SPI's String of Pearls

We had a chance to sit down and dish the dirt (really, it was about dirt!) with the landscape architects who are ever-so-gently bringing St. Patrick’s Island to life

When East Village Master Developer CMLC asked Calgarians what they wished for on St. Patrick’s Island, 6,000 respondents said they liked what they perceived as the ‘wildness‘ of the space, and wanted it be an urban oasis. That appealed to Barbara Wilks and Mark Johnson of W Architecture & Civitas, the New York/Denver team that won the mandate to carry out the island's master plan over 17 other firms from across North America.

Yet when the two look out over St. Patrick’s Island, they don’t exactly see ‘wild.’ Though the island is very grown over – particularly with invasive species – they see a landscape that bears the footprints and the scars of much human intervention – and a lot of potential.
“There’s not too many cities that have such a wonderful island so close to downtown in the middle of a river,” says Barbara Wilks of W Architecture. Adds Civitas’ Mark Johnson, “I’ve probably told people hundreds of time over the years how envious I am that Calgary downtown has a river like the Bow. But it could use some help. We’d like to reveal the natural process that belong here and that have been taken away over the years.”
W/Civitas will do that by “restoring, revealing and releasing life,” says Wilks, who has worked on 40 waterfront projects before this one. Take, for example, the presence of water – or lack of it – on St. Patrick’s Island: the 31-acre site was actually three islands historically, with a natural breach that water coursed through every year. There were wetlands of varying sorts, and many more songbirds, insects and small animals. (Currently, owls are one of just a few bird species, and they could use some company.)
Bringing the island back to a truer state would increase its ‘island’ feel. “An island experience means being aware that you’re on an island, which means that you’re in contact with the edge,” says Wilks. “What we noticed is that now, once you’re on the island, you’re not really aware of the edge. You could be in any park. Restoring streams, wetlands and breaches are ways that increase the variety of edges.”
Other considerations: the views from St. Patrick’s Island; the possibility of sledding or skating in winter; the preservation of a stand of old growth habitat, one that people would be able to admire without encroaching upon; the construction of boardwalks over potentially rehabilitated wetlands. W/Civitas also sees the possibility of partnerships with schools and universities to build awareness and interactivity with the island and its ecosystem.
“We have an idea that as you move around the island, you’ll be naturally attracted to the next space,” Johnson says. “It’s like a string of pearls where we have something to do as you go along – it could be an outlook over the river, or a playground for kids or a boardwalk, or a small amphitheatre. I don’t want to compare it to shopping too much, but as you know, on a good shopping street, you walk along, and you’re attracted from one window to the next.”
Detailed plans will be drawn up this year and submitted for approval, and work would begin in 2013. A planned new pedestrian bridge to St. Patrick’s Island is underway and scheduled to be complete in 2013. When the work is done, the experience will be utterly unique in the city.
“Let’s say you have a beautiful new apartment in East Village,” Johnson says. “And you go for a walk you cross this gorgeous new bridge, and you step down onto the island. The first thing you're going to sense is how quiet it is. I believe you'll be able to hear the water. You'll hear birds. You'll forget that Memorial Drive is there because you'll be in a different kind of space altogether.” [inline:1]
For Johnson, the island is much more than a mere amenity for residents of East Village and Calgarians. “To me it's part of what makes your life whole. It’s a way to give people what they can’t get in other parts of the city – the ability to walk for three or four minutes and hear some birds. look at the sky through beautiful leaves, lay down on a hill and gaze back at downtown and be ‘out’ of the city,” he says. “If the city's a little frenetic and busy – and that's why people like it – at times we want to just step back and get away, kick back and enjoy being in a natural place. St. Patrick’s island is sort of an antidote to the city.”