April 28, 2022

Can an old LRT car inspire a renaissance in Downtown West? A vision emerges

UCalgary drives innovation with the Future of Stephen Avenue project
Stephen Avenue Activate and Experiment phase
Bryan Faubert and Joshua Taron, left, with Alicia Nahmad Vazquez and Jennifer Eiserman, discuss a downtown project in the old LRT car. V Strategies, for the University of Calgary

Picture full patios. Bustling stores. Buzzy sidewalks. If you thought of Stephen Avenue, you’re not alone. It’s one of the most iconic spaces in the city, but since the onset of the pandemic, life downtown has been markedly absent. Empty restaurants. Closed stores. Quiet towers.

It’s not only a problem for our social life. It’s also a problem for the continued vitality of Calgary, and the University of Calgary has been at the heart of trying to solve it, along with The City of Calgary and the Calgary Downtown Association on the Future of Stephen Avenue project.

“Stephen Avenue was designed to meet the needs of a small demographic during a limited period of time during the day, but it’s the city’s largest public corridor,” says Joshua Taron, associate dean of research and innovation at the School of Architecture, Planning and Landscape (SAPL) at UCalgary.

SAPL has been the backbone of the Activate and Experiment phase, with multiple activations that facilitate design-based research to find solutions by bringing Calgarians on board through the process.

Taron says the idea is to connect and leverage the full weight and range of cross-disciplinary activities at the university to explore ways that Stephen Avenue can become a territory for exploration — active and alive again. Taron is the team builder, identifying researchers across the university to form smaller teams to tackle specific questions and issues. 

“It’s a place that could be working better. We know the city will change, it’s constant. But finding ways the change happens in an inclusive and vibrant way is something the university and the public are interested in,” he says.

Stephen Avenue

Joshua Taron sees Stephen Avenue as a territory for exploration — active and alive again.

V Strategies

A cathedral in an LRT car

“Art is a reflection of culture. I hear people say that Calgary has no culture but what people don’t realize is they need to participate to build and construct culture, or the identity of a space or a place,” says Bryan Faubert, UCalgary Master of Fine Arts graduate and artist.

His thesis artwork, YYC/LRT, is a focal point of Downtown West, Calgary’s densest residential neighbourhood that is somehow also a dead zone. The decommissioned LRT car (the oldest in the city) holds 325 square feet inside to test how art can build community in new, innovative ways.

Dr. Jennifer Eiserman, PhD, is an associate professor of art education in the Department of Art and Art History and co-leading the project with Faubert. “We have an incredible opportunity to use art as a way to build community in a way that hasn’t been the case since the Renaissance and the great cathedrals,” she says.

We are engaging and building relationships between neighbours and people who use the neighbourhood to develop a better sense of community in the Downtown West.

YYC/LRT is a home base for workshops led by Faubert and UCalgary art students, but it’s become much more than that, even in these early days. It’s a dynamic space that brings people together for exploration, art, dialogue, and connection. Faubert says he talks to five or 10 people a day who are just curious about the installation and want to talk. It will be at 8th Avenue and 10 Street SW for a year, and after that, who knows.

“If you want your neighbourhood to be Kensington or Inglewood, you have to make it that. YYC/LRT becomes a catalyst. Something needs to overcome the entropy and we are hoping with all the activities happening, this will get things moving in Downtown West,” says Eiserman.

So, what is the future of Stephen Avenue?

The project is continuing into 2022 for people to explore exactly that question. Aside from YYC/LRT, there is habitable furniture that is using digital design, landscape architecture and robotics. A solar canopy is using photovoltaics to produce a warmed social space for cool summer nights. And the Calgary Design Clinic is bringing people together in a vacant storefront to create policy and design solutions, partnered with Faculty of Social Work, to explore how anti-black racism manifests in the built environment.

“A dream would be a vibrant, inclusive corridor — and that the city is constantly experimenting and exploring how it can transform, be different, be better,” Taron says. “Cities aren’t static, but ways to shape and envision more positive, sustainable futures for everyone.”

Stephen Avenue

V Strategies

This work was made possible through funding by the Calgary Urban Alliance, Calgary Arts Development, and a SSHRC Catalyst grant. Special thanks to the nvrlnd. Arts Foundation for providing the space and support to build YYC/LRT - without it, the car wouldn't exist.

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