Going With The Flow

By Barbara Wilks

Just 10 years ago, St. Patrick’s Island in Calgary’s Bow River was a little-used, nearly forgotten expanse of land. Now, thanks to the city’s intervention, active community involvement, and sensitive restoration and revitalization by Brooklyn-based W Architecture and Landscape Architecture and Denver-based Civitas, the island has experienced a renaissance. This 31-acre “living island” provides a natural-landscape infrastructure with restored ecological vitality, and is both a well-located community resource and a citywide recreation destination. A vibrant public park, it is a place to play, to relax, to learn—but above all to enjoy the connection between people and nature.

The development of St. Patrick’s originally began in the 1890s and was accelerated by the construction of a bridge linking it to the city in the early 1900s. Located at the northeastern perimeter of the inner-city Rivers District, once a thriving residential and business community, the park was at the center of city life. In the intervening years, however, railroads, highways, and industry began to take over and isolate the island from its surroundings. Having long been used as a campground, St. Patrick’s Island was shut down in 1969, and in subsequent decades went into steep decline. This reflected a long period of disinvestment and deterioration in the surrounding communities, particularly the East Village, which lies directly across on the south bank of the Bow River.

Under the stewardship of W and Civitas, St. Patrick’s has been transformed into an inner-city jewel: a bio-diverse, resilient haven at the center of the now-thriving Rivers District and East Village. Their approach to St. Patrick’s Island grew out of a master-planning process initiated in 2010 with the goal of reversing the island’s decline and restoring it as a vibrant community asset. The Calgary Municipal Land Corporation (CMLC), a wholly owned subsidiary of the city of Calgary and dedicated to the revitalization of the Rivers District, identified the island as the centerpiece of its ambitious urban-renewal strategy.

A Place With Principles
It took a year of study and public engagement, and the input of more than 6,000 Calgarians, to create the final master plan. The process was guided by four principles, which specified that St. Patrick’s should be:

  • A place for all—a city-wide destination and a community resource
  • A place where personal safety is paramount
  • A place to celebrate nature, cultural history, and history
  • A place that offers an island experience in the heart of the city.

These principles shaped the visioning process for the master plan, and ultimately helped the architects to design a park that met residents’ needs and desires, and even went beyond to act as a catalyst for change. This project has reversed decades of neglect and now provides multiple ways for area residents to connect with nature. In bringing this island back to life, the architects were able to orchestrate a deft balance between human activity and the natural rhythms of landscape that will maintain its harmony year-round.

Striking A Balance
Prior to construction, the design team, along with ecologists and local volunteers, conducted an intensive biological survey to collect and document the island’s existing flora and fauna. The team discovered and identified 500 species, establishing an ecological baseline that will help to measure the island’s biodiversity going forward.

A carefully planned mix of activity balances restoration of the natural operations of the island and river with human activity throughout the seasons. Restoring the indigenous plant palette and seasonal wetlands has encouraged biodiversity, as birds, insects, and mammals return to their native habitat. Picnic areas, play areas, and a multiuse plaza for festivals or markets are carefully set in the existing landscape, preserving the island’s iconic trees. The architects dispersed attractions throughout the island’s 31 acres, adding environmentally and family-friendly features:

  • The Tip: a vantage point and seating area at the island’s westernmost edge with views of the Bow River and downtown Calgary
  • Bloom: a permanent, nearly seven-story assemblage of street lights by Canadian artist Michel de Broin that provides a meeting point and nighttime illumination
  • Pathways: meandering paths around the island for hiking, biking, snowshoeing, and cross-country skiing
  • The Playmound: a play area with innovative and child-friendly playground equipment
  • The Gallery Forest: a habitat for nesting eagles, owls, and songbirds
  • The Picnic Grove: an accessible family-oriented spot and natural meeting place
  • The Cove: a river access for fishing or rafting
  • Confluence Plaza: a gathering place with shade, a sun deck, seating areas, and a small amphitheater for summer events

Repurposed Amenities
Vintage photographs show two waterways that crossed the island in the past, and the architects determined they could recreate them, bringing the Bow back into the park. During the 1960s, one of these channels was filled to accommodate a pedestrian bridge connecting the island to the south bank of the Bow River. It has been restored, creating the Seasonal Breach, a gravel bar that transitions to a lawn area and small pedestrian plaza. In the summertime, park-goers can wade into the water and venture safely onto the gravel bar. Come winter, it becomes an ideal skating area.

Meanwhile, the channel that once separated St. Patrick’s from St. George’s Island, its neighbor to the east, was filled in the 1920s. The designers discovered that this occasional breach had formerly supported a network of wetlands, and created the Lowland Channel in response to this history. This channel is a seasonal wetland habitat with an elevated walkway system—part of the network of bicycle and pedestrian pathways—that provides areas for zero-impact ecological observation while supporting the island’s natural life cycles.

The soil removed from these excavations was repurposed as a grassy hill with views of downtown Calgary and the East Village. Nicknamed The Rise, this 30-foot hill is also popular for festivals, performances, and movie screenings during warm weather and for sledding in winter. The theme of re-use was repeated in the creation of a utility shed and restroom facility: both used materials from the original St. Patrick’s Island pedestrian bridge, which was rebuilt in 2014.

A Diverse Team
The design of St. Patrick’s Island could only have resulted from a deeply collaborative effort. The landscape architectural firms, following the example of the city’s master-planning process, brought a variety of stakeholders to the table at all levels of the design process. They led public meetings as well as a city entitlement and approval process, all while receiving unanimous board approval from the CMLC. A diverse team of lighting designers, ecologists, river hydrologists, and electrical, civil, and structural engineers contributed invaluable expertise, which was essential to the success of this welcoming, ecologically diverse park.

Interventions, such as carving new water channels with ecologically sound avenues for human access, restoring forested areas with limited access, and emphasizing views of the downtown skyline, have repositioned the island as the site of lasting and sustainable waterfront experiences in an urban landscape. St. Patrick’s Island shows how nature and the city can be set together in beauty and harmony. 

Barbara Wilks, FAIA, FASLA, is the founder of W Architecture and Landscape Architecture in Brooklyn, N.Y. Reach her at 212-981-3933.