Blog Header

In: Design thinking

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!

Intelligent Futures is gearing up for a summer-long urban design experiment, alongside their colleagues at Blank Page Studio. Blank Page Studio, located on Kensington Crescent, is a creative and collaborative space, comprised of small innovative enterprises, from web developers and artists to urbanists and architects. Throughout the summer, the sidewalk space on the east side of the studio will transform into Blank Page Plaza, a dynamic and testable public place for passersby to play games, learn something new, or perhaps just sit down and stay awhile. This project will bring the collaboration and innovation that occurs in Blank Page Studio outdoors for the community to experience and enjoy.

Urban Field Testing

Temporary street design projects have been increasingly more popular over the past few years, with parklets taking over the streets of San Francisco and Vancouver, the book Tactical Urbanism getting swept off bookshelves all around the globe, and car-free, open street initiatives occurring more and more often in cities worldwide.

Short-term public interventions have the potential to create lasting, beneficial shifts within a city. By implementing quick and affordable changes, cities can prototype ideas and gain public feedback during the design process. Take Macon, Georgia as an example — in September 2016, an eight-mile long pop-up bike network was implemented. During this week long bike lane prototype, bicycle usage increased tenfold, demonstrating a demand for cycle paths. Permanent bike lanes have been built since the experiment and city policy in Macon now ensures that any roads being repaved must examine how bike lanes could be added to the existing structure.

First Intervention: The Moveable Chair

For our first intervention, we will create a pleasant place for people to sit and relax.  Public seating creates a useable, comfortable and pedestrian-oriented space, allowing folks to socialize, people-watch or just kick back and relax. Adding seating can be an easy and informal step to creating an active and lively space.

According to William H. Whyte, a late American urbanist and renowned people-observer, the best type of public seating is furniture that can move. Whyte considered the moveable chair “a wonderful invention” that provides people with choice: “a declaration of autonomy, to oneself, and rather satisfying.” Unlike fixed seats, moveable chairs give people the freedom to move closer or farther away from others, and follow or avoid the sun.

Watch this short clip from Whyte’s documentary “Social Life of Small Urban Places” to see how people in New York used chairs that move:

The risk of moveable furniture is that people may take the liberty of moving the chairs a bit too far away (perhaps onto their own patio or front yard at their house). We’re going to take a leap of faith and hope that our new furniture stays put without having to lock anything down. Stay tuned to hear about any thievery and what our next intervention will entail! Use the hashtag #blankpageplaza to follow the adventure on social media.