Library of Creative Sustainability

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WATERSHED+ is a strategic long term programme embedding artists in the work of the Calgary City Utilities and Environmental Protection Department. It engages the citizens of Calgary (Alberta, Canada) in understanding and valuing water in their city landscape. Led by artist/architect collaborative Sans Façon (Without Fuss), the programme has involved multiple artists in temporary and permanent interventions.

Project Description

WATERSHED+ is an ongoing public art programme within the City of Calgary’s Utilities & Environmental Protection (UEP) department which aims to address all aspects of the city’s watershed as an integrated system, including its river, utility function and related services and infrastructure.

The programme explores how creative practitioners, through their knowledge, skills and experience, might be able to establish sustainable and creative relationships between the watershed and the people of Calgary.

In 2007 the City of Calgary UEP created a Public Art Plan to establish a strategic and comprehensive guiding document for the spending of the department’s public art fund, as allocated from the City of Calgary Council’s Public Art Policy (2004). The plan was drafted in an interdepartmental collaborative effort by City of Calgary staff and integrated feedback accumulated from the participants of a public art workshop. Private sector consultants, including Cliff Garten studio and CH2M Hill, also contributed to the plan.

The Public Art Plan establishes, in detail, the context for the public art programme. The plan includes an overarching mission and guiding principles, such as conveying “a sense of urgency relating to water conservation, management and stewardship”. The plan also includes specific project deliverables and criteria, such as site selection processes for the public artworks. The projects were devised to retain relevancy to both manmade infrastructure and the larger Bow River watershed within the urban context of Calgary. Various “opportunities” for public art are outlined, with the leading opportunity described as the “Visual Language for UEP” project. WATERSHED+ was devised in response to the criteria of the “Visual Language” element of the plan.

WATERSHED+ was initially shaped over 2009/10 by a cross-disciplinary team led by Sans façon and consisted of: Matt Baker (Artist, SW Scotland), Emlyn Firth (Designer, Glasgow, Scotland), Eric Laurier (Human Geographer, Edinburgh, Scotland), Yan Olivares (YO Architects, St Etienne, France), Bert van Duin (Water Engineer, Calgary). Through their 12-month research process, the group established a nuanced understanding about the relationship of Calgarians to their watershed. These findings were utilised to better inform the objectives and deliverables of WATERSHED+.

WATERSHED+ embeds artists and artistic practices within the core operations of the UEP, giving artists the opportunity to work alongside UEP specialists at the onset to contribute to project design, development of events and community education and engagement.

In practice, interdisciplinary artist-led teams are working collaboratively to create a new integrated approach to Calgary’s infrastructure – one that is mindful of sustainability and environmental stewardship – while building an emotional connection between people and their watershed.

WATERSHED+ encompassed various initiatives within its pilot programme, including:

  • Fire Hydrant Drinking Fountains, a public art installation
  • Film screenings showing critically-acclaimed documentaries about water
  • Forest Lawn Lift Station, a light-based public art installation
  • Conceptual design consulting for East Bowmont Park
  • Residencies for four artists/artist groups (Rachel Duckhouse; Minty Donald and Nick Millar; Hiba Abdallah and Joshua Babcock of Broken City Lab; and Jay Mosher)
  • Watershed+ Labs, a series of interdisciplinary collaborations between the arts community and City staff to gather new ideas on particular issues relevant to infrastructure and watershed
  • An exhibition featuring glasswork by local artist collective Bee Kingdom
  • An International Competition led by design advocacy organisation Design Talks to generate ideas about underutilised spaces in Calgary and improve use, public realm and ecological value of these spaces

Current projects

Dynamic Environment Lab

In January 2016, five artists were immersed in The City’s Utilities and Environmental Protection (UEP) Department, for a week-long programme exploring the impacts of living in our continuously shifting, dynamic environment – a watershed that experiences both drought and flood.

Artists, City subject matter experts and members from the arts community participated in discussions and presentations, travelled upstream and downstream and visited a number of key water infrastructure sites. A locally-based associate artist also participated in the week-long programme, shadowing the activities, forging connections with the artists and experts and sharing his deep understanding of place throughout the process. A public presentation and Q&A was hosted at the National Music Centre, offering the community an opportunity to learn more about the artists’ body of work and their personal highlights from their exposure to Calgary’s watershed and water management system.

Following the programme week, each artist – chosen through an international open call – was given six weeks to submit a concept proposal based on their experiences and interactions gained during their time here. A seven-member jury selection panel has reviewed the concepts and invited each artist to move forward with further researching, exploring and the implementation of these.

The unique approach of this lab allows for each artist to spend periods of time throughout the next two years immersed in our shifting landscape, researching the environment, connecting with subject matter experts, engaging with the local community and responding to the topic of dynamic environment through his or her creative practice.

Completed Projects 

East Bowmont Park Improvement Project

The City of Calgary’s acquisition of the former Klippert gravel pit presented an outstanding opportunity to restore the ecological integrity of the area, while at the same time enhancing the recreational and educational value of the east side of Bowmont Park.

WATERSHED+ lead artists, Sans Façon, have led on the conceptual thinking behind this large scale development, working alongside the engineers, landscape architect and consultants to create an engaging space for Calgarians to renew their relationship with the Bow River watershed.

Situated at the intersection between the cleaning of the storm water and the functioning of water utilities, WATERSHED+ is creating the opportunity to make the water treatment train more visible, revealing the processes and complexity of the whole water system.

Forest Lawn Lift Station

Lift stations, a vital part of Calgary’s wastewater system, are used throughout the city to lift wastewater from low-lying areas to higher areas where it can flow by gravity to one of the city’s three wastewater treatment plants.

Part of a much larger system, the lift station provided an opportunity to dissect how people in urban neighbourhoods connect to and understand the importance of water in their daily lives. Connected to the computer operating system of the lift station, a light-powered map was integrated into the fabric of the building to make visible the underground water network and reveal its movement through the city with the assistance of the lift stations through the neighbourhood.

Fire Hydrant Water Fountains

The Fire Hydrant Water Fountain Project is an example of applying creative thinking and process to practical problems – a means of using public art to address civic challenges and enhance Calgary’s communities.

Created in 2012 as a temporary project for the city’s summer festivals and still used to this day by thousands of city residents, the fountains provide drinking water directly from street fire hydrants.

Sans façon describe how the fountains were conceived less as public artworks and more as gestures, which facilitate different methods of gathering around water and questioning its origins from within the city. Different assemblages of the fountain pipes allow for different forms of gathering around water including strangers meeting for the first time, families and even pets. No messaging or signage is used around the fountains as a means of encouraging curiosity and active exploration on the part of the users.

Partners & Stakeholders

  • City of Calgary’s Utilities & Environmental Protection (UEP) department
  • Sans façon artist/architect collaborative
  • 52 City of Calgary Business Units, Departments and Working Units including Community Services (Parks, Neighbourhood Services, Fire Department), UEP Water Resources and Water Services, Transportation and Fleet Services, Planning and Development and Corporate Analytics and Innovation
  • 24 Artists
  • 43 Partner and Participating Organizations involved, ranging from private sector engineering and design consultants, local and international colleges and universities, to local arts galleries and cultural institutions
  • 447 Applications to the Programme’s Open Calls, including the Residency, Lab and Competition opportunities

Sustainability Issues

  • Addressing all aspects of the city’s watershed as an integrated system, including its river, utility function and related services and infrastructure
  • The development of new connections between the people of Calgary and their water infrastructure through the embedding of artists and artistic practices within the core operations of the UEP
  • Contributing to project design, development of events and community education and engagement
  • Creating a climate of opportunity for water initiatives to build an emotional connection between people and the watershed

Lessons, Tips & Advice

Each of the public art “opportunities” with the UEP Public Art Plan is further detailed with the scope, goals, objectives, budget, timeline, artist selection process and community engagement details for the project. This established a few of the key facets of the artists’ role in these projects while acknowledging the need for flexibility to allow artists to reach their full potential in creating meaningful works

The following principles were key to the success of the WATERSHED+ programme:

  • The programme in its pilot form could not have been possible without the open-minded ethos of the UEP Department, which has enabled an exploratory dialogue between UEP staff, Sans façon, invited artists and Calgary’s communities to develop.
  • The success of the whole programme has stemmed from its responsiveness to the context of Calgary and to the ongoing changes the city faces (from policy and priorities, to new infrastructure projects, to environmental changes) and therefore relevance to the city’s inhabitants. Alongside this, the long term embedding of Sans façon within the UEP has allowed for the building of trust between UEP staff, artists and communities.
  • The programme has been premised upon artists as equal experts to UEP staff but in different fields, contributing not just public artworks but a wide range of skills, ways of thinking and experience to enhance the city’s relationship with water.

Artists contributed to the programme in the following ways:

  • Being at liberty to ask and interrogate questions
  • Introducing complementary ways of thinking to other disciplines and areas of expertise
  • Being adept at drawing out the passion which has driven people to do the work which they do
  • Helping in processing change, for example, during and after extreme weather events such as major floods experienced in the city


All funding is from the UEP Department and is in Canadian Dollars

  • East Bowmont Park Improvement Project has a budget of $2,006,000 and is expected to be completed in 2018
  • Forest Lawn Lift Station was completed in 2015 and had a budget of $236,000
  •  Dynamic Environment Lab 2016-18 has a budget of $400,000

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