Its name may evoke calmness and serenity, but the story behind one of Calgary’s leading landmarks is anything but peaceful. As it evolved from a lightning rod for dissension to a symbol of unity, the Peace Bridge was judged not only for mistakes made, but also conventions challenged and lessons learned. In the process, this iconic footbridge earned the respect of friends and foes alike, one step at a time.
Approved by city council in 2008 by a 7-6 vote, the Peace Bridge was envisioned as a signature-class, promenade-style pedestrian bridge. World-renowned architect Santiago Calatrava was charged with making that vision a reality.
“The idea for the bridge stemmed from the 2007 Centre City Plan, which identified the need for an additional pedestrian crossing from downtown to the north shore of the Bow River,” said Tom Mahler, manager of urban strategy for the City of Calgary. “It was about achieving a sense of place within the river valley and park system and creating a more intimate-scale crossing for non-vehicular traffic.”
From the outset, controversy swirled around the $25-million project. It began with the timing, which coincided with a major downturn in the global economy, but it went much further.
“The Peace Bridge was sort of the perfect storm to trigger a major debate about where the City should be focusing its time and money,” said Jason Markusoff, the Alberta correspondent for Maclean’s and a former Calgary Herald reporter. “On the one side, you had Mayor Dave Bronconnier, the transportation department and councillors like Druh Farrell who wanted to invest in a beautiful, striking city with a vibrant downtown and more pedestrian and cycling options.”
On the other side were more conservative-minded people, both on council and in the general public.
“The bridge opponents were spooked by the economic woes of the time and reluctant to invest in such a bridge, feeling the funds could be better spent on things like roads and snow removal,” said Markusoff. “They questioned everything, from the need for another pedestrian walkway to the process of sole-sourcing the bridge rather than opting for a design competition.”
For bridge supporters, however, there was no question that the Peace Bridge would be a welcome addition to the landscape.
“This bridge proved to be exactly what its advocates had imagined: an icon for a new, modern, progressive city on the rise.” – Jason Markusoff, Maclean’s
“I was always a big proponent of improving architectural quality in Calgary,” said Coun. Druh Farrell, who represented one of the seven “yes” votes for the bridge. “I also saw the need to improve pedestrian and cyclist access into downtown and better facilitate commuting.”
Still, the push for the Peace Bridge met some strong resistance – so much resistance, in fact, that Farrell was accompanied by security at the opening ceremony for the bridge on March 24, 2012. It wasn’t long after that, though, when the tide of public sentiment began to shift.
“Calgarians began using the bridge right away,” said Farrell. “We anticipated that the user count would be up to 5,000 per day within five years, but we achieved that number almost immediately, and now average about 6,000 per day. It served as a public space over the river where people gathered, buskers played their music, and grad classes and wedding parties posed for photos. There were even proposals and weddings on the bridge, and it became Calgary’s most photographed symbol.”
For residents of nearby communities, the bridge took on added significance.
“The Peace Bridge really connected Hillhurst (and) Sunnyside with the growth in cycling traffic in the inner city,” said Mahler. “That facilitated movement around the river-valley system and made downtown much more of an ‘everyday’ place to go for such communities. The bridge became part of the neighbourhood rather than just another big piece of infrastructure.”
One area resident who embraced the new neighbour was Amanda Robertson, a 30-year-old office services manager and blogger.
“I was in university when construction on the Peace Bridge began right across the road from me,” said Robertson. “Being a struggling student, I thought the bridge sounded pretty expensive at the time.”
Like many of her fellow Calgarians, Robertson heard and agreed with many of the criticisms. There are “too many bridges already” was a common sentiment and the unconventional design led some to call the structure the “finger trap bridge” because of its visual similarity to the finger-trap puzzle.
Over time, her views have evolved, much like the bridge itself.
“Now, as someone who drives by it all the time and often walks across it, I see the Peace Bridge as a valued addition to the landscape,” said Robertson. “It’s pleasant to look at or stand on, great to photograph and a safe, well-lit space for someone like myself who might be walking alone at night. Calgary has a lot of warm, welcoming spaces that make you feel at home, and the Peace Bridge is a prime example.”
While the effect on adjacent communities was substantial, many feel the bridge’s impact on the city at large has been even more profound.
“This bridge proved to be exactly what its advocates had imagined: an icon for a new, modern, progressive city on the rise,” said Markusoff. “If you look at billboards, tourism guides, commercials or conference programs, the bridge is now a major emblem for the city and a beloved part of the landscape.”
For some Calgarians, including Farrell, structures like the Peace Bridge are a vital part of Calgary’s identity.
“We want Calgarians to love where they live and attract new talent to the city, and that comes with building a picturesque town worth living in,” she said.
Under the influence
The controversy over the Peace Bridge has faded, but the process of conception, design and construction has influenced the City’s decisions on other infrastructure projects.
“It is sometimes hard for politicians to think 20 years down the road, but our eyes should always be on building the city for the long term,” said Farrell. “With the new Central Library, we applied our experience around the bridge to ensure we included the public in decisions about what the library should look like and how it should function. When we built the St. Patrick’s Island Bridge shortly after the Peace Bridge, we went to the public and had a limited competition.”
The City recently approved a new downtown strategy that includes four focus areas. One of those areas – “place” – was inspired, in part, by the Peace Bridge experience.
“I wanted to create a city that was worth growing old in, and that is where Calgary has changed. From the early days of bridge planning to today, we went from a gold-rush town to a mature city.” – Druh Farrell, Ward 7 Councillor
“Cities worldwide realize that to attract investment, you must create places that are special, places where people want to be,” said Mahler. “We are doing that more and more these days with buildings like the Central Library and institutions like the National Music Centre. It’s all about developing iconic pieces of architecture that will bring people in, make the city unique, and reflect its quality and character.”
In addition to its intrinsic value for Calgarians on the move, the Peace Bridge has conveyed some valuable lessons that might have implications down the road.
“The bridge experience taught us that people will appreciate beautiful, striking projects,” said Markusoff. “Some Calgarians complained about the cost of the new Central Library, but in the end, the message there was ‘go big, go bold and, occasionally, you will be rewarded.’ We’ve seen that with other initiatives like the Bow office tower designed by Norm Foster and the new Telus Sky building. For a city of a million people to have so many notable elements is pretty remarkable.”
There are also the more mundane, but equally valid, lessons around budgeting.
“Part of the bumpy ride in getting the bridge built involved delays caused by welding problems and a need to simplify the design to keep it under budget, through measures like using fluorescent lighting instead of LED,” said Markusoff. “We also learned that it is easy to oppose a bridge that doesn’t exist yet. When the naysayers were most vocal, there was no design and nothing to walk over – there was just dust and a price tag.”
Symbol of a city
The journey from opposition to acceptance may have been a rocky one at times, but Farrell feels it was time, effort and money well spent.
“When you look at the success of not just the Peace Bridge, but of other projects where part of the mandate was architectural beauty, these undertakings have changed Calgarians’ perceptions of their city,” said Farrell. “When I was first elected to city council, Calgary was a place where you came, made your fortune and then retired elsewhere. I wanted to create a city that was worth growing old in, and that is where Calgary has changed. From the early days of bridge planning to today, we went from a gold-rush town to a mature city.”
For supporters, making the Peace Bridge a reality felt like a war at times. However, the arduous process left them with no regrets.
“The biggest lesson for me in all of this is that some things are worth fighting for,” said Farrell. “I wouldn’t wish the controversy on my worst enemy, but I would do it all again in a heartbeat.”