Flyover Park: Empowering the next generation of city builders in Calgary
May 5, 2021
This contribution from Ximena González is part of Park People’s 10 Years Together in City Parks. Be sure to check out all of the contributors throughout the year.
On an early spring day in Calgary, Flyover Park buzzes with activity and playful laughter. Surrounded by friends, a couple of teens sway off a face-to-face swing, while tweens leap through a bamboo jungle (a three-dimensional climbing course not for the faint of heart).
Sheltered by the shade of a flyover above, a family competes in a fierce ping-pong game while, behind them, a mother helps her youngest go up the hillside playground. An assortment of languages fills the air: English, French, Spanish.
In this context, it can be hard to believe that just three years ago this space was a dingy field of gravel. “It was full of litter, graffiti, needles, people’s clothes—it was just not safe,” says Ali McMillan, planning director at the Bridgeland-Riverside Community Association (BRCA).
Built in 2020 with funds sourced by Calgary’s Parks Foundation, a non-profit whose mandate is to support the creation of new parks for the enjoyment of all Calgarians, Flyover Park materializes the vision of a group of engaged residents who dared to think outside the box and reclaim an underutilized space full of potential.
“We didn’t really have an idea where it was going to go,” McMillan says about the group’s initial vision. “We wanted to do some tactical urbanism to basically get people’s minds thinking differently about the area,” she explains.
Launched by residents as a small intervention, the project would morph into a lasting change for the community—and the first project of its kind in Alberta.
“Bamboo” climbing poles. Photo by Ximena Gonzalez.
Residents reclaim a ‘left-over’ space
Located at the south end of Bridgeland, between the neighbourhood and the Bow River, Flyover Park sits under an overpass known as the 4th Avenue flyover. It’s part of a complicated interchange of roads and bridges that connects Calgary’s northeast across the river to the city’s downtown and East Village.
The site where Flyover Park is today sat empty for nearly two decades. “A lot of us didn’t know that the flyover was even there,” says Miles Bazay, a student who used to go to Langevin School, a K-9 school located just 300 metres north of the site.
Year after year, thousands of Bridgeland-Riverside residents would drive, walk, or cycle by this derelict space.
“This is the first thing a lot of people see when they come from downtown into our community, and the impression was not good because it was just basically a dirt patch,” McMillan says. This unsightly welcome didn’t reflect the unique character of the neighbourhood.
Filled with homes that predate the 1960s, modern multi-family buildings, and an assortment of locally-owned shops and restaurants, Bridgeland-Riverside is one of Calgary’s most vibrant inner-city communities. These characteristics have attracted a young and diverse population to the neighbourhood.
Improving the condition of the empty space under the flyover would connect the neighbourhood’s parks, community gardens, sports fields, and bike lanes to Calgary’s Bow River Pathway system, a 48-km long network of multi-use trails. Nearly a quarter of the community’s residents walk or cycle to work, many of whom use this network.
Despite this connectivity potential, the City of Calgary had no plans to activate the space. But in 2016, inspired by the work of Jason Roberts’s Better Block Foundation, McMillan decided to spearhead her own tactical urbanism intervention.
“[Tactical urbanism] opens your eyes to how you see your community and that your voice matters,” she says.
The power of small interventions
Tactical urbanism is a citizen-led movement that gained force in the 2010s. The movement encourages residents to test ideas that reclaim and transform forgotten public places into vibrant community hubs—one temporary intervention at a time.
Installing pop-up parks in neglected spaces is a common tactic used by residents to test their ideas, and many of these projects lead to permanent upgrades. Flyover Park would become Calgary’s first tactical intervention to become permanent.
Under McMillan’s direction, the BRCA created a task force to put together a plan to enhance the space.
The goal of this plan was “to design an enjoyable public environment” and “to create a gateway into the community of Bridgeland-Riverside.” This thorough document outlined the design considerations and aesthetics that would guide the project through completion.
To improve the public realm, the task force drew ideas from projects in cities around the world such as Superkilen Park in Copenhagen and Drapers Field in London.
But despite the successful precedents, getting the project off the ground was no easy feat.
“It’s a really unique site there—we have not done an urban park in the ‘left-over’ transportation infrastructure anywhere in Alberta,” McMillan says, emphasizing the initial skepticism from a number of stakeholders, including the neighbours themselves. “A lot of people couldn’t see past what the area actually was… It was a lot of fighting perception and trying to show people it could be different.”
In 2017, McMillan and the task force carried out the first tactical intervention in the space.
“The first thing we did was a windmill garden. We put like 20 windmills—just stuck them in the ground in the middle of winter,” McMillan recalls. It helped catch the attention of future partners.
Over the course of a year, these kinds of small interventions led the BRCA to partnerships with the City of Calgary, Bridgeland’s Langevin School Grade 6 students, and the University of Calgary’s School of Architecture, Planning and Landscape. The inclusion of the Grade 6 students in the project would prove to be integral to the development of the project—and an educational opportunity not just for the children, but for everyone involved.
Early conceptual image based on student ideas. Courtesy of the City of Calgary.
An all-around learning experience
In 2017, the transportation department at the City of Calgary had just completed the city’s pedestrian strategy, but while the council hadn’t yet allocated any funding to it, the department was keen to support a low-budget grassroots initiative.
When Jen Malzer, a transportation engineer at the City of Calgary, learned about the BRCA’s efforts to transform the space under the 4th Avenue flyover and connect Bridgeland to the river pathway, she and her team seized the opportunity.
“We didn’t have funding to hire consultants, which is normally how we might approach a project,” Malzer says. Having the Langevin School Grade 6 students and the University of Calgary landscape architecture master’s degree students on board, Malzer’s team took a different approach. “We could just enable students to dream about the parts of the project and give expertise where we could,” she says—an unusual role for city staff.
Accustomed to the back-and-forth of stakeholder engagement sessions, for Malzer’s team this project was an opportunity to “give up some of the control.”
Furthermore, as part of the pedestrian strategy, the city was developing a tactical urbanism program; participating in the flyover project helped city staff gain an in-depth understanding of the process.
“This really gave us a good insight into what the city’s role should be when we’re working with communities,” Malzer says. “We learned about the power of elevating different voices.”
And in this case, it was the voices of the Grade 6 students. While children are always welcome to join engagement activities led by the city, Malzer says, they rarely actually do so. The Grade 6 students would become front and centre for the project. “It was a really cool experience. I never thought that we could get to do something like that,” says Bazay, who was part of the class.
Sixty Langevin School Grade 6 students were able to take part in this project thanks to the foresight of their teachers. “[Ali McMillan] was looking for some students to be involved in working with the city and just talking about areas of Bridgeland that are a little bit neglected,” recalls Kate Logan, one of the teachers. She and Elaine Hordo, her partner teacher, jumped at the opportunity. “We were looking for something to get these kids involved in some kind of action project, something to make a difference in the community,” Logan adds.
Excited about the potential of the space and the learning opportunities for the students, Malzer helped coordinate educational sessions with an assortment of city departments, giving students a solid background that would inform their vision for the space. “I was able to bring in a lot of different experts: urban foresters, designers, water engineers, to give students a little bit of context about what are some of the things to think about,” Malzer says.
This experience enabled the children to think about the possibilities for the space.
“We spent a lot of time at the flyover site, just looking around,” Logan says. They also visited other parts of the city and observed the different uses a vacant space could be given to revitalize it and build community.“Our class decided to do something with that space,” Bazay says. “It was a really good space, it just wasn’t being used in the right way.”
When the University of Calgary graduate students led a design charrette in the spring of 2017, the children were more than ready to provide their input. During the initial design session, Ben Hettinga, then one of the University of Calgary students, recalls being impressed by the ideas of the Grade 6 students. “There were normal kid things like playgrounds and fun pieces, but their focus also seemed to be on making the space welcoming and safe for everyone.” This sentiment is echoed by Malzer, “the students were really clear that the project should make play fun for everyone, not just kids.”
Integrating all of the students’ knowledge and ideas, the design produced by the landscape architecture students went on to earn an honourable mention at Calgary’s Mayor Urban Design Awards and win a National Urban Design Award. “We were just having fun with it—ideas that we thought would just brighten up the space,” Bazay says humbly. “We never really thought that it would get built but then we got funding and it was really exciting for our class.”
Through this experience, the Grade 6 students learned valuable lessons on city building, an opportunity few Calgarians get to experience at such a young age. According to Logan, this project taught her students about the importance of civic engagement, “knowing that as a citizen you have a responsibility for yourself and others and that the decisions you make impact others.”
The involvement of the Langevin School was also key to gaining momentum, McMillan says, as the participation of the Grade 6 students led to project seed funding from the Calgary Foundation. “With this funding, we painted the road and bought chairs and picnic tables; we built planters and that sort of thing,” she says.
And this action was key, as it was an opportunity to test their ideas and to prove the community’s interest in such a space. The success of the temporary improvements in the summer of 2017 solidified the partnership with the Parks Foundation and led to further improvements such as the painting of a mural and the installation of a ping-pong table.
Painting the road as a tactical intervention, 2017. Photo courtesy of Ali McMillan.
Materializing the community’s dreams
In the spring of 2019, Calgary’s Parks Foundation announced the construction of a permanent urban park was moving forward thanks to a donation from the Alberta government.
“I never thought that we could have such a big impact in the community,” Bazay says.
Although the design of the space went through several subsequent iterations, and a number of features were scrapped at the construction stage, Flyover Park does capture the essence of the youth who helped propel the project.
“It’s not your typical playground. We tried to design something for everyone in some of those groups that didn’t have a place to be,” McMillan says.
Besides playground equipment for all ages, the design layout includes an esplanade to accommodate food trucks and outdoor events, providing recreation opportunities for adults and kids alike and reflecting the spirit of inclusiveness shown by the Langevin School students.
The tactical nature of the project also helped it move forward swiftly. By contrast, the Bow to Bluff corridor in Sunnyside, a similar project in Calgary’s inner-city also spearheaded by community residents but taking a more conventional approach, has taken nearly a decade to materialize.
These tactical interventions have also helped inform other city-led improvements for the community’s main streets, such as the 1st Avenue NE Streetscape Master Plan, which aims to improve the pedestrian and cycling experience and connect Bridgeland’s amenities, including Flyover Park, with the Bow River Pathway.
But ultimately, the BRCA did more than transform an empty space into a vibrant community hub—the efforts of the community also helped empower a young generation of city-builders.
“I think we definitely learned a lot about what we can actually do to change our communities,” Bazay says. “And if more students could get involved with projects like this, I think that would be really great for the community.”
About Ximena González
Ximena González is a freelance writer and editor based in Calgary. Her work has appeared in The Sprawl, The Tyee and The Globe and Mail.
This contribution from Ximena González is part of Park People’s 10 Years Together in City Parks. Be sure to check out all of the contributors throughout the year.Choose Another Park Story