A few years ago the administration at Kansai International Airport, a gleaming engineering achievement on a man-made island near Osaka, Japan, was refused to reduce escalator operation by controlling them with a motion sensor that would shut them down when not in use rather than running them around the clock. Their argument? They were an elite, world class airport and to their mind, world class airports just don't do such things. Never mind the fact that airports don't sink into the Pacific Ocean either, saving energy by stopping the escalators just didn't fit with the image they wanted to portray.
I start with this anecdote because it is something that comes to mind when walking the streets of downtown Calgary. Stephen Avenue is a blessing for pedestrians and an aimless wander is rewarded with iconic public art, a variety of architecture, street vendors restaurants and the opportunity to people-watch over a beverage or witness whatever events someone has tried to concoct. Going south from there the reward as there but intermittant. Eleventh Avenue SW has a great appeal and anyone looking to weave and wander their way toward 17th Avenue or 4th Street would find plenty of reason to keep walking.
North of Stephen Avenue, however, there is little to attract pedestrians. The office towers are there and people will make their way too and from work but to walk west to east along any of the Avenues between Stephen and Prince's Island doesn't offer a lot. Block after block of the avenues consists of blank walls or - just as bad - glass facades that give the public a view of the tower elevator bank and security desk. While the newer office buildings are a more attractive sheen, they do little to make it a more appealing place to walk. The glass facades at street level are just a more modern version of the cement surfaces from past generations. There is little reason to walk there unless one absolutely has to.
This is where my reference to Kansai International's grandiose sense of airport-self comes in. It would take very little for these newer buildings to increase their interaction with the streetscape by giving pedestrians a little bit more to interact with as they walk by. Cafes, mom and pop restaurants, convenience store are all in a position to thrive given the traffic passing through 9 to 5, Monday to Friday but with many of these buildings there is no sign of them at street level.
Why do the owners or architects of these towers resist opening up ground level retail space? Is it a matter of reinforcing for passers by - usually their employees or tenants - the eminence, liquidity or market capitalization of the company with the skyline beacon? It might be the only reason I can come up with. It may, of course, also be a matter of profitability for running businesses in those locations. A major part of the problem is that most of the downtown area between Stephen Avenue and Prince's Park is devoted to either office towers or parking. Other cities would have downtown areas with a variety of buildings and enterprises with pubs, churches, shopping and hotels mixed in to the urban fabric.
This is not to say that these isn't any variety in downtown Calgary, but it is not enough to generate and sustain pedestrian traffic. Once pedestrians get a few blocks north of Stephen Avenue the sights or curb appeal diminishes pretty quickly. The Avenues seem to be dedicated first and foremost to getting cars in and out of the parking lots, whether underground, street level or blight of visual blights, built above ground.
Building the variety into the downtown business district will take some time but with additional public art and more access to amenities other than office elevators there will be greater reason for pedestrians to make the walk. Perhaps someone will have a creative idea or two the next time the decision is made to fill a parking lot with a new building.