Environmental Resilience in Urban Public Spaces

Design Issues

environmental resilience

Ten years ago, Calgary Municipal Land Corporation (CMLC) began the revitalization of St. Patrick’s Island as a key placemaking and sustainability strategy in the redevelopment of Calgary’s East Village, and engaged Civitas, W Architecture and Landscape Architecture, and Dr. Steven Handel of Green Shield Ecology to assist. Recently, CMLC invited all of us to return to the island to evaluate and discuss how the biodiversity of the island has changed through flooding and redevelopment in the last decade. On June 8, Civitas Principal Scott Jordan and our partners in the redevelopment of St. Patrick’s Island gathered for a panel discussion about the significance of environmental resilience in public spaces.

One notable fact about St. Patrick’s Island is that it was designed to flood intentionally. The functional breaches, which had been naturally recurring but manipulated by earlier intrusive developments, were restored in 2013 by reengineering the island and redesigning the inlet. This process ultimately slowed down the Bow River’s natural movement and made it safe for people to enter and engage the river. Coincidentally, in 2013, the island experienced its most severe flood event, when heavy rainfall on the melting mountain snowpack caused rapid and intense flooding in southern Alberta and caused the Bow River flow to peak at eight times its regular flow.

people riding scooters on st patricks island calgary

The island was actually strengthened by the 2013 flood, gaining large deposits of river rock on the westernmost tip. This fortification protects the banks of the island from future erosion. In 2013, the channels at the seasonal breach (where the river cuts through the west end of the island) were excavated to return the island closer to its natural state. This reclaiming of the seasonal breach allows for the natural flows of water in and around St. Patrick’s Island and creates fish habitat, and enables families to engage the river and put their toes in the water. The island is also now home to a family of osprey, beavers, bats, gulls, and woodpeckers, among other species. The reintroduction of various native plants such as dogwood, silver sagebrush, buckbrush, balsam poplar, willows and saskatoon was also key to the redevelopment of the island making the ecosystems more resilient and stable, and floods help to sustain these plants and wildlife.

People are a part of natural systems, too, so we believe it’s important to have nature within cities so that people can connect with it – the pandemic really underscored the importance of this. This strengthens the social parts of resilience as well as the environmental parts, by building places of community within nature. How many people come to St. Patrick’s Island and how they use the spaces are our measures of success. And when you visit the island today, you see kids playing, dogs running, bikes splashing, literally connecting people with the water and its natural flow.

A recording of our June 8 discussion in Calgary is available online here. We invite you to watch and chime in – what does environmental resilience mean to you?

children exploring on st patricks island calgary
ecotour on st patricks island calgary
people standing on st patricks island calgary