Calgary’s once-contentious Peace Bridge turns 10 years old

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Calgary’s once-contentious Peace Bridge turns 10 years old
WATCH: Calgary's Peace Bridge is celebrating a significant milestone. As Adam MacVicar reports, while the project was mired in controversy, some perspectives have changed over the years. – Mar 24, 2022

Ten years ago, and with massive fanfare, Calgarians crossed the now-iconic Peace Bridge for the very first time.

The bridge is now a popular destination on Calgary’s cycle and walking trail network, as well as a common setting for prom and wedding photos, but getting it built was an uphill battle for many of its supporters.

“I like to joke that the structure itself represents the lashes on my back,” former Ward 7 Coun. Druh Farrell said. “It was definitely the pinnacle of controversy, but it was worth it.”

Throughout the process, Farrell became one of the Peace Bridge’s biggest proponents, as the city determined three locations for potential pedestrian crossings over the Bow River.

The Peace Bridge crosses the Bow River with downtown Calgary, Alberta visible behind on July 27, 2014. THE CANADIAN PRESS IMAGES/Larry MacDougal

In Sept. 2008, city council narrowly voted to approve the structure, which would come to cost $24.5 million.

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Days later, U.S investment banking firm Lehman Brothers collapsed, which sent the global economy into the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression.

The global economic climate along with the cost and the sole source contract for its design became major points of criticism, which turned the footbridge into a political target for those opposed to its construction.

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Current Ward 10 Coun. Andre Chabot, who was also a member of the council of the day, voted against the construction of the bridge.

“In hindsight, had I known that it would have turned out to be such a wonderful venue, I may have voted otherwise,” Chabot told Global News. “But I still would have questioned the issue around a single source contract and the fact that that local architects and local contractors didn’t even get a chance to bid on it.”

The single source contract was awarded to world-renowned Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava, after attempts by some aldermen to kill the deal.

The awarding of the contract at the expense of local talent was also a point of contention for then-mayoral candidate, Naheed Nenshi, who, at the time, campaigned against the construction of the river crossing.

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“I had big challenges with the Peace Bridge from a few perspectives. One is, I didn’t like the sole sourcing of the contract. It was almost as though they had said ‘who’s the best bridge designer in the world? We’ll hire him,'” Nenshi said. “I also was not a big fan of the location.”

“But as it turns out, I was wrong on many, many fronts.”

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The bridge, with its webbed and tube-like design, also suffered many construction delays, which Farrell said was due to its complex technical design and height restrictions because of the helipad located to the southwest of the crossing.

“It needed to be low profile to fit within a flight cone,” Farrell said. “Also, we had directed there be a clear span of the river, there wouldn’t be pilings in the river, which is technically really complicated.”

500 days behind schedule, the Peace Bridge opened to the public on March 24, 2012.

An event planned solely by volunteers drew thousands to the bridge, with many lining the river path hoping to be some of the first to cross.

During the ceremony, Nenshi said he challenged Calgarians to prove his apprehensions with the bridge wrong by actively using it to cross the river between Sunnyside and Eau Claire.

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Just three months later, city officials released data that showed more than 6,000 people were crossing the bridge daily.

“I think that the perspective really shifted because people understood that it wasn’t just frivolous, it was actually extremely useful,” Nenshi said. “I think at that point, people went ‘oh, so we actually did need it and also it’s really beautiful,’ and those things are something that we’re capable of doing together.”

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Farrell said she noticed high school graduates and newlyweds taking their photos on the bridge shortly after.

Ten years later, the bridge has been featured in local tourism ads, magazines, City of Calgary materials, several top-10 lists, international publications, calendars, postcards, and hundreds of thousands of selfies.

Despite the controversy behind the project, Farrell looks back at the bridge fondly as a turning point in how infrastructure and architecture is built in Calgary.

“Calgary wasn’t known for its architecture… it was known for being vandal-proof infrastructure that was utilitarian and just worked, but not particularly inspiring,” Farrell said. “But we’ve got a beautiful river, it’s a mountain river and I felt it was deserving of something extraordinary.”

In terms of lessons learned from the Peace Bridge, Calgary’s former mayor pointed to the George King bridge to St. Patrick’s Island, which was built a year later with “no controversy at all” after a design competition amongst the public.

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“That bridge, which is also beautiful, has never captured people’s imagination the way the Peace Bridge has,” Nenshi said. “So in a weird way, maybe all of that controversy actually helps cement the legacy of this little bridge.”

Check out some photos of the Peace Bridge submitted to Global Calgary:

Calgary's Peace Bridge in winter. Courtesy: @PlavaLiliana
Peace Bridge by Stuart Milliner who said, "Actually managed to get this shot of the Peace Bridge published in National Geographic a few years back.". Courtesy: Stuart Milliner
Calgary's Peace Bridge submitted by local runner @PlavaLiliana2. Courtesy: @PlavaLiliana2
Sunny the yellow lab at the Peace Bridge in Calgary. Courtesy: Radana Williams

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