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Photo by Neil Zeller; Courtesy of Mauricio Soto Rubio and the University of Calgary School of Architecture, Planning and Landscape
Photo by Neil Zeller; Courtesy of Mauricio Soto Rubio and the University of Calgary School of Architecture, Planning and Landscape

Dec. 21, 2020 | Andrea Cox

Destination downtown: 2020 pilot to increase safety and vibrancy around city hall could serve as blueprint for rest of city centre

A year-long pilot project designed to ramp up safety in the downtown core winds to a close at the end of 2020, but its effects might be long lasting.

The 9 Block Program is a collaborative initiative involving several key downtown stakeholders, including the City of Calgary, the University of Calgary, the Calgary Downtown Association, Bow Valley College and the Calgary Municipal Land Corporation. The program was created to improve safety and vibrancy in the nine-block area surrounding city hall.

"The primary goal is to ensure that people feel welcome downtown. We want everyone to feel that they have a place," said Thom Mahler, Downtown Strategy lead for the City of Calgary.

"With the downtown in oil and gas, the number of people coming to work downtown declined. And with fewer people riding the trains and less activity with the closing of the Castell (Central) Library, uncomfortable situations began to increase between vulnerable populations and those who work and live downtown. There was a real need to figure out a way to manage this."
"We are looking at the entire area holistically, to make it a destination place." - Thom Mahler, City of Calgary downtown strategy lead.

The solution incorporates both urban design and public art. John Brown, dean of the University of Calgary's School of Architecture, Planning and Landscape (SAPL), which is now housed in the old central library, says the program combines "creative city-building" with community outreach through a highly successful ambassador program.

From an urban-planning and aesthetic perspective, a new mural was painted and improved lighting was installed in the stairwell leading from the Calgary Police Building to the City Hall CTrain platform – a high-priority area for security and safety. Also, students from the SAPL designed a new canopy, built from sustainable and recycled materials and featuring an interactive lighting system, which was installed on the face of the Castell Building.

Courtesy of the City of Calgary

From a community-wellness perspective, the Downtown Ambassador Program – a collaboration between the Calgary Downtown Association, the City of Calgary, Tourism Calgary and Alpha House Society – has played a critical role in supporting vulnerable populations, increasing outreach, and improving safety and cleanliness in downtown Calgary. The program launched at the end of September, with eight ambassadors experienced in social work on shift in the downtown Calgary area seven days a week.

"With the additional stress caused by the pandemic, as well as additional strain on social service agencies, the ambassadors are able to provide regular check-in points with folks in the area and connect them with the services they need, whether that be a food hamper or more long-term solutions, such as recovery or housing," said Jennifer Rempel, general manager of the Calgary Downtown Association. "They are providing critical on-the-ground connections to ensure Calgarians are having their needs met."

Mahler says the Downtown Ambassador Program will continue through 2021.

"We are really looking at how we extend and embed the 9 Block Program into the Downtown Strategy plans, build upon it, take the good things and, over time, roll it out to other parts of downtown," he said. "We are looking at the entire area holistically, to make it a destination place."

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