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By: John

How can a sheet of plywood, black acrylic markers, and a stack of colourful stickers help us understand what makes a neighbourhood great?

Kensington Village, located in northwest Calgary, is one of Calgary’s most vibrant areas. One can grab a coffee, bump into an old friend, pick up some groceries, and spot a beaver swimming up the Bow River all in one trip.

People can also drop by Blank Page Plaza, an urban design experiment, evolving bi-weekly, that was created by our team at Intelligent Futures. We designed the plaza to be a place where people can gather, have fun and strike up conversations.  For our most recent intervention, we focussed on facilitating conversation.

We wanted to hear what people love most about Kensington. Where is everyone’s favourite spot and how are these places related to our understanding of what makes a great neighbourhood?

To get started on our intervention, we needed the supplies mentioned (plywood, markers and stickers) plus:

  • 1 spray can of chalkboard paint
  • 1 really cool map design by our friends at Studio North
  • 1 summer intern (who spent a weekend embracing her high school art skills)
  • 1 projector
  • A few pieces of chalk

Jean creates an engagement work of art.

We created a large map of the Kensington area to place in Blank Page Plaza. The stickers allowed people to note their favourite spots, and the chalk allowed people to explain why. Throughout this intervention, people marked their favourite places on the map, and the IF team explored these highlighted spots. A whole lot of places were marked on the map, most of which certainly contribute to making Kensington a great place to be.

What makes a great neighbourhood? Lively public spaces that encourage people to gather.

Multiple dots on the map pointed to: The Roasterie and its adjacent plaza. A local spot where you will always find people sitting outside, sipping coffee, and chatting with the folks nearby.

What makes a great neighbourhood? Businesses that support local arts and culture.

Chalks and dots pointed to: Hot Wax. A record shop that has been around since 1978, selling new and used vinyl, with a section dedicated to selling tunes from local artists.

What makes a great neighbourhood? Inclusive housing options.

Chalk and dots pointed to: Norfolk Housing Association. A mixed-model approach, where 50% of residents pay market rent and 50% pay rent-geared-to-income.

What makes a great neighbourhood? Local businesses that value sustainability and giving back to the community.

Blue dot and chalk on the map highlighted: Peacock Boutique. A consignment store selling high quality and affordable second-hand clothes.

What makes a great neighbourhood? Sustainably sourced, delicious food that can bring people together and contribute to a secure urban food system.

A cluster of dots and chalk scribbles: Sunnyside Natural Market. A locally owned and family operated market that sells organic and fresh food and gives back to the community.

What makes a great neighbourhood? Pathways and networks that are designed for cyclists and pedestrians. 

A few blue dots highlighted: The Bow River Pathway. An extensive path along the river where you’ll find bikers, joggers, walkers and skaters going by all times of the day.

One key aspect of successful city-building, in Kensington and beyond, is great urban design. Great urban design means consciously thinking about the users of space and their experience, whether in the public or private realm and designing for those needs with responsive built environments, whether permanent or temporary.

Hearing from the community helped us explore and appreciate our ‘hood even more.

We created Blank Page Plaza in order to contribute to the vibrancy of Kensington. We wanted to create a temporary and iterative public spot for people to gather, have fun and engage in conversations. For this mapping intervention, folks highlighted a fascinating variety of ingredients for successful city-building: sustainable food systems, inclusive housing, vibrant public spaces, natural landscapes and multiple transportation options.

A big thanks to those who shared their thoughts with us and giving us an even greater appreciation of the area that Intelligent Futures calls home!

How often do you have fun while walking down the street? We hope it happens frequently, which is why the second intervention of Blank Page Plaza is all about games. Public spaces have an untapped potential to evoke a sense of playfulness, engage people in activities and spark social interaction. What better way to meet your fellow neighbours than over a round of giant Jenga or basketball game? In recent years, many cities have been focussing on how to facilitate playfulness in the public realm. From yard Yahtzee to musical swings, to trampoline sidewalks, there are endless ways to creatively transform a public space into a zone dedicated to play.

To implement our Fun and Games intervention, we did four things:

  1. Buy chicken wire, duct tape, wooden dowels and colourful plastic balls to create our own Giant Kerplunk
  2. Set out sidewalk chalk for people to create their own artwork or games
  3. Go to Cowboys Casino to pick up multiple decks of playing cards and tape Intelligent Futures flare onto the outside packaging
  4. Borrow a game of bean bag toss from a generous friend

So far, fun and games seem to successfully engage folks. In the past week, we’ve noticed families joining up for a game of Kerplunk, cowboys tossing bean bags during Stampede, and teenagers creating chalk masterpieces on the sidewalk.

There are indications that the space is being used for late night fun too — after the Canada Day long weekend, we found an empty shot glass and a pack of cigarettes left on one of the #blankpageplaza tables.

We can also report our first incidents of theft — two decks of cards and one wooden stump disappeared from the space on the eve of Stampede (perhaps someone was in need of Stampede props?). Hopefully, this will be the extent of theft that we experience.

Our next intervention will begin next week. Stay tuned for what is coming up, and in the meantime, drop by to Blank Page Plaza to embrace your inner kid!

We are lucky to have two great interns with us for the summer – Patrick Aouad and Jean Roe. In one day last week, they designed an infographic, spray painted furniture, did urban design research, engaged the public, and set up our new public space. They should have a busy summer. We asked Patrick and Jean a few questions:

Tell us a bit about yourselves:

Patrick: I have always been passionate about people and city building. My curiosity has brought me to explore cities and urbanism in a variety of work and life experiences. In high school, I found interest in studying people and communities, cultures, economies and interactions and how they relate to the built and natural environments. I then became passionate about design and how it emotionally and behaviourally impacts humans, which prompted me to complete a two-month internship in a design firm based in Nantes, France. During this internship, I was able to follow real-time development of retail design and construction projects in a completely different socioeconomic and geographic context. This successfully combined my wide range of interests while working in the recipient city of the European Green Capital Award in 2013. I then began my undergraduate studies in urban planning at Concordia University, where I examined for my honours thesis how citizen involvement and tactical urbanism have reshaped the former working-class neighbourhood of Saint-Henri in Montréal. In my final year, I was involved in the Urban Planning Association as Vice President of Social Affairs where I coordinated the team in assembling five panelists from entirely different practices for the “Diversity in Planning” roundtable and networking event, which students found to be quite eye-opening. My never-ending curiosity then brought me to Calgary, where I am pursuing graduate studies in the Faculty of Environmental Design at the University of Calgary, and now proudly working with Intelligent Futures as an intern and member of the League of Engagement.

Jean: Throughout the last four years of my Urban Studies degree (with a minor in business) at the University of Calgary, I have learned much about urbanism and entrepreneurialism. In 2015, I moved across the pond for a year to study at the University of Amsterdam, where, in the classroom, I learned about the (very impressive) Dutch way of city-building. Outside class, while biking along canals, I experienced the joys of lively public spaces and a dominant cycling culture. Having worked with sustainability focussed companies, such as REAP Business Association, U of C’s Office of Sustainability, and Sustainable Amsterdam, I have gained knowledge and understanding about the importance of creating and appreciating sustainable businesses, campuses and neighbourhoods.

Why were you interested in working at Intelligent Futures?

Patrick: What brought me to Intelligent Futures was their successful recipe in combining sustainability, engagement, design, strategy and urbanism. I joined IF after completing my thesis on participatory planning and saw their award-winning work and people-centric approach as a great extension to my quest.

Jean: As a born, raised and very engaged Calgarian, I’ve always been interested in working somewhere that enhances the lives of people in this city (and beyond) in meaningful and original ways. And I think that’s what drew me to Intelligent Futures. The significant intersection that IF finds themselves in — between sustainability, urbanism and engagement — is an important place to be. Plus, there’s something very special about working with really great people.

What aspects of city-building are you most interested in?

Patrick: While I am still exploring my plethora of city-related interests, I find most of my drive in design, engagement and community economic development, as they stimulate my thought process and make me think of why and how things work, and how to improve or challenge the status quo.

Jean: What fascinates me about city-building is understanding, acknowledging, and building all sorts of connections. That is, fostering relationships between individuals but also understanding connections on a larger scale — how is urban agriculture related to well-designed public space? How do transportation options relate to social equality? How can building neighbourly communities affect individual mental health and the global economy? How can we, as planners, citizens and professionals, understand these connections to create happier and more resilient cities?

What are some key lessons learned in your first few weeks at IF?

Patrick: One of the key lessons I’ve learned in my first few weeks at IF are how a collaborative work environment, just like a collaborative planning process, leads to increased productivity, innovative and outstanding end products. I’ve also learned that strategy is the most important aspect of any project, as it guides the vision and drives the entire design and decision-making process.

Jean: The key lessons so far have been:

1. Community engagement, when done properly, can be really fun (and effective).

2. IF’s projects are adaptable, creative and strategic because they are process-oriented, versus product-oriented.

3. There are a lot of acronyms in urban planning.

4. Never underestimate the power of the post-it note. 

5. My bike ride to work (downhill) is much quicker than my ride home.