White: Calgary versus Helsinki

Richard White takes a look at what is bringing vitality to the two cities.

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In September, Calgary Municipal Land Corp. hosted Tommi Laitio, executive director for culture and leisure for the City of Helsinki, Finland, as part of its ongoing Creating Vibrant Downtowns speakers’ series. He is currently researching the role of partnership in creating vibrant parks and libraries in five different cities. What interested me most about his talk was the similarities of how Helsinki and Calgary have and are currently trying to foster more downtown vitality.

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Importance of Library

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The most obvious similarity was the opening of a new downtown public library by both cities late in 2018, both of which serve not only as traditional libraries, but as a community centre for residents in the heart of the city in Calgary’s case. In Helsinki’s case the Oodi Library is not only a city landmark but also a country one.

What is even more amazing is the similarity in the design and massing of the two buildings. While the architects are different, the two buildings have very similar massing, scale and design, including a huge arch at the entrance.

While the new library was the catalyst for enhancing downtown Helsinki’s vibrancy, Laitio noted the importance of the private Amos Rex museum (next door to the Library) which opened its subterranean annex also in 2018. Calgary’s equivalent would be the National Music Centre, which opened in 2016 to house one of the world’s largest private collections of keyboard instruments, just a block from our library.

white downtown revitalization beakerhead
Mayor Jyoti Gondek controls Prosthesis, The Anti Robot made by Exosapien Technology, as part of Beakerhead in 2022. Photo by Jim Wells /Postmedia

Diversity of Projects

Laitio quickly pointed out “no one single project makes a city.” He then discussed more than 20 different projects from 2000 to 2030 that have enhanced (or will enhance) Helsinki’s downtown vitality. Things like Tuska (Pain) heavy metal music festival (which started in 1998 and moved to Kaisaniemi Park in the middle of the city in 2001), World Design Capital (2012) and renovations to several public museums, art galleries and public transit improvements.

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Again, I couldn’t help but think how Calgary’s downtown has also added numerous parks, public spaces, festivals and transit since 2000. Here is a quick list:

  • 2000: Shaw Millennium Park with its huge skate park, basketball and beach volleyball courts and a new festival site.
  • 2000: North Building of Calgary TELUS Convention Centre and BMO Centre expansion.
  • 2000: The Bridges masterplan for redevelopment of Calgary General Hospital site.
  • 2002: Prince’s Island Park renovation with new stage, Chevron Learning Pathway.
  • 2007: Sled Island Music and Art Festival.
  • 2009: East Village master plan approved, another BMO Centre expansion.
  • 2011: TELUS Spark and East Village Riverwalk.
  • 2012: West Leg of LRT and 7th Avenue LRT Station refurbishment.
  • 2013: Beakerhead — art, engineering and science festival.
  • 2013: Bow Valley College South Campus building.
  • 2014: Nutrien Western Event Centre.
  • 2015: St. Patrick’s Island renovations.
  • 2016: National Music Centre and Enmax Park.
  • 2017: BUMP (Beltline Urban Mural Program).
  • 2018: Central Library and MAX bus rapid transit network.
  • 2018: High Park on roof of the City Centre parkade.
  • 2020: Contemporary Calgary in old Science Centre Planetarium building.
  • 2024: BMO Centre becomes largest event centre in Western Canada.
  • 2026: JR Shaw Centre for Arts and Culture (formerly Glenbow).
  • 2030: expansion and renovations of Arts Commons, Olympic Plaza and Stephen Avenue, new arena at Stampede Park.

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Be More Calgary

One of the biggest takeaway ideas I got from Laitio’s talk was the idea that “you have to build on your own culture.” Laitio’s research indicated that “Helsinki had to be more Helsinki,” not try to be Stockholm, Copenhagen or any other city. In Helsinki’s case it was to build on the city’s existing uniqueness, things like its sauna and heavy metal band culture.

FYI: In Finland the sauna is like a second living room — there are 3.3 million saunas for 5.5 million people. And, Finland has 53 heavy metal bands per 100,000 people — the highest per capita in the world.

In Calgary’s case, I expect it would be to build on our Stampede culture, which is happening with Stampede Park’s mega makeover that includes the new SAM Centre, a state-of-the-art western heritage museum opening in early 2024. The addition of a Stampede-theme restaurant bar would be a logical addition to Stephen Avenue Walk, maybe even a Stampede-themed hotel.

The Bow and Elbow Rivers are also an important part of Calgary’s DNA. The city has implemented numerous projects to enhance Calgary’s river experience from Shaw Millennium Park to Fort Calgary Park, with more in the works. Over the past 20 years floating on the river has become very popular, perhaps the creation of a series of summer beaches along the Bow and Elbow Rivers is the next step. Wouldn’t a large year-round outdoor heated public swimming pool next to the river would be fun? What about more restaurants and cafes along the river to encourage people to linger?

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Calgary also needs to celebrate its unique “oil and gas” and agriculture history. Beakerhead is the perfect festival for Calgary as it combines art, science and engineering. What if there was a permanent Beakerhead Innovation Laboratory in downtown Calgary where locals and visitors could learn about Alberta’s innovations from oil and gas to agriculture in partnership with Telus Spark, Contemporary Calgary, Arts Commons and Glenbow.

Calgary’s plus-15 indoor walkway is a huge part of downtown Calgary’s unique DNA. What if the city planners and building owners embraced the plus-15 to create a major visitor attraction with cafes, restaurants, pop-up shops, gardens, more public art and programming. Rather than shut it down, open it up. It could be a-mazing!

Police Partnerships

While many found Laitio’s talk inspiring, I can’t help but think he was preaching to the converted. Calgary has been doing the same thing Helsinki and every city in North America and Europe have been doing for decades in an attempt to enhance downtown vibrancy — renovate or add new parks, public spaces, festivals, libraries, art galleries and museums. Some with more success than others.

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What I found strange was Laitio made no mention of the need for more residential development as a means of creating a vibrant downtown. However, he did mention the importance of the working with the police department to make sure downtown is safe, which is surely the biggest barrier to Calgary’s downtown vibrancy today. It would have been interesting to learn more about what unique safety initiatives are happening in Helsinki.

Last Word

I shared a draft of this column with Laitio and he responded with “the main differences between the two cities are that Helsinki has no skyscrapers and 79 per cent of travel is done on foot, bike or public transit.” Then adding “there is a lot in Calgary that feels very familiar. I texted a friend when in Calgary that I could see myself living a good life here.”

Enough said!

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