Four years ago, when Aryanna Gaidhar was a Grade 6 student in Langevin School’s science alternative program, her class took interest in a neglected space near their school.
The spot in the Calgary community of Bridgeland-Riverside, under an overpass that leads into the city’s core, felt forgotten and unsafe. It was in contrast to the many beautiful spaces the 56 students had explored on community walks with their two teachers, leading the class to wonder: Could this vacant area be transformed?
Aryanna and her classmates reimagined the dreary area beneath the Fourth Avenue flyover as a welcoming and fun park, and they collaborated with students in the University of Calgary’s landscape architecture program to create design concepts.
Earlier this month, their vision became a reality with the opening of the Flyover Park. Calgary’s first underpass park includes colourful slides and swings, a climbing jungle and games such as tetherball, ladder toss and table tennis.
“It was so cool to see something that in our heads in Grade 6 was just a dream and a potential idea come to life,” says Aryanna, who is now a Grade 10 student.
“We sit in class and we learn about the democratic process and about how we have the power to make a change, but we never get the chance. And so this was our opportunity.”
This group of students was “super curious,” remembers Grade 6 teacher Kate Logan, and really wanted to get involved in their community.
At the same time, Ali McMillan, a resident heavily involved with the Bridgeland-Riverside Community Association, had also been exploring the space’s potential, and it just so happened that her daughter was in Ms. Logan’s class.
The connection with Ms. McMillan led to more partnerships, between the school, the community association, the City of Calgary and the University of Calgary.
“We kind of mashed all of these interests together and identified this Fourth Avenue flyover as a space that definitely needed some TLC,” Ms. Logan says.
Throughout the 2016/2017 school year, under a curriculum focused on democracy and citizenship, the students participated in many activities related to the land under the overpass.
There was a discussion with community members, including from the nearby Drop-In Centre, followed by collaboration with university students and city-led engagement with the public. Students even presented their final design at city hall.
Throughout the process, Ms. Logan says the youngsters saw how “although they’re under voting age, their voices do matter, and they can be involved in some of these really important decisions in their communities.”
In 2017, then-Grade 6 student Miles Bazay spoke to the Calgary Planning Commission, explaining how the final design incorporated many of their ideas, but the students didn’t get the anti-gravity chamber they had initially imagined.
Miles, now a Grade 10 student, recently visited the new park. “I saw a bunch of kids playing on the playground and it was awesome to see,” he says, adding that the space now feels a lot brighter and more inviting.
For Ms. McMillan, what’s kept her advocating for the park over the years is a sense that this unloved and forgotten space at the gateway to the neighbourhood could be something more.
Initially, community members used small grants to start experimenting with simple ways to enliven the space, such as colourful pinwheels, duct-tape art, table tennis and designs painted on the road.
“People would walk by and be like ‘oh cool, ping-pong!,’ whereas the space was kind of desolate before and would get tagged and graffitied because nobody was using the space,” says Ms. McMillan, who is now planning and development director with the Bridgeland-Riverside Community Association.
Andrew King, senior project manager with Calgary Parks, says areas under overpasses in other North American cities, including Vancouver and Toronto, have been redeveloped in recent years. Now, it’s Calgary’s turn.
“The location seems to be a redundant space, a negative space, but with the correct treatment and the correct activation making it become an active play space, it brings a lot more positivity to the community,” he says.
To move the Grade 6 students’ vision for the park forward, the community association partnered with the nonprofit organization Parks Foundation Calgary.
Financing followed from donors and government, including $1-million from both the government of Alberta and the City of Calgary. The Parks Foundation oversaw the final design, development and construction, which began this summer.
It was a complicated project, says Sheila Taylor, CEO of Parks Foundation Calgary, because of the site’s unusual location and the many users to appeal to.
To that end, while kids will enjoy the more traditional playground equipment, Ms. Taylor says there are also activities for adults, including games, a swing designed for two users and a tall “bamboo jungle” climbing structure.
“A lot of the features of this park are in no other place in Calgary,” Ms. Taylor says. “You can sit and swing under the flyover and it sort of feels like you’re swinging right into downtown.”
The transformed space is not yet completely finished. In January, a large light feature that resembles a giant balloon tree is expected to be installed, and there are plans to paint murals on the flyover and hold events this summer, if COVID-19 restrictions are lifted.
As more people experience the lively new park, it’s hoped they’ll be encouraged to reconsider the forgotten spaces in their own neighbourhoods.
“We are hoping that this park will inspire others to want to find similar spaces in the city that have huge potential,” Ms. Taylor says.
We have a weekly Western Canada newsletter written by our B.C. and Alberta bureau chiefs, providing a comprehensive package of the news you need to know about the region and its place in the issues facing Canada. Sign up today.