In taking a moment to step back and reflect on the context of the Delta Garden site, a number of things became apparent to us. The first is how valued the riverwalk is to Calgarians. This is the site for wedding photos and picnics, family outings and festivals, first kisses and break-ups, dog walking and bicycle commuting, bird watching and rock skipping.
We’ve witnessed afternoon prayers being performed on the south bank of the Peace Bridge. We’ve seen intense conversations, panhandling, fitness classes, teenaged drinking, skateboarding videos, and beavers building dams. People from every cultural background meet here. The Peace Bridge, despite early controversies, has become an icon of Calgary – just as it was intended to be – and moments of social importance are drawn to this space, drawn to the transcendent beauty of our clear, glacier-fed river.
As people who already have an intimate attachment with this space (like so many other Calgarians) we were a little bit worried that new plans for renovation in West Eau Claire (WEC) might negatively impact the natural beauty of the riverwalk. Would there still be unplanned spaces, left free from the impacts of over-design? Or is WEC Park already developed beyond the point of no return?
After reading the Public Realm Plan for West Eau Claire Park, and all the public engagement notes from over a thousand people consulted by O2 (the landscape architects designing the space), we began to understand the rationale of renovations: there is a need to address circulation problems on this part of the riverwalk, to allow separated pedestrian/cyclist flow, to provide better (and more mobility-friendly) access to the river, and mitigate flood risks. The real trick is addressing these concerns while maintaining flexible public space and allowing all Calgarians access to wild(ish) green spaces.
In truth, we were only invited into the Delta Garden as artists after a majority of design work was already finished in 2015. O2 had already addressed this space (and concerns from 2014’s public engagement) with their architectural plans. As artists, our identified task was to impact the under-foot texture and luminosity of a highly-designed space, already heavy with concept and form.
This could have been limiting. The Delta Garden (especially as seen from a bird’s eye) is a powerful design. We could have chosen to push against this form, perhaps even against the architecture of the site. But instead, we became interested in how we could work holistically within the Delta Garden as an imaginary (soon-to-be-real) space. Besides, O2 was handing us fodder for thought. How can we, as artists, collaborate with their designs to co-create an even more beautiful, functional, and engaging space?
Functionally, the Delta Garden serves several purposes. The grade of the ground plane is being raised to assist with flood abatement. The space itself is intended as a slowing and mixing zone for pedestrians, a place to sit together, people watch, and be near the river. The new pathway design addresses the confusion between foot and bike traffic in the bottle-neck at the mouth of the Peace Bridge. The delta pattern itself references patterns of sediment and water, tying designs to the main feature of the park – which is, inarguably, the presence of the Bow River.
As our research into the origins of Delta Garden progressed, something interesting occurred to us: while Delta Garden (and the call for artwork) emphasized developing a public artwork strongly related to the Bow River, there aren’t any deltas within the Bow River system. Instead, smaller rivers branch into the river through many tributaries. O2 was drawing designs for Delta Garden from Northern and international references, but when related to the nearest source of water, their designs are referencing a fictional place, an imaginary delta.
What was the significance of this realization? Could this be our turning point in identifying a conceptual framework? Time would tell.