Building on past success

Heritage preservation teaches cities critical lessons.

Calgary has long had a bad reputation for heritage planning. In boom times, sleek towers replace sandstone structures. These shiny structures catch the eye and reflect the sky, but they don’t reflect our past.

The past is important because cities evolve. They need to maintain a sense of what they looked like and how they accommodated residents. This maintains the character of a place and helps avoid past mistakes. The coronavirus may be shedding new light on the importance of heritage preservation. Some planners have noted that, like our cities, our buildings have a problem with public space. They look to buildings built in earlier times and even during other pandemics and find:

  • wider stairways
  • wider hallways
  • natural ventilation 
  • courtyards

All these features make perfect sense in our time of social distancing. But there were plenty of good reasons to preserve heritage prior to COVID-19. For one, neighbourhoods where the character of the past is prominent tend to be walkable and lively. In Calgary, you only have to think of Kensington, Inglewood and Stephen Avenue for confirmation. 

Those areas have strong links to earlier times along with plenty of new developments. The latter are always controversial. The heritage buildings counter the perception that Calgary hasn’t preserved its past. A recent article in Live Wire makes the argument that our lousy reputation is not justified.

The City of Calgary and Heritage Calgary work to safeguard the past as a means of fostering the city’s unique character. Heritage Calgary advises city council, promotes public awareness and maintains the Inventory of Evaluated Historic Resources. This is important work because it connects us to our past but also has lessons for the future. 

Future Tense

The future is, of course, where things get sticky. The City of Calgary is at work on its Guidebook for Great Communities. The process has been delayed by the pandemic, but even before the outbreak, it was controversial. The Bridgeland Riverside Community Association, for example, said the new approach did not properly account for the unique character of the area.

The Guidebook touches on the issue of heritage preservation. It advocates for balance and encourages “adaptive re-use of heritage resources.” That sounds logical, but it is open to interpretation. Consider the building proposed for a prominent Inglewood corner. It’s a stunning design that twists as it rises to avoid casting shadow on neighbouring buildings and corners. It incorporates the 100-year-old bank building on the site and even adds a rooftop deck. It’s also 12 storeys tall, which is controversial. The standard charge is that it is out of step with the character of the neighbourhood.

This is a debate for the future even if it will revolve around issues often cited in the past. If it’s any consolation, that’s a kind of heritage preservation.

May 15th, 2020
Updated: May 19th, 2020

Looking backward for future guidance.