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A Transformed Calgary Corridor Shows Small Outdoor Spaces Can Make a Big Difference
Join us on a tour of the Bow to Bluff project!
In 2011, a citizen-led group formed with the aim of transforming the Bow to Bluff corridor in central Calgary. For those unfamiliar, this was (up until a few months ago) an area of empty green spaces located along Calgary’s CTrain line in the inner-city community of Sunnyside. The area spans, as its clever name says, from the Bow River to McHugh Bluff.
More than a decade later, the Bow to Bluff project is finally complete! There’s a skateboard park, an upgraded community garden, a harvest park and a playground, as well as smaller improvements throughout the corridor. It’s been about a month since the last of the new pocket parks opened, and Cailynn, who lives nearby, is obsessed.
Above is a picture of one of the pocket parks pictured in 2019, before its transformation. The same space now looks like this.
In addition to the new parks, the project involves small improvements that make a big difference — like better lighting, widened sidewalks, bike racks, new murals and plenty of seating. The corridor is a busy pedestrian and cycling route, given its connection to the Bow River Pathway system and the Sunnyside LRT Station.
The entire project creates an inviting atmosphere for people of all ages to go outside, be active and connect with others. Whether you’re skateboarding, playing ping pong or bocce, eating al fresco or simply sitting on a swinging bench and watching the world go by, there’s truly something for everybody.
“The little leftover spaces that line the LRT had become very unpleasant places to be. They were neglected. They were deteriorating and no one wanted to be around them,” says former area councillor Druh Farrell. “We saw something better. The community imagined something quite magical.”
Come on a quick tour and see how the Bow to Bluff project showcases the overlooked power of small spaces! (And while you’re in the neighbourhood, we recommend you also take a walk through Sunnyside’s incredible outdoor art gallery.)
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Sunnyside resident Tamara Lee was part of the small group of volunteers who started the Bow to Bluff project in 2011 (thank you Tamara & Co!)
“We were a few people that lived here that wanted to do something about the very shabby pocket parks along the LRT line,” Lee says. Others had tried over many years to make the spaces safer and more attractive, but there hadn’t previously been a coordinated effort between the city and citizens.
With a grant from the Council Innovation Fund, the group ran a large-scale engagement in late 2011 to reimagine the space. The impressive engagement collected more than 2,000 ideas from more than 2,500 people (and even went on to win a national award from the Canadian Institute of Planners).
The momentum continued — at first. Nearly $6 million was committed through the Enmax Legacy Parks Program, but the money fell through following the 2013 floods and the economic recession.
It took years for funding to be secured again, with the area’s then-councillor, Farrell, continually championing the project. “Every budget, every opportunity I had to remind the city of their promise, I did, but it took years,” says Farrell, who retired from city council in 2021 after serving 20 years. “It shouldn’t have had to be so difficult.” Eventually, $4 million was secured (from a few sources). Construction finally began in June 2021 and was recently completed.
“I still can’t believe it’s done,” Lee says. “I didn’t think it was going to happen, I really didn’t. So this is just thrilling. Every single day, I’m outside, looking at people using this and interacting and making new friends. It’s really exciting.”
Let’s take a closer look. We’ll start at Bow Landing Park (pictured above) and the skateboard park under the LRT bridge (pictured below), both located near Memorial Drive and 9A Street NW. There’s numerous new murals, swinging benches, long picnic tables and big upgrades to the existing community garden.
“The swings that are by the community gardens, it’s very rare that you don’t see people swinging and chatting and enjoying that space,” says Farrell. “It’s the same with the playground…It demonstrates that these little micro spaces, these small interventions, can build a sense of belonging and neighbourhood. Isn’t that the purpose of a city?”
Head north, and next you’ll find the Harvest Park (pictured below), featuring barbecues, a bocce court, a pingpong table and a large picnic table.
Finally, the new playground at 4 Avenue (pictured at the top of this post) includes a bright yellow mound with a slide and climbing things (playground experts, please let us know what this is actually called), a sandbox, communal toy box, playhouse with a child-sized picnic table, as well as lots of seating.
Cailynn’s toddler ADORES the new park, while Cailynn has enjoyed meeting new neighbours and reconnecting with old neighbours at what’s quickly become a lively place. The park’s physical size means you’re often sitting close to strangers (unlike, say, larger playgrounds where parents can distance themselves at benches along the perimeter) and that physical closeness, more often than not, leads to conversation.
“These spaces are important to get us outside and to meet people,” Lee says. “It's the tiny little neighbourhood spaces that really have an outsized impact.”
We agree completely.
“Calgary does regional parks really well, but the micro parks can be where the magic is,” says Farrell. "They’re intimate. They’re fun. They’re delightful spaces…You can take orphan spaces and turn them into something wonderful and it doesn’t take a lot of funding.”
Kudos to the Sunnyside residents who saw the potential of this corridor and worked hard to get others to see it too. The citizen-led initiative that started in 2011 aimed to transform the Bow to Bluff corridor into a great public space, and that’s exactly what has finally happened.