MARCH 2017

Once a week students from several Calgary universities gather in a downtown skyscraper. Theirs is an unusual classroom: a vacant office on the 24th floor. This once-booming heart of Canada’s oil industry has a glut of such spaces thanks to an exceptionally tough economic slump that has left nearly 30 per cent of of office space empty.

The students—of business, sociology and other disciplines—are troubleshooting. How do you breathe life into a downtown built primarily for one industry and convert empty offices into newly useful spaces?

The “civic innovation” course is part of Vivacity, a collaboration between universities and Calgary’s economic agency that aims to reanimate downtown and keep talent from leaving altogether. “Young people find it hard to see themselves downtown,” says class instructor Lena Soots from Mount Royal University. “They don’t necessarily identify with the area’s culture.”

Calgary’s core has long had a reputation for being all corporate glass and no warmth. In boom times that wasn’t a concern and politicians’ talk of economic diversification remained mostly that: talk. Vivacity is undertaking what local leaders should have done years ago.

It’s a predicament that might give pause to cities such as San Francisco, where developers are feverishly building new offices even as job creation slows. “We cannot keep going the way we have been,” says University of Calgary sociologist Jyoti Gondek. “We work differently than we used to so our spaces need to be designed for that.”

But there is an upside: a variety of voices are now shaping the future. At a recent Vivacity public forum, social scientists, students and an indigenous elder led the conversation, envisaging a downtown with more culture and connection. The vitality in the room was exactly what Calgary needs. —Jeremy Klaszus