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In: Engagement

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!

Urban Agriculture was a significant theme for Intelligent Futures (IF) in 2016. Early in the year, IF joined forces with North Carolina’s Community Food Lab to develop a customized Urban Agriculture Strategy for Strathcona County in central Alberta. The IF team worked closely with Strathcona staff for the better part of a year in a collaborative process that was responsive to community needs and emerging issues. The end result was a highly customized–and ultimately award-winning–strategy.

A key goal of the three-phase project was to ensure all citizens had a voice in the strategy development–from the general public to local agriculture experts. The project team spent several months speaking directly with community members to learn their priorities and concerns, all with the goal of a custom-made approach to urban agriculture that incorporated the vision of area residents. The consultation process was one of the largest ever undertaken in the County, including 3,824 participants who took part in 97 hours of face-to-face engagement, ultimately contributing 8,896 ideas that helped shape the strategy.

On June 18, 2017, all that hard work was recognized with an Award of Merit from the Alberta Professional Planners Institute (APPI). This is the fourth Intelligent Futures project to receive an award in the past two years. “We are grateful for the recognition of our work,” says John Lewis, Intelligent Futures’ president and founder. “A lot of this success is due to the company we keep. Working with enthusiastic clients like Strathcona County, who are committed to authentic engagement and innovative ideas enables us to do our best work. It’s an added bonus when the planning community recognizes that work, like the APPI has done.”

Community Food Lab was a key part of the project’s success, providing insight into urban agriculture initiatives across the globe. The Lab’s founder and principal, Erin Sullivan White, helped Strathcona explore the connections between urban agriculture and the larger community. “It’s a pleasure to see this project honored with an APPI award,” Erin says. “The County needs to be commended for the leadership they showed in the development of the strategy, which will hopefully inspire other communities to explore urban agriculture and the many benefits it can offer.”

One of the priorities for the project was the use of design thinking, with its focus on innovation and multi-disciplinary input. This approach prioritizes the creation of effective solutions that build stronger communities. At 116 pages, the Urban Agriculture Strategy includes three sections (overview, actionable strategy areas and process/implementation strategies). A wide range of local urban agriculture elements are included–from bee keeping to community gardens, and urban livestock to education programs. “The goal was to create a living document that can help provide direction across the community over the next 20 years,” John adds. The strategy area actions are designed to be implemented within three years, with a ‘review and reflect’ process taking place before the next cycle of action begins.

The Intelligent Futures team worked very closely with the County, making sure we had an eye on global innovations in urban agriculture while respecting the unique perspectives, factors and needs of the local community,” says Diana Wahlstrom, Senior Advisor of Agriculture Initiatives at Strathcona County. “The end result was a strategy that was helps achieve the goals for our Agriculture Master Plan, and defined actions which will help guide urban agriculture in Strathcona County for years to come.”

Check a video about the project below.