Going downtown in two big cities

For many, summer is a time to experiment. Some grow beards. Some shave their heads or dye their hair. Some go on vacations to strange places. All of these experiments ultimately reveal lessons to be learned. In Calgary, summer is a time for municipal government to experiment, this time revealing lessons regarding urban culture.

Last weekend, the city shut down two lanes over a section of Memorial Drive for Bow River Flow. The event aimed to get Calgarians to trek from their suburban homes down to the river to enjoy the splendour of a sunny Sunday afternoon. The event itself was characterized by media outlets such as the CBC as a moderate success, reporting that crowds were below the 10,000 estimated by organizers. It was noted that area residents and vendors complained that the Memorial Drive lane restrictions weren’t needed given the event’s popularity. Alderman Druh Farrell and others deemed the event a success, though, noting that other cities regularly shut down streets for festivals.

While Calgary was wrestling with its urban identity, I was in Seattle. In many ways, Seattle is the polar opposite of Calgary. Calgary is a marvel of urban sprawl, while Seattle is rather dense and compact. Calgary is politically conservative, while Seattle voters skewed 80 per cent Democrat. Calgary’s downtown is largely deserted during non-business hours, while Seattle’s is full of people seemingly all the time.

The differences between the two cities may explain the differences in urban culture, as well the less-than-stellar results Calgary has in drawing people to the core with gimmicks. One of the reasons that Seattle is so vibrant is that the majority of its cultural draws, both for tourists and residents, are located in the core of the city and have been for years. The Pike Place Market was established in 1907 and remains a staple. Meanwhile, Calgary’s trademark event– the Stampede– is almost as longstanding, and events like the Calgary International Film Festival and the Calgary Folk Music Festival grow every year, in part because of their novelty and the fact that not everyone can afford to enjoy them.

Events which garner the most buzz around town, whether they be sporting or political in nature, seemingly always revolve around scarcity– events are important because not everyone can attend them, either due to limited capacity or the expenses involved, so those who manage to go must be important. Attendance at Calgary Flames games, once a hallmark of Calgary’s snowmobile-jacket-wearing working class in the mid-’80s, now are reserved for Calgary’s aspiring social climbers to see and be seen. In this sense, the Memorial Drive shutdown and promotion of Bow River Flow was unnecessary because anyone could go. The Calgary Stampede and associated revelry, seen in this manner, isn’t just a 10-day cowboy festival– it’s an indicator of socio-economic standing. Only the truly elite can take enough time off work to party it up for the duration, just as only the truly elite can get Flames box seats in the playoffs or the red carpet treatment at the film festival. The expense of getting downtown itself represents a barrier– between paying for parking or spending hours on transit, not everyone can manage.

The city’s approach to planning events, given the city’s circumstances, could use a slight tweak. Instead of tailoring events for the masses, they should perhaps try that only in an accessibility sense. The Stampede Parade is well-attended seemingly every year because of its uniqueness– only Calgarians get to experience the Stampede Parade, making the event markedly different from those held in other cities. However, its placement and timing maximize its local accessibility, allowing the event to become hugely popular and a yearly staple. Designing future events in a similar manner, creating the illusion of exclusivity while maximizing how many Calgarians have access, could similarly draw citizens to the core on a regular basis.

Given its political stance and geography, Calgary isn’t an ideal place for collectiveness– which may explain why downtown is usually deserted. However, the events that succeed in the city reveal a great deal about what Calgarians will trek downtown to experience. The answer to building a vibrant core isn’t shutting down traffic to get people to gawk at the river– it’s giving them opportunities to experience things that others can’t. Seattle’s downtown succeeds because it’s tailored to the city– adjusting events to Calgary’s unique characteristics would do a better job in building urban culture than doing things just because they work in other cities.

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