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Castlegar and the Art of Happy Motoring

There has been an odd intersection of information at UrbanWorkbench this week, while the lines are painted on the highways around the Kootenays, I have had the pleasure of conversing with Ministry of Transportation staff about Peak Oil, at the conclusion of which, I was informed that there are three documents relevant to my Freedom of Information request, a briefing paper, a consultant’s report on energy costs and a powerpoint presentation – totally around 100 pages. That’s it folks – and apparently, if I want to get my hot little hands on any of these, it is going to cost me in the order of $240 – which is admittedly a whole lot less expensive than the previous estimate of $805 for around 1000 pages of “information”. This, combined with the distinct lack of information on the topic on the Ministry website, leads me to the conclusion – one that I don’t need to spend $240 finding out – that the ministry has no interest in Peak Oil or any of the impacts that may stem from reliance on a resource that is in the first stages of depletion.
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Car Dependent Castlegar

This brings me to Castlegar, my home, where cars and car infrastructure have a stronghold on the community and the landscape. With a very long landform, Castlegar is drawn out from a rural downtown in the North, through semi-commercial zones and strip malls, past seniors housing complexes, standalone restaurants isolated from the street front by parking lagoons, more strip malls, tire centers, car parts, car yards, gas stations, car washes, more strip malls, fast food outlets complete with drivethroughs, railway crossings,  highway interchanges, complete with overpasses and a UFO-like cloverleaf which just complicates traffic patterns to the point of madness for visitors. More auto shops, and out to the south through semi-commercial and into residential subdivisions. Houses are interspersed through this whole strip, from the North, right to the most Southerly extent. There is much to love about Castlegar, but its dependence on Happy Motoring is not one of them.


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Different from European cities, towns like Castlegar were developed in the age of the automobile, as such, many of the premises that determined the form and scale of these cities cannot be relied upon to judge our response to a future with different access to energy. The oil available is dirtier, or from countries that we have ideological differences with, alternate fuels are fraught with issues – hydrogen has quietly dropped from any serious discussion regarding energy for its many issues with scale and cost, natural gas is facing its own peak, and the current recession is putting the brakes on just about all development of any scale of wind, solar or other techno-fantasy solutions we dreamed up would save us from climate change before peak oil bites us in the ass.

Clusterfuck Nation by Jim Kunstler : Wishes, Hopes, Fantasies

All the technologies under consideration are not likely to extend the Happy Motoring era. A prayerful reflection on them can only reinforce the specialness of oil and its byproducts — cheap oil double-specially — as well as reinforcing the reality that the cheap energy era itself is over. And, of course, in the play of events over the past several years we can see the relationship between cheap energy and easy credit, and how our entire economy has run aground, one way or another, on resource limits.

As GM dealerships close across North America, many who are actually thinking about this stuff are wondering where this will end up, one such thinker is James Howard Kunstler…

Clusterfuck Nation by Jim Kunstler : Wishes, Hopes, Fantasies

All this leads to two conclusions.

One is to accept the fact that the Happy Motoring era is over and to devote our remaining resources to re-localization, walkable communities, and public transit….

[the other] is not so appetizing, namely that the bankruptcy of General Motors may set in motion a chain of events that will accelerate the destructive unwind of the bad credit economy, the damage to our bond values, the loss of faith in our currency, and the authority and legitimacy of our leaders.

Where does this leave little old Castlegar?

The answer is brutally simple – In the middle of the Kootenays, a vast system of lakes, rivers and mountains, with pockets of settlement on the banks of rivers, holding onto hydro power, logging and other primary resource extraction. If happy motoring is over, or at least on it’s way out, what does Castlegar need to do to regain some sense of self amidst these global changes? One clear theme seems to be relocalization and the development of locally useful industries, local food production and local trade and employment.

Mike Thomas

Mike Thomas P.Eng. ENV SP, is the author of UrbanWorkbench.com and Director of Engineering at the City of Revelstoke in the Interior of British Columbia, Canada. If I post something here that you find helpful as you navigate the world of engineering, planning and building communities, that’s wonderful. But when push comes to shove: This is my personal blog. The views expressed on these pages are mine alone and not those of my employer.

7 thoughts on “Castlegar and the Art of Happy Motoring

  1. Gee your description of Castlegar just makes it sound so darned attractive!

    I got a copy of Tar Sands by Andrew Nikiforuk, BTW. I have read the introductory chapter and am already disgusted and reluctant to read more. But I shall soldier on.

  2. I thought I was being generous with my assessment of the Urban Fabric in Castlegar. As I’ve discussed elsewhere, it is all about the people and building community around common golas in a location where you want to be.

    Learn all you can about the Tar Sands – the government and industry will polish them up as “clean” – they are the least efficient reserves of oil in the world, they should be the last resort, hang on, maybe they are! Welcome to the rock and the hard place – i.e. dirty oil and foreign oil – neither goes down well in the long term.

  3. Oh, I agree it’s about the people…But have you ever been to Nanaimo? What an oddly laid-out city, and very similar to Castlegar in terms of strip malls etc. Your description made me think of that, and I think Nanaimo, from a purely aesthetic point of view, is a pretty unattractive city. Obviously, though, it’s not all about aesthetics.

  4. @EMJ – The Nod office in that article doesn’t seem that ridiculous!

    A lot of talk around Transition Towns in the Kootenays at the moment, with Janet Millington from Australia giving a presentation and the upcoming course in Nelson in a few weeks – http://www.transitiontowns.org/ This is built on the principles of permacuture which is a system of design – not for new “products” but for life. I’d suggest that following these paths would clean up the systemic mess we’ve created right across North America.

    We’ve set up TransitionCastlegar as a starting point and are looking to meet in June to kick off the idea.

  5. Mike, if I were a newcomer looking to settle in Castlegar, after reading your (very accurate) description of Castlegar, I would give it a very wide berth.

    I have been here nearly thirty years now, and while I do not like the way the place has become a clone of nearly every other place, I think I will remain here as there is little point in moving anywhere else.

  6. @Janice – Every town has its quirks.

    What I didn’t state about Castlegar, as it was irrelevant to the topic at hand, (but in some ways it is even more relevant that ever) is that it is beautiful here. The rivers are majestic, the mountains town above us, winters are mild and snowy, summers are really summer – you can grow things here, you can swim in the rivers and lakes, the patterns of nature are clear, seasons take their turn and we’d do well to live within them.

    Has Castlegar become a clone? I think much of the heritage has been lost in this place, replaced by McDonald’s Canadian Tire and other icons of the Happy Motoring Era. We are remote in many ways, by air, by road by water, and this has impacted the psyche of the city. There are efforts to make things “better”, meaning larger, faster, more successful, or one of many other hallmarks of capitalism – these are misguided and fail to acknowledge the big picture of the end of Happy Motoring.

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