Had you ventured out to Tom Campbell’s Hill in the late 1960s or 70s, you might have your view of the Bow River-Nose Creek convergence blocked by the stripes of a foraging zebra.
The now popular dog park and Calgary look out spot, located along St. George’s Drive in the Bridgeland community, wasn’t always as peaceful as it is now.
Before residents started complaining about the noise from their breeding neighbours, Tom Campbell’s Hill was a grazing pasture for all sorts of the Calgary Zoo’s hooved animals.
While the zoo animals are now limited to grazing on the south side of Memorial Drive, the Bridgeland/Riverside community, nestled on the north side of the Bow River and the downtown core, is still full of unique, historical character and appears to be growing in popularity.
Settled in the late 1880s by mainly German and Russian immigrants during Calgary’s first big population boom, Riverside was once called “Germantown.”
Before long the communities saw increasing waves of Italian and Ukrainian immigrants, and after being annexed in 1908, were given the names Bridgeland and Riverside. At some point they became one.
The Calgary General Hospital was built in 1910 and contributed to the cropping up of numerous not-for-profits and community groups in the area. While the hospital was torn down during then-Premier Ralph Klein’s “out with the old” era, the hospital’s legacy can still be felt in the assortment of organizations that call Bridgeland home.
“It was a community that accepted fringe people,” says Bridgeland resident and unofficial community expert Deb Lee. “That’s its heritage, that’s its roots. They were always sort of the down-and-out people, the unaccepted people [and] the people who didn’t have a lot of money and [made sacrifices] to get more.”
And the community is still is exactly that, according to Lee.
The Margaret Chisholm Resettlement Centre helps incoming immigrants and refugees, the Children’s Cottage Society provides an emergency nursery for parents who need the extra help and the Women’s Centre provides resources and support for women who need it.
Those are only a few of the non-profits that call Bridgeland home.
“[Bridgeland/Riverside] comes from a diverse acceptance of others … and I think that’s continued,” says Lee. “We really have to be mindful that not everybody lives in a million-dollar house, or a half-a-million dollar house and so we need to allow for that in the programming that we offer.”
If you were to start looking for information about Bridgeland, Lee’s name would likely pop up from residents and committee boards.
The retired nurse moved to the community just after the implosion of the old hospital in 1998.
Lee sits on a Bridgeland/Riverside subcommittee, writes for the community newsletter, and leads “Bridgeland Walks”: regular walking tours through the community to help residents and non-residents learn more about the neighbourhood’s rich history.
“I like the feeling of heritage,” says Lee as she looks out the window of the Baya Rica Café, just off Bridgeland’s main drag, or First Avenue N.E. “Things here are modest, they’re diverse [and] they’re interesting.”
It isn’t surprising that “Bridgeland Walks” often draw groups of interested walkers. Strolling through the Bridgeland/Riverside community can feel like walking through history.
Wrap-around front porches, white picket fences, wrought-iron gates and mixtures of brick, stone and wood transport you to different times in architecture. It feels as though, unlike some other parts of the city, the community wholeheartedly embraces its humble beginnings and haphazard display of popular housing styles from past generations.
Yet every block or so, you might run into something a little more modern.
Contemporary, single-family, box-like homes are like aesthetic sore thumbs jutting out on the community’s tree-lined streets.
Are these new homes a symbol of a changing community? Could Bridgeland lose its diversity and character if the price of homes and lots continues to rise ?
While she isn’t necessarily a fan of their design, Lee’s main concerns about the newer developments have more to do with their potentially detrimental impact on the community’s shot at improving density.
Lee says that single-family homes could start pushing out longtime residents and do little to increase the population, making the community more expensive without boosting its economy.
“We want development, I think most people recognize that,” says Lee. “We’re not against density, we just don’t want it thrust upon us.”
High-rises and multi-family dwellings seem to be popping up around Bridgeland, but they have met some resistance from community members who fear change.
“We have to be very thoughtful about how we develop,” Lee says. “We need more people here if we want to have a vital community. And you’ve got to put them somewhere.”
Lee says more open discussions and consultations with the City of Calgary might help residents to embrace, or at least, understand the way their community is changing.
“Let’s do some discussions about how density could happen in a way that people can live with it,” she says.
Francisco Alaniz Uribe, assistant professor and co-manager of University of Calgary’s Urban Lab research group, says that as much as possible, communities should be a reflection of the overall composition of society.
“By being in proximity of people different than you, you understand them, you sympathize [and] you include them,” he says.
Uribe explains that because of Bridgeland’s location — it’s proximity to downtown, to the Bow River, to the zoo, Deerfoot Trail and the Trans-Canada Highway — it’s “inevitable that there’s going to be this pressure from people who can afford to pay more, to live there.”
“So you’re going to have areas that become more desirable and the cost of the land goes higher… and then… you can push out people that used to live there,” he says.
To counteract that, Uribe says that cities often require a percentage of new developments to be “affordable” for low-income residents.
The Bridgeland/Riverside community certainly has a fair share of the city’s affordable housing developments.
As she leads a Bridgeland Walks group through the neighbourhood, Lee points out some of the affordable housing units along the route to Tom Campbell’s Hill.
The modest, understated three- and four-floor buildings seemingly dot the community.
One such subsidized development is being built on McDougall Road NE. The new 24-unit development will provide affordable rental housing to individuals and families living on low to middle income that can’t afford market-value rentals.
Placemaking expert Dr. Katherine Loflin says that the way residents feel about their community can have a big impact on that area’s success.
“When people are in places where they feel a sense of belonging and attachment they are more likely to stay in school, they are more likely to start their own businesses or to become a little more optimistic about their own future,” she says.
“All populations deserve dignity in their community and all populations deserve feelings of belonging.”
According to Uribe, one way to maintain diversity is to allow for secondary housing, an idea that has been highly political in Calgary, with opinions on the idea split amongst Calgarians and city councillors.
In the face of pressure to sell from developers, Uribe says long-time Bridgeland residents could have secondary units that are smaller than the primary home.
“You can move in and sell the original home to someone else,” he says. “You remain in the community, have some additional income, (either by renting or selling) and that allows for that income to [stay] in the community and accommodate some of that pressure.”
Future of Bridgeland
As the City of Calgary works on affordable housing development and densification to accommodate a fast-growing and increasingly diverse population, it’s difficult to pinpoint how one small community like Bridgeland might change in the coming years.
Bridgeland Riverside Community Association planning director Ali McMillan says that along with development, the community wants to continue Bridgeland’s legacy as a diverse, welcoming, neighbourhood-oriented community.
“Everything changes, neighbourhoods change,” McMillan says. “I think that Bridgeland is very aware of its history, and I know the community association … is actively seeking to maintain that mandate but through change and [involving] the neighbourhood as much as possible in that planning.”