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Utilities and Environmental Protection Department, Calgary - Report 1


Location: Calgary, Canada

Laycock Park/Nose Creek: Artists: Sans façon (artist Tristan Surtees and architect Charles Blanc)

Visual Language Project: Artist Team: Sans façon (artist Tristan Surtees and architect Charles Blanc), Eric Laurier (social geographer), Yan Olivares (Yes Architect practice), Matt Baker (artist), Emlyn Firth (graphic designer), Bert Van Duin (engineer)


This is the first of four reports on two public art projects which are in progress throughout 2009 and early 2010 in Calgary, Canada.  They are among the first projects to be delivered under the Public Art Plan for the Utilities and Environmental Protection Department (UEP) which was adopted in 2007.  Both projects have Sans façon (artist Tristan Surtees and architect Charles Blanc) as lead artists.  The Visual Language project involves a multidisciplinary team of artists, engineer, graphic designer and social geographer, led by Sans façon, in conceiving a conceptual framework in two and three dimensions which will inform all future public commissions and physical installations within the UEP’s work.  Laycock Park/Nose Creek restoration is a practical environmental project to restore and conserve wetland habitat.

This first report covers the background and context for the UEP Public Art Plan.  It also describes the briefs for the two commissions, appointment and management processes, and the early stages of the projects up to the Autumn of 2008.


Calgary is the largest city in the province of Alberta, Canada, with a population of about 1.2 million people. It lies in the high plains area about 50 miles from the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, in a prairie setting deeply carved by the Bow and Elbow rivers.  In the second half of the 20th Century, the city’s prominence and wealth grew rapidly, based on the discovery of significant oil reserves.  The petroleum industry, together with tourism, especially winter sports, agriculture and high-tech industries have made it the fastest growing city in the country.  It was ranked the world's cleanest city by Mercer Quality of Living in a survey published in 2007 by Forbes magazine.  Calgary has one of the highest visible minority rates in Canada, third only to Toronto and Vancouver.  The Employment Equity Act defines visible minorities as 'persons, other than Aboriginal peoples, who are non-Caucasian in race or non-white in colour.'  Calgary also has the lowest average population age of Canada’s major cities at 35.7 years.

Public Art Policy

Calgary’s first Public Art Policy was adopted by the City Council in 2004.  Prior to this, the only public art activity had been ad hoc donations of works from individuals and businesses, and sculpture commissions by developers as an extra bonus or planning gain on their developments.  Development of the new Public Art Policy was co-ordinated by Heather Saunders, working with her colleagues in the City’s community cultural development section and Departments and elected representatives across the Council. 

The Policy’s overall mission is that the urban landscape should be equally as engaging in aesthetic terms as the unparalleled beauty of the mountains and prairies around it.  At its heart is a ‘percent for art’ strategy drawing 1% of total capital project costs from City of Calgary capital budgets over C$1 million.  This provides a sustainable mechanism for the development, acquisition and management of public art projects in, or adjacent to, new or existing municipal buildings, infrastructure projects, parks and other City owned land and facilities.  Departments can spend these public art funds in one of three ways: On public art for the capital project which generates the funds, by pooling the funds to be spent on a more publicly accessible site, or by transferring some or all of the 1% public art allocation to the City of Calgary Public Art Reserve Fund to be spent on projects identified by the Public Art Board and Administration. 

The Policy also sets out the process for the planning, commission, purchase, gift, donation or bequest of public art for the City, the right and responsibility to de-accession public art, and how the public art program should be managed, both by staff and by a Public Art Board.

UEP Public Art Plan

The Utilities and Environmental Protection Department (UEP) is responsible for water services, waste and recycling, environmental and land information. It has over 1,700 employees and has an annual operating budget of C$300 million.  Infrastructure includes waste and recycling collection and sorting centres, water pumping stations, sewage treatment plants, landfill sites and drainage outfalls, and the underground water mains, storm water and sewerage drain system.  Community education is an important concern to help protect the environment and conserve river water quality through actions everyone can take.  The Department has a 10 year capital budget projection in excess of C$1billion.  The capital sum allocated for public art from 2006-2011 is C$8 million. 

UEP showed immediate interest in, and an understanding of the value of incorporating public art into its capital programme.  The Department was particularly well informed through the involvement of three senior managers in the Public Art Policy consultation process in 2003.  These included Owen Tobert, then Head of UEP (now City Manager), Rob Pritchard, then Director of Recreation (now Head of UEP), and Paul Fesko, Manager of Strategic Services, Water Resources in UEP.  The enthusiasm and vision of these key people have been crucial to the development and swift implementation of the imaginative and ground breaking UEP Public Art Plan. 

Given the scope and complexity of its capital programme, UEP, supported by Heather Saunders, Public Art Project Co-ordinator, of the newly formed Public Art Program, commissioned a multidisciplinary team of external consultants to develop a visionary Public Art Plan to guide the expenditure of these funds in a strategic and comprehensive manner.  The Brief for this work included Paul Fesko’s strongly held vision for public art which would be unique to the Department and which would speak about what UEP actually does.  Following a Request for Proposal process, a team led by Via Partnership, and including a sculptor/landscape architect and an engineering and construction company, was appointed in early 2006. 

The Public Art Plan, launched in January 2007, has an overarching vision which places the man-made watershed of UEP infrastructure (for water supply, sewage, surface water drainage and so on) within the natural context of the extended watershed of the Bow River.  The founding principle is that public art, in collaboration with other disciplines, can create remarkable places that encourage environmental sustainability and community stewardship. It is highly innovative, taking a truly integrated approach to public art in public utilities infrastructure.  The focus of all the projects in the Plan is to engage artists in dealing with water issues and to utilise public art to raise public awareness of water as a critical and finite resource.  As UEP’s influence stretches over the entire city, the projects envisaged within the Plan are seen as a series of linked events which together reveal the character of a place, rather than one-off events happening in isolation.

The Plan also includes a methodology for site selection considering a range of criteria, including accessibility, visibility, potential constraints and adjacent UEP infrastructure. Two city-wide projects are proposed - the Visual Language Project as the cornerstone of the Public Art Plan and the Outfall Project.  These were later combined as the Visual Language Project following the launch of the Plan.  A number of permanent projects are suggested for specific locations, each with integrated community engagement or consultation.  They range from iconic or memorial works, small installations, functional works and projects with an educational focus, to practical environmental improvements.  The Plan also includes suggestions for temporary projects, festivals and symposia linked to understanding water, infrastructure and environmental stewardship.

Implementing the Plan

The Public Art Plan represents a considerable leap of faith for UEP, which has embraced it and shown impressive speed in implementing it.  Following adoption of the Plan and internal departmental discussion as to how it should be developed into practice, Calls for Artists for the first projects were issued in Spring 2007.   Heather Saunders, who is now the Public Art Program project manager for UEP, says: ‘The engineers and managers have as much commitment and passions for water as artists have for their work.  They are constantly looking for creative solutions to water and waste management and are open to trying new approaches, including working with artists, to achieve elegant and imaginative outcomes.’ 

An Open Call for Artists for the Laycock Park/Nose Creek Restoration was issued in early Spring 2007, followed later in the Summer by an Open Call for Artists for the Visual Language Project.  Both opportunities were widely publicised through the Americans for the Arts Public Art Network website and listserv as well as other industry List Serves.  The application and appointment process is standard for all public art projects in Calgary.  Interested artists are asked to present a Letter of Interest outlining their approach to the project, a resumé and images of work.  For each project, a jury is appointed comprising artists, arts managers, a business and a community representative, a lead manager from the relevant Department and the Public Art Program manager.  The jury considers all submissions against published criteria and three or four contenders are invited for interview at which each candidate’s credentials and ideas are probed more closely.  In the case of the Visual Language Project which asked for a multi-disciplinary team, representatives of the team were interviewed.

The Brief: Laycock Park/Nose Creek Restoration

In 2004, Calgary City Council approved the Calgary Wetland Conservation Plan.  It is estimated that more than 90% of Calgary’s wetlands have been lost to development, and as a result one of the plan’s policies is a goal of ‘No Net Loss’ of wetland areas.  The policy provides a stronger priority for protection of wetlands, but where loss is unavoidable; there is a requirement to replace the lost wetland elsewhere. Laycock Park in the Nose Creek watershed is the first potential site in the city for wetland compensation identified by the City’s Parks department. 

Historically, Nose Creek followed a meandering course with associated flood plains and wetlands.  From the mid 20th century, the creek was channelled within the city limits to allow for increased development and transportation demands.  This has caused scouring and erosion during periods of flooding and high water.  The creek flows through Laycock Park which was designated as a neighbourhood park in 1988.  It has playgrounds, ball diamonds, a heavily used regional pathway and a popular off-leash area for dogs.  The Laycock Park/Nose Creek restoration pilot project aims to identify appropriate locations for stream restoration activities and a sustainable habitat which do not reduce other uses of the park.

The Artist’s Brief seeks to ‘use public art as one means of providing Calgarians with a better understanding of the current condition of Nose Creek, the Creek’s history, the impact of urbanisation, and the opportunities for increased stewardship of the Creek and its watershed.’  The appointed artists would be members of the capital project design team working with UEP water resources staff, Parks project managers, UEP and Park Education Analysts, landscape and engineering consultants, community stakeholders and Public Art staff.  They would collaborate on wetland restoration, engineering and bank stabilisation activities, educational work through community engagement and the overall aesthetic integration of public art elements.  Among the particular opportunities identified for public art were a storm sewer outfall, areas of erosion and bank failure, bank stabilisation, a pedestrian footbridge and areas of wetlands and meander restoration.  The total fee including all fees, expenses, construction, and installation costs is C$180.000.

The Brief: The Visual Language Project

The Visual Language Project: Understanding our Place within the Watershed (VLP) is the city-wide project envisaged by the UEP Public Art Plan as the cornerstone of all public art projects commissioned through UEP.  It is fundamental to the UEP’s mission to make visible and widely understood the hidden, often underground, water utilities infrastructure.  The purpose of the VLP is to create ‘a unified, iconographic or symbolic language that will identify infrastructure and educate users to the larger context of the natural watershed and the systems managed by UEP.  It is expected to provide ‘an elegant visual language for identifying, mapping and codifying the watershed systems’ and which will create an overarching conceptual framework for the physical infrastructure of the UEP, its education work and all future public art projects under the UEP Public Art Plan. 

The Artist’s Brief requires an artist-led interdisciplinary team to ‘create a visual strategy that encourages citizens to think of their relationship to water resources in an expanded manner’.  It requires an artist-led team with at least two other members who come from different disciplines, which might include environmental, creative, planning or engineering skills.  Applicants are asked to ‘indicate a unique approach to the design for infrastructure and its relationship to the natural watershed systems’.   The three outcomes envisaged in the Brief are Visual Language (or a conceptual framework) based on an understanding of the natural water cycle, an Action Plan for the Visual Language can be applied to facilities and infrastructure now and in the future, and The Outfall Project to demonstrate one possible application of the Visual Language.  The total budget is C$200,000.

The successful artist-led team would work with members of the project team including Strategic, Community and Customer, and Communications sections of UEP, the Public Art Program, a Land Use Planning and Policy architect and the engage! Resource Unit whose job it is to encourage community involvement in the City’s work. 

Artist Selection

In March 2007, Sans façon (artist Tristan Surtees and architect Charles Blanc) were appointed to the design team for the Laycock Park/Nose Creek Restoration, a practical project with tangible outcomes.  They scored highly with the jury because, whilst their approach is highly conceptual, everyone was impressed by their sensitivity and understanding of the specificity place, and grasped the thinking behind their projects. 

In November 2007, through a separate submission and interview process, a team led by Sans façon including artist Matt Baker, architect Yan Olivares of Yes Architect practice, social geographer Eric Laurier, graphic designer Emlyn Firth and engineer Bert Van Duin was appointed to undertake the Visual Language Project.  Sans façon had worked with everyone in the team on other projects, with the exception of Bert van Duin, formerly of Westhoff Engineering Resources whom they had met through the Laycock Park project and who acts as a Canadian anchor for the team.  They were up against two experienced teams from Canada and the US, and were finally selected through a process of debate and reference to the scoring matrix.

Sans façon

Sans façon is a Glasgow based partnership between French architect Charles Blanc and British artist Tristan Surtees.  Working together since 2001, they have developed an ongoing collaboration through an art practice.  Sans façon brings a particular sensitivity to place, the people that use it and the relationship between the two.  They approach work in the public realm with no specific solution or object in mind, instead embarking on a process of discovery with the project team and existing and potential users.  Their working method is as much about the process of ideas development as about physical outcomes.  They work with and through the disciplines of the rest of the team, and by so doing, change the way team members see the issue they are jointly addressing and how their own discipline might contribute to the outcome.  ‘We like to see the role of the artist and art as a catalyst in a process of raising questions and inviting one to look and think differently about a place, hoping to create an opportunity rather than an inanimate object. ‘

First Steps: Laycock Park/Nose Creek Project

Sans façon made their first visit to Calgary for 10 days in June 2007.  This was at a very early stage in the project when the task agreed, but not how it would be achieved, and the project team in Calgary had been brought together.  The overall objective of the wetland restoration project was to slow down the speed of water flow in Nose Creek by creating a more meandering course and by digging out the creek bed to deepen it.  It was known that this would produce about 95,000 m3 of dirt which would need to be moved disposed of in some way. 

The team included representatives from City of Calgary UEP (Paul Fesko, Manager of Strategic Services; René Letourneau, Watershed Engineer; Sylvia Trosch, Youth Education Coordinator), The City of Calgary Parks Department (Chris Manderson, Natural Area Planning Coordinator; Dave Harrison, Landscape Architect), consultant engineers Westhoff Engineering (Juver Garcia, Water resources, specialist, Jodi Kohls, project manager; Katie Ilian, biologist) and Heather Saunders, project manager, City of Calgary Public Art Program. 

During their first visit in June, and two subsequent 7-10 day visits in October and November 2007, Tristan and Charles spent much time with the team, getting to know them as individuals, both socially and professionally, and the dynamics of the team, visiting the site, and understanding the scope of the project.  These early visits were critical for establishing a successful collaborative project, especially so for a project to be developed at arms length with periodic visits.  Sans façon was introduced to the different expertise and approach of each team member, and began to demonstrate their own collaborative working method and the mutually respectful and complementary way in which they would work with the other professionals. 

Over the months following the first visit, a pattern of collaboration emerged in which Sans façon’s visits to Calgary for face to face team meetings were when the most significant developments in inspiration and thinking took place.  Between visits, progress on practical issues was maintained by regular conference calls with some or all of the team.  A Laycock Blogspot, set up soon after the June 2007 visit, became the channel for the team to share information and images of other relevant public art and public realm initiatives, and a way of marking the decisions reached. 

A Temporary Halt

An important collaborative meeting planned for February 2008 was postponed due to complications around renewal of Sans façon’s temporary work visa. These took several months to resolve.  In addition, there were some environmental concerns about the site, and the Parks Department took the opportunity to look in greater detail at these during Spring and Summer 2008.

The next report will pick up the story from September 2008.

© Joanna Morland 2009