been much discussion of installing major controls and mitigation strategies for the Elbow River. Addressing these issues will require close cooperation between all levels of government. 

MacKimmie at the CMLC notes that the RiverWalk project has successfully responded to infrastructure requirements and has opened up edges of the two rivers previously difficult to access. The constructed portion of RiverWalk suffered little flood damage. Ironically, down river of the downtown core there was significant damage to natural park systems. There are projects underway to remediate flood damage to existing riverside green areas, including Bowness and Bowmont parks. 

Is the notion of resilience largely euphemistic? Probably, as most of the planned new infrastructure for flood control will still be heavily engineered. However, it will undoubtedly be smarter in preventing damage over previous iterations. 

Resilience suggests multi-functional and integrated systems, and implies that infrastructure should be a well-designed aspect of urban environments. RiverWalk and the Memorial Drive upgrades begin to suggest ways in which infrastructure, such as flood controls, can be softened and better integrated into other systems. Nevertheless, while they helped reduce damage, these controls along the two rivers are not yet adequate to prevent major damage to the downtown core from flooding. To achieve truly resilient landscape-based infrastructure is going to take time, political will, and the application of these strategies to ever-broader urban and regional scales. 

Graham Livesey is a professor in the Master of Architecture program at the University of Calgary.