Today's blog post first appeared in the Bow River Basin Council's publication 'Preserving Our Lifeline'. You can read past newsletters and editions of 'Preserving Our Lifeline' here

Five hundred illuminated  spheres float down the  Bow River, twinkling  brighter than the stars  above. Festival-going  families drink from funky fountains, their refreshing water drawn from fire hydrants. And teeming micro-organisms are studied in City water treatment labs, soon to be part of unique blown glass sculptures. 

All three scenarios are connected. They’re well thought-out displays of public art, open to interpretation, designed to encourage dialogue about protecting the watershed.

Illuminated spheres on Bow River

Illuminated sphere float down the river as part of the Celebration of the Bow event (2010)

Photo: The City of Calgary


“We sometimes think of art as a sculpture or statue placed in an outdoor environment,” says Heather Aitken, a City of Calgary project manager who is implementing the Utilities & Environmental Protection Department’s (UEP) Public Art Plan.

“With this plan we have created an opportunity to look at public art in a much broader scope than people might have thought of.”The plan was launched in 2007 and shaped through collaboration with numerous City business units,  City Council, the public and the arts 

community. This plan outlines eight  permanent and various temporary works. Interestingly, it embeds artists in the design of new infrastructure like stormwater ponds, lift stations and outfalls. 

Calgarians – as many as 20,000 – took in the plan’s first major temporary project in August 2010 during the Celebration of the Bow River event. That summer, six artists presented projects related to the business of the Bow River. It culminated with Sources: River of Light by artist Laurent Louyer, a choreographed launch of 500 illuminated spheres weaving along the Bow from Edworthy Park to Prince’s Island.

The key to the UEP Public Art Plan is that artists are talking about the river, the watershed, UEP infrastructure and the impact all Calgarians have on the watershed, Aitken says. “We’re here to create conversation,  to create discussion, to create debate. I think we’ve been successful to date."

The City of Calgary Public Art  Policy came into effect in 2004 and Council approved UEP’s Public Art Plan in 2007. UEP opted to pool its public art funds over a number of years, allocating those funds to various public art projects based on established criteria.

Paul Fesko, a senior UEP manager, has championed the plan. “He had a vision,” Aitken explains. “The plan would talk about the work UEP does to protect the watershed, to protect the river and to protect the environment. And to allow people to understand the infrastructure that is invisible to us, that is under our feet. And how it plays such an important role in our environment and how we exist as a city.

Fire hydrant drinking fountain

Interactive artowrk: a drinking fountain attached

a fire hydrant Photo: The City of Calgary 

Tristan Surtees says he and other artists are in awe of the complexity of The City’s water operations. Surtees and Charles Blanc now work full time at The City’s Water Centre. As part of the UEP Public Art Plan, they are lead artists in an initiative called WATERSHED+. 

They are embedded with engineers, architects, planners and other subject matter experts in the development of new infrastructure. Through a different lens, they can provide ideas and possible adaptations to various issues.

WATERSHED+ has 20 initiatives underway. Public engagement, Surtees says, is critical to many of these endeavours. When a project begins, artists share with the community their ideas, past work and why they applied for the project. Citizens in turn provide valuable insight about their neighbourhood that artists may incorporate into their work.

Surtees says that interactive artworks like drinking fountains attached to fire  hydrants, first used at festivals and celebrations two summers ago, not only quench thirst but hopefully spark new ways of looking at water.

“We’re touching on something that’s important to people. Often we’re giving them new information about something, giving them a deeper understanding. There’s real (public) fascination, intrigue and enjoyment from the projects.”

Hydrant fountains in use

Functional public art in Calgary.


That wonder extends to the artists who soak up the intricacy of the largely  hidden UEP infrastructure that deals with drinking water and the sanitary and  stormwater systems.

“It’s really something in understanding the incredible work the organization does,” Surtees says. “They’re really humble. They don’t shout about it . . . but it’s such a system, like a hidden machine that keeps the city operating. Very few of us know about it. Once we understand it, it’s truly fascinating; really quite poetic in many ways.”

“It’s really something inunderstanding the incredible work the organization does,” Surtees says. “They’re really humble. They don’t shout about it . . . but it’s such a system, like a hidden machine that keeps the city operating. Very few of us know about it. Once we understand it, it’s truly fascinating; really quite poetic in many ways.”

Two major UEP Public Art Plan permanent projects are scheduled for completion this year. Seattle artist Lorna Jordan has designed River Passage Park, next to Harvie Passage at the Bow River weir. The small park includes a series of terraces and a grotto-like seating area  to capture views of the Bow and surrounding landscapes.

New York City artist Brian Tolle is bringing the mountains to Memorial Drive in the community of Parkdale on the Bow’s north bank. Tolle’s creation, an inverted mountain range sculpture, integrated into a stormwater outfall, connects the source of our water supply with urban actions, street runoff in this case, that have an impact on the river. (Citizens will be able to safely stand on the display and peer down into the outfall.)

“I think the relationship between Calgary and the Bow is so strong,” Tolle says. “I think they are inseparable. The identity of the city is the river. And the fact it’s one of the few rivers people can drink from in this day and age is pretty remarkable.

Aitken says these projects, and three others completed at Ralph Klein Park and the Water Centre, demonstrate how multi-disciplinary collaboration can create amazing places, opportunities and experiences.

To learn more about the UEP Public Art Plan and projects, visit and search “UEP Public Art.”


Calgary has a number of water themed public art scultures, exhibits and installations. Visit our Pinterest board to find one near you!

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