- The Calgary Project: Urban Form/Urban Life
'The evolution of the city reflects the evolution of ideas and ideologies and of changing theories and practice of urban design and planning,' write Sandalack and Nicolai in the introduction to The Calgary Project: Urban Form/Urban Life. It is only by knowing the background that one can better see and understand a place. The book details the urban evolution, not history, of the city from a small NorthWest Mounted Police fort in 1875 into one of Canada's recognized and important economic hubs.
Laced with dozens of photographs, maps, and renderings, the book is a conclusive recollection of how Calgary came to be. It is a welcome addition to similar books on Canadian cities, most notably Jean-Claude Marsan's Montreal in Evolution. Sandalack and Nicolai brought their analytical skills to the project. They have segmented the city's evolution into six chapters from the early days, city development, to 1914, First World War, interwar years, Second World War, post–Second World War boom, the boom and bust period, and finally contemporary times, to which they refer as 'Redevelopment, expansion and maturity.' In each period, the urban make-up of the place is dissected and layered to illustrate ideas and reasons, urban forms and types, as well as depiction of each neighbourhood, block configuration, and housing prototype. One gets to know Calgary intimately. The graphic material complements the narrative nicely, forming a comprehensive image.
The forward-looking approach taken in 1912 by William Pearce and influential entrepreneur Fred Lowes of the Planning Commission through the engagement of Thomas Mawson, who prepared the city's first physical plan, made it into pages of classic Canadian Planning history books. As the century continued to unfold and primarily in the post–Second World War era, the reader, however, notices missed opportunities. Few Canadian cities experienced the kind of wealth generated by successive oil booms that Calgary did, that could have been a catalyst for the creation of a truly remarkable place. Instead, as the authors noted, 'it is remarkable that this world-class city of a million has only a handful of world-class streets and public places.' The city became known for its 'car-oriented strips and suburbs.' Suburbia, with its many draws, no doubt attracted newcomers to Calgary. Yet later planning decisions failed to learn from the past. Suburbia, it seems, was inevitable. The question was which vision would prevail: that of [End Page 278] Mawson or that of a speculative developer? Unfortunately, with the exception of Garrison Woods, the latter did. As for the city's core, Mayor Ralph Klein (1980–89), who compared Calgary's downtown to 'a factory fueled by the needs of commerce,' depicted another missed opportunity – to set the stage for an outstanding city centre. Instead, a collection of glass towers linked by skywalks emerged.
It is only by reading a good book that one gets to draw observations. Sandalack and Nicolai do just that. They meticulously assemble information that will be appreciated by present and future generations of planners. I hope that the readers will all pay close attention to the book's early chapters, from which we can all learn.