Is Calgary a Child-Friendly City?

Playgrounds are great, but they’re just the beginning.

Image: families utilize St. Patrick Island, near Calgary's East Village. Courtesy: Calgary Municipal Land Corporation.

Everyone knows children like to play, and we also know that play is important – it improves the quality of children’s lives.

Our urban environments have a significant impact on how, where, and when children play, and what types of play experiences they have. Certain types of urban environments are known to have a positive effect on children’s development, physical health, and social engagement.

  • When children can get around on transit, bicycles, or on foot, rather than in cars, they develop a stronger sense of geography and place.
  • Communities designed to encourage children’s mobility and physical play help kids develop healthy habits. Moreover, movement is connected to memory and improved cognition.
  • “Living streets” designed for walking and social encounters enhance a community’s safety and teach children social skills.
  • A sense of attachment to a place leads to a sense of responsibility and stewardship.

UNICEF Child-Friendly Cities

The UNICEF Child-Friendly Cities initiative is a set of principles that encourage cities around the world to consider the perspectives, needs, and interests of children when making decisions and developing policies and programs. Among its key points, the initiative calls for children to “Live in a safe, secure and clean environment with access to green spaces,” and to “Meet friends and have places to play and enjoy themselves.”

In cities around the world, this child-friendly concept is manifesting in a variety of ways. A February 2018 story in The Guardian, written by journalist Laura Laker, explores how this concept is being applied in different cities, whether as grassroots, community-led efforts or at the level of policy and planning.

Tirana, Albania: Child-friendly efforts have seen the development of a pedestrianized city centre, several new playgrounds, and a forest of children’s “birthday trees.”

Rotterdam, Holland: This city has developed a natural playground (one that uses natural materials like wood and rocks rather than plastic and metal, and incorporates natural features like hills and trees), and is working toward more pedestrian-friendly streets.

Vancouver, Canada: Family-friendly housing policies have shaped the proposed design for a sustainable community on the East Fraser Lands called the River District. The complete community will include a riverfront area, multiple parks, and childcare spaces.

So, is Calgary child-friendly?

Uk-based Tim Gill, an independent researcher and consultant, visited Calgary in September 2017 to speak at the International Play Association Triennial World Conference. The International Play Association (IPA), of which Gill is a member, is an international non-government organization established in 1961 to “protect, preserve, and promote the child’s right to play as a fundamental human right.”

While Gill was in Calgary, he conducted interviews and site visits as part of his multi-city study of child-friendly urban planning. (Gill also visited Freiburg, Antwerp, Rotterdam, Oslo, and Vancouver.) In Calgary, Gill found a city that is just starting down a long path to child-friendliness.

“…My adult interviewees tended to agree that physically, Calgary is not very child-friendly. The dominance of the car, the lack of variety in the outer suburbs and the distances to – well, anywhere kids might want to get to – do not add up to a great set of accessible neighbourhood affordances.*”

- Tim Gill, Researcher and Consultant on Childhood

* An “affordance” describes something in the environment – not necessarily a dedicated play structure – that offers a possible function such as sitting, riding, climbing, etc.

The Calgary Play Charter

Calgary is already taking steps to improve its child-friendliness – partly as a result of the IPA Triennial World Conference that drew Gill to the city. Shortly after the conference, more than 30 organizations (including City business units, school boards, recreation centres, and local attractions) signed the Calgary Play Charter. Among other things, the document promises to:

  • recognize play as vital to children’s skill development and wellbeing;
  • support year-round outdoor play;
  • and involve children in the decision-making process.

Calgary is in the process of developing an outdoor play strategy with support from the Lawson Foundation, a Canadian organization that contributes to the wellbeing of children and youth and their development as active and engaged members of society.

One product of Calgary’s increasing focus on play is the development of Mobile Adventure Playgrounds, in which Play Ambassadors travel to city parks with equipment like boards, tires, tape, and cardboard. These playgrounds are intended to be inspiring spaces that encourage exploration and creativity.

Are we going to build more playgrounds?

Matt Leung describes himself as a “professional child.” A former Play Ambassador at Vivo for Healthier Generations (in fact, he was the first to hold this role), Leung is an expert speaker on the topic of play and its physical, cognitive, and social benefits.

Leung says Calgary has more municipally run playgrounds per capita than almost any other city in North America – but that’s not necessarily a good thing. Starting in 2015, Leung was involved in a scientific study, conducted jointly by Mount Royal University and Vivo for Healthier Generations, to assess park usage at nine sites in north central Calgary. When the study ended in 2016, it revealed that very few people were using these play spaces.

But why? According to Leung, creating child-friendly spaces that attract users is more complex than simply constructing a playground. In fact, constructing too many playgrounds can be part of the problem.

“There are a huge number of play spaces, which does a couple of things. A lot of them end up being very similar. They’re boring and children can figure them out instantly. The sheer volume of playgrounds that are exactly the same is making it boring and not fun.”

- Matt Leung, Expert Speaker on the Benefits of Play

Leung says there can be so many playgrounds in a given community that it tends to spread participants out. For safety, parents send their kids to the closest playgrounds, where they may not find any playmates. The social aspect of play gets lost, and without the opportunity to socialize, the playgrounds are less enticing.

To avoid this problem, Leung recommends designing large, accessible community hubs that draw large numbers of people, such as the recently redesigned Prairie Winds Park in Castleridge or Riley Park in Sunnyside. These sites offer a variety of activities, flexible sporting areas, a range of age groups, and varied landscaping – all factors that make a park stimulating and appealing.

Child-friendliness and people-friendliness

Gill supports a framework for child-friendliness that focuses not only on play opportunities, but on access to those opportunities. For Gill, even the most pleasant, interesting public space is not child-friendly if it’s surrounded by a moat of busy roads. Leung agrees. He says children shouldn’t have to be dependent on adults to take them where they want to be. Accessibility is the primary challenge when it comes to play spaces.

Child-friendliness, then, can be a byproduct of building an environment that is shaped around principles like accessibility, walkability, and demographic diversity. And child-friendliness is improved when communities are designed around “complete streets,” which are made to support multi-modal transportation.

“Put simply, a child-friendly city shares many of the qualities of a sustainable city: it is compact, easy to walk/cycle around, and has a good supply of accessible, welcoming green space.”

- Tim Gill, Researcher and Consultant on Childhood

Calgary’s downtown East Village, bordered by the Bow and Elbow Rivers, is an intensely urban environment. Until recently, it was considered an unwelcoming and unsafe district for adults, let alone for children. Today it’s a family destination with a busy playground – but the area’s developer, the Canada Municipal Lands Corporation (CMLC), had no specific “child” strategy in its master plan.

Instead, the CMLC focused on “placemaking,” a holistic strategy for creating a distinct, inviting urban environment that could accommodate a range of residents/visitors and activities. Because the CMLC wanted to welcome residents from a range of demographics, it envisioned an environment that could accommodate multiple activities and be welcoming to people of all ages and abilities.

According to Clare LePan, CMLC Director of Marketing and Communications, the planning team made the unconventional decision to design public spaces first and residences second. The idea was that accessible, safe, interesting public spaces would draw people to the community, and that this vibrancy would add to its appeal.

“We wanted to create an urban community that was connected to and integrated with its surroundings. We started with our public spaces, which is uncommon in the development industry. Our sidewalks are wider and the streetscapes are narrower so that there’s more emphasis on pedestrians than on cars. It slows people down.”

- Clare LePan, Director of Marketing and Communications, CMLC

St. Patrick’s Island, a 30-acre City park across the Bow River from East Village, is also master-planned to welcome a demographic range and offer a variety of experiences. LePan says the CMLC embraced the concept of biophilic design (building human spaces in harmony with natural systems) for the island.

The children’s area, The Playmound, was designed as an exploratory environment around the natural gentle slopes that already existed on the site. Matt Leung, who believes hills are underrated play affordances, would no doubt approve.

The CMLC also took advantage of the natural water flow patterns on St. Patrick’s Island to create The Seasonal Breach, an area where children can play safely in the Bow River. LePan says the park is not only popular with the residents of East Village and other nearby communities, it attracts families from all over the city. The community is now home to several families.

The future of child-friendly Calgary

Some communities in Calgary are already rethinking the way children can use public spaces. Leung points to Haysboro, an established southwest community that constructed a natural playground in 2015. For Ralph Klein Park in Calgary’s southeast, the City consulted with elementary school students in the design of a natural playground that will open in summer 2018.

Calgary Playground Review visited Haysboro’s natural playground shortly after it opened.

One Calgary development Tim Gill finds intriguing is the proposed northeast community of Nose Creek. Here, planners are using health impact assessment tools to help shape the living environment, which will be designed for walkability, for incidental outdoor social interactions, and for natural areas – all of which serve to support play and independence in children. Gill is also encouraged by evidence of transit-oriented development in Calgary.

“The Green Line, Calgary’s third major tramline, is being talked of as not only a transport infrastructure project, but also a city-shaping tool. New buildings, services and public space projects will be planned around the new stations in a form of transit-oriented development.”

- Tim Gill, Researcher and Consultant on Childhood

As Calgary explores new, innovative development directions, from diverse housing options to walkable neighbourhoods and even age-friendly strategies designed for older Calgarians, our city is placing more importance on accessibility and people-centred design. And all these elements contribute to a more child-friendly city.

June 6th, 2018
Updated: June 7th, 2018

Urban environments affect the way children move, play, and socialize, which in turn affects their health and development. How child-friendly is Calgary?