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Illustration by Tricia Lim

New Central Library showcases value of public spaces in cities

November 22, 2018 —

Calgary’s New Central Library held its grand opening on Nov. 1. The space is the culmination of over a decade of planning and construction and is now a vibrant public space for our city.

Over the past century, cities across the world have become more auto-centric and sprawling, leading to a decline in the vitality of public spaces. In urban literature, Jane Jacobs has become the beacon of healthy and vibrant communities through her advocacy work and writing during the ‘60s in New York City. This period saw a rise in urban renewal, bringing the destruction of communities, particularly low-income and marginalized groups. Jacobs sent shockwaves through the system when she advocated against this process, instead opting for a community-minded approach to urban planning.

Jacobs had neither a degree in urban planning nor a job within New York City’s government, but based on her keen observations, she encouraged people to defend the spaces they care about and their “right to the city.” Her efforts encouraged a community to come together as one. In the end, they were able to preserve Washington Square Park, the historic centre of Greenwich Village and an essential community space.

Jacobs demonstrates the power communities have to collectively shape their own space to suit their current and future needs, as well as the value of space that can represent who they are and who they wish to become. Though Calgary is not New York, we can still learn a lot from these lessons.

The New Central Library that opened in Calgary’s East Village is a fantastic investment in our community. Previously, many viewed this district as rundown and undesirable, so much so that the Calgary Municipal Building was constructed to be a visual blockade of East Village from Downtown. However, the New Central Library, along with the redevelopment of East Village, encourages Calgarians to view this area through a new lens. The New Central Library is a hub for public gatherings, community engagement and the exchange of knowledge and culture.

Photo by Mariah Wilson

The library is a place where, regardless of a person’s economic standing or sociocultural background, they can access the resources needed to learn about almost anything. The space enables Calgarians to discover and explore new ideas, even if they don’t have the money or time to access formal education. It also enables them to participate in free exhibitions, whether readings, art shows or variety acts, that otherwise may have been financially inaccessible.

Public spaces benefit city residents on an economic, environmental and social level. Economically, public spaces can benefit communities through increased land values as well as the opportunity to have small-scale entrepreneurship ventures, such as local mom and pop stores where consumers support local business owners.

Environmentally, public spaces encourage the revitalization of pedestrian infrastructure, encouraging a decreased dependence on cars. Public spaces like parks break up the urban landscape with the natural environment and increase people’s stewardship for local animals and tree species.

On a social level, public spaces can offer free cultural activities that allow individuals to engage with one another and learn about viewpoints and perspectives that are different from their own, creating a more engaged and knowledgeable populace.

The New Central Library is a reminder of the benefits that free and accessible public spaces have for Calgarians. It demonstrates how these cultural institutions are essential in order to have healthy and vibrant communities where people can benefit from a lack of accessibility barriers and feelings of inclusion. At a time when the city is investing in huge public works projects, such as the new CTrain Green Line, the library is a testament to how crucial these services are for a city to move forward to represent who we are and who we wish to become.

— Mariah Wilson, Gauntlet editorial board

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