02 April 2012

My two cents on Calgary's Peace Bridge

It's finally done. Over budget and overdue, but it's done. One of the most controversial pieces of infrastructure in Calgary's history, the Peace Bridge, a pedestrian walkway over the Bow River, is finally open for traffic.

I am a strong supporter of the compact city as a more efficient city, both financially and economically, and that means I am a strong supporter of promoting pedestrian traffic and public transit use over cars. But that doesn't mean I support any and all pedestrian amenities, and the Peace Bridge I do not.

In the first place it is, as so many people have pointed out, a bridge from nowhere to nowhere. At the north end it launches itself from a bicycle path in the middle of a block. The local alderman is now desperately consulting with her constituents to figure out how to get pedestrians safely across the busy 4-lane street (Memorial Drive) that borders the path—an exercise rather late in the day. As for who will use the bridge, the Sunnyside embankment limits the source of commuters to a very small area.

And that brings me to my next point. Only two blocks west, there are three pedestrian bridges—one on either side of the Louise Bridge and one under the C-train overpass. In other words, the Peace Bridge is quite unnecessary. A number of locations in the city offer a much better opportunity for a bridge or crossover that would encourage pedestrian traffic and public transit use.

Aesthetically, the bridge is alien to its environment. It reflects none of the forms, colours or materials of the Bow River Valley in its design. It is a pretty, sparkly thing in its own right but it is out of context—a sort of magpie architecture. It manifests one of greatest sins of the architectural profession. Architects design structures that are handsome in themselves but don't fit into their neighbourhood. This bridge has been defended on the basis that it is a work of art that will help make Calgary a great city. Perhaps, but it tends more to make Calgary look like a city with insecurities, desperate to prove it is in the big leagues.

The bridge doesn't just sin against its environment, it sins against the citizens of Calgary. With cavalier disregard for the taxpayers' dollar, and in violation of city policy, the design was selected without a competition. Although Calgarians may not have the refined artistic sensibilities of transportation department officials, it is their bridge after all and they might have been offered an opportunity to express their views.

This sort of arbitrary process undermines peoples' faith in their government. Government-bashers have been offered a very big stick to beat City Hall with and they are taking full advantage. Almost every rant about big government and high taxes you hear in Calgary these days starts off with the Peace Bridge. I fear the bridge will make it more difficult to provide truly worthwhile pedestrian amenities in the future, doing a great disservice to our city.

Some of the points supporters of the bridge have made, I heartily agree with. For example, that the $25-million spent on this bridge would hardly have earned a whimper of protest if it had been spent on a freeway or an interchange. I agree also that public infrastructure should have aesthetic appeal. Of course it should. But these are general considerations—they don't justify an ill thought out piece of infrastructure.

In any case, it is done and we are stuck with it. Now we must consider what we can learn from it. A number of things actually. First, always, except in exceptional circumstances, subject projects to competition. Second, consult the public early, not after the fact. Third, design for the context. And finally, don't be governed by our insecurities—Calgary doesn't need baubles to make it a great city.

If we are to build the compact city, we must be jealous guardians of the public purse. The public will not be dissuaded from urban sprawl if they see amenities for pedestrians and public transit users linked to financial recklessness.

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