In Calgary, a New St. Patrick’s Island

People / Places / January 21, 2016

Up in Calgary, 78 miles down the Bow River from Banff and the melting glaciers, lies an 25-acre island in the middle of the city.

Filled in and reshaped during the early parts of the 20th century, its highest and best use then was deemed as camp sites for car-campers. But for the last 40 years or so, it simply lay fallow.

Until the city got serious about redeveloping the East Village, a section of downtown it faces – and then building a bridge to the island.

“There was a competition for a new bridge that connects to a light rails station, and then a competition for the island as a park, with a lengthy public engagement process,” says Mark Johnson, co-founder of Civitas. “We teamed with Barbara Wilks from W Architecture and Landscape Architecture in New York.”

And they won that competition, with its stated objective of creating a park based on biophilic design – the idea that people in contact with nature benefit from good mental health.

Thanks to their efforts, that’s now a reality on St. Patrick’s Island today, for all of Calgary’s citizens – young, old and in-between. ” We asked ourselves how to restore it and put nature back into motion and bring life back to the island,” he says. “So there are lots of surfaces for loops for walking and biking, and a triangulation so you see people when look out to island from downtown, and from place to place on the island itself.”

They added a 600-foot-long metal boardwalk with a fishing pier on one end and a picnic area on the other, a huge hill for sledding in the winter and performances in the summer, and a breach that reaches from one side of the island to the other.

“It’s a wetland area that’s now restored and also a place where water flows across island when the river floods,” he says. “It’s a big cut, so now water flows across the island year-round, with a big, rocky beach.”

That hasn’t been lost on the children of Calgary. Johnson says the last time he was there, at least 50 were out in the water and on the beach – which is precisely what the designers had in mind. “We wanted to create an experience for city kids that most kids can’t have – to be able to ride a bike or light rail to the park, to play in water and fish, or go sledding in the winter,”

That, it seems, would be  the definitive biophilic design experience.

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Michael Welton
I write about architecture, art, and design for national and international publications. I am the author of "Drawing from Practice: Architects and the Meaning of Freehand" (Routledge, 2015), and the former architecture critic for the News & Observer in Raleigh, N.C.




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