Culture and Authenticity and Calgary Chinatown’s Future.
The Chinese are one of Calgary’s founding pioneer communities. We need to respect their right to place. Chinatown is not only a place which connects and reunites members of our Chinese community, but it is also a residential community.
Because Chinatown is prominently located in Calgary’s downtown, it is an identifiable feature of our city, one which significantly contributes in visually differentiating us as a city. This feature is particularly visible as one approach downtown Calgary by way of Calgary’s historic Centre Street
Bridge. Seeing this mosaic: the historic bridge, the Bow River, the welcoming, intimate human scale, of Chinatown, set against the monumental scale of glass towers, is an experience which is simultaneously breath-taking–but also welcoming. Putting high-rises into Chinatown, this iconic brand experience would be greatly diminished.
Certainly, Chinatown’s historical character and personality can be captured and enhanced by building design and architecture, all of which can signal cultural place, boundary, and identity, equally important however are proportionality and scale of the buildings.
Throughout North America, Chinatowns have characteristically smaller and shorter buildings with a consistency of scale. This intimate scale is a major factor in helping establish a sense of community and supports the less conspicuous features of Chinatown’s culture: its festivals, events and street level community interactions.
Other cities have recognized the adverse effect of building heights on residential neighborhoods and their sense of place. For example, the Planning Commission in Manhattan, a city known for its monolithic structures, recently voted to limit building heights in The West Village to about eight stories to protect the character and scale of this neighborhood. They noted that this ensured the historic neighborhood would be protected and that the residential community would no longer be threatened by out-of-character commercial development. Introducing high-rises towers will undoubtedly erode Chinatown as a residential community and its authenticity of place.
Authenticity is deeply connected with history, memory, and identity. Chinatown’s ‘authenticity’ is fundamentally at the root of its value to residents. I believe that this is why the community has reacted negatively and demanded a more hands-on collaborative developmental process from the city of Calgary as they grapple at the prospect of a soaring, massive three-tower development in their community.
As the experience economy matures, ‘culture’ and ‘authentic’ are also increasingly becoming the keys to attracting tourists, who are in search of real experiences and avoid the fake, the spun and the artificially manufactured.
Our Chinatown is a significant cultural asset, a Canadian heritage, a world heritage and Calgarians are right to be proud of it. Unfortunately the City of Calgary appears to be following the lead of many other cities in North America, in squeezing its Chinatown into a smaller and smaller area.