The Kootenays, a beautiful, rural part of British Columbia, features sparsely populated river valleys punctuated by forested mountain ranges, struggles from a lack of cohesive visioning and it seems that only recently have real efforts at economic collaboration been made, such as the Lower Columbia Community Development Team. Having less than two years under their belt as an organization, it is too early to pass judgement on their success, but it is fair to say that the aim of this group is noble, to get the cooperation of the various communities to bring bigger and better services to the region. This region needs to start thinking like a region, not like discrete isolated communities.
To go along with the regional considerations regarding employment and level of service, which are core to any successful community, I’d like to point out research that shows that many of the indicators most useful for determining economic development potential are in the town planning and lifestyle realm, and suggest that radical changes to the layouts and prevailing transportation modes in these small towns that dot these valleys would be a good place to start on the path to prospering as communities.
Reading the following quote from the Placeshakers blog reinforces my belief in high quality built environments for economic development and that there are possibilities for rural communities like Castlegar, BC that are not offered by conventional policies or planning practices.
Quality of Life
Even in the toughest assessments of what attracts industries to locations and keeps them there, quality of life rates high. We know that people who live and work in places with diverse options for housing, shopping, mobility, and entertainment are generally happier. Happy people tend to be happier employees. Happier employees make more productive employees. And productive employees are highly valued by employers. LA’s Strategic Plan for Econ Development does a good job of laying it out.
Soul of the Community, thanks to Knight Foundation and Gallup, concludes that the places where people have the most emotional connection to their community generate the highest rates of GDP growth over time. The usual drivers of safety, leadership, and services were overshadowed by social offerings, openness, and aesthetics – gathering places and a public realm that is alive with pedestrian activity, not auto-oriented throughput.
So from these studies we can see that a town with vibrant social space is more likely to proposer than one that focuses just on attracting businesses.
For Castlegar this might look like a total redevelopment of the Highway 3 / Columbia Avenue intersection area with the aim of making it pedestrian friendly, building on the successful businesses that are already located in this area, but reducing the parking through infill to densify the streetscape. Taking the focus away from moving vehicles to creating a “street” would be a good aim too.
Objections to these sorts of infill projects are common from existing businesses, but if well thought out, the community could see significant improvement in transit usage, land development and tax revenues. It is possible (and legal in most jurisdictions) to create a tax structure and development framework that rewards the conversion of parking lagoons and strip malls to mixed use developments with the aim of improving the streetscape. Castlegar would do well to study the actual parking needs of the various strip malls that plague the Columbia Avenue strip. Taking out employee parking, and assuming adequate transit options are available, it would be interesting to see what the real demands for parking would be.
The current proposal from Castlegar Council is to promote the development of the airport lands through the provision of water and sewer service at a cost of over five million dollars to the existing taxpayers today. These lands are separated from the rest of the City by the Columbia River and several hundred meters of “barren highway”, unable to be developed due to topography. My suggestion has always been to increase the density of the current settlement before expanding across the river, particularly considering the high upfront costs involved with the construction of utilities for properties that may never be sold.
Additionally, Economic Development opportunities cannot be examined on a piecemeal basis. Building a Gaming Centre for the revenues while ignoring the social costs, or expanding the City’s infrastructure across to the airport lands without considering the impact on the “sense of place” for the work environment or the rest of the community are examples of economic development policies that disregard the centrality of community and place in urban design. The layout of Castlegar (Car-stlegar) can be improved upon, but only through consistent and dedicated planning toward a goal of reducing car dependence.
The City has asked some tough questions of itself during the recent Official Community Plan consultation process, with issues of social needs, transit, walkability and reduced vehicle use topping many of the issues raised. The challenge for Castlegar is to imagine a future settlement pattern that can have all of these, and encourage economic development through being an even better place to live as a result. We love it here, but there are ways to make it better through design.