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:
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:
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:
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.
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.
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.