No Plan is an Island

W Architecture and Landscape Architecture and Civitas team up to design a flood-friendly park that recreates a resilient landscape in Calgary’s Bow River.

By Brian Barth

Reopening one of the island’s natural breaches was an opportunity to design a calm-water beach. Image courtesy W Architecture and Landscape Architecture.

In the summer of 2013, catastrophic flooding in southern Alberta killed five people and forced 100,000 to evacuate. With $6 billion in property damage, it was one of the costliest natural disasters in Canadian history. The swollen Bow River, which flows from glacial headwaters in the Rockies to Calgary, left much of the city’s urban core underwater. The inundated area included St. Patrick’s Island, one of several islands in the downtown stretch of the river, where Barbara Wilks, FASLA, and Mark Johnson, FASLA, had just kicked off construction on a new 31-acre park. A new pedestrian bridge to the island, which was partially built at the time, suffered significant damage. But for the park itself, Wilks and Johnson—the founders of W Architecture and Landscape Architecture and Civitas, respectively—say the floodwaters provided positive reinforcement of their design.

This was not the initial reaction, however, of the folks at the Calgary Municipal Land Corporation (CMLC), their client.

“Our client called and said, ‘Oh, God, you have to get up here; we’re going to have to change the design,’” said Johnson as he, Wilks, and I strolled across the bridge to the completed park on a clear spring day.

“The whole island flooded!’” Wilks recalled members of the CMLC team saying in an urgent and distressed call. “We said, ‘It’s going to be fine; there’s nothing to change. We designed it to flood—this is what’s supposed to happen.’”

While we picked our way across a cobble beach, Wilks and Johnson explained that, historically, St. Patrick’s Island was a strand of multiple islands (they believe it ranged from three to five), which the river rearranged from time to time during flood season. Over centuries, new channels were gouged out and old ones filled in (the region is home to the tribes of the Blackfoot Confederacy; the Indigenous name for the river, Makhabn, means “where bow reeds grow”—a reference to archery and the source of the river’s modern name). But in modern times, humans have been doing the filling—one channel was filled in the 1920s, another in the 1960s—and the banks were armored, preventing the river from choosing its course. The 1960s-era filling made space for a large lawn that had served as a municipal campground. When Wilks and Johnson arrived to survey the damage after the floodwaters receded, they discovered that the river had taken a big bite out of that filled area, which pleased them immensely—they’d planned to remove it anyway. Re-establishing the island’s natural breaches, they reasoned, would allow raging waters to pass through more readily, diminishing their erosive potential.

Wilks showed me cell phone pictures of the new breach in the former campground area, including a shot of her and Johnson in hard hats and orange safety vests giving each other a high five.

“We stood on the bank with Michael [Brown]”—the CMLC president—“and I said, ‘Mike, the river wants its breach back,’” recalled Johnson, gesturing at the spot.

The re-established breach allows floodwaters to pass through with less destruction, but it was also planned with recreation in mind. A portion was designed as a beach. I was there in early June on one of the first warm weekends of the season, and Calgarians toddler age and up were splashing in the gently sloped basin. The Bow River runs cold and fast from the Rockies, which rise a short distance from the city; for an urban river, it is unusually clear and clean. The churning aquamarine waters, which were filled with rafters, kayakers, and anglers when I was there, are unsafe for wading babies, however. But in the St. Patrick Island’s breach, which is shaped to mimic a water-calming eddy, the gentle current moves just enough to keep sunscreen scum and algae from building up. The temperature was perfect, the breeze light, and as I watched the kids and dabbling ducks peacefully coexisting, I felt as though I’d stumbled onto a small slice of paradise—and although it sounds like a commercial for a Caribbean cruise, it’s an honest sentiment—except instead of palm trees swaying overhead, there were skyscrapers.

The breach is a bisected by a fire truck access route, designed as a floodable weir. Image courtesy W Architecture and Landscape Architecture.

Wilks and Johnson, who have visited only occasionally since the park opened in 2015, were giddy, talking over each other like a couple of designers fresh out of college as they took in the scene: kids tumbling down a giant hill in the middle of the island that had been built with the excavated breach material; a group of 20 or so holding hands in what appeared to be a prayer circle before a picnic meal; people lounging by themselves on benches, reading, or just soaking in the sun and zoning out to the sound of the water. A couple of CMLC employees had brought a selection of lawn toys and spread them out in the grass at the base of the central hill (the agency runs programming for the park). Wilks picked up a pink Hula-Hoop and began spinning it around her waist.

You know those idyllic renderings landscape architects produce that sometimes get laughed off as a designer’s fantasy? The park is like that in real life, I found myself thinking, as an osprey circled overhead. It was coming home to its nest of sticks at the top of a 75-foot-high sculpture, an installation near the upstream tip of the island that looks like streetlamps welded together in the shape of a flower.

“We didn’t spec that,” said Johnson of the osprey.

Wilks and Johnson, who both wear stylish round-rimmed glasses (he tortoise shell, she bi-tone blue), have a relaxed, sibling-like way of working together. After bringing their firms together for a competition to design Philadelphia’s Race Street Pier in the late aughts (they short-listed), they joined forces again for the competition to design the park on St. Patrick’s Island in 2011, a $45 million (Canadian) project, including $25 million for the new pedestrian bridge. They have since collaborated on other projects, including Julian B. Lane Riverfront Park in Tampa, which opened last year.

Clare LePan, CMLC’s vice president of marketing and communications, told me that the new incarnation of St. Patrick’s Island “has transformed this end of the city.” The park has proved so popular that CMLC has cut back on programming. “We’re trying to balance the number of events we do versus people just coming down and using it as they choose to,” LePan said.

The park includes plenty of niftily designed spaces: a playground, a boardwalk, and a pavilion and plaza area where food trucks congregate. Even the bathrooms are attractive, with vintage lumber cladding salvaged from the aging footbridge that was previously the only way to access the park from the downtown side of the river.

These features are lovely, but could be found in any newly built urban park. What distinguishes St. Patrick’s Island are its more subtle interventions. There are gently sloped banks lined with rocks that look as if they belong in a Rocky Mountain foothills river, rather than steep banks armored with concrete and riprap. Plantings are integrated seamlessly with extant vegetation, rather than being sequestered in mulched beds. Long, low slabs of concrete appear in seemingly random places, as though they have washed down the river and been deposited like driftwood by a flood—but these are in fact benches, strategically located in quiet, contemplative spots. The breach is big enough to contain islands of its own, which further calm and distribute the flow while giving kids a place to play Huckleberry Finn. Beavers, to judge by the gnawed trees, visit the islands at night.

A second breach on the island has been styled as a seasonally flooded wetland. Image courtesy W Architecture and Landscape Architecture.

Along one path is a lamppost with a thigh-high marker that shows the water level during the 2013 flood. During my visit toward the tail end of the spring melt season, the water was still high enough to cover a fire truck access road where it crosses the breach on a low concrete bridge, which is designed to flood seasonally. A second reopened breach on the other end of the island functions more like a wetland; when I was there, it appeared as a wet meadow, but it fills up like a lake as the river approaches flood stage.

If a critique is to be made about the park, it is that one of the island’s long-time user groups—the homeless—was seemingly left out of the planning process. This oversight is particularly common in urban revitalization projects, especially at waterfront sites where landscape architects often find themselves transforming homeless camps into gentrification-inducing parks.

The St. Patrick’s Island revitalization originated in plans to redevelop an adjacent neighborhood known as East Village—and funds for the park came from a community revitalization levy (a Canadian version of tax increment financing) on the new development. On the south shore of the Bow River, East Village is where Calgary first emerged as a frontier outpost. As the downtown core later rose on the western flank of the neighborhood, East Village became increasingly forlorn, “known for vacant lots, abandoned factories and worn hotels that attracted the city’s desperate and destitute,” said Canada’s National Post newspaper in 2014, already looking back as the process of gentrification was taking hold. CMLC was established in 2007 as the redevelopment agency for the riverfront district, and an early master plan identified improvements at St. Patrick’s Island as a priority.

This was not without controversy, as the neighborhood had become a haven for the homeless, as had the island. After serving as a city-sanctioned campground for much of the 20th century, St. Patrick’s had become home to illicit camps more recently. Although the sprawling city lacks the sort of housing crunch found in coastal metropolises, affordability remains a significant issue. Calgary has among the highest rates of unemployment and homelessness of major Canadian cities, and people of Aboriginal descent are represented in the homeless population at a rate more than 10 times their representation in the general population.

In 2005, the East Village was home to around 2,000 people (according to census figures, although likely more with the homeless population), who had an average income of about $17,000 (Canadian), a quarter of the national average. By the time the 20-year build-out of East Village is complete (2027 is the oft-cited date), the population is expected to surpass 11,000. Condos with names like Evolution and Verve have already opened, doubling the population to date, LePan said. The authors of the 2010 master plan were explicit about the demographic they hoped to attract. They called them “urban explorers.” These are people, they wrote, with “an interest in culture, events, restaurants, boutique shopping…[who] take advantage of all the cultural stimulations of city life, from restaurants to gallery openings.” In other words, not people struggling to provide for their basic needs.

Though dilapidated in the eyes of some, the East Village has long been a hub for the city’s homeless population to access social services, explained Diana Krecsy, the CEO of the Calgary Homeless Foundation. The Calgary Drop-In Centre, for example (considered the largest homeless shelter in North America with nearly 1,000 beds), is a short walk from the park. Krecsy told me that neither the city or the CMLC made an effort to consider the impacts of the plans for the East Village on the homeless population, nor was subsidized housing stipulated in the redevelopment plan.

“It’s more an approach of, we’re gonna upscale the neighborhood, so people who don’t fit that neighborhood are squished out,” Krecsy said. “There was no concerted effort to address the people who would be displaced, or any resources provided.” As a result, she says, many of those experiencing homelessness have migrated to other parts of the city.

The East Village riverfront, a place of hip eateries, manicured flower beds, and shops inside shipping containers, is traversed by a wide bike and pedestrian path that opens out sporadically into plazas and viewing decks that are stocked with benches and lounge chairs. Brightly lit after dark, it’s a good design for promoting a sense of nighttime safety and for leaving overnight visitors exposed. Overnight use occurred nonetheless, provoking the CMLC, in 2014, to remove lounge chairs and restrict access to a pair of self-cleaning public restrooms, high-end models that cost $200,000 (Canadian) apiece, to special events. The use of this infrastructure by the homeless population was “not favorable for the neighborhood, [or] in keeping with the image that we’re portraying in the East Village,” said a spokesperson for the CMLC at the time.

The excavated breach material became a hill for events, tobogganing, and play. Image courtesy W Architecture and Landscape Architecture.

St. Patrick’s Island, intentionally or not, seems to have struck a balance of creating a welcoming environment for the public while avoiding a heavy-handed approach toward people experiencing homelessness. Rather than discouraging transient populations by designing a park full of open fields, paved surfaces, and bright lighting, most of the island remains densely forested. Whereas some locals likely value the vegetation as a place to not be seen—“They’re still here,” said Wilks of the homeless population—for the designers, it is an ecological necessity.

The island’s gallery forest—a term for a riparian woodland within an environment that does not otherwise support forests, such as the Canadian prairie—is both a rich habitat and a form of erosion control during flood season.

Cottonwoods, the dominant tree species on the island, reseed most successfully after a flood, Johnson explained, pointing out three distinct generations of the forest, which he pegs to three major floods from the past century. We were walking along a stretch of the island interior where the largest, oldest, and highest tract of forest was found, an area where the designers had taken great pains to minimize disturbance, sometimes sending out staff to take spot elevations at six-inch contours to ensure that grading activities would not disturb root systems. This area, Johnson continued, would likely get flooded a half-meter deep during a 500-year storm. The river would form eddies around the largest clumps of cottonwoods, slowing down enough to drop a rich payload of silt. “And in these beds of silt, river birches tend to get established,” he said, bringing the ecology lesson to a close. “When we brought the client out here, we showed them how the plants are stabilizing the silts and how that makes the landscape resilient to flooding.”

That’s when we saw the destruction—a clearing the size of a large suburban yard had been bulldozed through the middle of the forest.

“This is terrible!” Wilks said. “There used to be a great horned owl nest here!” She was spinning around in disbelief at the carnage. “Look at this poor tree that got beat up by the machinery!”

The purpose for the clearing was not immediately obvious, although it appeared that some type of seed had recently been broadcast across the denuded earth. This clearing would need to be replanted with natives immediately, Wilks said. “If they’re reseeding this as a lawn, I’m going to be really mad!”

They eventually learned that the parks department had made the clearing in the process of bringing in riprap to stabilize a section of the island’s shore. “It goes to show how having the [designers] remain involved is important,” Wilks wrote to me in an e-mail a few days later. This form of “institutional memory,” she added, is key for preventing such lapses in awareness among maintenance staff. “I don’t think they had any idea they were doing something we thought was wrong.”

The park design preserves and enhances the island’s cottonwood forest, hovering here over a plaza and restrooms clad in reclaimed lumber. Image courtesy of W Architecture and Landscape Architecture.

Wilks and Johnson have been hell-bent on preserving the island’s native vegetation and expanding it. In sparsely vegetated zones, they specified wildflower seeding and plugs of woody shrubs to jump-start the process of natural succession back toward galley forest. They pointed out where fast-growing willows had already seeded themselves into this medley, forming loose drifts. I remarked that it was hard to tell the difference between the plants specified in the design and those that nature had planted.

Johnson crowed, “It worked!”

Project Credits

Lead Landscape Designers W Architecture and Landscape Architecture, Brooklyn, New York; and Civitas, Denver. Lead Architecture Designers W Architecture and Landscape Architecture, Brooklyn, New York. Landscape Architect and Architect of Record IBI Group, Calgary, Alberta. Structural Engineering Guy Nordenson and Associates, New York. Structural Engineer of Record Read Jones Christoffersen Ltd., Calgary, Alberta. Hydrology Matrix Solutions, Calgary, Alberta. Lighting Design Tillett Lighting Design Associates, New York. Electrical Engineering SMP Engineering, Calgary, Alberta. Ecology Green Shield Ecology, Bridgewater, New Jersey. Plumbing Engineering Wiebe Forest Engineering, Calgary, Alberta. Signage J Communications, Calgary, Alberta. Custom Wooden Bench Design and Fabrication Jeremy Pavka Industries, Calgary, Alberta. Cost Estimating BTY Group, Calgary, Alberta.

Brian Barth is a freelance journalist based in Toronto.

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