My current colmn in Business in Vancouver (unabridged):
B.C. Towns Seek New Vision

After a tour by rail and road through southern B.C., I have come to the conclusion that there are two kinds of small towns – the stripped and the constrained. And while that may be a tad simplistic, the communities of this province seem to be choosing to develop in one way or the other.

Cranbrook is a town that has been stripped. This Kootenay community of 18,000 is best known for the commercial sprawl that lines the Crowsnest Highway to its east:

Cranbrook Strip

I used to think no one would be able to top Kelowna for the sheer extent of malls, big boxes and fast-food joints that line Highway 97 out to the airport:

 Highway 97

Not that there weren’t precedents: the Island Highway through Nanaimo and Duncan, Skaha Lake Boulevard and Main Street through Penticton, the Trans-Canada through Kamloops. Often they’re reinforced by the in-your-face advertising that is the public front of many First Native reserves.  Westbank, leading into Kelowna (soon to be our newest municipality), captures it all, from big box to billboard:

Westbank billboards

But I’d give the prize to Cranbrook. For its size, it’s the strippiest.

In this auto-obsessed world, you’d think that sprawl was the only realistic choice for growing communities. But some small towns, typically constrained by geography or land reserves, have chosen a more compact alternative. They’re building on their existing assets, particularly a still-viable downtown main street and close-in neighbourhoods, and they’re trying to avoid being stripped.

The best example is not that far from Cranbook. The Kootenay town of Nelson may have the best intact downtown in the province, better even than Victoria, and is building on that vitality.


Just down the road, there’s Greenwood, and further on, Osoyoos.


Those with attractive natural environments and recreational opportunities are burgeoning. There’s Whistler of course. And a reinvented Kimberly:


Invermere is trying; Revelstoke is looking good. On the Alberta side of the Rockies, there’s the success of Canmore:


In fact a surprising number of towns in this province have decided not to be completely dominated by the dictates of the road engineers.

While it’s easy to dump on the engineers, they did what we wanted: they made the traffic move efficently, safely and rapidly.  We adopted the codes and standards that helped asphalt prevail over other urban-design priorities. But now the results of all that road bulding (and the urban fabric shaped by all the asphalt) are clear: it has made us fat and vulnerable.

The strips certainly deliver the fat – and not just the kind on the menus of the fast-food restaurants. Strips are the economic engines of many small towns, and they have regional pull, providing the hinterland with goods and services – and lots of parking for their SUVs. In the world of the strip, where the sidewalk is an unneeded luxury, you drive and you don’t have a choice.

Which is why they’re making us vulnerable. The strip runs on the expectation of cheap, secure supplies of petroleum – and lots more of it in the future.

The irony is obvious. These auto-dependent communities are often overlooked by whole mountainsides devastated by mountain pine beetle, a likely consequence of climate change.

 Mountain pine beetle

Yet all over the province, billions are being poured into wider roads and bigger bridges, generating more of the environments that increase our carbon footprints, reduce physical activity and perpetuate the cycle.

Kicking Horse River Bridge

The intact communities, on other hand, still have walkable downtowns, a mix of uses, close-in neighbourhoods on tree-lined streets, still-respectable apartment buildings, spotted with the parks and amenities that previous generations left as their legacy.

The provincial government is not oblivious to the opportunities. The Spirit Square program is there to help create or improve outdoor public meeting and celebration spaces, such as traditional town squares or community commons. In towns struggling with sprawl, the program will give them an incentive to move in another direction, to become more compact.

The affluence of Alberta is spilling all across the Kootenays and the Okanagan, and the intact town has much more appeal than something Calgarians and Edmontonians can see every time they drive the arterial trails across their own cities.


My bet for the long term is on the intact town, the place that builds on its past, doesn’t design itself for the convenience of big boxes and bigger vehicles, and gives people more choices for times when things get ugly – and in the process helps make their town a lot less so.


Addendum (Aug 13): The New York Times has just run an item on the impact of new urban migrants into the resort towns of, among other places, the Rockies:

In places like Nantucket, the Upper Peninsula of Michigan and Teton County, Idaho, the migrants are creating hybrid communities, implanting urban incomes, tastes, careers, ambitions, restaurants, cultural activities and networking opportunities into small towns that until recently could support none of these, and for which there has been little planning and still no consensus.

You can find the whole article here.






  1. I enjoyed your article on BC towns and the effect of ‘stripping’ in them.
    I’m off to Terrace this weekend for a week long family reunion and one of the things I am not looking forward to is ogling the ‘stripping’ of old Lakelse Avenue, complete with the removal of weeping birches that used to line the avenue from one end of ‘downtown’ to the other.
    The condundrum for small towns like my hometown is the same one we all face in terms of growing our communities; do we want it slow or fast? Fast means ashphalt, parking lots, lots of powerful lighting (to protect the vehicles) and running like hell from careless drivers when you’re unlucky enough to be a pedestrian. Actually, it sounds a bit like Kitsilano, doesn’t it?
    As for towns struggling with sprawl, well…many BC towns would love to have that problem. Most of them are suffering in the opposite direction and are shrinking. The higher the percentage of the economy tied to logging, the faster the shrinkage. Terrace is one of several poster children for that scenario.
    I’m afraid I don’t have any clear answers, although I can clearly see the results that I’d wish for, but it’s important to continue the debate. Otherwise, the hegemony of the traditionalists in the provincial government will plow us all under with twinning of the Port Mann, the decline of the invaluable rail system to our ports, the unthinking promotion of auto-infatuation.

  2. This is a great topic.
    Nelson is truly the crown jewel of B.C. as far as small cities go. No other location in this province combines a stunning natural setting with inspired heritage architecture and in Baker Street, a terrific pedestrian environment. It’s too bad that for us in the Lower Mainland, it can be quite a chore to get out there — it’s definitely not a weekend trip.
    Kelowna is in some regards (but not all), the anti-Nelson. Sprawl is prevalent; the Highway 97 strip is cluttered with the usual big box stores and strip malls. But to that city’s credit, the Kelowna downtown is not entirely a write-off — and the fact that it offers up a good mix of restaurants and entertainment — plus the famous Lake Okanagan beach — is a testament to that. But it’s a shame that some of that area’s pristine natural environment, such as Knox Mountain, is giving way to commercial or residential development.
    Like John Harris posted above, the towns that are most vulnerable are those which haven’t chosen their direction yet — like the Terraces of the world. Faced with economic malaise, they may be flirting with Walmarts and other big box proposals, at the expense of revitalizing downtown cores, or restoring heritage buildings. Merritt, for example, is one city that seems set to embrace the Kelowna map in a bid to jumpstart its local economy.

  3. That picture of Nelson intrigues me. As a Victorian that has never been to Nelson the buildings strike a chord of familiarity. Yet after skimming Nelson’s Official Community Plan and its Building Design Guidelines (1993), I fear they’re putting too much emphasis on “neo-heritage” designs.
    Nobody here likes strip malls, but fake Disney-fied structures aren’t much better.
    Exquisitely designed modern infill can harmonize beautifully with heritage buildings, and are more likely to become heritage of the future themselves.

  4. Something worth considering about Nelson is the role marijuana production has on its local economy. It is an open secret that Nelson’s economy is driven to a very large extent by pot which is constantly in demand and commands a steady, high price while most other BC towns rely on logging, tourism, or mining, all of which are cripplingly cyclical in their boom and bust cycles. One can only wonder what sort of effect Nelson’s unique economy has had on its built form and character.

  5. I just returned from a brief holiday in the interior where my wife and I spent much of our time asking these same questions.
    We were pleasantly surprised that Salmon Arm is trying hard to build a vibrant downtown.
    Vernon remains the “Detroit” of the Okanogan Valley with no planning and no end in sight. My wife is from Vernon and the downtown was sucked dry by the big box stores years ago. Why they didn’t develop this town around the lake ends is beyond me.
    Kelowna is horrible with Hwy 97 cutting it down the middle although the new downtown is an improvement. Westbank is terrible.
    Summerland is a very cute little community that is built mostly away from the highway.
    I actually thought that Penticton was doing better than Vernon and Kelowna as it was making better use on the waterfront – especially on the OK side. The downtown area on Front Street is much nicer and the new South OK sports arena looks well placed.
    Osoyoos remains a problem as Hwy 3 cuts right through it.
    I think the moral of the story is that if you build a highway through a small town you will destroy it. Add strip malls and big box stores and you create hell on earth.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *