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The Calgary Park That's United Historic Preservationists and Parkour Athletes

The Calgary Park That's United Historic Preservationists and Parkour Athletes
Brandon Beasley

On warm days, when office-tower émigrés can enjoy their lunches next to its calming water features, Calgary's Century Gardens Park serves as a popular daytime downtown retreat.

But at 38 years-old, the Brutalist public space is starting to show its age. The color of its odd concrete features has faded to a dreary ash, the foliage is overgrown, and the water pumps are failing. Angular slabs create both barriers to pedestrian access and places for miscreants to hide—city park staff complain of finding evidence of overnight drinking and drug use.

The city is itching to overhaul Century Gardens, though how much of the park might survive the process remains to be seen. Early proposals range from sprucing up the existing park and keeping it mostly intact to completely razing it and building a new park from scratch. The park’s age and need for refurbishment has given the city the opportunity to address its magnetism for social disorder, as well as apply a more contemporary approach to urban design.

In the meantime Calgary’s parkour community—for whom the park’s structures are perfectly suited—have allied themselves with a local heritage group to try to save it.

"Century Gardens is one of the coolest locations around for parkour. Not just in Calgary, but Canada-wide, and internationally," says Steve Nagy, editor of the Calgary-based parkour magazine Breathe and co-owner of a local parkour gym. The Netherlands-based MunkiMotion parkour group also included it in their YouTube series, "Best Parkour Spots in the World":

Nagy and his parkour buddies are unlikely allies for the Calgary Heritage Initiative. This is a sport, after all, that involves jumping on and off existing pieces of urban infrastructure, and is often likened to skateboarding in its ability to annoy older generations. But after meeting each other at the city’s stakeholder meetings about the park’s future, they realized they had a common desire to preserve it, despite their radically different interests.

"There has been some perception that the park is unused by the general public, and [the parkourers] have proven loud and clear that that’s not the case at all," says Cynthia Klaassen, president of the Calgary Heritage Initiative. "It’s still very relevant today, just as relevant as when it was first built."

Together, the group is hoping a Jane's Walk they’ve organized for May 4 will help Calgarians see the value—historic, architectural, and sporting—in their concrete paradise. Their numbers are small, but the parkourers may just be flashy enough to draw attention to the park’s plight and the urban values debate it represents.

It's an approach that's found at least some success elsewhere. Seattle's Freeway Park suffered from a similar reputation when a spate of crimes, most notably a murder in January 2002, led to calls for a complete redesign. But after New York-based Project for Public Spaces worked with Seattle Parks and Recreation to make small physical changes and program more events in the park, more people began to use it. By 2005, crime in the area had dropped and its reputation began to rise. All while maintaining its distinctive Brutalist style.

In Century Garden’s case, changes in the area have helped lead to more foot traffic: the University of Calgary’s downtown campus moved in across the street, and a light-rail transit station moved down the block to abut the park on its north side. If the best way to revitalize a public space is to get more people into it, it’s possible Century Gardens is in the early stages of a renaissance.

But with its future in limbo, it’ll be up to the parkour community and their new found preservationist pals to convince Calgarians that this concrete playground is worth something to people who aren't daredevil athletes.

All photos by Brandon Beasley.

Brandon Beasley is a writer based in Calgary. All posts »

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