Powerful Place-Making Meets Cowboy Culture

Brent Toderian's picture

Returning home to Vancouver last week after taking in some of the 100th Anniversary world-famous Calgary Stampede, I find myself thinking about the relationship between city-defining events and place-making. I also couldn't help remembering an unusual moment in my career that relates to the Stampede.

In 2006 when I was 36, after 4 rounds of interviews, I found myself in a closed-door session with Vancouver's City Council. I was being recommended to Council to become the new Director of City Planning, replacing former Co-Directors Larry Beasley and Dr. Ann McAfee. Council was meeting me for the first time, before going in-camera to officially decide on my hiring.

Amongst the many city-building and leadership questions they peppered me with that day, one was definitely different. One Councilor, who I would later find out was a strong animal rights supporter, cast a critical eye at me, and asked pointedly what I thought of the Calgary Stampede!

At the time I was Calgary's Manager of Centre City Planning + Design. My successful work as a change-agent in Calgary had caught the attention of Beasley and other national urbanists, and was a big reason why I was being recommended to succeed Larry and Ann. But in this moment, this Councillor didn't want to ask about urban change or progressive planning. She was asking my opinion of the Stampede itself - and I could tell by the look in her eye, and the smiles and quiet laughter from other Councillors, that although the mood was light-hearted, her question was a mischievous trap. I knew there would definitely be a right and wrong answer in her mind.

The then-City Manager quickly intervened to rescue me, stating emphatically that I "didn't have to answer that", to more laughter from Council. But perhaps indicative of my tendency to embrace tough questions and "speak truth to power," I told the City Manager that, all kidding aside, I'd be glad to answer.

I told the Councillor that like many, I struggle each year with the ethical issues of animal safety and treatment at the Rodeo, especially when there are animal deaths (as there have been again, sadly, this year with the Chuckwagon races, leading again to calls for the event to stop). I half-joked that when I did go to the Rodeo, I usually found myself cheering for the bulls and bronc's, since they were the ones who weren't given an option to be there. I also always think about the intriguing histories about the exploitation of the true cowboys of the past, and of course the treatment of First Nations in all parts of Canada - despite improvements, this history needed to be told better and more honestly as part of the Stampede experience.

I noted that many Calgarians are not fans of the energy and activity the Stampede brings all over the city, and speak of ‘getting out of town" during the festivities. Many cite the social issues associated with parties and drinking, even the infamous reputation for adultery that rides alongside Stampede. Others would strongly prefer the city be seen as the modern, increasingly cosmopolitan and diverse city that it is. The Stampede brand, they worry, keeps them stuck in the past, in hick-town or red-neck territory.

The Stampede has many facets, as told well by this excellent Macleans Magazine article. It's true that Calgarians have a complex relationship with the "Global Home of Cowboy Spirit" and the "Best Party in Canada."

Having said all that, my main point to the Councillor was that, from the perspective of a place-maker and city-builder, I have always found the Stampede in many ways intriguing, inspiring and instructive.

Each year, the Stampede literally transforms Calgary - certainly the central city, and increasingly the suburbs as well. For 10 days, this cosmopolitan and wealthy city is covered in hay bales, barn-wood, pancake breakfasts and cowboy boots. The streets, parks, store windows, patios, public realm and even parking-lots look and function completely differently, and it's ubiquitous. Virtually everyone participates, perhaps unwilling to be seen as un-civic or no-fun. Often streets and spaces that are usually somewhat dead, because of blank walls or inward-looking uses, are energized with temporary patios and pancake breakfasts. The public realm of the city is truly enlivened almost everywhere you look.

It's more than just a physical transformation. It's a culture change, that infects the city's energy and identity year-round. The "Spirit of the Çowboy" takes over, or a modern and fun version of the urban cowboy, anyway. Business in the city either stops, or at least significantly changes tact, with every company throwing parties that spill out into the city. Things that are usually private, become more civic. People are exceedingly friendly and welcoming, as long as you can handle a lot of howdy's and yee-haws. Music, food and fun is everywhere. It truly is a transformation, and whether you ever go to the Rodeo, and regardless of your stance on animal issues, if you're in the city, you're likely to be transformed too.

This is more than just an event. More than any other in Canada, and perhaps North America with the possible exception of New Orleans' Marti Gras, the Stampede is synonymous with Calgary's identity itself. Heart of the New West, Home of the Cowboy Spirit, Canada's can-do City of Energy - for better or worse, its hard to know where the Stampede stops and Calgary begins. They are one. There are no other cities in Canada where an annual event is truly synonymous with a city's identity, brand, and sense-of-place. Perhaps Kitchener, Ontario's Oktoberfest, and Montreal's Jazz Festival have some sense of the feeling, but I would argue to a lessor extent. Cities like Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver have many wonderful festivals, events and celebrations, but is there one that is synonymous with the city's brand? Not really.

Another thing's for sure – perhaps because of Stampede, Calgary sure knows how to throw a city-wide party for everyone - residents, tourists, families and cowboys/cowgirls of all ages - with very little trouble. No fun city, this isn't! Its my thinking that this annual experience is one of the key reasons why the city was able to accommodate 50,000+ people transforming the "Red Mile" of 17th Avenue many nights during the 2004 NHL Stanley Cup run, lose Game 7 in devastating fashion, and rather than riots, have a sad but fun party be the result.

Lately there have been intriguing global discussion about the opportunities and challenges of city branding (like this very good piece by Salon). Well, Calgary has branding down to an art, if you'll forgive the small pun. Calgary has created an event-connected identity that is both forward looking and celebrating of its past. And it has fun doing it.

That day in Vancouver, I explained to the Councillor that in terms of event-related place-making, public realm transformation, and the challenge of connecting city-building to a reasonably authentic sense-of-place, I've seen Calgary in many ways as an intriguing best practice, with more success than failure. Sure it has its challenges, like the occasional over-theming of design elements - some of the public realm is creative and high quality, others are cheap and kitchy. It's not perfect, so let's acknowledge that and get past it. But the Stampede contributes strongly to what makes Calgary unique, and in a world of interchangeable cities and suburbs, that's a good thing.

I could have also mentioned to the Councillor something about tourist dollars and economic development, or the value to a city's sense of pride and self esteem. To me, Stampede is not about the Rodeo, although it's actually a very big deal in international rodeo circles. It's not about the parties and pancakes, although those are fun. At the end of the day, it's about the city.

Although I doubt I changed the Councillor's mind about the Rodeo, I'd like to think I gave her something to think about relative to place-making. Interestingly, another Councillor later told me that it was clear from that answer that I would be the type of Planning Director that would tell them what I thought they should hear, not what they wanted to hear.

Six years later in 2012, as the 100th Anniversary Stampede winds up to record-breaking success, I still believe it contributes greatly to Calgary's culture, identity, pride, place-making and public realm. I wish the Stampede another hundred years in an exciting and fast-changing city.


Brent Toderian is an international consultant on advanced urbanism with TODERIAN UrbanWORKS, Vancouver’s former Director of City Planning, and the President of the Council for Canadian Urbanism. Follow him on Twitter @BrentToderian



ecodensity and traffic congrestion

Hey Brent. How do you feel that Vancouver has been named as having the worst traffic congestion in Canada? Do you think that has anything to do with ecodensity? I do. More people equals more traffic no matter how high you stack them.

Michael Lewyn's picture

named by who?

I don't think "has been named" by some unspecified person counts as particularly valid methodology.

try to keep current, Michael

I think Brent watches the news. I'm sorry you don't, Michael. For your benefit and that of others like you, the previously unnamed party is TomTom, a Dutch manufacturer of GPS systems. They also rate Vancouver has having the second worst traffic congestion in North America after Los Angeles.

That's Right, Michael

I expect everyone who lives in Florida to watch the Vancouver newscasts, and I am shocked that you don't.

When I post something, I never mention any source from the Berkeley news media, because I expect that all planetizen readers follow the Berkeley news and would know the source without my telling them.

Charles Siegel

sour grapes

Charles is just rankled that this latest study pokes a finger in the eye of his beloved "smart growth" approach to planning and is showing it.

Michael Lewyn's picture

If more people was the problem...

Assuming that this TomTom study is valid (something I decline to express an opinion on) wouldn't NY, Chicago and Toronto be ahead of Vancouver? Those places certainly have more people.

quality of life

Would you even want to live in New York or Chicago? With all the crime they are experiencing lately, I wouldn't want to live in Toronto either. Cities with large populations become problematic for a number of reasons, not just traffic congestion.

Michael Lewyn's picture

i do.

I actually do live in NYC, and have lived in Toronto or Chicago. New York's bigness has its problems I agree, but I'd certainly rather live in any of these places that in America's more problematic small cities. For example, New Orleans has 49 murders per 100,000 people, more than three times as many as Chicago, seven or eight times as many as NYC, and about twenty times as many as Toronto.

Refuted Claim

I am rankled by your reply to Michael, expecting him to follow Vancouver news media.

No need to be rankled by this study, because Brent refuted it decisively when he wrote:

"I also found the methodology of the study somewhat bias towards freeway cities, and of course complete city-building looks at movement in ALL modes, as well as better car metrics like vehicle miles travelled, commuting times etc (all of which have been going down in Vancouver)."

If commuting times have gone down, that shows the city is becoming more convenient for its residents despite the increased congestion.

To state the obvious, if you commute 5 miles at 30 mph, you are doing better than someone in a sprawl region who commutes 30 miles at 70 mph. Better for yourself and much better for the environment.

Incidentally, did you see the pictures of my ideal for smart growth, at http://www.planetizen.com/node/57600 ? I think you would like it.

Charles Siegel

smart growth does not go far enough

As far as "smart growth" is concerned, I do prefer your approach to what Brent is doing in Vancouver, but I like this solution even better: http://www.fodorandassociates.com/Reports/Myth_of_Smart_Growth.pdf

I Agree that Smart Growth Does Not Go Far Enough

but I also think that this study has the wrong idea about the smart growth movement. It concludes:

"The SG program contains many sensible planning and design strategies that have been tested and proven over the past 40-plus years. If properly applied, they should improve the quality of new development. However, SG advocates have taken this formula too far by claiming their medicine is a cure for the growth ailment.
The myth of SG is that it represents the complete and ultimate solution to our growth-related problems."

In reality, I think if you ask smart-growth advocates whether they believe the world's population growth can continue forever, virtually all of them would say no, and the great majority would support more world spending on family planning. Virtually none would say that smart growth alone is the ultimate solution of all the world's growth-related problems.

Do you agree with the first half of his statement:

"The SG program contains many sensible planning and design strategies that have been tested and proven over the past 40-plus years. If properly applied, they should improve the quality of new development."

Those strategies (not endless population growth) are exactly what I am supporting when I advocate for smart growth.

Charles Siegel

Brent Toderian's picture

Congestion + Density

I'll write about it when i have some time, but suffice it to say that counter-intuitively, density and car congestion work together to facilitate a true multi-modal and mixed use city. I also found the methodology of the study somewhat bias towards freeway cities, and of course complete city-building looks at movement in ALL modes, as well as better car metrics like vehicle miles travelled, commuting times etc (all of which have been going down in Vancouver). My earlier post on a similar topic: http://www.planetizen.com/node/53659

Eco Dense.

More people equals more traffic no matter how high you stack them.

That is a weak reason to oppose 'eco' density. It doesn't fly here in the Reality-Based Community.



Reality-Based Community

If the "Reality-Based Community" of which you refer is Vancouver, I am happy that I don't live there. According to some recent quality of life surveys, there are quite a few Vancouverites who wish they didn't live there either. Can't say that I blame them.

Meaning & Origin of 'Reality-Based Community'.

The aide said that guys like me were "in what we call the reality-based community," which he defined as people who "believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality." I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. "That's not the way the world really works anymore," he continued. "We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality -- judiciously, as you will -- we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do."

My easily-discerned point is that if road congestion is the best reason you can come up with to oppose eco-density, then I guess you have nothing.



PS...and I don't see the blockquote tag working in preview, so I italicized as well...

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